Jack’s birthday was this past Saturday, but we’re throwing his party tonight. You’re more than welcome to attend.
Being the East Coast VP of Sales for the largest health benefits company in the country, Jackson Lee Custis is responsible for overseeing all the branches from upstate New York to Miami. And as such, he’s accustomed to doing some traveling from time to time, even on his birthday weekend.
So the kids and I decided to postpone their daddy’s birthday celebration. It’s going to be an extravaganza. Uncle Tommy and Aunt Judy, Frank from Accounting, even Mayor Wallace and his wife—they are all coming. And why wouldn’t they? Everyone loves my husband.
We’re going to grill steaks, have a catered barbecue, and even a live band and fireworks. The kids and I are pulling out all the stops for this one.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Abigail Custis, how’d you manage to get fireworks? And why even get them for a birthday party?”
I’ll let you in on a little secret. The fire marshal, Bill Longstreet, just happens to be one of Jack’s golfing buddies. And since his birthday is July 7, 1977, or 7-7-77, Jackson has always been associated with a pinch of luck and good fortune—that’s why his parents nicknamed him “Jackpot.” So, fireworks just seemed appropriate.
Now, where are my manners? I haven’t even told you when the party starts. It’ll begin at six o’clock and last till—gosh, I don’t know. I mean, the last scheduled event is the fireworks at nine, so I imagine most people will stick around until then.
Don’t you lose any sleep over some people not showing up or leaving early, okay? They wouldn’t think of it and neither should you. What else would occupy their time on a Tuesday night in July?
Oh, you’re hinting at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, aren’t you?
That’s tonight, isn’t it? Must’ve slipped my mind. But why would anyone in Richmond be interested in that? Just because Richmond native, Austin “Bull” Pickett of the San Francisco Giants will be the National League starter? So what? Big deal.
Oh, alright! You got me. I may have deliberately scheduled Jackson’s party to conflict with the game but I did it for good reason. Jackson and Austin are best friends and they always dreamed of playing in the major leagues together. Austin made it and Jackson didn’t. I fear that seeing Austin in the national spotlight might make Jack resentful.
Not that Jack is jealous by any means. On the contrary, he’s always been Austin’s biggest supporter. He keeps in touch with Bull regularly and even helped him get his finances back in order after a nasty divorce almost ruined him.
We all know that Jackson was the better athlete. Both were phenomenal baseball players—Jack, an all-everything shortstop and Austin a top-notch pitcher—but if it came down to choosing between the two, everyone in the Richmond-Petersburg area—and all of Virginia—would’ve chosen Jackson and not thought twice about it. I’m afraid if that game’s on, Jackson will start picking a fight with the Woulda-Shoulda-Coulda’s—a wrestling match that I ultimately would lose.
What would I have to lose, you wonder? Oh, now you’re really trying to get me to talk out of school. You must take all Southern gals for gossips. Well, I for one am a daughter of the South who won’t air out my family’s business. But if you’re to understand why tonight is so important, then I must start at the very beginning.
Jackson, Austin, and I all grew up in the same neighborhood. Born ten days apart and living across the street from each other, Austin and Jackson were destined to be best buds. The two were practically inseparable. I was a year behind the two of them and my house was adjacent to Jack’s.
At the time all the families on our quarter were blessed, or cursed depending whom you asked, with having all females. Of the eleven families, seven of them of them had produced nineteen daughters and nary a son. Even in my family, I was the youngest of three girls. When Jackson and Austin finally broke through as the first and only boys on the block, the whole neighborhood adopted them as their own sons. They were treated like princes.
Since everyone else was older than us by at least a decade, Jackson, Austin, and I spent a great deal of time together. I tagged along with them wherever they went. If either of them were ever bothered by that it, they were gentlemanly enough to never let me know.
But do you want to know who was bothered by all the time I spent with the boys? My Momma, of course. Daddy was a lawyer for Big Tobacco and is a very influential man in town. Momma feared that the reputation of Patrick and Eleanor Fitzhugh would suffer irreparable damage if it got around town that their youngest daughter was a “tomboy” and a “rugrat.”
She’d always be after me to be elegant like my older sisters. I can still hear her admonishing me, “Abigail Marie Fitzhugh, rolling around in the sandlot is no place for a young lady!”
Momma would try to get Daddy to side with her. But he wouldn’t pay her no mind. Daddy always came to my defense. Why wouldn’t he? I was his little princess, the daughter of his old age. He couldn’t refuse me any request. He’d tell Momma, “Oh Eleanor, just leave the child be. She only gets to be a kid once.” I love my Daddy.
So, besides the occasional disapproving look from Momma, the boys and I enjoyed a playfully pleasant childhood. I watched as Jackson and Austin would imitate their favorite players. Jack always pretended to be Dale Murphy of the Atlanta Braves. We watched so many of their games during the dog days of summer. Murphy was our best hitter back then, so naturally Jack gravitated to him.
Austin, on the other hand, always preferred pitchers. Unfortunately, the Braves pitching staff was horrendous in those days. The glory years of Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine didn’t arrive until we were all deep into high school. So Austin favored Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers as his boyhood idol. Hershiser, who was nicknamed “Bulldog,” had that magical run in ‘88 where he pitched 59 straight scoreless innings. During that stretch, nobody was happier for the Bulldog than Austin.
Everywhere he went, Austin told everyone that he’d be a great major league pitcher like his idol, Bulldog Hershiser. Jackson was always tall for his age but not Austin; bless his heart, he didn’t shoot up until his senior year of high school. He was always a runt of a fellow, so whenever he would sing that refrain about being the next Bulldog, the people around town would derisively call him “Baby Bulldog,” which, over time, was shortened to “Baby Bull” until it was just “Bull.”
“Jackpot” and “Baby Bull” built up quite a reputation for being fierce competitors on the field and gentleman off of it. They loved to compete: baseball, collecting cards, board games, riding bikes. You name it, Austin and Jackson could make a competition out of it. The two them competed over everything, except for me of course.
It was clear to everyone for as long as I can remember that I was firmly on Jackson’s side of the equation. I’ve been crushing on him since I was four and he was five.
That didn’t seem to bother Austin none. He really wasn’t interested in girls like that as a lad. To him, a girl was a necessary nuisance at best, and at worst, an unintelligible crybaby. He tolerated me because he said I was different. I wasn’t a regular girl; I was one of the gang with him and Jack. To be honest, Austin really didn’t pay females any mind until late in middle school. But by the time he finished high school, he had developed a reputation for being a notorious flirt, a distinction that has followed him to the major leagues even to this day. But you didn’t hear that from me.
Once high school started, Daddy sided with Momma and forced me to spend less time with the boys and more time training up to be a proper lady. That meant piano and voice lessons at church and weekly elocution practice from a private tutor. It was all such a bore to me. I wanted to be out at the practices watching Jackpot and Bull tear up the diamond. But we all have to grow up some time, I suppose.
Meanwhile, the boys had become even more serious about baseball. By their sophomore year, they both were full-time starters for the varsity team at Tee Jay, Thomas Jefferson High School. Jackpot and Bull were the main cogs of a Vikings team that won back-to-back state championships. And the more attention they were getting on the diamond, the less I was seeing either of them off it.
During that time my love for Jack never waned. In fact it grew more intense because he was intentional about making me feel special even though we weren’t seeing each other as often. Following the advice of his mother—Jackson always was a bit of a momma’s boy at heart—he would write me notes and send me cards and the occasional flowers just to let me know I was still his belle, and he my beau. That reassurance was all I needed. Until the summer going into my junior year.
Jackson and Austin were going to be seniors and had just claimed the first of their back-to-back titles. Talk was that they both would get drafted the following year and each sign six-figure bonuses before shipping off to God-knows-where to begin their careers in the minors. This threatened to ruin my lifelong dream of becoming Mrs. Jackson Custis.
I began panicking. If what everyone was saying were true, I knew that I’d be stuck in school one more year while Jackson rode the buses through countless backwater towns playing ball without me. I couldn’t bear to think about it. While everyone in Richmond was praising the boys’ success, I was secretly loathing that my storybook marriage was dissolving before it had even begun.
That summer, Jackson and Austin played together on a traveling Legion team. Coach Abernathy managed the all-star team and organized a series of barnstorming exhibitions across the southeast United States. His goal was to garner more exposure for the local players to help them win scholarships to college or perhaps catch the eye of major league scouts. The two-week trip was a roaring success. Austin and Jackson were again the standout players. Upon their return, Coach Abernathy informed the entire town that Jackpot and Bull had both received invitations to play in the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars the following month. Coach Abernathy would serve as one of the coaches.
Coach Abernathy ensured everyone that a good showing would all but secure a high draft position for each of them. Everyone was thrilled beyond belief. Everyone but me, of course.
I ran to Daddy, bawling and demanding that he do something to prevent Jackson from going away without marrying me. Daddy just gave a bemused look and said, “Darling, what do you want me to do? You should be proud for Jackson. He’s got a shot to do something extraordinary. I can’t stop him. And even if I could, Sweetheart, I can’t hold the boy to a pledge he made as an eight-year-old.”
“He was nine,” I shouted back through stifled tears, “and he promised. He said he was a man of his word! That should mean something, right? He said he was a man of his word!”
“That he did, Munchkin, that he did.”
For the first time in my entire life, Daddy had failed me. He failed to reassure me that everything would be okay. And he failed to solve my problem. Or so I thought.
In the month leading up to the Tournament of Stars, Coach Abernathy was a frequent dinner guest of ours. After we ate, Momma and I would be excused from the dinner table so that Daddy and Coach Abernathy could discuss “pertinent business.” I’m not exactly sure what all they discussed but I have a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with money.
Coach Abernathy was a wonderful baseball man but a terrible investor. He had built up so much debt over the years and the multiple baseball leagues he’d help organize were running thin on local sponsorship. It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to figure out what Coach Abernathy wanted from Daddy.
The week before the big all-star game, there was a press conference at the West End Community Center announcing a major financial investment by a group of local businesses led by Daddy’s law firm, a couple of his Big Tobacco clients, and some neighborhood banks to save the recreational sports in our area. They pledged a combined $10 million to build a state-of-the-art rec center and three new baseball fields in the upper West End.
Coach Abernathy was named the day-to-day director of the new facility, while Daddy and some other men on the board handled all the financial decisions of the operation. Of the three new baseball fields that were built, the most prominent one was named after Daddy. To this day, Patrick Fitzhugh Field is the crowning jewel of the West End Fieldhouse—The Weef for short.
It was at that same press conference that Coach Abernathy announced regretfully that he’d only be taking one of the local heroes with him to the Tournament of Stars. I don’t remember all the specifics but the decision was made that only Bull would attend. There was a small outcry at first but that died down quickly as neither Jackson nor his parents objected.
You can guess the rest of the story, can’t you? Austin performed brilliantly in the Tournament of Stars, increased his national profile, and got drafted by the Giants the following summer. After being left off the team, Jackson finished his senior year, then quit playing baseball altogether.
The following year, I graduated high school and Jackpot and I were married six weeks later. I gave birth fourteen months after that.
While Bull Pickett fast-tracked his way through the minor leagues on his way to the big show, Jackson rooted on his pal. Jack watched Austin make one All-Star team after another, while he got one lucrative promotion after another and I gave birth to one child after another. So you see, we all ended up getting the lives we’ve always wanted.
You don’t agree? I know what you’re thinking and shame on you for thinking it! You’re suggesting that Daddy bribed Coach Abernathy to keep Jackson of that team, aren’t you? How dare you!
First off, nobody knows what was said between Daddy and Coach Abernathy in those evening meetings. I didn’t overhear them talking and neither did you. Secondly, everyone knows how much Daddy loves athletics. There’d been talks about revamping youth sports in town for decades. That deal was probably in the works years before the all-star games. The fact that the announcements were made simultaneously is purely coincidental.
And, even if what you’re thinking about Daddy is true, can’t you see that it was the right thing to do in the end? Sometimes, a man has to do the wrong thing but for the right reasons. You can see that, can’t you?
Just look how our lives have turned out. Jackson and I have been married for sixteen wonderful years and have five beautiful children who adore him. He’s a wealthy businessman and a respected leader in his industry. And he’s been living out his boyhood baseball dreams vicariously through his best friend, whom he still loves and supports. I shouldn’t feel guilty about any of this, right?
“Oh, Honey! What are you doing home so early? You ruined the surprise. Please say hello to our guest.”
“Howdy. I’m Jack, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Jack the kids and I planned a big party to celebrate your birthday. Everybody’s coming.”
“That’s great, Sweetie! When’s the party? Is it tonight?”
“Why, of course it’s tonight, Silly.”
“But the All-Star Game’s tonight and Bull’s starting. How could you forget?”
“Must’ve slipped my mind.”
“That’s okay. I have bad luck with all-star games, anyway.”
“Yeah, it still gnaws at my gizzards how Coach Abernathy left you off that team. That was so unfair of him!”
“Leaving me off the team was kind of Coach Abernathy. I’m lucky that’s all he did. It could’ve been much worse.”
“Jackson Lee Custis, what ever could you mean?”
“While on the road that summer. Mrs. Abernathy bought alcohol for Bull and me. Bull got hammered and passed out immediately. Mrs. Abernathy and I were wasted and she made a pass at me. Coach caught us making out and was mortified. He was so embarrassed by the incident—and so was I—that he kicked me off the team with no commotion. He should’ve beaten the tar out of me!”