Playing with Ghosts

By
Updated: August 22, 2019

A long evening shadow extended from a figure mimicking an exaggerated pitching motion — right arm wind-milling backward in the air, torso stretching as arms are raised high above the head, an embellished leg kick.  The figure exploded forward, firing an imaginary baseball towards the home plate of a childhood now past.  A slight smile cracked the otherwise stoic expression on the man’s face.

“I used to love copying the deliveries of the old time guys I’d see on baseball documentaries,” he said. “They always looked to be having so much fun.  It was all just play to them.  A game.”

The man caught the return throw from his imaginary catcher.  He walked back to the mound, toed the imaginary rubber, and peered in for signs.  He shook the catcher off several times before receiving the sign for the pitch he wanted.  His dark eyes glanced at the setting sun as he took a deep breath.  His left foot stepped back slightly, beginning the old-time motion again.

———

Jeff Ashley sat on the couch in his parent’s living room surrounded by family and friends.  Cell phone in hand, he waited for a call from his agent letting him know he’d been selected in the 2026 first-year player draft for the Planetary Extreme Baseball Alliance.  Everyone waited.

Growing up, Jeff Ashley was the kid every other kid in little league wanted to be teammates.  It brought the assurance of winning games and the added benefit of not having to face him at the plate.  To most in the small suburb of Canarsie, the success of Jeff Ashley on a baseball diamond in high school and, later, in college at the University of Central Florida came as no surprise.  For most, Jeff’s greatness was drilled into them by his father, John Ashley.

John Ashley worked as a maintenance man and custodian for a junior high school, while his wife, Felicia, did daycare out of their home.  They worked hard to provide for their brood of four children, three daughters and son, Jeff.  It was an upbringing that was fairly run-of-the-mill for a middle-class family living in a middle-class suburb of New York City.

The one thing not run-of-the-mill was the right arm of “John’s son”, as Jeff Ashley was known to all his teachers and coaches.

“I remember seeing my dad’s face as all these people came up to talk to him that day,” Ashley said as he recounted draft day.  “Dad was just so proud of – I guess you could say he pushed me real hard growing up, and, I don’t know, it felt like it was some kind of validation for him.”

Jeff Ashley received the call from his agent sooner than most prognosticators expected in the 2026 draft.  He was selected eighth overall by the board-run Okinawa Shisas of the Sovereign League, almost an entire round ahead of projections.  Okinawa had lost its long time General Manager, Morris Ragland, the season prior and had yet to find a true replacement.

“I never should have been selected so high,” said Ashley.  “My agent said no GM would select a reliever with a high draft pick in the first round.  Well, he was right, I guess, the Shisas didn’t have a GM that summer.”

With the first-round expectations of a proud and resilient Okinawa fan-base riding heavy on Ashley’s right arm, he was whisked off the following day to begin his professional career with the club’s short-season-A affiliate, Kobayashi, in Japan.  His excitement for this new challenge was short lived, however.  Four days into getting comfortable with team schedules and his fellow teammates, Ashley received a call from his mother.  His father, John, suffered a heart attack, a blockage known as a widow-maker according to the emergency department doctor that day.  John died inside the ambulance on the way to the hospital.  Jeff caught the first flight back to New York.

“I guess, I was in what they call shock for a couple weeks after my passed,” Ashley said.  “I remember being angry and helpless a lot.  I also remember being confused by some feelings inside me, like I didn’t want to play baseball anymore, at least not competitively.

“Outside of being around the guys, it just hadn’t been fun for a long time.  I played mostly because it was what was expected,” he continued.  “I loved my dad.  I loved him with all my heart, but I never felt good enough, I guess.  I forgot what it felt like to do something for myself, to have fun.  I miss him, though.  I just want to talk to him again.  I want him to watch me play again.”

Ashley returned to Kobayashi after the funeral and pitched in one game, facing two batters, striking out both.  After the game, he showered and left the park.  He didn’t leave his apartment for four days, ordering in food and watching television programs he didn’t understand.

“I just needed to shut everything out for a while.  I was just done.”

When he finally contacted the Kobayashi staff of his whereabouts, he was told he’d been released by the club.  They’d assumed he quit and went back to New York.  It turned out, New York was the last place Ashley wanted to go.

“It felt like there was too much of my past back home, too many ghosts.  I didn’t want to go home at all.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play baseball anymore, but it was all I knew,” said Ashley.  “It was also comfortable to be in a place so unlike anywhere I’d ever known.”

Two weeks after his release from Okinawa, Ashley’s agent found him a spot with the Niihama-shi Ghosts, also in Japan, of the World Independent League.  Ashley struggled to find mound time in 2027, but solidified himself as part of their bullpen last season by putting up solid numbers over 66 1/3 innings.

When asked about not living up to all the expectations placed on him and whether it bothers him to be called a bust by some from within PEBA, he answered:   “All this time I’ve been running from ghosts — all those expectations  — but here I am, playing for a team called the Ghosts and starting to enjoy baseball again.”

———

The imaginary ball sped through the evening air, slamming into the catcher’s mitt.

“Steeeeeeee-RIKE!”  Ashley yelled, pumping his fist.  He looked over at me. “You gonna play or just stand there with your stupid notebook?”

I laughed.  I set my notebook and pen on the grass and walked over to the batter’s box.  Ashley smiled then glared in for the catcher’s sign.  I took a couple practice swings and dug my back foot into the dirt.  He spun his arm around several times, stretched way back, and then brought his arms low as his left leg kicked high.  He delivered the baseball with all his might.  I loaded quick and drove my hands hard to the ball, connecting.  Ashley ducked as the ball zipped past his head and skipped to center field.  I hustled to first and rounded, satisfied with a single.

“You won’t be so lucky next time,” Ashley said with a grin.  “Ghost runner on first.”