“--and we’re going to go out there and show these New York boys what it means to play real baseball, am I right?”
A fair cheer accompanied D.G.’s question, and he followed it up with more words about how good their chances were, how much of a rout it was going to be, and how wonderful winning the World Series was going to feel.
And it all tasted like ashes in his mouth. After what Robert P. Germane had done to betray his team, considering all of the tripe--that none of the boys knew about, save Tripplehorne and Stiller...
It was so awful D.G. could hardly swallow it, but swallow it he had to, because he couldn’t take the hope away, he couldn’t level with the Braves and tell them what was really going on.
He didn’t have the courage to spit on their dreams.
So D.G. did the best managing he could, whipping the Braves into an unnecessary and useless frenzy...the outcome of the day’s game all ended up on the shoulders of one young man with a .403 batting average and the most awful decision Dennis G. had ever heard of.
And when, despite his best efforts not to, D.G. caught Jason’s eye...he nearly stopped dead, and his rousing speech stumbled along hesitantly for a moment.
Because he could see it in Jason’s gaze. Pity, and sadness, and all the awful things that were going on. They both knew how worthless the speech was. Dennis felt terribly ashamed of himself, especially considering how little he had done about the things that were turning rotten.
Maybe he couldn’t have changed anything...but he hadn’t even tried.
As game time rolled around the Braves left the clubhouse, moving out and making a row on the infield grass, almost all of them confused by their manager’s halting, unsure pep talk, wondering to a man just what was really going on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the singing of our National Anthem.”
The manager of the National League Certified Since 1903 Boston Braves sat alone in the team dugout hating who he was.
Out of habit and superstition, Dennis G. had always stuck his fingers in his ears during the National Anthem...but figuring nothing he did would help the coming game anyway, just put his head in his hands.
* * *
“You feeling all right, Jas? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m okay.” Jason was having great difficulty, dealing with all of the burdens of that night alone. It didn’t help that Kip Gumbo wasn’t the only friend he was leaving out of the loop, and leaving behind...he knew he was going to miss Phil Brice quite a bit.
After the Mets swung into action, putting several runs on the board before three outs were called, Phil Brice walked back down the dugout steps and sat next to The Kid. They talked a little, waiting until Jason came up in the batting order. The Kid decided to get a few words out of the way before things started getting crazy. “Phil--we haven’t had as much time to spend together as I would’ve liked, this season.”
“Plenty of time for that next year, huh?”
“Yeah, sure--“he wanted to tell him so much, wanted to spill it all, but he couldn’t, not yet--“but while we’re here and everything, I just wanted to tell you that it’s been a pleasure.
“You’ve got a real future with this team, that’s a fact.”
Phil looked happy at the words. “Thanks, Kid. I don’t mind saying that more than once in the past months I’ve wished I was you.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t want to do that.”
* * *
The tone in The Kid’s voice was so strange...Phil wanted to ask him what he was talking about, but it was time for Jason Stiller to go begin winning the day, and he never got the chance.
* * *
The fans of America’s National Pastime who witnessed or heard that final World Series game had themselves quite a show. Though the events at the very end overshadowed everything, so that the first two hours and change was almost forgotten, while the game was in mid-stride there were fifty-six thousand pairs of eyes watching every move, every play, everything that went on.
After all, only two active players on the Braves and nobody but the owner of the Mets had any idea of the cheating that was taking place, the lies and manipulation and illegal activity.
So the Mets were thanking Providence for Jason Stiller’s strange illness, and their three games won, and the chance to maybe take home a victory after all. And the Braves, less Stiller and Tripplehorne, were energized again to have their star hitter back on tap--despite whatever was going on in the background that all of the team felt--and all were ready to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and send them packing.
Which made for something of a rousing game.
Jason did his level best to enjoy it...and failed miserably. He had his best game of the whole season, but could not enjoy it at all, knowing as he did that it was the last game he would likely ever play.
Every time he trotted around the bases after a home run, and there were more than a few trips that night, he acknowledged the shouting, screaming crowd, the glory and adulation and just satisfaction of hearing and feeling that Crack! that was like nothing else on earth.
But in the end he always made it back to home plate. In the end they always stopped cheering, and then he would find himself one at-bat closer to the very last.
It would have been easy to lose heart, and play less than his best...but that would have meant Bob coming out a winner. Whether Jason was up to it or not, he had to play the best game of his life, if only to keep pulling the Braves ahead of the Mets, if only to make sure that everybody at the stadium, especially the owner, was certain that he was doing his level best to win the day.
The agony he felt inside, at giving everything he had--all the while knowing that if he failed, if he choked, he would be allowing evil to triumph--and at the same time knowing that by succeeding, being victorious, he was throwing away almost all of his deepest hopes and desires...
In Gillett Grove, a few days earlier, Jason Stiller’s heart had been reforged. That night it was tested in the hottest fire, and the strain of it was almost more than he could bear.
* * *
Sitting silently beside her father, Raven could see the pain on her love’s face, and had an inkling of what he was going through, and prayed and prayed and prayed that he would be able to stand firm. That the Lord would see him through the fire.
As the game wore on, Raven forgot her promise, forgot about leaving and the plan, as she became more and more wrapped up in the ongoing struggle...
* * *
During the Braves’ turn behind the plate, in the seventh inning, the score was 25-23 in Boston’s favor when The Kid swung hard at a deceptive slider, catching enough of the ball to send it into the outfield, and with no reason not to, Jason ran hard, rounding first base even as the ball fell...and when the left fielder missed his catch, dropping the ball, D.G. Muldowney expected the boy to be smart and stay quietly on third base.
But as Jason was on his way to third, he spared a split-second glance over his shoulder...and decided to go for it.
The crowd roared as The Kid sped past the third baseman, racing for home plate as fast as his legs had ever moved, even as the shortstop caught the ball from left field, turning and firing towards the catcher in one smooth motion.
Shady Jeffries, pitching for the Mets, ducked hurriedly, the ball missing his head by about three inches--as Jason threw everything he had into the race, screaming all the way down the basepath with the effort and struggle of pushing himself to...go...faster...
He leaped for it, sliding facefirst, as catcher Bobby Riggs waited anxiously for the ball to smack into his glove.
When the dust settled, The Kid was declared safe at home plate, officially stretching a triple into a home run for the first time that anybody, later, could ever remember.
If they had applauded for his home runs, the crowd went crazy over this, and D.G. saw a bit of a smile on Jason’s tired and dusty face as he found his seat in the dugout.
The two regarded one another for a moment. “Not bad, Kid.”
“Thanks, Mr. Muldowney.”
With a gruff laugh the manager of the Braves turned to consider the game’s progress, scowling and coughing...because it was much too public a place to start crying.
* * *
Many miles distant, one Philco radio was being paid very rapt attention.
Though he had received offers from friends to listen to the World Series with them, Fred Stiller had preferred to take in the games alone, rooting and praying for his son with all of his might.
And that evening was certainly no exception. The Kid’s father had never prayed so hard in his life, knowing as he did what his only son had to be going through.
The game was hard enough on him, and his tension--as well as the fervor of his prayers--grew as the ninth inning began.
* * *
Going into the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, the score was an unheard of 30-29, and the New York Mets were ahead of the Boston Braves by one run.
They did their level best to extend that lead, as the pride of the American league sent up the best hitters they had to do battle with Bud Tripplehorne.
For his part, the aging and hurt and--though nobody knew it yet--likely finished star pitcher threw everything he had into that inning; he had been relieved by Squints Webster in the fifth, but had quietly asked his manager for the chance to finish out the game. D.G., understanding somehow, had decided to let him.
Bud did his level best, ignoring the pain in his arm which signalled that his best was detrimental to his health.
And he held the Mets to a scoreless inning. When Phil Brice picked the third out right down from the sky, the score was still 30-29.
“I did the best I could, Kid,” the star pitcher of the Boston Braves offered the star rookie in passing.
Jason stopped him with a gentle hand.
The older man turned to see his biggest fan with his hand stuck out, but he didn’t have the courage within to give The Kid what he wanted, and pushed the offering away. “Go on, Kid, don’t be thanking me for anything.
“If I had any guts at all we wouldn’t be in this mess. I didn’t make things any easier for you.”
“Didn’t you?” The two regarded one another for a long moment, not caring if anybody was watching or not. “At least I get to decide, get to choose whether to do right or wrong.”
“You sure do. Good for you, Stiller.” Bud Tripplehorne walked to the far side of the dugout and sat down, at one and the same time loving and hating the boy...for being such a good man.
* * * As Lefty went up to bat first, Jason sort-of hoped that he would just hit a home run and they could all be done with it...but five minutes later when Lefty was struck out, The Kid reached for his batting helmet, knowing that if Sammy didn’t help him out, it was coming down to his final pitch after all.
* * *
Sitting next to D.G., Bill Pickens muttered, “What the heck was that all about? You want to let us in on the secret, Deeg?”
“Nothing, no, and shut yer trap, Pickens.” D.G. didn’t mean to be so harsh but it was turning into a very long evening. “Watch the game.”
Jason, ready for his last turn at-bat that evening, looked like he had found something funny--Dennis was glad somebody did. “Up, up and away, Kid. You’re on deck.”
The boy nodded, looked him in the eye, and dug into one of his pockets. “Here.”
“Sheesh, Kid, you make it sound like it’s your last will and testament.”
Jason laughed then, which D.G. would later understand. “Just take it.”
He did, and then they looked at one another quietly. “So you know what you’re going to do?”
“Well, what are you going to do?” He tried to read the boy’s eyes, but he couldn’t really make it work.
Jason sighed, and he looked like he was remembering something past. “The right thing, like it or no.”
Then the Kid turned and walked up the steps, onto the infield.
The small packet had a letter tucked under the twine. D.G. removed it and read:
Mr. Muldowney, one friend to another, please honor the wishes set out at the bottom of this letter.
And as your friend, I apologize for what’s about to happen. You’re not going to like it. But you’ll agree--I’m betting--that it’s for the best in the end.
Sorry for taking the Little Coon away...she and I will be in touch. I’m pretty sure we will.
It has been an honor and a joy to be a member of your team, Dennis G. Tell Gertie we said goodbye and love to you both.
P.S. Please give my cap to Beanie (Kip knows who I mean) with my compliments; my bat to Phil Brice, tell him from me to keep swinging for the fences; a big raspberry to Kip because he was wrong about Raven...
...but after that, give him the Big Story he’s been looking for--I wrote everything down in the packet you’re holding. Included is the paper Bob Germane in his incredible arrogance let me walk off with, the one that lays out the gambling statistics.
And lastly, D.G., please tell Kip your own story, go with me on this one so that we can see that Bob Germane gets what he deserves.
Not because I hate him, though I do a little, and not because I want revenge. Because what he’s doing is wrong. The papers won’t believe my word against his, but with that evidence they’ll take yours, if you’re brave enough to give it.
I don’t know what will happen to the team...but if evil triumphs here, would that really be good for the Braves?
In the end, it’s your decision. I’m going to miss you very much, and we really will write, I’ll promise it--once it seems certain that Bob won’t discover where we’ve gone and send a lynch mob.
You’re not a bad guy for a hero. Keep your chin up. --JS
Dennis G. Muldowney folded the letter, set it and the packet to one side where he could find them later, and then determined that he would not take his eyes off Jason Stiller...so that he would not miss whatever was about to happen.
Some intuition told the manager of the Braves that he was going to witness something nobody would ever have dreamed of.
* * *
It was still possible that the decision would be taken out of his hands. As Jason stood on deck, off to one side of home plate, waiting for his turn even as he hoped it wouldn’t come...from somewhere in his distant past, the words Not my will but yours...came out in his mind.
He would do what was right. If he had to.
And then Sammy hit a bouncer that was scooped up in the outfield, leaving him safely on second base.
Leaving the final score, the last chance for stardom and fame and glory in the hands of Jason Stiller.
Unless, of course, the pitcher decided to just walk him.
He had a feeling it wasn’t going to be that easy.
* * *
Raven remembered herself, where she was and the danger that was sitting next to her, calmly watching the baseball game.
She said something vauge, “I can’t watch this,” perhaps, and got out of her seat, moving past her father to the aisle. Thankfully he let her go, keeping his eyes on the family breadwinner.
Knowing the plan, knowing what was coming, and aware that she was supposed to be well away from the ballpark...Raven couldn’t leave. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. Not what was about to happen. If she couldn’t take his hurt away, the least she could do was be there, be a witness to the strength of his spirit, the depth of his heart...
The beautiful woman prayed, and wrung her hands, standing at the top of the stairs that would lead her to freedom, unable to look away.
* * *
Jason made the short walk to home plate last as long as he could. He knew they would all wait for him.
And so it all came down to one final pitch. In vague flashes he recalled the previous months...the disapproval and distrust of Dennis G. Muldowney, and that first dreadful morning--but the day had been capped off by hitting five out of seven pitches, by doing the impossible, and nothing would ever take that away.
The whole season, the autographs and home runs and his own baseball card...nobody could take that away.
He was willingly going to give it up.
Jason smelled the grass of the infield, listened to the cheers and even catcalls from the crowd, and wondered how often a person actually got to accomplish, to realize, their biggest dream...and how many of those turned right around and were forced to throw it all away.
Truth be told, he didn’t think it especially fair.
But he remembered a father’s love, he remembered chestnut hair and striking green eyes...and he remembered, a little ashamed of himself, a wooden, blood-stained cross.
It was going to be all right. It would hurt like anything, and he knew that, but in the end it would be all right.
The only thing that really frightened him was the chance that the pitcher would walk him, would just take the chance of two men on base against a homer from The Kid.
But as Jason walked around the catcher and the umpire, making his way to his accustomed spot, he looked Shady Jeffries right in the eye...and they understood one another without words.
The best pitcher on the New York Mets was going to throw the best pitch he could come up with, and the best hitter of the Boston Braves would just have to deal with that. Jason had toyed with the idea of letting two strikes go by, just to make things interesting...but there was too much at stake. He couldn’t strike out, not on the most important at-bat of his entire life.
For a moment...he almost stepped up to the plate, just wanting to get it over with, but for a moment...The Kid stepped away from it all, looked to the west, to where the sun had set hours before. A moment of his life from ages past flashed through his head, to the first time he had stood by the Braves’ home plate, when it was Bud Tripplehorne he was up against...
And then it happened, the worst thing he could have imagined...the crowd, full of Braves fans and fans of The Kid in particular, began to chant. Nobody knew who started it, so many were willing to join in as thousands and thousands of people began calling out, “Jason, Jason, Jason,” and he closed his eyes, willed them to stop, to be quiet, except that it just got louder, ”Jason, Jason," and there was nothing for him to do but step back a pace or two and lift his batting helmet in respect to the crowd.
A huge cheer arose, applause and whistling and stamping feet and it looked like more than half of the park audience was on its feet...all for him.
Not that he needed such things, not really, but...
Jason looked at his friends in the dugout, also applauding--even the members of the opposing team were clapping their hands. One thing to be thankful for--it was so loud, nobody, even the umpire and catcher who were standing right there, also applauding, could possibly have heard him sigh.
* * *
Raven heard the cheers and joined in, until she realized how her love must be feeling, knowing what he had to do. Then she looked around at the cheering, laughing, excited fans...and found herself weeping bitterly.
* * *
For just a moment he watched. The Kid watched the cheering crowds...and wanted so badly to just be a part of the team, to wear the uniform and swing the bat and have everything be perfectly in place again...
...there were sudden tears in his eyes, and he let them come, no longer afraid or ashamed of who he was. He had all the love he needed.
Then Jason Stiller reached down deep within to find all of the courage and strength he had, turned back to the plate, tapped it twice with the bat for no particular reason, and rested the Slugger on his shoulder.
His eyes met the pitcher’s eyes dead on, and Jason grinned, through his tears, knowing that nobody in that stadium had the first clue as to what was coming.
* * *
The crowd of thousands was hushed into sudden silence as Shady Jeffries shrugged his shoulders, rotated the ball in his fingers until he found the grip he liked, and then without warning reached back, around and put all of the strength he had ever known into a bullet of a fastball that screamed down the alley, slicing the air at a speed even Bud Tripplehorne marveled at, that nobody in their right mind would ever have tried to hit with a baseball bat and that The Kid swung at with everything he had.