The call came at 2:08 AM. "Blanton burnt his esophagus eating a hot pocket too quickly, you're up." Groggily I mumbled something unintelligible. "Did you hear what I just told you kid? We need you to make the start. Be at the ballpark promptly at 10. Someone will let you in." Before I could reply he had hung up. I returned the phone to its cradle and rolled onto my back. Rubbing my eyelids I tried to wipe away the loitering unconsciousness and gather my thoughts. Who had I just spoken to? Who is Blanton? Which ballpark did he mean? The answers were so obvious, but it couldn't actually be true. Surely it was the work of some adolescent prankster. I closed my eyes and attempted to fall back to sleep. But sleep never came. I was haunted by the mysterious caller.
I arose at 8 AM and completed my morning rituals. Showered, groomed, and dressed, I proceeded to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. The caller's voice was still fresh as I stood there combing over his words in my head, looking for some other meaning hidden therein. Finding none, I decided to relax my racing mind by getting a breath of fresh air. I stood on the front porch with my eyes closed breathing deeply--in through my nose and out through my mouth. Warm and without a cloud in the sky, it was shaping up to be a beautiful day--a beautiful day for baseball. And just as I thought of baseball, I heard the ring of a bicycle bell and opened my eyes to see Cole Hamels on a recumbent bike stopped in front of my house with a sack of newspapers on his lap. His flowing brown hair glistened in the morning sun. And yet instead of excited surprise I felt only detached and disinterested. It was as if Cole Hamels had been my paperboy for years and I was only just now realizing it. "Good morning, sir," he said. "Best of luck today." "Thanks," I replied. "Don't forget that you can get Wright to chase the high fastball, but if you're gonna throw it there make sure you really get it up." With that, he tossed me a newspaper and rode off, ringing his bell twice for good measure. I unrolled the paper and there on the front page in bold letters it read "BLANTON OUT WITH BURN." I continued to the first line of the article: "As of the time this paper went to print, no replacement for the portly starter has been named." I felt no need to read any further. I turned, locked the door behind me, and set off.
Not knowing for certain where I was going or why I was going there, I nevertheless set out to the bus stop with only partial awareness of my actions. Impelled by some intangible instinct--like that of a homing pigeon--I continued on in my trance-like state. The bus arrived unusually on time for a Saturday. The doors hissed open and as I climbed aboard there at the wheel sat Roy Oswalt. "Hi," I said. "Howdy," he greeted me with his monotonous southern drawl. Again, I felt anything but starstruck upon encountering another member of the Phillies' vaunted pitching rotation. I dropped a token and four quarters into the coin acceptor. "Transfer, please." "Certainly," he said, handing me the slip of paper. "Hey kid," he whispered. I leaned in closely to hear what he had to say. "Don't be afraid to give Reyes a fastball in the ribs if he's crowding the plate." I nodded and turned to take my seat in the rear of the completely empty bus. The ride to Center City was uneventful and unimpeded by traffic. Indeed, not a single car was on the road. At City Hall I disembarked into a silent, lifeless ghost town. Where is everyone on this fine morning? The eerie stillness evoked so many post-apocalyptic horror films, yet I wasn't scared. On any other day I would have given in to my curiosity and explored, but not today. I had somewhere to be. I descended below the city and boarded the southbound Broad Street Line.
The scene was no different at the sports complex. The parking lots on both sides of Pattison were empty and nary a scalper was in sight. There can't possibly be a game today, I thought. This is all some kind of elaborate prank. While my mind had made the decision to head back home, it could not convince my legs to stop moving. As I continued to approach the ballpark, however, I began to see the faint outline of someone standing on the corner with what appeared to be a shopping cart. A pretzel and water vendor, he must be. As I got nearer still, I began to hear his rhythmic incantations: "Prrrrretzels! Water! One for three, two for five!" The closer I got, the more apparent it became that this wasn't just any pretzel and water vendor--it was Cliff Lee. Despite being neither hungry nor thirsty, I was unable to resist his siren song. "I'll take a pretzel.""Mustard?" "Sure." "Are you the kid?" he asked, handing me the pretzel. "What kid?" "The kid who's filling in for Blanton." "Uh, I'm not sure." "Yeah, you're him. Follow me. I'll let you in." We walked across the street and stopped in front of a nondescript red door adorned with a small sign reading "Players." From his belt, Lee produced a large keyring with a single gold skeleton key. He unlocked the heavy steel door and swung it open with a creak. Before I ventured into the dark tunnel on the other side of the door, he offered me a piece of advice: "If they pop it up, just close your eyes and stick your glove out. The rest'll take care of itself." Then the door slammed shut and I was in pitch blackness.
Keeping my palm on the right hand wall of the tunnel I made my way blindly through the winding tunnel. After what seemed like miles, I finally came upon the clubhouse. It was nothing like any Major League clubhouse I had imagined. Namely, there were no Major League players in it. There was no one in it at all, in fact. I paced slowly around the room, scanning the lockers of all my favorite players. In Ryan Howard's locker there sat a railroad tie and woodworking tools, perhaps to make his own bat. In Chase Utley's locker, a rubber-band ball with a diameter of at least three feet. In Jimmy Rollins's, a wet suit. At last, I arrived at a near empty locker from which a single home uniform hung. A sudden warmth suddenly swept over me at seeing my name embroidered to the back of the jersey. It is real, I thought. I am the fifth member of the rotation. In the locker I noticed a small, hand-written note. "Wait here until 1 pm, then come out to the field," it read. I looked up at the massive clock on a pillar in the center of the room. It was 10:30. Might as well get suited up now, maybe some of the players will start to show up. I put the uniform on slowly, savoring every button. The hat--a size 7 and 23/32--fit perfectly. How did they know the exact size of my head? I found the nearest mirror and looked myself over. As overwhelmed as I was by the sight of myself, there was something that seemed strangely natural about it. When I next looked up at the clock, it was already 1 o'clock. I grabbed my glove and scurried to an exit on the far side of the room with a sign reading "Field" above it.
Again, I found myself in a dark tunnel. I began to pick up the pace. In just a few moments, I will be taking the mound for my first Major League start. And then, self doubt. I can't possibly do this, I haven't pitched in a serious game in years. My fastball can barely touch the mid-70s and my curveball is the very definition of a hanger. Just as I was about to be overcome with paralyzing fear, I could see a faint glow emanating from the end of the tunnel and I could hear the dull thrum of a stadium full of fans. I moved closer. The light filled the tunnel and the dull hum became a wall-shaking roar. With each step louder, brighter, louder, brighter. Just feet from the mouth of the tunnel, a beautiful monarch butterfly caught my eye. Fluttering between the sunbeams, it appeared and disappeared suddenly. It landed at my feet and began its metamorphosis. In a matter of seconds, the butterfly had turned into a man that towered above me. I looked up. "Roy Halladay?" "Yeah, kid, that's me. You're late!" I stood with my mouth agape, dumbfounded by the miraculous transformation I had just witnessed. "Listen kid, just trust your stuff. Dictate your own pace and you will control your destiny." He turned and gave me a firm pat on the rear end that jolted me out of the tunnel and into the dugout. The stadium erupted in cheers, shaking the ground below me. I climbed the dugout stairs and tentatively stepped onto the field as if the perfectly manicured grass was a frigid ocean. I surveyed the crowd as I made the trek from the dugout to the mound. The ballpark has grown! The entire city is here! My teammates had already completed their warmups--it was clear they had been waiting for me. Without so much as a warmup toss of my own, the ump threw me the ball, the batter stepped in, and I began my windup.