It's another lost night in the baseball life of Rick Short. Another night of lucky numbers, of scratchy recordings of the national anthem, and a crowd so small the foul balls rattle around the seats with a hollow thud.
Somewhere in the empty distance a train whistle blows.
This could be any minor league baseball town, any place with a threadbare mascot and a dizzy bat race. After 12 years Rick Short has seen them all. And this week, for the 1,156th time in his career, he prepares for a game that few will see and fewer will care about. Somehow he got trapped here in a forgotten place just out of reach of the big league light. Then along came the best summer a minor league hitter has had in 44 seasons.
Who knows when people started to notice? But since July turned to August Short's batting average has hovered delicately around .400, a near mythic number in baseball that seems simple -- get two hits in every five trips to the plate -- but hasn't been achieved in a full minor league season since 1961, or in the major leagues since 1941.
With the end of the season less than two weeks away, Short -- who plays for the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Washington Nationals' top minor league team -- is hitting .392 and the attention that eluded him his whole baseball life is starting to trickle in.
"It's almost like wrestling a beast," he says as he sits in the visitors' clubhouse at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium. "It's a beast every day. You look up and you're hitting .400 and you have to go to the ballpark and get two hits every day. That's difficult to do."
He is getting tired, he can feel it. The travel, the 4:30 a.m. bus rides to airports, the mental strain of trying to sustain a .400 average under shoddy lighting in places where he can sometimes barely see the ball.
"I've been trying to be low-key with this," says Short, 32. "People leave me messages and I don't return them. I'm kind of superstitious about all of this."
Baseball has been dropping subtle hints to Short for almost a decade, although he refuses to see them. It should have been clear back when the promotions were too long coming in the lower reaches of the minor leagues, baseball's farm system. The best prospects don't languish in places like Frederick; those who do can usually sense the end.
But Short did his 21/2 years in Class A Frederick, 21/2 more in Class AA Bowie and then gamely pulled his wife, Karyn, along a geographic jumble from Rochester, N.Y., to Jackson, Tenn., to Des Moines and Salt Lake City. Eventually they had children who went with them to Japan for the season in Tokyo and the half-season in Edmonton, Alberta. In return for his devotion he never got as much as a token invitation to the big leagues. It was a reality he was probably ready to accept until the Nationals -- desperate one day -- finally called in June.
He got a hit that night, a line drive single to left field. And there was this great roar at RFK Stadium, so long and loud that he had to wave his hat to the crowd as he stepped back into the dugout. In the clubhouse Nationals officials gave him a DVD of the single and he looked so happy that they couldn't bring themselves to tell him he'd been sent back down again until the next day.
He took the demotion with a shrug, calling his major league game a dream come true. A few weeks later there was a second call-up to the Nationals for a three-game series against the Cubs in Chicago, near his home town of Peoria, Ill., no less. Then it was back to New Orleans with no certainty he would ever return.
"You know what? I'm trying to keep it in perspective," he says. "It's a special year. It kind of seems a little magical, my first year in the big leagues and chasing .400, at the end of the season it's a dream season. I guess some seasons are just that way."
Of course this wasn't the dream. Nobody ever thinks it will be like this when the signature is delivered on the first professional contract. The signs were there from the start, when the Orioles picked him in the 33rd round of the 1994 draft, which is all but saying the dream is already dead. But Short is nothing if not persistent. And the fact is, he could hit. Not like a slugger; he never hit a lot of home runs -- his career best is 16 with Bowie in 1999 -- despite the fact he has hewn his 6-foot body with daily offseason workouts to a robust 200 pounds.
No, Short was all about singles and doubles. Soon they were coming everywhere. They have gotten him this far with 1,314 hits for 12 teams in eight leagues including the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League. Still, players who hit singles and doubles usually don't make the major leagues unless they can do something else. Short is not a fast runner and he's played so many positions -- including catcher in an emergency -- that he doesn't have a true position, although he is listed as an infielder. This is frustrating because he finds his own selflessness coming back to hit him in the face.
"Baseball is such a negative game," he says. "When I started being a utility guy people said, 'Oh, that's a good thing because you can play every position.' Now they come back and say, 'Well, you don't have a position, it's going to hurt you.' What can you do?"
He's thought about quitting, thought about it hard. When you're 27 and haven't been out of Class AA for more than 13 games, you think about leaving. When you're 30 and hit .303 in Japan and a new manager, Bobby Valentine, comes aboard and says he doesn't want you, well, what reason is there to keep going?
Somehow Short always found one. He had a deal a few seasons back to become a coach in the Orioles' minor league system. The contract promised stability, a steady paycheck, the certainty of a home base. But one of his best friends in baseball, a player named Howie Clark, talked him out of it.
"Coaching will always be there," Clark told him. "You can only be a player once."
So Short kept playing. Yet the end is coming; he can feel it. This year he made peace with his baseball mortality, telling himself that life would go on even if he wasn't on the field. That released him from something, a nagging sensation that this is all he can do, that even a criminal justice degree from Western Illinois might not be able to save him away from the game.
He figures this realization has something to do with the season he's having, 36 points better than his previous best year, when he hit .356 with Salt Lake in 2002. Otherwise he has no other explanation, and neither does anyone else around the team. It appears he is just having one of those blessed seasons that come along rarely when everything goes right.
He is comfortable now, chasing nothing, understanding the dream might be nothing more than that night in Washington. Still, he looks around the crowded room, at his teammates -- many of whom are nearly a generation younger -- and he feels an attachment that he is unsure how to replace.
"I think all of us here, we were born to be ballplayers," he says.
Karyn Short has come to realize that. If only she knew what she was getting into when she flirted with the baseball player next to her in a statistics class at Western Illinois. Before she met Rick, a friend of hers dated a player at the school and one day the friend gushed, "Wouldn't it be great if he plays baseball for a long time and I get to travel all around the country and go to the games?"
Karyn looked at her and said, "No, I think that sounds absolutely awful."
Now the very life that repelled her is her own. While her husband was playing in Omaha this week, she was walking around a Wal-Mart near their Peoria home talking on a cell phone while getting their daughter, Annabelle, ready for her first day of kindergarten.
"You have no idea how many people have told me, 'I wouldn't let my husband play that long without getting to the big leagues,' " she says. "I would say, 'You never say never.' I can't make him quit; this is what he loves."
She has enjoyed the ride, which surprises her, especially considering the stops they made along the way. Karyn has a college degree, but upon becoming a baseball wife, she took on a string of odd jobs each summer so they could pay their bills. Short makes $316,000 while in the majors (prorated) and $10,000 per month in the minors.
The chase has been a strain, make no mistake about that, she says. And there have been many nights when she and her husband have seriously discussed his retirement. But baseball has a hold on her, too. She even told the organist at their wedding to play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" as they left the church.
"Why not? It's my life now," she says.
Then Karyn sighs.
"You do feel like you are wasting years on what could be a potential career for him after baseball," she says before laughing again. "I guess we didn't think about that. We just keep doing it and it's hard to quit something that you're good at. It's just his big, fat dream and how many people in the world have a dream like that?"
On the day his big, fat dream came true they showed him a closet next to the clubhouse at RFK. Inside were piles of bats discarded by the Nationals. Short dug through them, amazed at the array of unused equipment. He found a box of bats that shortstop Cristian Guzman didn't want, pulled one out and immediately loved the way it felt. This is what he took with him to home plate when they called him to pinch hit a few innings later.
He hit the ball twice off Seattle pitcher Joel Pineiro. One was a foul ball, the other a single to left. The contact left two black scuff marks on the bat. When the game was over, he pulled a long sock over the bat to protect it and took it, along with the rest of Guzman's discarded bats, and went back to New Orleans. Which of course brings delicious irony to this story -- while Guzman is having the worst offensive year of any big league regular in nearly two decades, Short is using his bats to chase something that hasn't been done in the minors since 1961.
"He belongs in the big leagues," New Orleans Manager Tim Foli says. He bases this judgment on one of baseball's most tired cliches: "He plays the game right." But in this case it might just apply. The Zephyrs are still talking about a game a few nights ago, when Short -- hitting .399 at the time -- kept trying to hit ground balls to the right side of the infield to move a runner from second to third, eventually grounding out to the first baseman.
"He could easily have swung away right there and tried to get his hits," says New Orleans teammate Marlon Byrd, who played 56 games for the Nationals this season. "Most guys, if you're going for .400, you're swinging to get your hits."
Every night Foli makes his plea to Nationals management: Take him, even as a pinch hitter, if nothing else. When the Zephyrs' season ends Sept. 5 and the Nationals are allowed to expand their roster beyond the 25-man limit, he likely will be called up.
"He loves the game," Foli says. "The way he comes back each time he works harder and harder. If hitting .350 isn't good enough for the major leagues he will hit .360. If .400 isn't good enough he says 'I'll hit .400.' "
Sitting in the clubhouse in Omaha, Short is asked if he could be like the Boston Red Sox' Ted Williams, the last major leaguer to hit .400, whose legend is sealed with his insistence that he play a doubleheader on the last day of the 1941 season rather than sit and protect a precarious hold on .400. Short laughs. He's not sure he could be so brazen. All he has to show for 12 years of sweat and agony are two batting title plaques and Guzman's unused bats. He needs something of his own to prove he was here.
The man he is chasing, Aaron Pointer, hit .402 for Salisbury, N.C., in 1961, though Pointer is more famous for his ensuing career as an NFL head linesman and his siblings, better known as the Pointer Sisters. For Short, the man who loved baseball too much to give it up, .400 might be all the dream he ever gets.
In the dugout Foli stares blankly into yet another empty stadium of Rick Short's life.
"I hope baseball finally gives him back what he deserves," he says.
It at least owes him that.