Al Whitaker thought he handled last night’s catastrophes pretty well. He only punched his office wall. It hurt like bloody hell when he broke his hand, but he didn’t need his hand to do this job. He needed Boyd Salazar and Manny Lopez. His All-Star pitcher and MVP third baseman, however, were both on the disabled list after an accursed inning that saw Salazar knocked unconscious by a line drive and Lopez break his ankle fielding a routine grounder. They lost the game, too, their tenth in a row. It was the expansion team’s worst spring training in its five-year history. Things weren’t boding well for the upcoming season. And it was all because of that idiot rookie.
There was a knock on his door.
“Come in,” Whitaker said after the third knock.
Danny Henderson looked like a ballplayer: tall, muscular, square-jawed, clean-shaven. But the kid didn’t know the first thing about baseball. Whitaker saw that the first day of camp, when Henderson ran onto the field and stomped on the foul line like he was a Sasquatch. Whitaker would rather cut off his leg than step on that white chalk.
“You wanted to see me?” the rookie said.
Whitaker kept a Louisville Slugger, blackened and scarred from age, on a rack beside the door. Everyone who entered rubbed it for good luck. Henderson did not.
The kid looked nervous. Of course he did. It was the last week of spring training and here he was in the manager’s office on an off-day, the rest of the team enjoying the last of the Florida sunshine before heading back up North.
“Don’t sit,” Whitaker said, rising. “Come with me.”
They passed through the empty locker room and entered a gloomy tunnel that ran under the ballpark.
“You have a hell of a swing,” Whitaker said. “You could be one of the greats. But I think you’re still a little green.”
The kid was silent. Their footsteps clanged hollowly off the cement walls. “Are you cutting me?” Henderson said in a timid voice.
Whitaker laughed. “I can’t cut the team’s best hitter, can I?” He patted the kid on the butt with his cast. While most of his teammates were mired in slumps, Henderson was leading the league in most of the batting categories. In fact, he hit two home runs in that nightmare game. “Besides, we’re going to need you now that Lopez is out. Rotten luck, that was, last night.”
“Yeah,” Henderson said. He sounded concerned, but Whitaker thought he saw a tiny smirk on his face. “And losing the no-hitter like that. Tough game.” The toughest Whitaker had ever seen as manager. Before he punched the wall, he did everything he could not to punch Henderson. The kid broke the biggest taboo in baseball: He talked about the no-hitter to Salazar, who was pitching the damn thing. The next inning, his two star players were down.
“You know anything about the baseball gods, Danny?”
“I don’t pay any mind to that superstition mumbo-jumbo.”
“Uh-huh,” Whitaker grumbled, and tapped his ancient Louisville Slugger against the floor three times. Henderson looked at the bat, surprised. He probably hadn’t noticed Whitaker slip it off its rack before they left the office. He probably hadn’t noticed Whitaker tap his doorknob three times either. All his superstitions ran in threes.
They passed the door that led to the bullpen, and continued into the thickening shadows of the tunnel.
“Luck is as much a part of baseball as balls and strikes,” Whitaker said, his voice low, grave. “It’s a game of inches. That inch could mean the difference between being a champion or a bum. And in case you didn’t know, the best team rarely wins it all. You need luck to go all the way, and luck is governed by the baseball gods. Anger them, kid, and you’re done.”
“Gods, huh?” Henderson smirked.
“Yeah, ask any Cubs fan. I’ve based my career on that mumbo-jumbo. Four straight World Series rings must mean I’m doing something right.”
They were well beyond the ballpark when they came to the dead end. A metal ladder ran up the cement wall before them.
“Is this some team ritual? Haze the rookie?”
“Something like that.”
When Henderson reached the top, he pushed open the hatch and climbed out.
The sun was blinding. Henderson stood in a clearing, shielding his eyes. Then he turned, and greeted his teammates with a wary look. They stood silently, in their uniforms and dark shades. Grass as tall as a man surrounded the clearing, which was in the shape of a baseball diamond.
“I had this place built behind the complex,” Whitaker said. “It’s my own little shrine, if you will.”
Henderson looked around like a nervous rabbit.
“Spring is a time for sacrifice,” Whitaker continued as he rested his bat across his shoulders. “Spring is a time for propitiation. And of course, spring is a time for baseball.” Whitaker smiled blackly. “The baseball gods are spring gods, Daniel. They need sacrifices. You angered them, you failed to heed the superstitions. Now we must make an offering.”
Salazar struck first, firing a fastball into Henderson’s left eye. Henderson went down, hard. He didn’t even have time to scream. Damn, if Salazar didn’t hit ninety-five with that throw, concussion and all. Then Whitaker was on Henderson with the Louisville Slugger, swinging it three times with his good hand. Dark blood spread underneath the rookie, and the golden-brown dirt drank it up. Each member of the team took a turn with Whitaker’s lucky bat.
As he led the team back to the ballpark, a path magically parting for them, Whitaker heard soft murmurings in the tall grass. It wasn’t unlike the roar of the crowd after a big win. The grass swayed like seaweed at the bottom of the ocean. Whitaker knew the 2021 championship was in the bag. The New England Pagans always won when they made the baseball gods happy.
James Aquilone lives in Staten Island, New York. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Weird Tales Magazine, the anthology At Year’s End: Holiday SFF Stories, and Bards and Sages Quarterly. His non-fiction has appeared in SF Signal, Weird Tales, Den of Geek, and BuzzFeed.