The Short family converged on RFK Stadium yesterday from places near and far, the journey they had all been waiting for. Mom and Dad drove all night from Rockford, Ill. Karyn and the kids flew in from New Orleans. Friends trickled in from all the little Maryland and West Virginia hamlets -- Bowie, Frederick, Bluefield -- where Rick Short had spent all those years waiting for the moment that finally came yesterday, 11 years after his own journey had begun.
What does it feel like to make it the majors for the first time in your 12th professional season, after 1,106 minor league games? To have achieved a lifelong goal, at age 32, in what might have been your final chance? To have validated all the years you spent on buses and in cheap hotels, and all the moves you put your family through?
"Actually," Short said yesterday afternoon in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, hours before the team's game against the Oakland Athletics, "it's kind of a relief."
One might have thought the actual moment of knowledge -- the instant when Short received the news he had been waiting all those years to hear -- would have been more poignant, more cinematic, than the way it actually came down: via a phone call at 5 p.m. Wednesday from Tim Foli, Short's manager at Class AAA New Orleans, who was playing golf at the time. "Shorty," Foli's voice was saying over the phone, "you're going to the big leagues." And that was it.
"It's funny," said Karyn Short, Rick's wife. "You wait 12 years to get that call. You imagine how it will be. And then when it comes, you don't know how to act. [Rick] told me, and it was like, 'Oh, my God.' "
What came next was not tears, but adrenaline. There were flights to book, bags to pack, phone calls -- the ones he had practiced in his head many times -- to make.
"He was so calm about it," said Pat Short, Rick's mother, recounting the phone call from her son. "At first I thought he was joking, but then I knew he wasn't. He said he had waited his whole life for this."
The tears would come later, in bed, after the Shorts's children, 5 and 2, had gone to sleep, and before the 3:30 a.m. wake-up call for Rick's flight to Washington.
"That's when it hit us," Karyn said. "It was emotional, for both of us. I've been with him since he got drafted [in 1994]. It had become my dream, along with his."
That dream had been on life support for the last few years. Short had been drafted by the Baltimore Orioles out of Western Illinois University in the 33rd round, and had proved himself to be a fine hitter at every level of the minor leagues. He carries a career batting average of .313 in the minors.
He won a batting title (hitting .319) at Class A Frederick in 1997, and the next year he was back at Frederick. He won another batting title (.356) in 2002 for the Anaheim Angels' Class AAA affiliate in Salt Lake City, but it was the year the Angels won the World Series -- something they accomplished largely by staying healthy.
"I figured, if I couldn't get there with that [performance]," he said, "I was never going to get there. I always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Problem was, anytime an opening came along at the next level, there was always a more highly regarded prospect on the fast track to the majors who would get the nod -- someone bigger (Short is 6 feet , 200 pounds) and faster, someone with a better glove. And eventually, someone younger.
"When you get a label in this game, it's hard to shake it, and sometimes impossible," said Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who plans to use Short at second and third base, and as a pinch hitter. "And he probably got a label as an outstanding minor league type of player, but that's about his level that he can stay at."
After seven years in the Orioles organization, Short bounced around from the Cubs to the Angels to the Royals and finally, this winter, to the Nationals. In between was a one-year stint in Japan, where the pay was better. With the money he made in Japan, Short bought another couple of years for himself and the dream.
"He just loves the game," said Dick Pawlow, Short's coach at Western Illinois, now retired. "He's the kind of guy, the kind of individual, you hope makes it."
Early in his career, Short would play winter ball in Mexico to make extra money. But when the kids came along, he wanted to stay closer to their home in Peoria, Ill. He spent those winters working odd jobs, everything from substitute teaching ("I was better with the high schoolers than the little ones," he says) to laying carpet to hanging drywall. One winter, he even worked as a clerk in the sports department of the Peoria Journal Star.
"He answered phones, compiled agate and maybe wrote up an occasional brief," said Kirk Wessler, the Journal Star's sports editor and columnist. "Everybody here has been pulling for him. He's just a good, hard-working kid -- although I guess you can't call him a kid anymore."
In each of the last three or four winters, Rick and Karyn had heart-to-heart talks about the future, the gist of which could be boiled down to three words: "One more year."
"The kids are growing up, and the big leagues hadn't happened in 11 years," Karyn Short said. "This was the year that, for me, I would have wanted to be the last year. For him, I'm not so sure. I don't think he would've quit -- and I would've never asked him to. If I was that kind of wife, I would have asked him five years ago. I'm glad we kept going now."
There are layers of cosmic significance to Short's promotion: the dream achieved. The career validated. The listing of his name in the Major League Baseball annals until the end of time. But for him, the biggest meaning is the simplest one.
"Just being able to say I made the big leagues," he said. "So many times, you meet people and they ask you what you do for a living. You tell them you're a baseball player. They always say, 'Oh, have you ever been to the big leagues.' And every time, I've had to answer, 'No, no, no.' "Finally, I can say yes."