An embossed envelope from St. Jude College addressed to “Mr. Walter Schreiber” arrived about a week before Christmas. It was the first time Walt had been called mister since he was a little kid and he kind of liked it. Inside the envelope was a card with the photo of a snow-covered building on the front that Walt would later learn was Clement Memorial Union, and inside were the words “Merry Christmas from St. Jude College.” Below that, Walt read a handwritten note:
Merry Christmas Walt! Hope to get down to see you play this spring. Say hello to your dad for me.
– Coach Woodrow Sprague
Walt wasn’t sure what to make from it. He had met the St. Jude coach over the summer, but his name wasn’t Sprague. It was Guilford or Guilfoyle, something like that. And that guy didn’t act like he knew Walt’s father, either. He took the card into the kitchen where his dad was sitting at the table looking through the other mail.
“You know a guy named Woodrow Sprague?” Walt asked.
“Woody?” Chance questioned. “What makes you ask that?”
“He sent me a Christmas card. He said to say ‘Hi.’”
Chance reached for the card, read it, then chuckled. “Wow. He must be coaching at St. Jude now. I guess Gifford must have gotten that assistant job at Michigan.”
“Whose Woody?” Walt asked.
“I played with him for a summer back in the day in Janesville. He was a hell of a pitcher. A good arm, not live like yours, but good, nonetheless. I haven’t thought about him in years. I can’t believe he remembers me.”
“When did you play in Janesville?” Walt asked.
“After college. It was a summer thing, until I found a teaching job,” Chance said, still looking at the card, and mumbling to himself.
“I guess your father never told you that he played professional baseball for the Cubs,” Maggie said.
“If you could call it that,” Chance said, pulling his eyes away from the card.
“Did you play baseball?” Maggie asked, as if she were a prosecutor questioning a defendant, following with more rapid-fire questions. “Did you play baseball for the Janesville Cubs? Did you play baseball for the Janesville Cubs and get paid for it?”
“You know I did,” Chance said.
“Then case closed,” Maggie said turning to Walt. “Your father played professional baseball for the Cubs.”
“It was Class D ball,” Chance said. “The team doesn’t even exist anymore.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?” Walt asked.
“It wasn’t a big deal. Not worth even talking about. They needed a backup catcher, and I was available.”
“They asked him to come back and play the following year, and the Cubs even invited him to spring training,” Maggie said.
“Why didn’t you go?” Walt asked.
Maggie waited for Chance to reply. It was a question she had always been afraid to ask and was curious to hear his answer.
“Janesville High School offered me a real job and I took it. By the time I got invited to spring training, I had already made the commitment to the high school. I was never good enough to play in the majors. I was probably not good enough to play above Class D and I knew it.”
Chance then looked over at Maggie. “And besides, I wasn’t about to leave your mom here unmarried while I went off to chase a dream. I knew she was out of my league, just like the Cubs, and I was worried if she started dating other guys, she might figure that out for herself.”
Maggie laughed. “Don’t kid yourself. I always knew I was out of your league.”
Walt laughed. He laughed and wondered. He wondered why his father had never mentioned playing professional baseball, and wondered whether his father might secretly wish he had gone to spring training that year and given it a shot, instead of staying in Wisconsin and marrying his mother. And he wondered whether his mother would have waited for him if he had gone. He was also now wondering how good of a catcher his father might really have been.
“Earth to Walt,” Chance said.
“Huh?” Walt said coming out of his trance.
“I was saying that we should take a drive over to St. Jude and check out the campus during break. Maybe I’ll give Woody a call and we can get lunch with him.”
“Yeah, sure,” Walt said, still thinking about his father’s playing days.
“That is, if you’re interested in St. Jude,” Chance said. “I don’t want to waste Woody’s time if you’re not.”
Walt was interested, but not as much about playing baseball at St. Jude as he was in learning more about his father’s baseball career. He was hoping to pump Woody for some stories. As it turned out, Woody was heading to Rockford for the holidays to see his parents and wouldn’t be on campus when Walt and Chance had planned to go.
So, right after the new year, Walt and his father drove two hours northeast to the small town of Berlin, Wisconsin, and the two of them walked the snow-covered grounds of St. Jude College, entering any buildings that were open and peeking through the windows of some that weren’t. Chance said that it was like shopping for a car on Sunday when the salesmen weren’t around to pester you into buying something. You could take your time, kick the tires, judge for yourself.
Chance talked as they walked, and Walt could see his father’s words trailing in the breath that escaped his mouth on that cold January day. He spoke about the choices that boys make which determine what kind of men they will become. He told Walt that he needed to understand that not making a choice is actually a choice in itself and is accompanied by the same responsibilities and consequences as taking a direct action.
“When I was your age, I went off and fought in the war. A lot of people would say that I didn’t really have a choice, that we were all expected to go, but I did choose to go. Your mom and I want you to go to college, and we each have our own reasons for that. I want you to know that it’s still your choice. If you go, I want you to choose it, not me or your mom. You’re going to spend the rest of your life being faced with obligations. I want you to understand that your first obligation is always to yourself.”
Chance paused for a moment to let his words sink into Walt’s brain.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the day-to-day stuff like taking out the trash, or washing the dishes, or calling your mom on her birthday when you’re not living at home anymore. Those obligations don’t go away. I’m talking about the big things. I’m talking about where you want to go to college or whether you want to go at all. I’m talking about who you want to marry or whether you want to get married at all. There is an old saying that at the end of your life you’re not going to regret the things you did, but rather the things you didn’t do. You see, Walt, most people spend their lives bending with the wind and never once take the opportunity to find out how strong they really are. And I think at the end of life, that’s what a person will regret most, not knowing how strong they really are.”
Chance stopped talking and looked at Walt who was walking stride for stride, his head down, his hands in his pockets, his breath whistling through his nose and mouth into the frigid air. Chance had never spoken to Walt like that. He had always talked to him as if he were an adult, but never as a man, and that scared Walt into silence. He wanted to reach out for his father’s hand. He imagined pulling his own hand out of his pocket and reaching over, but knew it was too late for that. He knew he was too old for that now.
Chance didn’t know where those words had come from. He had not prepared them as he would prepare a lecture for his English class, but instead had summoned them in the moment, and wondered whether it had been the right time for such words. He wondered whether he might be able to take them back in way that would allow Walt to remain a boy for a little while longer.
Although there were still buildings they had not visited, the two of them followed the path back to the parking lot where the car sat alone, the beginnings of frost forming on the windshield. Chance started the car and cranked up the heat. He drove past the baseball field on his way out of campus, slowing down to give Walt a good look, but not saying anything or bothering to stop. About ten miles outside of Berlin, Walt reached over and pushed the fan control on the dashboard from high to low.
“I think the pizza’s done,” he said, and they both laughed.
“Actually, that sounds pretty good,” Chance said. “I haven’t had a Palace pizza in a while. What do you think?”
The Pizza Palace was the only place to get hand-made pizza in Evansville. It was a take-out joint located just across the railroad tracks on the edge of town and was anything but palatial. They served an incredibly crispy, thin-crusted pizza that held enough grease to lube your car, but for some reason you couldn’t stop eating it until you found yourself picking the grease-stained toaster-leavings and hardened cheese from the bottom of the box.
Chance and Walt sat in the car eating a sausage and mushroom pizza and drinking Cokes they had purchased from the gas station across the street. All the Palace sold was pizza, and perhaps that’s why it had stayed in business all those years, by doing one thing and doing it well.
“What did you think of St. Jude?” Chance asked between bites.
“I liked it,” Walt said. “More than Madison, that’s for sure.”
“It kind of reminded me of Beloit College in a way,” Chance said. “The smallness of it. Small in a good way.”
“Tell me about Coach Sprague,” Walt said. “What’s he like?”
“That was a long time ago, Walt. I only knew him for a summer. I’m sure you’ll get a chance to meet him this spring. Have you thought about what you want to study?”
“I don’t know,” Walt said. “English. Maybe history. I don’t know. Not math or science, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll go to law school someday, like that guy on ‘The Paper Chase.’”
Chance laughed. He had been the same way. He hadn’t liked courses where there were right and wrong answers. He liked being able to interpret ideas, to shape them into his own thoughts and get credit for that.
“You might want to try your hand at philosophy,” Chance said, “or maybe even psychology, though I don’t know much about either of them.”
The pizza seemed to have put the world back in order for Chance and his son, and Chance was happy for that. He was especially glad because he would have to coach Walt during the coming season and was starting to regret the decision to replace Eddie. Perhaps he could talk Eddie into coming back to coach the pitching staff as he had before. If he knew Eddie the way he thought he did, as soon as the snow began to melt, he would be chomping at the bit to get back on the field. What he couldn’t have known was that Eddie had already replaced baseball with something else, something from the past that Chance would blame himself for reviving, regardless of how many times he was told he wasn’t responsible for it.