One Last Pitch (PG-13)
Forty-one year old Bob Kendall didn't think he was vain to still be playing in the Serguci League at his age. He played because he loved the game and he wanted to keep the uniform on for as long as he could. He told himself he would quit when he could no longer perform or was no longer helping his team and, to his surprise, that day hadn't arrived yet.
Bob "Bobby Doll" Kendall made his debut as a pitcher with the Hilltop Browns when he was seventeen, having just graduated from Hillsboro High School where he enjoyed a successful schoolboy career. The Serguci League didn't allow players to suit up until they either turned eighteen or graduated from high school, whichever came first and it was a badge of honor to be able to play in the amateur league founded in 1948. Beano Field was a former Army Supply Depot Park built in 1918 and renamed to honor Bernard "Beano" Serguci who was killed in action during World War II.
The ballpark featured a "mini-green monster" (18 feet high) in left field, a triangular mesh fence in center (complete with an on-field flag pole), and a nine-foot chain link fence in right. Both bullpens were beyond the third base stands and both dugouts – not dug out at all! – sat side by side off the first base line. The traditional league did not employ the designated hitter. There were no exploding scoreboards or advertisements inside the park, except for the Bulls Eye Pizza Target on the right field fence. (Any player who hit the bull's eye with a batted ball won a free pizza!) The fans that came to Beano Field today saw the same game their grandfathers' watched in 1948.
The park's horseshoe shaped seats featured a roofed grandstand behind home plate, covered bleachers along the first base line, and exposed bleachers that ran along the third base line. The former army supply warehouse in right field foul territory was converted into a sports tavern dubbed "The Bullpen" offering an outdoor "cage" where diners could follow a game while they ate. There was also a Serguci League museum on the second floor.
Serguci League baseball was a tradition in Blue County. Come each Memorial Day weekend, eight teams played a 42 game schedule that ended on Labor Day evening.
The original Hillsboro Beansters (now known as the Beansboro Beansters) was the league's flagship team. The Beansters were the "Italian" team spawned from the original Serguci Family of Hillsboro. The Greenville Giants featured Irish players from Blue County's biggest town. The Riverside Royals and Miller City Mudhens attracted players from the factories along the Blue River that ran through both towns.
In 1954, The South County White Sox and County Crusaders from the West County joined the federation, expanding the league with players from area farms and, for the longest time, migrant workers who picked tobacco, potatoes, and pickles in the south county. The Hilltop Browns, born from the "hilltop" neighborhood in Hillsboro, came along in 1957 and the Sun Rise Lake Lions from the resort lake of the same name was added ten years later to complete the eight team league.
The present day league featured players from local colleges and county residents who continued their baseball careers beyond their high school years. Nearly every family in the area had at least one family member who played in the league at some point and for many families it was a generational tradition. Everybody knew somebody who played Serguci ball and some of Bob Kendall's best friends were fellow players and league alumni, another reason he didn't want to hang it up.
Baseball and the Serguci League was a way of life for Bob. He saw the game as a metaphor with its ups and downs (wins and losses) and going through the grind. In many ways, individual games were like an unfolding soap opera – how was each particular contest going to play out?
Baseball required mental focus and it created joyful and memories, both for the people who followed it and for the players who participated in it. Bob liked the sense of family playing with the same team and players year after year. There was a unique camaraderie among Serguci League players and a sense of privilege playing in the league.
Bob knew that the game was a part of who he was and that it gave him a passion that he felt strongly about because it made him feel special. He appreciated that not everybody could play the game. Hitting a thrown baseball was difficult and fielding one wasn't much easier, let alone pitching one. Yet everyone on the field at any given time was involved in a play.
Bob felt young - like a kid - every time he came to the ball yard. There was nothing like working together on a common goal and competing for the chance to win. There was a connection with those who came to the park no matter what else was going on in their lives. Bob enjoyed watching younger players join the ranks and there was nothing better than seeing a bench player do well. He loved seeing the unexpected and he enjoyed the diversion baseball gave him from his "real" life, especially when his life wasn't going quite the way he hoped.
Bob started out as a young fireball thrower and he had early success but he had to learn how to pitch (and not just throw) as the league began to catch up to his fast ball. By adding a curve and a slider and variations of his baseball and understanding that pitching was more about fooling the batter than trying to blaze one past him, Bob was able to continue his success as he matured. Utilizing a three man rotation, most starting pitchers averaged 14 starts a season playing in the Serguci League and Bob usually finished with a winning record most years along with an acceptable ERA given that it was a hitter's league.
Bob's wife Judy "assumed" that her husband would retire when he turned thirty (even though they never really talked about that eventuality). He was well established in the family's insurance business and it he was being groomed to take over for his father when the time came and Judy felt it was time for Bob to give up "a kid's game".
But the pitcher wasn't ready to hang it up and his marriage took on stress when he refused to quit. Eventually Bobby Doll's wife left him and the divorced pitcher kept on pitching for the Browns while waiting for age to catch up with him, but it never seemed to.
Bob was still pitching successfully even though he had to adjust his pitching style to a finesse repertoire as his arm aged and lost strength. Then he passed the twenty-year mark in the league, one of the unspoken benchmarks when most players called it quits but he was still a front line caliber pitcher with a winning record so Bobby Doll kept on playing.
When Bob Kendall reached the baseball ancient age of forty, he assumed that would be the end of his career but when he turned in another acceptable campaign with a respectable ERA, he decided to shoot for the magical twenty-five year mark, mostly because nobody had taken his job away from him. Only a select few had reached the coveted silver anniversary plateau as an active player in the long history of the league and Bob made that benchmark his final goal as a player.
So that was why the soon to turn forty-two year old Bob "Bobby Doll" Kendall was back in a Hilltop Browns uniform to pitch one more season in the league. He began his off-season running in March and he started throwing on the side in April preparing for the official start of sanctioned training that began on May 1st.
A few days before the first official team training session, Bob received a phone call from legendary Browns Manager "Messiah" Christopher who asked to meet with Bob at the Bullpen Tavern. Bob knew it probably wasn't good news but he agreed to the request without question. Christopher had long been one of Bob's best mentors and heroes.
"Messiah" Christopher had won a league record 172 games (116 loses) in a stellar twenty-five year pitching career that ended six years after Bobby Doll began playing. Bob was 115-101 entering the season but only 13-20 in his last three years and the aging pitcher wondered if his manager was finally going to give him the axe due to his age and fading talent.
It was hard to believe that Messiah Christopher had just turned 62. The well known pitcher was captured in photographs with his long stringing hair and crazy moustaches and while he was as skinny as he was in his playing days, his (still long) hair was streaked with gray and he had trimmed the moustache to look more age appropriate.
Bob found his manager seated at a corner table and that's where the player joined him. A waitress brought a pitcher of beer and left the two men alone. Bob glanced at the generations of Serguci League player photographs along the walls and he swallowed hard as he filled his mug with beer, fearing the worse.
"You've heard about Helene Garson's kid, right?" The Messiah asked.
Helene was originally a Morrison. She was three years behind Bob in high school and he played ball with her two brothers, Des and Whitey, both of whom later played with him on the Browns. Helene married Ted Garson who, like Bob, had been friends with the Morrison brothers and who also played high school ball with Bob before joining the Serguci League. Ted Garson was killed in a motorcycle accident eleven years ago and Helene never remarried though she remained a faithful and loyal fan of the Serguci League and she attended many games even as a widow.
Bob liked Helene. He flirted with her in their younger days and he hung out with her as part of the gang before she eventually ended up with Ted and Bob met and married Judy. Ted and Helene had a son named Andrew and the team took the kid under their arms following his Dad's death.
Young Andrew served as the team's bat boy for a couple of seasons. The players mentored him, taught him the game, let him take BP, and scrimmage with them and Andrew developed into one of the best athletes the town had seen in a generation. He was a superstar pitcher with the Hillsboro Hurricanes and he set several records at the high school.
"He's going to play ball for the University of North Carolina right?" Bob asked.
The Messiah nodded his head affirmatively. "But he's not doing anything this summer before he goes," the manager revealed. "His mother wants him to play for us instead of with the Legion."
"You're giving him my spot?" Bob guessed.
"Demrest from the Dispatch has been asking about this," The Messiah sighed. "I need to address it before he runs a story on his own."
"I understand," Bob replied.
"The Kid could win us some games, Bob," The Messiah replied. "I also got a couple of other Hurricanes to come with him."
"Maybe I should just retire now," Bobby Doll said.
"You shouldn't do that," The Messiah advised.
"Why not?" Bob wondered.
"Because it'll look like you quit out of sour grapes and that's no way to go out," The Messiah reasoned. "You've earned the right to play this season. Besides, Hillsboro High is probably going to the playoffs so The Kid won't be available right away."
"So I humbly step aside when he arrives," Bob realized.
"You'll be our long man and spot starter," The Messiah said. "Hank doesn't have anything left. We need you, Bob."
"But do I need this?" Bob wondered aloud.
"I think we really have a chance to win this year," The Messiah said. "With Graves in Center, The Stick at First and Shoes at short, this could be our year, especially with The Kid around. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be doing this, Doll. It would be nice to win another championship, wouldn't it?"
"It's been a while," the pitcher agreed (six seasons to be exact).
"I really appreciate you taking one for the team," The Messiah let his player know.
The two former teammates finished their beers and reminisced a little before calling it a night. Bob went home and sat in the darkness of his lonely apartment coming to the realization that the day he had so skillfully avoided all these years had finally arrived.
Word got out that "The Kid" would be suiting up for the Hilltop Browns and when Micky Demrest called Bobby Doll Kendall for a quote, the pitcher officially announced his retirement effective at the end of the season.
"I'm glad to be a part of the team for one more season but you can't play forever and it's time to let some of the young guys have their chance," Bob graciously stated. A few evenings later, Bob was in The Bullpen Tavern again having a beer when Helene Garson approached him.
"Could I talk to you for a minute, Bobby?" she asked hopefully.
Bob excused himself from the guys he was chewing the fat with and walked Helene to the same corner table he and The Messiah had been sitting at a few nights before.
"Would you like a beer?" He asked.
"Sure," Helene agreed so he flagged a waitress down.
Helene still wore her blond hair long, even in her late thirties. She was trim and fit although she had tired eyes and the beginning of crows feet by their sides. Losing a husband before she was thirty had taken its toll as had raising a son as a single mom while holding down a full time job as a customer service representative for Miller Motors.
'Bobby Doll' still fit his nickname. He was a handsome man in his early forties with streaks of gray at his temples and when he let his stubble grow, it was also streaked with gray.
"I was hoping maybe Messiah would bump one of the other guys," Helene said.
"They both pitched better than me last year," Bob replied.
"It feels strange that it's my kid knocking you out of the box."
"If it wasn't him it would have been someone else," Bob said. "I always knew this day would come, Helene. I'm surprised I lasted this long."
"I'm not," Helene replied. "You were always good."
"Thanks," he smiled.
"I've been coming to Beano Field since I was six," Helene told him. "First to watch my uncles play, and then to watch my brothers, and Teddy and you play. I can't believe that you're the last link to that past."
"The end of an era, I guess," Bob said.
"I just want Andrew to experience a little piece of that history," Helene explained. "I know he's not staying but to see him wear the uniform even for a little while will mean so much to me."
"I understand," Bob said with a smile. "I'm not taking this personally, Helene."
"You're a good guy, Bobby Kendall," Helene smiled with appreciation.
He lifted up his mug in a toast like fashion and she followed his gesture.
"You want to know when I realized I was a true-blooded baseball fan?" Helene asked.
"When?" Bob wondered.
"When I started getting addicted to baseball movies!" She laughed. "Bull Durham. Pride Of The Yankees. Bang The Drum Slowly. Eight Men Out. Field Of Dreams. Fear Strikes Out. A League of Their Own. Major League. Mr. 3000. For The Love of The Game. The Natural. The Rookie. Summer Catch. I could watch any of them over and over again."
"That new Jackie Robinson movie is coming out this weekend," Bob remarked.
"42," Helene acknowledged.
"Want to go?" He bravely asked.
"Are you making a pitch, Bob?" Helene asked, raising her eyebrows.
"That would be nice," Helene smiled. "Thanks for asking." Then she studied him for a moment. "You sure you're okay with this?" She wanted to know. "With everything that's going on?"
"Sure," Bob replied. "It's not your fault your kid's good!"
She smiled proudly. "Thanks, Bob."
They each took a sip from their mugs.
"It's going to be great watching Andrew play for the Browns," Helene said happily. "But I'm not so sure I'll be able to relax quite so easily with him out there."
"You've watched everybody else play, this will be no different," Bob assured her.
"The amazing part about baseball is that you often see something you've never seen before," Helene remarked.
"It's a humbling experience to know that I can still learn something new every time I go out there," Bob agreed. "It's the drama of every at-bat."
"Is that why you love the game so much?" Helene asked.
"It's starting fresh every spring that gives me new hope," Bob said. "I'm young again every year." He paused for a moment. "Maybe not so much this year."
"What else about it keeps you going?" Helene wanted to know.
"About baseball you mean?" Bob asked, sipping his beer.
"Yeah," Helene said.
"Well, there's no time limit," Bob said. "So it ain't over 'til it's over as Yogi would say. The excitement of an extra-inning ball game is one of the best things too."
"I love baseball's unique language," Helene said. "ERA, WHIP, OBP, SLG%, BA, SV, K, BB, E, IBB, H, R, IP, AB, LOB, HBP, W, L, CS, RBI, 1B, 2B, 3B, HR, GIDP, DP!"
"Baseball is also all about numbers," Bob said. "One of the reasons I didn't flunk math as a kid was because I was doing baseball statistics all the time!"
"Baseball is an intelligent game but then again it's quite simple," Helene said. "Hit the ball, field the ball, throw the ball, and catch the ball."
"Yet even the best ball player fails to get a hit seven out of ten times," Bob pointed out. "How often you fail is less important than when you succeed."
"Baseball is a game of inches," Helene said. "Sixty feet and six inches from the mound to home plate. The pitcher's mound is 10 inches tall and the width of home plate is 17 inches is the width of home plate. Baseball is as precise as it comes."
"What I like is that every player on the team plays a role," Bob said. "Whether it's the guy coming off the bench to pinch hit or the reliever coming out of the pen to bail out the other guy, everybody matters. That's why I'll play one more season. I can still help the team, even in a reduced role."
"I like that baseball is truly the American game," Helene said. "As American as the Fourth of July and apple pie!"
"It's alive in every father and son who plays catch," Bob said.
"And every daughter who went to a game with her Dad," Helene added.
"It embodies the American spirit," Bob said. "It's about patience, perseverance, and seizing opportunities."
Helene sat back in her chair and smiled. "How come we haven't been hanging out before?" She asked. "I love talking to you about this stuff!"
"We used to," Bob replied.
"That was a long time ago, Bobby," Helene said. "We were practically kids."
"Well, we're going to the movies this weekend, right?" Bob asked hopefully.
"We are," Helene confirmed. Then she sighed. "I really haven't had much of a social life since Teddy died," she admitted. "I guess The Serguci League has been my only real outlet."
"It's a good place to be," Bob said.
"Maybe we're baseball kindred spirits," Helene smiled. "Even after all these years."
Bob grinned, noticing her beautiful eyes all over again and he remembered how taken he had been with her back in their days of youth but she had chosen Ted instead of him and that was the end of that story.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Helene smirked.
Bob laughed nervously, embarrassed to be caught in the act. "Sorry."
"How's practice going?" She asked, raising her eyebrows.
"Fine," Bob replied. "It's early but we're running the drills and getting our baseball legs back. The arm feels good."
"That's great," Helene smiled. "Sorry Andrew can't be there. The Hurricanes have some big games coming up."
"He'll have no problem catching up," Bob said. "But he and the other rooks should join us at practice when they can to get to know the guys and stuff."
"I'll tell them," Helene said.
They finished their beer and Helene stood. "Thanks for the visit, Bobby," she said warmly. "It was great."
They made arrangements for the movie Saturday night and Bob watched her leave the tavern, amazed at how easily all of that fell into place. He had to admit that he felt a tad of resentment toward The Kid when The Messiah first informed him he was losing his starting role to the youngster but now that he was apparently reconnected to the rook's mom, Bob really didn't care about any of that stuff so much anymore.
"With every ending comes a new beginning," Bob said to himself as he rejoined some of the guys on the other side of the room.
### ### ###
Helene's house was almost in the shadows of Beano Field, a few blocks walk from the ballpark. Bob had been there years ago when Ted hosted poker games but he hadn't been back since Ted died. The house looked much the same, well kept and neat.
Bob parked the car at the curb and walked up the front walk to the door which he rang. A tall and skinny but muscled kid answered the door and Bob realized it was "The Kid" Andrew whom he hadn't seen in at least four years. The Kid stopped coming around Beano Field once he started his Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and American Legion career and now that he was a high school sensation pitching the Hillsboro Hurricanes into the playoffs Bob was sure The Kid could care even less about the upcoming Serguci League season. It struck Bob as odd that The Kid's mother remained a die-hard Beano Field devotee while her son never bothered with the place.
"Hey," Bob said when he noticed The Kid giving him a suspicious look. "I'm here for your Mom."
"What for?" The Kid frowned.
"We're going to see the new Jackie Robinson movie," Bob answered. "Want to join us?"
"You're Bobby Doll, right?" The Kid inquired.
"Yeah," Bob confirmed. "Nice to see you again, Andrew."
"It's Drew now," The Kid replied snidely. "Why do you have a fag's nickname, old man?" The Kid meanly asked.
Bob was momentarily taken aback by The Kid's rude attitude. He remembered Andrew as an eager, polite, enthusiastic and humbled lad when he used to hang around the park and serve as bat boy for the team. Bobby Doll had gone out of his way to be nice to the kid and show him pointers about pitching.
"It was more about my looks back in the day," Bob explained.
"You mean you weren't ugly before?" The Kid asked rudely, before turning toward the living room. "Come on, let's go."
A teenaged girl appeared in the doorway, with long reddish blonde hair and a nice shape, although she seemed shy and didn't make eye contact with Bob as The Kid pushed the screen door open and almost smacked Bob with it but he moved back in time to avoid it. Neither teen said anything as they left the porch.
Bob chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment debating whether he should pursue the asshole and read him the riot act but he decided to let it go, not wanting to ruin his anticipated evening with Helene. He stood on the porch patiently waiting until he saw Helene appear at the top of the stairs and descend, wearing designer jeans, a Boston Red Sox tee shirt, and sneakers. Her hair was curled and she was wearing make up.
"Oh, Bobby!" She said with surprise when she saw the ball player standing on the porch. "Why didn't Andrew let you in!?"
"I'm fine," Bob insisted. "You ready to go?"
"I really wanted you to meet Andrew again," Helene said.
"We said hello," Bob let her know.
The roar of a car engine could be heard from the garage and The Kid's car came barreling out of the driveway with screeching tires.
"He's always out doing something," Helene remarked as she closed the door behind her and let Bob escort her down the walk.
Bob didn't want to talk about The Kid after that little performance so he filled Helene in on stories about the Browns' practice sessions instead as he drove them to the cinema in Greenville. One of the realities about playing in the Serguci League is that folks recognize you and say hello which happened several times as Bobby Doll and Helene entered the theatre. Bob tried to be polite and appreciative whenever someone acknowledged him least he get the reputation of being a jerk.
Sadly, not all of Bob's associates in the league shared such a discipline and there were plenty of guys past and present with the rap of a less than glorious character. Bob wondered if The Kid was the next in line to earn a knock on his name by allowing his school boy athletic success to define his personality in an unfavorable light.
Bob bought some popcorn and soda and then led Helene into the appropriate theatre. She smelled good and the pitcher couldn't remember the last time he went out on an actual 'date' like this, if that's what it really was.
The movie was another retelling of the familiar Jackie Robinson story, an interesting historical sports drama and biopic focused on the memorable 1947 baseball season in which Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signs the first black Major League player who faces ugly and vicious racism. Rickey encourages Robinson not to fight back and Robinson allows his remarkable athletic talent to speak for itself to become one the most popular players on the team.
Helene loved the film and enthusiastically went on about it when the couple enjoyed a late dinner afterward at the Greenville Grille. Helene was surprised that Bob wasn't quite as upbeat about the movie.
"I just think it kind of glosses over the racism problem as if it's all gone away now," Bob remarked. "It's great as a baseball movie but it lacks commentary on the continuing problem of racism in our country which has become pretty obvious since we elected our first black President."
"I thought it was so uplifting and inspiring," Helene countered. "I loved it!"
Bob grinned, amused by the upbeat Helene.
They spent most of dinner discussing 42 and other baseball movies before Helene asked Bob if he had witnessed any racism while playing in the Serguci League.
"Not really," he confessed. "Guys are mostly judged on their talent and their character, not necessarily in that order. Race and culture really don't have much to do it with, ironically since the league was founded along ethnic lines."
It was a pleasant evening and Bob was feeling good about it as he walked Helene from the restaurant after the dinner and a few drinks. It had gotten a little chilly out so Bob put his arm around Helene when he noticed her shutter.
"Thanks," she smiled with appreciation.
Helene invited Bob in for a cup of decaf when they arrived at her house and he graciously accepted. There was no sign of The Kid as they sat in the living room watching Saturday Night Live drinking the coffee.
"Well, I should go," Bob said when the show ended but before he could get off the couch, Helene leaned in and took his face in her hands, suddenly kissing him.
"I'm sorry," Helene said when she broke it off. "I just wanted to do that."
"It's okay," Bob replied. "I'm glad you did."
"It's a long time coming," Helene admitted.
"It almost came at Franklin's party," Bob grinned.
"Huh?" Helene asked.
"Don't you remember?" Bob laughed. "You were a senior in high school. I was at Green College. We both ended up at Franklin's party."
"My brother knew him," Helene recalled. "I think Ted was there too."
"There was a lot of making out and drinking going on," Bob remembered. "I saw you walking through the room and I almost grabbed you for a smooch."
"Why didn't you?" Helene asked.
"Well, you were a high school kid," Bob shrugged. "It was the missed kiss I always regretted," he admitted.
"I think I felt that kiss in my soul even if it didn't happen," Helene told him, giving him a long stare.
Bob moved closer to her and he let the next kiss consume them. He felt her tongue caress his lips so he opened his mouth and let her tongue explore inside.
"Wow," Helene breathed when she stopped kissing. "I haven't done this in a long time!"
"Me either," Bob confessed as he gently placed his hand on her leg. "It's nice."
"Yes, it is," she agreed with a smile.
"I really should go," he sighed, knowing what might happen if he didn't.
"I suppose," she reluctantly agreed.
"Before your son comes home," Bob clarified.
"Yeah," she sighed, resting her head on his chest. "Could you do me a favor?" She asked quietly.
"Sure," he said.
"Try to mentor him when he joins the team," Helene requested. "I know it's awkward with him taking your job and everything but you're the one with all the knowledge and experience and I'm sure you can help him immensely."
"What makes you think he'll listen to me?" Bob wondered.
"I know he thinks he knows it all but he really doesn't know anything," Helene sighed. "He may be in for a rude awakening in the Serguci League."
"American Legion is pretty tough and he did fine there," Bob said. "I wouldn't worry about his talent level. He's got it."
"That's not what I mean," Helene rebutted. "It's his attitude I'm worried about. All this has gone to his head, I'm afraid."
"That will change when he gets to Carolina," Bob predicted.
"Yeah, but what about now?" Helene worried.
"Let's see how it plays out," Bob suggested, kissing Helene on the forehead.
"He really did much better than I expected after Teddy died," Helene revealed. "You guys were great letting him be a part of the team during those formative years. I'm convinced that's why he's so good now."
"Well, his Dad was a pretty good player too," Bob pointed out. "I'm sure it's in his genes!"
Ted Garson was a fleet footed centerfielder and premiere base stealer, the prototype lead off spray hitter who could get on base and then motor around the diamond when his teammates hit behind him. He was also a good teammate who shared the love of the game.
"It was some of his coaches who screwed up his head," Helene complained. "They saw how great he was and they filled him with ganders of greatness so he thinks he's the next Roger Clemens or something. He just doesn't get it."
"Look, when you're a star in a small town, you stand out," Bob told Helene as he stood. "When he gets to Carolina he'll discover that everybody's as great if not better than him and he'll figure it out."
Helene sighed as she stood too. "I hope so," she said.
Bob smiled and took her hand in his. "Sometimes the college of life is the most important lessons to learn."
"I'm really glad we did this," Helene said as she walked him to the door. "I like being with you."
"Thanks," Bob said, giving her a good night smooch when they reached the door. "Here's my last pitch of the night: we should do it again!"
"Definitely," Helene agreed, kissing him back. "For god sakes, call me!"
Bob smiled contently as he climbed into the car. It had been his best night in a long time.
### ### ###
Bob and Helene got together again, a few times for lunch at Johnny C's Diner since they worked not all that far from each other and another time for dinner at Serguci's Family Italian Restaurant, although Helene seemed reserved and they didn't repeat the make out sessions from that first 'date' night.
Although the three other Hillsboro High players made constant appearances at Brown practices around their high school ball schedules, The Kid didn't bother to show up until almost three weeks into training. The Browns usually practiced at the neglected ball field at the old high school and The Kid showed up with the same red haired girl Bob had seen that first day he went to Helene's. Helene had told him her name was Rosie and she was graduating with Andrew in a few weeks.
Rosie took a seat in the stands and The Kid didn't bother to greet any of the Brown players. Instead, he shot the breeze with Messiah Christopher and the other coaches for a few minutes.
"Gee, look who finally showed up!" Andy Wyatt sarcastically remarked when they noticed The Kid holding court with the coaching staff.
Most of the pitchers were stretching in the outfield together.
"You should go talk to the guy," Stan Risinger suggested to Bob.
"Why me?" Bob asked.
"You're the senior guy," the thirty-six year old portly reliever Hank Hruska pointed out, the guy who would probably lose some innings with an extra pitcher on the staff.
"Let the kid know we're happy to finally see him," reliever Rob Callahan joked.
Bob groaned and walked toward the infield where The Kid was talking. The Kid turned, saw Bobby Doll approaching and took a few steps toward him until he was out of ear shot of Messiah and the coaches.
"Hey, Drew, just wanted to say welcome to the club," Bob said, extending his hand out for a shake.
"Stay away from my mother," The Kid said angrily, ignoring Bob's hand.
"Excuse me?" Bob asked with surprise.
"You heard me," The Kid said with a threatening tone. "And don't try to act all Dad with me. I'm not interested in your lameness."
"You must know it all," Bob remarked.
"Shut up," The Kid warned. "I don't need anything from you, Junk. You're a washed up never-was loser who doesn't deserve to carry my jock strap."
Bob gave him a long look. "Nice talking to you, Kid," he finally said before turning and jogging back to the outfield where the other pitchers still were.
"What'd he say?" Fire-balling Closer Len Carlton asked with interest.
"Enough," was all Bob said in reply.
The pitching corps stared into the infield watching The Kid continue his dialogue with The Messiah.
"So, the Superstar has arrived," Wyatt noted. "And this is how it's going to be."
"I don't think it's going to be pretty," Bob admitted.
Risinger was an eighteen year old rookie when the young Andrew Garson last served as Brown bat boy so he barely remembered the kid and Callahan and Murphy weren't Browns at the time, but Wyatt, Hruska and Carlton all recalled with clarity the young kid's presence, mostly because they played with his late father and wanted to help the grieving kid as best they could. It was pretty evident that The Kid had changed in the interim.
Bob had lunch with Helene the next day and she was excited that Andrew attended his first practice with the Hilltop Browns.
"Did you guys talk?" She asked hopefully.
"Sure, we talked," Bob confirmed.
"Oh, I'm so glad," Helene beamed. "I can't believe my kid is going to actually pitch in the Serguci League!"
"It should be interesting," Bob replied, studying her for a moment. "How was it between you two after Ted died?"
"Great, really," Helene reported. "We were very close. We had each other and we needed each other. He was always protecting me and trying to help me and be there for me, at least until he got a little older and started getting involved in his own life. Girlfriends, baseball, cars….you know."
"They all grow up," Bob said.
"Would you like to go to one of Andrew's final regular season games with me?" Helene asked.
Bob was tickled she asked and he was happy to accept. Two days later, he was sitting in the stands with Helene watching as The Kid struck out 12 batters and pitched a three hit shutout in his impressive victory. The three other players who were joining the Browns as rookies looked pretty good too.
"See, Junker, that's how you pitch a baseball game," The Kid sneered when he came off the field to greet his waiting mother, not happy to see Bob with her.
"I guess you showed me," Bob replied.
The Kid nodded with authority before heading for the locker room, with Helene frowning at Bob.
"What's with the attitude?" She wanted to know.
"With me or him?" Bob asked.
"Both!" She groaned.
"I don't think your son likes me very much," Bob reported.
"He hardly knows you," Helene remarked.
"I don't think that matters," Bob replied.
"This is just great," Helene moaned. "You two are supposed to be teammates, not enemies. And how are we supposed to hang out together if you two can't get along?"
"I don't know," Bob admitted.
"This was supposed to be a fun summer of baseball," Helene complained. "One great going out, one great coming in."
"Andrew doesn't think I'm so great," Bob decided.
"You're supposed to be mentoring him," Helene protested.
"I think he wants to show me a thing or two instead," Bob said.
"So much for my bliss," Helene sighed.
"Look, if it's going to be a problem for you…."
"Don't say it, Bobby," Helene warned, putting her hand up. "You're just going to have to deal with my kid, okay?"
Bob didn't say anything more as they walked to the car.
The Kid only made one other Brown practice, actually taking a few minutes to chat with veteran Hilltop catcher Dutch Patrick during that appearance.
"What'd Superstar have to say?" Callahan asked after The Kid trotted off to do some stretching exercises with the three other rookies.
"He told me how he's going to pitch," Dutch said with amazement. "The Kid hasn't thrown one pitch in the league and he's telling me how to call the game. Are his balls that brass or is he really that stupid?"
"I guess we'll find out," Bob replied.
"We were taught to respect and honor the game," Wyatt grumbled. "Who in the hell does this kid think he is?"
Bob didn't say too much when Helene inquired about her son's rare appearances at Brown practices. Truth was Bob avoided The Kid and Superstar was more than happy to ignore "Junk" as the kid obviously had nothing but contempt for the guy spending time with his mother.
Helene had spent weeks reviewing the Browns roster and she thought the Browns had a great chance to win it all.
"That's what The Messiah thinks too," Bob said.
"What about you?" Helene wondered.
"We'll see," Bob replied.
CF Arnie Graves 22 3rd Year Green College
2B Jay Daniels 24 5th Year Blue County Com. College
SS Shoes Franklin 21 3rd Year Green College
1B Stick Campbell 28 11th Year Hillsboro High School
3B Gun Hollard 26 8th Year Sun Rise Lake School for Boys
RF Travis Johnson 24 4th Year Springfield College
LF Lon Jones 33 15th Year Green College
C Dutch Patrick 30 12th Year Hillsboro High School
1B/C Tim Powell 38 20th Year UMASS Dartmouth
C Jay Floyd 24 5th Year Blue County Com. College
Util. Mark Smith 19 2nd Year Blue County Com. College
1B/OF Wally Beck 34 16th Year St. Anne's Catholic School
OF Jimmy Davis 18 Rookie Hillsboro High School
OF Dude Collins 17 Rookie Hillsboro High School
U Bob White 18 Rookie Hillsboro High School
SP Stan Risinger 28 10th Year UMASS Amherst
SP Andy Wyatt 30 12th Year Syracuse University
SP Drew Garson 17 Rookie Hillsboro High School
RP Bob Kendall 42 25th Year Green College
RP Hank Hruska 36 18th Year Mt. Griffin High School
RP Joe Murphy 24 6th Year Lynn Red Sox
RP Rob Callahan 23 5th Year Williamstown
RP Len Carlton 31 13th Year Worcester State
According to Helene, who turned out to be one of the most knowledgeable evaluators of Serguci League ballplayers Bob had met, the Browns and Giants would once again be the cream of the field this season.
Helene rated Arnie Graves as the fastest lead off hitter in the league. She considered Jay Daniels a solid second baseman, Shoes Franklin a sure-footed great-handed shorts stop who could hit, Stick Campbell one of the best power hitters in the league, Gun Holland a solid third baseman, Lon Jones a master of the left field wall, and Dutch Leonard a complete catcher.
"The team can hit, run, and play defense," Helene said. "I like our chances this year."
Bob and Helene were sitting on the couch together as Helene reviewed her various spreadsheets, note cards, scorebooks and other information she had compiled.
"What about the pitching?" Bob asked.
Helene was totally serious in her response. "Risinger and Wyatt are experienced veteran starters," she said. "They match up pretty well with most of the other starters in the league with the possible exception of O'Donnell with the Giants and that Munson guy with the Crusaders."
"Jackson with Miller City is pretty good too," Bob said.
"The question is how will Andrew fare?" Helene worried. "If he can win six or seven games that could be the difference. If he only wins four or five, the Giants might squeeze by us."
"I probably would have won five games," Bob pointed out.
"I know," Helene said diplomatically but Bob sensed that maybe she really didn't believe that.
"What about the bullpen?" Bob asked.
"Well, it's pretty clear Hruska is done," Helene determined. "He's the guy who should have retired. Murphy and Callahan are solid and Carlton is one of the best closers in the league so I think we're going to be okay there."
"What about that Bobby Doll guy?" Bob teased, although he was truly interested in what Helene thought.
Helene smiled and gave his knee a squeeze. "You want to know something?" She asked in all seriousness. "You could be the key to the entire season. Had Andrew not played, Hruska would have been the long reliever and spot starter and that would have been a disaster. With you in that role now, it really could make it or break it for the team. Three or four wins from you as opposed to six or seven losses from Hruska is huge."
"Thanks, Helene," Bob smiled, truly feeling complimented by her expert analysis.
"Like most years, injuries will be the key," Helene said, still earnestly studying her information. "Let's face it, there's not really a lot of depth on the bench. Powell and Beck are old and have lost most of their talent. Floyd is an average player. Smith is still young and we'll have to wait and see on the three rookies. I thought Davis and White were good starting position players for the Hurricanes but who knows if they're ready for the Serguci League? Collins needs to loose some weight to play the outfield well but he can definitely hit."
"It's always an eye opener going from high school to the Serguci League," Bob remarked. "You might be the best guy on your high school team but then you join this league and suddenly you're the youngest guy and everybody's just as good as you."
"If not better," Helene agreed. "That's why my stomach hurts waiting to see how Andrew does."
She got off the couch and went to the window to think, leaving Bob behind on the couch. The romance between Helene and Bob had not really progressed after that evening when they made out following the movie. Helene was troubled by Andrew's obvious resentment toward Bob and she was disappointed in Bobby Doll for not trying harder with her son. For those reasons, she had purposely taken things slow, enjoying her time with Bob but not willing to take it to the next level.
For his part, Bob was conflicted. He loved being with Helene at every opportunity even if they were playing the comfortable 'just friends' parts but he knew he was walking through a mine field dealing with The Kid and that one wrong move could detonate his relationship with Helene, not to mention ruin the season, his last one.
Bob was fascinated by Helene. He had never met a woman who was so into baseball before. Judy could have cared less about the game and she only reluctantly attended his games, and not always all of them. But here was Helene who was knowledgeable, insightful, well studied and a great student of the game and he could fall in love with her based on that reality alone, never mind her sexiness, her beauty, and their familiar past.
Bob thought of some of the legend women associated with the Serguci League – like Director Beenie Serguci, player and later manager Suzy Zulinski, pitchers Michelle Marion and Goldie Goldberg and other names that had left their marks in the league and he realized that Helene could hold her own against any of them.
"Do you really think I was good?" Bob asked.
Helene looked at him over her shoulder with surprise. "One hundred wins is the high water mark that separates the great from the good in this league, Bobby," she said. "What's your record again?"
"I don't keep track of that stuff," he lied.
"It's 115-101 with an ERA of 3.97," she told him. "Damn good. There's only about a dozen guys all time who have won that many games, Bob."
"But I've been throwing junk for the past six or seven years," he sighed.
"And winning games," she pointed out. "Crafty. Gutsy. Intelligent. You know how to pitch, where to spot the ball, when to throw off speed stuff, and when to drop in that nasty slider of yours."
"I've always thought you're the prettiest girl around," Bob revealed.
She was surprised by the sudden and unexpected remark. "Well, I'm glad to be with you."
"Are we together?" Bob wanted to know.
Helene sighed. "It raises all sorts of ethical questions, Bobby," she said, returning to the couch and plopping down next to him heavily. "Should you really sleep with the mother of one of your teammates?"
"He's not my officially my teammate yet and I think I would have remembered if we slept together," Bob said.
"And the widow of your dead friend?" She challenged.
"He'd want you to be happy," Bob commented. "It's been a long time."
"I like you," she said. "I'm thrilled that you're actually interested in me. I just think there are moral and ethical dilemmas about having sex with my son's teammate, especially when they're not getting along."
"I'm willing to be friends until you figure it out, Helene," Bob told her, appreciative for the company even if it didn't lead to sex.
Memorial Day weekend finally arrived marking the unofficial start to summer and the definite beginning of the Serguci League season.
"It's what we do around here during the summer," Helene beamed the day of the Hilltop Browns first game of the season. "Beano Field is the place to be from now to Labor Day. Going to the park is like going to church."
The weather didn't exactly cooperate for the Browns debut but it was the first game of the season and a big deal no matter what. Bob was interested that the three rookie position players showed up in uniform for the game but that The Kid was a no show, even though Helene was under the roof in the grandstands to watch the game. Unfortunately, Risinger was beaten 5-3 by the Giants to open the season.
The weather was still less than perfect two nights later when Wyatt beat the Crusaders 10-5, once again without Superstar in the dugout although Helene was in the stands.
The weather finally broke for Memorial Day and Helene invited Bob to her house for a holiday picnic that afternoon but he only made a cameo appearance because he was pitching that night against the South County White Sox. The Kid, his girlfriend Rose, and the three rookies were all at the picnic and while the three rooks made it a point to chat with Bob, The Kid made no such attempt and he also didn't appear at Beano Field that night either, but Helene was in attendance to watch Bobby Doll Kendall make his season debut and perhaps one of the last starts of his stellar career.
Kendall labored for six painful innings, giving up 10 hits and six runs and the Pale Hose won easily 12-4 as the Browns finished 1-2 on the holiday weekend.
"Maybe you shouldn't have come to the picnic," Helene sighed when she met up with Bob after the game.
"Maybe I shouldn't have come to the season," Bob groaned, disappointed in his crummy performance.
"It was just one game, Bob," Helene replied.
He begged off Helene's invitation for a late drink and went home to feel sorry for himself alone.
Bob accompanied Helene to the Hurricane's first playoff game which Andrew pitched the next day, tossing a complete game 1-0 victory to advance his team to the next level. The Kid had little to say to Bob after the game but Bob told Helene that it was an impressive win and that her son could pitch "at this level".
"What about the Serguci League level?" Helene worried.
"We shall see," Bob replied. "It won't be high school kids he'll be pitching too." "Can we go out for that drink now?" Helene asked.
"Sure," Bob agreed.
"You okay?" Helene asked as they sat at a table at The Bullpen Tavern nursing a beer.
"I don't want to be one of those guys who hung around one year too long," Bob said.
"It was just one game, Bob," Helene reminded him.
"I remember my childhood pal Bernie Murkel," Bob recalled. "He was destined for greatness but he had a nervous break down when he was twenty and it took him twenty years to get his life back on track. Witnessing that, I learned never to take anything for granted."
"It was just one game," Helene assured him.
Risinger bounced back with a 7-4 victory over the Miller City Mudhens on Wednesday night while The Hillsboro High School Hurricanes were knocked out of the playoffs with a 4-2 loss with The Kid watching from the bench.
With Hillsboro's season over, The Kid was available to suit up for the Hilltop Browns but he didn't show up at Beano Field on Friday night to watch Wyatt throw an 8-3 victory against the Riverside Royals.
"Where's The Kid?" Bob asked The Messiah before the game. "Playoffs are over."
"Part of the deal I struck with him was that he only had to show up for the games he starts," The Messiah sheepishly reported.
"What!?" Bob asked with disbelief. "Jesus, Messiah, Hap Daniels is spinning in his grave!"
Hap Daniels' was The Messiah's predecessor, "The Little General" as he was known during his 23 year reign as Brown Skipper, a disciplinarian who firmly believed in the traditions of the game and never would have allowed a part time player to suit up for the Browns.
The Messiah chose not to respond to Bob's comment.
"You're going to lose this team, Messiah," Bob warned. "You can't rent a guy to try to win a championship. You start playing favorites and you're cooked."
"You want to manage the team, Bob?" The Messiah asked sternly.
Helene had never seen Bob as incensed as he was that night when they met for a post-game beer at The Bullpen Tavern.
"You need to tell your kid that he's either part of the team or he's not," Bob seethed. "He can't just show up when he feels like it."
"He has an understanding with his manager," Helene replied. "It's between the two of them."
"They're both being assholes," Bob complained. "You can't have special rules for one player."
Helene was both insulted and hurt. "You take that back!" She said, surprised at how little girlish she sounded but this was her son she was defending.
"Helene, I think you're a wonderful person and I want to be with you, but there are certain lines that just can't be crossed," Bob protested.
"It's a game for god sakes," Helene moaned. "You're willing to put our friendship on the line over this!?"
"Games have rules, customs, traditions, and expectations," Bob argued. "Without integrity and trust, there's nothing. If the manager of the team is willing to sell out twenty-two guys to satisfy the spoiled needs of one guy who hasn't even thrown a pitch in the league yet, what does that say about the manager and what does that say about the guy who doesn't want to play by the rules?"
"You mean Andrew," Helene said.
"Yes, a clueless spoiled jerk."
Helene threw the beer in her glass into Bob's face and she stormed out of the tavern.
"Mama Bear is always going to protect her cub," Wyatt remarked, having witnessed the argument from across the room. He took a seat across from Bob. "But don't worry, Doll, we have your back. Superstar is going to feel awfully lonely when he pitches his first game."
The Kid's first game was Saturday night against the Sun Rise Lake Lions. Bob hadn't heard from Helene since their spat and he could only assume it was over between them. Wyatt was right – Helene was going to side with her son every time and Bob just couldn't deal with that under these circumstances. Maybe it was a good thing they hadn't slept together before this big blow up.
Bob showed up at the park at his usual time to do his usual pre-game warm ups. This would have been his start had The Kid not finally showed up six games into the schedule to steal the spotlight and seek the glory. He didn't resent The Kid for his talent – he resented him for his attitude. Bob saw Helene sitting in the stands with Superstar's girlfriend Rosie but she refused to look at him and even his long time friend and teammate Messiah Christopher gave him the cold shoulder. Bob sighed: it was going to be a long season.
The Kid mowed down the first nine Lions he faced including four strikeouts. The Browns scored three runs and The Kid left after eight innings, having given up just six hits and one run, with eight K's.
Yet, with the exception of his three fellow rookies and utility player Mark Smith who played with The Kid at Hillsboro, the Brown players ignored the pitcher. Only Catcher Dutch Patrick interacted with the pitcher on any real level and when Superstar was lifted for the pinch hitter in the eighth, nobody said a word to him. Carlton pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his first save of the season and an unphazed Andrew left Beano Field without saying a work to his teammates.
The Browns had a double header on Sunday afternoon against the Beansboro Benasters. Risinger struggled in the first game but escaped with an 11-7 victory. Bobby Doll pitched two innings of one run relief. The Browns swept the doubleheader when Wyatt pitched a gem for a 3-2 victory, with Carlton earning his second save in two days.
The Kid, of course, didn't show up, but Helene was in the stands for both games, although she was never looking at Bob when he was looking at her.
The Kid was at Beano Field on Wednesday night to pitch against the Giants, with Helene and Rosie in the stands cheering him on. This time, he set the first 10 guys down in order before a walk, an error and a three run homer got Greenville on the board.
"How in the hell did that guy hit that ball out of the park?" The Kid asked his catcher Patrick as they walked off the field at the end of the inning. "That pitch was way inside."
"These aren't high school hitters, Superstar," Dutch told him. "Guys here can hit any pitch you throw them."
"Welcome to the Serguci League, kid," Wyatt laughed.
The Kid was lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth with the game tied 5-5 and Doll pitched an inning of relief. Hilltop won the game 9-5 on Stick's grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to give Callahan the win but The Kid was long gone by then.
"I can't believe The Messiah let him leave with the game still going on," Wyatt remarked.
"Me either," Bob mumbled.
Nobody talked to The Kid except for the three Rooks and Smith but Superstar didn't seem to care. Bob wasn't even sure if The Kid was aware he was being snubbed by most of the team.
Risinger lost a heartbreaker to the Crusaders, 3-2 on Friday and Wyatt dropped a 7-3 decision to the White Sox in the first game of a Sunday afternoon doubleheader. The Kid showed up in the eighth inning of that game to warm up for the second game which Hilltop won 11-7 but The Kid didn't figure in the decision. He was lifted for a pinch hitter after five innings behind 6-4 and it was Bobby Doll who got the win, pitching two innings of relief and benefiting from a five run seventh for the win.
"Can you believe Superstar left the park again after he was lifted?" Wyatt said to Bob after the game.
"He did?" Bob was so focused on what he had to do that he hadn't noticed.
"What do you think would happen if I tried that?" Hruska asked.
Bob noticed that Helene was still in the stands talking to a few acquaintances so he trotted over to the fence.
"You were right, Helene," Bob said. "It was only one game."
"I'm happy for you, Bobby," Helene said without much emotion in her voice as she headed for the exit and all Bob could do was sigh.
Bob was 1-0 with only one run allowed in his three relief appearances since that first starting loss but it didn't seem to mean much without Helene cheering him on. He hadn't really spoken to The Messiah much since their confrontation either, although he was glad the manager was still using him in games. Yet he had no regrets. Principle and character had to count for something and he felt justified to have called out his manager and to let Helene know that Andrew's behavior was not acceptable in his eyes.
Bob was sitting at home alone watching the ESPN Sunday Night baseball game that night when his cell went off.
"Hello?" He answered.
"Can you come over here?" It was Helene. "I need your help."
He could hear the stress and tension in her upset voice.
"I'll be right there," he said, leaping off the couch and heading for the door with his phone still at his ear. "What's wrong?"
"Just come," she said and the phone went dead.
It was less than two minutes from his townhouse to Helene's place and he skidded the car to a stop at the curb out front, hopping out of the car and rushing to the front door which was ajar. Fearing the worse, Bob entered unannounced and saw that the downstairs had been trashed.
"Helene?" He yelled. "Are you okay?"
"I'm up here," he heard her call and he skipped up the stairs three at a time. "In here," she called, and Bob rushed into the second bedroom to find The Kid sitting on his bed with a bottle of some sort of booze in his hand, obviously drunk.
"He's quite upset," a haggard Helene announced.
Bob glanced to the corner of the room and saw Helene seated on the dresser with her elbows propped on her knees holding her cheeks in her hands. She was dressed in silk pink summer pajamas with shorts. The room was a mess and Bob noticed that a baseball bat was stuck through the smashed window, a hole had been punched in the wall and a lap top computer was crashed on the floor. The Kid's left knuckle was all bloody.
"At least you didn't punch with your pitching hand," Bob remarked. "What's going on?"
"Andrew had a little bit too much to drink," Helene sighed. "He's very upset."
"About what?" Bob wondered.
"Never mind, Junk," The Kid grumbled. "I don't need you to gloat."
"About what?" A confused Bob asked.
"About me sucking!" The Kid growled. "I can't get anybody out!"
"It's only been a few games, Drew," Bob told him.
"This never happened to me before!" He exclaimed.
"Well, welcome to real life" Bob replied with a shrug, picking up the overturned computer chair and taking a seat in it. "What are you going to do about it?"
"Quit!" The Kid announced.
"You can't do that," Bob said.
"Sure I can," he grumbled. "It's easy. Just don't show up."
"You do that and you'll regret it for the rest of your life," Bob warned. "You'll never be the pitcher you can be. Your college career will be crippled before it even begins because you'll always have that self doubt in the back of your mind."
"If I keep on pitching and sucking here I'll never make it to college anyway," The Kid lamented.
"You won't keep on sucking," Bob assured him. "You're a good pitcher and you'll get better but you've got to show up and do the work."
"What do you care?" The Kid complained. "Everybody on the team hates me anyway."
"Nobody hates you, Drew," Bob replied. "They just don't respect you."
"Because I suck," he grumbled.
"No, because you're an asshole," Bob countered. "Let me tell you something, you could go 0-10 with a 9.37 ERA and the guys would still have your back if you gave them a reason to care."
The Kid squinted at the veteran pitcher. "Yeah, right."
"It's not all about winning, Drew," Bob told him. "It's about playing the game right. It's about caring. It's about trying. It's about being a good teammate and being a part of the team. If the guys felt you had their back, they'd have your back."
The Kid stared at him with bloodshot eyes.
"How'd you become such an asshole, Drew?" Bob wanted to know.
"I thought I was good," he mumbled.
"You are good," Bob replied knowingly. "But this isn't high school. You can't just show up and throw fire. There are too many good hitters in this league. College guys. Guys who made it to the minors. Guys who know how to hit. It's not a matter of being able to throw hard. In time anybody can catch up to a fastball. It's a matter of knowing how to pitch. You've got to know how to disrupt timing."
The Kid sighed and looked at Bob. "What am I supposed to do?"
"Show up for every game," Bob instructed. "Cheer on and support your teammates. Talk to the pitchers about pitching. Pick Dutch Leonard's brain. Did you know that Messiah Christopher has won more games than anybody in the history of the league? I think he knows a thing or two about pitching. Talk to him."
"Bobby has won a few games too," Helene spoke up for the first time.
"Baseball is about adjustments, patience, and timing, but mostly it's about humility," Bob said. "Even the best players fail from time to time. If you're not humble, Drew, you'll never make it."
"I just want to be good," The Kid mumbled as he fell back on the bed.
"Do what you're supposed to do and you'll be good," Bob said. "What happened to the kid who used to be our bat boy?" Bob wanted to know. "That's the guy you want to be."
"I just can't handle sucking," The Kid groaned.
"The great thing about baseball is that you always get a second chance," Bob replied. "Boot a ball? There's the next play. Loose a game. There's another one to play."
"Okay," The Kid mumbled. "Good night."
He started snoring and Bob looked at Helene with a smirk. She looked relieved as she hopped of the dresser.
"Thanks, Bob," she said. "That was terrific what you said."
"Sure," Bob replied. "Glad I could help." He gave her a long look. "Good night, then," he said, heading for the door.
He was at the bottom of the stairs when Helene's voice stopped him.
"I'm sorry I threw my beer in your face," she said.
Bob stared up the stairs at her. She looked beautiful and sexy and vulnerable and sad and lonely and needy all at the same time. He ran up the stairs as she ran down them and they met on the landing, embracing, hugging and kissing like there was no tomorrow. Bob pushed her against the wall and he nearly sucked her lips off her face as they kissed, made out, and ran their hands over one another.
Bob's hands made their way inside the back of her pajama shorts and he squeezed her bare cheeks as he pressed her against him. Helene moaned with desperation and she didn't protest when he tugged the shorts down. The garment fell to the carpeted landing and Helene turned her back to him, pressing herself against the wall as he kissed the back of her neck, her ears and the side of her face. He rubbed his groin against her bare buns and she nearly sobbed from her need and want.
Bob reached his hands around to her front and rubbed them along the top of her pubic hair while she squirmed her hips against his groin.
"I can still wait," Bob whispered into her ear.
"No, now," she pleaded.
"Not like this," Bob moaned.
"I want you," she cried.
"You'll have me," he promised, licking the back of her neck before abandoning her and heading down the stairs.
"Oh Bobby," he heard Helene moan with desperation.
He turned to see her standing on the landing facing him bottomless, her pubic hair glistening with wetness.
"Good night, sweetness," he said.
"Good night, my Bobby Doll," Helene sobbed before turning and heading up the stairs with Bobby admiring her bare backside before she disappeared around the corner.
### ### ###
Bobby Doll Kendall arrived at Helene's house on Tuesday afternoon to bring Drew to Beano Field. His mother was standing on the porch with a wide smile on her face as she watched her son head for Bobby's car, even though he looked solemn and even embarrassed.
"I'll see you two at the park!" She called out as she waved. "Enjoy the game."
"Are you sleeping with my mother?" The Kid asked as he climbed into the car.
"Not yet," Bobby replied honestly. "But I hope too soon," he said. "You going to be able to deal with that?"
"I don't know," The Kid replied.
Bobby drove the few blocks to Beano Field for that night's game against the Miller City Mudhens. The Browns were 8-4 on the young season and Risinger (2-2) would get the start. Most of the Browns were surprised to see Superstar strolling into Beano Field at Bobby Doll's side.
"The Kid's pitching tonight?" Wyatt joked.
"The Kid's watching tonight," Bob clarified. "He's part of the team now."
Of course, nobody was willing to give Superstar the benefit of the doubt just yet but Bob made sure The Kid was included in the pre-game drills and he made it a point to invite Superstar into various conversations on the outfield grass.
The Kid sat in the dugout with Wyatt for the game while Bob was out in the bullpen with the rest of the relievers. Bob had a clear shot of Helene sitting in the stands and he felt his heart rush with every sighting.
First baseman Stick Campbell unleashed two bombs to carry the Browns to a 6-5 win over the Hens with Risinger scraping by for the win with relief help from Murphy and another save for Carlton.
Bob repeated the routine on Thursday night, picking up The Kid at his house for the game against the Royals and Superstar actually asked a few questions about Tuesday's game. Hilltop beat the Royals 5-3 thanks to a three run homer off the bat of utility infielder Mark Smith making a rare start with Wyatt (4-1) getting the win and Carlton his fourth save. The Kid spent the game in the dugout seated next to Risinger and both pitchers critiqued Wyatt's performance as well as The Royals pitchers.
The Kid agreed to accompany Bob and Helene to Red's Tastee Freeze after the game for a cone, the first time the three had been out on a social setting together. It was also the first time Bob and Helene had been out together since their beer-in-your-face fight. The two players were still in their uniforms and they were politely greeted by several fans while waiting in line. Helene looked like she was standing among two celebrities as she beamed with pride and satisfaction.
"So, I'm up next," The Kid remarked as they sat at a picnic table eating their ice cream. "I haven't been this nervous since little league."
"Good, that means your humble," Bob replied.
"It means I'm scared shitless," The Kid admitted. "What if I've lost it?"
"Listen, in both of your first two starts against the Lions and Giants you started out strong and you were focused," Bob observed. "It was when you got through the line-up a second time that you got in trouble because they were on to you and you lost your edge. You've got to be willing to throw something else beside the flame thrower, unless you want to be a short reliever instead of a starter."
"I don't have a lot of confidence in my other stuff," The Kid admitted in a rare display of vulnerable honesty.
"Well, you have the summer to practice," Bob replied.
Rosie pulled into the parking lot in her car and The Kid trotted off to join her, leaving Helene and Bob behind alone. They really hadn't talked much since that night on the landing and neither was quite sure where their 'friendship' was now.
"He seems like a completely different kid now," Helene observed.
"Humility humbles a person," Bob remarked.
"Trashing your house in a drunken rage might also have something to do with it," Helene added.
"Yeah, that too!" Bob agreed.
"Listen, this is going to be the last summer I have him," Helene said. "I need to devote all my time, energy, and attention to him while he's still here, okay?"
"Sure," Bob replied, understanding perfectly well what she was saying.
Bob drove Helene home and he watched as Helene climbed out of the car without inviting him inside.
"Thanks for the ice cream, Bobby," she said with sincerity. "I'll see you Saturday."
"Sure," he said, trying not to sound disappointed. "See you Saturday."
### ### ###
Bob drove to Helene's house late Saturday morning to pick up The Kid for that afternoon's double header against the Lions. Superstar was scheduled to pitch Game 1 and The Messiah called Bob on Friday to let him know that he would be starting Game 2. The bullpen had hardly been used all week and the Browns had a Sunday night game scheduled so the manager wanted to save Risinger another day. The Messiah hoped Bobby Doll could give him five or six innings and Bob assured him he'd do his best.
Helene looked like a bride at a wedding she was so excited by the prospect of watching Andrew and Bobby pitch back-to-back. Rose was also at the house and the four drove to the park together so Helene could watch Andrew warm up and take BP.
"You nervous?" Bobby asked The Kid as they walked into Beano Field.
"I just want to be able to pitch in this league," Andrew replied.
"You can and you will," Bob assured him. "Just do the things you need to do to win."
"What's the story with you and my mother?" The Kid wanted to know.
"I don't know," Bobby Doll answered truthfully as the two pitchers stretched in the outfield.
"I never thought of my mother as somebody's girlfriend," The Kid admitted.
"She's not my girlfriend," Bob sighed. "Not yet, anyway."
"What's the problem?" Drew asked.
"No problem," Bob replied. "Responsibilities, commitments and priorities come first, that's all."
"You mean me," Drew realized.
"She's your mother first," Bob confirmed.
"You wouldn't want to date somebody's mother anyway," The Kid decided.
"You're dating somebody's daughter," Bob replied.
"So, she won't date you because of me?" The Kid frowned.
"She's your mother first," Bob repeated.
"She deserves to have a life for god sakes," Drew growled.
"She's happy being your mom," Bob said.
'And what happens to her when I leave?" The Kid wanted to know.
"I guess we'll have to wait and see," Bob replied.
They both looked into the stands where Helene was happily sitting with Rose, chatting and looking beautiful.
"She really is quite the woman," Bob let The Kid know. "It's going to feel strange not being out here to look into the stands and see her sitting there like that."
"Can you really give the game up?" The Kid asked.
"Sooner or later, you don't have a choice, Kid," Bob replied. "The game gives you up. But I'll leave with no regrets no matter when that last pitch comes."
Because he was starting the second game, Bob sat in the dugout for the first game and he was able to give The Kid some support and advice each time Superstar came off the field after every inning. Superstar was just that – pitching a three hit complete game shutout as the Browns rolled, 9-0.
"Are there any doubts now?" Bob asked The smiling Kid at the end of the game.
"I have to admit I feel pretty good," Superstar grinned.
"You can pitch in this league, Kid," Bobby Doll reminded the rookie. "Just remember humility and you'll be okay."
When the second game got underway, it was The Kid sitting in the dugout greeting the seasoned veteran as he came off the field after each inning. Bobby Doll pitched five innings and left for a pinch hitter leading 6-2.
"Not bad for an old man, huh?" Bob grinned to The Kid who blushed with embarrassment.
"I was wrong about you, Bob," Superstar confessed. "You're not junk at all."
"Thanks, Drew, I appreciate that," Bob replied.
Unfortunately, Hank Hruska got lit up in relief, the bullpen struggled and the Browns ended up losing the game 10-9 in a heartbreaker with Carlton taking the loss but Hilltop was still 11-5 on the season and feeling pretty good about its chances.
Helene was feeling pretty good about what she had witnessed on the day and she was all smiles as she greeted her two most favorite Hilltop Browns as they walked off the field after the game.
"Rose and I are taking you both out to dinner tonight!" Helene proudly announced. "You were both terrific!"
The two pitchers looked at one another and smiled with appreciation.
### ### ###
It was late August – the dog days as they say – and The Kid was scheduled to make his last start for the Hilltop Browns before leaving for college in North Carolina. The Browns were 23-14, a game ahead of the Greenville Giants with five left to play. The Kid (7-1, 2.74 ERA) had pitched masterfully all season. Wyatt (6-3, 3.88) and Risinger (7-4, 4.44) also had strong campaigns and the old man Bobby Doll Kendall (2-2 with two saves, 4.32 ERA) had been impressively effective in his role. Carlton (0-1, 2.01) had 10 saves, Graves had 18 steals, Campbell hit 12 homers, and Franklin was hitting .388 so the season had been a great success all around.
Bob arrived at Drew's house to pick him up for the game as had become the tradition all summer. Helene was sitting on the porch with Rosie and Drew.
"I can't believe this is my last game," Drew lamented when Bob reached the porch. "I should stay until Memorial Day."
Bob gestured to Drew's car with the small U-Haul Trailer hitched to the back. "College awaits you."
"I can be late."
"No you can't!" Helene announced.
"I don't mind taking your last start!" Bob smirked.
Drew grinned. "I bet you don't!"
What a difference a summer makes. The Kid and Bobby Doll were great teammates now. The sage veteran had taught The Kid how to relax and enjoy the game while The Kid's youthful talent motivated the rest of the pitching staff. Helene watched with fascination how her son warmed up to Bobby Doll and there were many times during the course of the summer when she wanted to nix her personal commitment to be nothing but a mom but she held true to her convictions and remained celibate.
It wasn't easy. She often thought of that first kiss on the night of 42 and she definitely remembered that night on the landing when she so desperately wanted him and wished he had taken her right there and then. She hadn't been that turned on in years and standing there naked from the waist down almost willing him to come back up the stairs made her weak just thinking about it.
Helene couldn't believe how patient, understanding, and polite Bob had been since she put the kybosh on the sex angle, still willing to meet her for lunch and take her out for a cone without any expectations, pressure or guilt trips. He occasionally tossed out a humorous line about making his 'last pitch' (to her) and it became a running gag as the summer progressed.
Now, with Andrew about to pitch his last game as a Hilltop Brown and North Carolina on the horizon, Helene was starting to plot her own 'last pitch' to Bobby Doll's strike zone, perhaps even before the season ended.
Helene gave Andrew a hug. "Have a great final game, Sweetie," she said. "I'll be watching."
Andrew nodded and followed Bob to his car, taking in a deep breath as he looked at the house. "Tomorrow I'll be gone," he sighed.
"Let's just focus on tonight, Superstar," Bob advised.
Bob drove the short distance to Beano Field.
"I just wanted to say thanks for everything," The Kid said quietly. "I was a dick in the beginning but you never held it against me."
"This isn't about me, Drew," Bob replied as he parked the car. "It's about you."
"I guess you reminded me of everything I missed with my own old man," The Kid admitted.
"You got a raw deal," Bob said as he got out of the car.
The Kid sighed as he left the vehicle too. "Don't let my mother get away," he said. "You'd be a fool to let her go."
"I haven't made my last pitch with her yet," Bob assured him.
The Kid looked a little tight pitching against the third place Mudhens but he hung tough and took a 4-3 lead into the seventh. With two guys on and two out, The Messiah decided to relieve the tiring Superstar who had walked six in the game including two in the inning but instead of going with Callahan or Murphy, he brought in Bobby Doll to pitch to Ricky Reynolds because Bob had great success against the veteran in the past.
Bob jogged in from the bullpen excited to be in a big moment. Hilltop needed to win every game to ensure the hot Giants didn't overtake them in the final days.
"Get this get out for me, Bob," The Kid said when Bobby Doll reached the mound where The Messiah and Dutch Patrick also stood.
"It'll be your going away present, Kid," Bob said with a grin as Superstar walked off the mound to loud applause.
"Here's your chance to be a hero, Doll," The Messiah said, handing him the ball. "Have at it."
Bob took his warm up pitches and then stood for a moment on the mound taking it all in. This is what it was all about. This is why he hung around for twenty-five seasons. He glanced into the stands and saw Helene smiling at him before he bore down and stared at Reynolds at the plate.
Dutch gave the sign and Bob unleashed a low sinker that Reynolds took for a ball. The second pitch was a called strike and Bob's third offering was fouled off so Doll was ahead in the count 1-2. His next pitch was a pretty good one but Reynolds reached out and smoked it back to the box. Bobby had just completed his follow through as the ball came screaming back at him about three inches off the ground. The pitcher reached his glove down to try to snare the ball but he wasn't quick enough and the rocket shot smashed into his ankle, dropping him like he had been shot. The ball rolled back toward the plate.
"Home! Home!" Home!" Dutch was screaming as runner Cam Davis broke from third when he saw the pitcher go down.
Bob knew his ankle was shattered but somehow he picked himself up on one leg hopped to the ball, scooped it up and pegged it home a few feet ahead of Davis who was tagged out by Dutch as Bobby Doll crumbling to the ground again in agony.
"What a way to end a career," Bob groaned as some of his teammates gathered around him, including several from the dugout, Messiah and The Kid among them.
"Yeah, but what a great last pitch and play!" An impressed Superstar said. "You saved the lead! You picked me up! You helped the team! You sacrificed yourself! What a teammate!"
Superstar and Wyatt got Bob to his feet by supporting him on their shoulders and they led him toward the gate for a trip to the hospital.
"Hold on a second," Bob requested, as he glanced around Beano Field one last time as a player. His twenty-five year career was over a few games earlier than expected.
Bob's eyes then focused into the stands where Helene was standing with her hands over her mouth watching in disbelief as Bobby Doll ended his career. Bob reached his hand up the brim of his cap and tipped it Helene's direction.
### ### ###
Bob was sitting in his easy chair with his foot up on the rest wrapped in an air cast watching a ball game on television when the doorbell rang.
"Come in!" He yelled. "It's not locked!"
The door opened and Helene entered carrying a couple of grocery bags.
"How you feeling?" She asked.
"Okay," he replied.
"Andrew arrived in NC safely," she reported as she headed for the kitchen of Bob's single floor townhouse.
"I had to force him to go," She said. "He wanted to make his last start with you hurt."
"Murph will take it," Bob said.
"That will leave the bullpen pretty thin," Helene said.
"All hands on deck" Bob said.
"This gives the Giants the real advantage."
"That's why we play 42 games," Bob said.
"I guess," Helene replied, returning to the living room. "It won't be the same without you and Andrew playing."
"I really loved watching you play, Doll," she said with sincerity.
"I really love that you loved watching me play," he replied happily.
"Anyway, the beer is in the frig and the snacks are in the cupboard."
"Thanks," Bob said with appreciation.
"I guess I'll head home," Helene said.
"Why don't you stay?" Bob suggested.
"Is that your one last pitch?" Helene smirked.
"Maybe it's my first pitch," Bob grinned.
"I don't know if I should," Helene said.
"Why not?" Bob asked.
Helene stood in the room and considered his question for a moment. "Would you like a beer?" She finally asked.
"Sure," Bob said. "Thanks."
Helene was gone for an awfully long time and when she finally returned she was wearing nothing but the top of Bob's Hilltop Browns uniform with the top three buttons undone, along with his ball cap that sat on top of her head.
"Wow!" Bob said when he saw her. "You look great!"
She smiled and sat in his lap. "Maybe this is my pitch," she said.
"Play ball!" Bob replied.