He did not know the name of the rock. He did not know how old it was or what it had been through to erode and form into the shape it now held. He only knew that this rock face and the chilly November wind had him surrounded. He wanted to welcome them like friends as he had in the past, but today they felt like his enemies; something else to fight through.
Dan Uggla climbed the indeterminate rock without the use of any rope or tools. He had only his will and his arm strength to aid him. That had always been enough, and he had accidentally dropped all his gear at various points along the climb. Today it was more difficult. He found his mind wandering back to his time in the Braves uniform. His contract extension, the hit streak, the strikeouts; so many strikeouts. Then he remembered the moment weeks before when he had been left off the playoff roster. His foot lost its hold and his body slipped a few inches before he was able to clinch a grip; biceps at full flex, shirt tearing.
Time to focus, Dan.
The second baseman looked ahead and saw he was only about 20 more feet from the peak. He settled his mind and put his best tool to work and finished the climb. He sat on the top looking over the wilderness below. It was quiet but for the wind, but there was no peace. Something was wrong with him. The sky began to darken and Uggla began to wonder if he had overcommitted himself. Maybe he should have taken a better look at the task.
A baseball interrupted his thoughts. It rolled beside his leg. He picked it up and dropped it off the cliff. As he watched it fall out of reach, he had a pang of sadness. “I should have invited Andrelton out here.” he said to himself. Another baseball rolled next to him. Dan picked this one up cleanly. It was at this point that Dan realize there should not be baseballs rolling at him on the top of a lonely mountain. He quickly stood and turned around. He saw the form of a man. It was a figure more shadow than reality. Dan could make him out, but the only thing he could readily describe was the red number 2 on his shirt.
“Who the hell are you?” Dan shouted. The figure moved slowly towards Dan and began to speak.
“Who are you? I thought you were a professional second baseman, but by the way you dropped that first ball, I’m wondering if I’m mistaken.” Uggla heard in return. He could not see it, but he was certain the figure was smiling as it mocked him.
“Well, yeah…OK.” Dan replied with as much anger as he could put into that phrase. The figure laughed a hearty laugh and spit at the ground.
“Quite the comebacker, son. That how you hit the ball?” The form said confidently. Uggla looked at the ball still securely in his hand.
“That doesn’t really make sense. What do you want?”
“I want to help you, Dan. I want to tell you how to become a good player again. I want to help you help your team.”
“Oh, I see. So you know how to fix me? I’ll have you know I don’t really need fixing. My WAR has been congrucent with the expected value in dollars for people of my…position at the market resolution. I’m fine.” Uggla spat out. The form was quiet for a moment. Staring in Dan’s direction he began to speak with more authority than before.
“Son, you need to start over. You need to learn how to play the game again. It’s not a matter or getting bigger and stronger. That’s just sharpening tools that have gone warped long ago. You need to step back and learn how to play baseball again.”
What pointless nonsense! I’m one of the top 30 second basemen in the world. I need to RELEARN how to play MY sport? Screw this guy! Dan finished his inner-monologue and wound back, gripping the ball as hard as he could. He let it fly in the direction of the form. It went over his head by eleven feet.
The two stared at each other silently for a solid minute. The form finally spoke.
“Go home, Dan.” With that, he disappeared. After some time, Dan began his descent and went home.
He heard the sirens and smelled the smoke before turning onto his street. Dan saw the excited mass around his home. His heart sank into his stomach. He came to an abrupt stop just before hitting one of the fire trucks.
Dan screamed for his wife. A firefighter recognized him and pulled Dan aside.
“She’s not out here, Dan.” Dan barely heard him before running into the blaze. As soon as he burst through what was left of his door, he remembered that his wife was out of town. He should have thought this through. He started to leave, but saw his glove on a table across the room just out of reach of the heart of the fire. He had to risk it. He covered his mouth with the collar of his shirt and bolted towards his second most important tool.
The smoke was thick and his eyes got rapidly heavier. He had no idea it would be this bad. He could barely keep them open for the smoke and the heat. Thinking he was now at the table he had been heading toward, Dan reached out his hand. He felt around on a waist high surface. Nothing, nothing, leather! He grabbed it and in the same instant heard a booming sound. He felt the fire like it was a loaded barbell on his back. Then Dan passed out as he heard the chatter of better prepared men.
“Dan, do you understand what I’m saying?” The doctor knew there was no medical reason for Dan to not comprehend what he had been told. It goes beyond that sometimes in cases like these, though. He started to repeat himself, “Dan, you are going-.”
“Yes, I heard you, doc.” Uggla grumbled. “I’m going to have to put in rehab work.”
“Yes, for your hands. The burns are too significant. By now you’ve probably noticed you don’t have the control over them that you once did.” As the doctor said this, Uggla saw a TV in the corner with ESPN talking about him. They were showing a clip from the previous year. He recalled he struck out 3 times that game.
“They didn’t save my glove, did they?” Dan interrupted.
“No, Dan, all the equipment you had in the house is gone.” The doctor replied. “Only an old Marlins cap was recovered.”
Dan was quiet for a few seconds. He tried to recall what led up to the fire. He still didn’t know what had started it. He thought about his decision to go climbing instead of staying home. What would have been different? Then he remembered the encounter on the mountain. He was starting over. He was going to have to relearn the game just like that stupid shadow had said.
“Too bad that jackass didn’t tell me not to let my house burn down.” Uggla said to himself.
“What was that?” The doctor said as he looked around the room.
“Oh. Nothing. When do we start?”
Over the next 8 weeks, Dan Uggla trained like he never had before. He could not lift weights and lost mass in his biceps. His shirts now draped over his arms like shirts are supposed to do. He met a young fan in his rehab group who in typical young-boy-in-rehab fashion helped Dan to re-embrace the fundamentals of life and baseball alike. Dan made it out of his special training in time to go to Florida with the Braves. More than just his starting status was in the balance. He had a better spring than Peña or LaStella who both turned out to be shockingly replacement-level. In his first regular season game back, Dan went 3 for 4 and turned two double plays. He was the Auto Zone player of the game that night.
One October night after a game, he was still going strong and stayed on the field long enough to see a shadowy figure shagging balls at second base. He squinted his eyes at it and the figure stood up straight to look in Dan’s direction. Dan heard a hearty laugh growing from the spot and the figure disappeared. Dan went into the dugout to celebrate with his teammates. He had earned his money and their trust. Now it was time to finish the job.