SAN DIEGO – Not so long ago, when the game had all but given up on him, Jason Lane was driving through the night with his baseball gear in the trunk, bound for an Independent League town he hadn't heard of.
Somewhere between radio stations, his phone rang. It was Jonny, his younger brother by eight minutes. And Jonny proceeded to talk him into that little town, though he'd never seen it either.
"I envisioned it in my head," Jonny said Wednesday afternoon.
A lone blinking light on Main Street, Jonny started. A motel on the side of the road, "vacancy" in the window, but maybe burned out. A ballpark down the street. A bunch of guys in the ballpark, but nobody Jason had ever heard of.
Jason laughed at the stark image. He'd been released a couple days before, waited around and received no calls, then started driving.
"They're going to make a movie about you," Jonny told him. "And this is going to be the low point. The guy who played in the World Series, hit those home runs in the big leagues, pulling into this town at 2 a.m. People are going to say it can't happen, right?"
They're going to say it can't, Jason admitted.
"Now starts the rebuild," Jonny said.
Jason Lane pitched 3 1/3 innings – 10 Pirates up, 10 Pirates down – for the San Diego Padres here on Tuesday night. Then he walked to his hotel across the street and had a good cry.
Lane is 37 years old. He was a major-league outfielder for parts of seven seasons, up until 2007, when he went home for winter and – until Tuesday night – never came back. He'd hit 26 home runs in a season once. He'd hit three home runs in a single postseason, that being 2005, when his Houston Astros played for a World Series championship. He was a good player in his prime and then he wasn't as good and then he was gone, and he kept going home and hitting all winter and then showing up in somebody's spring training and nearly making a big-league ballclub, but not. He started pitching an inning here and there in the minor leagues, a way to make himself useful, and he was OK at it. He'd pitched plenty growing up, in junior college and at USC, where in a national championship game he'd hit a grand slam and been the winning pitcher. Soon, he decided, if he wasn't going to hit his way back to the big leagues, he'd pitch his way back, and it hardly mattered that nobody ever does that. Not with a fastball that goes about 87 mph. Not at 37.
But on Wednesday afternoon, he sat at a locker at Petco Park, framed by a major-league uniform, No. 40. A couple dozen feet away, on a lineup card tacked to a bulletin board, under left-handed relievers, LANE. Up in the press box, on a stat sheet, his ERA: 0.00.
"The last 12 hours, it's blown me away all the responses I've gotten," he said. "I've heard from people that have appreciated the grind, the perseverance part of it."
Their messages and their texts – his brother's shouted, "Right on! We're back!" – and their tweets, so many from strangers, they had touched him. Those 12 hours later his eyes reddened again.
"I knew internally how tough it's been," he said. "But when I was in it there was no choice. I kept putting one foot in front of the other."
Oh, and he's seen some places. Two Indy ball stops. Reno, Nev. Las Vegas. Tucson, Ariz. El Paso, Texas. Released by the New York Yankees, by the Marlins when they were still the Florida Marlins, by the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Minnesota Twins. In and out with the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. He went to Venezuela, to the Dominican Republic, to Mexico. Then he signed with the San Diego Padres last summer.
For a while there, Lane admitted, "It wasn't looking good."
It never occurred to him to stop. He never once thought about knocking out those 18 units he'd need to graduate from USC with an economics degree, go be something else.
See, his dad was a truck driver. His brother is a fire fighter.
He's a ballplayer.
And that's how it works.
His father passed away about a year ago at 66, pulling his last load. Had a heart attack out there on the road, too young. And maybe that was the one call that didn't come Tuesday night, and accounted for some of those tears. They used to talk about this obsession of Jason's, and Glen Lane got it. He'd worked, it seemed, every day of his life, and one day the father told the son, "Man, I don't know how you do it. I don't know how you keep taking these punches."
There was no phone call, but Jason believed he knew the words.
"He would be most proud of how I stayed on course and kept staying the course," he said. "He did it every day of my life.
"He took it hard when I was going through the grind as well. He wanted so badly for his son to do well. Last night, I know he was watching."
On the winding journey, what he refers to almost reverently as "the grind," he'd lost his father. He'd lost his marriage. Then he'd take another step. Throw another inning. He has a 5-year-old daughter. So, for her. He's engaged to a woman he adores. So, for her, too. For his dad, and his mom, and his brother, because they believed in the ending, too. And for him, because he wouldn't leave it alone. He just couldn't.
So he'd go to some new place and fight the time clock and relearn to pitch. He'd locate a few fastballs, throw that dead-fish changeup, summon sliders and curveballs, then start over the next day. It was going to work as long as there was a next day, and he made damned sure there would be.
Back home in Northern California, Jonny was rising through the fire fighter ranks. Six months ago he became a captain. Over the past seven years, Jonny said, he never once asked Jason why he kept at it, why he didn't just give up and come home.
"I felt like it would insinuate I'd given up on his goal," Jonny said.
It had been Jonny who'd gotten the call from Jason 14 years ago, when the Astros first summoned him to the big leagues. And it was Jonny who'd heard the same teary crackle in his brother's voice Monday night.
"It's late," Jonny told him. "What are you doing?"
"Packing," Jason said.
"I got the call."
On Wednesday afternoon, the blare of an alarm sounded in the background and Jonny said he had to go. But, real quick, he said, remember the movie? How it ends?
"With the big strikeout," he said, laughing.
All the way back, from that little ol' dusty town wherever, to the mound at Petco Park, in the big leagues, Jason Lane came out of the bullpen in the fourth inning Tuesday night. He walked across the field, took the ball from Bud Black, breathed deeply.
And struck out Neil Walker.
On his way to the dugout, he allowed himself one thought.
"Wow. That just happened."