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FICTION

The Longest Inning
By Larry Fangman

The rookie started it. He picked up an easy two-hopper to third and fired the ball into the thirty-ninth row behind first base. The hometown crowd roared as a dad barehanded the errant throw and plopped the ball into his son's mitt. After the throw, Kid Martin bent over, his hands on his knees. Flip Horgan gripped the new ball, walked off the mound, played with the rosin bag, and climbed back up the hill, but Martin still stood halfway between the hot corner and home, so Flip went over, slapping the ball into his glove as he walked. "Shake it off, Kid. Two ducks are down already and Frenchie's comin' up. I own him."

"Aleigh broke up with me." Kid talked to the dirt.

"What?"

"Aleigh. My high school sweetheart. She says it's over. She's lonely, so it's over." Kid sniffled and wiped his eye with his glove, which put a splotch of dirt on his left cheek.

Flip spit. He put his gloved hand on Kid's shoulder and scratched the three-day growth of whiskers that he felt made him an intimidating presence on the mound. "I'm sorry."

"What's up?" Whitey jogged in from short. "We'll get 'em out. We're up 6–0. We'll get the third—"

"Let's play ball out there," yelled a fan in the front row. He wore an official Cardinals jersey and cap and had a redbird painted on each cheek. "No wonder games take so long."

"Kid lost his girl," Flip said. "She wants a nine-to-five guy who'll be home for supper every night."

"Oh," Whitey said. He stopped in his tracks and avoided Kid's eyes. "Oh." He retreated a step toward third.

Flip slapped Kid on his rump. "Come over to my room tonight. We'll talk about it. Drown our sorrows. The same thing happened to me fifteen years ago, back in Norfolk, before I hit ėThe Show.'"

Kid sighed, but he straightened up. "Thanks."

"All right then. Let's play ball." Flip strolled back to the mound, glanced over his shoulder to make sure everyone was in position, and then looked in for Pudge's sign. Flip nodded, wound up, and delivered a slow curve. Frenchie Watson, who tried to smack every pitch out of the park, got out in front of it and hit a soft liner to short. Whitey moved one step to his right and stuck out his glove, but he dropped the ball. It landed in front of him, but when he picked it up, he muffed it again, so runners stood safe at first and third.

The sellout crowd let out a chorus of boos. "Hey, fumble fingers!" shouted the fan with the redbirds painted on his face. "Can you hold on to it when you take a leak?" He slapped a high five with his potbellied buddy in the seat next to him.

"My fault, Flip." Whitey carried the ball over and dropped it into Flip's mitt. Then he remained next to Flip on the mound, like they were waiting for someone.

"No problem," Flip dug some dirt out of the spot on the hill where he pushed off with his right foot. But when he finished, Whitey still stood there, like a supervisor on the landscape crew. "No problem," Flip repeated.

Bull trotted in from first, with Kenny Mitchell, the second sacker, a few steps behind. "I'm going to play off the base," Bull said. "Watson's not going anywhere."

"Do you think I oughta quit?" Whitey said.

"Quit?" Mitchell asked. He wore wraparound sunglasses. Sweat glistened on his black face.

"You're only thirty." Bull lifted off his cap. "With all these gray hairs, I'll be the first one to go."

"Amanda's got Parkinson's. She was diagnosed last week." Whitey kicked up a puff of dirt. "I mean, I don't wanna quit, but maybe I should. Maybe that would be the right thing to do."

Bull draped his beefy arm around Whitey's shoulder. "We can work this out. Alexis and I only live six blocks away here in St. Louie. Lexie'll help out when we're on the road. She'd be glad to do it."

"My Uncle Henry has that," Mitchell chimed in, chomping on his gum as he talked. "The doctors are startin' to figure that shit out."

"We'll raise money," Flip added. "We'll set up a foundation to raise money for research and get the fans to chip in, too."

"Play ball!" yelled a voice from the stands. "You don't get paid by the hour."

"I'll put up ten grand right now. Get the ball rolling." Bull smiled and squeezed Whitey's shoulder.

"What's there to talk about?" barked another fan. "Just catch the damn ball!"

"Thanks," Whitey said. "Thanks to all of you. I've been praying all week, and I guess you guys are God's answer. Is it all right if I pray, right now, for Amanda?"

Harley Highsmith, the manager, waddled out of the dugout. "What the fuck's going on?" Harley asked. He spat a goober of tobacco juice out and stood with his thumbs hooked inside his pants.

"Whitey's going to say a prayer," Mitchell said. He removed his cap and shades and squinted as his eyes adjusted to the sun.

"Yeah, and I'm the fuckin' Pope." Harley spat again.

"God, please give Amanda the strength she needs to face this obstacle." Whitey closed his eyes as he prayed.

"Jesus Christ!" Harley quickly snatched his hat off, bowed his head, and stood in his national anthem stance.

"Amen," Flip added.

"All right, uh . . . good, now . . ." Harley said as he wiped his brow. "Let's get out of this inning. Just one more out." He turned and trudged backed toward the dugout.

Flip tossed the rosin bag in his right hand as he waited for his fielders to get ready. Flip shook off Pudge's signal, nodded when his catcher changed the sign to a fastball, and wound up and delivered a high hard one that Wilton Hendrix watched sail by for ball one. On the next pitch, a slider, Hendrix hit a lazy pop-up off the end of his bat. Bull stepped to his left, came in two paces, fell down onto his knees, and shielded his eyes with his mitt. Flip, thinking the inning was over, had already started back to the dugout, but when the ball dropped five feet behind Bull, Flip went back to the hill as Deuce Callahan, the right fielder, retrieved the ball and tossed it in to Mitchell. The home crowd voiced their displeasure as the first run scored for the Mets. Cups of beer flew out of the stands and littered the field along the warning track.

Bull stood up and rubbed his eyes, like he'd looked directly at an eclipse and damaged his sight, so Mitchell wandered over to him. "Bright sun," Mitchell said, but as he glanced up, he realized it was behind a cloud. He lobbed the ball over to Flip.

"Yeah, just before the ball started to drop, I lost it." Bull stood up, eyed the sky, and put his glove up in front of his face, as if he was trying to figure out how to shield his eyes for the next ball.

"Shake it off, Bull," Flip said.

"I wish I could, but some things can't be shaken off." Bull rubbed his left eye.

"What's the matter?" Pudge joined the conference. He took off his mask and put his catcher's mitt under his arm.

"She's pregnant."

"Lexie is?" Mitchell raised his hand to slap Bull's ass. "Congratulations. I—"

"Not Lexie. Margaret."

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2002 issue.

—EFQ

 

LARRY FANGMAN's baseball mystery, The Cupid Killer, will be published by the Cozy Roller Press in the spring of 2003. He lives in central Nebraska.

© 2002 Larry Fangman

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