Scene: it’s early December of 2018, a sunny day in the backwoods of North Carolina. We cue in on a young man walking down a dirt road, approaching the point it crosses an even smaller dirt track.
The young pitcher was walking the backroads of his hometown*, as he had done so many times. He’d finally made his major league debut, every red-blooded American boy’s dream, and it hadn’t gone well. He’d pitched in eight games for his new team, and his ERA was over six. He liked to walk, and think about life. Things weren’t that complicated when you went walking, after all. Out here in the country, there weren’t usually any people anyway.
Today was different. As he approached the crossroads, he saw there was a man standing there, smoking a cigarette. As he came closer, he could see the old man better. He looked to be about a hundred years old, plus or minus a decade. The stranger had the air of a man who had seen much in his life, and a bit of a hunch to his back, as if he’d spent most of his years doing physical labor. The cigarette he was smoking looked to be home-rolled, and smelled especially unpleasant, and the stranger was wearing an old, black suit.
The stranger looked at the young pitcher, and smiled. After what seemed to be the longest minute ever, the stranger spoke. By way of introduction, he simply said “you know, I used to be a pitcher, too.” Odd, since he was a stranger, and had never asked after the young man’s occupation, or even his name. By way of reply, our protagonist asked if the stranger cared to share any secrets, then.
The stranger challenged the young man to a throwing contest, then and there, and produced a bucket of baseballs, out of nothing but thin air. He said “I can give you the secrets to never lose a game, but first you have to knock those cans off that tree stump behind you.” The young man looked over his shoulder, and saw a stump about sixty feet away. A stump he’d never seen before, despite spending the previous several months walking up and down that same road. On the stump sat three of the rustiest, most dented tin cans he could imagine.
The stranger tossed the young a ball and told him “knock ‘em down,” and watched as the pitcher unleashed a 91 mph fastball, hitting the first can, and sending it flying. “The cutter now” said the old man, and tossed another ball. Another can went flying. “This time show me a curve” wheezed the stranger, and the third ball connected too.
The sky went dark, and lightning struck a tree just down the road. The old man said “its to make your choice, and you know what I want. You’ll never lose a game again, but you’ll lose something else.” A single, solitary tear rolled down the old man’s face, as he waited for a decision.
Just minutes later, the young man walked back down the road, as the sun shone, tossing a baseball to himself and humming softly. Somehow, he couldn’t wait for the season to start.
Fast forward to September of 2019. Zack Littell is 6-0 with the Twins, and a huge part of their revamped bullpen.
*(Littell’s hometown of Haw River, NC is a town of just under 2500 people, located roughly halfway between Greensboro and Durham. Close enough to nowhere for this story to work.)