Annie's Song: A Baseball Story
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by Greg Nepini
Category: Historical Fiction/Romance
Description: In 1965 Ronnie Preston was drafted by the Sacramento Angels shortly after he graduated from high school. He played for only half a season in the minors for a team called the Wilson Mets, and then was called up to the show at the age of 18, making him the youngest player in all of the major leagues. His powerful arm soon struck fear into the hearts of hitters throughout the league and a legend was born. During his nearly twenty-three year career, Ronnie Preston won an unprecedented seven Cy Young awards and broke nearly every pitching record possible, including becoming the first pitcher to throw faster than 100 mph. By the end of his career at the age of 45, he was widely regarded as the greatest pitcher to ever play the game. In the summer of 1982, a young man who might someday be the heir to Ronnie Preston's legacy took his first tentative steps toward greatness, quite by accident. As he walked to the mound on that fateful day, Michael Flynn was touched by magic, the magic of a girl named Annie Draper. The 1982 mid-Atlantic high school championship baseball game between Ellicott Mills High School and Stafford Falls High School is in the bottom of the ninth inning with Ellicott Mills ahead by one run, but in a bit of trouble with a runner on second and no outs. All hope seems lost when their ace pitcher, Peter Escalante, is hit in the face by a line drive and is unable to finish the game. A win here and they will advance to the national championship tournament in Syracuse, but Ellicott Mills head coach Don Beckman has no eligible pitchers left. He takes a gamble by putting his star catcher Michael Flynn in to replace Escalante. He hopes that Michael's familiarity with the pitching signals and his strong arm will be enough to keep the powerful Stafford hitters at bay for the final three outs. Michael is nervous about the unexpected move, but steps up to the mound and makes quick work of Stafford's best hitters. His girlfriend Annie Draper listens to the game on the radio in her bedroom, barely able to contain her excitement. Michael does more than a good job closing the game, and catches the attention of everyone, including the coach of Central Maryland University, who looks on with astonishment as he watches the final strike trip his radar gun at 92 mph. We now return to the year 1975 to the town of Ellicott Mills, located in the suburbs of Baltimore, where Michael and Annie both live and first meet as ten year old kids when their fathers take them to an amateur baseball game. Jake Flynn (Michael's father) is on the board for the county Little League organization, and during his conversations with Annie's father (Gary Draper), suggests that she might like to play baseball on Michael's team. At this time girls did not generally play baseball with boys, but Jake arranges it and Annie becomes one of the first girls to play Little League in Maryland, all to the dismay of her mother, Sandi Draper, the aristocratic daughter of a wealthy advertising mogul named Owen Burkhart. She is completely mortified by her daughter's desire to play baseball, and this marks the beginning of a mother/daughter conflict that will go on for most of Annie's teen years. Michael and Annie play baseball together for a couple of seasons, and spend much time with each other as their friendship grows ever stronger. By the time they are twelve they begin to discover something in each other, and on a summer night in 1977, they share their first kiss and promise to always be friends. From then on they are boyfriend and girlfriend, and by the time they are in high school, they know that they were meant to be together forever. Sandi has bigger plans for her daughter, however, and her relationship with Annie deteriorates to the point where she becomes verbally, psychologically, and even physically abusive. Her husband Gary is alarmed by what is happening and tries to intervene from time to time, but he is not entirely successful. It is now the summer of 1983, and Michael is pitching the game of his life in the national championship contest against a team from El Segundo, California. Much has happened during the past year. Michael's father (Jake) has done the work of harnessing Michael's considerable talent and transforming him into a major league caliber pitcher. Michael has broken nearly every record in the state of Maryland and seems destined to play professional baseball. Michael's performance in the game against El Segundo game is flawless, and with the help of his teammates, he pitches a perfect game, allowing no hits. His final pitch is clocked at 101 mph, officially tying Ronnie Preston's world record for the fastest pitch. In the months prior to the championship game, Annie has been keeping a secret from Michael. She is pregnant. Although she hasn't told him, Michael has somehow figured it out, and has already decided that he wants to marry her. After the game, Michael presents Annie with an engagement ring, an heirloom that was given to him by his grandmother shortly before her death three years earlier. Annie agrees to marry him, but only on the condition that Michael will not let their marriage and the baby keep him from pursuing his dreams of playing in the major leagues. Michael's parents (Jake and Linda) are shocked when they learn about Annie's pregnancy, but are completely supportive, as is Annie's father, Gary. Her mother Sandi is another matter. She reacts violently and goes completely out of control upon hearing the news and has to be restrained by her husband as she lashes out at Michael. Later, she attempts to have him charged with statutory rape. Her actions push both Annie and Gary away, and she finds herself an inch away from a divorce. Her father Owen, who is retired and living in Florida, learns of what Sandi has done and decides that he is at least partially to blame for what has happened. He decides that his lack of leadership in Sandi's life following the loss of her mother at the age of eight, is what turned her into the cruel and elitist person that she became. He intervenes and sends Sandi to live in Florida for a while to let things settle down before she does something that she will regret. Annie gives birth to a little girl named Bella, and it seems that everything will be okay after all. However, soon after Bella is born, Annie is diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer that nearly takes her life. Annie's brush with death renews her determination about making sure that Michael pursues his dreams of playing professional baseball, a dream that seems more important to her than it is to him. Michael is affected most of all by what has happened to Annie, and playing baseball is the farthest thing from his mind. Holding her hand as she nearly died in the hospital room has put his priorities in the harshest perspective imaginable, and it takes much convincing before he can seriously devote himself to playing baseball. After a shaky start playing for CMU, he finds the magic and makes the 1988 Olympic baseball team and during an exhibition game in Baltimore meets the legendary Ronnie Preston. By 1988 Ronnie Preston has reached the twilight of his career, his best pitching days long behind him. He is suffering from nerve damage caused by severe tendinitis in his right elbow, but hides it from everyone including his manager and his wife (Jamie Preston). As a ball player, he exists now only on his fame, as he continues to disappoint the Sacramento Angels manager, who would like him to step down and retire. The manager has become so frustrated by Ronnie's insistence that he can still play at a high standard, that he leaves Ronnie in a losing game in the hope that he will humiliate himself. Ronnie is too stubborn to take himself out, and stays in the game even though he can no longer feel the fingers on his pitching hand. He suffers a humiliating loss and gets in a fight with a young rookie who charges the mound after being hit by one of Ronnie's wild pitches. The next morning Jamie hears a crash in the kitchen and rushes to find Ronnie on his hands and knees picking up pieces of the broken coffee pot. When he stands to reassure her that everything is okay, she notices that he has cut his finger badly and is bleeding profusely, but doesn't feel it. Finally, he tells her the truth about his condition, and she consoles him as he falls into her arms. Shortly after this, Ronnie is put on the disabled list. Rumors have begun to surface about the 1988 U.S. Olympic starting pitcher, Michael Flynn coming to Sacramento to take Ronnie's place. He remembers Michael very well from the night he watched him pitch at the exhibition game, because ever since that night, he has known deep in his heart that his time was over, and that even at his best, he was never as good as Michael. As he struggles with the decision about retirement, he decides to travel to the tiny town of Bakersfield, Maryland to see Michael's professional debut against the Hagerstown Stars. He wears dark glasses and a beat up baseball cap as he sits in the stands and watches Michael take apart the Stars with his 102 mph fastball. After the game he watches a press conference with Michael in which the reporters as him to comment on the rumors about him taking Ronnie Preston's place on the big club in Sacramento. Michael replies only that he is happy to be playing in Bakersfield and that Ronnie Preston is the greatest pitcher to ever play the game. While he was away in Maryland, Ronnie's wife starts looking into Michael Flynn's background and discovers that he is nearly a legend in his hometown. She finds many newspaper articles about him and even a touching radio documentary describing the struggles that he and Annie endured during her battle with cancer. She shares what she has learned with Ronnie and he is moved by Michael's story and even more impressed by his talent. He finally decides that Michael's time has come, and he is ready to retire. Ronnie speaks with the Angel's manager, and asks that he be allowed to pitch one more game. At Ronnie's request, they schedule Michael's major league debut for the game against the Baltimore Raptors, a game that will be played in Baltimore in front of his hometown crowd. Ronnie pitches a solid game for about five innings and then his fingers begin to go numb again. With the bases loaded and his team up by one run, he calls time and tells the manager that it's time. As Michael walks up to the mound, a teary eyed Ronnie Preston hands him the ball and walks off of the field to a standing ovation from the sentimental Baltimore crowd. No sooner than he leaves the field, the crowd is on its feet Michael takes the mound. It matters not to the crowd that Michael plays for the team in Sacramento because he will always be the kid from Ellicott Mills, one of their own. Michael saves the game, and Ronnie smiles as Michael breaks his record for fastest pitch when he throws the last strike of the game at 105 mph, setting a new world record.
eBook Publisher: Club Lighthouse Publishing USA LLC/Club Lighthouse Publishing, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [287 KB]
Reading time: 184-258 min.
Mid-Atlantic Regional High School Championship Game -Wilmer Memorial Ball Park - Stafford, Va - July 1982
Annie sat on the edge of her bed listening intently to her crackly radio, her hands clenched together and feeling like she was going to be sick. Her friend Pam looked at her with an expression somewhere between boredom and amusement with a wry smile on her face.
"God I hope they can hold them off!" Annie said.
"I don't know why you listen to these stupid games, Annie. Who cares?" Pam rolled her eyes and took a bite of the liquorice whip that she held in her hand, paced around the room, killing time until the game would be over so she could go the pool with Annie and meet their other friends.
"Ellicott is just two outs away from a shot at the national championship. No team from Maryland has ever been this far, and Escalante has pitched a beaut today sports fans. He has held Stafford's big guns to seven hits and only three runs," said the announcer.
"Where is Michael?" asked Pam.
"He catching, YEAH?" Annie shook her head. "Now be quiet!"
"Okay, okay. God you're so ate up with him!"
"Strike!" cried the umpire as Peter's slider broke across the outside corner while the lead off hitter Matt Stanchfield looked in disbelief, the loud report drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd.
"Slider, looked a bit outside, but the ump liked it, strike two."
"Jesus Christ, Blue!" Matt cried, shook his head and slammed his bat on the plate.
"That's enough out of you!" shouted the umpire as he clicked his counter and pointed to the mound.
"Quit your bitchin'," mumbled Michael from under his catchers mask as Matt glared hot sparks at him. "Too much pressure for you Stafford boys?"
"Screw you, Flynn" whispered Matt stepped up to the plate.
"Alright, knock it off, boys. Let's play!" said the umpire.
"There seemed to be some discussion between Stanchfield and the umpire about that last pitch. Stanchfield steps back into the box, oh and two count. Here's the pitch ..."
Michael tapped his right hand on his inner thigh, two raps in quick succession. Peter wound up and threw one high and outside. In one smooth motion, Michael snapped to his feet, snatched the ball out of the air, and fired a throw to second base. Peter ducked his head, the ball barely missing his face turned to see the Stafford second base runner dive back toward the bag. Brian Gates had moved behind the bag just as the pitch was released and was crouched in perfect position to catch Michael's deadly accurate throw. A loud pop sounded as Brian caught the throw and tagged the runner with a foot to spare, then fired the ball back to third baseman Stephen Rock nearly getting the runner at third who was caught completely off guard by Michael's surprise move.
The crowd roared as the Stafford coach threw down his hat and looked on in disbelief. "Keep your head in the game," he cried.
"Flynn picked him off at second!!! Flynn picked him off at second!! Did you see that throw!" shouted the announcer, barely able to contain his excitement. "What an arm! Stafford is in real trouble now. Instead of no outs and runners at second and third, they've got one out and a runner at third. That was a risky move by Flynn, but that's just the kind of play that got Ellicott this far."
Annie sprang to her feet, jumping up and clapping her hands together rapidly squealed with delight.
"What happened?" asked Pam.
"Michael picked off the runner at second, you dope. Aren't you listening?" Annie sat back down on her bed breathing heavily, her face flushed.
"Bottom of the ninth, Stafford with a runner at third. Matt Stanchfield still hanging in there with a two and one count."
Silence fell over the crowd as Peter Escalante checked the runner at third, who was taking a huge lead. The air was dense as the sun began to set on the ninety-degree day. Peter wiped his hand on his pants and then took the ball. Time seemed to slow down. He looked at Michael who was signalling him to throw another heater. He nodded and started his wind-up. The ball came in at eighty-three miles per hour, fast enough, but right over the middle of the plate. Matt came around on it and ripped a line-drive right at Peter, who got his glove on it, but it glanced off and he took it right in the face. The ball made a sickening crack as it bounced off of the bone under his left eye and came right back at Michael, who instinctively ran up and grabbed it, checking the runner at third and then calling time out threw off his mask and ran to the mound. Peter collapsed on the ground. A swarm of coaches and players poured out of the dugouts to help the injured player. Michael was the first to reach him, followed by Matt whose tan skin seemed to have turned white, knelt on the ground next to Peter and tried to get a response from him.
"Oh my God!" cried the announcer. "Escalente is down! He took that one right in the face. I sure hope that he's alright. Both coaches are out on the field. Gosh, I hope he's not hurt."
"I'm sorry man. I'm so sorry, man," cried Matt, the panic rising in his voice as Peter remained unresponsive.
"Peter! Peter!" Michael rolled him over and looked at his face. "You're gonna be okay, man. Just hang in there. Jesus Christ!"
"Move aside, Michael. Boys, it was an accident. Matt, just stand back and let me get a look at him." Ellicott head coach Don Beckman knelt and cradled Peter's head on his lap. "Peter? Peter? Can you hear me? C'mon, wake up kid!"
"What happened?" Peter opened his eyes and tried to look around, but couldn't seem to focus on anything.
"You took a line drive in the face, Peter. Just take it real slow. You're going to be okay. Can you stand?"
"I think so," he whispered. He stood weakly and let his coach lead him off the field.
"Escalante is walking off the field under his own power. Thank God. We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back," the announcer's voice crackled over the radio.
"Oh my God, Pam. Peter has been hit. They're taking him out of the game." Annie bit her fingernails.
"What are they going to do now, Annie. Will they stop the game?"
"I don't know." Annie glared at Pam and shook her head.
"This is WTCV radio covering the mid-Atlantic championship game between Stafford and Ellicott. Peter Escalante is still on the sidelines and an ambulance has just arrived. We were told by Ellicott coach Don Beckman that Peter is okay, but they are sending him to the hospital as a precautionary measure. Ellicott is in a real jam now without their ace Escalante on the hill. Flannagan, Sanwich, and Clark are all ineligible for the rest of this week. I wonder what Beckman is going to do to save this. Ben Hammond is on deck, and it looks like Ellicott is out of pitchers, and out of options."
"Michael? Take off that gear. You're up. Jeff, get that gear on. You're in at catcher. Kevin, you warm him up." Don put his arm around Michael and led him toward the mound.
"You're kidding, right?" said Michael, the panic rising in his voice. "This guy's going to cream me, coach. I'm not a pitcher."
"You're all I've got, Michael. Listen, we're in a jam here. No one else understands the signals. Besides, you're the only one left who can throw hard enough to keep these guys in check. I've seen you pitch during practise, and I know you can do it. I want you to give 'em the hard stuff, high and inside," said Don as Michael stood before him with his head down.
"Look, Michael. You've got the best arm on this team. Just do your best." Don handed the ball to Michael.
"Well, this is an unexpected move by Beckman. Michael Flynn has replaced Escalante as pitcher and Jeff Watson is in at catcher. I don't think that I've ever seen Flynn pitch before. He has a heck of an arm. This could be interesting."
Annie sat on the edge of her bed with her mouth hanging open tried to comprehend the announcer's words. "Michael Flynn has replaced Escalante ..."
"What are they doing now?" Pam pulled on her chewing gum and wrapped it around her finger.
"They're putting Michael in as pitcher."
The sun had moved to just below the treetops and the heat of the day was beginning to surrender to the evening twilight. The stadium lights were starting to come on as Michael took his warm ups, trying to ignore the jeers coming from the Stafford bench, telling him that he was done. Set, wind up, and release.
"Is that all you got, catcher?" cried Tom Claymore, the Stafford right fielder.
"We're going to rip you!" cried another player.
Set, wind up, release. Set, wind up, release. Michael ignored the taunts and fell into a rhythm and lobbed easy pitches over the plate.
"It doesn't look like he's got much on it from the mound," whispered Ben Hammond to the Stafford head coach who absently swung the bat to stay loose.
"You just concentrate, Ben." The coach watched Michael uneasily. "Don't underestimate him. Now show us what you've got."
The umpire pointed to him and held up two fingers, signalling that he could throw two more pitches. Set, wind up, release. This time there was a loud report when the ball ripped into Jeff's mitt. Ben Hammond turned to have a look and the jeers from the Stafford bench grew quiet. Set, wind up, release -- another fastball that ripped the air as it travelled the sixty feet from Michael's right hand to Jeff's mitt.
"Did you see that? Holy shit," whispered the CMU baseball coach Jon Zane to his assistant looked at the radar gun that read eighty seven miles per hour.
"Stepping up to the plate is Ben Hammond. As I said before, he's the Virginia State triple crown winner with fifty four home runs, .376 batting average, and a hundred thirty four RBIs. Flynn has his work cut out for him, runners at the corners and one out. Let's see what he's got," sounded the announcer's voice through Annie's radio.
"Come on Michael. You can do it," she whispered. She sat on the edge of her bed clasping her hands together and holding her breath.
Jeff Watson took the ball and ran out to the mound. "Just two more outs, Michael. That's all we need. So just pitch him inside and give him the gas. We gotta win this one for Pete. If Stanchfield hadn't hit him in the face, this game would have been over already." He handed the ball to Michael and gave him a high-five.
Hammond stepped up to the plate and took his time. He absently erased the little bit of chalk that was left around the batters box, trying to psych Michael out by making him wait. Michael stood expressionless on the mound and nodded when Jeff signalled fastball. Set, wind up, release. The ball made a whizzing sound as it crossed the inside corner of the plate and slammed into the mitt with a loud report that sounded like a gunshot. Jeff felt the breeze from Hammond's bat as it came around too late.
"Swing and a miss. Strike one for Hammond," said the announcer.
"Good job, Michael," whispered Annie.
"Look at this," said coach Zane. "Eighty nine miles per hour. Do you believe that?"
"Oh and one count for Hammond. Here's the pitch."
Set, wind up, release. Another heater, high and inside, that backed Hammond away from the plate.
"Ball one. It looked like Flynn gave Hammond a little chin music with that one."
"Settle down, Michael. Just settle down." Annie held Pam's hand and tried to breathe.
Set, wind up, release. Ben began his swing as soon as he saw the ball leave Michael's hand and got a piece of it, but it shanked off from the bat and went foul.
"Come on Michael. Nothing fancy. Just fire it in there. You the man," yelled Don Beckman from the sidelines.
"One and two for Hammond. Here's the pitch."
Set, wind up, release. Michael's fastball came in right down the middle and Ben got a bead on it. There was a crack as his bat connected with the fat pitch and sent it flying deep into center field. The crowd held its breath as the ball went deeper and deeper, all the while the center fielder, Brian Owen running toward the fence, finally getting under it and catching it about five feet from the wall.
"That was a close one for Ellicott, but Owen made the grab. Two outs."
Jeff called time out and walked to the mound. "Just hang in there. You've got some serious shit, man. Just keep it hard and inside. He's yours." Jeff dropped the ball in Michael's glove.
"One more guys. Let's see some pop!" yelled coach Don.
"Stepping up to the plate for Stafford, left fielder Jeremy Osborne. Osborne has been solid this season, .289 average and eighteen home runs. Let's see what Flynn makes of him."
Annie was barely breathing now. Even Pam had been drawn into the excitement. She sat next to Annie and held her hand, ears glued to the crackly broadcast from WTCV radio.
Osborne stepped up to the plate and looked Michael squarely in the eyes. He was spitting out toward the mound, swinging his bat back and forth, waiting for the pitch. Michael stared at him blankly and took a deep breath, gripping the ball. Set, wind up, release. The ball came in just below chest height at ninety one miles per hour over the inside corner as Osborne connected with it and ripped a line drive straight at Michael who managed to knock it down and hold the runner at third, wisely opting to let Osbourne take first base.
"Smart play, Michael. Smart play." Coach Don called time out and made his way to the mound, Jeff joining him as well.
"You're throwing hard, Michael. Jesus! So just keep it up. That was a lucky swing, and we held 'em up. Concentrate on the batter and don't worry about the runners. They're yours, kid." The coach flipped the ball to Michael.
"You the man." Jeff smiled and put his mask back on and jogged back to the plate..
"Stepping up to the plate for Stafford, shortstop Roy Beck. Beck is a solid player, hitting .345. All he needs is a base hit and this game is over.
Michael kicked at the dirt in front of the rubber and looked at Jeff who signalled fastball. Michael shook him off, but Jeff insisted, fastball. Michael shook him off. Jeff tapped the ground and signalled curve ball to which Michael nodded in agreement.
Set, wind up, release. Beck hung in the box as long as he could but backed up slightly as the ball appeared to be heading right for him. About five feet before the plate, the ball took a wicked dive and curved in low and over the outside. Beck swung and missed, and then slammed his bat down, as the umpire smiled at him and shook his head.
"Did you see that?" cried Jon Zane.
"Curve ball, swung on and missed. It looks like Flynn is for real, sports fans."
"I knew your curve ball would work," whispered Annie with what seemed like a permanent smile on her face. "He's so great!"
Jeff threw the ball back to Michael, got in his crouch and signalled fastball. Michael nodded and fired another ninety-one mile per hour throw high and inside, completely catching Beck off guard, causing him to swing wildly.
"Keep your eye on the ball, Roy!" cried the Stafford coach. "Jesus."
"Another strike from Flynn. Ellicott is one pitch away from winning this one. Here's the wind up and the pitch ..."
"Wish me luck, Annie," Michael whispered to himself as tossed the rosin bag on the ground behind the mound. Set, wind up, release. The pitch came in high and inside, crowding Beck away from the plate and drawing another wild swing that missed completely as the ball ripped into Jeff's mitt with a loud pop. The stands erupted into a frenzy. The Ellicott fans ran out on the field and crowded around Michael and the other players as they threw their hats into the air and ran toward the pitcher's mound. The reading on Jon Zane's radar gun was ninety-four miles per hour.