Tommy Miller stepped up to the plate, tapped the dirt on his shoes and looked toward the mound. The young man preparing to pitch already showed apprehension to throw, knowing Tommy’s style well. A few muttered whispers and glances exchanged between the fielders and the players in the dug-out alike.
The first pitch came low and in the dirt. Tommy lowered his bat after the catcher scooped it up and threw it back, then he once again resumed his ready stance. Second pitch outside, ball two. Tommy sighed but held his stance. Finally the third pitch came in slow and steady but enough so over the plate that Tommy caught a huge piece of it. A few scattered sighs went out among the players on the field as most knew the end result.
The ball soared well over the right field fence and into the trees beyond. The right fielder let out the only significant sound, an elongated “awwww crud”, mainly because it was now his duty to go chase down yet another of Tommy’s home run balls.
Tommy dropped his bat and casually ran the bases holding his head high, trying not to notice the soured faces of the players on the field. Also trying not to notice the lack of cheers from his own ‘bench’. As he crossed home his team-mates merely shook their heads at him or tried not to catch his gaze at all. He simply walked himself to his regular place on the edge of the dugout bench. Tommy didn’t make many friends on the team. He made the rest of them ‘look bad’.
Throughout this familiar exercise, the coach stood on the sidelines, but this time he was speaking with the dean of the school. Tommy did not watch them specifically but knew they were likely talking about his performance on the team.
Wally Timmons was now at the plate swinging wildly at dirt pitches. Unlike Tommy’s skillful yet silent turn at the bat, Wally’s futile attempts were met with cheers and shouts of encouragement from the players in the dugout and on the diamond alike.
But Tommy wasn’t watching the game either, he was going over the hit in his head. “Was that further than the one I hit yesterday?” he thought to himself. “And it went more right then I would have liked.” “But that was about the only way I could connect with such a weak pitch…” He ran it over in his head wishing he had a real pitch at which to swing – to present him a challenge.
It wasn’t long after that when Tommy was brought out of his thoughts by the coach standing over him. “Tommy…. Tom! . . . Dean Mayers wishes to speak with you.”
Tommy simply looked up with a small smirk – he had half expected as much – placed his hitting helmet down on the bench and arose to follow the summons.
The school secretary had been expecting him and pointed him right into the office. The dean himself had just returned and was still standing behind his desk as Tommy walked in. “Have a seat Mr. Miller,” stated Mayers gesturing to a large, opulent chair.
Tommy did as told trying not to be too smug. With as much disdain as he had for the nature of this particular institution, he was still raised to respect his elders and anyone in a position of authority. Mayers just paced a bit tapping his chin and looking up in the air before eventually choosing to speak.
“You know Mr. Miller, Tommy… may I call you Tommy?” The boy showed a small nod. “You are quite an exceptional boy.” He paced a few more steps before resuming. “As I am sure you are aware, we here at this learning institution … how to put this … we don’t really like to encourage ‘exceptionalism’.” He paused again, Tommy assumed to give the words more impact.
“As a general rule, we don’t discourage it either mind you. But rather, we like to encourage everyone to participate equally and to feel equally…,” he again paused as though searching for a word. “To feel equally ‘able‘ to perform with their fellows.” Mayers looked directly at Tommy now to gauge his reaction. Tommy just looked ahead trying to appear attentive, still trying not to be too smug.
The dean drew in a long breath before resuming. “Alas! We are not here to force anyone to behave a specific way mind you. I suppose you thought I would bring you here to tell you to stop?” He again looked at the boy who was now showing at least some signs of being a tad puzzled by the nature of the question. “No my boy, I will not discourage you from behaving as you see fit. You are better at baseball than all the other boys so who am I to stop you from realizing your full potential if that is what you desire?”
Tommy, who was expecting at least a lecture on the virtues of ‘working as team’ or ‘sharing responsibility’ and any number of other euphemisms he has had to endure during his time at the school could not help but show a small amount of surprise.
“No. You shall play as you wish to play. I brought you here to let you know that and to tell you should if any of the coaches or other instructors tell you otherwise, you can tell them to come see me personally. You have my endorsement in that regard Tommy Miller.” He paused again, sitting down and entwining his fingers in front of him.
“As far as your teammates, I can’t help but imagine they are not the happiest with you out performing them day after day. I’m afraid I can’t help you much in that department save if things should get out of hand – we must have discipline after all. But it will be for you to endure any other effects of your own choices in their eyes.”
Mayers leaned back in his chair as Tommy glanced up briefly to the window thinking to himself of many such jibes he had undergone by less skilled players upset with his ‘besting’ them.
“That’s basically all I had to say,” the dean continued, “you are free to go back to class.”
Tommy rose slowly, honestly expecting at least something more than a ‘do as you wish’ endorsement. But was glad for it that at least – for whatever reason – the school’s head master was giving him his endorsement.
And so it was that Tommy would do his best and live up to his potential. The pitches were still wild, the other players pathetic, the cheers absent when Tommy took the mound. But the sighs and groans ever present when he would send the ball soaring. Cheers still reigned for the other players, the mediocre mass of all of them – bunting, swinging, striking out. (of course the strikes were generally called balls to give players more opportunity to ‘succeed’)
All of the other students encouraged one another. Encouraged one another to be bad. Tommy didn’t want to be bad. Tommy wanted simply to do his best. And that he did. And he made no friends for it – not in a school like this one.
Before the end of the school year it was a tradition that their school would play a scrimmage game against the school across town. Sort of a friendly rivalry, but nothing that gave Tommy any hope of any real challenge, for that school too was run by the same ‘rules’ that encouraged mediocrity for the sake of contentment amongst the students. Of course, there were no Tommy Miller’s on that team though so Tommy was quite certain that if nothing else, he could chalk up a victory for his school. Scoreless games were quite common in this ‘feel good’ tradition. At least before Tommy Miller was around.
It was before the game when Tommy caught sight of dean Mayers talking with the dean of the other school. It quickly became apparent to Tommy that Mayers and the other dean were in the process of shaking hands over some kind of wager. Dean Mayers caught sight of Tommy spying the exchange and rather proud of himself for it, walked over Tommy’s way after bidding the other head master farewell.
“Was that…,” Tommy stammered a bit torn between his thoughts as to just what this meant, although he had a feeling he knew full well. “… you were making a wager with him over the game weren’t you?”
“I told you Tommy, you are an exceptional boy. I would be a fool were I to not…,” he paused as though searching for just the right word, “… ‘capitalize’ on your ability? Now wouldn’t I?” Then the dean simply patted Tommy on the shoulder and walked off to take his place with the other faculty in the bleachers.
Tommy was livid! “So this is why he was willing to let me play as I wish? To win a bet with the other school? And all that talk of exceptionalism – and feelings – and all the other pap I have had to endure! The hypocrite!!!”
Tommy’s thoughts raced. All the nonsense he had to suffer, the isolation, the ridicule, from… from a bunch of bumbling fools! “I played for my pride” he thought to himself. He wondered if he hadn’t tried harder just to mock the ‘system’ this school represented. Achieved ‘exceptionally’ just simply because they discouraged it. He began to even doubt himself and his own motivations.
“Why I’ll show him!” he thought to himself. “I’ll be damned if that two-face will profit from my efforts!”
And for the first time that day, Tommy Miller struck out. And struck out again. And a third time.
And when he did, every time, his own teammates now cheered. Tommy tried not to notice, as he tried not to notice the teasing and taunts as he went back to take his place on the bench. “A loser like the rest of them” he thought to himself.
But not a loser like them, for they cheered him now when he ‘seemed’ to fail as they did. But Tommy failed because he ‘chose’ to fail! So he still felt sound in his decision.
As it turns out, by some chance of circumstance, one of the players for the other school managed to connect on a hack swing and send a ball up mid field for a single in the fifth inning. Another player (granted a fourth ‘strike’ swing at predictably horrible pitches) managed to finally be offered a ‘walk’ for 4 balls even though he had swung at 3 of the four ‘ball’ pitches, catching nothing but air. And of course, a lucky tap by another batter combined with some horrible fielding by his school managed to let a single run score.
Tommy’s failure was compounded – not only had he struck out for the first time – three times! – but he and his school had lost the game.
Tommy was not discouraged, however. He was still proud of his choice. He lost on his terms! He cheated the dean out of his winning wager!
As the last out was called, he glanced up to where the dean was sitting to witness the result of his miserable performance only to see the dean of the other school whole-heartedly congratulating dean Mayers and handing over a small sum of cash.
Tommy was perplexed. He just stood there mouth agape wondering what it all meant. He was so dazed by it he almost didn’t notice the dean now walking toward him and was eventually snapped back to his senses when the dean began to speak.
“You seem confused Tommy.” He looked down on the boy making no effort not to look smug. “Yes, my boy I won the wager.” He crossed his arms letting the words sink in.
“Do you really think that I would make such a wager where you could so easily see it by happen stance? I knew what you would think should you see such an act, and I had a strong feeling as to what you would do about it. Do you think in my years of running this school I have not run across other Tommy Millers?”
Tommy’s thoughts were racing too fast for him to fully grasp what had all transpired. He was still having a hard time putting all the pieces together in his mind.
“And did you think that word of your past performances on the field would not have spread to the other school? Anyone would be a fool to take such a bet against the homerun hitter ‘Tommy Miller’ you see?”
Tommy still stood perplexed.
“Why Tommy, you still don’t get it do you? You have shown all the other students here exactly what we have been trying to teach them all year. Achieving more than your fellows makes you no friends. Doing more than others does not make you a hero. And it eventually will lead to your own downfall.”
“Don’t you see Tommy? I did as I have with many ‘Tommy Miller’s’ before you. I let you do as you would do all year long to fulfill your own selfish needs and to suit your own foolish pride. I let you alienate the others with your own successes seeking your own selfish goals. And when it came time for the game, the bet was placed specifically so you would see it for yourself – to draw your own conclusions and resolve your own response to it.” To this he let out a short laugh to himself.
“Why Tommy, I did not bet that you would win the game for us today. I bet that you would lose it for us!”