Editor’s note: Jake reached out to me last week in search of a place to share this story. I was flattered for the site and really enjoyed reading Jake’s personal story with two other players -including a current Cardinals outfielder. I’m sure you will enjoy this as much as I did! - Josey
In the clubhouse at 2, team stretch at 2:30.
These are not just the rules for the Peoria Chiefs, but the hands of the clock that tell Minor League Baseball players it’s time to chase down a dream. No matter what the game brought the night before, how wildly out of control the slump has spiraled, or how the Gatorade bath at home plate felt after a Midwest League walk-off home run, 2:00 PM resets the scales. It’s time to fight for a chance in the big leagues. At 2:00 PM, the bell rings for another round—either you’re ready, or you’re not.
There’s no 2:05.
I walk downstairs to our host family’s living room—blue collared shirt from my off-season job double-cutting par 4s, cargo shorts from the same, and top-sliders I found—and I pace. We leave at 12:45 every day. A thirty-minute drive to the stadium plus a few Chick-fil-A sandwiches and three glazed donuts equal to a 12:45 exit time. I always drive. I always make sure we are there by 1:30 at the latest. As a free agent signee with my name never so much being prefaced by “Big League Prospect”, I need to be ready when that bell rings. It’s the only way for expendables to survive.
But the car we usually borrow is in the shop. Today, Harrison Bader is driving.
“We’re leaving in two minutes,” I yell upstairs, “Let’s go.”
Brian O’Keefe, a young catching prospect built like a bull wearing a dress shirt, slips on his shades and clumps down the wooden staircase. “Relax, Gronk,” we’ve lived together for the past year, and he knows my rules, “we’ve got plenty of time.”
“Relax. Are we stopping for food?”
“Bader,” I call up to the bedrooms, “You ready?”
“Yea—” his voice trails. Not comforting.
O’Keefe scrolls through twitter. “Can we leave without him?”
“He’s our only ride.”
I try to sit down. Doesn’t work. I keep pacing.
O’Keefe lifts his head from his phone. “What is he doing up there?”
“Should I go up?”
“And do what?”
He’s right. I don’t care. My heart pounds. 2:00 PM is inching near. If we miss the bell, everyone not described as a “Big League Prospect” is as good as cut—in this case, only one-third of our house.
“Bader!” now it’s O’Keefe’s loud and shearing voice rattling the living room, “Let’s go!”
We walk to the garage door and press the button. If it looks like we are leaving, we think, Bader will get back to our usual routine and kick it in gear. The door shakes the house; we stand at the entrance looking up the stairs. Bader’s door opens. Our plan worked, we think, we can still make it.
Bader emerges in nothing but a towel and walks to the bathroom. We hear the shower turn on.
O’Keefe takes off his sunglasses. “Is this a joke?”
Sweat beads on my forehead.
I’m googling every taxi service in the greater Peoria, Illinois area and only finding airport shuttles. My shirt dampens with sweat. O’Keefe sits on the living room stairs thumbing Twitter. No Uber. No Lyft. No worries, I think to myself, I’m a few minutes away from a heart attack, so we’ll have the Ambulance drop us off at Dozer Park.
The shower is still running.
O’Keefe doesn’t lift his head. “So, I guess we aren’t stopping for food.”
I figure out how it’ll go down. It won’t send my career in flames—my strikeouts are doing a fine job of that on their own—it would be a slow burn for eternity. We’ll show up late, I’ll get benched, O’Keefe will get scolded, and Bader will get three hits. The next time I see daylight in the lineup, Skip will pencil my name in with an asterisk, noting my tardiness from a previous date. In promotional talks, I’ll be known to the organization as “The Late Kid”, my promotion to AA will get lost in the mail. The Late Kid nickname sticks, the clubbie will adjust my jersey name accordingly. They’ll cut The Late Kid for being unreliable because who can build an organization on irresponsibility? Then I’ll die. Saint Peter will make a joke about The Late Kid and snap a towel in the locker room saying I was supposed to be up here at 2:00.
I get back to reality.
My shirt is now patched with sweat; my heart beating like a drum. Finally, the upstairs door opens, and Harrison Bader walks out. Pomade slicks his undercut to the left, and he glides down the stairs with Beats wrapped around his neck, a slim fit shirt, and jeans with a dinner plate-sized watch that apparently doesn’t work.
Our team’s high-energy, full-intensity, full-tilt centerfielder looks as calm as I’ve ever seen him. “You boys ready?”
I climb into the back of Bader’s brand-new Wrangler and feel my top sliders squish, and my shirt sticks to my back. Bader throws on his sunglasses; adjusts the rear-view mirror.
“Bader,” O’Keefe says looking at Bader over his sunglasses, “You know we have to go, right?”
He turns the key to the ignition. “Gronk, what time do we need to be there?”
“Two o’clock,” I mumble as if I was uttering the name of a lost love, “we needed to be there at 2:00.”
He puts the car in drive. “Plenty of time.”
We make it to the highway. From here it’s almost exactly 30 minutes to the stadium. Some nights I can make it in 25 on the post-game open road, but some afternoons, traffic makes it 40. I hardly care anymore. We’re not going to make it. There’s no getting around it. The bell will ring at 2:00, and we will not be there to answer. The prospects will survive, and another no-name roster-filler will take my spot. At 2:00 PM the Major League Baseball dream will live on—without me.
Then, my head whips against the headrest.
I hear a mechanical symphony roaring and charging conducted by Bader’s heavy foot. I look at the speedometer. The last time I went this fast, a flight attendant checked the cabin and made sure my tray table was locked and upright. We pass cars as if they were billboards. Bader fidgets with the radio with an open hand hanging over the wheel.
It defies all my knowledge of physics, time travel, sorcery, but somehow, I see our exit. Bader makes the turn, and I can see the lights to Dozer Park rising over the hill. Three turns and we are there. For the first time, I begin to smile. The Late Kid may not need to exist. Two turns. We’re going to make it. Holy shit, we’re going to make it.
Bader slams on the breaks, turns off the car, and opens the door.
“What the Hell, Bader?” O’Keefe and I say our own version at the same time.
He turns back and curls his eyebrow as if the answer is obvious. “Need a coffee.”
The line is out the door. We made it this far only to have our quest ended by an artisan barista. I look at the stadium lights. It’s only about four blocks—I can run. I can make it, I think. No, I’m with my teammates, ride or die—and today it looks like it’ll be the latter.
Like the Houdini master Bader is, by the time I decide to stay in the car, he’s back with a large black Columbian-roast, starts the car and weaves through Peoria stealing a sip.
We get to the players’ lot and as he throws it in park, we take off. Bader remains in a brisk walk.
In through the glass doors. Down through the tunnel. Around the grounds crew storage. We see the clubhouse doors. O’Keefe walks in, I follow, and as the finale to his magic trick, Bader strolls into the clubhouse as (I kid you not) the digital clock drops from 1:59 PM to 2:00 PM. He takes a sip of coffee. I wring out my shirt. Bader looks at us both, flashes a smile, and says, “2:00 PM, right?”
…So trust me, no matter how slow Bader’s start might be, he will arrive precisely when his team needs him the most. And this time, I’m not worried at all.
Jake Gronsky is a former member of the Cardinals organization and the author of A Short Season: Faith, Family, and Boy’s Love for Baseball. You can follow Jake on Twitter @Jake_Gronsky and visit his website.