It was a phrase that he had been used to for the past several weeks. His hands still held the bat securely. Knuckles were still in line. Arms were staying back and ready to swing. The ball had come in quick enough. It looked to him to be low and outside. It looked differently to the umpire. Maybe that was what was wrong with him for the past month. He wasn't seeing the ball correctly. Truthfully, Nick wasn't seeing much of anything lately.
Nick Batch, outfielder for the Orlando Stars, stood still at the plate with his bat frozen in hand as the Nashville Hornets all walked back to their dugout. End of the inning. Bad time for a strikeout, regardless of the empty bases. Nick slowly made his way back to his own dugout. He slid the bat into his slot on the wall and fetched his glove. At least the Stars were winning. That didn't make Nick feel any better. There was a game to be played now. He switched to focus on his defense as he put on his glove and trotted out to rightfield. It was already the top of the eighth inning. It wasn't like he would get another at bat today. Not with the Stars up by ten runs. His batting troubles were behind him for the moment. In fact, all of Nick Batch's problems disappeared once he was on the field. After the game, while he stood in the cold shower and nursed a PBR, Nick's problems came to the forefront.
For the past month, Nick couldn't even reach past the Mendoza Line, hitting a laughable .167 batting average. He worked with several of the Stars' hitting coaches, not that there were many around these days. There were other things that Nick should have been worried about. At the moment, he was afraid that his manager would call him into his office and say those dreaded three words. Shut the door. Not many times in any of his clubhouses had good news ever followed that phrase. Nick could imagine what his manager could do. Nick could not take another year of Triple A. Not that he considered himself a Pro now. He had been the Star's star at one time. Fifty homeruns, a hundred forty-six RBI's, and a .325 average. That was two seasons ago, he reminded himself. This game can turn on you in a heartbeat.
As Nick got dressed he spoke to none of his teammates. They were mostly young anyway. He hardly had anything to relate to them. He wanted to stay quiet and get away quickly after an 0 for 4 day. He also wanted to get away before his manager, Lee Martin, could summon him into his office. Even if it wasn't to send him down, Nick was not in the mood for one of Lee's motivational speeches to players who went hitless for the day. Nick already received The Speech weeks ago. He didn't want to hear what Lee would say about a month long slump. Maybe there weren't any words at that point. The evidence of that came when Nick did manage to escape the clubhouse unsummoned.
Nick walked out into the clubhouse parking lot. The summer heat of Florida was at its peak. He wasn't outside a minute before he was wiping sweat from his forehead. Maybe if he was traded or sent down he could go to a cooler climate. Then again, what pro baseball team would want an aging superstar who can't hit? It's not as if trades were based on monetary value anymore.
His grandfather had played at a time when players had an abundance of monetary value. Joe Batch, Sr. was on what was then the Florida Marlins. He would tell Nick stories that he would remember for a lifetime. His grandfather was an average player then. Yet, he still made several million dollars more than what Nick was earning now. He retired a millionaire. Those days were over for professional sports players. He shook that thought out of his head as he walked to his car. Most of his teammates had left the clubhouse for various reasons. Celebrating today's win. Wives. Girlfriends. Kids. Nick had none of the above. He actually cherished being alone. It was easier. Though, it was times like these when he wished he wasn't alone. There were several girls whom he could call on for the night. As much as he loved sex, it wasn't something he was in the mood for at the moment.
His 2002 Porsche had seen better days. Forty some odd years ago, it had been a shining silver. Now it only showed hints of silver amidst deep splotches of reddish-brown rust. He opened up the driver's door which creaked with a loud screech. He threw the bag with his gear onto the passenger seat along with ancient cds and various empty wrappers of snack foods. He climbed in and fumbled for his keys. The car started with a heavy rumble. Exhaust fumes were fairly new to the atmosphere in this day and age. Friends and family pleaded with Nick to get a fully electric vehicle but he wouldn't listen. There was still something cool about the sound of an internal combustion engine revving up and speeding out of the parking lot.
One of the perks of playing an early Business Day game was that there was no traffic going home. The complex he kept as a permanent residence in Orlando was just fancy enough without being luxurious. Another bonus was that it wasn't far from the ball field. He pulled into the lot and parked as close as he could to his separate unit. It would have been too expensive for people working minimum wage, but Nick got a great deal from the owner. He just had to occasionally give him signed autographs of the more famous Stars players on the team. The owner was a old school baseball fan. He remembered when the ballplayers were treated as high royalty. He also claimed to be at the game with his father when the Marlins won their first World Series win in '97.
Nick opened the door to his home and entered. He dropped his bag near the closed door. It was still light outside in the late afternoon, but with the thick forest green curtains in the picture window the inside looked like a shade of midnight. He turned on the nearest lamp and headed for the kitchen. He took the cleanest glass in the sink and opened an upper cabinet. He found his dinner for the night - a warm helping of Heaven Hill whiskey. He poured a quick shot and made it disappear in record time. He poured a more healthier portion and turned to the main room.
He flopped down on the black leather sofa and gave the TV inset in the wall the command, "Search channels." The TV complied and flipped through the channels. When he spotted ESPN, he yelled, "Stop." at the TV. He watched highlights of another baseball game played that day and muttered, "Baseball may be bankrupt, but the Mother ship of sports channels is still king." He raised his glass in a mock toast and took a gulp.
Finally, they started showing highlights of the game he played in that day. They showed Cruz's two homers. Patrelli's five RBI's. Drummond's spectacular shoestring catch in leftfield. Nick Batch, the Star's right fielder, was never mentioned.
Why should they? He went 0-4 with two strikeouts and two pop-ups. He made a total of two catches in the outfield, both of them cans of corn. Not only could he no longer hit the way he once did, but he was now non-existent from any highlight reel. He could just hear the local sports radio personality, Bear Heggar, bashing him. Fans would call in to demand he be traded. But who would take him? He was almost reaching that dreaded age of forty that spelled instant retirement in the sport of pro baseball.
ESPN was done with baseball highlights and went on to the more popular sport of soccer. Nick took another sip of whiskey and got up to head to his desk in the corner. He listened to the highlights in the background and suddenly uttered, "Oooh, 2-1. High scoring game in soccer."
His desk was now decorated with his collection of past due notices. He thumbed through one pile with his free hand. Each one either had the word "Urgent" plastered on it, or was colored in Warning Red. This was the last thing he wanted to think about now. It was too late. How could he pay all of these bills? His next big paycheck from the Stars won't come until next month. He considered selling more of his memorabilia. Two problems with that. There was hardly any of his stuff left and there was no one buying it. Hazards of being a sports has been. He could get money by other immoral ways as he had in the past. His sister prevented that from happening again.
Sarah. He cringed at the thought of pleading with her for money again. She could afford it. Or, at least, her profession allowed her to afford it.
He quickly downed the last of the whiskey and then hurled the empty glass at the wall as if there was a cut-off man there to catch it. Instead, it shattered into several pieces. His momentary anger quickly subsided. He took a nearby Sports Illustrated to clear away broken glass from the sofa cushion. He sank down in the seat once again. He then grumbled the same phrase he had on repeat for several years.
"Damn, I wish I could have played twenty-five years ago!" Back then, Nick could have made a minimum of one million dollars per at bat. If it wasn't for–
No! Don't say the name!
There was an unwritten rule in the Star's clubhouse, and Nick suspected it was there in other clubhouses around the league as well, that the name of the Act that ruined the lives of sports figures could never be mentioned. The name was the Voldermort of the sports world. That which shall not be named. Nick could wish all he wanted and he couldn't change what had happened to the financial dominance of pro sports in the last twenty-five years. His money problems would not magically disappear. He would have to face them like a man, as his sister had told him countless times.
Nick reached over and activated the vidphone set inside the end table. He swallowed a sliver of pride as he commanded the device, "Call Sarah." A video screen rose from the table in real 3D but only showed a blank white screen. A heading on the bottom announced in type: Calling Sarah. After a few more moments, the white screen dissolved into the face of a middle-aged woman with the same long brunette hair as Nick's dear mother. The caption under the woman's image flashed in bold white lettering: Sarah Batch.
"Yes?" she answered. It took all of a few seconds of recognition before she let out a deep sigh of breath. "Nick. To what do I owe this pleasure, as if I didn't know."
"Hi to you too, sis. Had a early game today."
"Tomorrow's an off day. We play the Pirates here starting on Friday. I was thinking if you weren't busy, you'd like some company."
"What makes you think I need company?"
"The fact that you're single again, for one."
"Wait a minute...did you really consider that Muck-face and I were actually dating? We went out only three times."
"That's considered going steady in today's society."
"Please, it was insult to assholes to even call him one."
"Noted. Now, do you want to go out to eat with your little brother, or not?"
"I suspect I would be paying. I have food here if you don't want to spend your hard earned dollars."
"Cute. As long as it's not that damned raw fish."
"Sushi. Don't worry. I have the makings for spaghetti and meatballs. I'll get those out along with my checkbook."
"Hey, that's insulting."
"But no less true. See, I've been translating Nick-speak for several decades now. 'Let's go out to eat, sis.' translates roughly into 'I need to borrow money, sis.' Am I right?"
"Shut up. Do you want me to bring anything?"
"A muffler for your ancient vehicle."
"Ha ha. I think I have some wine I can bring."
"I don't know. It's red."
"Close enough. Come on over, little bro."
"One condition. We don't talk about the Act."
Sarah leaned into the frame with a smirk and said, "You can't say it."
"Yes, I can."
"Then say it. Come on. Gee, what was the name of that bill that was the catalyst for destroying the financial kingdom of sports?"
"And I call bullshit. Come on, bro. Say it, or I help you not."
"If I have to say it, you have to stop those stupid Star Wars quotes."
"Ah, anger leads to hate, little brother. You can say it. I hear it's considered therapy for some old sports figures."
"You're confusing it with a curse word."
Sarah spoke slowly, pronouncing every syllable. "The...Soto...Act. See, you didn't melt, Scarecrow."
"The Scarecrow was afraid of fire. He didn't melt. The witch did."
"And your pop culture knowledge is well intact. But you still can't say it."
"Maybe we can work on it when I get there. After all, you are the teacher."
"For fourth graders. And apparently, my little brother. See you soon, bro."
Her image disappeared.
Nick suddenly felt that he might regret this visit.