Pete O’Brien’s piercing blue eyes peered over the top edge of the newspaper he held, closely watching the slender, young woman move toward him. Sitting in the Saint Claire College library, the six-foot-two inch tall senior had grabbed the sports section after finishing a math assignment, but now focused his attention on a much more attractive figure. “She really is the most athletic, stunning girl I’ve ever seen,” Pete thought to himself. As Haven Jensen approached, she brushed back her long, brunette hair and smiled widely. “Hey handsome,” she said in a soft voice, leaning down to give Pete a gentle kiss. “Ready for the big game today?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. I’m waiting for Danny to finish class so we can head over to the locker room and get into uniform. How about you? You’re certainly looking inspirational.”
Haven grinned. “I hope so, since I plan to watch my two favorite baseball players in the world win a championship. It seems the entire school is buzzing with excitement, and I wanted to wish you good luck.”
Pete stood up, took his girlfriend of seven years in his powerful arms, and kissed her. “I already am lucky,” he whispered.
“Mmmmm. Now what is it again that you have to do this afternoon?” Haven laughed, and ran her fingers through Pete’s sandy blond hair. “Now be good and hit the girl of your dreams a home run today.”
“Are you giving me orders again?” Pete asked with a wink. “You know if you keep kissing me this way in public, people will think you actually like me — imagine what that will do to your reputation.”
“Let the masses think what they want,” Haven replied, pretending defiance. “Only this girl knows the real man beneath that goofy exterior.” She kissed him one more time, and with a wave of her hand, was off.
“By the way, I’ll be the one rooting loudest for Danny and you, so try not to forget about me in the next few hours,” she said over her shoulder. “With soooo many adoring fans, I know it’s difficult at times to keep track of us all.”
Pete blew his love a kiss, packed up his books, and headed out. Danny Grace met him just as he reached the double glass door entry to the library.
“Hey, Smooth,” Pete said. “Good timing, as always. Think we can take the league title?”
“Definitely. I just hope everyone is focused, and the guys wear their hitting shoes today.”
“Good idea. But with two sweet-swinging stars like us on the team, I think it’s a lock,” Pete said behind a knowing smirk. “Hey, seriously, you and me, Danny. Let’s get it done. I want to make today extra special.”
A few hours later, Haven sat on the warm, lush grass, shading her eyes from the bright sun with one hand as she watched the game unfold before her. Pete often described Haven as the ultimate dream girl, a rare jewel that men and women alike could not take their eyes off of when they first saw the 22-year-old co-ed. Standing five feet ten inches tall, she looked like a magazine cover waiting to happen. Even strangers would offer how much she reminded them of a young Elizabeth Taylor, with her mesmerizing eyes and flawless complexion. Haven seemed to take it all in stride, certainly with far less vanity than most girls blessed with exceptional good looks. Even though she often told Pete and Danny that outer beauty was common ¬— and finding someone who was worth knowing and spending time with because of their inner beauty was what really made them special — Haven made it no secret she was grateful for her eye-catching exterior.
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate beautiful packaging as much as the next girl,” she once told them. “But I also understand I was dealt a lucky hand, at least for the most part. My mom made it clear that I only have her, my dad, and God to thank for good genetics, and that anyone who depends on their looks to get them through life is heading for a rude awakening.”
Both boys couldn’t help but admire such a poised, levelheaded approach to life despite the gifts heaven had bestowed upon Haven, one of the many reasons they thought the world of her. A superb all-around athlete, Haven decided at age 14 to focus her efforts on volleyball. It paid off with a full college scholarship. But she also possessed a keen mind and wanted to become a veterinarian with an understanding of natural medicine. As a child, she had witnessed her two beloved dogs, Sparky and Mickey, both die at relatively young ages from blood and lung conditions. The heartbroken young girl vowed to one day make a difference in finding ways to prevent fatal animal diseases and save their owners the profound grief she had felt. In fact, volunteer work at a local humane society while in high school made her even more certain of her future career path.
“Hey, quit making Danny and me look bad with all this volunteering,” Pete had teased during their junior year in high school. “Now I suppose we’ll be expected to follow your example by working at summer youth baseball camps.”
“But you get paid for helping out at those camps.”
“I know, sweetie. Ain’t it great? Live and learn.”
Haven gave Pete one of those looks, and he couldn’t help but laugh.
“Hey, you know if you ever need help with one of your animal projects, I’m here for you. Your wish is my command. With you at the shelter, the phrase ‘lucky dog’ now has a whole new meaning.”
True to her word, Haven had been accepted by several schools of veterinary medicine, and now waited to see which pro baseball team drafted Pete before choosing where to begin the September term. No one could argue that a successful medical career did not hold great appeal for the talented young woman. But Haven valued family, marriage, and the blessings of one day becoming a loving, caring mother above all, and kept the dream of a happy life with Pete close to her heart.
At the moment, however, the game was foremost on her mind. A well-pitched Division I contest, the Saint Claire College Mavericks led 2¬–1 in the top of the ninth inning, courtesy of Pete’s solo home run blast in the second and Danny’s RBI double three frames later. But with one out, rival Portland mounted a last gasp rally, hitting back-to-back singles to place runners on first and third. Murmurs of doubt spread through the partisan crowd. Haven focused her gaze on Pete’s tall, lean figure in center field, watching as he set himself for the next pitch. He always looked so confident to her, so prepared, so ready for anything. She smiled, happy at the thought that such a magnificent man was all hers.
Both runners crept cautiously off their respective bases as the Saint Claire pitcher stared in for the sign, intent on protecting the single-run cushion. Calm and deliberate, he moved into the stretch, checked the runners, and fired a high fastball to home plate. The hitter swung and made solid contact with the pitch, lining a shot toward the left-center field alley. Many of the estimated two thousand spectators jumped to their feet, thinking the ball would be good for at least a double to drive in two runs and erase the Saint Claire lead.
With the crack of the bat, Pete broke to his right, striding with the grace and effortless speed of a gazelle across the manicured grass. At the last moment, he leapt high, snagged the ball in the webbing of his glove, and landed hard on his left leg. The crowd gasped in disbelief, then screamed its approval — Pete had made an impossible catch look almost routine. He took another two steps to regain his balance, planted his right foot, and gunned a long throw to the plate in one fluid motion. Urged by the frantic shouts of the base coach, the Portland runner at third tagged up and sprinted down the line with all the intensity he could muster. The ball arrived on the fly a half second before the sliding player, and the Mavericks catcher made a nice sweeping tag to record the final out.
Students, professors, parents, and other fans cheered wildly, while some poured onto the field to congratulate the players and coaches. Saint Claire had won the game and league championship on a sensational double play executed by its star center fielder. The host of scouts who witnessed the game knew well that only a handful of professional players could have made that throw. With the major league baseball draft fast approaching in June, Pete’s outstanding performance guaranteed he would remain a hot prospect among a number of big league clubs.
As soon as the game ended, Danny had tossed his glove high in the air at shortstop and rushed to Pete, yelling war whoops as he ran. They hugged, and Danny screamed, “Shahhht-gun — what a throw! Cooperstown might as well open a new wing right now. That was incredible.”
“Me? What about you? If it hadn’t been for your winning RBI, this game might never have ended! We did it, Smooth, we’re the champs.”
Both players long ago had decided reaching the major leagues defined their ultimate career goal. Measuring six feet tall with a slender yet muscular build, clear green eyes, and wavy, dark blond hair, Danny was a solid, hardworking player, a combination of dependable defense, skill, desire, and dedication. Scouts projected him as a decent major league middle infielder or utility player, perhaps even a .300 hitter with the right coaching in “The Show.” But Pete possessed greatness. Teams coveted his ability. Talent evaluators regarded him as a highly gifted, five-tool player who hit for a high average with power, ran extremely well, sported an exceptional throwing arm, and was next to flawless in the field — the type of commodity who would fill stadium seats. In fact, Pete reminded nearly everyone who saw him play of Joe DiMaggio, the fluid way he moved while tracking down fly balls and running the bases. He seemed to glide across the field, like a fast sailboat streaming atop the wave crests.
Pete had been drafted at the end of his junior year at Saint Claire. He decided to finish his education — and stay with Haven and Danny ¬— instead of signing for a $200,000 bonus. Determined to prove he’d made the right choice, Pete compiled a sensational senior year that made teams even hungrier to ink a deal. By comparison, while Danny might have a nice career as a pro, Pete was considered “can’t-miss.”
That evening, scores of students gathered at an off-campus fraternity house to celebrate the victory. During the party, Pete motioned to Danny and they walked outside to the back yard.
“Danny, I’ve got some important news. I’m asking Haven to marry me next weekend, and I wanted you to be the first to know.”
Danny’s face lit up as he grabbed Pete and gave him a big hug. “I’m happy for both of you — I was wondering what was taking you so long.”
“I suppose we both always wished she had been born twins, huh?” Pete said wistfully.
Danny rolled his eyes in mock disgust. “Oh sure, and I’d get the good looking, but mean and bossy one — you know, like the time on ‘Star Trek’ when Captain Kirk was separated into good and evil,” he laughed. “No, I think one Haven is enough for people to catch a glimpse of true perfection.”
Pete pulled Danny close and gave him a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you, Smooth. I love you buddy. You’re the best. Which, of course, goes without saying that I want you as my best man for the wedding.”
“Hmmm, let me check my calendar to see if I’m free,” Danny said with a mischievous smile. “Hey, I’d be honored. This is amazing — now we have two incredible events to celebrate. You were right — this really is an extra special night!”
Pete and Danny first met in second grade. What started out as best pals grew over the years into a brotherhood marked by fierce loyalty and respect for one another. An only child, Danny considered Pete an unquestioned family member and closest ally, someone he could always rely on no matter what. With four older sisters, Pete told his dad early on he believed God had sent Danny to rescue him from the crush of dolls, smelly perfumes, teen magazines, and other “girl stuff” that inundated the O’Briens’s Catholic household.
Having a constant, rock-solid companion also helped fill the huge vacuum in Danny’s life created when his father, a marine captain, died fighting overseas. The young boy was only 6-years old at the time.
Danny held warm memories of his dad. Strong, proud, and a true family man who lived his Christian values, the bold, distinguished officer with the strong jaw and quick smile spent as much time with his young son as possible. A huge baseball fan, Tom Grace would toss a little blue ball back and forth with Danny for as long as the boy’s attention would allow. But Danny’s favorite activity centered on riding his father’s shoulders, then being tossed into the air, only to land softly in his dad’s waiting arms. He also relished sitting in his father’s lap, listening to magical stories of courage and honor that always had happy endings.
Danny loved learning from his dad. He would always remember the day this bigger-than-life hero showed him the Grace family crest of arms. Descended from a Norman knight, the Irish clan ventured to the shores of North America decades before the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.
Like so many of their countrymen and women, they found opportunity and freedom in this new home, and Captain Grace captivated Danny with a long-ago tale of adventure and bravery. At the end of the story, he translated the French-language motto on the coat of arms placed above a red and gold lion rearing on its back legs.
“It says, ‘On Grace, Depend.’ I hope you’ll always remember those words and try to live by them, son. Be someone your family can depend on to do the right thing, and be a true friend to the end. And remember, receiving grace means being in God’s favor and love, something you can also depend on. If you have faith in yourself and God, and never give up even when it’s hard not to, you’ll always make your mother and me proud. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes, I think so,” the little boy replied. “I’ll be a hero like you.”
Tom Grace laughed. “Good boy, son. Now let’s go see what wonderful magic your mom is performing in the kitchen. You know, Danny, we’re both very lucky to have her.”
“I know, Dad. Mommy tells me the same thing about you all the time. I like being so lucky.”
But those untroubled times ended on a gray morning in late winter. Danny recalled with vivid starkness how his mother collapsed on the floor, sobbing, the day the dark news breached their door. His father had been killed in action while serving the country he loved, the victim of a cowardly enemy who used women and children as human shields. While doing his best to avoid harming the noncombatants, Captain Grace had been betrayed by his own compassion. As he braved a barrage of bullets to rescue a little boy about Danny’s age who lay bleeding in the street, an explosive device attached to the child by one of the fleeing fighters detonated. The medics could do nothing to save the brave solider. Though he didn’t understand the events thousands of miles from his safe, secure home, Danny knew his world had changed for all time.
Through Little League baseball games and high school playoffs, Danny missed the opportunity to have his dad’s support, offering encouragement or some little reminder only a caring coach could provide. But life never granted the elder Grace the chance to teach his son the skills and finer nuances of the game. Even on Danny’s most successful days, the hurt lingered of not being able to share his triumphs with the man who loved him most in the world.
On his high school graduation day from St. John’s Academy, Danny’s mother handed him one final gift she had wrapped with care in red, white, and blue paper the night before.
“This is from someone who loved you very, very much,” she said.
Danny read the words on the card. It was from his dad. He looked at his mom’s face and saw her eyes were moist. Danny tore away the wrapping to find a beautiful hand-carved wooden box. He lifted the lid. It contained the Silver Star awarded to his father for bravery in combat, a special, gold-plated pin of the family crest, a small, framed photo of Captain Grace in full dress uniform, and a handwritten note. Danny unfolded the paper and read the words his father had penned in blue ink years before:
To my beloved boy,
Always remember that I am with you and part of you, no matter
how many miles separate us. All my love, Dad
From that day forward, Danny wore the little pin under the bill of his baseball cap each time he took the field, never wanting to go into battle without his dad beside him.