Charlie Hustle long wondered what this moment would feel like, what it would taste like, what it would smell like.
Tens of thousands of folks, his folks, waited at the end of the tunnel. It sounded raucous, the warm-up cheers bouncing off the walls down the corridor where he waited. It smelled like discarded sunflower seeds and wood shavings—it’d been nearly three decades, but the tang was familiar in his nostrils. It tasted sticky and sweet, caught in a lump in the back of his throat.
It felt…well, Charlie wasn’t sure what it felt like. That would probably come to him later, once the moment had passed, when he could turn it over in the palms of his mind. He was nervous, and that was almost a pleasant surprise. His hands trembled slightly. He wiped sweaty fingers onto pleated pants.
This still wasn’t the coronation he sought—that might never come, he told only himself—but it was something,
These folks, his folks, had never doubted him. Cincinnati knew him, inside and out, and accepted him without reservation. These folks, his folks, would be unanimous in their cheers. The Hall of Fame would be a different kind of vindication, a defiant middle finger to the gatekeepers that had watched him squirm beneath their thumb for so many years.
Tonight would be sweeter, while the still-hypothetical HOF ceremony would be tinged by an undercurrent of bile. Charlie knew the former should probably be more meaningful because of just that, but it wasn’t in his nature. He was a fighter—west side blood pumped through his veins. The tens of thousands waiting outside knew that and embraced that more than anybody.
A bead of sweat trickled down his back. The midsummer night was sultry, and the cherry-red blazer he wore wasn’t doing him any favors.
He’d wore a similar get-up the night before, when they trotted him out in front of the national TV camera like some kind of dancing bear. Clap for us, Charlie, say your sorrys. If your droopy face looks pathetic enough, maybe Saint Peter would crack open those gates.
This network at least allowed him to hang around and talk about something other than himself, about the game that never left him, not really.
Analyzing, at least the kind you do on TV, wasn’t a great fit. When Charlie tried to take a stance on something—the blasphemy of the designated-hitter rule, say—he came across as a blowhard, a dinosaur grumpily shaking its head. When he tried to be diplomatic, he came across as soft, or worse, clueless. He had more baseball knowledge in his pinky than these suits did in their bodies, but he’d been left out in the wilderness for too long.
Charlie was a ballplayer. He never truly took to anything else, not the speeches or the autographs or the car commercials, not the stay-at-home-fathering or the one-step-away-from-panhandling.
Charlie was a man exiled from his homeland.
One night wasn’t going to make up for that, not really. In his mind, he’d long since paid for his sins, both the mortal and the venial. Reconciliation was impossible at this point. His heart wasn’t clean—the only motive he had anymore was revenge, to sully their noses in it, because they’d taken away everything else.
He wouldn’t have even agreed to this dog-and-pony show if it weren’t Cincinnati, in a stadium full of his folks. Charlie tried convincing himself that it was all for these folks, his folks, but that wasn’t entirely true.
Much as he tried to hide it, Charlie was a man who always craved vindication, who glowed with pride when congratulated by a teammate or peer. Maybe it was his unheralded status coming out of high school, that fact that he was always treated as an outsider.
He was all grit and Hustle, and few ever gave Charlie due credit for his talent.
Tonight wasn’t redemption, but it was something close. He heard the chants, knew it was close to time. His old teammates walked out, one by one, each embracing him with a shoulder squeeze and pump of the hand on their way by—Johnny and Barry and Joe.
Charlie was last, an honor befitting his status.
He stepped out into the glaring light and deafening roar. Charlie Hustle hadn’t even yet gotten his bearings, and the tears were already running down his face.