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by Joshua Allen
Charlie had never been to North Platte, Nebraska, nor to the ball field that held North Platte's farm league team, the Marigolds. He had only come to cheer on his minor league team, the Grand Island Gray Hens. There was a cold wind circling around the outfield and blowing down the third base line, where Charlie had stationed himself. He was the only one in the park wearing the Gray Hens colors. Midway into the first inning, a large man dressed in a red shirt walked out toward Charlie. Charlie thought the man was a fellow Hens fan, until the guy got close. "You aren't allowed to sit here." Charlie heard ball hit leather and glanced at the field just long enough to see the umpire calling the first pitch of the at-bat a ball. He looked back up at the big man. "Okay." "The players don't like it." A crack issued from the field. Charlie ducked and glanced toward the field. The batter had hit a foul ball to the back
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stop. Charlie stood up, wiping his hands on his shirt. "I guess you're right. Could be dangerous." "The player don't like it, so move your ass out of here." The big man turned around and left. Charlie expected to see the white or black lettering of a security guard on the man's back, but instead there was nothing. Charlie moved quickly to the grandstands. Charlie hadn't planned on coming alone. He had planned to bring his son with him, but his son had decided at some point over the winter that he hated baseball. He wouldn't even go to the batting cages with his old man anymore. There was a seat near the end of a bench row on the Gray Hens' side of the field. The people on the bench scooted down a little to make room, then a little more. Charlie sat with one cheek hanging off the edge, even though there was almost enough room for him to lie down if he wanted. The cold of the aluminum bench worked its way into his legs quickly. Back home, he always sat on the third base line. There was a club of men who sat with him. They would laugh at how dumb the bleacher bums were for buying the souvenir shop blankets to keep warm half-way through the game. Charlie tried to forget about it and focus on the game. He opened his program and looked up the current batter's number. It
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was a guy named Santorio McKenzie, a young kid they had really talked up during the draft at the end of last season. He was expected to move up quickly into the pros, so Charlie was lucky to get this chance to see him. McKenzie struck out. Charlie clapped anyway. "It's all right," he said. "Get 'em next time." The person in front of him, a big man with long greasy hair and a baseball cap, turned and shot Charlie a look. The next Gray Hens batter came up with two outs. The Marigolds fans all rose to their feet and began to shake cans full rocks. Charlie remembered a few of them doing this at some of last year's games, but he'd never imagined everyone did it at home games. It was the loudest thing Charlie had heard since Vietnam. The batter struck out. The game coasted by, with the players all looking like they had not practiced enough in the off-season. Charlie wondered if anyone would score a run today. By the fifth inning, Charlie finally decided that he had to buy that blanket he'd seen in the souvenir booth before the game, even though it was sure to mean a scolding at home later. His ass was frozen to the bench and his decision to wear shorts had been fine earlier in the day, but was quickly turning into a mistake.
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He was reluctant to give up his seat, however. Charlie stood and stretched. He looked over at the people to his left. "I'll be right back." The woman closest to him shook her can without looking at him. A small boy on the other side of her peeked at him. The boy stuck his tongue out. Charlie returned the gesture, only to realize that the woman as now looking at him. He nodded. As Charlie trotted down the stairs, he got a look down the third base line. Several people had blankets spread out down there and were enjoying the game. When he first started following the Gray Hens, Charlie had that single A ball would be different from the Majors. He imagined and had been told that the fans would be warmer and more laid back. They would share a bond, no matter what team they rooted for, that was the game itself and pure joy of baseball. Last year, it had seemed true. Last year, he hadn't gone to any away games. Going home was the best option. He didn't. His wife would pitch a fit, for one. He'd talked about opening day all winter long. For two, this was baseball. If that meant nothing to these people, with their noisemakers and sour dispositions, it still meant something to him.
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Charlie bought a blanket--a steal at $100--then hit the concession stand for a hot dog and beer. Because of the cold, he downed the first beer almost immediately and ordered a second before going back to his seat. It was too cold not to drink beer. The hot dog and second beer warmed him a little. He tucked his trash into a barrel at the foot of the grandstand and trotted back up the metal stairs. He smiled. He'd been wrong, then. These people weren't all bad. His seat was still open. When he looked up at the scoreboard he saw that he'd been wrong about something else, too. There was a score: 3-0 in favor of the Marigolds. He smiled harder. The game was on. It didn't even bother him when the woman next to him shook her can, though it was between innings and nothing was happening. Charlie felt like a new man. He only drank at baseball games and only had one or two. In his younger days, he had been an alcoholic, but God had helped him through that. He'd been a dumb kid, like the kids on the field before him. He, too, had always swung for the fences back then, trying to pour every bit of talent and energy into every single action, as though his life rode on this one single moment. But he didn't live like that anymore. Now he was a minister and a family man and he was happy.
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And if he still felt some of that old passion occasionally, that's why he came to these games. He let the players be the ones putting it out there and he lived through them. He watched and lived the life of a fan, win or lose. Charlie stood and clapped when Santorio McKenzie stepped up to the plate for the second time in the game. He'd gotten to see McKenzie's arm earlier, and the kid had a rocket. McKenzie drew a walk, and one pitch later, the next Gray Hens batter took the ball out of the park. Just like that, the Hens were within a run of the lead. Charlie cheered the batter all the way around the bases, timing his claps with the falls of the player's feet. Someone behind him yelled, "Down in front, asshole." Charlie looked back. A scrawny man was sitting next to a plump woman with a tattoo just above her neckline on the left breast that read Belle in fine script. The scrawny man waved his middle finger at Charlie. "Fucking sit!" The man said, then smacked his lips around a wad of chewing tobacco. Charlie shrugged, threw the man a good-natured grin. "What is that supposed to mean? You deaf or coming on to me?" "I'm not deaf, I'm--" "Fucking faggot!"
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Charlie decided to take the ribbing with good humor, but to sit before he caused a scene. He adjusted his blanket and sat back down. Sure, he was angry. He could feel it like an egg in his throat, but he was no longer a man who gave into anger. In his younger days? Yes. In his younger days, he had also lost about half the fights he'd engaged in. Charlie watched the game. An inning later, he heard the scrawny man talking again: "...then the faggot wouldn't sit down. So I told him I'd let him suck my balls if I could just enjoy the game, and he took a quick seat." A bunch of people laughed. "You know what we do to faggots around here, don't you?" Charlie heard no reply. For a moment, he feared the question was directed at him. Then the woman mumbled something that got the lot of them laughing again. A beer vendor appeared at the base of the grandstands. Charlie signaled for another beer and sipped the head when it came to him. He was starting to feel a little warm from the first two, but that would wear off before the game was over. The loud speakers blared the Charge! tune. Instead of screaming "Charge!" everyone shook their cans of rocks on time with the appropriate chord. Everyone except the scrawny man,
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who screamed "Faggooooot! Bah dah duh dum da da! Faaaaagooooooooot." Charlie didn't mind that inning when the Marigolds went down in order. As the Hens came up to bat, Charlie heard, "Look at that fucking shirt, Belle. Is that a come stain on the back?" The stain was from where Charlie had accidentally put bleach in the washing machine. He felt anger growing. He battled it back. He prayed for serenity. He searched for another place to sit. There was none. In the next inning, already the seventh, the beer vendor made his way back. Charlie ordered another. Charlie sucked it down before the vendor got five steps away. He took a breath. "One more!" Charlie called. Charlie flashed a ten dollar bill. The vendor shrugged and poured another beer. Charlie gave him the bill and told the guy to keep the change. As Charlie drank the beer, the scrawny man chanted, "Chug. Chug. Chug." Then cheered when Charlie finished this one as well. "Think he's drunk, yet Belle? Three beers, that's a lot for a faggot." Five, by Charlie's count. The most he'd had at a time in years. He never would have had that many if his son had been
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with him. Charlie thanked God when the Gray Hens tied it up, finally quieting the scrawny man. In the eighth inning, the Gray Hens got into a rhythm and took a lead. The Marigolds rallied in the bottom of the inning and reclaimed it. The Hens came up to bat for their last chance. The inning started with a walk, then a double that failed to score the run, and another walk to load the bases. The next couple of hitters both struck out, but then McKenzie came up to bat with one last chance to keep the Hens' rally alive. Charlie wasn't holding out much hope, since McKenzie had already struck out three times this game. He was happy, though, if for no other reason than because the scrawny man had finally grown bored of pestering him. Charlie stood. He wavered a little, feeling the effects of all the beer. Behind him, the scrawny idiot had started up again. Charlie whirled to finally give that bastard what he deserved. Instead of a scrawny guy with a girlfriend, there was just a little kid holding a soda can filled with rocks. Charlie turned back to the field. "Let's go Gray Hens!" The first pitch came, and McKenzie took his signature fullbody swing. Somehow, the bat connected with the ball. The hit sounded hollow. The ball soared high, but looked like an easy
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out in right. The right fielder took a few steps back, then backpedaled a few more. Suddenly, he turned and ran. That's when Charlie and everyone else realized that the swirling wind had swirled in McKenzie's favor. The right fielder paused at the fence. He had run out of room and had only one chance left. He dug into the fence with a cleated foot and launched himself into the air. The ball landed in the right fielder's glove. Everyone saw it. A gasp went up from the crowd. As the right fielder came down, his glove struck the top of the fence. The white ball dribbled out on the other side of the fence. The umpires signaled. Over the PA, the announcer noted with a complete lack of emotion, "Grand slam. Grand slam, McKenzie." Charlie went nuts. He was so happy that he even was able to imagine the shaking of the cans was a good noise. Then another sound drowned out his cheers. The crowd began booing. Charlie fell silent. The boos intensified. He sat down. HIs disgust tasted like black dirt in his mouth. This isn't baseball, Charlie thought. The boos swelled even after the Marigolds got the third out. In the bottom of the ninth, the right fielder was first up to bat and the boos crescendoed.
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Stop! Charlie wanted to scream. That isn't the way the game works. "This isn't baseball," he said, looking around for someone to agree with him. "This isn't baseball." The game ended with a Marigold's loss. The fans threw debris onto the field. The Marigolds packed up their belongings. The right fielder, Charlie noticed, seemed to be taking the loss especially hard. Charlie wanted to offer a kind word to the young man, but didn't know what it would be, even if he had the opportunity. Life is hard, maybe, or At least you got a taste of the real world now. But this wasn't supposed to be the real world. This was supposed to be where people came and loved the game. Loved it for what it was, flaws and all. Charlie sat in his seat a long time. Long after everyone else left. He sat there until the grounds crew--three old guys wearing yellow polo shirts-- cleaned up the field and the lights went dark. He didn't cry. He didn't feel like crying. What he felt was deeper than tears. Charlie got up from his seat. He left the blanket he had purchased behind. The effects of the beer were fading now. The parking lot was dark and empty. Charlie's car was in the far corner, alone.
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As he cross the gravel lot, he saw that he was wrong. There were a couple of other cars parked close to his. They were facing the back corner, headlights on, illuminating the cornfield beyond. A little bit closer and he realized that the remaining cars formed a semicircle corralling the back corner of the lot, and that his car was a member of the circle simply by coincidence. A chorus of shouts went up from the circle. Well, if they were having some kind of barbecue or drinking party, Charlie was about to play the spoiler. He laughed a little to himself. He would be doing to their party what the Hens had done to the Marigolds' home opener. Immediately he felt ashamed. He took back the thought, as much as something can be taken back that was never said. He refused to buy into these fans' cynicism. He would explain to them what had happened and be polite as he left. A few yard shy of his car, Charlie heard a sound he hadn't heard since the war. It was a clear and unmistakable sound. It was the sound of fist hitting flesh. The heads just visible over his car were circling something, he could see now. Charlie stuffed his hand into his pocket and extracted his remote door lock. If there was a fight,
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he wanted no part of it. And he wanted his car to have no part of it either. A man emerged from the mob. Charlie saw fists and heard the meat-smack sound of them landing blows. The man slammed up against Charlie's car and called out for mercy. The man was wearing a baseball uniform. Charlie could just see the pattern, but the tint on his windows obscured the colors. He knew it had to be McKenzie. Somehow they had lured McKenzie away from the team and were now giving him a beat down. Ducking low, Charlie ran as silently as he could across the gravel to his car. He reached the rear quarter panel and hit the trunk release. It opened with a soft click not even he could hear over the shouts. Charlie reached one hand up and over into the trunk. His fingers found the sports bag he had started carrying with him in case the urge to go the batting cage struck him at an odd hour this winter. His fingers closed around the ash nub. Charlie extracted the bat as he stood and circled around the back of his car, squeezing between the pickup that had him boxed in. One man noticed him. He tapped the shoulder of the man next to him and pointed. The man turned. It was the scrawny man from the stands. The shouts died down, as people turned their
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attention to what the scrawny man was staring at. Charlie counted eight more of then, nine total. The player was on the ground, curled up in a ball. The player was not McKenzie. "This is a personal matter, faggot," the scrawny man said. The kid behind the scrawny man was struggling to crawl away. It was the right fielder of the Marigolds. Charlie could only recognize the man by the number on his jersey. His face was now just a mass of purple bruises. "Put that twig back in the car and get the fuck out of here." Charlie considered the offer. He took a tentative step back. He raised the bat up to a ready position. Someone on his left feinted an attack. Charlie shuffled another quick step back. He was running out of room to run. He probably didn't look like a man who could swing a bat, but he knew he could. In the batting cages, he'd hit more than a few out of the park. It was a matter of technique and timing, only. Hell, a part of him even had held out some kind of childish hope that one day he could try out for the minors. He could admit that hope. A part of him wished his son would play baseball and be great. That didn't make Charlie a bad father.
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His foot hit the back tire of his car. Charlie knew, though, that watching was as close as he was ever going to come to playing even semi-pro baseball. He knew his son was no athlete, even when Charlie could get him to play. Charlie knew in his heart of hears that he would always be just a fan. Charlie stopped backtracking. He dug his toe into the dirt. "This is a 34 ounce Louisville slugger. Kentucky ash," Charlie said. "Let the boy go." The scrawny man spit into the dirt. The man on the left who had feinted now charged. Charlie saw him just in time. He stepped with his left foot, opening his stance for a high and inside pitch. Way inside. He twisted his torso, using the extra distance his bat would need to add punch to the swing. He connected with the man's stomach full force. The man doubled over, trying weakly to grab the bat, but unable. He toppled face first into a puddle consisting of gravel mixed with his own vomit. Charlie sidestepped down the edge of the truck. Giving himself a clear batting lane for the next pitch. Everyone took a step back. The scrawny man held the line. They could see they had him outnumbered, bat or no. "I told you this was private. That asshole cost me my whole paycheck. This is how we play it around here."
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"That's not baseball." The man spat his wad into the blackness beyond the parking lot. He adjusted his crotch. "Fuck baseball." Charlie dug in again with his right foot. "No, sir. Fuck you." "Just leave. Leave and we won't have to do this," someone else said. Charlie could hear his wife screaming in his head, telling him to run away. Just run away. For the sake of his boy, she was telling him, go! But he knew it was for the sake of his boy that he couldn't. If baseball didn't mean anything, maybe nothing did. If he wouldn't fight to protect it, maybe no one would. He tapped the ground with his bat. "Let's play ball."
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