A bead of sweat ran from his cap and graying hair across his temple and down his cheek. Rob paid no mind, his eyes focused on the fingers dangling between his teammate’s legs sixty feet and six inches from the mound.
Now batting, pinch hitter Adam Fenster.
The rookie eyed his coach for a sign, nodded and entered the batter’s box, tapping his cleats with his bat. He took his stance and waited, eager eyes staring at Rob, nervous knees kneeling slightly.
2, 3, 2, 1, 2 the fingers flicked before finally tapping the inside of the catcher’s right thigh. Curveball. Break it low and outside. Make him chase it, Rob thought.
Throw a gem, Rob. The words suddenly entered Rob’s mind, and he stepped off the mound.
He had heard the words just yesterday.
Yesterday, Coach motioned towards his office and waddled inside. “Robert, a moment please. Close the door and have a seat.” Rob knew what was coming, and looked down as he sat across from Coach’s desk. The coach leaned forward and tapped his calloused fat fingers on the desk.
“Rob,” the coach took a deep breath. “Rob, things aren’t going well, as I’m sure you’re aware. Your leadership with the kids is of course strong, your work ethic, unparalleled. But stats don’t lie.” He paused. “Velocity’s down. You’re not walking many but you’re not painting the corners like you used to. And ERA’s still lingering around 6.” He leaned forward. “Management wants you out.” The coach leaned back, crossed his fingers across his bulging belly and let out a large sigh. “They’ve got a couple kids they want to bring up before the season ends, ya know.”
Rob looked up from Coach’s fingers and met with his eyes. The coach continued.
“But you’ve been here awhile. You’re no quitter, god knows I’d have given up by now. The fight’s still there, I know it.” He leaned forward again. “I’ve asked management for one more go, tomorrow, as scheduled. So go out there and throw a gem, Rob. The writing’s on the wall already. But we owe you one more.”
Rob stood and shook the coach’s hand. “Thanks for this, Coach. I’ll give it my best.” Rob stepped away, opened the office door and left, hearing, ”I know you will, kid.” as the door closed behind him.
Rob climbed the mound again, nestled his foot in the rut beside the rubber and came set. A runner stood safe at second and another hugging third. Beyond the outfield, the smack of balls pounding gloves in the bullpen filled the field. “My last pitch,” he sighed, and squeezed his heart into the ball.
Rob stepped back, raised his arms and lifted his leg, reared back and lunged toward the plate, his wrist snapping with the throw. The ball spun vigorously, heading for the center of the plate. Rob followed through, waiting, waiting. Break ball, break! his mind screamed.
Hung over the plate as Adam Fenster strode forward, turned his hips and whipped the bat at the ball. The crack was loud, and the ball hung in the air in a slow arc deep into the gap in left center. Rob sprung off the mound and headed behind third watching the outfielder scurry to the warning track and barehand the ball as it bounced off the wall. Both runners passed Rob and headed home. Adam rounded second as the throw came in, and dove headfirst into third with a cloud of dust and cheers from his team.
Rob jogged back to the pitcher’s mound and watched Adam high-fived his coach and brush the dirt off his chest. A new ball came in from the ump and sat like a dumbbell in his glove. The old ball rolled into Adam’s dugout, snagged by a coach for Adam’s trophy case. Rob’s last pitch, Adam’s first hit. As expected, Coach hoisted himself up the dugout steps, motioned to the bullpen, and headed to the mound.
“You did your best, kid.” Coach raised his empty cupped hand as Rob’s foot left the pitching rubber. His legs numb, arms limp, mind empty, he dropped the ball into Coach’s fingers and walked off the mound.
The Walk of Shame. Thousands of fans watching Rob fail at the job he was paid to do, the job these people paid money to see. He continued toward the dugout, as he had done three hundred and thirteen times before.
This time, he stepped on the foul line.
Nothing left to jinx, Rob thought, and looked up to accept his fate from the fans.
The players knew. Somehow, the fans knew.
He looked up and saw the people stand. And clap. They weren’t cheering, but offering a soft and gentle clap. A clap of respect. Same in the dugout. The team rose from the bench and met Rob as he descended the steps, offering high fives, smiles and pats on the back.
“Good bid, bud.”
“You da man, bro.”
The compliments were subtle but sincere.
“Nice run, man.”
That one echoed in his head a second time. Nice run, man. He mind repeated.
The race was over.
Before entering the clubhouse, Rob turned back to the field and looked out.
A cloud of bugs gathered and danced at the stadium lights high above; to his left, a row of college kids chugged their beer; a young girl lapped a crust of sugar off her fingers and stuffed a wad of cotton candy into her mouth. Behind her, a row of fans still stood and jumped and clapped excitedly to the player at third.
Rob looked to third. Adam Fenster stood proud, absorbing the glory of his first hit, trying to ignore the cheers from his family and friends in the stands. He couldn’t contain his smile and snuck a glance at his fanatic family.
The radiance of Adam’s smile hit Rob as he stood in the shaded dugout. And the smile brightened his darkest day.
Frederick Doot writes literary fiction, screenplays, and blogs on the craft of writing and the continually woeful NY Mets. He is also a freelance editor and participant in various writers groups near Glen Rock, NJ. In the summer, his alter-ego, Rick Tood, can be found in the Catskill Mountains near Livingston Manor, NY, hiking, fishing, sippin’ whiskey beside a campfire howling at the moon, and churning out words for the endless supply of speculative fiction stories that sneak into his mind. Doot is Managing Editor of Fantasy Scroll Magazine and Chief Editor of TotallyNewGames currently developing Zombacane: The Card Game.