Heh, if only you all knew how much writing 3500 words in a night is a catharsis...(they were not the ones you're about to read...they're the ones you're probably going to see between Christmas and New Year's)
(c) Rebecca Glass, All International copyright laws apply
The Season, Part Nine
Liam Laurens, trainer, fourth year
The injuries, minor or severe, always seem worse after a loss.
Liam Laurens has been an athletic trainer for fourteen years, and the Spartans’ trainer for four, and every year it’s the same thing. After a win, even the guys with injuries that will sideline them for most of the season feel as though they’re healthy enough to scale Everest. After a loss even the healthy young bench players like Kent and Eliot feel aches in their shoulders and everywhere else in their bodies.
When a loss comes on a day like today—the first home game of the season—it rips into even Liam’s bones, causing a dull ache that does not cease the entire time Liam is in the trainer’s room. There is little for Liam to feel good about—the Spartans lost to the California Diablos, a good team, by a score of seven to two. Paul Green’s first start did not go as planned; he did not make it out of the fourth inning, and the forty minute rain delay only exacerbated the situation. Never mind the balmy fifty-degree temperature or the nasty fall Bran took on the soggy centerfield grass. Normally, it’s not an issue as the Hope City baseball stadium has a retractable roof, but it’s an old roof and there have been problems trying to close it. Maintenance was supposed to fix it, but a strike over the winter by the union guys in Hope City meant that nothing got done, and thus the Spartans will likely play the entire year as if their stadium had no roof at all.
The trainer’s room at the Stadium looks just as bleak as a hospital ward; though there are no actual beds, there are multiple examination tables, multiple IV poles, and, of course, the overpowering smell of antiseptic. In fact, Liam would be lying to himself if he said he hadn’t seen hospital wards that were more cheerful. The décor doesn’t help much—the bare walls are painted black, with red and gold accents, just to differ the room from the adjacent weight room, which has gold walls with red and black accents. Before a game or after a win, there will be some sort of music coming through the speakers—usually some form of classic or alternative rock, but on occasion hip-hop or country—but after a loss, the room remains silent.
Sometimes Liam considers donning a Reaper costume after a loss, but his sense of humor has been labeled inappropriate in the past, so he keeps the idea to himself. At any rate, such a costume would look comical with Liam’s pudgy frame and balding head. If anything, Liam looks more suited to be a sportswriter, less the trench coat and the hat with the press credentials in the hat band.
It’s often a thankless job, being the trainer after a loss; no one will directly blame Liam for a loss, of course, but if, on the off chance someone gets hurt, even a little, then it is his fault, and only his fault. So when Liam makes his rounds, Pete’s with him, for moral support, as Pete calls it.
“Davis is going to be something,” Pete says, referring to the Diablos’ left fielder, as Liam is busy taping up Leo’s knee. It’s the sort of thing that Liam probably wouldn’t need to do after a win—there’s no noticeable injury, just Leo’s word that it aches.
“You think?” Geoff Davis first played last September, but has passed largely unnoticed, especially outside of the division. Liam’s heard the name maybe once before the game today, but he’s not surprised Pete knows it. Pete always seems to know things no one else does, but Liam guesses that’s part of being a manager.
“It’s not just what someone does that you need to look at, it’s how they do it.”
“What do you mean?” Liam’s interest is genuine, and it comes across as such. Leo’s heard this before, so he is in a separate universe, talking to Richie who is busy wrapping his shoulder.
“Davis only went one-for-three, but he walked twice and got three ball counts each at bat. Shows a good eye.”
“Ah.” Liam understands what Pete is saying—that it’s more important to show effort each at bat than just plain getting lucky—but he’s not sure that it’s something that can be gauged by one game, and he says at much. “Only one game, though.”
“Yes, but if Davis plays every at bat like he did today, it will pay off, and sooner rather than later.” There’s a certain tone in Pete’s voice that tells Liam that Pete would do a lot to get this kid on the Spartans, but that Charlie Haus is of a different mind, and it is, of course, Haus’s mind that matters.
“Ah, well, we’ve got a young center fielder that’s pretty good as well.” Liam laughs as he talks about Bran; he’s not an all star yet, but Bran is the best lead off man the Spartans have had in a long time.
“Yes,” Pete says, implying there’s more to be said, but not in front of Leo.
That’s enough of a clue for Liam to figure out that Pete is thinking of Geoff Davis playing left field, instead of Leo. Leo did not have the world’s greatest season last year, but Liam still thinks it’s a bit unfair. Leo has been playing for ten years, a long time, but in Liam’s mind he’s got a while to go before the term ‘washed up’ should begin to apply.
“Wasn’t Davis that killed us, though.” Liam and Pete make their way around the room, pausing so Liam can wrap someone’s knee or elbow, or otherwise make the loss seem a little less painful.
“No? Three run home runs do tend to do a lot of damage.”
“We were already down four-one at that point…”
“Three runs can be made up with one swing. Six can’t.”
“Okay, you have a point. How’s this for argument: we were killed today because we left eight men on base. Bottom third of our line up had an oh-fer.”
“Well, yes, that doesn’t help, but you win games with pitching. Paul gave up seven runs in four innings.”
“You don’t seemed too concerned about it,” Liam says, noting that Pete’s voice carries none of the concern it would have if it had been Micah or William pitching. The two of them somehow wind up in Pete’s office; it doesn’t matter where they start, they always end up here. Pete takes a seat in his large office chair, as though getting ready for a hoard of reporters. Liam stays standing; he feels more like an adult and less like a kid when he does so.
“Paul’s problem was his nerves. He couldn’t control half of his pitches because of the nerves.” Pete implies that the poor start was due only to it being Paul’s first, and that it would be unlikely Paul would have the same problems later on in the season.
“Did he say that?”
“Didn’t have to.”
“What did Steven say when you were on the mound?”
“Paul’s mechanics were okay, he can use a bit of work on his changeup, but that wasn’t the big issue. Too much adrenaline.”
“Ah. When does he start on the road?”
“At New York.” There is a loud silence after these words. A road start at New York, for a Hope City pitcher, is not much different then asking him to start game seven of the championship series. Actually, Liam muses, it’s more like asking a pitcher to parachute into a war zone with no armor or weaponry.
The Spartans/Knights rivalry is not as huge to those in New York City as is Knights/New England Tribe, but in Hope City, it is everything. Pete’s told Liam before, that when he was hired as manager, there were two goals for him to attain—win a Championship, and beat the Knights. In fact, Pete was told by Charlie Haus directly that it was more important for him to find a way to beat the Knights—a way to prove that the Spartans belonged in the same league. The all-time record was about even, but the perception was always that the Knights won, and, for the New York papers, anyway, it was the perception that mattered.
“You think he’s ready for New York?”
“Right now, if he doesn’t make the start, it’s Monty making the start.”
“Ah.” Liam remembers well enough that his first year with the Spartans was also Monty’s rookie year, and the disaster those few starts had prove to be—that year the Spartans went 5-19 in April, no doubt in part due to Monty’s 0-3 record. While 8-16 is hardly a much better way to start, it is again the perception that matters.
“We need another pitcher.” It comes out as a question.
“We need another pitcher.”
#7 Li Ming, pitcher, unsigned.
“We would like you to come play for our team in America.” The words are presented first in English, then garbled up in the head of the translator and spat back out in Mandarin.
Li Ming, dark-haired, tall, and dressed in a crisp, first-time-worn suit, ponders the words. He’s sitting at a table, next to the translator, directly across from an American man he’s only met for the first time a month ago. The man is middle-aged, with musty brown hair and large brown eyes, dressed in a white dress shirt and dress pants, and has a name Li can’t quite pronounce: Haus. They are all in a small, cramped room above Li’s father’s restaurant, Brendan having gotten the address from Li’s team’s manager.
The words coming from Brendan’s mouth sound ugly. They sound like someone trying to speak with a mouth full of water, capable of making nothing but hideous gulping noises.
Coming from the translator, however, the words seem as though they are descending from heaven. Come play in America. It’s not the idea of leaving China for a country Li’s only ever heard about in the news and through rumor; it’s the idea of playing for a professional league where he could make a salary beyond his dreams, enough to support not just his immediate family, but his extended family as well. Many of his family members thought he was wasting time, playing baseball when he could have joined his father in running a restaurant. Li doesn’t want to get his hopes up…but this man, Mr. Haus, does not seem like he is hiding anything.
“You want me to play in America?” Li asks in Mandarin; the words are recycled through the translator, and Brendan Haus waits patiently for the translator to finish.
“We would like you to come play for our team, yes. In Hope City.” The conversation continues like this, from Brendan to Li and back to Brendan through the translator.
“Where is Hope City?”
“It’s in New York.”
“By New York City?”
“A ways north and west from New York City, but only four hours by car.” Li ponders this for a moment. He knows very basic American geography—New York City is on the east coast, Los Angeles is in California on the west coast, Florida is in the south. He is a fast learner, though, so he thinks when he gets home tonight he’ll take out his father’s old atlas and look up the exact location of Hope City. Thinking about his father spurs on another question.
“What about my family?”
“What about your family?”
“Can they come to America as well?”
“Certainly. I mean, I can’t guarantee them jobs, but with what we’re prepared to pay you, I’m not sure that’s going to be much of a concern.”
“What are you…” Li feels odd completing the question. He’s never really worried about his salary before; it’s never been much, but it’s always been enough. He knows enough about baseball in America to know that what Brendan might offer could be beyond his comprehension, but he also knows that not all baseball men are that generous, and he could be offering him something well below league minimum.
“We are prepared to offer three million dollars, American, over three years.” There is a tense silence as the translator exchanges the English words for Mandarin ones, but the translator’s voice perks up when he translates the word million.
“Three million dollars?” Li is so stunned by the offer that he comes off sounding as though he is disappointed in it.
“Yes. I know it’s not what we would normally pay for someone that’s been professional for a while, but we’ve never tried to sign a Chinese player before, so it’s a bit of a risk for us, because we don’t know how you will do against our league. We’ve been keeping an eye on you for a while, though, and it’s a risk we are prepared to take.” It takes a while for the words to be translated, and it takes longer for Li to comprehend them, before he realizes that the confusion is because Brendan thinks Li is insulted.
“Sir,” Li says, deferential, “Three million dollars is no small salary. I am very grateful for this opportunity, but I need to talk to my family first.”
“That is understandable,” Brendan says, “but my brother, Charlie, would like a decision as soon as possible. The Spartans need a pitcher badly.” Brendan doesn’t add that he doesn’t want any of the other teams—teams with much deeper pockets—to get a chance to make an offer to Li.
“How can I let you know?”
“Your manager has my phone number. I am supposed to go back to the United States in two weeks, but I can delay up to a week.” Brendan stands up, signaling that the meeting is over, and Li and the translator do the same. Li extends his hand, the handshake being the gesture his manager had told him to be sure to get down pat before meeting Brendan. “I hope to hear from you soon.”
Li finds that his legs are not quite as strong as they usually are as he tries to walk down the stairs to his father’s restaurant. Three million dollars. Three million. It’s a number he can hardly comprehend. Sure, he’s read about players in America getting twenty-five million or fifty million dollar contracts, but they’re professional superstars. He’s not very well known outside of his league. Three million dollars is more than enough to pay for anything he could possibly want, more than enough to pay for anything his family—his father, his mother, his grandmother, his aunt, his sister and his brother—could want, either.
Li’s father is at the front of the restaurant, looking over the menu as a painter might a portrait. He’s dressed in a business suit as crisp as Li’s; it’s his best one. He did accomplish his goal of getting Brendan Haus to try some of his food—duck, as it was—but he could tell that Brendan was not that enthused by it. It wasn’t anything personal, though Li’s father has no way of knowing, just that Brendan Haus has a weak stomach and does not enjoy spicy food.
“Father,” Li says, softly. If his father is so enveloped in studying the menu, the worst thing Li can do is to draw his father violently out of his dream state. His father picks his head up slowly, as if awakening after a decade-long coma.
“Yes?” Li can see the apprehension on his father’s wrinkled, calloused face.
“Mr. Haus has offered me three million dollars to play baseball in America.”
“He also said you are welcome to come.”
“No, everyone.” Li can tell his father is mulling it over, though his father’s expression remains blank. His father has obviously thought about this scenario before, and come to his own decision, and now seems to be attempting to confirm it.
“I can’t leave the restaurant.”
“You wouldn’t come?”
“What would happen to the restaurant? It is my life; I can’t just leave it. I know baseball means so much to you, so you should go. You have a chance to live your dream. Three million…you would be a fool not to take it.” Li’s father speaks in a soft, measured, patient voice. The sincerity in his eyes tells Li more than the actual words he says.
“What about everyone else?”
“We can sort that out later.” Meaning, Li thinks, that it’s not a topic his father wants to consider, at all. “As I said, you would be a fool not to go.”
Li does not respond, but instead nods. His father’s approval would not get much more explicit than that, but Li hadn’t realized how much the idea of him going on his own, without his father or his family, would make him hesitate.
He leaves the restaurant without knowing what he wants to do and starts walking down to the baseball field on which he first played. By the time he reaches the field, old, weedy, caked with mud, but still inviting to the young boys playing an impromptu game on it, he’s made his decision.
After the game, he delights the boys by asking them what the think of America, and if they would ever consider visiting a place called Hope City.
#3 Graeme Johnson, pitcher, eleventh year
Graeme Johnson is not like most of the other Texans he knows--even though he was born in a suburb of Dallas, he has no pride in his home state. Texas is football country, and Graeme Johnson was unlucky enough to be partially responsible for his high school team losing the championship game his sophomore year. He decided to pursue only baseball after his inability to recover a fumble, but in Texas the glory goes to the guys on the gridiron. Everyone knows that.
It is thus, perhaps, no great surprise that when Graeme pitches at home, against the Texas Stampede, on the first day that the temperature has risen above fifty degrees, that he does so with a little extra, playoff-like effort. Pete, Dennis and Richie have been around long enough to notice it, and Ben picked up on it the very first season he caught Graeme. Every time they ask him if he wouldn’t consider putting forth that effort against all other teams, and every time Graeme replies that he simply doesn’t have the hatred for the other teams he has for anything related to or coming from his home state.
Muscular, Graeme has the body of a Greek god, but he’s also got a rough, dark blond, bearded face that is much more reminiscent of the barbarian tribes. Family legend says that Graeme’s ancestors were among the Saxon raiders that settled in England, but Graeme’s never been much of a history student, so it means next to nothing to him. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to use his looks, however; he is perfectly capable of scaring the shit out of a rookie on the opposing team just by looking at him in a certain way.
This is, of course, what Graeme is in the middle of doing, right now. The Stampede’s vaunted rookie third baseman, Derrick Hull, in his first at bat, has looked straight at strike one and strike two. He hasn’t flinched, hasn’t lifted the bat off of his shoulder, but Graeme thinks that he’s shaking, just a little bit. He can see it in the rookie’s knees. Graeme knows Derrick Hull is going to swing at the next pitch, just because he has to prove to the world that he is not utterly intimidated, but, even so, Graeme takes care when signaling to Ben that he wants to throw the pitch low instead of “climbing the ladder”. At least then, if Derrick does make contact, it’s much more likely to be a ground ball than a fly ball. Ground balls can never be home runs, and the score, at 1-0 Spartans in the third inning, is not something with which Graeme is anxious to toy around. Though Graeme has faced the minimum it’s not a no-hitter; the lead off man in the second inning singled, and was then caught stealing.
Graeme pitches, a slider after two fastballs, and as he expects, the rookie swings wildly and misses. Derrick Hull swings so wild, in fact, that the bat itself goes flying towards the on deck circle where the on-deck batter has to do the high jump to avoid getting hit. There is a ‘whoa’ from the crowd, followed by the hint of giggling and laughter, and then, finally, applause as the inning is now over. Ben waits for Graeme to come off the mound as they jog to the dugout together.
“Now that was funny,” Ben laughs.
“Glad you think so.”
“You know, it’s so true…”
“What?” The two take a seat at the far end of the bench; Graeme wears his jacket on his right arm, while Ben doesn’t bother removing the catcher’s gear, as he’s due up eighth. If it gets to the point where Adrian is on deck, he’ll remove it then.
“You pitch better against Texas.”
“I think you’ve said that every time I pitch against them.” Graeme laughs.
“Yes, well, it’s true. You shouldn’t deny it.”
“Okay, then, why is your ERA against these guys zero?”
“It’s not zero.”
“Well, it’s low.” Ben laughs as well. The two have been friends long enough that Ben knows Graeme will be well familiar with his ERA against any team in the league, especially New York, New England and, for Graeme, Texas.
“It’s not that low.”
“It’s under two.” It’s a guess, but only Ben and Graeme would know that.
“Barely,” Graeme admits. It’s hard to tell, because Graeme burns easily, but Ben thinks he sees his friend blush just a bit.
“Right. You have an ERA under two against one team, and you’ve been pitching for eleven years, is it? That’s freak-of-nature territory.”
“You think I’m a freak of nature?” Graeme has a broad grin on his face, and it’s caught by the TV cameras. He’ll see it later when he watches the game replay on the Hope City Sports station, and his only thought will be that he really needs to start keeping his dental appointments. “Do yah?”
“Well…when you have that sort of ERA after pitching that long…it certainly isn’t normal.”
“Okay, then, what team do you hit best against?”
“Kansas City. Easy.” It is easy. Graeme knows it well.
“Well, if we ignore the fact that Kansas City doesn’t know how to pitch worth a damn and that their park is like a silo, what’s your average?”
“Last time I checked…four-seventy.” Now Graeme catches Ben blushing a little bit. Ben’s a decent hitter—good enough to hit fifth in the line up and smack thirty home runs in a season—but having been considered for an MVP the season before last, with an average of .340, the .470 stands out even more.
“Right. So we all have one team we rake against.”
“Yes…but…everyone hits Kansas City. It isn’t that unusual. I hit the same way I do in any park, but Kansas City is so small all the fly outs turn into home runs or doubles off the wall. You don’t pitch the same against Texas.”
“If you hate a team enough, it’s not that hard.”
“So why don’t you pitch like this against New York?”
“Because no one in New York ever failed me in gym class because I slipped in the mud and couldn’t recover a fumble.” Graeme sighs, knowing he’s told this over and over, but it never seems to fail to amaze those to whom he tells it.
“There are some that argue you should pitch for Denver,” Ben says, making reference to the rather bitter Stampede-Mustang rivalry which started when Denver won two Championships back-to-back while Texas lost both times, and then signed Texas’ best player as a free agent.
“They did try to sign me. When I was a free agent a few years ago, they offered me five years for seventy.”
“They actually offered it?”
“Yes. Had a sit-down with the agent and everything.” Graeme never really had any intention of leaving Hope City, so Denver’s pursuit of him was mostly treated as unfounded rumor by the media. Pete and Charlie Haus knew, but they were the only ones. Ben was a rookie at the time and the two weren’t that close, otherwise Graeme knows, he would have told Ben.
“You turned it down? Five years, seventy million, and you turned it down to pitch in Hope City instead?”
“HC might be an abyss, but the team’s not. We’re always in the running, have a manager that’ll probably die before leaving the team, good fans, and, a team that doesn’t have anywhere close to the ego issues Denver’s got. Besides, it’s farther away from Texas than Denver is.” Graeme laughs at the last bit, though Ben seems a bit stunned.
Truth is, there aren’t many all-star level players that would choose, as free agents, to remain in Hope City. The city is freezing in the winter, dangerous anywhere not in a suburb (even the Stadium is located out of the ‘downtown’ area), there’s some money for the players but rarely enough for guys on a second or third contract, and as long as they play in the same state as the New York Knights, they are always the underdog.
Graeme stays in Hope City for one reason. Sure, being this far from Texas has its advantages, but the real reason he stays in Hope City is simpler: He knows how Hope City changes in the spring and the summer, when the Spartans can offer the fans an escape from the drudgery of their normal lives. The city fills itself with the hope that, well, Graeme thinks as he and Ben take the field for the next inning, if the Spartans can win, maybe their city isn’t so bad after all, maybe it isn’t quite a ghost city, a rust-belt town.
STANDINGS AT THE END OF APRIL
New England Tribe: 12-5
New York Knights: 11-6
Hope City Spartans: 10-7
Florida ‘Canes: 8-9
Washington Sox: 6-11
Minnesota Berserkers: 13-4
Chicago Lakemen: 12-5
Cleveland Rivermen: 12-5
St. Louis Gold: 10-7
Memphis Jazz: 9-8
Detroit Moose: 5-12
California Diablos: 14-3
Seattle ‘Nauts: 11-6
Denver Mustang: 8-9
Texas Stampede: 7-10
Kansas City ‘Nadoes: 5-12
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Heh, if only you all knew how much writing 3500 words in a night is a catharsis...(they were not the ones you're about to read...they're the ones you're probably going to see between Christmas and New Year's)