Up on Whidbey Island, down from the Deception Pass Bridge, it's a rare April afternoon with a sparkle, perfect for sailing out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca to watch gray whales frolic near the Washington shore. There's also a baseball game being played.
The Everett High School Seagulls have traveled past tulip farms, oyster beds and lakeside villages to take on the Oak Harbor Wildcats. It's the culmination of the longest road trip in the WESCO Conference's 3A North League, and it's another tough game in a rough season for an Everett roster stuffed with freshmen and sophomores. When the final strikeout smacks the catcher's mitt, it's an 8-4 loss and a two-hour bus ride back.
The sun starts sinking into the Douglas firs as the victorious Oak Harbor boys rush to the metal-roofed storage shed adjacent to the field. They pull out rakes to comb the diamond before heading home for their dinners.
Tall, curly haired Lucas Arnestad, Everett's senior first baseman, passes this motley grounds crew while leading his sullen comrades on a cleat-clicking walk down the concrete path to the parking lot. He hopes to play at Everett Community College next year and see if he can hit his way into a scholarship. But tonight, Arnestad is the educator, not the student. He's seizing a moment to steer his younger teammates' attention toward that elusive Eden otherwise known as the bright side.
"Dude," he says, looking over at freshman third baseman Michael Larson and pointing ahead of them at the second baseman with the long blonde ponytail.
"Megan went 2-for-3."
This baseball story begins in the Dominican Republic, in a tiny apartment a few stories above the bustle of Santo Domingo. It's December 2000, the middle of another winter ball season for Jim Dedrick, who's battling to make it back to the big leagues.
His wife, Annie, is helping see it through, learning the rhythms of this foreign city like she did in stays across the States and the globe so fleeting that it might take her a few minutes and include a few hasty self-corrections if she's going to name them all:
Wausau, King County, Frederick, Bowie, Rochester, Tulsa, Harrisburg, Ottawa, Richmond, no, wait, Oklahoma City, right? All the way out to Perth, Australia. A winter in Caracas. Don't forget Ottawa, Richmond, Akron, Buffalo, Trenton and Berkshire. Of course there were a few back-and-forths along the way, too. Maybe the order isn't exactly right. But that's more or less it.
The small, shining sliver in the middle of all these vagabond Minor League miles was Baltimore. Yes, Camden Yards. Fifty-two days with the Orioles in 1995 for a 27-year-old right-handed reliever with a fastball that crept up to 89 mph on a good day, the ability to throw it where he wanted to from time to time and the courage to take that stuff and go right at the best hitters on Earth.
Annie and Jim's 3-year-old daughter, Alee, is asleep in the closet-sized second bedroom. Her little sister, 5-month-old Megan, is gearing up for tummy time on the floor.
In these mornings before leaving for Estadio Quisqueya to pitch for the Licey Tigers, Jim doesn't have to think about how tough the climb back to The Show might end up being. He can reflect while unwinding with a putter, a balata and a plastic tumbler down a skinny hallway.
Sure, it was six games, but man, it was worth it for a kid who grew up in Inglewood, Calif., playing with his brother, Jeff, on a square patch of grass in front of a faded two-story apartment building on Beach Avenue.
Back then, the Dedrick boys would put on their gloves and take turns tossing a baseball up in the air. Each pop fly would represent another level of pro ball. Little League was the easy one, then on to high school, college, and with the ball rising higher, the Minors, the Majors and the seventh game of the World Series. The last one was always the toughest, and they'd alternate, trading verbal jabs all the while.
Jim could see it right away. The only thing he wanted was to play in the Major Leagues.
It all came from his dad, a baseball nut who devoured box scores, loved Vin Scully and made sure to drive his sons to Dodger Stadium on Aug. 9, 1973, for the last chance to see the great Willie Mays say hey in L.A. Mays, 42, pinch-hit for Jerry Koosman in the ninth inning and grounded out to third base. Jim never forgot it.
The love deepened with every pitch. Jim commanded the mounds of Huntington Beach High and Southern California College until the first dream was realized: a 33rd-round selection by the Orioles in the 1990 Draft.
And just imagine the buzzing in his chest on Aug. 11, 1995, when Jim, with a 4-0 record and a 1.77 ERA for the Triple-A Rochester team but no 40-man roster spot, was walking to baggage claim with his teammates and heard his manager, Marv Foley, being paged. Jim and a few other pitchers looked straight at righty Joe Borowski, a 24-year-old who had been up with the big club earlier in the season.
Borowski looked back. "Nope," he said. "It's James' turn."
The first-class flight booked by the team was canceled because of a sky choked with thunderheads. Annie found a quick replacement on another airline: a tiny prop job Jim dubbed "The Knuckleball Express" once it began fluttering and careening all the way to Boston.
"This plane ain't going down," Jim told Annie. "It can't. I'm going to the big leagues."
The immediate task at hand for a stunned, bedraggled man with no clothes: ponying up for a semi-serious suit at Brooks Brothers. The next: meeting his teammates in the archaic cave of a visiting clubhouse in Fenway Park, and making his spot in the Baltimore bullpen official in the only room big and quiet enough for general manager Roland Hemond to feel even marginally comfortable conducting important Orioles business.
"I apologize," Hemond told him. "I didn't think you would have to sign your contract in the john."
The next day, Jim Dedrick pitched a scoreless inning with two strikeouts. He got in games on Aug. 14 and 20. Still scoreless. On Aug. 21, Dedrick struck out four batters in 2 1/3 shutout innings in the Kingdome against the playoff-bound Mariners. On Aug. 30, he gave up his first run in one inning against Oakland.
Then he waited. Dedrick waited while watching September callups take his innings. He waited through manager Phil Regan's waning days as the skipper of a losing team. He waited through teammate Cal Ripken Jr.'s ethereal record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game on Sept. 6. Thirteen days after that, team veteran Harold Baines approached Jim in the clubhouse.
"I've got to commend you," Baines told him. "You've gone 21 days without saying a word. You're here early every day, you're doing your work. I'm going to get you in there today."
He got him in there. Jim pitched two-thirds of an inning at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 19, giving up a home run to Chad Curtis and getting the next two batters out. The groundout he induced off the bat of Travis Fryman was the last pitch he threw in the Majors.
Five years have passed since then and there's no reason to stop playing. Not when baseball permeates every facet of Jim's life, even when he's trying to drain 15-footers in his Dominican apartamento.
He gives one a good rap, and before it gets to the cup, little Megan Jo is rolling on the floor, getting her body in front of it, trapping it with her hands and smothering it with the gusto of some dirtbag shortstop. He calls Annie over.
"Check this out."
He hits another. She blocks another. She cackles with glee. She does it again and again.
They laugh until they realize it's serious. This is no longer coincidence. This is a discovery. This is a passion, something that will last. Here's a little girl sprawled out on cracking linoleum with a golf ball by her belly and a baby face stretched from wall to wall by a Major League smile.
Megan went from hoarding baseballs in her crib at 2 to being able to drop-kick a football at 3, prompting Jim's independent-ball teammates for Berkshire to marvel at her athletic prowess and hand her the nickname "Free College." At 5, she said she wanted to play baseball, just like Dad.
"Go for it," Annie and Jim told her, and they signed her up for T-ball. She played with the boys throughout Little League. She kept up. Sometimes she shined, pitching and playing all over the infield. Moms of boys on opposing teams gravitated to her after the games, congratulating her just for being out there -- or possibly for knocking their fresh-mouthed sons down a few pegs with a strikeout or two.
Megan started softball in middle school and found it ... well, uncompetitive. It had to be baseball. The speed of the ball off the bat, the vast outfields with the walls -- 300 feet, 400 feet -- she could always dream of reaching. She couldn't live without it. When Annie walked by Megan's bedroom, she found her daughter lying on the floor for hours, throwing a baseball toward the ceiling with one hand and catching it with the other. When the Pacific Northwest rain let up, Megan was out front, throwing into a bounce-back screen or playing catch with Annie or Alee or Jim. Whoever was up for it.
During the summer, when it stays light out late blocks from the Puget Sound, Megan was outside playing ball until 10 if Annie allowed it. In mid-winter, when the sky blackens before 5 o'clock and it's so dark you'd think it were midnight, she would grind on, no matter how cold it got. She would rather take grounders than hit. She wanted to dive, to feel that dirt and that grass, to wear it like a stripe as she imagined the game-saving play.
It's January 2013, and Pat Duffy is taking a timeout. It seems like every thought meandering into his head lately has to do with his next great adventure. But he's not into overarching philosophy while sweating over Boys Club hardwood. It's Friday afternoon basketball with his buddies, and the nerves of taking over the position of baseball coach at his alma mater, Everett High, are on hold, at least for the one blissful and draining hour of this pickup game.
Pat played baseball at Everett, graduated in 1988, manned third base and shortstop at Bellevue Community College in 1992 and served as assistant coach before getting this job. He's thrilled, but he knows there's a long rebuild on the way.
During a break in the action, his friend, Tim, pulls him aside and tells him that Tim's niece, Megan Dedrick, is an incoming freshman at Everett and wants to try out for the team. His baseball team.
Pat's first thought: "Do I really need this right now?" He's conjuring images of locker-room mutiny before the first fungo at the first practice.
But it doesn't last long. He knows Megan's dad, Jim, another Everett guy. Jim pitched in the big leagues and was a bulldog on the mound. Jim used to help out coaching Pat's Bellevue CC team before he had to leave for Spring Training. He knows Jim has been a pro scout for years, that he's working for the Pittsburgh Pirates these days, that he's well connected, that he's signed good players and that he and Megan's mom, Annie, wouldn't allow this to happen if it weren't legit.
"If she can play, she can play," he tells Uncle Tim, and those words are repeated to Annie by the athletic coordinator, Ian Freeman, when Annie assures him that the only reason her daughter is interested in playing is because she loves the game.
Megan knows there might be more of a "future," maybe even a college scholarship, if she goes the softball route. But she doesn't want to play softball.
So she's there at Coach Duffy's first voluntary workout at the Laces Baseball Academy indoor facility on a wet January afternoon, not saying a word, wondering what the eight or nine guys and the coach are thinking as they shoot curious looks her way, ready to judge every right-handed hack.
She walks into the cage for her first BP session, and Jim Dedrick smiles. He loves how she never wears batting gloves. It kills his scout buddies, too. He can't get enough of the little waggle at the plate that his good friend, former big leaguer and current Angels scout Jeff Cirillo, taught her.
She sprays line drive after line drive in her opening round as the boys look on. Some of them knew her from Little League, so it's not a total surprise to see her here. The level, compact swing with plenty of bat speed for varsity ball, though? That might be a bit of a surprise.
The workouts keep going, and Megan keeps showing up. The older guys on the team like her because she's all baseball all the time. She wins a roster spot and makes a diving play on a popup with the bases loaded in the first game of the season. She starts at second base the rest of her freshman year. Her teammates notice that she keeps quiet unless she's cheering on her teammates.
She wears No. 3 on her uniform because Jim wore it in high school and because it was the smallest jersey they had. She shrugs off the outside chatter, which Jim and Annie and Alee have noticed less as this season has worn on.
In late March, she slid into second on a close play, and Jim heard the Glacier Peak dugout chirping that she was only safe because she's a girl.
Arnestad says he's gotten a few quips like, "Is it really that bad at Everett these days?" He'll say, "She earned her spot, and she belongs on that field," and leave it at that, knowing she'll prove it over the next seven innings.
Megan giggles when she hears about all of this. She doesn't seem to have time to pay much attention to it when there's a game to play. She wants the ball hit to her in the field, and her hitting eye is improving.
Coach Duffy knows she'll do anything for the team, like the time a few weeks ago when he tried her out in left field, much to the surprise of Jim, who had driven up to the game straight from the airport, where he had landed after a scouting trip to Denver. Turns out Dad hadn't seen his little girl "Mojo" play outfield -- ever.
"She looks good out there, man," Jim said, chuckling.
"Of course she does, Jim," Duffy said. "She's got a great coach."
Would you look at this? Another sunny day in April in Western Washington. Imagine that. It's a good thing, too. Everett's already had more than a few rainouts this season, and that's the biggest bummer for Megan Dedrick. Thankfully, they're getting this one in at Shorecrest High just north of Seattle, a Friday evening affair, and a local TV news channel is waiting for it to end to fire up the camera and talk to the second baseman with the big league dad, the big league mom and the blonde ponytail.
Jim and Annie split up years ago, but they're still friends, and they're both here, sitting in the bleachers along the first-base line with Alee. Annie comes to every game. Jim's on the road a lot during baseball season, doing advance reports for Pittsburgh's Interleague opponents in addition to scouting the Rockies and Mariners. He just flew back after a Minor League swing through Tennessee. He's heading to Anaheim soon. But whenever he's home, he's around. He'll show up at Megan's basketball practices. He'll drive up from his downtown Seattle apartment just to play catch. When a fellow baseball dad in the stands asks Jim for his Major League statistics, it's nice to have Alee around to remind him that his ERA was 2.35, not 2.45.
Annie knows the game, too. Jim remembers when he spent about two weeks in Double-A not getting anyone out and not knowing why until his wife pointed out faulty hand positioning in his windup and he was fixed about 10 bullpen tosses later. Now she drives the girls around, enjoying the few months until Alee heads off to college at Azusa Pacific, and she chases the 5-year-old son, Tommy, from her second marriage as the little blond rugrat wanders behind the Shorecrest dugout to hug a friendly black Lab.
In the seventh inning, with Everett trailing by a run, two out and runners on first and second, Megan steps into the box, and Jim peers through the chain-link fence, right up against the backstop. She waggles. She grips the bat with her bare hands. She works the count full. The payoff pitch is six inches low, but the umpire rings her up.
Jim throws up both hands.
"No way," he says, "Come on. Did you call that on the bounce? Unbelievable."
But the rage, the pain, the disbelief, the helpless feeling that your child has been wronged ... it's gone by the time Megan jogs to the dugout in silence and grabs her glove to go back to her position.
Jim knows too well that this is the game: You swallow every bit of the tough stuff to go along with what you love. It still ends up being just about the best deal going.
Everett loses again, and the bus leaves without Megan, who squints in the sun while sitting on the steel of the stands, grinning through her big TV interview. Jim, Annie, Alee and Tommy wait for her to finish so they can all go to dinner nearby before Annie takes the brood 25 miles back up to Everett and Jim drives south.
They stand there in a gravel parking lot, waiting and talking. They look over at a girl they love, so proud of who she is, so eager to know the woman she'll become.