The manager of the National League Certified Since 1903 Boston Braves was walking across the infield of his ballclub, thinking about baseball and shadows and dreams...when he looked up into the middle deck and saw The Kid sitting by himself, looking over the park.
For a long moment D.G. thought the afternoon light was playing tricks with his eyes, but after a quick blink the boy was still there. Dennis G. hadn’t known that he was back in town, much less expected to see him...but then it did make sense, didn’t it?
As much as anything did anymore.
He wasted little time in climbing to where his friend was. Taking a seat beside him, they both looked over the bases and the grass and kept to their own thoughts for awhile.
“So you’re back.” It was a dumb and obvious beginning, but D.G. had never been known for his conversational skills.
Jason was kind enough not to snort or laugh at him, instead quietly saying, “Yes I am.”
“Seen Raven?” Somehow D.G. knew that would be important, and was still hoping that things would work out as far as his two favorite youngsters were concerned.
“Ah.” If Jason didn’t want to talk about it, well then... “Does Bob know you’re back?”
“He going to let you play tonight?”
“He made the same threats again--the ones about all I’ve got to lose--and then ran off to tell the bookies. Apparently my sudden return will do wonderful things for the point spread.”
“Does he know what you plan to do, tonight?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you know what you’re going to do tonight?”
In the resulting silence D.G. could faintly hear Bill Pickens all the way from the clubhouse, ranting about somebody drawing to an inside straight.
Finally Jason answered, still gazing at the darkening field where all too soon the decision would be made. “Yes.” Before D.G. could ask him to explain he continued, “That’s why I came up here.”
“I came to say goodbye.”
And D.G. understood. However things would play out that evening, they weren’t going to go in Bob Germane’s favor.
Which meant they wouldn’t go in Jason Stiller’s favor.
Knowing how it felt to give up one’s dreams, D.G. sat back, gripping Jason’s shoulder gently for a moment, then letting The Kid be. Letting the silence take over.
He let himself remember the first day of spring training, thinking of the fresh-faced punk who had no business being on the same field as real players...and the shattered, broken bat which was still being talked about and written of and probably would become the Boston Braves’ longstanding legend.
D.G. could remember half hating the kid, because the boy was where the man had always wanted to be...and never managed.
And yet as the games passed, as the batting average climbed, somewhere along the line Dennis G. Muldowney had grown to love Jason Stiller, the son he never had.
He felt maybe he had enough courage to say this, or something like it, and again put a hand on The Kid’s shoulder.
When Jason turned D.G. could see that he had been crying, but the boy’s eyes were bright. He didn’t know what that meant. “Jason...it may not mean much of anything, but I just wanted you to know that I am very, very proud of you.”
His friend and hero smiled. “Thanks.” Looking back across the field, Jason sighed, digging for a handkerchief. “It’s not so difficult to let go.
“Not as much as it might be.” He waved vaguely in the direction of home plate. “I got what I came for, pretty much.”
The manager of the Braves knew courage when he heard it, and wished he had words enough to express how proud he really was of Jason Stiller.
But he had a feeling the boy knew. “You’re gonna do all right, Kid.”
Was it still Mr. Muldowney between them? Maybe that was all he was ever going to get. Oh well. “Mmm?”
“You may not believe me, or want to hear this...but those beliefs your wife has, the ones you’re not sure you understand?”
D.G. had not for one minute expected the conversation to go in this direction. What business was it of Jason’s whether or not he went to church on Sundays? Might as well be nice to the boy, though, considering he didn’t have many chances left. “Yes, Jason, I know.”
“Like I said, you may not believe me. But those beliefs are mine too, now. They hadn’t been for a long time, but two days ago I finally got the sun out of my eyes.
“The only real reasons you have to be proud of me...you have Jesus Christ to thank for those. In case it means anything.”
D.G. didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t speak. It didn’t seem like the boy needed a response.
Manager and star hitter watched the outfield grass waving in the breeze, enjoying the silence and the peace as long as they could.
But then there were the intrusive sounds, of ticket takers opening windows, and hotdog vendors setting up shop. For better or worse, it was time to get things rolling.
The last game of the World Series, and Jason Stiller’s last stand, were about to begin.
* * *
Jason didn’t know what to expect when he walked through the clubhouse. What he would find in the pre-game locker room.
He had run out on all of his friends, his teammates, and most likely they had no idea about throwing the World Series, about the betrayal that Bob Germane had cast over them all.
Knowing Bud Tripplehorne, knowing D.G. Muldowney...the team was unaware. Better off that way.
So that meant they might think Jason had deserted, had just run off and left them all in the lurch, which was the reason why they were even playing a seventh game, why the Braves hadn’t taken the fourth like they took the first three.
He fully expected to be yelled at, argued with, even rejected by men who felt betrayed.
If only that had happened...it would have been so much easier.
Because none of them knew a thing. To a man, the Braves believed what the public believed, that Jason had taken a sudden illness. As he walked into Brave country, it was like the return of the conquering hero.
They had all missed him terribly--more than a few said so as they clapped him on the shoulder, shook his hand, and made a general riot as The Kid walked back into his own. They had missed him, had wondered after him, and were so glad to have him back that despite being grown men the Boston Braves were almost besides themselves with excitement.
If only they had been angry, if only they had treated him to a stony silence...Jason did his best to accept the praise, field the questions about his health with vague answers, and try--at the same time--not to get used to the feeling.
Making sure he didn’t revel in being part of the team, take comfort from being one of the guys.
He had one more game, and then it was all over.
And none of them knew.
Almost. As the clamor died down, as the Braves went back to their individual preparations, Jason saw Bud Tripplehorne sitting pretty much in the same spot he had been that first day of spring training, smoking what looked like the same cigarette.
The big man noticed him, and looked him up and down, much like he had that day so long before. Then he chuckled. “Help you?”
Jason remembered how things had been, that first day. “Gee, uh, I’m one of the new players this season, Mr. Tripplehorne, and...well, I just wanted to tell you how inspiring you’ve been to me, and what a pleasure it’ll be to work with you.” And he stuck out his hand.
Bud looked him over again, and grinned, and Jason wondered if it were a mirage--the tears he thought he saw in the man’s eyes. “You sure don’t look like much, kid, but here’s hoping.”
Jason smiled, and they shook.
And if anyone else in the locker room noticed the exchange, they didn’t ask.
* * *
Game time came up fast, like the westbound express threatening to run The Kid down. He found a few scant minutes to pray, and then wandered around down by the front-row railing, looking for the woman that he loved.
He saw, instead, a very big man in an ice-cream vendor’s uniform and propellor cap, sitting next to a skinny kid that looked to be about Jason’s age who had a PRESS badge pinned to his chest.
Jason hadn’t seen Kip Gumbo in the week or so between finishing up playoffs and starting the World Series...it seemed like a very long time. Their relationship had not been the same since his friend had denounced the woman he loved; they had patched things up more or less, but not really managed anything more than that.
In truth Jason had no desire to talk to Beanie or Kip at all, preferring to just dive into the dugout and pray for things to just get themselves over with...but he was a good man, and knew that it was his last chance.
There were many baseball fans who wanted a chance to shake The Kid’s hand, congratulate him on his recovery, tell him how wonderful they thought he was, but they noticed a real conversation when they saw it, and respectfully left the three to themselves.
Beanie’s smile had not diminished with time. “Why, Mr. Stiller, it is very nice to see you.”
“Having a good time this evening, Beanie?”
“I am, I think, especially now that you are back to play for us. Do you think you’ll win?”
Jason felt more of those dadblamed tears forming in his eyes, despite all he had cried throughout the past days, that afternoon in particular. He blinked hard and smiled. “I’m hoping so, Beanie. Hoping so.”
“I was wondering...” the big man dug into the pocket labeled Garve and came up with a small piece of cardboard. “If you wouldn’t mind terribly, Mr. Stiller, would you write your name on the bottom of this?”
He had been asked for plenty of autographs that summer. One more would be no trouble. Borrowing a pen from the unusually quiet Kip, Jason reached for Beanie’s offering...and came away with a picture of himself, all decked out in his Braves uniform.
His own baseball card.
He had almost forgotten about the picture, taken just after the victorious playoff series. He turned the card over to see a list of stats on the back, with a little blurb about his home life. He had no desire to read either.
It was almost too much. Not letting himself think about it, Jason turned the card back over as if it were any old piece of paper, scribbled his name and To my--he almost wrote biggest until he thought about it--greatest fan, and then handed the card back without saying much of anything, just giving the man fan a smile.
Beanie seemed satisfied with that, and after again making Jason promise to take care of his fish, the big man sat back in his seat, ready for the game to come.
Jason turned to his strangely quiet friend, who reached for the pen he had given up. The Kid held it out of his reach. “You okay?”
“I should be asking you that.”
They looked one another in the eye...and Jason understood. Kip was a reporter, and an observant one. He wasn’t buying the story that Jason had been out sick.
And whatever was going on, he didn’t like being left out of the loop. Jason sighed. He had expected this. “I’ll level with you, Kip, I wasn’t sick.”
“I knew it.” A gleam of triumph was replaced by indignation. “Why didn’t you tell me? What’s going on? We don’t talk about anything lately.”
If only he knew...Jason had a story for him, all right. But not just then. Too soon. “You’ll understand everything in time, Kip. I promise. And I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” The reporter looked surprised. “Sorry for what?”
“For not being a better friend.”
Kip stared at him for a long moment. “You’re talking like you’re leaving town. I don’t get any of this.”
And Jason couldn’t tell him, not to his face. It hurt like everything else had, to betray one of his true friends because Bob Germane had left him no time or chance to do anything else. “You’ll understand in time.”
There was no more he could say...yes there was. Locking eyes with Kip again, Jason said quietly, “You were wrong about her.”
But those final questions went unanswered, as Jason saw the woman he was speaking of walking down the steps that led to the rows behind home plate. Without a word of farewell he left Kip behind, walked across the foul line and made straight for her.
The tension of the approaching struggle was turning his stomach into amazing new shapes...but the smile she gave him when their eyes met did his heart a world of good.
For a moment they didn’t say anything. He took a second look at her--wearing a striking dark red dress that he had never seen before, with that cascade of gorgeous hair softly flowing over her shoulders.
She was absolutely breathtaking, and he grinned to see it. “You look beautiful.”
“Are you ever going to stop saying that?”
She pushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes. “Good.”
“But I’m still not sure, Raven, that you being here tonight is such a great idea. Makes things complicated.”
The look she gave him was somehow full of love, exasperation and vague threat. “If you think I’m going to miss your last and greatest game, Mr. Stiller, maybe I’ll just stay here in Boston and marry the mean, old, disagreeable man my father has in mind.”
Speaking of which, Jason caught sight of the owner of Boston’s National League Certified baseball team standing at the top of the stairs, as far removed from the rabble as he could get...without losing sight of his only daughter. “Drat.” He sighed.
“You really do look marvelous, and I love you, and it would make my life even more worth living if I could give you a kiss right now...but I can’t, because--” he was quick to go on, seeing the beginnings of a hurt look cross her face, “--I’m afraid that if I did, it wouldn’t be because you’re so wonderful but just out of spite, because he’s watching.”
Her eyes said she knew who Jason meant. And she nodded. “Under the circumstances, I guess I can understand that.” To his surprise she reached out, across the concrete infield wall, to gently touch his cheek. “I’ll take a raincheck, then.”
“Fine with me.” He found the green of her eyes absolutely entrancing. “Love you.”
“So I hear.”
“Well, hear this: make sure you split this place before the final act.”
She looked worried again. “Are you certain it’s going to go like that? A last pitch?”
He had thought about it quite a bit...and somewhere inside he knew. “Without a doubt, dollface. This game is going to end with one of those last-chance, bottom-of-the-ninth-inning kinda pitches.
“And you better have started running long before it does, or there’ll be real trouble.”
* * *
Raven nodded. “Okay.” She turned to start up the stairs, and then stopped. “One thing, Kid.”
She found a small grin. “If you ever call me ‘dollface’ again, you and I are going to have words.”
He raised one eyebrow. “Promise?”
“Yes.” And then her smile faded, as she looked at him and was afraid for what he had to face. “I’ll be praying for you.”
“I’m grateful for that.”
* * *
And he was. Walking back to the dugout, thinking of her, Jason knew that he had reasons to be grateful.
It wasn’t like he was losing everything that night, after all.