In the pale, brilliant Arizona desert, a miracle cluster of fabricated lushness sits on the border of man-made and natural pitiless wasteland. Time has not been kind to this backdrop; millennia of storms and wind has cleaned the native landscape of all but the hardiest of inhabitants. Human presence is temporary, a slight aberration in the numbing history of such grand desolation. The outfield grass can't be watered forever.
Standing alone in the batter's box, a speck standing before the wild expanse, Adam Dunn swings at the practice pitch, his bat shattering. The ball ends up over the outfield fence. It's the third broken wood this morning; all three having pushed the ball just over the fence. Dunn's daily routine is coming to a close. His confidence is built to a peak he hasn't enjoyed in eighteen months. He has shed some weight; a hollow giant. A bashful king. Now he crushes ball after ball, most going over the head of that guy in right. Dunn is a phoenix standing in the box. Handed a new bat and given a new pitch, he promptly digs the low one out of the dirt, sending it into a towering arc. The ball bounces in front of the track in left center, then off the wall before a prospect runs it down. No big deal; the next one gets a piece of the plate, just a piece before it gets lined over the fence in straight center, a no-doubter. This is child's play. Dunn is finally comfortable again, after a deep search during his darkest winter.
The past was for doubt and for wallow. In the dirty carpet of his Texas apartment, among the cardboard food cartons that are likely still rotting, Dunn has left his demons, his creeps and his nags. His battles were fought and often lost, but he's stronger for it. There's simply no room for doubt now, and it took the sulking filth of unremitting self-degradation to uncover this truth. A relationship dissolved, and an unhealthy attachment to his souvenir organ flourished. Very slowly, painfully, the process of realization developed. Waking one afternoon in early February, draped over a trash-ridden couch, he finally gained acceptance in a rush of clarity. Without a second thought, he gassed up the Cessna and flew to Sky Harbor. Space was needed for perspective, and the endless blinding heavens provided.
By necessity, Dunn has support. The enclave of professionals has little choice but to embrace the monster, of all that he was and is yet to be, a man again unproven in the windswept plain. It helps that he's had a solid spring; their fears of awkward comforting are deferred. He's among friends, family really, their soft-knit support making Dunn feel big again. Like them, he can only focus on himself. Revel in the good feelings, in the strong spring showing and the smiles and the all the fullness offered by the warm desert, however fleeting it may be.
Rios is lost in the emerald outfield, and a ball falls behind him, momentarily shifting his focus to the practice at hand. This perfectly green grass is such an unnatural luxury. Yet here he is, able to enjoy it, living off the wasteful elite that surround him and his world. His bubble had been popped during his travels. A supporter of multiple causes, Alexis gives most of his money away. He single-handedly put an end to seventy percent of whaling near Japan, provided financial backing for a sensational internet video about a war criminal, and took the brunt of the police assault during the fateful Occupy Reykjavic riots. And now he's back to work, and work it is. Means to an end. Make that money. Help those poor souls.
He takes his glove off. Rios can feel his perspiration working along his fingers, the relatively cool sweat evaporating into the hazy yellow of morning. He can also feel the weight of the world: the legions of sick children in Ethiopia, the displaced families in South Sudan, the political prisoners of North Korea, the wretched and distraught always shifting position through his mind. It's early enough that the earth is just warming again after a chilly night. A few specks of dew remain; or perhaps more likely it's leftover water from intense nightly caretaking. Rios takes time to draw feeling from the near-imperceptible brush of individual blades against his cleats and continues his internal crusade against the terrible wastefulness. Grass in a desert. Unbelievable.
Rios now rents a simple one-bedroom apartment on South Halsted, having sold his houses and condos. He's got a view of the skyline, and he can walk to work now. It's perfect. Alexis is picking up the natural frequency of life, of true balance, completely accepting of his circumstances. People can change for the better, but the guilt over his earnings still nags at him, and with it comes great sadness at his recently-found awareness of suffering. His still-well-manicured hand is now forced into a meaning-filled life. He wonders if it's the awareness itself that bothers him or his previous lack of awareness that he has to compensate for, or his awareness that no matter how much awareness he has, there will always be suffering, or even perhaps his awareness that now his awareness will never fade. The last round inspires a new wave of guilt, just in time for a pop-up to fall in front of him, well beyond the range of whatever second-baseman they have covering ground today. Alexis' attention is snapped back into the game, however short-lived it may be, and he softly lobs the round white sphere towards whoever is motioning to him.
The gesturing player is seemingly miles away. Rios interacts with the rest of them occasionally, rarely intentionally. Alexis has transcended the other players, and though he knows he must show some effort for this game he signed his life to, his young life at least, his heart simply hasn't been in it. Beyond money, beyond "fun," and base instinctual competition, there is an undercurrent, a trickling stream of understanding. Rios is finally beginning to exit the cave, a light-hitting millionaire philosopher.
He still wears his sunglasses, though, justified by necessity instead of habit. The light, in all respects, is overwhelming. His view of Dunn, and the rest of the team, is tinted to the point of isolation. His view on baseball, and his remaining contract, is that he will kinda sorta do his best. He won't allow poor performance to get him down. Though he doesn't have it, the big it, figured out yet, he knows he's on the way. Just has to keep his head up.
It's so huge, that sky. Rios is only a man, a tiny figure in the huge machinations of daily human practices, the struggle to consume and be heard, an ultimately winless game, not to mention his insignificance to this planet, its history, the knowledge of that history, his own knowledge of that knowledge, and the unexplorable history of everything ever. Alexis is even small in the "outer lawn," a new term he's been throwing around in the dugout to the chagrin of his sportmates. Of course Rios wonders why the rest of them never wonder, never change. There's so much more than this.
Dunn takes a painful inside pitch up and into dead-right field, the ball briefly soaring through Alexis' broad view.
The Big Donkey has had a damn fine spring, and everyone can tell by his aww-shucks grin, perhaps even the right fielder through his tint. Dunn scans the horizon quickly before the trainer winds up. The game is simplicity, he thinks. See the ball out of the pitcher's hand. Think of the ball's eventual destination. See. Envision. Hit. Just like Duck Hunt.
Dunn adjusts his cup, wristing his bat up and through a loop, and he waits.
It's almost time to face the masses in games that count, his most personal, most difficult journey having taken root in the unyielding bleakness of the valley.
"One last toss," the practice pitcher allows.
"Okay. I'm ready."