How many fans attended Elites games? A scant 1500 on a good night? And how many listened to Michael Moreno’s broadcasts?
He stood in his booth, surrounded by the acoustic foam he had personally purchased and hung from the walls, the better to keep his sound pure. His headset, audio board, and crowd microphone had also been personally purchased, the better to produce a Major League caliber broadcast in this Minor League setting. The world was dark behind him and illuminated before him, as if Elites baseball was all that mattered.
The Somerset press box was divided into four different rooms. There was the open press area, an open joke, since the Elites’ only occasions for drawing media attention came on Opening Day and the 4th of July. There was the control room, where old Joe Talbot bent over the P.A. mic. There was the visitors box, where the longtime voice of the Sox, the potbellied, drawling Pete Schneider, was none too thrilled with the goings-on in this last of the ninth. And lastly there was the home booth, Michael Moreno’s booth, where the first-year Voice of the Elites was beginning to believe in a miracle.
He had been standing since the start of the Elites’ ninth, weight shifting from right foot to left, but he hadn’t thought it possible, even as the Elites put together three straight hits to start the frame. Two booths over, beside Joe Talbot, a high school kid jabbed away at the buttons operating the scoreboard. 7-0 had become 7-1, which became 7-3. A pitching change. A strikeout. A double. 7-4. An error. 7-5. Michael’s hand, gripping his pencil, shook. His voice did not. That Sox lead was crumbling, he told his listeners. Could the Elites snap their nine-game losing skid? Could they pull off the impossible? Another pitching change. A pop-out. A hit batter. A wild pitch. He paused, letting the crowd fill in the moment. Tying runs at second and third, two outs, the pitch to Figueroa — crack!
He traced it in its beautiful arc, carrying to deepest left-center, back toward the Topps Baseball Cards billboard, back to where the fence rose 21 feet high, back toward the trees. He held the coming moment with euphoria and clarity. His words were triumphant. “That ball is—”
The left fielder caught it.
He did not need to jump. He reached up, his back against the fence, and the ball plummeted into his glove.
“Gone!” said Michael Moreno.
The roar from the crowd fell away. The relieved Sox celebrated on the field. The Elites disappeared into their dugout.
In the home broadcast booth, the Voice of the Elites pressed his hands against the counter for support. His throat had gone dry. His head buzzed. His legs were weak.
Gone, he had said.
What was there to do now? Apologize? Say something to the tune of ‘No, actually, the left fielder, Araujo, flags it down. The Elites lose their tenth straight game, 7-5.’
“Michael? Are you there?”
A voice in his headset.
His engineer, Dante.
“Should I send it to break?”
His mouth shifted into automatic. The words flowed. “The Gunhold Tire Postgame Show is up next on your home for Elites baseball, The Talk of Westphalia, 1420 WPSY.”
The sound of a PSA, cautioning against drunk driving, filled his ears.
He reached up, took hold of the headset with both hands, removed it, held it tight to his chest.
He had just called a dramatic three-run game-winning home run that had not happened. And yet — he couldn’t help smiling a little. Ryan Figueroa had been so close to winning the game. With a little more wind blowing out or a little less wind blowing in or in more of a hitter’s park, the Elites’ losing streak might’ve been history. It was too bad, wasn’t it? That close to an eight-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, ending the nine-game losing streak. What a story that would have been.
The inner timer in his head went off. He shoved the headphones back on.
A PSA faded out. The postgame intro hit. Then the rejoining music faded into his own voice setting the scene, an anticipatory hum beneath him, and he realized that Dante had shown a flash of initiative for the first time all summer. This was a triumphant postgame capping the Elites’ best win in years, right? What better way to open it than with the game-winning call?
He couldn’t help falling in to the drama once again. The build of tension. The tying runs on base. The pitch. The utter crack of the bat. The launch. The majestic flight. And – good lord — the dramatic pause, with the crowd’s voice in its throat, that pronouncement of “Gone!” soaring above it all. He felt removed from it, as if this was somebody else’s voice. It was beguiling and, unexpectedly, believable, even as the crowd sound gave way to the whoops of the victorious Sox. In the blindness of pure audio, who could tell which team was doing the whooping?
Then the memory was over, and the stage was his.
“Back at Somerset Field, I’m Michael Moreno.” He clasped his hands in front of him, beaming at the empty stadium below. “You just heard it. The Elites’ losing streak is over, shocking the Sox tonight, 8-7. This is the Gunhold Tire Postgame Show. Let’s go over how it all went down.”
It was just one moment. A word tossed into the air. That was the thing with radio, he reflected while typing up the game story. If you didn’t hear it in the moment, you missed it. Take Ryan Figueroa’s second-inning single. The single itself remained the real thing, calculated among Figueroa’s stats for the year. But the radio call? Ethereal. Temporary.
So for everyone who heard his mistake in the bottom of the ninth, they enjoyed what should have happened, a classic ending to a spirited rally. And for everyone who did not hear it, it never happened.
Because, he said to himself, it never did happen.
And yet — it could have happened.
His broadcast had turned out better than the game itself.
He basked in that last thought until sleep overtook him.
The next day, neither his Elites co-workers nor the Elites players mentioned a thing about his home run call. Which was good, of course, but also somehow insulting.
It was a Saturday, which meant another crowd of 1500 or so. A fine day for a second straight Elites win, thought Michael.
The Elites’ starter was a high school draftee, J.C. Wilkerson, tall and wide-eyed with a long nose and messy blond hair, activated that day from a month-long stint on the Disabled List. Michael was standing near the cage during batting practice when he heard Wilkerson call his name from the dugout. He wandered over.
“Can you do me a favor?” said Wilkerson “My sister’s going to be listening in tonight from the hospital back home. She’s battling cancer. Do you mind sending her a shout-out? Something like that?”
It was for moments like these that Michael Moreno carried around a notebook and a pen. Older sister?
“Younger. She’s 12.”
What kind of cancer?
J.C. twisted about. “I don’t remember.”
“Mae. Cancer.” Michael Moreno nodded, with full eye contact. “I will. I promise.”
J.C. pumped his hand twice. “Thanks, Mike. Really. Thank you. Appreciate it.”
This was the place of the broadcaster. What a position to be in. What an honor.
Michael Moreno began the broadcast that night with a welcome back to J.C. Wilkerson, the talented teenager with the blond hair, the big frame, and the nasty slider. And, if that wasn’t enough on the line, his sister, Mae, was in the hospital right now, battling cancer, listening. J.C. wasn’t just pitching for the Elites. He was doing this for you, Mae.
It was as if Wilkerson could hear his words. He began the game with three straight strikeouts and held the Sox without a base runner until the fourth inning. They did not collect their first hit until the fifth. Meanwhile, Ryan Figueroa and Dakota DiLeo slammed solo homers and the Elites grabbed a 2-0 lead.
How deep could J.C. Wilkerson pitch? He was just back from the Disabled List, his pitch count had to be limited, and yet he started the sixth inning at only 51 pitches. For a brief moment, Michael harbored hopes of a seventh inning for the kid, maybe more. But as he walked to the mound to start the sixth, the Elites pen stirred. In that moment, the story on the broadcast changed. This became J.C. Wilkerson’s final inning of the game, a chance to finish with six shutout innings. A walk opened the frame, followed by a single. It was right-hander Aaron Thorpe who was loosening. A strikeout, J.C.’s sixth of the game. One out. The crowd noise swelled behind him. Next up, the Sox cleanup hitter. The count ran to 3-and-2. Thorpe’s tosses had gained urgency in the pen. “He’s pitching for Mae,” Michael Moreno told his listeners. “This is for you, Mae.” The pitch… Called strike three! Two out. One out away from six scoreless innings. Seven strikeouts.
The crowd should be standing, Michael thought.
In the bullpen, Aaron Thorpe stopped tossing and stood by the side of his catcher, watching.
There could be no question now, Michael told his listeners, that J.C. Wilkerson was in his final inning — and perhaps facing his final batter. Could he finish six scoreless frames?
A chopper, left side, in the direction of the lead-footed Dakota DiLeo at third.
In the hole, Michael thought desperately, and he said so on the air. No chance for DiLeo.
But — no! Dakota DiLeo reached out, snared the ball, and pegged it across the infield.
“Diving stop, DiLeo!” Michael Moreno howled. “The throooooooow… got him at first base! Side retired!” He was breathless as he sent the broadcast to break. What defense! What a start for J.C.!
A thought stopped him cold. Had DiLeo actually dived for the ball? He rewound it in his memory. The pitch. The bouncer. Toward the hole. DiLeo ranging to his left, full extension.
Whether he had or hadn’t, he decided, DiLeo should’ve dived for the ball.
This much was accurate: With his 12-year-old sister battling cancer in the hospital, J.C. Wilkerson fired six scoreless innings, striking out seven,, and the Elites came away with a 2-0 victory over the Sox, their second straight win. Check that, their first straight win, he remembered to write in the game recap. They would go for the series sweep — that is, the series victory in the rubber match on Sunday.
After the game, J.C. Wilkerson personally thanked him, on behalf of the whole Wilkerson family. And Michael’s dad, who listened sparingly, called to tell him how good he was sounding on the air.
It was Michael Moreno’s favorite night of the season.
If only J.C. had gone all nine, he thought as he drifted off to sleep, it would have been perfect.
Sunday featured a crowd of 1000. It was a family day, an early afternoon game, and it was too hot. Players wiped at their foreheads and the backs of their necks, complaining loudly into the thick air. The pitching coach, a man with notably thick chest hair, was awash in sweat and called it quits after throwing half a round of B.P.
Somerset Field’s press box was air conditioned, thank goodness, but Michael Moreno was set firmly against it. When the air conditioning was turned on in his booth, it rumbled and coughed and banged and disrupted his call of the game. Better to be hot than deliver an unlistenable broadcast. He set a lineup of water bottles at his side, placed an electric fan (nearly noiseless) at his feet, beneath the counter, and welcomed his listeners to the latest exciting ride of Elites baseball. The starting pitcher that day was a top prospect, a hard-thrower named Osvaldo Acevedo, and a dozen scouts had their radar guns ready.
Acevedo opened the game by walking the first hitter, the second hitter, the third hitter, and he would have walked the fourth hitter if he didn’t hit him in the knee with a 3-1 fastball. A two-run single followed, then another walk, sending up a groan of resignation from the Elite faithful.
On the airwaves, Michael Moreno reminded his listeners of Friday’s ninth-inning comeback and Saturday’s inspirational victory. These were the new Elites, resilient and determined.
Acevedo walked a fifth batter, forcing in a fourth run, and was given the hook.
Michael Moreno finished one bottle of water and reached for another.
It was 4-0 Sox on a brutally hot day, no outs recorded, already into the bullpen. Who was coming in? Ismael Ortega, who had bombed out of the starting rotation last month. But —
What if Ortega pulled a rabbit out of a hat here? What if — he began sketching it out for his listeners — his first pitch was a snapdragon of a curve, freezing the batter, and he followed that up with two ridiculous changeups for the strikeout? And then what if the next batter was fooled by a changeup and bounced it back to Ortega? A throw home made one, a throw to first made two, easy as 1-2-3, and the side was retired. Middle of the first inning: Sox 4, Elites coming up.
A four-run deficit was not impossible, not for the new Elites.
Dante brought him back from break.
A double by Max Young, with that sweet swing of his. A swinging-bunt of a single by Justin Singer, hugging the line at third, putting runners at the corners. A walk to Ryan Figueroa — because why wouldn’t you walk Ryan Figueroa? — loading the bases. And then Dakota DiLeo, big ol’ country-strong Dakota DiLeo, laying off two tough pitches and smashing a hanging curve into the trees beyond the right-center field wall.
Tie game, 4-4.
“How about these Elites!” shouted Michael Moreno. He could feel his listeners’ joy. Somewhere, maybe, Dakota DiLeo’s grandmother was dancing in her living room. He could see a triple play in the Elites’ future. He could see a no-hitter. Maybe, if he looked hard enough, he could see a pennant race.
Ismael Ortega bounced a curve ball to the backstop.
Michael Moreno leaned back into the darkness and saw only light.