Authors: Karen Rock
“I’ve got one,” said a familiar female voice, and he tightened at the sound of it. Heather. Her revelation about her mother touched him; it explained that haunted look in her eyes. But it didn’t change the fact that she was his manager and the obstacle that stood in the way of his having the winning season he needed.
“Whaddaya got, Skip?” the pitching coach drawled, his wrinkled elbows fitting neatly into the fence’s metal diamonds.
Heather opened the gate and walked in, bringing the clean, citrusy smell he associated with her.
“Garrett, you lost the pitch-off with me because you were tiring and lost your arm slot.”
He glanced at Smythe, who shrugged, neither denying nor confirming Heather’s observation. But his arm hadn’t dropped down. He would have noticed that. In fact, after all these years of playing and struggling for control, wouldn’t someone have mentioned it before? And who was some college player to point out what he did wrong?
The one who whupped your butt this morning
, a voice reminded him. He shut off his protest with a jerky nod and let her go on.
“Your angle has to be the same every pitch.”
He shrugged. “It felt identical every time.”
She raised her eyebrows, a know-it-all look that annoyed him to no end. “There was a slight variation.”
He tossed the ball in the air, biting back what he really wanted to say. In the parking lot, Heather had seemed approachable. But now, she acted as if she knew better than everyone else. And while that was expected for a team manager in the Minors, she lacked the experience he required to trust her. “I threw seventeen out of twenty strikes.”
Heather nodded, looking impressed, and he relaxed. Things would be easier between them if she understood that she had a lot to learn. “Yeah,” she put in, “but I threw eighteen out of twenty, which doesn’t make me happy. It should have been twenty out twenty. That’s the difference between us. I don’t settle for great. I want perfection. That’s the way you win games.”
He reeled back, feeling the slap of her words. Was she suggesting he didn’t care? Wasn’t motivated? He had everything on the line here. “Look, Skipper,” he said evenly, an edge of frustration clipping his words short. “I want to control my arm as much as you do. Even more. And how is it that you detected a variation in my arm angle when no other coach or manager has ever said a word about it?” He tried to keep the accusation out of his voice, but he had to say what he felt.
Heather, however, looked as cool as the light wind that ruffled the grass by their feet. “I can’t speak for what other people saw, only what I picked up. If you get your arm angle corrected, you’re capable of twenty out of twenty. Now that I’m your manager, I’m recommending a throwing program for you to get your flaw corrected. Since you’re pitching tonight, we’ll start tomorrow here at noon.”
He nodded, his mind in turmoil. He’d planned on practicing more himself anyway. But following a softball pitcher’s advice about his overhead throwing angle? That was crazy.
“And Smythe.” She paused in the open gate, her eyes on him. “Work on making sure Garrett recreates that angle every pitch. When he drops his arm, let him know and have him do it again correctly. It’s the only way he’ll get the feel for when he drops out.”
Smythe nodded, his rheumy eyes making Garrett wonder if the guy would notice a fly ball before it smacked him in the face. If Heather was right, would Smythe be able to spot the supposed flaw?
He watched her saunter away, wishing she’d stayed, but glad she’d left. His feelings for her were all over the map. If he was irritated with her on the field, why was he so intrigued and attracted off it? He needed to stop thinking about Heather as anything more than his manager.
* * *
the glass counter of Mr. Ferguson’s crammed baseball card shop later that afternoon, inhaling the familiar scents: cherry chewing tobacco, strong coffee and old leather from autographed gloves lining the walls. Beside them hung classic jerseys mixed among snapshots of World Series–winning teams and signed bats. In a corner, a seat from the Dodgers’ old stadium still held court, a black cat snoozing on it.
“Hey, Babe,” she crooned, crossing over to stroke its soft fur.
An older man with a florid face and white hair bustled from the back office, his smile wide. “It’s good to see you. Guessed you might be in town. Sorry to hear about your father. Is he feeling better?”
She gave Babe a final ear scratch and joined Mr. Ferguson by the cases. “He’s full of salt and vinegar.”
His grin matched hers. “So he’s back to his old self.”
“And then some.”
“How are things in California? You running that team yet?”
She laughed. “Not that one. But I’ve been named the Falcons interim manager.” Pride swelled her voice, filling out each vowel.
Mr. Ferguson thumped his hand on the counter, rattling the balls in their clear cases. “You don’t say. You’ve always had talent. Runs in the family.”
She kept her ironic smile to herself. If only her father could hear this. “Thanks. I see you still have that Mickey Mantle rookie card.”
A separate spot showcased the rare card with the baseball legend. Mickey held a bat over his right shoulder, his eyes roaming the sky, his blue cap stark against the white background, his looping autograph on the bottom. It was hard to believe this simple shot was worth six figures. Then again, it was Mickey Mantle. She sighed. What she would give to add that to her collection.
Mr. Ferguson nodded, his raised eyebrows a thin, white line. “That’s my 401K. And it’s a good draw for the store. Don’t know if you noticed, Heather. Things are a little quieter in Holly Springs these days.”
She sighed. It felt like a ghost town. “I have. You’re not in danger of closing, are you?” This sports memorabilia shop held such fond memories for her, and Mr. Ferguson was a sweetheart.
“Nah. Still hanging in there. Was thinking of—”
His words cut off when the chime above the door sounded. To her surprise, a tall, familiar pitcher sauntered in, one who got her pulse leaping.
“Mr. Wolf. What an honor.” Mr. Ferguson hurried to the door and extended a hand. For a moment, Heather wondered if he might bow. Sheesh.
Garrett’s dimpled smile flashed, making her stomach jump. “Nice to meet you. Mr. Ferguson, I assume?”
The owner nodded so hard his glasses slid off his nose and thudded against his chest, held, at least, by their chain.
Heather must have made some sound, because Garrett’s eyes leaped to hers. The light in them faded, and she raised her chin. Today’s practice had been rocky, but she’d given him important pointers. If he didn’t appreciate her advice, tough.
“Skipper.” He nodded, his friendly expression now shuttered. Cautious.
“Hello, Wolf.” She turned to Mr. Ferguson. “I’ll come back another time. We’ll catch up then.” When she moved toward the door, he cleared his throat, stopping her.
“Not before I show you something I know you’d be interested in. A card you’ve been after forever...”
Intrigued, she tore her eyes away from the golden-haired athlete and turned.
“Willie Stargell’s 1963 rookie card?” she breathed, following Mr. Ferguson’s march to the counter. She had many cards of her favorite player, but this one had long eluded her.
“The very one,” pronounced Mr. Ferguson, producing the plastic-encased rarity with a flourish.
Heather’s hand rose to her chest. Wow. Mr. Ferguson was very connected, traveling far for trade shows, but this—this was amazing.
She ran her fingers along the smooth, hard edge. Oh, how she wanted it!
“Davis, Gosger and Herrnstein are on that too, right?” Garrett’s arm brushed against hers as he joined her at the counter. “Topps made it.”
She looked at him sharply. Players sometimes stopped in to sign things for local owners. She hadn’t met a lot who were serious collectors like her. Interesting.
“Right. Have you seen it before?”
“Only in magazines,” he said, his eyes on the card, the naked want on his face matching hers.
“This is the first time I’ve seen it in person, too,” she admitted, meeting his eyes but quickly looking away.
“What’s it graded?” Garrett’s deep voice seemed to move through her, shuffling her insides around.
“PSA three, Very Good. There’s a hairline crease in the upper corner. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s a find.”
“I’ll say.” Garrett’s awed voice echoed her feelings. “And how much will you take for it?”
“Two hundred and fifty if Heather’s interested,” Mr. Ferguson replied, looking at her fondly.
She felt Garrett’s frown at being cut out of the sale. Frantic to whip out her debit card, however, she wouldn’t focus on him. Too bad. She and Mr. Ferguson went way back. How many times had he let her sweep up the place in exchange for cards? Countless. And she was sure he’d given her a far better deal than her cleaning warranted.
“Thank you! I can’t wait to add it to my collection.” She watched the proprietor run her bank card, anxious to have the collectible in hand.
“We could compare collections sometime. Trade duplicates.”
She turned to Garrett, surprised. “You brought your cards with you?”
“Got in the habit while growing up in the foster system. Moving from place to place. I never travel without it.” He raised an eyebrow and that crooked smile appeared again, dimples denting his cheeks. Despite her resolve, she warmed to him. She never let her cards out of her sight, either. How sad that he’d grown up without parents. Without a real home. That must have been rough.
“Guess we have that in common. I brought mine to California, then back to North Carolina.” They stared at each for a long time until Mr. Ferguson cleared his throat.
“Am I interrupting something?” the owner asked, the knowing laugh in his voice making Heather squirm.
“No!” they both exclaimed too forcefully to fool anyone, especially themselves.
She replaced her bank card and grabbed the brown bag Mr. Ferguson handed her. Time to go before she discovered other interests they shared. More ways that would make her relate to the man rather than the athlete. As his boss, she needed to know only his performance stats.
End of story.
“See you at tonight’s game.”
He nodded, his eyes briefly dropping to her mouth before rising again.
“Bye, Mr. Ferguson. Thank you!” she called, then quickly made her escape.
With her mind full of Garrett, however, it wasn’t a clean getaway.
* * *
bottom of the sixth, and Garrett paced to the back of the mound, rubbing the baseball in his hands while the crowd chanted in the early evening air.
“Get ’em outta there!” a voice pierced through the waves of noise rolling through the stadium. Garrett wasn’t sure if the spectator was talking about him or the batter who had a full count on him. With runners on first and third and two outs, this pitch would turn the tide. A strike ended the inning and maintained their one-run lead. A ball or a hit meant a score that’d tie up the game and put his chances of winning at risk.
And he needed this out.
He glanced over at the dugout and noticed Heather, looking cuter than he could have imagined in one of their uniforms. She caught his eye, and their conversation at practice earlier came back to him.
He’d dismissed it at the time, sure he’d handle this game better than the last without her supposed “help.” Yet now here he was, on the edge of a precipice that could finally get his season off to the right start.
The hitter before him stepped back from the plate and circled the air with the tip of his bat. Garrett glanced at first base, and the runner trotted back a few steps to safety. With his body sideways, he thought about his arm angle and read Dean’s signal, three fingers, then a leftward swipe with his index finger. A fastball. Outside. He took in a long breath through his nose and pushed it out through his diaphragm, his glove on his hip.
No more stalling.
He wound up and lit up the air. Instead of the cheering crowd heralding a strikeout, he heard a smack and watched the ground ball split between short stop and third base. Valdez and Hopson nearly collided as they stretched, too late, for the catch. The runner on third scored easily. Waitman charged fast, scooping up the ball and hurling it toward home plate. He needed to prevent the go-ahead run from scoring from second.
Garrett lined himself between home plate and Waitman, ready to grab the outfielder’s throw and cut off the ball in case the throw was late.
Dean yelled, “Cut, hold!”
Garrett reached up, grabbed the ball and stared hard at the runner who skipped back to third, unable to score because of the strong throw. Thank God Waitman had a canon for an arm, Garrett thought as he strode back to the hill.
They were tied, and the next hitter was at the top of the batting order.
Hoping he wasn’t being lifted from the game, he glanced over at Heather, who nodded to Dean to go out to the mound. A stalling tactic. Either she wasn’t sure if she was pulling him or she was giving the bullpen more time to warm up.
Dean took off his mask and jogged in Garrett’s direction.
“How’s it going?” Sweat ran down the sides of his face and slicked his red hair. With his flushed face, he resembled an overripe tomato.
Garrett looked down at his cleats, then up at the sky, wishing he hadn’t dug himself this hole. An organ played out notes and the crowd roared “Charge!” He wanted to yell with them, but he kept his emotions in that box he buried deep during games.
“Hanging in there.”
“Nah. Still got some in the tank. I’ll pull this out.”
“You dropped your arm on that last pitch, Wolf,” Heather said, surprising both men as she joined them.
“It didn’t feel that way.”
“Trust me. It was slight, but your arm angle fell. Come straight over the top. Remember your hand to your head. Ninety degrees. Not eighty. Concentrate. It’ll happen.”
Tired of arguing and heartened that she wasn’t pulling him, he nodded. “Got it, Skip. I have this last one.” He figured he did, either way. He had to.