The business-sized envelope was new with sharp, square corners and it was stuffed, taking up almost as much space on the bar as the spicy club wrap on Mike’s plate. Benny the bartender, the owner of the joint, walked by with a passing glance as if he had seen it all before, and moved on to wipe down some tumblers on a rectangular black tray.
Mike stared at the envelope for a long while, wondering if he should even touch it.
Would he soil himself if he did? Would he be a cockamamie fool if he didn’t?
After all, this was a thousand crisp American dollars, twenties and fifties. More than enough to provide for Mikey Jr., who lived with his ex, only because she had won the right in court, that crazy bitch. He was Mike’s life, even by degrees of separation, a little guy who didn’t know the meaning of the divorce word, but for sure knew he loved his dad with all his heart.
Mike could give him a little better life, even in the short term, if only he had the courage to…
“Take it,” Pete Jenkins said, trying to keep his voice down and watching Benny’s every move at the other end of the bar. Maybe he, too, felt soiled by what he was about to do.
Doubtful, Mike thought. Pete was a loving parent, too, a parent that would do anything for his kid.
Right. Anything covers a lot of ground, especially when big-time money is on the line. Future money. Professional baseball money. His kid’s money. Maybe. If he was lucky.
Luck be an umpire.
“Look,” Pete said, his voice just an octave above a whisper. “I get that this is tough for you. I don’t blame you for sweating it out. But look at the big picture.”
“The big picture?” Mike replied. “You’re trying to give me a thousand bucks just to ensure your kid makes a big showing in front of a bunch of college baseball scouts who’ll be looking at a kid from the other team.”
Pete dropped the corners of his mouth, which jutted his bottom lip as if he was a tot who had been scolded.
“Cutter just needs an opportunity,” he said, recovering himself. “If he can get there, get to Notre Dame or Auburn or someplace like that, he’s going to impress a lot of people. When he does that, it’s the Major League Baseball draft and then the sky’s the limit.”
“Why can’t he do this on his own?”
In truth, Mike could answer his own question. Brecton Baig, the Westchester Central southpaw stud, was probably the best high school player in the state and a potential pick in the upcoming MLB draft. He was a five-tool player, but undoubtedly the best pitcher Mike had ever seen. Cut fastball, slider, curveball that fell off the table, and a nasty changeup. He simply overpowered hitters with his consistent plus-80 speed and cunning smarts.
Cutter Jenkins of rival Westchester North was a good right-hander, occasionally really good, bordering on dominant. Above-average two-seam fastball, curveball, the occasional changeup. But he was no Brecton Baig. In fact, the chances he could make it on his own recognizance at a major NCAA Division I program like Notre Dame or UCLA or Texas were nil. A Division III program, sure. But any higher and he’d get lit up like a Christmas tree.
Mike didn’t say that last part. But the near squint of Pete’s eyes, the crow’s feet dangling to the north and south, were enough to know that deep down, he understood the same thing.
Hence, the gambit.
“All I’m saying is, give him the outside corner,” Pete said. “That’s it, finito. He wants this win. He told me so. But I told him he needs this win. He has to beat Brecton Baig in front of all those VIPs. It’s gotta happen. His future depends on it. To me, that’s the big picture.”
He paused, then added almost under his breath, “Besides, you’d have to umpire a lot of games to make a thousand bucks.”
Considering Mike made a paltry fifty dollars a game, that was sad but true.
He had never gotten behind on his child support payments; he’d never do that to Mikey Jr. But money was awfully tight, especially around the first and fifteenth of the month, and during the school year, he would work as many games as he could possibly stand, until he was seeing baseballs being ripped toward him in his sleep.
All for his little man. His little buddy.
So he picked up the envelope, surreptitiously placed it in his duffel, and stood up. As he did, Pete held out his hand to shake.
Instead, Mike turned to leave. As he walked past the bar, Benny gave him a hard look.
“He’s getting the tab,” Mike said, gesturing in Pete’s direction.
Umpires are supposed to be invisible. At least at the outset of a game, baseball is supposed to flow like a river: one at-bat, one play, one out, onto the next. But after a few innings, when teams start putting up crooked numbers on the scoreboard, an umpire can often take center stage with real or perceived missed calls and ill-timed decisions.
Gameday, a Tuesday, was overcast and about seventy-five degrees, but Mike was already sweating bulbous drops into the band of his navy cap, which started rolling down the back of his neck. As the home plate umpire, he had a chest protector under his light blue uniform shirt, which probably attributed to some of the perspiration, but there was Pete, in the bleachers behind the backstop, a baseball vulture waiting for his dinner to die.
Cutter Jenkins went through his warmup routine, one pitch, two pitch, red fish, blue fish. He looked like he might be “on” that day, until he airmailed a pitch into the backstop as Brecton Baig stepped out of the visitor’s dugout and started swinging a bat. That was followed by a couple curveballs in the dirt before he finally got back on track. The college scouts, dressed in a cacophony of their school colors, talked amongst themselves and pointed occasionally at Brecton Baig. Were they really salivating?
Mike found himself yelling, “Play ball!” and with gelatin legs crouched behind the Westchester North catcher.
First pitch. Fastball. Routine grounder to shortstop. Six-to-three. One out.
So far, so good.
The next hitter was first-ball swinging, too, and laced a double down the left field line, the crack of the fastball striking the aluminum bat hanging in the air for several seconds. Flustered, Cutter Jenkins looked at the gray sky, then down at the mound, before smacking his glove along the side of his right leg.
“Aw, c’mon, Cutter, whaddya say there, kid?” came a voice from behind Mike,
“Let’s get this next guy!” someone else yelled.
The next guy was Brecton Baig.
The kid was built not only for baseball, but maybe for a TV documentary or a reality show. Naturally curly hair under his helmet draped far past his neckline, and eye black that did nothing to hide his chiseled facial features, including a chin that jutted. Around his neck he wore a solid gold chain, which made Mike wonder if he had taken a bribe at some point. Heh-heh.
Brecton Baig settled into the left batter’s box, took a few swings, then waggled the bat behind his helmet, awaiting Cutter Jenkins’ delivery.
This one’s for you little buddy, Mike thought, as the first pitch was just a bit outside.
“Aw, c’mon blue, that was there!”
Mike called time, stood, hiked up his pants and stepped to home plate, where he brushed off invisible dirt. Didn’t need a sweep, but he needed the time to collect himself. He imagined the sweat stains starting to grow under his armpits. That never happened in the first inning.
Cutter’s next delivery was in nearly the same spot.
Decision time. Ball, or…
Unfazed, Brecton stepped out of the box, then stepped back in and waggled his bat.
Next pitch. Inside and off the plate.
Now Brecton gave a passing glance at Mike, a sort of, “Are you kidding me?” look with a pronounced frown.
Damn. Don’t make it look obvious, imbecile.
The next offering was a fastball down Main Street. A perfect pitch for any hitter.
Brecton lashed out, connected squarely, and sent the ball into the stratosphere, or so it seemed. Gone.
“Dammit!” Cutter screamed, as Brecton rounded the bases, his gold chain bouncing with each step. Was that a smile Mike saw on his face as he made the turn past third base on his way home? The college coaches looked stoic in the bleachers but he wondered if they really were salivating.
Because Brecton Baig was a program changer. He’d make a bad college team much better, and put a good team in a position to advance to the College World Series. He wasn’t as much of a player as he was a prize to be won.
The inning finally ended, Central up 2-0 over North. The game then settled into a battle of attrition. Brecton was on that day, though using a series of bunts and stolen bases, North managed to eke out a run in the bottom of the third. Cutter had settled down, aided, of course, by some help from behind the plate. In one instance, in the top of the fourth, Mike called an obvious ball outside a strike, which ended the inning for Central with a runner in scoring position. Cutter nearly danced off the field.
He was doing it. Now all North had to do was manufacture a couple of runs and he’d be able to buy Mikey that Spider-Man bike with training wheels he had his eye on.
“Hey Mike, what’s the deal today?” came the voice of Central’s rotund manager, a mid-60s guy with the curious name of Whitey Greene, whose uniform belt strained under the pressure of his girth.
“You’re all over the place on balls and strikes today,” Whitey said, not gritting his teeth, but nearly so.
“I’ve been consistent,” Mike replied.
Whitey took a step closer and would have beckoned if he could.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “You’re off your game, son. All I’m saying is, call it both ways.”
“Go back to your dugout Whitey. I’ve got work to do. Play ball!”
Whitey frowned, placed his hands on his hips and slowly turned.
“Sit down, you old coot,” came that same voice from the bar.
Stop, Pete. Just stop.
Cutter was the leadoff hitter in that inning, the bottom of the fourth. He had struck out looking in the second, and appeared determined to either not let that happen again, or impress the Vanderbilt coach, who was now standing at the edge of the backstop, staring at Brecton, of course.
First pitch: Ball. Should have been a strike, but anyway.
Second pitch. Ball. Whitey Greene nearly fizzled in his dugout.
Third pitch: Strike. Ninety miles an hour, Mike guessed. No doubter. Gotta make it look fair.
Brecton received the ball from his catcher, took off his glove and rubbed the ball, as if he himself had some reticence about what was going on. He put his glove back on, tugged at his royal blue cap with the yellow bill, and fired his next pitch.
Off-speed but within the strike zone.
Now it was Cutter that swung with all his might and lifted a fly ball that carried and carried, past the Central center fielder and bounced off the top of the wall, away from the kid, who bobbled it in the process of picking it up.
Cutter Jenkins may have been an above-average pitcher, but one thing he did have was speed. He flew past second base and came to third as his coach held up his hands as an indication to stop.
But no. He blew through the sign and dashed toward home plate, kicking up dirt behind his spikes and leaning forward as if he was ready to bull rush the quarterback in a football game.
The ball bounced once, twice, on the infield before settling into the catcher’s glove. Cutter executed a textbook hook slide.
The catcher fielded the ball and applied the tag as dirt kicked up like a cumulous cloud ahead of a big-time thunderstorm.
To this day, Mike couldn’t determine whether Cutter was safe or out, it was that close. So he deferred to the theme of the day.
Whitey Greene went crazy, storming out of the dugout as the home fans screamed their approval.
“What the hell is your problem?” Whitey spluttered. “You know he was out! What are you, working for North?”
If only he could have known the truth.
Mike tossed him.
“I’m playing this game under protest!” he screamed as one of his assistant coaches led him away. The North fans crowed, led by Pete Jenkins, who clapped with his hands above his head.
“So long, sucker!” he yelled toward Whitey Greene.
North 2, Central 2.
As a consequence of the play at the plate and Whitey’s untimely departure, every pitch from both hurlers would be scrutinized going forward. This was the bad time. One false move by Mike would result in an investigation by the state high school association. Which meant no fifty bucks a game for awhile, maybe the rest of the season.
Which meant danger for his child support payments.
But wait, just wait. You’ve got that grand sewn up if Cutter can somehow win this one. Remember, he thought, you’re in control here, and as an extension, so was Cutter.
Brecton Baig led off the seventh, score still tied. If nothing else, Cutter would likely be credited with a complete game, win or lose, a feat considering his opponent in the batter’s box.
C’mon, boyo, Mike thought. Just get through this. Make it happen.
Take the money and run like hell.
First pitch: Strike on the outside corner. Legitimate.
Second pitch: Crack! A long drive to the left curling toward the foul pole, and….foul ball, just outside the chalk line.
Third pitch: Ball. Way outside. Anyone could see that. Except Pete Jenkins, who gave Mike some guff about how that was clearly a strike.
Fourth pitch: Off-speed down the pipe. No problem for a pure raker like Brecton Baig. He would now untie this game, which meant that somehow Mike was going to have to go to work hard in the bottom of the seventh while simultaneously not making it too obvious he was cheating for the love of his son.
Brecton didn’t move his bat. Mike rang him up.
It was his own fault, Brecton’s, that is. He could have hit that ball to the moon.
Which got Mike to thinking. What if…?
No. There was no way. Uh-uh.
It looked like Cutter might get out of the inning unscathed, but there was nothing Mike could do about another double into the left-center field gap and a subsequent single that drove in the go-ahead run for Central. Which led to the bottom of the seventh, and Cutter down by one run. Mike wondered what would happen if it were a quiet inning, a couple of flyball outs and a grounder to short, something like that. Something unsuspicious.
But would he be able to keep that grand? He at least tried to keep Cutter in the game. That had to count for something. Maybe he should tell Pete about Mikey Jr. As a fellow dad, he’d understand. Right?
A quiet inning wasn’t to be. The first two North runners got on via a throwing error and an uncharacteristic Brecton Baig walk. Which brought up Cutter Jenkins one last time.
First pitch: Ball in the dirt that got to the backstop, allowing both runners to advance. A little single, even, would at least tie the game, and maybe give Cutter the walkoff.
Second pitch: Swinging strike. Prior to that moment, Mike never rooted for kids. Ever. He was invisible. But now he felt under the cone of the hot lights of the stage. He could feel, and smell, his soaked armpits.
Focus on Mikey. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Third pitch: Swinging strike. If only Cutter would swing on the next pitch. He’d determine his fate, not somebody else.
But he didn’t. Brecton’s fourth pitch caught the outside corner.
For the first time all game, Mike didn’t waver or stutter. Or think.
As Cutter slammed his helmet down in disgust, Pete Jenkins simply glared at Mike, and only him, for a good five minutes post-game.
Whitey Greene proved to be the consummate pain in the ass. He indeed protested the game, and an immediate investigation was undertaken by the state high school association. Turns out Mike wasn’t the only one on the take. So was Brecton Baig, to the tune of $5,000, which cinched Mike’s suspicion. He wondered offhandedly how he rated a fifth of that, but anyway…
The bribes weren’t enough to get the cops involved, but Brecton was suspended, missed the rest of the season, and never did play for that big-time program. As of this writing, he was trying to latch on to a lower-level Division III school. Cutter got dismissed, too, and Pete Jenkins was barred from attending any high school, or college, baseball games in perpetuity.
As for Mike, he lives in the same studio apartment. But he doesn’t umpire. Not anymore.
Instead, he swallowed his pride and has begun working on patching things up with his ex, enough to get equal time raising Mikey Jr.
It’s not as if he has anything more pressing to do. After all, desperate times always call for desperate measures.