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By Brian Tanguay
Jason saw Kasey Mullen from ESPN cutting toward him across the infield grass, camera crew trailing close behind. She was a couple of years removed from college, full of energy, and Jason had made time for her before, but this was different and he had nothing to say. He pushed his way past photographers armed with invasive telephoto lenses. Hootie and the Blowfish boomed over the PA system. Paper cups and hot dog wrappers and bits of shredded paper rained down from the stands. The Tiger faithful, long-suffering and tired of defeat, made the most of the moment.
He made the dugout steps after brushing Kasey's tape recorder away. His teammates milled around, many looking unsure of what to do now. They had come so far, fought so hard, beat the odds, silenced the critics who said they'd never hang tough deep into September.
Down the steps into a mire of sunflower shells, tobacco spit, empty cups, and sodden towels. He could feel his teammates eyeing him, most with the sympathy one player can feel for another, but several veterans had malice in their eyes, as if they wanted to grab a bat and cave in his skull. He didn't stick around. After collecting his gear, he ducked into the tunnel where it was semi-dark and for the moment deserted.
Ten yards in his legs buckled and he collapsed against the wall.
The baseball media ate his story up. The Cinderella elements were irresistible, like something straight out of Hollywood.
Jason was ancient for a rookie, twenty-eight years old, with eight minor league seasons under his belt, an ungodly number of games. Eight seasons playing in places like Erie, Pennsylvania, and Edmonton, Canada, playing his heart out in half-empty parks with uneven turf and clubhouse showers that spit out lukewarm water. Eight seasons on the bus. Eight seasons paying dues and sticking with it long after most guys would have called it quits and gone home to sell real estate or latch on to a coaching job at the high school. Eight seasons fighting through slumps and self-doubt, nagging injuries, and a devastating divorce that put him in an emotional hole for months. "Face it, Jason," his ex-wife said at the end of his sixth season, right before she left. "You're not good enough to make it." Eight seasons waiting for a shot.
When the call from the big club came, after the regular third baseman went down with a torn rotator cuff, Jason was primed and ready to prove that he belonged.
He did more than that, posting offensive numbers people had to check twice to believe. Second in batting average, RBI, and hits. First in on-base percentage. Third in walks. Sixth in home runs. Fourth in doubles. He hit the best pitchers in the American League: Pedro Martinez, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina. He hit fastballs, curves, sliders, and splitters. He hit on blustery days in April and sticky nights in July. He hit at home; he hit on the road.
He brought stability to the left side of the Anaheim infield. His quick feet and soft hands at third base reminded people of Brooks Robinson. He was the only rookie voted to the All-Star team, and in the second inning of the mid-summer classic, slammed a triple off the Big Unit, Randy Johnson.
It was a magical season and as it came down to its final days, Jason Lucasey, career minor leaguer turned MVP front-runner, had carried the Angels to within one game of the American League West crown.
The schedule had them in Detroit against the hapless Tigers for the final series of the season. Jason drove in three runs in the first game, a 6ñ1 victory, but the Angels dropped the second 4ñ3 in a fourteen-inning marathon. It was 2 A.M. by the time the team bus pulled up in front of the Hilton, and all Jason wanted to do was crawl into bed, switch off his brain, and sleep.
The knock came ten minutes after his head hit the pillow. He hauled himself out of bed and padded across the carpet in a T-shirt and boxers, thinking that his roommate had forgotten his key.
Frizzy strawberry blond hair and striking blue eyes. Tall, anorexic thin, with long legs and knobby knees. Except for the eyes, her face was the kind seen every day in a crowd and quickly forgotten. The summer dress and open-toed heels she was wearing screamed "thrift store." The purse slung over her shoulder had a busted clasp.
"I think you've got the wrong room," Jason said.
"Look me in the eye and say that again."
"You started your professional career with the Erie Seawolves. Four years later you moved to Triple A Edmonton in the Pacific Coast League. Your play was steady but never spectacular. Your highest batting average was .276. I can go on."
She was a blank. The statistics she recited were available to anyone with above-average curiosity and a subscription to The Sporting News.
"Do I know you?"
"That question should insult me, but I'm beginning to think you really don't remember me."
"I don't. Sorry."
"Stuckey's Tavern, two nights before you left for Edmonton. Big party, lots of drinking. I was sitting at the end of the bar, nursing a Cape Cod. Remember?"
"Erie seems like a lifetime ago."
"You stuck your tongue in my ear."
"No way," Jason said. "I'd never do something like that."
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2002 issue.
BRIAN TANGUAY is a rabid baseball fan and writer who lives in Santa Barbara,
California, with his wife and two children. He is a graduate of Antioch University.
© 2002 Brian Tanguay
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