The Old Ball Team, by Rich Paschall
When they started the monthly get-together it was almost 15 years earlier. There were a dozen of them then, and two of the “boys” had already retired. They had all known each other since childhood and were within a few years of one another in age. They went to the same park as kids and most played on the same teams.
They had decided years ago to meet once a month for dinner, so they could be sure to see one another regularly. Over the years dinner changed to lunch, as some of them did not want to drive or be out after dark. The sessions remained as lively as ever. It seemed none lost their boyhood personalities.
With the passage of time, the group had dwindled in size. While the first ten years saw no loss of participation, recent years were not kind to the group. Three had passed away and another three were no longer well enough to attend. One just seemed to disappear. No one could ever say what happened to Roger, although a few tried hard to find out.
The meeting was now on the first Tuesday of the month at 1 o’clock. Most of the lunch crowd was gone from the Open Flame Restaurant by then and the old guys could sit around and reminisce for as long as they wanted. Today they wanted to hang on just a little longer.
Raymond had arrived right on time which was his way all through life. Like the others, Ray was retired now. Unlike the others, he carried a secret with him that he would not tell, even to his best friends.
Bob came with Ray. He was no longer able to drive and in fact, needed a good deal of help to get in and out of Ray’s car. Ray always allowed enough time for Bob, so that they could walk slowly together and get in and out of the house, the car, and the restaurant safely. To Ray, Bob was like a rock, the anchor of the team. Now Ray was Bob’s rock of support. There was a certain irony in that, and Bob would never know it.
Frank still worked a little. It is not really that he wanted to do it, but he could not shake free of some business obligations he had over the years. He did not need the money and tried to steer any business to someone else. If you asked, Frank would tell you he was retired.
Bill was always late. Everyone would have been surprised if he had been on time. He maintained an active life and was always finding more to do than he had time. This seemed to keep Bill healthy and robust. Perhaps he was the only one of the remaining members in such good shape.
Without any doubt at all, Jerry was the talkative one of the bunch. If others wanted to tell a story or share some news, they had better do it before Jerry showed up. He was likely to dominate the conversation from the time he arrived until the time the check came. It was guaranteed that Jerry would tell his favorite stories, although all of these guys knew them just as well as Jerry. In fact, one or more of them probably participated in whatever episode he was recalling.
At every meeting, Jerry was sure to get around to the championship baseball game. “What were we Bob, 12 or 13? What a summer that was! I remember when Bob dove for that ball in the last inning. If that got through the infield we were screwed. Raymond was so damn slow out there in left field.” They all would laugh, even Ray.
Usually, the boys would be planning to leave around two, but they told stories and laughed their way past 2:30 in the afternoon. Finally, Ray called for the check. Over the objections of the others, Ray paid the bill. They had always split the check evenly. No one ever paid for everyone, but Ray was a diplomat and a businessman and knew how to get his way. The matter was settled.
They all made it out into the warm autumn day together and stood on the sidewalk for a moment. Raymond gave them all a long hard look but said nothing. He knew Bob could not come out any longer. Bob’s wife had strongly objected to Raymond continuing to take him to lunch. This would be the last time, for sure. Raymond was dying of cancer but kept it to himself. He looked well enough, so the others just did not know.
As the two walked to Raymond’s car nearby, the others said goodbye to Frank. It seems that Frank’s wife had been insisting that they move to Michigan to be nearer to the kids and grandkids. Since Frank was the practical one of the group, he also realized it was better to have a safety net of younger people nearby if the need should ever arise. These old guys may have promised to always be there for one another, but that now came with the heavy reality that it just could not be so.
As Frank wandered off in the other direction, Bill and Jerry stood looking at one another, and big, knowing smiles came across their faces. Nothing more had to be said. It was all right there before them. Words, tears, and hugs would have been out of character.
Finally, Jerry left Bill with the same words he issued for years, “I’ll see you at the next game. I’ve got the ball and gloves, you bring the bats.”
“OK, Captain,” Bill said and walked away.