Slider Chapter 2: Letting Grief Go
By Chris Malburg
2: Letting Grief Go
Ms. Solarz cornered us before we could take the field the next day. She gathered us around her, and I steeled myself for another lecture. I just wanted to play some ball and shut out everything else. I did take it as a good sign, though, that she was wearing her red Panthers hat. “Letting go of grief requires talking about it,” she began. Zap and I exchanged glances. Ms. Solarz noticed, and her voice flexed with an authority I had never heard from our English teacher before. “And we will talk about it. Otherwise, grieving will take over your life. And not in any way that’s good for you.” She stopped to take a breath. “It’s called processing. It’s like a teapot blowing off steam. Has to happen, else it’ll explode.” No one said a word.
Then she spoke, slowly and with a clarity that demanded you remember every syllable. “If you learn how to deal with grief, you can use it. Use it to make you stronger. To make you better than you were before. Because you looked the worst devil there is in the eye, and you refused to blink. Turning your grief at losing friends, and teammates, and Coach into the strength they all stood for can make you invincible. But never forget that teapot is always gathering steam. Help each other to stop it from exploding, and you will have learned the secret to keeping the grief in its place.”
She unclasped her hands. They were tanned like the rest of her. Strong hands. Veins near the surface. Her palms had calluses. More like Dad’s hands than my mom’s. She bowed her head, like she was searching somewhere deep inside herself. Then she raised her head and looked around our circle. Lots of guys looked skeptical. We’d heard people mouth words like these already. Zap’s doubt was so near the surface, his look said, Why should we even listen to you?
“Because I speak from experience,” she said, as though reading Ronnie Zappero’s mind. “My grief began when I was a young girl. And it hasn’t left.” Those hands began fidgeting again. “Look. We’re all at a standstill here. No one can change that but us. Grief is a bitch. But it’s something we can overcome.”
There she went again. My Notre Dame–educated English teacher was using language my folks would swat me for. But maybe she was right.
“Losing Coach will consume you and your lives, unless you channel that energy into something positive.” Ms. Solarz waited for a reaction.
“Just give us some time, will ya?” Zap muttered. He stared hard at that infield dirt.
Ms. Solarz shook her head, “Takes too long. You’ve got a baseball season starting soon. No, boys. Our shared grief is the first thing we’ll work out together. Watching each other’s backs. Helping each other. Not next year. Not next month. Not tomorrow. But right now. Actually, within the next few minutes.”
No one said anything. Blood rose into my face, turned it hot. My eyes were damp. Throat clamped shut. Losing Coach cut deep. And there still wasn’t any scab to heal it. God, I missed him.
“Come on gentlemen. Follow me.” It was not a suggestion. She led us out to the infield and split the team into two groups.
“On my left, let’s call you Group 1. On my right is Group 2. Be patient. You’ll see where I’m going in a minute. Now, Bernie, move to Group 2. Gabarra, to Group 1.”
I saw that Ms. Solarz had grabbed a bat out of the rack as she led us out onto the field. It was an Easton 33-inch—a big bat for most women. We looked at one another, still clueless as to what she had in mind.
“Bernie, which group do you belong to now?”
I went with the obvious. “Group 2.” Barbara twirled that bat in one hand with what seemed an easy familiarity.
“Gabarra!” SLAP went the meat end of the bat into one callused hand. She pointed the handle at Dave. “Same question. Which group do you belong to now?
She did this five more times, moving other players between groups then asking what group they belonged to.
SLAP. “Now,” she began in her English teacher’s voice, “how does the move and replacement of any one of you change the effectiveness of that group? That collection of human beings?”
Hmmm. I was getting it. “No one carries the entire group. No single person is irreplaceable—”
“The group is what’s important,” Mike Mann said, “not any one individual.”
SLAP. “So, let me ask again,” Ms. Solarz said. “Which group do you really belong to?”
I moved away from Group 2 and called out, “I am—a Panther. I belong to the Panthers.”
Loren Choat joined me. “I belong to the Panthers,” Choat shouted, even louder.
Gabarra, Mann, Holstein, and Zap all got it. Soon, a chorus of loud voices echoed across our ball field.
Ms. Solarz stood there in the waning afternoon light, with the cool, spring breeze blowing in from left field. She crossed her arms over her chest. I took off my Panthers windbreaker and passed it to her. She smiled at me and threw it over her shoulders, covering her bare arms and pulling it tight around her.
“So, boys, we are Panthers. On the road to being united again. It’ll take some time—won’t happen overnight—but we just took the first step. What’s the lesson here?”
I wasn’t afraid to say it. “We … lost some valuable people. Important people. But they were … individuals. Others will fill in for them.”
“For who?” Ms. Solarz demanded. “Who did we lose? Names, please. And I want to know right now, who fills in for them?”
Silence. And more silence. But I could feel the answer burning through me. I thought for a minute. “Danny Meyers.” My voice cracked as I called out my dead teammate’s name. I said it again. This time, louder, and I put some punch into it. “Best third baseman in the league. Arm like a cannon. A thundering bat when we needed it. Remember his lopsided smile and … that roaring laugh, usually at some dumb joke that wasn’t even funny.”
The Panthers all remembered Danny. The grief was there, just like Ms. Solarz said it was. But Danny was there too. I could feel him with us.
I turned, now facing Loren Choat, and pointed to him. He was a stocky, barrel-chested guy who could stand up to a pair of cleats flying down the base path at him. “You will take Danny’s place at third. Make third base your own. Make Danny proud.” Choat began shaking his head. My palm came up, facing him, and he suddenly stopped.
“Okay, Bernie,” he acquiesced. “Okay. I will. I promise. On Danny’s memory, I will. But now it’s my turn.” Choat ran a hand through his long, curly hair that fell to his shoulders and did that squint he’d developed in his dark eyes since the shootings in December. I’d asked him why he always seemed to be peering off into the distance all of a sudden. He’d said, “Man, the truth is, I can’t help looking out there for anyone who might be carrying a weapon. It’s a habit I just can’t break.”
We all had our habits, our stiff joints, and a variety of other effects from the shootings that we still carried with us. In a way, they were reminders of what Coach had meant to us and how deeply we missed him. We almost didn’t want to let them go.
Then Choat pointed to Doug Holstein. “Time to step up, Holstein. You will take Jack Mott’s place at second.”
I could see Mott in my mind. He’d been tall and kind of skinny. Great student, but always downplayed how smart he was. Who wouldn’t want people to recognize something like that about you? He was shy, too, and his voice was quiet. Sometimes I had a hard time hearing him out on the field. We’d have to change a few things about Holstein. And work on his fielding. The guy was six-one—all arms and legs. It took him a while to get all the way down there to pick up a grounder.
“You may have to hustle,” Choat said, “but I think you can handle the job. You in, Holstein? Or do I come over there and kick your ass?” His grin was tentative, but contagious.
We went through all nine positions, moving people around until it felt right, and lining the bench with spare pitchers and fielders. And we remembered each of those we’d lost. It was a time I will never forget.
We continued shuffling people around. The process took days to complete. Eventually, we were satisfied not just with the skills each of us brought to their assigned position, but with their commitment to learning how to fill in for those we had lost. Actually, that commitment was the deciding factor for most positions. So, that’s how we rounded out that year’s roster after losing four starters in the worst way possible.
* * *
“Glad that’s settled,” Ms. Solarz said when we finished. “Do you know what you have accomplished? Together, you filled Coach’s position.”
This brought the chatter to a dead stop. A wave of loss and longing swept over the field. But before its undertow could drag us down, Ms. Solarz posed another question. “Now, who is the most important member of the Panthers team?”
At first, nobody responded. Then Mike Mann managed to croak, “Nobody.” He swallowed. “Each of us is the least important. But the Panthers … the team—”
“Endures,” Zap called out, in that authoritative voice of his that invited no question. As though he, and he only, knew the gospel truth.
“What about Coach?” Ms. Solarz prodded us.
Silence. Coach left a huge hole. The biggest of all.
“I’ll take this one, boys, if you don’t mind. Coach’s loss seems catastrophic. Is catastrophic. He was a force in so many lives. Mine too. I knew Coach well. He would have been first to say the Panthers were so much more important than just him. Even if he wasn’t around anymore, he would insist the Panthers must be. And that he would be replaced—should be replaced.”
We all looked at each other, reeling as though we’d been hit by a pitch. No one could ever take Coach’s place. No one. But Ms. Solarz kicked at the infield grass with those Nikes of hers. “And if I knew Coach, he would add, ‘Replace me with someone better, smarter, and wiser.’ Coach, even through his considerable accomplishments, was a humble man. It was one of the many things I loved so much about him.”
Ms. Solarz was in the middle of our circle, our center. Some of us had our arms around one another. Some stood off to the side or crouched in the grass. She just let us be for a few moments, hanging out with our thoughts. Then, “No secrets among us now, boys. None. Ever. So, if you have something to say, let’s hear it.”
We ran through drills, still rotating some positions, and didn’t do half bad. Iron Mike’s whirling pickoff throw to first improved. Choat nabbed some sharp liners to third. And I got a couple of decent hits. Ms. Solarz stayed through it all, only packing up her laptop to go when we trooped off the field.
“Hold on,” I called to our teacher, motioning for her to wait. “We’re not done, Ms. S. We still don’t have a … coach.” The guys all stopped in their tracks, and Ms. Solarz spun toward me.
A half minute of silence followed. Then Zap spoke up. “You’re a real buzz kill, Bernie. You know that? Here we had a good practice going, feeling like a team again. So, we don’t have a coach. So, what?”
“Just sayin’, Ronnie,” I countered.
“No, he’s right,” Mike Mann chimed in. “Adult supervision of extra-curricular activities. It’s district policy.”
“No one has subbed in for Coach,” I tried again. “We gotta have someone.”
“We lost four starters,” Iron Mike said and tried to rub that stiffness out of his shoulder. “All four were seniors. And no coach. No wonder the school district wants to shut down Panthers baseball.”
There are times when you can just feel the burn of someone’s eyes on you. Now Zappero gave me that look with his eyebrows raised and jutted his chin at our English teacher. I gave him the barest of nods and shifted my gaze to Ms. Solarz. We all did. Who was the one who came out to see us practice and never missed a home game?
“What? Me?” she asked.
We just stared back at her.
“You think I should coach Panthers baseball? No way, José. I’m busy.”
“Come on, Ms. Solarz,” Zappero urged, “you’re out here anyway, workin’ on your laptop.”
She couldn’t argue with that.
“Please, Ms. S.,” Dave Gabarra cajoled. “Naming you coach would just kind of formalize the relationship. You wouldn’t have to really know much about baseball or do anything. Bernie’s cool with acting as captain. Hell, he knows more about the game than any books you could read to try catching up with us.”
She paused for a few long moments and just looked at us, a glint in those blue eyes. What did she know that we didn’t?
“Well,” she finally said, one corner of her mouth turning up, “that’s a relief. But what about all the book reports and term papers I’m responsible for grading? Adding ten hours more to my workweek to coach baseball would really cut into my free time.”
“The district adds an extra five hundred bucks for coaching a full season,” I said. “So, at least you’d get paid.”
She set down her things and picked up that 33-inch Easton that was lying there. “You think I chose teaching for the money? I can assure you I did not.” SLAP, went the meat end of the bat in her palm. “I could have made more doing … almost anything else.”
I had offended her. “I was just trying to make it easier for you to say yes,” I explained.
“Well,” she said slowly, “since you seem to have already established that I don’t know dick about the game, I might consider taking over as interim coach. Until you can find someone … more qualified.”
Had we offended her? I wondered.
She tossed that Easton 33 from hand to hand. “Well … if I did decide to serve as acting coach, there would be some ground rules.” SLAP.
Ground rules? This was supposed to be fun. Kind of time off for good behavior from school. Sounds of shuffling cleats over the dry infield grass filled the uncomfortable silence. Zappero shot me an altogether different look now, a desperate one. One that said, You’re the guy who brought up the need for a coach in the first place. Fix this.
I opened my mouth to suggest the rules of baseball would be enough, but Ms. Solarz beat me to it. “First of all, practice would start at 2:30 p.m. Not 2:35. Not 2:40. But 2:30. Practice ends at five. Promptly. During the intervening time, you are mine.”
That wasn’t so bad. “We can do that,” I said quickly.
“You will do as I tell you. Both on the field and off.”
“Off the field?” Zap asked. “How does what we do off the field have anything to do with baseball?”
“Whether it’s English class, baseball, or something else. If I were somehow to become your coach—unlikely as that seems—I would insist you see baseball as part of a well-rounded lifestyle. It’s something Coach Kel and I often discussed. With me as coach, you’re either all in, 24/7, or you’re out. I am not a halfway kind of person. Clear?”
Larry Holmstead slid his eyes over at me. They seemed to say, What else does she want?
We soon found out. “My first requirement would be that each member of the team brings up their grades.”
“There’s already a minimum grade-point average for after-school activities,” Loren Choat said and then squinted past Ms. Solarz, into the distance, to check on any incoming threats. “We’re all eligible.”
“If I’m your coach, you are going to have to do better than that.”
She took a deep breath and seemed to grow even taller. My own estimate was five-eleven, maybe six feet.
“Each member of the Panthers baseball team will become a straight-A student.”
Every jaw dropped. Some of us were better at school than others. But straight As? For everyone?
“Those who fail—that is getting a B or less in any class—are immediately cut from the team. Should your grades require cutting more than three players, I cancel the season—as the Duval County School District already wants to do.”
“Wait just a minute,” Ron Zappero began.
Ms. S. cut him off at the knees. “Straight As. That’s my requirement. Call it a commitment to yourselves and your teammates. As well as to me … and to Coach.”
Stunned silence followed.
“There’s more,” Ms. Solarz said. “Since the shootings, some of you have slipped into less-than-desirable behavior. You have gotten into altercations with other students and two teachers. Several of you cut classes. There will be no more of that. None. The first ballplayer who gets into a fight or has a social problem is dropped from the team. The same three-strikes-and-the-season-is-cancelled rule applies. The Panthers will become sociable, polite, upstanding members of the student body. The kind of student-athlete your classmates can look up to as role models.”
I saw it coming before Zappero could turn and walk off. I grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. “What, Zap?” I said between clenched teeth. “You afraid of a little work? Or you wanna end up like Caleb…. You remember that teapot blowing off steam before it explodes?” He hesitated, and the nervous shuffling of feet and the squeak of leather gloves stopped. A cool breeze blew in from left field. It smelled of the refinery and docks beyond. “Something you want to tell all of us still standing here with you?”
“Man, I don’t need any more pressure on me,” Zappero said with a sigh. “I need to get into college. But not just any college. The rest of you either won’t go to college or will just go anywhere that’ll take you. Not me. That’s pressure.”
“Okay, Zap,” I said, my voice both demanding and encouraging, “we can help you with that. How about the rest of you?” I addressed the silent group.
Doug Holstein said slowly, “Seems to me Ms. S. is looking to take our minds off losing Coach by giving us a mountain of work.”
“And she’s making us responsible for each other’s success,” Iron Mike put in. But he didn’t sound like he held it against her. Admiration laced his voice. “No one but us,” he said. “Seems to me she’s making us into a team off the field too.”
No one could argue with that. I couldn’t help but think that Coach would’ve been impressed.
* * *