There is a real field of dreams in this country and it's not at your local Odeon Cineplex 8. It's a real ballpark with real grass and a real motel ad painted on the fence and, right now, about 250 empty lawn chairs waiting on history.
And there is a real baseball legend in this country and he's not Robert Red-ford or Kevin Costner. This legend is 18 years old, shaves twice a week and just had a big fight with his best girl.
His name is Jon Peters, and he's from Brenham, Texas. And right now, Friday April 28, 1989, just a few hours before he attempts to break the national high school record for consecutive pitching wins, a whole town hangs on his bony shoulders.
Pressure? The Today show is setting up at the old Band Hall, waiting to see if you win. There was a camera crew in your government class this morning. People have been coming to the ballpark since yesterday and nailing their stadium seats to the bleachers—sort of the Black and Decker approach to reserved seating—waiting to see if you'll let them down.
May 7, 1989
Pressure is hearing that tonight instead of one concession stand, there will be three, and instead of one cop for security there will be eight, and instead of one photographer down the third base line there'll be 20. It's knowing that of the 11,000 folks in your pickup-truck, vanilla-ice-cream town, almost half of them will be sardine-canned into a ballpark that seats 1,200. The other half will be hunched over radios listening to one of four live broadcasts, and anybody left can watch the game later, courtesy of one of the eight TV cameras perched on your dugout roof.
"I swear," said Peters the night before the game, "if I had an ulcer, it'd be fixin' to bust."
And so it was that the 6'2", 190-pound Peters, 50-0 as a righthanded starter for the Brenham High School Cubs, prepared to take the immaculately manicured mound at Fireman's Park in Brenham, 73 miles northwest of Houston, and try to scratch his initials in the park bench of time, just as the town desperately hoped he would.
Not that he hadn't already done all this before.
On April 12 last year, Peters went out on this same field to pitch for his 34th straight win. By all accounts the existing national high school record was 33. Peters tossed a one-hitter against Oak Ridge, 5-0; he had faced the record, beaten it and been relieved of it. But a week later, a reporter from USA Today was on the phone with some distressing news. Seems that nine years ago, Timmy Moore of McColl, S.C., was stopped 1-0 to end his high school winning streak at 50, an achievement nobody had bothered to report to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which keeps track of such things.
Even Moore was unaware of his own immortality. "I thought maybe I'd held some kind of record." said Moore, now a management trainee with a freight company in Cherryville, N.C. "But I'd never been told anything about it."
Poor Peters. It is one thing to rewrite the record books. It is another to have to make a carbon.
Could he win 17 more straight? Peters told a friend, Kevin Picone, he didn't think so. But Peters had underestimated his remarkable unhittability. In the remainder of his junior year, he reeled off eight more en route to Brenham's third straight 4A baseball title. He opened his senior season this year with seven wins, including two no-hitters. On April 21 he won his 50th with a dicey 3-1 win over Taylor High of Katy. Now, just over a year since he broke the unrecord, Peters was back, ready to write his name in the books. This time, in ink.
Already, the sequel was playing even bigger in Brenham than the original. So many wanted to be witnesses to history that the city donated extra bleachers. Folks brought lawn chairs the day before and placed them anywhere the benches weren't. Four Sante Fe Railroad security deputies, armed, were brought in to keep people off the nearby railroad tracks. Six porta-potties were imported and allotted: four for women, two for men. The Girl Scouts cooked up 2,000 hot dogs and 100 apple pies. The Future Homemakers of America served up nachos and Brenham's own Blue Bell ice cream. Businesses closed at four o'clock. As dusk approached, most people in town were fully expecting the moon to come up Cub green.
Stage set, the town ached for a most unlikely looking god. Jon Roland Peters has size XL ears and a country face that has barely grown out of its freckles. His walk is late Walter Brennan. His dress consists mostly of extra-long jeans (the way Opie Taylor used to wear them), gray T-shirts and running shoes. He says "sir" a lot, has a 92 grade average, and can throw a baseball past any high school kid alive.
Never mind what the scouts say, that he doesn't have big league stuff yet—his fastball is timed in the low 80-mph range—he has a big-league head. If you set him 60'6" from a French door, you could name the windowpane and he would put his fastball through it. He'll throw his changeup or his neck-breaking curve on 3 and anything. He has almost 560 strikeouts in his career and less than 100 walks.
But most of all he has a bull-backed will, like that of his role model and idol, alltime major league strikeout leader Nolan Ryan. Didn't Ryan too come from a small town in Texas (Alvin)? And hadn't Ryan pitched right here in Brenham once (1965)? Like Ryan. Peters is nothing if not stubborn. In the four-year life of the streak, he has won in the rain, won with the flu, won with his best stuff and won with his worst. Says Brenham assistant coach Harry Francis. "He never learned to lose."
He has been good and he has been good and lucky. Three times in the streak he left a game losing, and three times his teammates scraped up enough runs to get him a no-decision. Brenham's other starter, James Nix, knows something about the luck of the draw. As of last Friday, Nix had his own 25-game winning streak going, including four no-hitters. The last one, a perfect game, was seen by 400 people. Nix's problem is that he decided to cross the Atlantic the day after Lindbergh.
When asked what it takes to put together a great streak, Peters answers, "Great teammates." But as this game drew closer, Peters felt mostly alone. It has been his custom on most pitching days to go to his girlfriend's house to relax. He and Brenham tennis team star Jill Becker had been steadies for two years. But with their recent spat and all, Jon had been going home instead.
Still, the rest of his good-luck machinery was in place—the ritualistic pool game with buddies the night before, the wearing of the lucky gray T-shirt to school, the trip to McDonald's for his lucky Big Mac, the donning of the lucky green jersey, complete with his lucky number, 21.
So pregnant with promise was Fireman's Park that six fans had backed up a forklift behind the wooden rightfield fence, stuck a huge crate on the lift, got inside and elevated it to mezzanine height. Moore, flown in from Kings Mountain, N.C., to throw out the first pitch, was impressed. "This is the first high school game I've ever seen with sky boxes," he said. If Moore was impressed, imagine how the visiting team, A & M Consolidated, must have felt. They had been invited to a luau only to find out they were the pig.
Beneath a charcoal-gray sky, Peters finally begins the biggest game of his life. Seated behind home plate is Red Murph, the very scout who discovered Ryan more than 25 years before. Peters gulps, twists through his quirky windup and throws. Ball, too high. He is nervous and slightly pale. His next pitch is low, but swung on for a strike. Then Peters throws two more strikes for a K. He strikes out the second batter. Then the third. Pressure that.
Hastily, as if to spare his teammate as much angst as possible, Cubs right-fielder John Schulte lines the first pitch from Consolidated's Brent Ives for a double. One hitter later, Peters singles to right to knock Schulte in. Peters 1, Consolidated 0. Is Jill watching?
The Cubs come up with another for a 2-0 lead, but when Peters returns to the mound, he begins to falter. He walks the first A & M hitter, then, with two outs, walks another on four straight balls. The unthinkable go-ahead run is at the plate. Another ball, his fifth straight. Had he invited the world to his own funeral?
He takes off his cap to wipe his brow. On the underside of the brim, where no one can see, he has written one word: NOLAN.
Two hellacious fastballs later, he moves the count to 1 and 2, wastes one, then punches the batter out on a curve. It is 3-zip in the third when Peters whiffs the side again. And when Brenham lights up A & M for five more runs and an 8-0 lead in the bottom half of the inning, the question is not will Peters get No. 51, it's will he have the audacity to do it with a no-hitter?
"I was standing in the dugout," he would say later, "and I was thinking, Nolan lost his no-hitter the other night [with one out in the ninth to Toronto]. I'm not gonna lose mine."
That settled, he opens the fifth with two strikeouts—his 11th and 12th in 14 outs—then allows Consolidated its deepest penetration of the night, a popup to the shortstop no higher than a Pop Warner punt.
In Texas high school baseball, a team that is ahead by 10 runs in the fifth inning is the winner, and now the question is whether the Cubs can secure Peters' no-hitter without his having to go back to the mound. Two runs will wrap it up. Brenham's Tadd Maass triples to start the inning and is singled home by pinch hitter Joel Wellmann. It's 9-0. Another single and an out later. Nix approaches the plate with the game-ending run at second base. "Go up there and end this thing right now, O.K.?" Peters says in the on-deck circle.
But Nix has a better sense of theater than that. He strikes out, leaving Peters with a delicious chance to consume the night totally. He can not only write the Great American Novel, he can star in the movie, too.
Two outs. The photographers and the minicams creep closer to the base paths. Four thousand or so edge forward on their benches and lawn chairs and roofs and forklifts. Even the Santa Fe guards turn their backs to the tracks to watch.
A hanging curve. A slashing swing. A line drive between third and short. A pinch runner, Dietrich Burks, churning around third and heading home. A throw to the plate too late and too wide. A euphoric Peters, riding a bed of shoulders. An ending to make Frank Capra blush. Peters has knocked in the game-ending run. he has thrown a no-hitter and he has set a record that may be very hard to erase, ink or otherwise.
"Every night before I go out there," he says in the jubilation afterward, "I think, Ts this going to be the one? Is this the night I lose? But, really, never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd make it to this record." Now he has done it not once, but twice. Did they ever ask Leonardo to paint another Mona Lisa?
But that is not what makes the moment whole. What makes it whole is Jon standing on the mound, swarmed by autograph-, hug-and quote-seekers—and seeing Jill. She is wearing his necklace, and from it hangs a gold "21." She smiles at him. He smiles back. Jon & Jill, consolidated.
Maybe someday Jon Peters will be a major league superstar or maybe he'll be a management trainee. Maybe this summer he'll accept a pro contract or maybe he'll go ahead with the scholarship offer he has already signed with Texas A & M University.
But for right now, on this night, on this very real field, he is the greatest high school pitcher ever, on his way to kiss the prettiest girl in school.
"I was thinking, Nolan lost his no-hitter the other night. I'm not gonna lose mine."