Me and The Duke
Duke Davidson was the closest thing to a celebrity I had ever known. At first, I watched him from afar and I listened to stories about him from my older brother Brent who played ball with Duke in little league and later in high school. I knew how great Duke Davidson was from the time I was eight years old.
I started keeping a goofy scrapbook following all of Duke Davidson's exploits as he set all sorts of baseball records at Great Mills High School. They called him Duke because he was the King among the ballplayers, head and shoulders ahead of everybody else. I followed Duke through his clippings and from what my brother Brent told me but I was to shy and bashful to get to know him even though he was at my house a lot. I was four years younger than Duke and Brent and in kid years that was an eternity.
Danny "Duke" Davidson lived with his father and stepmother. Duke's biological mother passed away when he was a young boy. Brent told me that Duke's father wasn't a big sports fan and he did little to encourage Duke's interest in the game. Ironically, it was his step mother who got him involved in little league.
"I saw it as a social outlet more than anything else," Terri Davidson said in a story written when Duke was a high school player. "Danny was a sad little boy after his mother died and I thought it would be good for him to be around other kids."
Most of the clippings I pasted into my scrapbook were about Duke Davidson's baseball achievements – how he won another game with a crucial hit, how he made a game saving catch in the ninth inning, how he had thrown out a runner at home plate to preserve a win.
I'd ask my brother what kind of person Duke Davidson was and he would just shrug his shoulders.
"He's a great player and a terrific teammate," Brent said.
"But what's he like as a person?" I wanted to know. "What kind of personality does he have? What makes him laugh? What doe he like? What does he talk about?"
"He does his talking with his bat and glove," Brent replied without much excitement. "When he's not playing ball, he's exercising, lifting weights, and running. We're guys, Shar. We don't talk. We do."
I was glad that Duke was a great ballplayer but I was more intrigued about him as a person. A boy. I wanted to know that part of him. My interest eventually developed into a near obsession even though I never told anybody how I really felt.
Duke Davidson became a legend in Lexington Park, Maryland, a town of about eleven thousand people. He was a local boy pursuing his baseball dream, a hero star adored and beloved by both those who knew him and those who knew of him. I included myself among those adoring fans. I had nothing but praise whenever the subject of Duke Davidson came up and on those rare occasions when he was around me I'd get all weak-kneed.
"He was performing beyond everyone's expectations even as a high school freshman," the baseball coach Mike Kreig was quoted as saying in one of my clippings. "He became a team leader, someone the rest of the team looked up to. He was known for his clutch performances and big hits in big games."
I never got tired of reading my scrapbook and adding stories to the pages.
"He doesn't play like he's a freshman," Coach Kreig said during the middle of Duke's Freshman season. "It's amazing what he can do."
Kelly Roberts was a senior on the team when Duke Davidson was a freshman and he had nothing but praise for the young player too. "Every freshman is supposed to go through the learning curve but Duke had an unbelievable talent of hitting and catching the baseball. He was amazing from Day One. He could change a game. Freshmen don't do that unless they're already some sort of superstar and that's exactly what Duke was, able to make the big plays. He's something special."
I knew from the first time I saw him play that Duke Davidson was a unique ball player with the tools to make it to the major leagues.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Duke makes it to the bigs," I told my brother.
"But you'd be surprised if I did," Brent grumbled.
It was hard for him to accept the fact that he wasn't going the same places Duke Davidson might and I sensed there was a lot of envy among Duke's teammates but it wasn't Duke's fault that he was great.
Because Duke was around the house so often there came a time when I couldn't ignore or avoid him any longer no matter how shy and insecure I was as a ten year old. My Dad was a big sports enthusiast and he was a great motivator for both Duke and Brent. Dad took those two to Baltimore Orioles games and when I was old enough he let me tag along too which was the thrill of a lifetime.
Of course the first time I was struck mute for the entire ride, sitting in the front seat with Dad mortified while those two guys sat in the back joking around and chatting up a storm. I couldn't believe I was sitting in the same car with Duke Davidson! After that baptism, I wasn't so afraid of him anymore and when Duke actually started chatting with me and being nice to me I was in seventh heaven.
I knew the age difference was a deal stopper and that my brother would kill me if I got involved with Duke in anyway but it was nice to receive attention from a local celebrity. I went to all the games and I was the biggest fan even though Brent razzed me for being a bigger fan of Duke's than him!
Duke was breaking all the school records at Great Mills High School and scouts began showing up to follow his performances. I was only in middle school then but I knew it was a big deal to have big league scouts coming to town to see Duke. My scrapbook really started getting thick with all the stories written about him when the scouts started coming!
The thing I remember about Duke during that time was that he really didn't change all that much, at least as far as I could tell. He still seemed pretty mellow and down to earth when he came over to hang out with Brent. He wasn't full of himself and he didn't talk a whole lot about what was going on even though he was the most famous kid at Great Mills High School.
"I'm still young and if I have any aspirations to play ball beyond high school I need to have goals and a plan," Duke was quoted as saying in one of the stories about him that year. "I need to play in tournaments where college coaches can see a lot of players at once."
Brent had his sights set on the University of Maryland and he hoped to get a partial athletic scholarship but all the debate, conversation, and opinion regarding Duke was whether or not he should play college ball or sign with a major league team right out of high school.
Duke didn't strike me as an intellect or book worm guy. All I really knew about him was that he loved baseball, drank Pepsi-cola, ran ten miles a day, lifted weights, and watched a lot of baseball when it was on television.
My dad was big on college and I'd hear him talking with Duke a lot, asking him
about what kind of college he might want to attend, what he was interested in studying and that sort of stuff but I didn't get the sense that Duke was all that pumped about pursuing a higher education. I remember Dad telling Brent and Duke all the time to keep their grades up because they wouldn't be playing baseball if they weren't academically eligible. Brent was pretty smart so I never worried about him but I didn't see Duke hitting the books as hard.
"I just want to play baseball," I'd hear Duke say all the time.
He did mention some of the colleges he had in mind, like California State, USC, the University of Miami, Florida State, Arizona State, Texas, and Oregon State (the schools with the best baseball programs) and I remember thinking how far away and big all of those schools sounded.
"He's dreaming," Brent told me one time. "There's no way he's getting into any of those schools. He's an average student at dinky little Great Falls High School for God sakes."
But Duke seemed to think that it didn't matter where he came from. "It's the guy who is willing to put the work in to succeed that makes the difference," he said.
That's why Duke was always working out, always running, and always looking for a baseball game to play in. He was named All County and All State which certainly helped his prospects and he spent his summers playing in tournaments that took him all over the Eastern Seaboard.
But I don't think Duke liked the pressure of making it. I'd hear him complain to Brent a lot about the next game or the next application or the next meeting with some scout or college representative. He also got tired of all the hoopla from fans and always having to be "on" as Duke put it. Dad was good at keeping Duke from freaking out too much and Dad was always offering pointers on how to keep things cool.
Duke seemed stressed out about fitting in with the culture and getting the job done (playing his best every single time he took to the field). I kind of felt sorry for him because it was almost like he couldn't even be himself. Everybody was always talking about him and to him and telling him how great he was. I remember Brent got into a big fight with Duke one time because Duke got invited to some big tournament in New York but he didn't want to go.
"You have to go," Brent was telling him. "It's what you have to do."
"I just want to be a normal kid for five minutes," Duke replied and that struck me as a pretty sad situation to be in.
I think one of the reasons why Duke liked coming over to our house was because he got to decompress a little and just be a guy. My parents didn't treat him any differently and I figured out that my job was to treat Duke like a normal kid too so I joked with him and teased him about stupid stuff and he seemed to get a kick out of it so that made me feel kind of special.
It was obvious by Duke's senior year that he was leaning toward signing a contract with a pro team and not going to college, especially when he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
"I might as well see how good I am right out of the gate," he told my father one night. "If I flame out early, I can always go to college later," he argued.
I think Dad thought Duke was making a mistake but he was supportive just the same. Dad told Duke to ignore all the outside crap and just be ready to adjust in a new environment. But how would Duke cope being away from home? Would he be able to live independently? Would he be able to handle the competition?
"Well, I could go on to greatness or I could wash out tomorrow," I remember Duke saying one time. "I'm going to be a piece of meat no matter where I go anyway."
That sounded horrible and I tried to remind Duke that it didn't matter that he was one of the best players ever to play for Great Mills High School. What mattered to me was that he was a good guy.
But Duke said it didn't matter how great he was at Great Mills.
"Don't let my high school stats blur your vision," Duke warned us many times. "Where I'm going, everybody's great. And most will be better. That's why it's going to come down to who wants it more and who works the hardest. How much does it mean to a guy?"
After a lot of consultation with his coach, my Dad, his Dad, and other mentors in his life, Duke Davidson ended up signing a contract with the Tigers for a $25,000 signing bonus. Even with all of his accomplishments, it was true that Duke came from a small high school in a small town and everybody agreed that a twenty-five grand was a lot of money for a guy like him.
We had a big party when Duke signed and even though there were a lot of media people and VIPS around Duke still took the time to chat with me, a fourteen year old high school nobody freshman and that meant a lot to me.
I remember crying all night the day after Brent and Duke graduated from high school and Duke headed off for rookie ball in Florida. He gave me a baseball that he signed (sort of a joke, I think) and I still have it. Duke Davidson was my hero. I was a love struck fourteen year old high school girl and when he shipped out to go play professional baseball a part of my heart went with him. I was miserable for weeks and I never got over my obsessive love crush on Duke Davidson.
### ### ###
The computer internet made it easy for me to follow Duke through the minor leagues. He ended up in Single A ball in West Michigan for a year and then he went to Advanced A ball in Lakeland. He played two years of ball at Double A Erie and I spent plenty of summer nights sitting in my room in front of the computer with the headphones on listening to the game broadcasts.
I would follow the team through the internet, keeping abreast of road trip schedules, stats, transactions, and long term plans by the parent club. I'd make Duke's player page my home page and every year his baseball profile picture would change. In the early years he looked young and innocent and naïve but as the years went on his photos became more seasoned, weathered, and mature.
I noticed that his name was "Dan Davidson" and that his nickname varied over the years. Sometimes it was "Double D" and other times it was "The David". I saw "Goliath" listed one time too. Most of the radio announcers described him as "burly" and "hulky" with "a hammer swing" and "more power than GE."
I thought about Duke often out there in the world of minor league baseball and I wondered if he missed me as much as I missed him. When I got to high school I secretly pretended that I was Duke Davidson's girlfriend and I wasn't much interested in dating other guys. I believed Duke Davidson was the only guy for me – even if it was a fantasy.
Danny Davidson was a good minor league player but not necessarily a great one. He wasn't as fast as most outfielders and there was always talk of him being converted to a first baseman or even catcher. He got promoted to Erie, my scrapbook article reported, because of an injury to another outfielder but at least he stuck there and that was a good sign, I thought.
The year after I graduated from high school, Dan Davidson was promoted to Triple A Toledo. The Mudhens were only one level below the majors and my scrapbook was full of all sorts of stories about Dan's chances. It was his powerful bat that would be his ticket to success. I so hoped things would go well for him.
Sadly, Duke never came back to Lexington Park. He'd play winter ball somewhere or Arizona ball and Mr. Davidson died and Danny's step mom remarried and moved away so there wasn't a whole lot of reason for Duke to come back. I sort of wished he'd return to see me but I knew some big deal ball player like him had plenty of girls following him and that he probably remembered me as his best friend's goofy kid sister. I bet he didn't even remember my name!
I was attending local community college when news came that Dan Davidson was among the players swapped in a deal between the Tigers and the Orioles and we couldn't believe that there was a chance we would be seeing Duke Davidson wearing a Baltimore Orioles uniform playing for our own major league team! I couldn't image sitting in the stands at Camden Yards watching Danny play when he once sat next to me in the stands as fans.
Danny played two years with the Orioles' Triple A farm club (the Rochester Red Birds) and we kept hoping he'd get called up to the Orioles, especially when the rosters expanded in September but that never happed. Rochester moved Danny from outfield to first baseman which was a new position and Dad worried that maybe it wasn't a good sign for Duke. We toyed with the idea of driving up to Rochester to watch Duke play there but that never happened either. We did catch some televised Redbird games and I followed Duke on the computer too. By now, I was pasting articles into my third scrapbook!
Then news came of Danny Davidson being injured playing winter ball after his first year in Rochester and that there were "serious questions" about his future in the Orioles organization. I lost sleep for days wondering if this was the end of Duke's chances – especially when he missed the first half of the season – but he made his return in July and I was relieved to know he was still playing.
I had been dating a guy named John Matthews for a couple of years even though he wasn't a big baseball fan. At least he tolerated my obsession with Duke Davidson and he let me waste valuable quality time listening to Danny's games on the computer!
Brent called one night a few weeks after the Red Bird season ended with the devastating news that the Redbirds had cut Dan Davidson. John thought somebody had died when I wailed out a loud nearly hysterical "NNNNNNNNOOOOOOO!" and a perplexed John had to comfort me for ten minutes before I could tell him what happened. I think he thought I was nuts that night but we didn't break up!
I discovered that I was pregnant a few months later and John and I got married even though I wasn't really sure he was the guy for me. Deep in my gut I fantasized that Duke Davidson was the guy for me even now with his baseball career possibly over.
Dan Davidson ended up signing with the Kansas City Royals and he played the next year at Triple A Omaha. I was glad that Duke got another chance but Omaha seemed so far away.
John was finishing up his post-graduate work and he was looking for a job as he worked as a teaching assistant at the community college I had graduated from. John ended up taking a job at a small college in New England called Green College and we moved there just after our daughter Julie was born. I was twenty one years old.
I was adjusting to life in the town we ended up in – Hillsboro. I was a new mom, still a newlywed, living far from home for the first time in my life, but this is what I signed up for and I tried to make the best of it. John was working all sorts of crazy hours trying to establish himself as a young professor and building relationships with co-faculty members and students. I was feeling kind of lonely but with baby Julie I was never bored!
I was devastated when Dan Davidson got demoted to Double A Northwest Arkansas the following year by the Royals and the general consensus between Brent, Dad and me was that Duke's baseball career was in serious trouble. The Royals obviously didn't see Danny as part of their big league future and being a 26 year old ball player in Double A ball after a serious injury and previously playing at the Triple A level was not a good resume bullet for someone who had been in the minors for nine years.
I found out that I was pregnant with our second child around that time.
Nobody picked up Dan Davidson over the winter but I found out through the wonderful gift of the internet that he had signed with the independent Sumerset Patriots in New Jersey. Independent league teams had no affiliation with major league ball clubs but if a player could prove himself there maybe a team would take a chance and sign them to a contract as a free agent.
Brent had been a pretty good ball player at the University of Maryland but more importantly he had gotten his degree and now he was working for an investment firm in Baltimore and doing pretty well. Poor Duke had no college education and now he was on the verge of being out of baseball with no planned future as far as I knew although who knew what he had been doing during the past decade when he wasn't playing baseball.
I was able to find the Patriots on the internet and I followed the games while I nursed our recently born son, Justin. Danny wasn't playing a whole lot in Somerset and I knew that meant trouble. Also, his power numbers were way down and he was hitting a lot of singles which was not the job of a slugging first baseman.
Danny's name didn't appear on the Patriots roster the next year and I couldn't find him anywhere in baseball. It appeared that after ten years his baseball career was over. I taped his final career stats into my scrapbook.
I would have to say that Duke's best years were his year with the Mudhens when he was 22 and the following season in Rochester when they moved him to first base. Danny played in a lot of games and hit a lot of home runs during those two seasons but he got hurt playing winter ball after that first year in Rochester and his playing time and performance definitely dropped off after that. Danny played more in Arkansas but that was AA Ball and his numbers should have been much better.
I was proud of Duke Davidson for getting as far as he did and playing for as long as he did but I was disappointed that he never made the bigs. I also wished he had returned home during those years so we could have seen him instead of following his life over the computer and in the newspapers.
I was mourning the end of Duke Davidson's baseball career but I tried to get on with my life as wife and mother even though I didn't want the story of Duke Davidson to become lost in the past. He would always be a Lexington Park sports success and his high school baseball records still stood at Great Mills High School. But if nobody heard from him again I worried that he would become a footnote in history.
I thought it was sad that one of the most well known names in Great Mills High School sports history had dropped off the public radar but life went on without him, I guess. I still thought about the guy and I missed following his games on the computer.
Then one day my eye caught an article on the sports page of the Greenville News and Dispatch: 'Browns land Davidson'
I had been aware of the amateur Serguci League that played in nearby Beano Park since moving to Hillsboro but I was so focused on Duke's minor league career that I didn't pay much attention to it. The Serguci League consisted of eight teams including the (Hillsboro) Hilltop Browns and now I was reading that "former minor league player Dan Davidson is the latest addition to the Hilltop Browns roster this season."
The Serguci League played a forty-two game schedule between Memorial Day and Labor Day but I had never been to a game. Of course, that year I started bringing Julie and Justin to Beano Field when the Browns played! Beano Field was a quaint and attractive old ball park and the quality of the baseball being played was pretty impressive. Many of the players were college guys and some like Duke had made it to the minors.
There was a playground down the third base line that I let the kids play on while I tried to catch glimpses of the game. It was easy to spot Dan Davidson the first time I saw the Browns play and I stood transfixed with my heart in my throat when I saw Duke for the first time after so many years. He hadn't changed much in appearance and he became a pretty well known Brown player and semi-celebrity because of his minor league past. If John was aware that Duke was in the area he never said anything to me.
I started another scrapbook following Duke's Serguci League career and although I watched him from afar I never approached him or said anything to him. I was a married woman and I saw him with different women so I kept my secret love to myself when I watched him play. Duke was a hero in my eyes, an inspirational and compelling story of resilience and redemption. He was a guy who knew the highs and lows of life and he had bounced back from rejection to play for the Browns, almost like a made-for TV movie script. People who overcome disappointment to succeed prove that life can be meaningful and full of hope. I wondered if Duke Davidson believed that's how his life had turned out. Or was I trying to create a story that was false and romantic, a made up work of fiction inside my own head?
John was focused on his career and sadly our marriage became increasingly strained as the years passed and it finally fell apart. My husband the Professor had become a big wheel at Green College but I was just a housewife with a two year community college associates degree and a part time job working lunch time hours at a local deli when the kids were in school. John and I separated and then divorced but I stayed in Hillsboro so the kids could be near their Dad (and I could be near Duke Davidson!). I had local friends and my children were settled in school and I liked the area so I was content on staying and watching Duke Davidson play baseball.
Strangely, I maintained my distance from Duke even though I was pathetically addicted to him and the Serguci League, so much so that I didn't bother socializing or dating much. I had long ago become a 'Beano Field regular' and I made plenty of friends with fellow regulars but I never made an attempt to introduce myself to Duke. I guess I was afraid he might not remember me or even care that I was around. It also bothered me that he never went back to Lexington Park after he first left our hometown.
I knew all the players and the stats and the history of the league and of course with my scrapbooking I knew everything there was to know about Brown first baseman Dan Davidson who worked at the plastics company and was a league superstar. Years went by and I never once approached Duke although I thought about him every day, almost obsessively. I was pretty sure I was still in love with the guy but I never made a move to welcome him back into my life.
I bumped into Duke a few times outside of Beano Field over the years – once at The Hillsboro Pizza house (he was surrounded by people and didn't notice me), once at Fontaine's Family Grocery Store (I discreetly followed him from a distance), and another time at Red's Tastee Freeze but he was already getting into his car and I wasn't about to approach him then. My bizarre behavior and refusal to let him know I existed troubled me because I knew it wasn't normal to be acting like a crazed stalking fan – Kathy Bates in Misery, perhaps.
When my son Justin turned eleven, he began volunteering at Beano Field as a bat boy for the Hilltop Browns. Why not? He had grown up around the place thanks to me dragging him there forty-two times a summer. I asked Justin if Dan Davidson ever talked in the dugout and Justin replied "Not much" although he did say that he seemed like a nice guy and he was polite and nice to Justin in his role as bat boy.
I was faced with a moral dilemma. Should I remain anonymous or should I introduce myself to Duke Davidson? I wasn't sure what the right choice might be. I wasn't sure how Duke Davidson might react if I told him who I was.
I maintained a low profile after the games waiting for Justin at the gate instead of near the field where Duke might see me (not that he would necessarily recognize me after all this time). One night I insanely followed Duke home in his beat up old pick up truck to see where he lived – it turned out to be a rented apartment in an old house down near the canal. I didn't get the impression that Duke was rolling in money. I guess his signing bonus hadn't lasted long.
After all these years of obsessing about and watching Duke Davidson my childhood superhero and teenage crush who I idolized for so very long. I was still debating whether or not I should introduce myself to him., wondering if there was a point and what purpose it would serve. I decided to play it neutrally. I wouldn't bother Duke Davidson directly but I wasn't going to hide from him either. I stepped out onto the field after the games to wait for Justin to finish with his responsibilities.
Duke didn't pay much attention at first but after a few games I noticed that he was glancing my way from time to time. One night, Justin was walking with me from the field after a game when Duke approached us.
"Is Justin your son?" Duke asked.
"Yes," I confirmed.
"Well, he's doing a great job," Duke said.
"Thank you," I replied. "I'm a proud mom."
Duke gave me a long look before nodding his head and leaving ahead of us. I realized my heart was thumping and I wondered if Duke had recognized me in any way. I again waited for Justin after the next Browns game and this time Duke approached me before Justin was done with his chores.
"Have we met before?" He asked suspiciously.
"Yes," I confirmed.
"At the plastics company?" He wondered.
"No, before that," I said, starting to feel nervous.
Duke began to search his memory. "Did we meet in Somerset?"
I shook my head no.
"No, not there," I said.
"No, not Rochester," I let him know.
He was becoming confused. "Toledo?"
"No, and not Erie or Lakeland or West Michigan either," I said.
"Well, where do I know you from?" Duke asked with frustrated confusion.
"Lexington Park," I revealed. "I'm Brent Russell's kid sister."
"Sharlene!?" Duke said with disbelief.
I was surprised he remembered my name!
I shook my head affirmatively. "Hello, Duke," I said. "Long time no see!"
"Christ, I haven't been called Duke in twenty years!" He laughed.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Everybody's a Duke in the minor leagues," he answered, grabbing me in a bear hug and I thought I was going to snap in half. "Oh My God, Sharlene!" He exclaimed. "I can't believe this!"
"Duke, you're squashing me!" I groaned through a painful laugh.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said with embarrassment, breaking from the embrace. "It's just that….well, it has been a long time, hasn't it?"
"You never came back," I grumbled.
"I know," he sighed. "But I thought about it a lot, trust me."
"How in the hell did you end up here?" I asked.
"Somebody told me about the Serguci League when I was out of professional options," he revealed. "So I came up here, got a job, and played for the Browns." He gave me a quick study. "What about you? Hillsboro is a long way from Lexington Park."
"Well, in the small world department, my ex got a teaching job at Green College," I explained.
I nodded my head. "What about you?" I tried to check out his hand for a wedding ring.
"No, it wasn't the life for long lasting relationships," Duke admitted.
"I suppose not," I agreed.
"Jesus, I've seen you around here for years!" Duke remarked. "I can't believe I didn't recognize you! But I knew there was something about you…"
"Okay, Mom, I'm finished," Justin announced as he strolled out of the dugout. "Ready to go?"
"Yes, sweetie," I said with a smile, intrigued that Duke had noticed me before.
"We really should get together," Duke said, surprising me with the suggestion.
"That would be nice," I replied. "I'm at all the Browns games. We'll talk again," I assured him.
He smiled. "Good."
"So, you like Dan?" Justin asked during the brief ride home.
"He seems like a nice guy, doesn't he?" I asked my eleven year old.
"Sure, Mom," Justin replied, not all that interested in the conversation.
So I returned to Beano Field dutifully with Justin whenever the Hilltop Browns had a game to watch Duke play just like I always had. I hadn't thought too much about how I looked for the games before but now I was spending time attending to my make up and brushing out my hair. I started wearing skirts and sundresses instead of my old jeans.
I was thirty-four years old. I was fourteen when Duke Davidson left my world and now twenty years later I may as well have been fourteen again the way I was feeling now that Duke and I actually talked. I realized that all those buried secret adolescent sexual fantasies that dogged me through the years – even after I met John – now had a chance to be fulfilled. I was an adult woman, available and willing. The only question was did I have the guts to act on my secret thoughts and would Duke Davidson be interested in someone he only knew as a kid?
I could tell that Duke took notice of me every time I came to Beano Field. And Justin would make comments when I'd drive us home after the game. "Dan said you looked nice tonight' and 'Dan asked How's your mom doing today, Justin?' and stuff like that.
I'd smile to myself happy that Duke was thinking of me.
After one game, Duke came charging out of the dugout practically before the last out was recorded and he was waiting for me at the gate the led to the field when I came down from the stands.
"Are we ever going to spend any time together outside of this place?" Duke asked with emphasis on ever.
I laughed, delighted that I had driven him to such a fretting place. "The kids are with their father this weekend," I announced with a smirk on my face. "Why don't you drop by around seven on Saturday night?" (I knew there wasn't a Brown game that night).
"Where do you live?" Duke asked with obvious relief and excitement.
"Twenty-seven MacGillicuddy Lane," I let him know. "Over by the old high school."
"Great," Duke said happily. "I'll see you then!"
I watched him return to the dugout to collect his gear and chat with his teammates. I couldn't believe I had actually invited Duke to my house!
Saturday couldn't come fast enough. I spent the next two days cleaning up the house and making it presentable for entertaining a guest. The house was meant as a 'start up' when John and I bought it but we never moved up and when John moved out it made sense for the kids and me to stay. John had a lovely townhouse not far from the Green College campus with plenty of room for the kids on their visits.
The house was an older ranch that needed work when we moved in but it never really got it except for a slap-on paint job and a few cosmetic fixes inside. The kids' bedrooms were small and the family room smaller but I was grateful to have a place to live and John paid off the mortgage as part of the divorce settlement so I wasn't burdened with a lot of monthly expenses. I was also getting alimony and child support so I could stick with the part time job and be home for the kids when they weren't in school.
John picked the kids up on Saturday morning. I love them and I miss them when they're gone but at least they're only one town over and not five states away when they're with their father. Sometimes the down time without the kids gives me a chance to catch my breath although I felt guilty this time knowing I wanted them out of the house just for the chance to spend some quality time with Duke.
I lounged around, cooked a stew in the pot, took a relaxing bubble bath, and went through the scrapbooks one more time, and then I took my time getting ready for Duke. I hadn't dressed up in a long time and I definitely hadn't had a date in years so I enjoyed the opportunity even though I really wasn't sure what in the hell I was thinking or doing. The guy had been gone for twenty years! Did I really think there was anything between us - except maybe my brother, Brent!?
I jumped when the doorbell rang at 7:00 and when I glanced at myself in the mirror I realized I may have overdone it just a tad. I was wearing a skin tight black dress that made me look like I was on my way to a masquerade party. I had curled my hair for the first time since my wedding and my makeup may have been a little bit over the top. Oh well, to late now!
I opened the door and for a second I thought someone else besides Duke Davidson was at the door. He was dressed in clean jeans with a suit coat and tie. He had gotten a haircut and his beard was trimmed almost to his skin. I could almost see the Duke Davidson of my youth standing before me.
We took seats on the living room couch and Duke asked after Brent and the rest of my family. I gave him the update, filled him on some of the hometown news, and talked about the kids for a few minutes. All the while, Duke sat intently listening to me ramble on with a strangely contented look on his face.
"What?" I finally asked when I started feeling a little awkward.
"Nothing," he said with a grin. "I just missed you, that's all."
"You missed me?" I asked, rolling my eyes. "I was just a goofy kid."
"You were the only one who treated me like I was just a normal guy," he told me. "I always appreciated that about you."
I was very flattered to hear such a compliment. "How come you never came back?" I wanted to know. I wanted to add: "I waited so long for you."
"I told myself I'd come back when I made the major leagues," he answered. "I figured within five years."
"What difference did it make whether you made the show or not?" I asked, surprised by his revelation.
"Everybody had such high expectations," Duke sighed. "I knew people would be disappointed. That they'd hold it against me. That I would be a failure in their eyes."
"Oh, come on Duke, that's not true."
"Sure it is," he said. "That's all I heard all through high school. How I was going to be somebody. How jealous the other kids were of me when I signed with the Tigers. Well, it never really happened, did it?"
"Are you kidding?" I asked. "How many guys get to play for the Toledo Mudhens and Rochester Red Birds?"
"Now I'm playing against the Miller City Mudhens," (one of the teams in the Serguci League), he deadpanned.
"Why did you keep playing?"
"In an amateur league you mean?" He shrugged. "Guess I just couldn't give it up. When I finish this season I'll have played in the Serguci League just as long as my previous time in the other leagues."
"I followed you during those years in the minors," I let him know.
"That was nice of you," he said, not getting the jest of what I was saying.
I left the couch and pulled the three scrapbooks from the chest drawer in the corner of the room.
"No, I mean I really followed you," I explained, handing him the heavy tombs and retaking my seat on the couch.
Duke's jaw dropped when he started leafing through the pages, starting all the way back in his little league days. "Jesus, Sharlene," he said.
"I'm working on the Serguci League volume now," I informed him with a grin.
"You're one dedicated fan," Duke laughed.
"My husband said I was a crazed obsessive fan," I admitted sheepishly.
Duke stared at me for a long moment. "Why did you do all this?" He asked.
I was embarrassed by the question and I didn't answer, glancing away so I wouldn't have to look at him.
"It's been twenty years, Sharlene," Duke said with confusion. "I can't believe you stuck with me all that time."
"I'll never give up on you, Duke," I said. "Not in a million years."
"I never knew," he admitted.
"Why would you?" I asked. "I was just a kid."
"You were the nicest kid I ever met."
"And you were the greatest person I ever knew," I told him.
"You mean player," he remarked.
"No, person," I clarified. "Everybody else saw the ball player. I saw the boy."
Duke stared at me with disbelief. Then he fingered through the pages of the scrapbook some more.
"You probably know more about my career than I do," he commented as he took a look at the endless articles, profiles, features, and game wrap ups glued to the pages. "What happened to you, Duke?" I asked.
"Well, for starters I wasn't as good as everybody thought," he sighed, closing the book and looking at me. "The competition was fierce. Players came and went. You either moved up or you moved out. I hung around long enough at every level to be given another look."
"You made it all the way to Triple A," I said proudly. "That's pretty good."
"Once I tore my leg up in Mexico it was over," he revealed. "I was never going anywhere after that."
"I'm sorry that happened to you," I said with sincerity. "That and you getting waived by the Redbirds were the two worse things for me."
"I would have loved to have made it to Camden Yards just once," Duke sighed and I heard the regret in his voice.
"It would have been special," I agreed. "But that doesn't discount what you did accomplish."
"Did I really accomplish anything, Sharlene?" He asked. "Your father and brother were right. I should have gone to college. Gotten a degree. Then I would have had something to fall back on when it was over. I'm a factory worker."
"What happened to the bonus money?" It really was none of my business but I asked anyway.
"I lived off it," Duke explained, falling back on the couch. "The monthly pay in the low minors isn't very much. The season really isn't all that long. When I wasn't playing ball somewhere I was working some job to help make ends meet. Waiter. Bus boy. Stock guy. Fast food worker. Dishwasher. Security guard. Grave digger. Parking Lot attendant. Construction gopher. Cab driver. Dog walker." He sighed with defeat. "And Brent is an investment broker."
"You lived something unique that not many experience," I reminded him. "I know it sucked with the long bus rides and cheap motels and crummy food and sharing apartments with four other guys and all that stuff I read about but you still got to play the game."
"That's what it's all about," he agreed. "But I'm not sure it was worth the price though."
"College, you mean?" I asked. "Or being here working in a plastics factory playing amateur baseball? Or giving up what you had in Lexington Park?"
"Actually, I was thinking about my loss of innocence," he clarified.
"Oh," I said, not sure what he meant.
"Seeing you again reminds me of all that was good back then," Duke told me. "The sweetness. The purity. Then I went out into the real world playing a game of survival of the fittest and seeing and doing things I'd never done before. Seeing the worse in people. The fakeness of people. The insincerity of people."
"I hope you met some good people along the way," I sighed.
"A few," he agreed. "But somebody is always out to take your job so you're always suspect of the guys you play with and their loyalties. And you can't get to close to anybody because the next day they're gone – either shipped out or moved up to the next level, only to be replaced by the next guy and the cycle starts all over again. You hope your manager and coaches and trainers are all on the up and up but most of them are just surviving themselves. They make you think you're the best and then the next day you're cleaning your locker out. "
"What about the fans?" I wondered.
He smiled and stared at the scrapbooks. "I wish they were all as nice as you," he said. "There were some sincere diehards who cheered their team and encouraged you and believed in you and those where the ones I'd see every night. But there was also the seedier part of the lifestyle. The bars and drinking and groupie fans that didn't care about you other than you were a ballplayer. Or the know it all fan who razzed you if they didn't think you had what it takes."
"I'm sure that got old," I said.
"The ballplayers were just as bad," Duke told me. "Leading some girl on. Living with them and then when they got the call they suddenly forget the girl's name."
"That's terrible," I grumbled.
"Like I said, it was a loss of innocence," Duke said. "It wasn't Lexington Park."
"Well, if my mom was here she'd say you needed a home cooked meal," I smiled as I stood. "Come with me."
I led him into the kitchen were the stew warmed in the crock pot. The table was already set and Duke smiled when he saw my effort.
"Thanks," he said warmly. "I don't get a home cooked meal very often."
"You should have come home, Duke," I said with a hint of aggravation in my voice. "We would have had a dinner waiting for you. We all missed you."
"Staying away made it easier."
"Staying away was a cop out," I replied sternly as I dished the stew into two large serving bowls.
There was also bread and a small tossed salad, plus a bottle of wine.
"What do you think the chances were that we'd meet like this?" Duke wondered.
"Ten million to one," I replied. "But it wasn't chance anyway."
"What do you mean?" He asked.
"It was fate, Duke," I let him know. "There had to be a reason why this happened."
He smiled. "So, you're a romantic," he realized.
I shrugged. "Only when it comes to you," I admitted, surprised I was bold enough to say it.
"How long have you been in Hillsboro?" He asked.
"I was here when you got here," I revealed.
"I've seen you around the park for a long time," Duke confessed. "There was something about you I couldn't quite put my finger on. When your kids were younger I thought you were a ballplayer's wife because you were here for all the games. But then I'd see you leaving by yourself."
"My husband wasn't into sports," I said as I served the food and took my seat across from him.
"I always wondered who you were," Duke said.
I was flattered that he had noticed.
"Do you have any regrets?" I needed to know.
"To many to count," he said with sadness in his voice.
"Well, what's the biggest one?" I challenged.
"I guess not knowing," he replied.
"Not knowing what?" I asked, not sure what he meant.
"Not knowing you cared so much," He said, looking into my eyes.
I nervously glanced away, not sure if I was ready to be so vulnerable with him. Strange how I'd been waiting my whole life for this moment and now that it was unfolding I was feeling insecure and uncertain.
"I thought playing baseball was all that mattered," he confessed. "I wasn't ready to give it up after the Patriots let me go so I came here on a fantasy."
"And you're still living it," I guessed.
"It never occurred to me that I didn't have to play baseball anymore," he admitted. "It was always my fix but now I realized it never really fixed anything and I'm a 38 year old factory worker pretending to be something I'm not, living the fake dream in an amateur baseball league."
"You're playing well," I said dumbly.
"It's easy to be good when you're the big fish in the small pond," he said. "I wasn't all that great when I was the small fish in the big pond though."
"There must have been some good times," I said.
"I'm having a hard time remembering them these days."
"Guess it doesn't matter much now anyway," I remarked. "You should do what's most important for you. Not as a ball player but as a person.'"
"I could probably last another seven or eight years in this league if I wanted," he said.
"Do you want?" I asked.
"It's the only way I can have triumph over tragedy," Duke said.
"The tragedy of washing out."
"Most don't make the bigs," I reminded him.
"I was talking about washing out of life," he said sadly.
"You haven't," I assured him, surprised that he was being so hard on himself.
"Look at me, Sharlene," he sighed. "So many regrets. So many missed opportunities. I should have gone back to Lexington Park during the off seasons and stayed connected to you guys."
"Well, I could have come found you," I said truthfully. "I knew where you were."
"How come you didn't?"
"I guess I was scared," I admitted.
"Of what?" He asked.
"Of you not wanting me to be there."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"I was just a kid," I sighed.
"You grew up," he remarked.
"You did too," I told him.
"Did I?" Duke asked with doubt.
"We were all proud of you, Duke," I assured him.
"But have I wasted my life?" he wanted to know. "Did I accomplish anything?
"Maybe you set your goals and expectations too high," I suggested.
I had spent twenty-years fantasizing and romanticizing about my image and idea of Duke Davidson but now that he was sitting in my kitchen sounding unsure and defeated, sad and beaten, I realized that I needed to stop seeing him as a character in my made up story. My superhero was full of doubt and regret.
"You know," I said. "We're all just trying to find our way as best we can."
"But not everybody is held to a higher standard," Duke said. "When a ball player doesn't live up to expectations they're called a bum and a bust."
"That's not fair and it doesn't make any sense," I complained. "Besides, you're capable of getting on with your life after baseball."
"I'm a factory worker."
"Nothing wrong with that," I told him. "I work at a deli making sandwiches."
He sighed and I was surprised at how much he was beating himself up ten years after getting cut by the Patriots.
"This is really eating you up, isn't it?" I asked.
"Everybody loved me when they thought I was going to be somebody," Duke sighed.
"They still love you and you're still somebody," I said. "You don't have to keep trying to be a hero, Duke. You already are one."
"I never felt like one," he admitted.
"You were always one to me," I revealed.
He looked at me with surprise but he didn't say anything.
We finished the rest of the meal in relative silence and when we were done I told Duke we could go into the living room for an after dinner drink. I'd clean up later. We sat on the couch nursing a drink and I kept staring at him, waiting for him to tell me things. I'd been waiting twenty years for the conversation.
"I played professional baseball for ten years," Duke finally said. "I was one of the lucky ones. There are about forty five hundred active minor league players on affiliated minor league teams. Every year, the major league teams draft more than twelve hundred new players so the turnover rate is high and only one out of every ten players drafted even gets one day in the majors. Only one out of every one hundred actually has a career in the majors. Many players are out of the game by their mid- to late twenties, most with a high school degree and no marketable skills like me. I really should have listened to your Dad."
"You did what you thought was right at the time," I remarked.
"There are a lot of weird truths about playing in the minors," Duke told me.
"Like what?" I wondered.
"Like its okay not to have a winning season or be the best team or even be the league champion," Duke revealed. "The only goal is to play well enough to make it to the next level. It is better to have a good season for a losing team than to have average statistics for a winner. Rosters are constantly changing and there's little chance to build team chemistry or unity. Everyone in the minors has one thing in common," he said.
"The goal to be in the big leagues," Duke said. "No one gets wealthy in the minors and you have few rights. You're owned by your team and they can sell you, send you to another country, or fire you whenever they want. They can cut you if you get hurt. You have to play for the team that drafted you even if they are loaded at your position. I wasn't the best outfielder so they moved me to first base. American guys who skip college for the minors have a less chance to make it than the foreign guys," Duke explained. "Players from the United States can only play for the team that drafts them unless they stay in college but players from other countries are not part of the draft. They are free agents and can choose to play for the team that makes the best offer and a lot of these guys are really young. The longer you stay at a certain level the fewer options you have and the more desperate you get. You know you're playing against a stacked deck but in your heart you believe you're good enough to be the exception. But the older you get the more you realize that you're not going to make it."
"You were only twenty-eight," I noted. "You were at your prime."
"If I was in the majors," Duke clarified. "In the minors, I was an old man and that made for incredible pressure to perform. I was always a day away from being cut and there were hundreds of other guys ready to take my place."
"It was pretty tough, huh?" I asked.
"But you want to know something?" He grinned.
"I wouldn't give up that experience for anything," he admitted.
"Would you do it all over again?" I asked.
"In a heartbeat."
"Even if you know how it was going to turn out?" I asked.
"Yeah," he smiled. "Except maybe I would have gone back to Lexington Park more. And taken college courses."
"Well, you still can," I advised with a smile.
"I would have looked you up too," he said looking me in the eyes.
"There were other women," I said.
"None that lasted," He told me. "None that collected scrapbooks for twenty years. None who followed my career through the internet. None who came to all my Browns games."
I blushed and glanced away again, nervous being found out.
"It always felt like I was waiting for something," Duke said softly. "I never knew what it was. I thought it was going to be another job offer, another chance to play the game. Even these last few years with the Browns when I knew there was going to be nothing beyond Beano Field it still felt like I was waiting for something…..or someone," he said.
I swallowed and looked at him, wondering if he was really going to say it.
"And now that we've met again and we're sitting here like this I realize that you were what I was waiting for all this time," Duke told me.
"It was always you," I admitted in a whisper.
"I'm glad," he smiled.
### ### ###
I don't remember who kissed who first. All I know is one minute we were staring at each other and the next moment we were all over each other, madly kissing and hugging and embracing and feeling each other. I'm pretty sure I was crying through most of it, tears of joy, happiness, and relief rolling down my cheeks as we necked and made out and held each other tight.
I was already picturing him naked, like I did so many times through the years, usually fantasies of him standing nude in the locker room chatting with a teammate or making a statement to one of the press guys. I read that there was always a lot of free spirited nudity in the locker room even when female reporters and trainers were around and I often felt jealous that some other woman was seeing him naked when I didn't get to.
My skin tight black dress was definitely not the dress to be wearing for a make out session. It stuck to my body like it had been painted on and I could barely move on the couch as Duke tried to explore my body with his hands. I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation and I finally told him to unzip the stupid thing for me.
Duke did what he was asked and I shimmied the dress off as I lay prone on the couch with Duke on top of me. I was in my black lacy bra and panties that went with the dress and I wondered if Duke thought that I was some sort of tramp.
"You definitely grew up, Sharlene," Duke said as he stared at me in my unexpected exposure with wide eyes as he ran his hand through my hair which was still brown and I still wore long. "You're such a beautiful woman."
I blushed, happy to hear his compliment. I'd been waiting twenty years for this moment and I wasn't going to waste a bit of it. We continued kissing and we ended up on our sides pancaked on the couch. His hand eventually worked its way inside the back of my black panties and I purred when he squeezed my butt. I managed to get his suit coat off in some of the earlier activity and now I was working on his shirt after I removed his tie.
Duke helped me with the shirt and I marveled at his muscled athletic torso when it was revealed to me. He was still in perfect shape even at thirty-eight - his abs tight, his stomach taunt, his back rugged. He let me explore his body with my hands as he did the same with mine. I finally pushed him onto his back and rolled on top of him, staring into his deep eyes.
"I've always wanted you," I told him without shame or embarrassment.
Duke smiled as he wrapped his arms around my back and patted my fanny through my underwear. I could feel his stick between my legs and I smiled happily. John was the only other man I had been with but Duke was the one man I always wanted to be with and now I was going to make sure it happened, tomorrow morning be damned.
I let Duke tug my panties down and I helped him slide them all the way down my legs. I kicked them off and then I sat up on his lap, mounting him, my beaver exposed for his viewing while his hands rubbed my bare fanny. I reached around to my backside and took a hold of one of his hands, moving it around to my front side and I whimpered when he put it where I wanted it to go.
I sat straight as I unfastened by bra and let it fall aside, letting Duke see my full womanhood above him. He took a long look before he pulled me down and kissed me and when his lips got tired of my lips he moved down to my breasts.
"Duke . . ." I moaned happily.
It occurred to me that Duke must have had dozens of women throughout his career, different women in different towns, some one nighter groupies others more serious but doomed by the lifestyle and times apart. And here I was, a thirty-four year old woman with only one lover in her life and I suddenly feared that I would be a novice, even as a mother of two who had been with John for a dozen years. Would I be able to satisfy an experienced athlete like Duke? Would I disappoint him in bed? Would I still be just a kid in his eyes?
"Duke," I sobbed, fearful that I was about to lose him after all this time.
"Shh," he said gently almost as if he was reading my mind. "Everything's going to be okay."
And the thing is – I believed him. I always believed Duke Davidson. Not only did I believe in him but I truly believed him. Maybe that's why I never gave up on him. I was awestruck as I looked down at him, watching him peer back at me with amazement on his face. It was the first time I felt sexual in quite a long time.
"Let's go to bed," I announced as I dismounted him and fled from the living room, prancing naked up the stairs like I was some love lusted teenager.
Duke followed me up the stairs and by the time I was planted on the bed on my back he was naked too, falling onto the bed next to me on his stomach after I got a quick look at his amazing manhood.
I rolled over onto my side and eyed his exposed butt which was just as firm, tight and muscled as the rest of his body and I smiled with wondered satisfaction as I let my fingers walk across his butt cheeks. Duke had his arms folded on the pillow and his head was turned toward me. Our eyes met and all I smiled gleefully, finally feeling totally contented and at peace for the first time in my life. I had waited a long time for this and I realized that it had been worth every moment just for this opportunity.
Duke smiled as he lifted one of his hands up and gently felt my nipple and that was all it took for me to collapse onto my back and let him have his way with me – and me with him.
Making love with a professional athlete was a mind-blowing experience. I was exhausted and ready to pass out, a sprint racer who gave it her all in the first few minutes but Duke was a marathon runner in it for the long haul and the night seemed to go on forever as he refused to give up the race. He taught and showed me all the things he had learned during his loss of innocence, things that I had never experienced before, sensations I had never felt before, and if I had any purity left it was definitely gone by the time Duke was done with me. I wasn't embarrassed and I kept my eyes open watching the things he did to me and asked me to do to him. He allowed me to feel things I never knew I could feel before.
I had no idea what time it was. I wasn't even sure where I was. My throat was sore from all the moaning, screaming, crying and laughing. I lay exhausted on my stomach, sprawled sideways on the bed which was a mess. Duke's head lay on the small of my back, his hand gently rubbing my fanny as I lay dizzy, too stimulated to fall asleep yet to tired to move.
"That was something," I managed to say hoarsely.
"Yeah," Duke agreed, a breeze in his voice.
"It was worth the wait," I whispered, almost to myself.
"It was," Duke confirmed.
"I told you that you were my hero," I giggled. "I just had the best sex of my life."
I wasn't comfortable in my current position and I felt a draft chill my skin but I couldn't move. I was barely able to lift my head off the pillow. "Can we get under the covers?" I mumbled.
"Sure," he agreed, his voice lively.
"You'll have to move me," I said, feeling like I was paralyzed.
I felt Duke moving on the bed and suddenly I was being moved although it all felt like a dream. Then there was warmth and comfort and I sensed Duke next to me under the covers, nestled against me.
"Go to sleep," He urged.
I rested my head against his shoulder, my arm draped across his torso and I finally felt relaxed and comfortable enough to fall asleep with my hero by my side.
### ### ###
Duke retired from the Serguci League at the end of that season.
"I don't need baseball anymore," he told me. "I have you."
He enrolled at Blue County Community College and took a couple of night classes. He moved in with us by Halloween and I told my parents I was bringing home a new boyfriend for Thanksgiving although I didn't tell them who.
Brent was at our parents' house with his wife Patty and their three children when I came through the front door with my kids and Danny 'Duke' Davidson. My family was thunderstruck by his unexpected return appearance (only twenty years late!) and it turned out to be the best Thanksgiving we enjoyed in a long time.
He was once The Duke of Great Mills High School. He was The Duke. He was everybody's Duke. Now he was my Duke. Sometimes waiting for a hero is long and hard and while there were times when I thought I'd never see Duke Davidson again the final pay off was worth all the years of obsession, doubt, insecurity, longing and empty wait because in the end Duke was still the best person I had ever known.
And he was mine.