He’d always felt big on a baseball field.
It was the thing Matt Baker loved the most about the game. There were no height requirements or size requirements. Matt remembered one time, when he was younger, his mom had taken him to Universal Studios in Florida. There was a Back to the Future ride, named after one of her favorite old movies. But you had to be a certain height to go on the ride. Matt wasn’t. He’d never even heard of the movie. But he
never forgot the woman at the door telling him that he was too small.
Baseball wasn’t like that. It didn’t care how tall you were. Or how short.
In the big leagues, you could be as tall as home run hitters like Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, who one season had combined to hit 110 home runs. But you could also be five-foot-six the way José Altuve, Matt’s favorite player in the world, was. And Matt knew there were a lot of baseball fans who were not convinced that Altuve, the Astros second baseman, was really even five-six.
It didn’t matter. The year Aaron Judge hit fifty-one home runs for the Yankees and won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, he only finished second in the Most Valuable Player voting. José Altuve finished first. Judge was more than a foot taller than Altuve. And Giancarlo Stanton, who won the MVP in the National League that year because he hit fifty-nine home runs, was six-six. It made him a foot taller than José Altuve, exactly.
Baseball didn’t care. It was why the season, first in the spring with his regular Little League team in South Shore and then in the summer with All-Stars, was Matt Baker’s favorite time of the year. It was his birthday, and Christmas.
Baseball didn’t only make him feel like his biggest self. It
made him feel like his very best self. For Matt, it wasn’t just about being the second baseman and the all-around player he wanted to be. Baseball made him feel like the confident person he wanted to be. It didn’t matter that he was the shortest guy on all the teams he’d played on so far, and the shortest guy in sixth grade this past year at South Shore Middle School.
But there was something else.
Matt had stuttered for most of his life. He knew that he stuttered less on a ball field than anywhere else. Somehow the words didn’t stop as often. Sometimes Matt thought it was because he was too busy trying to show everybody—and himself—that he wasn’t going to let his lack of size stop him.
This spring he had hit .500 exactly for his Little League team, the Nationals, as they’d won their league championship. He’d led off for the Nationals and played second. His teammates all told him after the season that if the league gave out an MVP award, he would have won it the same way his guy Altuve had won it with the Astros, while they were in the process of winning their first World Series in the history of that franchise.
Matt knew he hadn’t been the player everybody remembered best from that Nationals team, despite all the hits he had gotten and all the times he’d been on base because of walks. He knew they remembered some of the long home
runs the team’s first baseman, Big Ben Roberson, had hit. Even though that meant they also forgot how many times Ben had struck out taking his big cuts.
Ben struck out three times in the Nationals’ championship game against the Rockies. But that isn’t what everyone talked about when the game was over and the championship trophy had been presented. No, everyone remembered a fifth-inning home run when the game was still tied. It was a home run that so many adults at the game, so many of whom had grown up in South Shore themselves, said was the longest they’d ever seen someone Ben’s age hit at Healey Park.
So there was a lot of talk about that after the game, and not so much about Matt getting two singles and a double and a walk and scoring every time he’d been on base. But that was fine with Matt. Ben did most of the talking. He liked to talk, often about himself. That was fine with Matt too. They were teammates, but they’d never become close friends.
As different as his style was from Ben’s, Matt did enjoy watching Ben hit. He liked the way everything seemed to stop on the field when Ben stepped to the plate, because people knew something dramatic was likely about to happen, for one team or the other, strikeout or long ball. It was, Matt knew, one of the things he loved about all sports, really: The next moment was the one that could change everything. Ben
made you feel that way every time he stepped to the plate. Even if he did strike out, he’d still come back to the bench smiling.
“All it takes is one,” he’d say after he struck out.
Matt didn’t think Ben loved baseball the way he did football and basketball, especially basketball, where he was already a star in his travel league. Sometimes Matt thought Ben just played baseball because it was something fun to do in the spring and summer. But you still wanted him on your team, and not just because of the home runs. If you were an infielder the way Matt was, you loved having him at first base. With his size and reach, he made you think it was practically impossible to make a throw that Ben couldn’t catch. Their coach, John Sargent—everybody just called him Sarge—liked to say that the only things Ben couldn’t catch at first base were low-flying birds.
The truth was that Ben was a lot more consistent catching balls than hitting them.
But there was a different kind of bond between Sarge and Matt. It was Sarge who called Matt “The Little Engine That Could.” Sarge who kept telling Matt that if you added up all of Matt’s hits and walks and even the times when his speed would cause an infielder on the other team to rush a throw and make an error, his on-base percentage was nearly a thousand.
Matt would tell his coach that he didn’t care how he got on base, as long as he got on base.
“I know you’re happy to take a walk,” Sarge had been saying to Matt the night before at practice. “But my favorite thing is when they finally make a pitch to you that’s too good, and you show them how much pop you have in your bat. How much stronger you are than you look.”
In that moment, all Matt wanted to say was, “Thank you.”
But he could not.
The first word just wouldn’t come right away. The feeling, he knew by now, would come on him without notice. He would be stuck again. A lot of times it was a simple word that began with t.
Sometimes it was just a simple “thanks.”
Sometimes the best he could do was smile, because the word just couldn’t get out of him.
He did that with Sarge last night. Sarge smiled back at him.
“Not going anywhere,” he said.
Finally, and slowly, Matt said, “Thank you.”
Then they were back to talking baseball, and the words were spilling out of Matt, and he told Sarge, “I feel like my power is my secret weapon.”
Sarge was still smiling. “It won’t be for long once we start playing games. They’ll all find out that big things really do come in small packages.”
Matt had heard that one before. Had been hearing it his whole life. He was used to it by now. The funny thing was that his dad, who’d divorced his mom when Matt was five and was living in London now, was six feet two inches tall. He’d been a home run hitter when he was Matt’s age, and all the way through high school. But he hadn’t been a big part of Matt’s life long enough to see Matt become the ballplayer he had. Even when Matt remembered his mom telling him she loved him exactly the way he was—meaning the size he was—his dad hardly ever said anything. There were so many things, Matt thought now, that he didn’t know about me.
Kevin Baker had remarried after moving to London, and now had a son with his new wife. He’d e-mail Matt once in a while. He’d usually remember to send a gift on his birthday and Christmas, though he’d missed a few birthdays.
He didn’t know how good Matt had become in baseball. If he even knew Matt stuttered, Matt’s mom, Rachel, had never mentioned it. Sometimes you heard people talk about “single” parents. Matt thought of his mom as his only parent.
She loved baseball, too. Even though she was barely five
feet tall, she’d been a star softball pitcher at South Shore High School and then at the University of North Carolina, where she’d even gotten a softball scholarship.
People made a big thing about “soccer moms.” Matt’s was a baseball mom, through and through.
From the time that Matt Baker—he hated it when people called him Matty—had first started playing T-ball, she had told him the same thing.
“They say that size matters in sports,” she said. “Well, guess what, it does: the size of your talent and the size of your heart.”
Matt had read up a lot on the history of baseball. He knew that Joe Morgan, one of the greatest second basemen of all time, was only an inch taller than Altuve. And Joe Morgan had played with one of the best teams of all time, a Cincinnati Reds squad known as “The Big Red Machine.” He was a little guy who had ended up in the Hall of Fame.
Size didn’t hold Joe Morgan back. It wasn’t holding José Altuve back. Matt, with his own strong baseball heart, was determined that it wasn’t going to hold him back.
There was a part of him that thought it must be nice to be as big as Ben Roberson, even though in his heart he knew he was a better baseball player.
Ben had a personality that seemed to match his size,
whether he was with kids his own age, or adults. Matt looked at him and saw somebody whose whole life seemed to be a home run, even when he had swung and missed again.
And no matter what, Big Ben Roberson never seemed to be at a loss for words.