Dennis G. Muldowney, manager and head coach of the National League Certified since 1903 Boston Braves, stood quietly at the top of the east stands, his back to the sunrise. Looking out over Three Rivers Stadium, he saw his shadow stretching for miles across the infield grass, and sighed quietly.
Born before the turn of the century and soon to celebrate his fifty-fifth birthday, D.G. had been around long enough to know that most things were like that: just shadows. You grew up feeling important, strong, you kept dreams close beside you, dreams that could move mountains...but soon the sun rose, and the light of truth spilled over you, and the powerful possibility of shadows disappeared. You walked around and went through the same thing day after day that men called Life, you were just there, casting no shadow, making little difference. Then as time passed the sun began to set on you, began to get away from you, and if you dared to look behind--there sat the shadow again, stretching back to roads never walked, to dreams unrealized, and you wondered what the point was of anything.
The smile turned into a chuckle. “You’re getting to be a maudlin old man, Dennis,” he said to himself. Making a face at his worthless, uncatchable shadow, D.G. started walking down the concrete steps towards the outfield.
It was the first day of spring training.
Walking through an eerily quiet dugout and back behind to the team clubhouse, D.G. waited for the man he was supposed to be meeting with. The owner and proprietor of the Boston Braves, Robert P. Germane, was supposed to show up early for a talk with his manager, get the new season started off right. They had agreed on a time, had decided where to meet, and D.G. settled himself in the echoing locker room, knowing both that he had to be there for the meeting...and also knowing that Bob Germane would not show up.
An hour later there had, of course, been no sign of his boss and it was about time for the players to arrive, and with a resigned sigh D.G. stood and started to walk back the way he had come, towards the field.
Something on a locker that he passed stopped him. Something wrong. The lockers prepared for Conroy and Brice, the two rookies, were as expected. But the previously empty locker next to theirs, the last empty locker in the room, now had a name on it. Not to mention a uniform and equipment inside.
“Aw, great.” Germane was apparently playing more tricks. So he was going to shove another player onto the roster just because The Boss felt like it? “We’ll see about that.” Dennis G. Muldowney stomped out of the locker room trying to clamp a lid on the bad mood that was building.
But he hadn’t really had an angry day yet that could survive the first day of spring training, the first sight of his players, his boys, gathering in the lower bleachers by first base. A few of the player’s wives came along, but they waited above--in twos and threes the Boston Braves walked down the concrete steps, congregating down by where their manager stood waiting. Greeting each other, laughing about the mistakes of the previous season, excited about upcoming games. Excited about baseball.
The atmosphere in the bleachers, in the stadium itself, changed when the players arrived. Dennis G. worked hard for his team, did the best he could to push his boys to their greatest; everything he did he did for them--since he himself would never again face off against an opposing pitcher, never again watch for the sign to steal. His days were through, and the best he could hope for was to share in the glory his team earned.
But the boys themselves...there were dreams bouncing down the concrete steps, there were hopes and goals and pride. The rookies were excited and tense, loving the game but unsure what they had gotten into; the second and third year players had earned their place on the team, and could think about the glory, the fame that might come; the veterans had not only made the team, not only survived, but lasted--there was previous glory and fame to fall back on and current glory and fame to bask in, without even mentioning the promise of the coming year. The possibilities of what they all might get to do.
And they needed those dreams, too. Now that America had again proved its worth by whupping both the Germans and the Japanese in the second World War, it was high time to get back to having fun...which was exactly where the favorite national pastime of the United States came in. America was ready to love them all, if they could prove themselves in battle. Dennis wouldn’t have said it aloud, but he almost felt like a general. He well remembered his own service in the first War, and what it was like to feel the hero.
There were heroes in those bleachers that day, he could feel it. It was his job to make them into what they could be.
When his players had all arrived--still minus their owner, though nobody was really surprised--the manager of the Boston Braves stood up and leaned against the infield rail. Dennis had decided he might as well bring out into the open the three words every man in the stadium was thinking.
“The World Series.”
A quiet rumble slewed around the assembled men. They liked that phrase. D.G. repeated himself. “The World Series.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard of it?” The rumbling changed to quiet laughter. “We’re going to be in it this year, boys. The National League Certified since 1903 Boston Braves are without a doubt going to go all the way!”
If he had been feeling any particular need to be completely truthful, D.G. would not have been quite so optimistic--in his own mind, he was prepared to be surprised if the Braves ended up strong pennant contenders, now that his star pitcher was fading a bit and there were no big hitters on the team anymore and there was that doggoned weak spot in center field--but you didn’t say that to the boys, you told them whatever was necessary so they would go out and do their best.
And who knew--maybe their best would turn out better than you figured at first. There were always wild cards, upsets, luck. It had happened before.
“We’re not going to count on luck, gentlemen, we’re not going to hope for miracles...we’re going to make miracles happen this year! Everybody with me?”
A heartfelt cheer said that everybody was.
“I’m not asking you for anything you can’t do, boys. Enjoy the game, remember why we’re out there, be good sports--especially you, Tripplehorne,” and his star pitcher laughed, enjoying the jibe and the attention, “and more than anything, be sure to win every single solitary game. If possible.” D.G. winked to show that he was kidding, and there was more laughter. “You chuckleheads listening? We square on this?
“What I really mean for you to remember is that we work as a team. I don’t care who the press decides to make high and mighty this year,” Bud Tripplehorne had a smile on his face, “But we all work together and we’re all important. Phil, Ted, stand up.”
The two rookies, the newcomers to the Braves, did as D.G. asked, looking a little nervous but trying hard to belong. “Boys, meet Phil Brice and Ted Conroy. They’ve paid their dues down in the minors, and they get a shot at the big leagues, and they’re part of this team, understand?” Everybody seemed to. “Fine then, let’s us get suited up and out onto the field, odd numbers field while even numbers hit. Anybody have questions, I’m right here. Go.”
The men clambered out of their seats and made their accustomed way onto the infield and through the dugout, heading back to the clubhouse. There clean, fresh uniforms waited to be sweated in and bled on and dragged through the dust.
Several of the player’s wives--Missy Tripplehorne, Sally Cattan, Barbara Jackson--walked down to greet D.G. and offer their wishes on a good season, and then the Braves manager was caught up by Phil Brice, quietly embarrassed because he couldn’t find any locker with his name on it. D.G. assured him that his locker did exist, and it was probably a little hazing on behalf of the other guys, and he even turned to follow the rookie back to the dugout...
...when he realized that there was still one young man in street clothes sitting patiently where all the players had been. D.G. couldn’t believed that he’d missed the kid. Not that the newcomer was especially striking; brown hair, brown eyes, nothing about him especially noticeable. A young man, maybe twenty--fresh-faced and enthusiastic and without a clue.
At the same time he sat with some confidence, obviously feeling that he belonged. D.G. knew immediately who this kid had to be. “J. Stiller?”
He received a smile. “Yes, sir?”
“What do you think you’re doing here?”
Now the look changed to a bit of confusion. J. Stiller got up from his bleacher seat and stepped around the end of the row, walking up to the manager of the ballclub. “I was invited.”
“I’m the manager, and I don’t recall inviting you. But--” he went on, interrupting what the boy was about to say, “I’m willing to bet Mr. Robert Germane told you to be here? Maybe even paid for your ticket out of--”
“Gillett Grove, Iowa.”
“--out of Iowa and into civilization, told you there’d be a spot on the team for you?”
The kid remained calm. “Something like that.”
D.G. stepped back from the railing, eyeing the newcomer from laces to hairgrease. “You didn’t spend even a week in the minor leagues.” It wasn’t a question.
J. Stiller answered anyway. “No, sir.”
“You don’t have a full minute of professional ballplaying experience.”
“What position do you think you can play?”
“Well...if anything, right field. But I’m a good hitter.”
“Sure you are.” Dennis had heard that one before. “No experience, no currently recognized skills, and you play a position I don’t need help with. So why are you here again?”
It was the younger man’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “Because the owner of the Boston Braves sent me a letter telling me to come, with the train ticket provided and everything. Promised me a locker, a uniform, and a chance to be part of the team this season.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Muldowney.”
D.G. didn’t recall telling the boy his name. “So you’ve done your schoolwork? Know something about the Braves?”
“My favorite team, sir.”
“Flattery doesn’t do much to drive a baseball, boy. So Bob Germane promised you a locker, a uniform, and a chance?”
The Braves manager stood for a moment, spit into the dirt, and then shrugged towards the dugout. “Back behind there’s the clubhouse, with your locker and your uniform. Go put it on.”
“Yes, sir.” With a glint in his eye, J. Stiller vaulted the fence and landed on the infield grass, started trotting towards the dugout where the rest of the Braves were now emerging.
Just a few feet from the steps, the newcomer turned. “Sir?”
In front of the other players, a quirked smile on his face, Dennis G. Muldowney called, “Put the clothes on, but don’t get comfortable in ’em!”
* * *
Jason’s face burned for a minute, after the other guys on the team heard their manager say that...but the feeling passed as he found himself stepping by and around his favorite players, the men he had listened to on the radio broadcasts, read about in the newspapers.
As the clubhouse emptied, one man in particular stood out, his craggy face instantly recognizable to his truest fan. “Mr. Tripplehorne?”
The star pitcher and legend of the Boston Braves had been enjoying a quick cigarette before heading out to the field, because even if D.G. caught him at it, he was pretty much beyond rules and would at most receive a reprimand. He looked up at the kid facing him and was not impressed. “Help you?”
“I’m one of the new players this season and...I wanted to tell you how inspiring you’ve been to me, and what a pleasure it’ll be to work with you.” Jason Stiller stood there with his hand out, just wanting to greet his hero.
Bud looked him over again, and still was not impressed. “Who says you get to play with us this year?”
On his way past, Bill Pickens stopped to get his two cents in. “Hey, kid, isn’t there a sockhop or something you should be getting all dressed up for? What would your mommy say if she knew you were here?”
Anger flashed. Jason stood up straight and was several inches taller than the Braves’ shortstop, and he used this to his advantage. “My mother is dead.”
Then over Pickens’ head, at Bud: “And I was invited to be here by the owner, so I figure he’s decided I can play with you this year.”
Jason had managed to dry up the shortstop fairly well, but the star pitcher was no coward himself. “Watch your mouth, boy. Let me tell you something about this team. Bob Germane has a tramload of swell ideas but he never earned us one run, never helped us win one game. He just pays for things. Dennis G. Muldowney makes the decisions around here, and you’d better for doggoned sure impress him--if you think you stand a chance of seeing the first game anywhere besides standing outside the stadium, staring through a knothole in the fence.”
Bud was standing by this time, and now Jason was being loomed over, but he stood his ground. Nobody said anything for a minute, until Bud finally stubbed the cigarette out against the bench he had been sitting on, dropping the crumpled butt into Stiller’s shirt pocket. “Here. Souvenir for ya.” Without another word or a look back he left the dugout. Pickens followed, laughing under his breath.
“Kind of a bruiser, isn’t he?” The voice came from Jason’s elbow. He turned to see Phil Brice standing behind him, half dressed.
Jason immediately wanted to say something, ask why the rookie hadn’t come to his defense...but he let it go. “Yeah. Used to be my hero.”
“Uh-huh.” Phil turned and fished around for his uniform shirt. As he wrestled into it he asked, “So were you telling the truth? You’re playing with us too, this year?”
“I always tell the truth, er--”
“Jason Stiller.” They shook. “I always tell the truth, Phil, and--” he found the locker that he had been looking for, “According to this name right here, it looks like I get at least one chance to impress the guy who makes the decisions.” He pulled the uniform out and started changing into it, not wanting to get any more behind on things than he already was.
Phil had finished dressing but waited for him. “Yeah, I’m in pretty much the same boat. Me and Ted, that is. And he’s got a lot more confidence than I do. Frankly, if I don’t make a good showing, Mr. Muldowney will just toss me right the heck out of here.”
“Well, if he does kick us out the door, we’ll watch the games through that knothole in the fence together, okay?”
Jason was thinking much less of his chances as he looked up at the clubhouse exit, at the sunlight filtering down to the concrete floor from the world outside...but after a great deal of hard work he was not going to be stopped now.
* * *
Everybody else had found their place on the field and begun their first practice by the time Brice and Stiller popped out of the dugout. D.G. was waiting right by the stairs.
“Brice! Get out into center field and make me want to keep you.”
“Yes, sir!” The rookie began trotting in the right direction.
“Find a nice, comfortable spot on that bench, kid.” D.G. pointed back the way the young man had come.
The dugout was otherwise empty. All of the members of the Braves, first and second string alike, were out on the field. Jason looked from the bench to D.G. and back again, but didn’t have to be told how things were. Without a word, he found a seat and watched the field.
Turning his back on the newcomer, the manager walked away from the dugout, cursing under his breath. “And stay there, you blasted freeloader.” He began his job; managing, talking to the players, talking to the assistant coaches, yelling and running around and trying to find the weak spots on his team as soon as possible.
All the while he kept watch...every time he thought about it, Dennis G. cast a quick glance around the ballpark, not expecting that J. Stiller would have gotten up and started playing without his noticing, but watching like a hawk for any sign of Robert P. Germane, the owner and proprietor of the Boston Braves.
A break for lunch came and went, and Germane was not there. The players ate quietly, talked among themselves, and D.G. was not so stubbornly heartless as to make Jason sit in the dugout but let him and Phil Brice and Ted Conroy talk together in the clubhouse, slightly removed from the non-rookies. Not having proved themselves yet.
D.G. made sure to drop by that corner of the clubhouse before the break was finished. “Boys, so far things for you are looking good. Ted, I believe my scout was on the money when he told me about you. You’re a solid hitter. Improve your reach out at second base, and maybe we’ll keep you on yet.
“Brice, I’ve got a hole in center field and we’re trying to get you to fill it. Forget about your batting average, my boy, and get better at picking that ball out of the sun. I feel very good about your chances with us.
“A little more gumption from the both of you and we’ll see, fair?”
“Yes, sir.” The two accepted rookies echoed one another.
D.G. didn’t look at J. Stiller, said not a word to him, moved past where he was sitting as if he didn’t exist.
* * *
Phil Brice leaned over to talk to Jason, who watched the manager’s back with the strangest quiet smile on his face. “I don’t think I’d be smiling if everybody was ignoring me like that. He hasn’t let you do anything, has he?”
“C’mon, buddy,” Ted lit in from his other side, “If it were up to me I’d just leave when nobody was looking, rather than sit there and take that.”
“The owner of the ballclub invited me. The only reason Mr. Muldowney didn’t just throw me out is because he knows I get at least one chance.”
“At least one chance, huh? The way that guy’s looking at you, one chance is it.” Ted’s eyebrows were lifted high. “What kinda odds can that be, huh?”
J. Stiller was still smiling.
Phil noticed. “Is there something we don’t know, Jason?”
The smile broadened just a bit. The ignored, despised newcomer turned his head far enough to meet his friend’s eyes, and Phil saw a twinkling deep inside the brown circles.
“Just give me a baseball bat and room to swing.” He stretched, leaning against the wall. “Then you’ll see.”
* * *
“Well it’s about doggoned time.” Four o’clock that afternoon, with about an hour left until the first day of spring training was through, the team’s owner finally graced the men with his presence. D.G. looked up from a talk with his catcher, Sammy, to see Robert Germane sitting in the east bleachers, way back by the foul pole. The horn-rimmed glasses and gray-streaked hair were distinctive even from a distance...if not the very posture of the man, sitting around confidently like he owned the place.
Well, come to think of it...“Going to make me come to you, is that it?” D.G. sighed, gave a few final instructions to his catcher just to show that he wasn’t in any hurry to see Bob, either, and then began the long walk. He mumbled half-remembered prayers from his childhood, asking for peace and patience and if God didn’t mind much, could he maybe send down a lightning bolt as well?
No luck there--Bob was still sitting happily in the third row seat when D.G. finally stood before the lower railing. “Nice of you to drop by, Bob.”
“Dennis, I’m sorry about not making that get-together this morning, I really am. You know how difficult the train schedules are these days--”
“All of the boys got here on time.”
“--and I have a great deal of work to do, as you know.” His smile had gone. “I’m truly sorry but at the same time I don’t feel like groveling, Dennis. Set another time and I’ll be there then.”
“Right.” He knew how it was done. Like the walk out here, like everything, Bob Germane was making sure his manager, his subordinate, still knew where he stood. “Whatever you say, boss.”
If the owner of the Braves noticed the sarcasm, he chose to let it pass. “How’s my team looking this year?”
This last D.G. let pass...everybody knew it was his team. “They’re looking acceptable, and I gave ’em the usual stoke-the-fire speech, and who knows. Maybe we’ve got something this year.”
Bob grinned again. “Isn’t he something?”
D.G. knew exactly what--who--Bob was referring to, but pushed past it in pretended ignorance. “It’s not the strongest team we’ve ever had, and I really don’t know how much longer Bud’s going to be our saving grace, but--”
“I don’t think we’re communicating.” There was a glint in his eyes to match the smile, and Dennis really hated that. “I’m sure there’s something you wanted to talk about when you came up here.”
“Something I wanted to...hmm.” It was insane, the games they played sometimes. But D.G. wasn’t about to just roll over and let Bob be king of his world. “Oh, right. Yeah, now that you mention it, something has been kinda bugging me all day, but it almost slipped my mind.”
“Well,” D.G. pursed his lips, “There certainly seems to be one more player out here today than I had bargained for, somebody that frankly doesn’t seem to belong, though he’s waving your recommendation letter in everybody’s face. Is that what you’re talking about?”
“Yes, that’s what I was talking about. Brown hair, brown eyes, nothing very special-looking about him?”
“Sounds like we’re talking about the same guy.” And then the question of the day, the one D.G. seriously wanted the answer to: “What the heck is he doing here?”
Bob Germane’s smile widened slightly. He got up from his bleacher seat, walked down through the opening at the end of the row to the outfield, and pointed back towards home plate. “Let’s walk for a little while.”
The manager of the Braves rooted around inside himself to find some more patience, not wanting the pompous fool to win: he seemed to be fresh out of patience but settled on a calm, angry resolution, clamping down his feelings. Bob Germane could play all the games he wanted but he wasn’t going to get any rise out of Dennis G. Muldowney, no sir.
They walked. Taking his sweet time about it, Bob finally asked, “So let’s pretend that I found a magic bottle on the train today, has a genii inside. Out he pops and because he’s so thankful to be free he grants me three wishes, and because I’m such a caring fellow--” he let a pause slip in, just in case his manager wanted to say something, but apparently not, “--I decide to give those wishes to you.”
D.G. found it within himself to laugh quietly. “Get to the point, Bob, if there is one.”
“Indulge me, Dennis. I’ve given you three wishes, and the only catch is that they all have to be used to benefit the team. Go.”
Dennis could have told him that of course he would use any such wishes to benefit the team, his team, right off the bat--he loved his wife and daughters, but they did all right by him and this was baseball, fer cryin’ out loud. “Three wishes.” He decided to play along. The question wasn’t difficult. “Tell your magical genii that one, I’d like very much for the Boston Red Sox to disappear.”
Bob laughed. “You and me both, but I don’t think even magic could make that happen.”
“Well, they are my wishes, aren’t they?” At least there’d never been a Subway Series in Boston, the Braves and the Sox facing off for the title. The thought of that brought chills to Dennis G. The Sox would have them for lunch.
The two were passing second base and getting closer to the dugout as he continued. “Second, this ballclub could use some more money.”
“Hey, now, I--”
The manager cut in before the owner could get angry again. “You asked, and I’m not saying you don’t provide for us.” D.G. really wasn’t, his dislike for the man not extending to his business skills. “But you have to admit, there are things that could function a little more smoothly, be a bit shinier.”
Bob was nodding. “You’re right, and believe it or not, I’m working on that.”
“I believe it.” If there was one thing Bob knew how to do, it was make money.
“I...” and he caught himself actually wishing, and the wish disconcerted if not downright scared him, and he couldn’t say it and Bob Germane read his mind anyway.
“Allow me. Your third wish is for a real, honest-to-goodness power hitter like baseball hasn’t seen much of since before the second World War, like Hank Aaron or The Babe himself.”
D.G. wouldn’t answer him, didn’t want to acknowledge the truth in what Bob was saying because of how personally true and painful it was for him, but the look that passed between them said enough.
“Your wish is my command.” They were just yards away from the dugout, and Bob had already seen J. Stiller sitting there, looking a little tired and a lot bored. “Has he been sitting there all day?”
“What?” D.G. stumbled back to the normal world out of painfully forgotten dreams. “Yes. I don’t have a place for him.”
“I think you do, Dennis.”
“You ain’t telling me some snot-nosed kid out of the western edge of nowhere’s going to take the Braves to the Series. You don’t seriously expect me to believe he’s that good.”
“How often am I wrong?”
Which was the worst part of it, the thing that had been rattling around in D.G.’s mind all day.
If J. Stiller had been brought here with Bob’s approval--and much more importantly, at Bob’s expense--then either Bob had gone crazy, or there was something worth seeing in this scrawny, snot-nosed hayseed.
So D.G. glowered at his boss, suddenly angry as well as frustrated--and not even fully sure why.
Bob wheedled. “It’s been a long day, and I’m sorry I didn’t make the meeting--I really am. You work hard and you want this team to win, right? You want the Braves to really be something?” Other players were paying attention now, the First Day batting and fielding pretty much halted. D.G. could feel them watching, and knew their thoughts: why was their manager and their owner arguing over the new kid...and what was the new kid doing here anyway? Bob made his ultimatum. “Help me out, Dennis. You’re the magic behind this team, we know that, but let me help you with more than just money. Let me give you this Opening Day present.”
“Bob, I refuse to believe that he’s that good. He’s never been in the minor leagues--told me that himself. Wherever you got him from,” he warmed to his subject, still angry, ”Mr. Stiller doesn’t belong here until dues have been paid, until he’s proven that he can handle things on the lower levels that we all climbed up through. This isn’t right.”
Now the owner of the Braves was a tad angry again, and he spoke clearly. “Just give him a chance, Dennis.”
“One chance.” A sudden nasty idea.
“Fine.” The manager of the Boston Braves turned on his heel. “Boys! Gather in here, please.”
They had already stopped what they were doing, and now the ballplayers trotted in from all over the field, until they were congregated in a loose group around second plate. Dennis G. Muldowney and Robert Germane locked eyes for a moment, and then the manager looked at the human riddle, J. Stiller, still sitting in the dugout like he had been all day. “Boys, I’m sure you’ve been asking around today, wondering to yourselves, thinking that you saw that extra locker, saw the nameplate and the young man that I didn’t identify, the chum who hasn’t had anything to do today.
“Well, players, I’ve been saving him. Your great owner and I have a wonderful surprise for you: a miracle. An honest-to-goodness miracle that Mr. Germane found all by himself, shipped him straight here, and now he’s going to carry this team on his back all the way to the World Series. Sound good?”
Bud Tripplehorne, Squints, Lefty, Sammy...all of the players saw the frustration written on D.G.’s red face, heard the sarcasm in his voice, but also noticed the icy mask on their owner’s face and decided as a group that it would be wise to say nothing.
“Mr. Stiller, come out here, please. Let’s take a walk. Tripplehorne, you too.”
* * *
Jason stood and climbed the steps, left the dugout quietly--catching twenty pairs of eyes that didn’t know whether they should encourage him or insult him or what--and finally he fell in step next to Dennis G. Muldowney, who was muttering vague under-his-breath things that Jason couldn’t make out.
On the way to home plate the newcomer had to catch a baseball bat that D.G. picked up off the grass and tossed at him; when they got to home plate he was told to stay, and the rest of the players sort of ranged around behind him, still wondering what was going on, while the manager and the star pitcher walked towards the mound.
* * *
“I’m about to give him his one chance, Bud, and you’ll understand your part easily enough. All I’m going to tell you is this: do your best. I don’t have anything against that hayseed personally, but Germane’s gone way too far this time and I won’t stand for it. We’re going to get him out of here fast and go back to baseball, all right?”
“Whatever you say, Deeg.”
“Good man.” While Bud Tripplehorne finished walking to the mound, the star pitcher rubbing his fingers around a white horsehide baseball, D.G. turned back towards home plate and addressed the crowd. “Stand back and give him some room, folks. We’ve got a real ringer here, a shooting star hitter the likes of which you’ve never seen, I’m talking George Herman Ruth himself. Less a few pounds.” Laughter. Even Jason smiled, casually leaning on the bat D.G. had given him. “Well don’t just stand there, kid, come on up to home plate. We won’t keep your miraculous talent hiding any longer.”
* * *
Jason stood in his place next to home plate and wondered how this was going to go. He didn’t wait long.
The manager of the Boston Braves looked straight at him. “Kid, I don’t much like you and I don’t like that you’re here today. But my boss says you get a chance, so here it is.” He looked the boy straight in the eyes. “Bud’s going to throw seven pitches at you.
“Hit five of ’em and you can stay.”
Behind him, Jason heard whispers and shocked laughter making their way through the rest of the players. He himself didn’t say anything or change his expression, but he understood exactly what was going on. Dennis G. was giving him a chance...without giving him a chance.
As far as statistics went, an average of .300 made somebody in baseball a pretty fair hitter. But for him to hit five out of seven pitches, Jason would have to average more than twice that--and against the big star, the fast, tricky Bud Tripplehorne himself.
As far as chances went, D.G. might as well have been asking Jason to hit a ball to Chicago, or the moon. It was almost impossible.
Jason closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and concentrated on almost. To hit a ball to the moon was, of course, impossible. To average .700 for an entire season was equally impossible.
But to hit five of seven pitches he only needed a miracle.
So for just a moment, Jason Stiller stepped away from the plate, turned away from everyone, and looked out at the sun, falling towards the west. His prayer was quiet. “God, help me out just this once, and I’ll leave you be, I’ll never beg for anything again. Just this once. That’s all I ask.”
Then he touched the bill of his cap and turned back to his task.
D.G. called, “Are we going to do this or what? It’s going to get dark soon, Mr. Stiller.”
“I need a catcher.”
“Behind you, kid.” Understanding the gravity of the situation, the Braves’ best catcher and the one black man on the team, Sammy Washington, had already grabbed his mask and chest protector. Now he squatted in his accustomed spot behind the plate.
“All right, son, you’ve got your catcher. We ready now?”
“No.” When D.G. started to look exasperated again, Jason kept talking. “I need an umpire, wouldn’t you say?” His tone had a bit of an edge to it, and the players all wondered if their manager was going to lose the temper he had been working on keeping for the past fifteen minutes...
...but D.G. was at heart a fair man. “Yeah, I guess you do. Fine, I’ll ump ya. Wait a minute.” The proper gear was found and passed to him, and he stood behind Sammy, as all three looked out towards Bud. For a moment Jason wondered why Robert Germane hadn’t spoken up, hadn’t put a stop to this...but a quick look showed a man with a poker face, keeping quiet and impassive. Apparently the owner of the Braves, at least, thought that he might pull off a miracle--he wasn’t putting a stop to anything.
Jason needed something to lighten the situation, if only slightly. Some joke that he would help him relax and remember that he really was good enough, that he really could do this. While Bud was still preparing himself for battle, Jason turned to look down at Sammy. “Is there any chance I can pull this off?”
* * *
Samuel Washington was not cruel, but neither was he a liar. “Not in a million years, kid. Sorry.”
Then the newcomer, the young man who had just been ordered to do the impossible, grinned. “You got a ten-spot that says so?”
And it was such a strange time and place to be making such a strange bet that Sammy had to grin himself, his white teeth markedly contrasting his dark features. “Ten dollars? I suppose I could come up with that. You’ve got yourself a bet.”
Still grinning, Jason shifted the bat to his left hand and stuck out his right. “Jason Stiller.”
“Samuel Washington. Guys on the team call me Sammy.”
* * *
“Good to meet you, Sammy.”
Taking a deep breath, Jason found the calm he needed. It was just another turn behind home plate, and he knew he was good enough. “Five of seven, wasn’t it?”
D.G. laughed shortly behind him. “That’s all I’m asking, Mr. Stiller.”
“Right-o.” As he turned towards his opponent, both he and Bud ready for the fight, a quiet voice from behind and below him spoke up. “For what it’s worth, I hope you make it, kid.”
Jason’s voice was just as quiet. “Me too.”
Across the distance that separated them, Stiller’s eyes met Tripplehorne’s, and the contest had begun.