Friday, May 27, 2011

Love the Game--A short story about baseball by R.L. Pace

I've been busy reading, then writing reviews for other books and occasionally opining on dining and politics.  It occurs to me that it has been some time since I posted any short stories from my own collection for my readers.  In celebrating my attendance at Safeco Field to watch the Mariners vs the Yankees today, I thought I would share this story.  Remember, of course, that I reserve all rights, so don't be reposting this without attribution please.

So this is where it ends, he thought:  In a hotel room.  No valedictory last season touring all the parks.  No streets named after me or statues in front of stadiums, just a sore back in a cookie-cutter bedroom.

Jim Freedson stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, then, reluctantly swung his legs around to get to a sitting position at the edge of the bed.  He surveyed his surroundings; beige walls with a couple of boring landscape paintings screwed into place, medium gray institutional carpeting with a thread of red and blue running throughout.  In one corner sat an all-purpose table with a lamp, a cardboard tent touting ‘free wi-fi’, and a phone.  The red light in the lower left hand blinked rhythmically indicated messages waiting.  With a groan, he heaved himself to a standing position, wincing as he walked over to pick up the receiver and called the front desk.

“Good morning, Mr. Freedson.  I hope you slept well.  We have some messages for you.”  The disembodied voice at the other end was altogether too damn chipper.

“What city am I in?”  Freedson asked, trying to stretch out the persistent pain in his lower back.

“Uh, Kansas City, sir,” the voice responded uncertainly.  A pregnant pause ensued, then finally the desk clerk said, “would you care for your messages?”

“Sure,” Freedson grunted.  Gawd, he thought, a hotel room in Kansas City, can it get any more prosaic than that?  He stared at the room while absently listening to the usual collection of messages.  Requests for interviews with the media came as he inspected the fake mahogany TV cabinet; adoring fans were wishing him well while he sat on a chair with a tiny table next to it, gushy girls that would sleep with him just to say they had seemed to holographically appear on the spare bed in the room.  All the usual suspects no matter where he went.

“Thanks, connect me to room service, will you?”

“Certainly, sir:  Hit ‘em where they ain’t.”

“I’ll try,” he replied, trying to muster some enthusiasm.  He ordered a rare steak, two eggs over easy on hash browns, whole wheat toast, orange juice and milk.  Coffee made him jittery and threw off his timing.  He never drank it.  It was the same breakfast he had ordered a thousand times before.  Call it habit; call it superstition or maybe just tradition.

Little Jimmy could not remember a time when baseball wasn’t a passion.  His father had been a promising prospect, but a lost limb in Vietnam had dashed his dream, but not his passion.  When his son was born, Frank Freedson had poured all his own ambitions and goals into his child.  By the time he was six Jimmy knew most of the rules of baseball, could spot a curve ball or a slider on TV and by ten had the fundamentals about fielding in a good position to return the ball from the outfield with blazing speed and accuracy.  He adored his father, enjoyed the game and was good at it.  He was a natural.  

In Little League his batting average was .566.  In high school it was .431, in college .392.  He was drafted as a sophomore in the first round, spent half a season in AA ball, where he hit .388 and had sixteen home runs and forty two RBIs in only nineteen games.  In his first major league at bat at age twenty, he hit a ringing double into right-center field off a Bud Black curveball, plating his first two RBIs against the Cleveland Indians.  He was the real deal.  Mickey Tettleton, the starting catcher, immediately dubbed him the Freak and it had stuck ever since.

He spent most of that year riding the pine for the Baltimore Orioles, pinch hitting and giving the starting outfielders days off.  By his third year he was starting, and when free agency came he signed a huge contract, got a big bonus, and settled into an All-Star career.

“Hey, Freak!”  Eddie was pounding on his hotel room door.  “Let’s get a move-on.  Bus leaves in half an hour!”

“I’m coming, earwax.  Don’t get a hard-on.”  Freedson looked at the room service cart.  He didn’t remember it arriving and didn’t remember eating, but there it was, steak fat hardening, egg yolks congealing in the remains of his breakfast.  He was dressed, had his tie on, his blazer waiting on a hangar.

“Hey Eddie,” he yelled at the door.  “How many more games we got here in KC?”

“Just this one, Freak, then its three sweet days off for the All Star break.  Hey, you okay all by your lonesome in there?”

“What makes you think I’m alone?  I could have dancing girls in here.”

“Nah, you got too much of a jones for your wife for that.  You’re one of the good guys.”

“Fat lot you know,” was the only rejoinder Jim could come up with.  “Meet you in the lobby in ten.”  He had had his agent put a private room clause in his last contract.  He had earned the right to a little privacy for his aches and pains.

The All Star break:  Freak had been an All Star seven times in his career, won the Home Run Derby one year.  He also had three Silver Slugger awards, four Gold Gloves, an MVP in a Division Playoff series, a .296 career batting average, three hundred forty two home runs, twelve hundred sixty six RBIs, one hundred ninety five stolen bases and not once had he appeared in a World Series.  It was the blemish on his career that would keep him out of the Hall.

I’m tired of hearing the word ‘still’ when sportscasters talk about me as a ‘feared’ hitter.  Left field wasn’t so bad from center, but I’m spending more time as a DH now.  I won’t go to first base.  Who am I kidding?  I can barely bend over to pick up a towel.  What in the hell am I gonna do with myself?

In the lobby he signed a few autographs, shook a few hands and posed with some fat conventioneers for a photo, then made his way to the team bus.  This was the major leagues; someone else would handle his luggage.  All he carried with him was his wallet, his cell phone and his sunglasses.  He took his customary seat and studied the scene around him.  Young bucks were playing tunes or games on their electronics.  Journeymen were hoping to catch on with this team, to find a spark in their career that had waned in the last city.  Veterans, like him, just settled in for the ride.  Hitters were imagining their at-bats against today’s opposing pitcher.  The starting pitcher was left alone with his thoughts.  It was all so familiar, so comfortable it ached.

Managers used to walk me with one on and nobody out.  I could see the fear in pitcher’s eyes.  Now they whistle a fastball right down the middle.  Here you go Pops, see if you can still find the ball.  No?  Too bad, you had your turn.  Runners used to stop at first when the ball came my way.  Now they challenge my arm all the time.  This isn’t fun anymore.

That was the first time he had allowed himself to actually put that thought in his head.  He wasn’t having fun.  It’s a kid’s game, and he wasn’t a kid any more.

Clichés, everything is clichés.  I’ve lost a step, I can’t reach the curveball, can’t catch up to the fastball, can’t track down the deep fly ball.

“Come on, Freak, you’re holdin’ up the parade.”  Eddie was punching him in the arm.  He looked around and realized the bus had stopped inside the perimeter of the stadium.  The door was open and the Manager had already stepped off.  Everyone was waiting for the senior veteran to get a move-on.

“Sorry, you guys lousy music musta lulled me to sleep.  No wonder you’re only hitting a buck seventy five.”

Jim Freedson stepped off the bus.  The usual gaggle of home town hecklers, ex-pat fans and wide-eyed kids lined the perimeter fence.  Again, he went over to the fence and signed autographs.  He could afford the time today, and besides, even cheap seats could set a family of four back a couple of hundred bucks by the time they had dogs and drinks.  It seemed like the least he could do for the people that had made him a multi-millionaire.  He never forgot it was the fans, not his agent or the teams that had made him rich.  No fans, no dough, no question.  He had always been as loyal to them as they had been to him.  

He took a baseball, scuffed and covered with grass stains held with outstretched arms by a kid that looked to be about ten.  He was wearing a Tee shirt with the name of a local hardware store emblazoned across the front, and a cap with the KC logo on it.  There was a faded marking on the ball indicating it was of Official Little League origin.  He wrote on the surface, ‘love the game, play by the rules’, the date and his name, handed it back to the kid and headed down the runway to the locker room.

As he walked past his locker, he could see his uniform, road gray with a number seven prominently displayed, hanging there.  Clean, in good repair, ready for another day in the majors.  It was the Mick’s number, Mickey Mantle.  The best switch-hitter to ever play the game and Freedson’s idol, even though Mantle had retired before he was born, because it had been his father Frank’s favorite player as a child.  He breathed in the talcum and sweat and steamy aroma of the locker room as he knocked on the Manager’s office and let himself in.

Fans were just beginning to pour into the stadium to watch batting practice as his taxi pulled away and swam upstream against the flow.  It was about thirty minutes to the airport where his Gulfstream 5 was waiting in the hangar.  He didn’t remember the cab ride, or the flight.  His agent would issue a statement, the team would have a press conference, eventually he would do a few interviews, but not today.

“Hi, Honey.  I’m back.”

His wife, her eyes brimming, held her husband tightly for many minutes until finally he gently broke her hold and wiped away her tears with his thumbs.

“No tears.  It was time.  Everybody knew it but me.  Ted Williams was right.”

“Ted Williams?”

“It’s time for me to go fishing, he said; time for me too.”

“If we leave now, we can just make it,” his wife said.  “Let’s go.”

They drove in silence through the exclusive neighborhood where they lived, past an older development of homes needing paint and new roofs.  Beyond a few weed-covered, boarded up factories until finally they reached the miniature fields where local baseball teams played.  The dugouts were wooden benches behind a screen and there were a few creaky old bleachers behind the backstop and about halfway down each baseline.  There was no grass in the infield, no chalk lines to mark batter’s boxes or foul lines, no luxury boxes or mezzanines and no toilets except two Porta-Pottys, one marked for boys, the other for girls.

“Frank doesn’t know you’re coming.  He thinks you won’t be home till tomorrow.”
“It’s okay; I’d like to surprise him.  Let’s just sit in the bleachers for a while”

Freedson acknowledged a few parents he knew, choosing not to notice the surprise registering on several faces when he took his seat.  It took about twenty minutes, but finally Frank found his mom as he expected and a big grin split his face when he spotted his dad next to her.

“Hey, Dad, come here!”  His son motioned to him vigorously and the Freak made his way down to the bench.

“You’re early, didja get an earlier flight?”

“You might say that, son.  I retired.”

His son studied his father’s face for a few moments.  Freedson could see the wheels turning behind his son’s eyes, then his son's face lit up again with another broad smile.

“That’s great, Dad!” he enthused.  “Billy Carter’s father got transferred, again.  C’mere guys, my dad is gonna be home now, whaddya say?”

The youngsters gathered around the All Star, their dirty faces smiling up at him, anxious, full of energy, full of life and anticipation.  Finally one of the kids tugged at his jacket sleeve.

“Come on, Coach.  We gotta game to play.  You gonna help or not?”

“Yeah,” Freedson managed to choke out.  “I am.  I surely am.”

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