Scenes from the Ballpark – A Big Surprise At Home Plate

For two straight Spring Little League seasons at Cranston’s Verrato Baseball Stadium, a resounding cry of “Ok, Let’s Play Ball,” rang out over the stadium speakers when Cranston Western Little Leaguer Darren Layne would take the field. The voice responsible for the enthusiastic shout out – none other than his father, Technical Sergeant Brian Layne. TSgt Layne, a former Little Leaguer from nearby North Providence East in his own right, petitioned Cranston Western Little League just over two years ago when he found out about his upcoming deployment to Sub-Saharan Africa. “I want to be a part of my son’s baseball experience in some small way, while being so far apart physically for my job in the United States Air Force,” TSgt Layne wrote in his letter to the league’s board of directors. Not only did the Cranston Western (CWLL) board approve his request unanimously, they took his request a step further.

Using money in the league’s budget set aside for capital improvements and with the help of a local audio/visual store, who was a decade long league sponsor, Cranston Western Little League set up a series of cameras throughout Verrato Field for the purpose of live streaming games for military families wishing and hoping to get a glimpse of their son or daughter playing baseball, like TSgt Layne. So, every game for the past two seasons had been videoed and available, through a secure network, to hundreds of military personnel for their utter enjoyment and delight. A volunteer network was set up to run the cameras, panning in and out to catch game action, at bats, zooming in on players, and the views around the stadium. A really special feature was the Moms, the Dads, the siblings, the families, and friends were all given time during the game to sign “Hi” from the stands. Although TSgt Layne and the others weren’t able to respond directly back, the joy of seeing family brought tears and cheers of happiness to each and every military service person.

One particular Saturday morning, Darren and his CWLL Elmwood Sports team waited patiently in the home dugout for the now traditional “Ok, Let’s Play Ball,” announcement from Darren’s father. The boys chatted about all the things 12 year olds chat about, mostly Snapchat and video games, while clanging their baseball gloves together, retying their cleats, and opening up another bag of sunflower seeds. And then that familiar voice rang out over the speakers “Let’s Play Ball Guys.” But, this one was different from the past two seasons. Much, much louder and had a tinge of feedback, the kind that happens when someone yells into a microphone. The Elmwood Sports teammates looked perplexedly at each other, then Darren, and then their coaches. But, were snapped out of it when their coach yelled out “Come on gents, let’s hustle out to our positions!!!” With that, the Elmwood Sports team filed one by one out of the dugout and onto Verrato Field.

Meanwhile, located in the press box, a very nervous TSgt Brian Layne put his hand on his forehand, clicked off the field’s PA system and simply stated “Oh man, I blew it. It’s ‘Ok, let’s play ball.’ I had one job! Do you think Darren knows something is up? What about April and the girls?” to his longtime friend, league Vice President Eric Swanson. “Relax, there is no way they know, don’t overthink it. Ok, so let’s have D (Darren) bat at least twice in the game before you come out. Did you get the uniform I sent you?” “Yeah,” TSgt Layne replied, “It’s a little big, you know I’m not a XXL like you big guy.” “The extra size,” explained Swanson, “is for the chest protector and the shin guards, Genius. You have your job and you do it well and thank you for your service, but I know my job!” Swanson had been a technical consultant with Franklin Sports for 15 years. “Now sit back over there out of sight or this whole thing will fizzle out before it can happen.” Swanson pointed to a chair in the corner of the press box and TSgt Layne lowered himself out of his chair and crawled over to the chair.

The game on the field played out like any other game for the past two seasons for Darren. He was an outstanding defensive second baseman who would also pitch and play outfield when needed. At the plate, Darren was a disciplined hitter who would work counts and hit the ball with authority when he got the right pitch. As was the plan, Darren got two plate appearances. One in the bottom of the first inning, a single to left field. The second, a flyout to center field in the bottom of the third inning to end the inning. TSgt Layne and his buddy Eric figured Darren’s next at bat would fall sometime in the 5th or 6th inning of the game. So, Eric walked down to the field from the second floor press box after the third inning to talk to the home plate umpire, away from the two teams and coaches, and certainly away from any players’ ear shots, especially Darren Layne. Swanson had included the home plate umpire on the plan a few days prior, so he was well aware that this was the game he would be doing the switch out.

“We are going to move you out in the bottom of the 5th or 6th, depending on how well Elmwood hits next inning. Just excuse yourself for a bathroom break in between innings and head into the press box. TSgt Layne will replace you behind home plate.” The home plate umpire nodded and returned back to his spot behind home plate. The stage was set. Three months of planning and dialogue and scheming and ideas and emails and anxiety were about to come to life in a matter of minutes. Eric sprinted up the metal flight of stairs to see his buddy. “Ok sir, let’s get you dressed and ready. It’s almost SHOWTIME.” With that Layne stood up and gave his friend a bear hug that lifted the 230 lbs. Swanson right off the ground. “I love you man for doing this. Man do I owe you one!” “Just don’t fall down the stairs on your way out to the field and we will call it even,” Swanson responded as he patted his buddy on the shoulder. Layne got dressed, chest protector on, shin guards on, slid the oversized pants over his legs, then the oversized shirt over his head and over his chest protector, then placed his helmet over his head, and then waited.

And waited. And waited. The 4th inning for Elmwood at bat was a 1-2-3 inning. The 5th inning was a little better with one walk sprinkled in between 3 groundouts. With all 12 players present and the continuous batting order in effect, Elmwood would need to rally big time for Darren to come up to bat again in the 6th inning. “What do you want to do? Do you want to just go behind the plate and see what happens?” asked Eric. “Yeah, we have come this far, let’s just go with the plan. I can call balls and strikes, I did it for years before I left in 2017. Maybe a rally will happen and this thing can happen. If not, I will just improvise to Plan B.” The two men shuck hands and laughed and had decided that the original plan would go forward. Elmwood finished off the top of the 6th with a double play, started by Darren, and then sprinted into their dugout down by 3 runs. Darren was set to hit 5th in the batting order in the bottom of the 6th inning.

Eric opened the door leading out of the press box. He motioned to the home plate umpire to come up to the press box, as was the plan. Then, he wished his friend “Good luck.” TSgt Layne stood up, took a deep breathe, exhaled and walked towards the door and then down the stairs. The home plate umpire met him about halfway up/down the stairs. “Wow, this last half inning is going to be filled with excitement. Close game. Two great teams. Something special is sure to happen, wouldn’t say, Son?” The home plate umpire had hit TSgt Layne with an unexpected curve ball. The emotions of the plan, the scheme of the century, this amazing idea that TSgt Layne had hatched in his tent halfway around the world with his buddy Eric Swanson, now seemed kinda, well, not the right time to carry out. “You know, Blue (umpire slang). You are absolutely right. I wouldn’t miss this last inning for the world right now. Plan B. Sir, go ahead and head back to home plate and let’s see how this game finishes up.” “Ok, I think you just made a great call, son” the umpire nodded emphatically and turned 180 degrees and headed back down the stairs and back onto the field. Swanson caught the conversation in the open door and struggled wiping a tear from his eyes. He waved his good buddy back into the press box. “What now Sgt?” Swanson asked. “Time to improvise. Plan B. I’m going to watch the game, as Brian Layne, proud father of my Little Leaguer! Care to join me, Swanny?”

Swanson nodded and exited the press box so his friend could change out of his umpire costume/uniform and into his customary blue jeans and concert T-shirt. Layne grabbed a CWLL Coach’s hat and pulled the lid down over his eyes to “somewhat” protect his identity. He exited the press box and found his friend Eric Swanson just to the right of the press box, a very clever hiding spot at Verrato and more importantly so neither could be seen easily. From there, they watched as Elmwood strung together a walk, a double, a sacrifice fly, and a single to bring the score within one run. Runner at first, one out, and Darren Layne stepped up to the plate. As Darren walked to the plate, with Elmwood down one run, Eric yelled out from his “hiding” spot, “Come on D, hit one for your Dad. You know, he is watching you!!!” TSgt Layne whacked his buddy in the back of the arm and shrugged his shoulders and whispered “what the heck are you doing?” “I have a feeling about this one,” Eric responded. Darren took his place in the left handed batter’s box, which (coincidentally) prevented him from seeing his father less than 20 feet from him. A foul ball, followed by a tough inside call on a strike and the count was 0-2. Darren stepped out for a second, clicked the dirt off his cleats, and then dug back in, thinking about what Coach Swanson had said “my Dad is watching, I need to dig deep here and get the job done.”

The next pitch was hit with a thunderous BOOOOM and landed halfway up a tree overhanging the right field fence. The ball landed, eventually, traveling through branches and tree limbs at the base of the tree. Over the fence, a 2-Run Home Run, a walkoff win, the crowd stood up to cheer. Darren began to trot towards first base, flipping off his helmet, and jumping up as high as he could in the air. He slapped the first base coach’s hand with authority, then rounded second base, skipped a bit over to third, looked for his third base coach to “high five” him, and then rounded third base, and stopped. Darren looked behind home plate and, much to his surprise, saw his father next to Mr. Swanson, baseball cap off, jumping up and down, screaming like a little kid. Darren started to walk and then looked up in the stands and found his Mom and sisters. He pointed to the area behind home plate and yelled “Dad?? Dad!!! Dad is over there. Dad is home!!!” April and his sisters stood up and moved down the bleachers to get a closer look. There he was. TSgt Brian Layne – husband, father, United States Air Force Technical Sergeant, in the flesh, right there behind home plate. Darren started to walk again, then jog, then sprint home. He touched home plate and then ran straight past the awaiting arms of his teammates trying to tackle him and congratulate him, sprinted right off the field and right into the arms of his father. Eric moved back up to the press box to make a very special announcement.

“Ladies and gentleman, can you please continue your applause and welcome our friend back, who just witnessed a most incredible moment in league history? My friend and very proud parent, United States Air Force Techinical Sergeant Darren LAAAAAAAAAAYNE!!!” yelled out Swanson over the already hysterically cheers of the crowd. TSgt Layne and Darren walked back onto the field and were greeted by April and Darren’s sisters with hugs and kisses. The crowd cheered and shouted chants of “U-S-A” for a good 7 minutes, as Darren and his family continued to hug and laugh and just soak in the moment. “I was going to go behind home plate dressed up in disguise as the home plate umpire and make a bunch a lousy calls during one of your at-bats, D” confessed TSgt Layne to his son. “And then surprise you after a few pitches.” “Really, Dad? Why didn’t you then? That seems like a funny plan.” replied Darren. “You know what, Plan B worked out so much better. And I wouldn’t have missed that home run for the world! I’m so proud of you.” And then turned to his wife and daughters and exclaimed, “And I am so glad to be home.”

Editors note: Names and events in this story are completely fictional and for creative writing purposes only.

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