“Look at the bright side,” my sister told me. “You’ll always be famous.”
“Number one topic at Spuds & Suds,” claimed Uncle Scott, calling on the phone from Shaker Heights.
“A Jeopardy answer,” according to Devin. “Not an obscure question—something everybody knows.”
Devin was a rising star on the Cleveland roster. In the series with the Yankees, he batted .370 with two homers in seven games, while I hit two for nine and scored that one damn run.
“You were a hero,” my mother insisted. “Here in Ohio, at least. Nobody blames you for trying too hard.”
SportsCenter ran tributes for Wilson, celebrating his impressive career—the batting titles and Gold Gloves, his generous charities throughout the Big Apple.
An All-Star in life, a legend in death.
Most fans were distant and polite, but the paparazzi had no mercy. The vultures lurked near our team’s hotel, hoping to catch me off-guard. My sister’s inbox was flooded by Yankee trolls. A ruined gambler posted a photo of my mother’s house online.
It was a great relief to get swept by the Dodgers in the World Series, to finish the season and retreat into hiding.
“People are talking,” my agent prodded. “Across the country—not just in Cleveland and New York. You’ve got to do an interview, Gary. You’ve got to make a statement.”
I’m sorry. I simply kept running.
You’ve heard the call, haven’t you?
I thought everybody had. They played a clip on the national news, for Christ’s sake.
Two men down, Anderson to go. Chapman walked Ramirez to start the inning. Ramirez stole second, and Kipnis struck out looking. The Bronx held its breath when Chisenhall smashed that rocket into right field, but Judge tracked it down.
Now Gary Anderson stands at the plate, Cleveland’s final hope.
Sure, I wanted to be the hero. Doesn’t everybody? Come on, what kid hasn’t dreamed of that last at-bat, a man on base and your team down by one? The crowd on its feet, the coaches flashing signs, and a giant on the mound with a rocket for an arm.
Foul some junk into the stands, waiting for the right pitch. Then it happens: The slider drifts into the zone, or the heater’s a touch slow. Your vision sharpens, and the ball hovers at your belt, hanging there like an ornament on a Christmas tree.
You don’t see the hit. You feel it in the bat, a deep vibration in the sweet spot, not the terrible sting of partial contact. You sense the connection through your hands. You know it from the sound, that crack so apt it became a cliché.
The ball launches into the distance—no lightning in the background, nothing but the smooth ascent of the drive. At its core, the game comes down to physics. Some brain wrote a book about it, vectors and force and velocity and shit.
A home run is the most beautiful equation you’ll ever see.
The ball arcs foul, and the count pulls even at 2 and 2. Anderson calls time and steps out of the box. You can see his breath on this October night. He’s waiting for the sign.
The only sign the Yankees want is “Strike Three.” Then pop the bubbly: they’re off to Hollywood to face the Dodgers.
But don’t celebrate yet. The tying run’s on base, the winner at the plate, and fans in Cleveland are praying for game seven.
That physics nerd was mostly right. But there’s something queer inside the diamond, beyond the angles and statistics that compose the game, something spiritual beneath the math. Every sport is haunted by ghosts, the legends of the past—the field both sanctuary and graveyard—and baseball is no exception.
Which explains our voodoo rituals. Some of the habits seem downright normal: the slugger who jams to Metallica before every game, the shortstop who never lets you touch his glove. Others raise eyebrows: the pitcher who refuses to wash his jockstrap if he wins. In Double-A, I roomed with a paranoid catcher. Days he was catching a lefty, he started every motion with his left hand or foot—grabbing his fork, stepping onto the bus, scratching his crotch. Vice versa for catching righties.
Ballplayers, huh? Even in the Big Leagues, the millionaires have OCD.
It’s more than superstition. There’s something else on the field, I swear—something that plays beside you, a shadow to your every move.
It’s not God, but it’s someone He knows.
I’ve always connected God and baseball, probably from those years of Sunday School at Sweetwater Baptist, back home in Wadsworth, Ohio. As the teachers droned about Abraham and Isaac, I dreamed about my favorite Cleveland players, reciting Candiotti’s ERA as the other kids learned chapter and verse.
During sermons, I imagined the Indians in Bible times, Joe Carter swinging a sword instead of a bat as he fought the Boston Philistines. If I got super-bored, I’d reverse the process and timeport the Bible All-Stars into the American League. I scribbled my line-up in the bulletin:
Starting Pitchers: David, Moses
Middle Relief: Aaron
1) Joshua – SS
2) Caleb – 2B
3) Elijah – CF
4) Samson – 1B
5) Gideon – RF
6) Noah – C
7) Abraham – 3B
8) Minor Prophet? – LF
Suspended: Cain? Saul?
Batting Coach: Gary Anderson
Any scout could envision David on the mound. The kid hurled a stone through Goliath’s forehead, so he had to possess a wicked fastball, even without the sling. Not bad accuracy, either.
The Israelites never lost a fight, not when Moses lifted his staff in the air, so he joined the rotation. But the tide of the battle turned as he grew weary, until Aaron supported his arms—an obvious reference to pitching relief.
Let Daniel close. He faced a den of lions. He could handle Tiger Stadium.
The position players were harder to determine, except for Samson, who was the natural clean-up hitter. Joshua and Caleb were spies, so I put them at the top of the order and hoped for a few stolen bases. Elijah rode a flaming chariot, which made him a dazzling fielder, turning home runs into outs with ease.
I wasn’t sure about Noah, given his drinking problems. But anyone who could wrangle a rhinoceros would make a tough catcher.
The rest? Who knows? It’s hard to spot talent in the genealogies.
I never settled on a New Testament line-up, though I thought of Paul as a first century Ty Cobb: mean and hungry on the base paths, a fierce and talented player that nobody liked. The disciples hogged most of the order. John outran Peter to the tomb, so you know he could leg a bunt into a single.
I couldn’t decide if Jesus was allowed to play. After all, could he hit anything but a home run? Could he pitch an imperfect game? Where’s the fun in that? At least the Old Testament boys mingled errors with their hits.
Here’s the point: I’ve always pictured baseball as a spiritual activity, something the Bible gang played in heaven to pass the time.
The connection was tenuous, however. The Lord roots in mysterious ways. It can be hard to discern His will, especially about professional sports, a lesson the Browns had taught me in the sixth grade. They were losing to the Bengals, and Rick Downs would be waiting at my locker to taunt me on Monday, doing the Ickey Woods Shuffle, shouting, “Who Dey!? Who Dey!? Who Dey Think Gonna Beat Them Bengals!?” I prayed and prayed that Kosar would sidearm his way to a miracle victory, when I realized that some kid in southern Ohio was on his knees at that very moment, asking Jesus to bless the Cincinnati defense and vanquish Leroy Hoard.
The Browns lost 24-17.
Did God take sides?
Only for Notre Dame, claimed my friend Stephen. He kept a picture of Touchdown Jesus in his wallet and allowed formula-ridden movies to stoke his dreams of playing for the Irish. Hoosiers? No. Rudy. Something about underdogs and Indiana.
Back in the seventies, in the gospel according to Stephen, a Steeler named Franco Harris scored on a famous play called the Immaculate Reception, which meant that the angel Gabriel helped him catch the football, the same way he helped Mary catch Jesus in the delivery stable.
But I knew better. Jesus didn’t root for Pittsburgh.
Chapman sets, then the pitch. Smacked hard over Lindor at short, a line drive into the outfield! Wilson charges, and he’s got it. No! The ball’s on the ground. Can you believe it? Wilson tripped and dropped the ball.
Ramirez scores, Anderson heading for second.
Wilson is down, Hicks running to help—he’s looking for that ball, folks. Anderson takes third.
Wilson is lying still, facedown on the grass, while Anderson turns for home. Sanchez doesn’t even bother to guard the plate.
Cleveland takes the lead! Wilson dropped like a rock when he met that ball, Gary Anderson kept on trucking, and hearts are breaking in the Bronx tonight.
The first time the archangel offered to help, I told him no. I didn’t say it out loud: I shook Michael off, like a pitcher waving his head at a catcher’s sign.
This was back in Little League, the spring I was longing to move from bench-warmer to starter. I had practiced all fall and winter, visiting batting cages and throwing snowballs against the side of our garage. Dad wouldn’t hit grounders in January, not in Lake Erie’s snow belt, so my fielding involved a single drill: tossing the ball high in the air and catching it as I dove into the snow drifts on our lawn.
By the first day of practice, I could hit decently enough, and my throws were hard and accurate. But I could only catch pop flies. According to Coach, I juggled grounders like they were rabid hamsters.
Tom Vaughn won the job at second base. He would mock me at practice, flailing his arms and shouting about claws and teeth. One day, he chucked a ball in my direction and yelled, “Hamsters! Think fast.” I stumbled backward, tripping over a discarded bat. “Gary Andersnot,” Tom said, “All-Star Klutz.”
That night, when I got home, Mom forced me to join the family at the dinner table. “Gary, why don’t you ask the blessing?” she said.
“Why me?” My face was coated with dust and dried sweat, and I longed to be alone.
“Because we take turns thanking the Lord, and your sister prayed last night.”
A Psalm popped into my head, a verse from Vacation Bible School. It talked about arms and victory, a natural fit for a baseball warrior.
“Arise, O Lord,” I began, using my best announcer’s voice, and I pictured the Creator standing for the National Anthem. “Lift up your hand, and break the arm of the wicked. Smite Thomas Vaughn, and raise your servant to the infield. Bless this food we are about to receive. Nourish it to our bodies. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.”
The prayer must have worked, because I immediately felt better. I dug into the mashed potatoes, swirling them with the pot roast gravy. After a few bites, the silence hit me. Mom was staring daggers, her lips pursed, and I knew that I was about to be smitten, not Tom.
“Gary Ryan Anderson, what rubbish just came out of your mouth?”
“A prayer, like you asked.”
“That’s no prayer I asked for.”
“It’s a Bible prayer, mom. We learned it at church.”
“Don’t be smart with me, young man.”
“It’s a Psalm, a Psalm about baseball.” As soon as the words left my mouth, like a bad swing that you can’t pull back, I knew that I’d explained too much.
“We do not make a joke out of God’s Word in this house.”
“I was serious.”
“What? You want Thomas to break his arm?”
I paused for a second, picturing the lineup sheet on Coach Johnson’s clipboard, my name suddenly among the starters. “I want him to stop teasing me. And I want to start at second base.”
“We do not waste prayers on baseball.”
That’s when I noticed Michael standing behind her, wearing a vintage Indians uniform, a wooden bat resting on his shoulder. At first I thought he was the ghost of a real-life player. Then I noticed the wings.
He assumed a stance beside my mother. Extending his arms, a captain’s band on his massive bicep, he steadied the bat near her head. The archangel drew the lumber back and forth a few times, addressing a ball on a tee, and returned the weapon to his shoulder. He raised a brow and looked me in the eye, awaiting the signal to swing away.
When I caught his intentions, I thought, No! Not her! as loud as I could.
“What did you say?” Mom asked.
“No … no, ma’am, you’re right. I shouldn’t have prayed that prayer.” I stared hard at Michael, shaking off the Captain of the Lord’s host.
He shrugged, stepped out of the batter’s box, and faded into the wallpaper.
“He’s tired,” my father said. “He had a hard practice.”
“That’s no excuse for a smart mouth,” my mother answered, but her eyes had lost their fire. “I suppose it’s the Lord he offended, not me.”
That night, I lay in bed and thought about Michael—my Guardian Angel, my Designated Hitter. I imagined the strength of his forearms, the power in his chest. No wonder the Israelites won the pennant.
The next day at practice, Tom Vaughn snapped his finger catching a pop fly.
That ball hit Wilson’s chest, and he fell right on top of it, smothered it into the ground. He still hasn’t moved, and the stadium is cathedral-quiet. The trainers are trying to help, but Wilson’s lying rigid in the grass.
During a Berry aneurysm, bleeding erupts from the Circle of Willis, a cluster of arteries at the base of the brain. The congenital problem grows in secret.
The artery walls balloon. They burst like a thief in the night.
In baseball, every play becomes a statistic, even death.
Two million people in the United States have a brain aneurysm waiting to explode, but only 30,000 will hemorrhage in a given year. So your odds are one in 10,000, a .0001 batting average.
There are 750 professionals on Major League teams. Your odds of joining their ranks are one in 400,000, not counting the players from other countries.
The odds that a Major League player will rupture a Berry aneurysm? One in four billion. Your granny has a better chance of hitting a Clayton Kershaw fastball.
Numbers offer control, a method of explanation, and the experts on TV consoled the traumatized children in their audience, young fans who had witnessed their idol’s death on live TV. Sara Wilson spoke to them through the camera, still mourning her loss, and said that her husband would want them to continue playing, that it was the best way to remember their hero.
Harder questions remain.
What are the odds that the artery bursts in the playoffs, during a game when the doomed soul happens to be on the field? How likely that the ball’s in play?
Nobody wants to know. The equations of fate are too daunting.
What was the chance that I would be batting? That Wilson’s body would break at the very moment I made contact?
Vegas offers no odds for the inevitable. Statistics are nothing in the face of destiny.
Devin warned me not to listen to the radio, but I couldn’t resist. The media had never bothered me, so I didn’t know any better. Remember, I was the player who tossed a ball with the batboys, the last locker the beat writers visited for a quote. I wasn’t prepared to hear my name on the morning call-in shows.
Who’s next? Brian from Detroit, talking to Rookie & the Coach. Brian, you’re on the air.
Hey, Coach. Piss off, Rookie.
Go to hell, Brian. What’s on your mind?
I want to talk about this chump Anderson. The guy’s so desperate for attention that he’ll do anything … I mean, did you see him celebrating as he crossed the plate?
Wait a minute, Anderson didn’t know what had happened.
Get with the program, Rookie. That asshole rejoiced as a real ballplayer died. Back me up on this, Coach. Everyone at the park’s looking into the outfield. Don’t you think he checked Wilson before taking third? Either he knew the situation or he’s the worst baserunner in history. Admit it: He took advantage of a good man down.
What? He should have stopped running? The play’s alive, according to the rulebook. The Umpire hadn’t called “time.”
Don’t throw the rulebook at me. A class act would have stopped, someone like Wilson. I mean, this loser Anderson’s what … 1-for-7 in the series? What’s his lifetime average, something like .260? What a clown. I’m out.
Let me take this one, Rookie. Think about it: As a coach, what do I tell my players? Play hard? Give 110%? That’s what Anderson did. That’s how Wilson played as well. Now people like Brian in Detroit want to crucify the man because he hustled? Get real. If Anderson stops at second, he can never return to Cleveland.
Amen to that, Coach. What would callers be saying if the scenario was reversed, if Wilson scored while Anderson died? How much of their anger is based on popularity? Outside of Cleveland, who really knew Anderson’s name? He’s marginal Major League talent at best.
He’s not even marginal. Why was he even batting in that situation?
So he’s dubious talent to start, and a Yankee favorite dies as he scores—that has to explain the reaction.
Let’s go to Harry, an expatriate Cleveland fan in Fort Wayne. Hello, Harry.
Hello? … Hello?
Turn down your radio, Harry. You’re on the air with Rookie & the Coach.
Hey, guys—long-time listener, first-time caller. We met in person when you did the live broadcast from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Welcome to The Armchair Lair. What’s your take on the Wilson tragedy?
Yeah, I help coach our high school team, and you took the words right out of my mouth. Gary Anderson is a hard-nosed, gutsy player, and I wish more of my boys played like him. I’ll hang up and listen to your response.
I always played hard, mixing hustle with skill—enough to warm the bench at the next level, even as better athletes dropped out.
My college scholarship was a fluke. Coach was there to watch the opposing pitcher, a fireball destined for the draft. But I picked the right day for a two-homer game. Truth is, I never saw either throw. I simply guessed and hoped for the best: a swing and a prayer.
Pray without ceasing, pray before swinging—that’s my only superstition, really. I whisper a short “Smite my enemies, O Lord” before every at-bat, something I’ve done since Tom Vaughn’s broken finger.
Mom claims that God answers prayers Yes, No, or Wait.
He tells me Hit, Out, or Foul Ball.
By the time I joined Cleveland’s farm system, I had grown used to Michael’s presence. Not like that screwball movie where angels lift players into the air to snatch outs. No, his assistance was more subtle. Every now and then, I could sense his arms when I batted, his hands atop mine, like a father standing behind his son, teaching him how to swing. In those moments, the club head moved faster, with greater power. Not much, but enough to turn grounders into line drives.
The Lord is my strength and my salvation. I will fear no curveball.
How did a man like me reach the pros? Chance? Providence? Design?
A prospect would punch a water cooler and bust his hand. The starter blocking my advance would pull his groin. I’d climb a level in the minors, slap a random single or lay down a bunt, and the next call would come even sooner.
When I finally reached the majors, I was literally out of my league.
The Lord had a plan, with or without my consent.
Ray, you’re on the air.
Hey, Coach, I want to know if he’s been tested for steroids or HGH.
No way. If Anderson’s on the cream, he needs to demand a refund. I’m talking about Wilson. I mean, I thought he took steroids for years, but do you know if the autopsy revealed—
What a dick.
Buy a dictionary, Ray, and look up the word “clue.” You might want to get one.
Am I sorry? People want to know.
Sorry for what? That it happened? Of course I am. I liked Wilson. He was a talented version of myself, a player who hustled every chance he got. Not one of those punks who jack forty homers and jog to first base.
But am I sorry?
Sorry for what? That I kept running? That I didn’t stop to save Wilson?
What could I do? The only thing I’ve ever done: try my hardest, with or without Michael’s help.
Sportsmanship? Don’t talk to me about sportsmanship. You honor the game by playing hard. You play hard by refusing to stop.
USA Today ran a front-page photo, the only time I’ve made national headlines. Wilson’s falling, while I’m tagging first in the distance.
In a split image from Sporting News, I’m pumping my fist as I cross home plate. Next to me on the page is a close-up of a young fan, mouth agape and hands on his cap in disbelief.
The Post featured that infamous shot from above: Wilson face down in the grass, his teammates running to help. In an offset frame, I’m turning the hot corner, my arms beating the air. I prefer the articles that focus on Wilson the ballplayer, the leader, the husband, the Yankee, the citizen, the father … anything but the man who died while Anderson scored.
Sports Illustrated ran a black cover with his name and the span of his life in white lettering: 1983–2017. In December, it was Wilson on their Sportsman of the Year issue, not my deer-in-the-headlights mug.
There were other pictures, hundreds of them. They arrived at the clubhouse in the daily mail. The fans are rare, the enemies plenty. They demand that I look at the photos and see what happened, since I didn’t stop to gape.
I forward the worst threats to security, who offered to screen the letters. I declined. Whatever penance this is, it’s mine alone.
It’s amazing, the hate that can flow from anonymous pens. One sick bastard actually sent me Wilson’s rookie card with a SASE. Wilson had signed it himself, back in the day, and this idiot wanted my autograph as well.
What was I thinking? they chorus.
What was I thinking? I was surprised at the sign to take second. I assumed that Wilson dove and missed the ball. I didn’t stop to unravel the mystery.
As for the fist pump, what do you think? I’d knocked an inside-the-park homer against the Yankees in the ALCS. It was the highlight of my career.
When Devin met me on the dugout steps, I could tell that something was wrong. He gave me a cursory high five, not his usual forearm bash, and turned my body to face Wilson. Even then, I thought that he popped a hammie or wrecked a knee. Something serious, but nothing … well, you know.
You know the rest: the emergency personnel, the stunning and somber announcement. Your jaw was hanging too.
Do you want to know what happened?
I was trying to forget the setting when I stepped to the plate, dwelling on anything but those boyhood dreams. Still, I couldn’t help but remember Alomar in ‘97, the miracle at Jacobs Field. “Smite my enemies,” I whispered.
When the pitch arrived, the crack let me know I’d swung well.
When I reached first, Coach was yelling, “Take Two! Take Two!” So I turned toward second.
I don’t know why I took third. Maybe I glimpsed the mess in the outfield—I’m not sure. It was probably a stupid choice that worked.
Heading for home was the will of the Father.
Do you want to know what really happened?
I’ve watched the footage hundreds of times—maybe thousands—slowing it frame-by-frame to Wilson’s final strides, his glove extended, inches away from the out. At the last moment, he doubles over, and the ball disappears, trapped by his fall.
Everyone thinks they understand: the effects of the aneurysm were instantaneous.
Nobody’s noticed Michael but me.
The bat’s invisible, but I can picture his swing: the club driving hard into Wilson’s gut, stopping him in his tracks.
No blood vessel caused that collapse.
I can’t spot Michael himself, but I know his stance, the bent grass where he planted his feet to take that final cut.
“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” says Mom.
She thinks that I’ll find a spot on another roster. Something will happen, just like always.
Coach apologized about my release. “I’m sorry, Gary, but we need younger blood in the line-up, something to get us over that final hump. We’ll let you make the first move, if you’d like to give an announcement about your retirement or something.”
I said I’d appreciate that.
“You’re a solid player, and a good man. Maybe some other team has a spot for a veteran like you. Maybe the front office has a position.”
I told him I understood. He kept hanging about my locker. “You know this has nothing to do with…” He paused. “Well, you know.”
“We’re looking for someone with more experience,” the suit behind the desk informed me.
I’ve been in our system for over a decade, I answered.
“We’re looking for someone with more experience.”
Sometimes I return to Wadsworth and sit in the old high school dugout. I watch the sunset, hoping that Wilson will appear in the outfield, like the players in Field of Dreams. He never does.
Michael waits at the plate, a bat on his shoulder. He’s eternally patient, an essential quality in your DH.
“Uncle Gary,” my nephew announced, “my bus driver knows who you are!” He’s amazed at my renown.
Yeah, I told him, everybody knows me.
You all know who I am.
I’m famous, right?
I’m that bastard who kept running.