In the Game
by Kelli McBride
“Shoeless Joe Jackson was a bum.” Smitty punctuated his remark by jumping three of Walt’s checkers and sweeping them off the board with a challenging grin. Their argument was an old one, and Smitty knew Walt clung tightly to his opinion. “And Pete Rose is a no good son of a bitch.”
“Watch it!” Walt peered nervously over his shoulder toward the kitchen area of the Senior Citizen Center. “If Evelyn hears you cussin’, we’ll be kicked out.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Orvis, putting aside the copy of the Weekly World News he’d been re-reading. “I got nowheres else to go this afternoon. My daughter’s in the city till five.”
“I’m not afraid of Evelyn.” Smitty squinted and looked behind Walt, his voice lowering a bit. Truth was, Evelyn could throw them out, and had done so just last week when their baseball talk had heated to near fisticuffs. “She don’t own this center, and I have the right to my opinion.”
“There ain’t no right to your opinion. Your opinions are all wrong.” Walt moved a red checker before looking at the other elderly man at the table. “Ain’t they, Orvis?”
“Hear we go.” Orvis said as he watched Smitty move a black checker closer to Walt’s baseline. “You should be more concerned about Smitty getting another king rather than whether some dead ball player cheated or not.”
Walt snorted. “The day Smitty beats me in checkers is the day I give ‘em up.”
“Don’t be too sure.” Orvis waved the tabloid in his hand at Walt. “According to Madame Zooey, today is a day for change. And Smitty’s star reading says to ‘be wary of supernatural forces at work. Things aren’t always what they seem.’ That sounds mysterious.”
“The only mystery around here,” Smitty commented, “is why you waste money on that trash. There ain’t a lick of truth in it.”
“Now hold on!” Orvis cradled the newsprint to his chest like a momma protecting her baby from a maneater. “The Weekly World News ain’t no rag. It’s full of helpful advice and stories about paranormal activity around the world. You’d be surprised at the unexplained events that go on here in Oklahoma. Just last month, three eyewitnesses saw two UFOs hovering over Lake Hefner. They was probably Martians since Mars was so close to Earth.”
“Martians!” Smitty looked up from the board. The bulk of Orvis’s comments, he’d ignored, but “Martians” got his attention. “You’re not gonna scare the pre-Alzheimer group with rumors of alien invasions again. Last time, we ‘bout never got Junior Borman to take off that aluminium foil hat you made him.”
“Yeah,” Walt added, “and we had to listen to Evelyn gripe that there wasn’t any foil in the kitchen because you’d used it all to line your hats with.”
“It’s a well-known fact that aluminium foil prevents aliens from controlling your mind.” Orvis bristled and pulled back his bony shoulders. “And it’s more useful than some hypothetical, lah-dee-dah argument about Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. It won’t matter if they get into Cooperstown or not. Once the aliens land, there won’t be a Hall of Fame. Just once, I’d like to have a conversation about real issues, not whether Pete Rose and Joe Jackson should be in the Hall.”
“Shut up, Orvis.” Walt said, a frown on his wrinkled face as he looked at the board.
Smitty shook a finger at the two men, his hand quivering in suppressed emotion. “Real issues?! It all comes down to them. Baseball is America’s game and how we judge those two says a lot about the USA. If we let them in Cooperstown, we’re saying it’s okay to cheat.”
“Shoeless Joe never cheated. They couldn’t prove a thing.” Walt said. “He batted .435 in the Series – how can a guy plannin’ to throw the games bat that good? It don’t make no sense.”
“That only shows what a louse he was.” Smitty jumped two more of Walt’s checkers. “Not only did he cheat, but he double-crossed his teammates. He had no loyalty and doesn’t deserve to be in the hall of fame.”
“You wouldn’t be so smart if it was you in that bind.” Walt slid a checker onto a new square.
“I’d never cheat.” Smitty said.
Orvis frowned and rolled his eyes to the ceiling.
“Get ready for it,” Walt said to Smitty. “Orvis is in his ‘deep thought’ mode. Whenever he gets that expression on his face, he’s about to release a real zinger.”
“Great, that’s all we need is another dumb ass observation from the senile.”
Orvis made a low humming noise in his throat and spoke.
“What if you were pitchin’ in the World Series and someone kidnapped your best huntin’ dog and said they’d kill it if you didn’t throw the game. Would you still play to win?”
Smitty stared dumbfounded at Orvis, sure that Walt was doing the same.
“Good God, Orvis!” Walt finally exploded. “That’s ridiculous. And it doesn’t count.”
“And why not?” Orvis crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders.
“Because,” Smitty explained, “I’d be forced to cheat. It wouldn’t be a free choice.”
“Yeah, so there’s no real test of his character.” Walt grabbed a handful of peanuts from a bowl on the coffee table. He munched thoughtfully for a moment before continuing. “It has to be a situation where winning means you’ll lose something you’ve always wanted. You can’t have both, so what do you choose – your ethics or your dream. That’s a test of character.”
“This is a stupid conversation.” Smitty laid his arms flat on the table, bracketing the checkerboard. He leaned closer to Walt and said very deliberately, “I wouldn’t cheat. I’m not spineless like Joe Jackson or Pete Rose. They sold out baseball, but to me it’s priceless.”
“Says you, but don’t be too sure what you’d do. Bein’ in the game and lookin’ on from the bench is two different things,” Walt grumbled. His watery blue eyes focused once more on the board. However, he couldn’t resist one last zing. “But I gotta doubt the opinion of a man who spent his whole life as a Cubs fan. You obviously got no taste.”
“Here we go again.” Orvis repeated, sipping the weak coffee the center served. “Can we not have a conversation about baseball that ends up about how lousy the Cubs are and how superior the Yankees are?”
“Shut up, Orvis.” Both of the other men spoke in unison without looking at him.
“Fine, but if you two start yelling at each other like last time, Evelyn is going to kick us out of the center for a month. I need the free meal and a place to go in the day.”
“Evelyn ain’t gonna to kick us out for no month.” Walt looked nervously over his shoulder toward the kitchen, his voice noticeably lower. “She ain’t got the authority.”
“Say what you want, but I’m not going to cross her.” Orvis stood and hobbled to the TV area.
“He’s so pussy-whipped you think he’d need a brace to hold up his spine.” Smitty cracked.
“Not as p-whipped as a Cub fan, old man.” Walt laughed sharply as he looked at the board and began jumping Smitty’s checkers. When he was finished, not a black checker remained. “You play checkers about as good as the Cubs play baseball.”
“Only a Yankees fan would think baseball was just about winning. Wrigley is about baseball. It’s about the game, not big salaries and bigger mouthed team owners.”
“Yeah, but you only say that ‘cause the Cubs ain’t won in 95 years.” Walt, always a bit sensitive about the Steinbrenner issue, sneered at Smitty. “And you ain’t never won neither.”
Smitty felt the silence thickening the air between them. Walt’s words seemed to suck up all sound, and he wouldn’t meet Smitty’s gaze. Walt’s jabbing at his short lived career crossed a line in Smitty’s mind. His friend knew how much he still felt the loss, even though fifty years had passed since a sharply hit ball broke Smitty’s knee during his first appearance on the mound. In one freak accident, Smitty lost his dream.
“You don’t have to win to be a winner.” Smitty spoke quietly now. “It’s about how you play the game, not the final score. It’s about being a team and working with each other the best you can. If you lose, at least you lose knowing you gave your all.” He pushed back from the table and stood. “I’m gonna get workin’ on organizing that back room full of junk for the bazaar before Evelyn comes over and lays down the law.”
“Hey, Smitty, I didn’t mean nothin’. You know me; I’m always shootin’ off my mouth.”
Smitty nodded, unable to verbally accept Walt’s apology. Instead, he watched as Walt began putting the checkers away. “You’re right about Evelyn. There’ll be hell to pay if we don’t get that stuff taken care of tonight.”
Smitty held out a handful of checkers to Walt, letting the previous matter drop. “How can such a pretty woman be so mean?”
“I think it’s ‘cause she’s so pretty. She thinks she can wrap us around her little finger.”
“Damn it, I know. She’s been doin’ it since I married her.”
Smitty joined with his friend in laughter. He knew the sound was a bit forced, but the air between them was much clearer as they moved to the back room and began sorting through the boxes of donated items.
Two hours later, Smitty was on his last box. He looked up as Walt straightened with a groan and said, “Can you believe all this junk? Why can’t people just throw this stuff out with the garbage?”
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Smitty cleaned off what he suspected was the ugliest clock in existence. He thought the figure holding the timepiece between two hands, or paws, was a monkey. But it could also be a really hairy man. Perhaps it had once been exotic or even charming, but now the flaking paint and chipped edges made the sculpted time piece a hideous example of what can happen when artisans get too creative. “I think I just found your Christmas present.”
Walt looked over and clutched his heart in fake panic. “God, don’t let Evelyn see that. She’s got a thing for bears.”
“Bears? Looks like a monkey to me.” Smitty peered closer at the figure then shook his head. “Maybe it is a bear. That don’t make it a wit less ugly.”
“Monkey, bear. Who cares?”
“Are you two through in there?” Evelyn called from the other room, her voice growing noticeably closer.
“Dammit.” Walt glared at the figure before furiously whispering. “Hide that thing or she’ll take it home for sure.”
“What’s it worth to you?” Smitty smiled craftily. “Maybe an afternoon on the lake fishing?”
“Yeah, sure.” Walt stood in the doorway, hoping to block Evelyn.
“On your new pontoon boat.”
“Whatever.” He turned just as Evelyn stopped outside the door. “Hi, dear. We’re just finishing.”
“Oh, wonderful!” Evelyn clapped her hands, the rings on her fingers flashing in the light of the hall. “Is Truman in there with you?”
Smitty dropped the curious clock and shoved it under the table with his foot before answering her. “I’m right here, Evelyn. Why don’t you and Walt go on home, and I’ll close up. I know he wants to catch the Yankee/Dodger game tonight.”
“Oh, that’s right. It’s the last game in the World Series, isn’t it?” She laughed in obvious dismissal. Smitty knew from previous conversations that Evelyn never could understand why people cared so much about sports. But she loved her husband and tolerated his peculiarities. “Why don’t you join us for supper and you can watch the game with Walter? I’m having pot roast.”
“Yeah, Yankee pot roast.” Walt grinned.
Normally, Smitty jumped at the chance of eating Evelyn’s cooking, but tonight, Walt’s comments about the game preyed on his mind. He wasn’t in the mood to watch the Yankees win yet another World Series. He and Walt would inevitably get into another argument, and he wasn’t up to it. As he grew older, and the ache in his knee worsened, Smitty found himself brooding more frequently over the left turn his life took so many years ago.
“Truman?” Evelyn’s concerned voice interrupted his thoughts.
“Hmm? Oh, no thanks, Evelyn, not tonight.” He smiled, appreciating her kind spirit.
“Well, if you change your mind, come on over. I’ve made plenty.” She slipped her arm through Walt’s. “Let’s go, dear.”
With one last wave, the couple exited the room. Smitty’s mind turned once more to Walt’s words earlier that day about being in the game versus sitting on the bench. He’d always been an “in the game” kind of guy until his accident. However, it was true he’d never had his ethics really tested. He always figured some things a man just knew by instinct. He didn’t have to jump off a bridge to know the landing would be hard.
Smitty stared at the empty space for a long time, feeling the empty gap in his life more than ever. He’d never married, and that seemed a mistake now. Before the accident, he’d been consumed by baseball. He played in school, in summer league, in winter ball. Any chance he could get to improve his game and maybe gain the attention of a scout, he took. Between working to sustain his baseball hopes, and baseball itself, he’d found little time to court a steady girl, though he’d had plenty of girlfriends.
Then, when he was twenty, he got his break. A scout for the Cubs was visiting a friend in Oklahoma and saw Smitty throwing at a city-league championship. Within a month, Smitty was in a Cubs minor league uniform and practicing with other guys who shared his determination and passion. But that dream ended with the crack of a bat. He hadn’t even made it past two innings.
Afterward, his pain and anger made him close himself to people. He returned to Oklahoma and found a job with a local company that let him travel all over the states. It kept him from brooding too much. But it also kept him from settling down.
Smitty sighed and turned away from the doorway. No sense in wishing for the past. He couldn’t change that.
As he moved, his foot hit the clock under the table, knocking it deep underneath.
“Damn!” Smitty couldn’t reach it and knew he’d have to get on his knees. Bending carefully, he lowered himself to the floor and ducked his head under the table. However, he was still too tall to fit and had to lay flat on his stomach then wiggle to reach the clock. His long, aged fingers just nipped the edges of the piece, but that was enough from him to tip it forward and grab. He wriggled backward and then rose on his knees. Unfortunately, he hadn’t cleared the table, and hit his head hard on the table edge. He felt a crack of intense pain radiate from the back of his head to his temples. Then the room went dark.
Smitty opened his eyes and couldn’t help the quick intake of breath at the site of the clock’s misshapen face so close to his. He gave a brief laugh when he realized what he was looking at. Gathering his wits, he cautiously backed further from beneath the table, taking the clock with him, before sitting up. Surprisingly, his head didn’t hurt.
“Sheesh, all this effort for a worthless piece of junk.” Smitty weighed the object in his hands, looking more intently at it. Somehow the figure seemed changed, perhaps brighter than before. Maybe the knock on his head had screwed up his eyes.
He reached out and rubbed the head of the clock. When some of the dark color came off revealing a pearly finish, Smitty was intrigued. Using the tail of his shirt, he began polishing the figure and was amazed at the beauty lying beneath the grime. Maybe this wasn’t a piece of junk after all.
Twenty minutes later, Smitty gave a final cleaning swipe to the clock. What he’d mistaken for chips before he now realized were places where grime had not covered the true surface. Nor was the sculpture a monkey or a bear. A woman in an elaborate headdress held the clock in her hands. The detail was so precise, that Smitty swore he could see her pores and the individual lashes surrounding her night-dark eyes. She wasn’t what he’d call a beautiful woman, but her features compelled him to look at her.
Smitty shook his head, blinking his burning eyes rapidly several times. Turning the clock over, he searched for winding device that would start the clock. Then he realized that the winding device had to be on the back of the clock in the statue’s hands, not the back of the statue.
“Duh, Smitty,” he muttered. He slipped his fingers behind the dial face, unable to fully see the back of it because of the design. Finally, he felt a small indention and pressed it with his fingertip. A slow, grinding noise emanated from the clock, and Smitty watched in excitement as the hand of the clock started quivering, like a race horse ready to spring from the gate. Only then did he notice two unusual features of the clock. First, only one hand radiated from the center pivot, and a quick inspection of the dial face did not reveal any loose parts. Second, the clock had 24 not 12 numbers radiating from its center. Since the glass was not cracked, he assumed this clock was made to mark each hour of the day.
He was pondering this oddity when he noticed that the object was heating up. Smitty quickly dumped the clock on the nearest table and took a big step back. Rationally, he didn’t believe that the thing would explode, but he couldn’t explain why it was getting hot either. Smitty braced himself to dash for cover should the clock begin smoking, but when it did, he didn’t duck underneath a table, for the smoke was most unusual. The pearl-hued vapor seemed to stream from pores on the object’s surface which was becoming more and more like flesh.
The event mesmerized Smitty. He could not turn his eyes from the shimmering play of light on the cloud of smoke as it flowed over the table and to the floor where it began coalescing into a discernable shape. He watched, awe-struck, as the swirling fog formed feet, legs, torso, and then head, all female in form. Smitty blinked then rubbed his eyes. He blinked again. The woman still stood there, only now her form was finite.
“I must be dreaming,” Smitty said, hesitation underscoring every syllable.
“You are not dreaming, Truman Smith.” The vision spoke, her voice low and rich, like the thick pearly smoke that had formed her.
“What, er, who are you?” Smitty stuttered.
“I am the spirit of this clock, and I am here to grant you one wish.”
Smitty frowned and looked closely at her again.
“You mean, you’re a kind of genie?”
“Some of your kind have called me so.”
Smitty shook his head in disbelief. “Great. Some guys’ delusions look like Barbara Eden. I get Barbara Bush.”
“Watch it, Smith.” She straightened her pearls and smoothed the jacket of her royal blue suit. “You don’t want to get on my bad side. Besides, I’m not a delusion. This is real, and you have twenty-four minutes to make your wish.”
“Twenty-four minutes?” He looked at the clock face and noticed the hand had advanced one minute. Smitty was so startled by the brevity of time allotted to his wish-making, that the issue of whether this was even real flew out of his mind. “That’s not enough time. You’re not being fair!”
“I’m crushed.” She sat, crossed her legs at the ankles and folded her hands in her lap. She was the image of conservative elegance. “Some people might consider that being offered a wish, even one that you must make in less than a half hour, is more than fair.”
“What’ll happen if I don’t wish before time’s up?”
“You’ll turn into a hairball.”
Smitty looked closely at the genie for a sign that she was joking. He gulped in distress at her deadpan expression and calm grey eyes.
“Well, uh…” Smitty could find nothing to say in response.
“Mr. Smith,” she sighed, “nothing will happen. You will simply lose the opportunity to wish. I will disappear, and you will not remember our meeting.” She looked at a watch pinned to her lapel. “You have eighteen minutes left.”
Eighteen minutes to make the wish of a lifetime. He began pacing across the room. Whether the genie was real or not, Smitty might as well play along. But what should he wish for? Money?
Nah. What good was wealth at his age.
Maybe that’s what he should ask for: youth. To be young again, with a healthy knee. He’d be able to pitch again, to have the career he’d always dreamed of.
But another freak accident could take it away again before he reached the majors.
Wait a minute. Why not ask for the career? What were wishes for it not making dreams a reality? And he had one ultimate dream. He’d be a hero. People would remember him – it would be a kind of immortality. If only the genie could truly give him what he wanted.
Smitty looked at the clock. Fourteen minutes had ticked off while he had pondered his options. Only four left to make his wish.
He straightened his shoulders and turned to the genie.
“I know what I want. Do I have to do anything special?”
“Like what? Hop on one foot and hold your arm out?”
Obviously, she’d been asked the question many times. Her caustic tone, delivered in that East coast, upper class diction reeked of disdain.
“Look Barbara, I mean genie…” Smitty floundered. What did one call a genie?
“Barbara will do.” She stood and held out her hand. “You have to do nothing more than hold my hand and make your wish.”
“That’s it?” Smitty shuffled cautiously closer to her.
He extended his hand and latched on to hers, then made his wish.
“Barbara, I wish to be a young pitcher who helps the Cubs win the World Series.”
“Are you certain of this wish, Truman Smith?”
“Then, so be it.”
From their joined palms, smoke began shooting out and soon encompassed Smitty. He closed his eyes against the sting. The vapor felt like it was pouring into his ears. Soon, Smitty could no longer feel the weight of his own body. He feared he’d lost all physical form, but just at the point where he began seriously panicking, the smoke began receding. He could once more feel the ground beneath his feet, though the floor felt different. And a loud rushing noise filled his ears as the vapor left his body.
Smitty’s nose twitched as it picked up familiar smells. Scents he’d not experienced in years. Fresh grass and dirt, the nip of October in the air, and hot dogs. Suddenly, Barbara turned over his hand and slapped something round in it. The shape and texture, Smitty knew too well.
“Come on, Rookie.” A gritty voice said. “Here’s your chance to be a hero.”
Smitty opened his eyes at the unexpected sound of a masculine voice. He had to shut them almost instantly because the light nearly blinded him. Blinking cautiously, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the brightness. When he was able to see clearly, his mouth dropped open. He was on the mound at Wrigley Field. He recognized the stadium instantly. The brick and ivy-covered walls, the lack of advertising, and the batter at the plate wearing the white with blue pinstripes uniform of the Cubs.
The batter at the plate?!
If the batter was a Cub, then why was he on the mound. Smitty looked down and gasped in horror at the grey uniform with New York arched across the chest. His head snapped up and he looked at the person who had given him the baseball.
Good God! Smitty thought. It’s the Yankees pitching coach!
Something was horribly wrong.
“Nothing is wrong, Smitty.” The pitching coach grounded out. His familiar grey eyes pierced Smitty’s stupor.
“Barbara?” Smitty blinked in amazement. It was the genie. He couldn’t deny those pearly eyes.
“You wanted to help the Cubs win the World Series. Here’s your chance. Cubs are one run down. Bases are loaded, two outs in the ninth, the seventh game of the World Series. This is Chicago’s last chance to win.”
“But, but, but…” Smitty stuttered. He wanted to say so much, but all he could push out was: “I’m a Yankee.”
“More than that, you are the Yankees last available pitcher. Torres has no one else to put in the game. You’ve got to pitch. Fortunately, no one is in a better position to determine the outcome of the game than you are. You’re facing the Cubs leading home run hitter, so no one will question you giving up the long ball. You can make your dream come true.”
“That’s not what I wanted,” Smitty complained. “You tricked me. I demand…”
“Okay, guys, let’s get going.” The home plate umpire interrupted the conversation on the mound.
“It’s your choice, Smitty.” Barbara smiled at him, then turned and jogged back to the dugout.
Smitty watched her go. He then looked at the players in the Yankees dug out, and heard from what seemed a great distance their calls of encouragement.
“Get ‘im, Rookie!”
“Be a hero, Smitty!”
He turned to home plate and stared into the eyes of a player he had admired for years: Jackson Hurst. In a flash, Smitty recalled the many times he’d rooted for this slugger to drive one home to win the game for the Cubs. Of the times he’d imagined him winning the big game for Chicago. Now, Smitty faced his greatest crisis. This was the test Walt mentioned just that morning. He could easily pitch into Hurst’s wheel house and give him every opportunity to hit it out of the park. As Barbara had said, no one would question whether or not Smitty had given up the run because Hurst was the top batter in both leagues.
However, Smitty was pitching for the opposing team. The idea of tanking a game, even one pitch, warred against every principle he held dear. The belief in professional ethics went bone deep for him. These players had all fought hard to get to the World Series. Giving in to his personal wants would not only betray them, but it would betray the whole notion of team. When life was beating you up, loyalty and support were sometimes the only things that kept you going. How could Smitty undermine an ideal he’d lived by his whole life for his own selfish dream?
But it wasn’t purely selfish. Hundreds of thousands of Cubs fans had waited nearly a century to see their team win the World Series. He’d be bringing joy to so many. The Yankees hardly needed another championship. They’d won the majority of World Series in the last decade. What would they really be losing? Just one more trophy to add to their already overflowing cases.
Still, how satisfying would it be to the Cubs if they knew he’d given them the game? They wouldn’t have earned that winning run.
The crowd began booing as he delayed. The catcher held up a hand, and the umpire called time. Smitty watched his teammate jog to the mound.
“What’s up, Rookie? A little nervous?”
Smitty could hardly bring himself to meet the concerned gaze of the veteran player.
“Listen, you’re our star! The upcoming Truman Smith. I know you can smoke it past Hurst. He’s weak where you’re strong. I know you pitched the night before last, and you’re tired, but you can do it. You’ve got magic inside that arm.” The catcher slapped him on the back. “Finish this so we can take a bath in champagne. I promise you, Smitty, it’s like nothing else in the world. No matter how many times you get here.”
“Sure.” Smitty nodded and offered a sick smile. Rather than reassuring him, the catcher’s words had made Smitty even more conflicted.
He watched Hurst step into the batter’s box and take a few practice swings before cocking the bat up high. Smitty could feel his opponent’s eyes drilling into him, looking for any tell. He fingered the baseball at his hip, feeling the familiar ridge of stitches. The catcher was calling for an inside fastball.
Deep inside him, energy sparked. Smitty felt the adrenaline flood his body and had to consciously control his trembling muscles. He took three deep breaths, and the crisp Illinois air cleared his mind. He knew what he had to do. At this moment, where dreams and ideals collided, Smitty could see only one choice before him. Only one with which he could live.
Smitty shook his head, waving off the catcher’s first signal.
The catcher then called for a fastball, high and on the outside corner.
Smitty nodded and gripped the ball. He then swung into his pitching motion, bringing his hands up to his chest, lifting his leg high, ready to kick his body toward home plate.
With his mind set and his eyes fixed on home plate, Smitty kicked out and brought his arm around and down, hurling the ball at 96-miles an hour toward Jackson Hurst. He watched in slow motion as Hurst’s eyes picked up the ball and started his swing. With a sharp crack, wood met leather, and Smitty followed the small sphere as it spiraled over his head toward center field, a white flash against the background of blue sky and bright stars.
Smitty closed his eyes, overwhelmed as the crowd roared in excitement. He sunk to his knees, tears streaming down his face as players flooded the field around him. Smitty felt a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up to meet the understanding and wise eyes of the genie. She knew what that pitch had cost him.
All he could think to whisper in the midst of such revelry and disappointment was, “There’s always next year.”