Imagine for just a minute that you’re Dustin Fowler. As the 2017 season unfolds, you watch as one of your former minor league teammates becomes the biggest star in baseball, and as spring ripens into summer, one prospect after another climbs through the ranks and debuts in New York. Undaunted, you continue to grind at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, putting together a season that turns heads and has many observers wondering when you might join the rest of the Baby Bombers at the major league level.
In late June your hard work pays off. On Wednesday night your manager pulls you aside and tells you that tomorrow will be your day. Instead of riding the team bus to Thursday night’s game in Syracuse, you’ll be hopping a plane to Chicago and the major leagues. To make the day even more special, you get word on Thursday afternoon that you’ve been named an International League All-Star. For a moment you wonder about the league All Star Game, but it only takes seconds before you realize that you’d trade twenty minor league all star games for just one game in the show.
Your parents can’t make it to Chicago for the game, but when you arrive at the stadium and see your road jersey hanging in a locker marked “Fowler,” your parents are the only thing you can think of. Just as it still is for millions of kids across America, your baseball journey began with your parents. Games of catch with your father in the waning twilight after work, countless rides to practice and games, rolls of quarters and trips to the batting cages, and on and on and on. Because they were there then, you are here now.
It doesn’t take long for the media to find you during warm ups, and you answer different versions of the same question with different versions of the same answer. “It’s hard to put into words how excited I am,” you explain, “but it’s great to be here. It’s what I’ve worked for my whole life, and I’m just excited to get my career started.”
Before you know it the game arrives. A two hour and fifty minute rain delay does nothing to dampen your spirits, and when you sprint onto the field to take your position in right field before the bottom of the first inning, you float. After two quick outs Jose Abreu flicks a fly ball in your direction down the right field line. You take off after the ball in a flash, just as you’ve tracked thousands upon thousands of fly balls. There’s no thought, only reaction laced with twenty-two-year-old adrenaline, and before you know it the stands are rushing towards you far faster than they should. The ball you’ve been chasing curls harmlessly into the seats just as your body slams into the restraining wall. You’ll shake it off like you’ve shaken off so many bumps and bruises, but then your right foot hits the ground and you collapse in a heap.
Before you realize what’s happening, you’re surrounded by teammates and coaches and trainers. Steve Donohue crouches down and examines your knee while Joe Girardi buries his face in his hands, wiping tears from a face that’s seen fifty years of baseball. Veterans and rookies who had celebrated your arrival only hours before, form a circle of sorrow around you. Their words are positive and encouraging, but you see something different in their eyes. When they look at you they see Moonlight Graham, a player who came and went on this very day in 1905.
And then you’re on a cart driving out of the stadium with your knee in a splint and your heart in your mouth, the day your whole life has been pointing towards suddenly crashing down around you.
The game, of course, continues without you. Your team had taken advantage of an error to grab a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, but the White Sox jump back with two runs in the second, a rally made possible when your replacement, Rob Refsnyder, simply drops a fly ball. Your Yankees never lead after that, and nothing much of interest happens the rest of the away aside from a spotless performance from the much maligned bullpen (3.1 innings pitched, one hit, zero runs, zero walks, five strikeouts), and the curious case of Aaron Judge.
You know Judge well and nothing he’s doing surprises you, but as you listen to the end of the game while being prepped for surgery on your torn patella tendon, two things strike you as odd. First, with two outs in the seventh and the bases empty, Judge draws an intentional walk, making him only the third player this season to get a free pass with no one on board. That’s certainly strange, but in the ninth inning something happens that doesn’t fit the game you’ve grown up with.
After getting the first two outs of the inning, White Sox closer David Robertson gives up a clean single to Brett Gardner, setting up a showdown with Judge, and this is where things stop making sense. Even though the speedy Gardner carries the tying run in his pocket, the White Sox choose not to hold him on. Even though the speedy Gardner carries the tying run in his pocket and isn’t being held on by the White Sox, the Yankees choose not to have him steal second. The White Sox want Girardi to send Gardner, which would open up first base and allow them to walk Judge, but Girardi doesn’t take the bait. Judge eventually strikes out to end the game, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.
The final score of the game is White Sox 4, Yankees 3, and the Yankees have fallen out of first place, but as the anesthesia creeps into your lungs and begins to fog your mind, your last conscious thought is for yourself. Again you see Abreu’s fly ball slicing off his bat, but this time it stays in play, this time you easily gather it in, this time you trot down the line towards the dugout, your adrenaline rising as each step brings you closer to your first major league at bat.