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It had been years since I’d actually taken the mound against a major league team. I’d thrown the ball well throughout Spring Training, but I understood that success against minor leaguers and scrubs hardly meant a thing when it came to facing the best hitters in the world. As I warmed up stiffly in the bullpen, it was as if my arms and legs were moving entirely of their own volition. For the first time since my rookie season, I felt as if I didn’t belong on a major league mound. Doubt upon doubt began creeping and seeping into my mind like silent sin. As I threw poor warm-up pitch after poor warm-up pitch, I wondered. Had I left my best stuff in the past? Had I made a mistake in trying to come back? Had these fans forgotten me, just as easily as I had forgotten myself? My mental reverie was interrupted by the bullpen catcher, who signaled that I had one more warm-up pitch before having to take the field with my teammates. Determined to make the final pitch the best one of the bullpen session, I reared back and fired, putting everything I had on it. The pitch skittered five feet in front of home plate, bouncing off the dirt and slamming against the catcher’s mask. Not a good sign.
Now that I had nothing to do but wait, the doubts crept in once again, even stronger than before. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the opposing starter, Chris Wainwright, throwing nothing but bullets that darted over the outside black. Even from a hundred yards away, he looked absolutely filthy. On the mound, he looked virtually invincible.
Would they still love me? Would they even remember me?
As the public address announcer began introducing the starting lineups, I scanned the crowd, searching desperately for any sign of recognition. After a few minutes, the announcer had reached the bottom third of our starting lineup. Though there were 45,000 fans in attendance, there was hardly a stir at any of the names the public address announcer boomed. “Batting seventh and playing second base, Rafael Mendoza. Batting eighth and playing behind the plate, Derek Stephenson. Batting ninth and starting on the mound for the Cubs today, Andrew G-” A magnificent, throat-swelling peal of adulation burst from the bleeding hearts of glory-starved Chicago fans. Rising as one, their cheers rolled and volleyed off the growths of verdant ivy and took the stadium by storm, causing the age-old bleachers to tremble with thunder and lightning that rose to a towering crescendo. It was joy and welcome and rediscovery and faith renewed, in a man who was remembered as a savior instead of forgotten as a refugee. It was outpouring love and affection and abject emotion forgotten, the tumultuous reception of the fans who welcomed him home as a native son instead of as a prodigal child. I stood there, frozen, overwhelmed, devoured by tears, and consumed by the cheers which broke my heart just as easily as they healed my scars. I tipped my cap and the cheering grew louder, rising and rising until the world and the lights and the colors around me threatened to explode with volume. Chicago, I realized, hadn’t forgotten me.
But when I took the mound, I thought my first inning might have been my last. Every pitch was either an oversized curveball or a flat, lifeless fastball. The Cardinals’ leadoff hitter, center fielder Ryan Barden, watched each meatball sail wide of the strike zone, taking his base after four pitches. As the next hitter, second baseman Steve Sachs dug in, Barden took a huge lead. I whipped a pick-off throw down to first, hoping to catch Barden leaning the wrong way. Instead of scampering back toward first, Barden charged toward second and was safe without a throw. Shaken, I lost control of a breaking ball and plunked Sachs right in the back. With two on and nobody out, I knew I had to pitch carefully to right fielder Matt Halladay. Halladay walked on four pitches, and the bases were loaded before I had even thrown a strike. When the next batter, Burton Pujols, came up to bat, Derek Stephenson signaled for an intentional walk. I shook him off and received an indifferent shrug that seemed to say “It’s your funeral.” Pujols fouled the first pitch, a fat fastball, directly back to the screen. He did the exact same thing with the next four pitches, and I had the distinct impression that he was just toying with me. After missing with a trio of breaking balls, I decided to throw caution to the winds and a fastball inside. Taken slightly off guard, Pujols still managed to get most of it, golfing a drive to deep left field.
The instant Pujols crushed it to left, I found myself wishing that a competent fielder was in left. Gerald Williamson was a great person but a poor fielder, and I snorted in disgust as he actually tried to run down a sure extra-base-hit. But Williamson gained speed and I found myself realizing that it was going to be a lot closer than I had anticipated. Still in full stride as he reached the warning track, Williamson reached up and caught it. Caught it, with half the ball sticking out of the top of his glove. Caught it, turned, and fired a laser to Concepcion, who gloved the throw at chest level. Concepcion tossed the ball to Jack Kent at second base, beating the retreating Sachs by ten feet. The crowd roared with approval, and as I walked back to the dugout, I wanted to tell Gerald that his play meant more to me than anyone could ever imagine. I wanted to tell him that I was playing for a greater purpose than winning one meaningless game in April, that I was playing for my life, playing for my future, and playing for my father in hospice care. Instead, I simply waited for Gerald at the top step of the dugout, high-fived him, and said, “Nice play.”
The game remained scoreless until Alex Concepcion launched a solo home run to straightaway center in the sixth. Concepcion also made a pair of deft plays in the field, diving to rob left fielder Brian Ludwick of an extra-base hit in the second, and making a barehanded catch of a screamer hit right at him in the fourth. I struck out nine straight batters across the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, and fanned 14 hitters by the start of the 9th inning. With every inning, I became a little more comfortable. With every pitch, I became a little bit stronger, until I felt as good as I ever had. When Rafael Mendoza struck out to end the eighth, everyone except Gerald Williamson immediately ran out to take the field. Stepping back into the dugout, I asked Williamson, “What the hell are you waiting for?” Williamson sighed and picked up his glove. “I don’t know,” he replied lethargically, before trotting toward left field. “Something amazing.” I rung up the first two hitters on called strikes in the top of the ninth, and the cheering grew to a fever pitch. I turned around to acknowledge the crowd and happened to catch sight of the scoreboard. Until that point, I had no idea that I had been throwing a no-hitter. The uneven first inning had driven all notions of near-perfection from the forefront of my mind. As I took in the atmosphere, the pressure, the anticipation radiating from the fans like summertime heat, it all became too much for me. Suddenly, all the anxiety and insecurity from the first inning came rushing back. For the second time in the game, I walked Ryan Barden on four pitches and proceeded to load the bases without throwing a strike. My arm still felt alive, but it felt too alive. I could feel it shaking and trembling with every motion. Every pitch was an extension of myself, a nervous wreck destined to fall far short of its mark. Every pitch became a horror show waiting to happen, but by some miracle, I hadn’t given up a hit. After my twelfth straight pitch out of the strike zone, the manager, Red Piniella, came to the mound for a visit. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a pair of relievers getting loose in the ‘pen, and I’m ashamed to admit that I was relieved to have an easy way out. But the competitive facade in me won out. “Going to take me out?” I demanded, hoping against hope that he would say yes. Piniella contemplated my cowering form for a moment and replied, “No. You’ve got the ball until you tell me you can’t go anymore.” “What about those relievers warming up in the bullpen?” I asked, hoping to segue into an honorable retreat. “Maybe one of those guys would be a better choice to close it out.” Piniella smirked. “If you look closely, you’d see that Johnson’s throwing a knuckleball and Matsuzaka’s trying to f*** around with a gyroball. You’ve got the ball until you honestly tell me you can’t go any further.” “Who’s up next?” I stammered, doing anything I could to stall my fate. “Nobody special,” was all Piniella said, smirking once again as he retreated back to the dugout.
It seemed to take Burton Pujols an age to get comfortable at the plate. First, he tapped each cleat with the barrel of his bat. Then, he tugged at each of his batting gloves. After an eternity, he slowly wrapped his fingers around the handle, twisted his black bat in three quarter turns, and pounded his bat on the plate, ringing a death knoll for my no-hit aspirations. We were at the end of the game, but it was as if nothing had changed. Once again, I was scared and ineffective, facing an impassable barrier to success. Once again, the bases were loaded, and once again, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. With one out separating me from baseball history and the performance of my lifetime, it should have been a moment to soak in. But this was no time for poignancy. It was a time for fear and desperation, for dying dreams and living on forsaken prayers. At that point, I had to stop and catch my breath. If Pujols could delay the game, then so could I. I paced around the mound a couple of times and suddenly, I remembered exactly who I was. In my mind’s eye, the end of the game was in sight. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself blowing three straight pitches past the bat of Burton Pujols and the weight of the world coming off my shoulders. In my mind’s eye, I was Andrew Goodman, circa 2004. I was the man who still graced the side of a 25-story skyscraper and the man who still had a rendezvous with greatness, a dalliance with destiny.
Completely at ease, I wound and fired a heater that just caught the outside corner. Pujols took it for a called strike one. He waved his bat menacingly, as if to remind me of the damage it could still do. Unimpressed, I powered another fastball in under his hands, and he looked bad as he swung and missed. Brimming with confidence and adrenaline, I reared back and readied myself to throw the hardest fastball of my life.
It was hard. It was fast. But it was also straight as a string, and ticketed right down the middle of the plate. Pujols, who had been sitting on a fastball, swung and hit the ball to left-center with a cataclysmic force.
Horrified, I could only watch Pujols drop his bat and smirk as he trotted up the first-base line. Turning to watch the flight of the ball, I prayed that it would somehow curve foul. Gerald Williamson was racing back, but I knew he didn’t have a prayer. Williamson sprinted all the way to the warning track, and saw that he didn’t have anything remotely resembling a play. In an act of frustration, he flung his glove high into the air and screamed, “GOD DAMN IT!” Just then, something amazing happened. The ball was still carrying well, but Williamson’s glove continued to pinwheel upwards. Just as it looked like the glove would come falling from the sky, a tailwind came out of nowhere to push the glove higher into the air. At the apex of the ball’s flight, the glove spun up and kissed the ball in the center of its palm. The ball nestled within the glove, and together, ball and glove came spiraling back down to earth, landing in the stunned, disbelieving hands of Gerald J. Williamson.
And then it was absolute bedlam in Chicago. I remember falling to one knee on the mound, fighting tears as I shouted with euphoric disbelief. Running out to left-center, I grabbed Gerald Williamson and hugged him just as 46,000 Chicago funs lost all sanity and stormed the field. Fireworks raged above me, setting the night sky ablaze with light. All around me, people whooped and screamed among thousands of complete strangers. Ornery Jack Kent jumped up and down like a maniac, all dignity forgotten. As Tina Turner’s “Simply The Best” blared from the stadium loudspeakers, I knew, knew without any trace or shadow of a doubt that this was the first religious experience of my short, hellacious life.