Take Me Out of This Ballgame

Submitted into Contest #208 in response to: Write a story about someone living vicariously through someone else.... view prompt

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Fiction

Three curious teenagers sit on a hill above the baseball field watching Jovanny “Jumbo” Rotelli lumber around the bases.

“It’s ninety-eight degrees and he’s been running wind sprints for the past half hour,” Aiden Burke comments. “When we beat Jumbo’s team, Mr. Rotelli is going to wonder why his son was gassed after three innings.”

Pushing her glasses up off the end of her nose, Polly Progreski gives Aiden a challenging look. “You’re so sure you’re going to win?” the gangly brunette asks.

“Two years ago, we beat the Bison’s 12-3 for the championship. Last year it was 14-2. It’s not a question of beating them, it’s by how much.”

Aiden’s girlfriend, Crista, knocks his baseball cap off his head. The playful redhead gives him an alluring smile. “Be nice. You know Jumbo’s father is super competitive. Anything less than first place for Jumbo is a failure.”

“Poor Jumbo’s already had a lifetime of it,” Aiden replies.

“It doesn’t help that you guys keep calling him Jumbo,” Polly says.

“Slim just doesn’t work,” Aiden replies.

“I’ve never seen someone look so miserable. Someone should rescue him.”

“Don’t look at me,” Aiden says. “It’s an advantage for us if he’s weak as a kitten for the biggest game of his life.”

Polly starts down the hill. As Aiden and Crista cuddle together in the grass she yells out, “Sex before a game isn’t good for you either!”

Bosco Rotelli eyes Polly as if she were a pitcher throwing a fastball at his head. Short and squat like his son, with a perpetual five o’clock shadow, Bosco is seen by the coaches and players as a bossy baseball savant intent on seeing his son play in the major leagues.

“Saw you sitting up on the hill with Aiden Burke. He send you here to distract my boy?”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Polly replies. “I’m here for a friendly visit.” 

Bosco snorts. “That Burke is cocky. He knows he’s special, that he doesn’t have to bust his tail like my boy. He’s just like that kid Horace Blackburn I played against in the minors.”

Polly’s peaceful expression becomes lined with worry when she sees Jumbo slow down, gasping for air as he trots toward them. “I didn’t know you played in the minor leagues, Mr. Rotelli.”

“For the Detroit Tigers farm team. I relied too much on my natural talent. I goofed around during practice. I would have been their starting centerfielder if I hadn’t run into a wall and shattered my leg. It happened because I was out of shape, and I’d lost a few steps because I didn’t practice. So, I told myself if I ever got a second chance, I’d make sure I was in shape. I never got that chance, but Jovanny’s gonna be prepared.”

“He’s always practicing, or exercising,” Polly says. “Everybody needs some downtime, some time to have fun.”

“You know what fun spelled backward is, girly?”

“Nuf?”

“That’s right. Nuf is short for nothin’. And that’s what you get when you slack off. My boy’s not walkin’ away from baseball with nothin’.”

Aiden steps up to the plate. The Roadrunner’s tall, thin, seventeen-year-old All-Star centerfielder is the only Black player in the Mount Kisco Baseball League.

Jumbo glances at Aiden, pulling his catcher’s mask over his acne-filled features.

“You don’t look like you’re getting much sleep, Jumbo.”

“My dad’s had me working on my defense.”

“How’s it going?” Aiden asks, as Rip Walls, the Bison’s pitcher, winds up.

The ball bounces in the dirt in front of Jumbo, glancing off his shin guards.

“I guess I’m still a work in progress,” Jumbo says.

“C’mon, you’re the best catcher in the league.”

“Not according to my father.”

“Well, you won’t be getting any help from me today. We want that third championship trophy.”

Aiden swings at the next pitch, lining a single up the middle.

Taking his lead off first base, Aiden easily steals second base. Jumbo’s throw arrives too late to get him out.

Bosco paces the sandy dugout floor.

“Nice throw Jovanny! He won’t run on your arm again!”

Walls slows his windup, glancing at Aiden in the hope his determined look will keep him from stealing third.

Walls releases the ball. Aiden takes off for third base.

Aiden arrives at third standing up, smiling at Jumbo, who seems paralyzed, unable to make a throw.

Bosco springs from the dugout. “Don’t worry, Jovanny. Burke is faster than everybody else because he’s got that extra vein in his legs!”

An awkward silence deadens the chatter on the field. For a moment, the players on both teams remain motionless, their eyes bulging in disbelief.

Rip Walls drops his glove, letting out a light chuckle that turns into uncontrollable laughter.

Both teams erupt into giggling and hooting. The laughter softens Aiden’s anger, who realizes the absurdity of Bosco’s excuse and joins in the laughter.

Everyone laughs - except Jumbo. Deeply embarrassed, he stands near home plate kicking at the dirt.

Aiden scores on the next hit. Unable to look at Aiden as he passes by, Jumbo pretends to be watching the rest of the play develop.

When the inning ends and the teams switch sides, Bosco scampers out of the dugout to meet Aiden.

“You know I didn’t mean it, right, Burke?”

“Sure.”

“I had to say something to Jovanny. You were embarrassing him, and it just came out. You understand, don’t you?”

“Yeah, as long as you understand the meaning of what you said, Mister Rotelli.”

Polly sits down on the bench next to Jumbo.

“Seventeen to nothing. The third time wasn’t a charm after all,” Jumbo says dejectedly.

“You don’t sound surprised that your team lost, Jovanny.”

“I’m not. The Roadrunners were better. I mean, I struck out three times and Aiden got three hits. Aiden is gonna be a star someday.”

“What about you?”

“Dad still thinks I can make it.”

“It shouldn’t be about what he wants. What do you want?”

Jumbo turns to Polly, smiling at her freckled features for the first time since they’d met in junior high.

“A house in the country by a lake, with a dock so I can fish. I love fishin’ more than baseball. And kids… I’ve always liked kids. I wanna be a therapist and help them get over their problems. I wanna be someone they can talk to.”

“Is that because no one’s been there for you?”

Polly watches Jumbo’s eyes gloss over with tears.

Jumbo throws his shin guards, glove, and mask in his gym bag for what he thinks will be the last time.

“What do you think you’re doin’?” his father asks.

“Retiring.”

“And do what? Install furnaces like me?”

“I didn’t get any offers for scholarships like Aiden. I’m not good enough.”

“You mean you’re not good enough yet. We’re not giving up. You’re going to the Hall of Fame someday.”

Bosco notices the small trophy next to his son’s bag. “I didn’t know they gave out consolation prizes for gettin’ creamed.”

“That’s a special trophy for being the most congenial player in the league.”

Bosco picks up the trophy, studying it.  “Cheap. Not like the Most Valuable Player trophy they gave Burke.”

A batter in a hitting stance tops the trophy. Bosco twists its head off, tossing the trophy back to his dewy-eyed son.

“There are no congenial losers in the Hall of Fame, son.”

While Aiden tears up the college baseball league on a full scholarship, Jumbo spends the next four years trying to hone his skills, toiling in remote, sparsely attended stadiums, playing for the Alaska Baseball League, The Pan American Association, and the Australian Baseball League. Bosco is alongside him the whole time, eating vegemite sandwiches, helping to clear snow from the field, or negotiating to rent sampans to take them to their next game.

When Bosco’s former minor league teammate Logan Behan is named General Manager for the Houston Astros, Bosco calls him begging for a tryout for his son.

Jumbo signs with the Astros for the minimum salary of $300,000. The following day, Aiden, the number one college baseball player in the country, signs a three-year contract with the Astros for $100 million.

Much to Logan Behan’s consternation, Bosco announces that under his guidance, his son will make the Astros forget about Aiden.

“I’ve got a secret weapon for you, Jovanny,” Bosco tells his son. “You’re gonna have an edge over everybody else. A big one.”

Within a month, a leaner, bulkier Jumbo is hitting nearly as many home runs as Aiden.

Two months into the season, Logan Behan calls Aiden into his office.

“Sit down,” Behan says, offering Aiden the cushioned armchair across from his buffed oval mahogany desk.

Although his silver hair and gentle brown eyes give Behan a placid look, his deep baritone voice is grim. “I’ll get to the point. You’ve been traded to the Dodgers.”

“What? I’m leading the league in home runs and batting average. I’m two R.B.I.’s away from the triple crown, and I’m a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year.”

“Which is why we’re moving you now. Your trade value can’t get any higher.”

“Between me and Jumbo, we’ve got nearly forty home runs, and we’re not even halfway through the season,” Aiden protests. “We’re ten games ahead. We’ll have the pennant in our back pockets in another month. Why are you doing this?”

“Steroids.”

Aiden frowns, balling up his fists. “I’m not taking steroids.”

“We found a needle in your locker.”

“Well, it was planted there. We’ve been on the road for ten days. We just got in. I haven’t even been to the locker room yet. You want to test me? Feel free.”

Behan shakes his head vigorously. “You know the League’s policy. But we’re willing to keep the real reason for the trade a secret if you agree to go quietly. If we tell the press, you’ll be suspended for a year.”

“The fans will roast you alive for this. Rotelli and I could have led this team to multiple World Series wins.”

“It’s Jumbo’s team now.”

“So that’s it. You’ve been duped by your old friend, Bosco. He wants his son all alone in the spotlight. Well, the spotlight’s too bright for him. He doesn’t have the charm to deal with the press, and he doesn’t have the talent to lead by example. And if anyone’s on the juice, it’s Jumbo. His acne started breaking out the same time his hitting did, and he’s been really touchy lately.”

“The Dodgers have an off day tomorrow. You’ll be their starting centerfielder on Wednesday.”

“When we win the World Series, I’ll be sure to stop in so you can see what a championship trophy looks like.”

Jumbo sits at the end of the bar, watching the Dodgers play the Arizona Diamondbacks. The skinny drunk in the Dodgers cap next to him leans across the bar yelling, “Hey, Sully! I bet you two bills Burke hits a homer!”

The pudgy bartender looks up at the screen. “Nah, Sven. You’ve got me too many times with that one.”

Sven turns to Jumbo. “How about you, Mister Universe?”

“How about you leave me alone.”

Sven is distracted by the noise of the crowd blasting from the television.

“Another homer! Man, I still can’t believe the Astros traded away that stud Burke for a couple of old codgers and an A-ball pitcher who’ll never see the majors.”

Sully glances at Jumbo. “They thought their rookie catcher could carry the weight of the team.”

“Yeah, right. Rotelli couldn’t carry a bucket of balls without dropping them.”

Sven looks at Jumbo for a reaction, his jaw dropping when he realizes who he’s looking at.

“Rotelli! You lead the league in errors, pass balls, and broken water coolers. Didn’t you wind up on the disabled list because you sneezed and threw your back out? Some superstar!”

Rising from his seat, Jumbo’s ears start ringing and his vision blurs as his blood pressure soars.

When his vision clears, his oversized arms are pinned behind his back by two pairs of handcuffs linked in a makeshift chain.

Three bruised and bleeding police officers stand over him. One is still holding the stun gun he repeatedly tazed Jumbo with.

The broken television hangs off its shelf, spitting out sparks. A pair of paramedics are rushing a moaning, profusely bleeding Sven to their ambulance while Sully, holding his dislocated jaw, limps alongside.

“Most hits Jumbo’s had all season,” an officer comments.

Bosco cringes as he enters Behan’s office.

“Sit down. You know why you’re here, don’t you?”

“It was just a little dust-up,” Bosco insists.

“Once is an anomaly. Twice, something’s up that needs investigating. Three times and the reason behind his violent behavior is evident.”

“It won’t happen again.”

“You’re right. Jumbo is suspended for thirty days. And before you start whining, we’re going to say it’s for exhaustion and a pulled hamstring. In reality, he’ll be going to a private hospital to get off the steroids. You know what really bothers me, Bosco? You. I trusted you to the point where I traded a potential Hall of Famer so your son could lead the team. I understand that he’s your boy, and you’ll do anything for him, but this…”

“He’ll bounce back. I’ll see to it.”

“No, Bosco. We’ll see to it. You go back to New York. Retire, put your feet up, and watch the games from there.”

“But my boy needs me.”

“If you show up at the stadium or at any of the road games, I’ll see to it you spend the rest of the season in jail for trafficking steroids.”

Jumbo misses the final two months of the season. Returning to the team in time for the playoffs, Jumbo tries to ignore the many stories documenting his downfall, including: “BUST BOLSTERS ASTRO BENCH,and “WHERE’S YOUR DADDY NOW?”

Bosco is content to stare at the puffy clouds hanging over the stadium and to let the action on the field wash over him like an absurd Bugs Bunny cartoon. Then the starting catcher breaks his hand, and Bosco finds himself behind home plate, waiting for his father to tell him what to do.

Despite having to come back from the verge of elimination twice in the playoffs, the Astros end up facing the Dodgers in the World Series. Aiden leads the Dodgers, hitting two home runs in their first victory, three doubles in their next win, and three homers in their third. Aiden makes his presence known in their three losses as well, hitting two more home runs.

Jumbo has few hits but secures one of the Astros’ wins with his lone home run, a solo shot that breaks a twelve-inning tie. The homer appeared to be going foul, but Jumbo jumped and waved his arms like a signal controller landing a jet plane, as if willing the ball fair. The home run becomes the lone highlight of Jumbo’s baseball career.

The seventh and final game is a back-and-forth struggle. With the score tied in the eleventh inning, Aiden, who already has four hits, strides toward the plate. Knowing one swing from Aiden could end the series the Astros’ manager holds up four fingers, intentionally walking him.

The crowd boos the decision to walk him.

The next batter hits a long fly to right field. Tagging up, Aiden moves to second.

With the count stretched out to 2-2, Punch Palmeiro, normally a line-drive hitter, lifts a high fly to deep center field. The Astros’ centerfielder jumps, catching the ball inches away from the wall. Disappointed, the crowd’s enthusiastic cheers slowly fizzle out.

Aiden tags up, dashing to third as the Astros’ shortstop runs out to center field to take the relay throw.

The crowd’s cheers explode as Aiden runs through the coach’s signal to stop at third. He speeds toward home plate, his blue eyes darkening with determination.

Jumbo watches the weak relay throw reach the shortstop. He stands on the plate as Aiden rounds third, charging for home.

The umpire shouts, “You can’t block the plate without the ball, Rotelli! Get out of the way!”

Jumbo refuses to move, standing on top of home plate.

Lowering his shoulder, Aiden runs full speed into Jumbo.

Jumbo’s helmet is propelled straight up in the air. His glove and shin guards are ripped from his body, shooting sideways. Cameras flash as the unconscious catcher’s body flattens out in midair, then hits the ground with a dusty thud.

The shortstop’s late throw barely rolls past second base.

Aiden’s teammates lift him on their shoulders as the dejected Astros walk off the field, leaving an unconscious Jumbo laying on his back in the dirt.

Rising out of his Naugahyde recliner, Bosco shakes his fist angrily at the television. “Cheater! Burke cheated me out of a championship!”

Bosco grabs at the sharp pain in his chest. Hyperventilating, he turns toward the shelf with his son’s trophies. Cradling Jimbo’s headless congeniality trophy, Bosco collapses.

Polly pushes Jimbo’s wheelchair onto the deck overlooking Oregon’s remote Silver Lake.

“Did you finish your evaluation of that boy?” she asks.

“Yeah. I’m convinced he can be helped. I think his behavioral problems stem from OCD and his parent’s separation.”

“Another reporter called.”

“It’s been three years,” Jumbo grouses.

“But you’ve never answered the question, Jovanny. Why didn’t you move out of the way?”

“I was tired of living my father’s dream. I wanted it all to end.”

“Next time, just retire.” 

“My dad used to say I was going to the Hall of Fame.”

“You can still go. You’ll just have to buy a ticket to get in like the rest of us commoners. There’s a game on in a few minutes. Dodgers against the Red Sox. You want to watch Aiden hit some home runs?”

“How about we go fishin’ instead?”

July 27, 2023 17:10

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2 comments

11:43 Jul 28, 2023

Thanks!

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Mary Bendickson
00:54 Jul 28, 2023

Jumbo becomes Jimbo towards the end. Good portrayal of prompt.

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