Read Night Game Online

Authors: Alison Gordon

Night Game

NIGHT GAME
A Kate Henry Mystery
Alison Gordon
Dedication

For the foreign correspondents: women in the locker room.

Chapter 1

She minced across the infield on spike-heeled sandals, wearing jeans so tight that I wondered how she got out of them as often as she was reputed to. She wore an oversized white satin shirt tied around her tiny waist, and unbuttoned to show a red tube-top stretched to the ripping point by her enormous breasts. She stopped, pulled a comb out of her large canvas carry-all, and ran it through her shoulder-length, tousled, streaked blonde curls. When she saw me, she threw me a little-girl wave, fluttering her scarlet-tipped fingers in my direction. I pretended I didn’t notice.

Three hours into my forty-second birthday, I was sitting in the Horkins Field stands, halfway down the right-field foul line, drinking lukewarm coffee from the media room, and feeling sorry for myself. I had no time for Juicy Lucy Cartwright.

We’re not talking mid-life crisis here. Age has never been a difficulty for me. I would rather be my age than Lucy’s twenty-two. On this particular day my problem was that I was stuck in the god-forsaken retirement village of Sunland, Florida, with twenty column inches to fill for the next day’s Toronto
Planet,
and I didn’t have a clue what I was going to fill them with. Besides, after a winter of stunningly robust health, ten days into my exile among the palms and polyester, I had a stinking cold.

My brain had turned to ricotta cheese, my nose was red and runny, I couldn’t hear for beans, and every time I lit a cigarette I coughed like Camille.

I lit another one, coughed, and tried to figure out how to get through the day. My job, senior baseball writer for the
Planet,
is dependent upon the guys who play for the Toronto Titans baseball team. At the moment, they were all in the clubhouse for a meeting with the new Titan manager, Warner Olliphant. Press excluded of course, but I knew I’d be able to get a full report after it was over.

Olliphant is a semi-legendary figure. When he played, in the early fifties, he was nicknamed, predictably, Jumbo, but no one has dared call him that to his face for several decades.

He’s managed five teams in both leagues in the last dozen years, and never had a losing record. He is one of those little autocrats who can take an undisciplined team and turn it around through sheer force of will. Unfortunately, he is as rigid with the owners and general managers as he is with the players, so he never lasts long with any team.

The Titans were prime candidates for his particular talents. After having made it to the American League playoffs two years ago, they finished a dismal fifth last season, staying out of the basement only because of the unrelenting mediocrity of the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees.

Ted Ferguson, the Titans’ owner, couldn’t fire the team, so he took his cue from the boos that greeted the former manager, Red O’Brien, whenever he set foot on the field in the last half of the season, and cut him loose fifteen minutes after the last out of the last game of the season.

He lost the job on merit, but he wasn’t the only culprit. His players made the mistake of believing the pre-season scouting reports that said the Titans couldn’t miss, and coasted through the first half of the season. By the time they realized that they had to hustle to win the division again, it was too late.

I was glad to see O’Brien go. He was one of those vulgar good old boys who thrive around the game of baseball. The Titan job was his first as manager, but losing it didn’t hurt him. Within a month, he had signed on as third-base coach with the Twins, and had enough buddies in the game to keep employed forever. He would manage again.

But not for the Titans. Ferguson had seen enough of O’Brien’s loose discipline and hard drinking; and heard enough of his alibis in the three years he was with the team. When he hired Olliphant, the owner announced a new era in Titan baseball; an era in which the outfielders would hit the cut-off man every time, bunts would no longer be popped up, and players would hustle out every ground ball. It was time, he said, not very originally, for good, sound, fundamental baseball. Sometimes I think that baseball people have a special bible of clichés like that.

The pitchers and catchers, who report a week early, had already had a taste of Olliphant’s style. The pitchers, even the stars, were running more laps than they had since the low minors, and the catchers were already black and blue from punishing fielding drills.

My first interview with him hadn’t been promising. Olliphant had never dealt with a woman beat writer before, and he made it clear that he didn’t like my presence one bit. I just reminded myself that I’d been here for seven years before he arrived, and would probably still be around after he was gone. It was his problem, not mine.

The infielders and outfielders had reported the day before, hence the team meeting, which had been going on for more than an hour. I trusted that my regular informants would be able to give me some juicy stuff.

In the meantime, I couldn’t do anything except wait, but it was a pleasant enough chore. Although the sky was grey the air was warm and fragrant, the grass was brilliant green, and a mockingbird was serenading me with his full repertoire of songs, borrowed from all his feathered pals, from the top of some sort of evergreen beyond the bleachers. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a March morning. It sure beat shovelling snow.

The coffee had worked its way through my system, so I decided to head back to the media room for a pee.

Passing the chain-link fence by the box office, I saw that the small sandy parking lot was full and that there were several hundred people lining up for tickets for the Grapefruit League games, which wouldn’t start for another week.

The fans had that Florida look. You could tell the new arrivals by their sunburns, and the permanent residents by their leather skin and horrible taste in clothes—everything that wasn’t pastel was either plaid or covered in lurid flowers, and that was on the
men
. Some of them also wore joke baseball caps with phony seagull poop on them.

The women were dressed more sedately, with a few stunning spandex exceptions, and stood slightly bemused, as if wondering at the peculiar transformation retirement had wrought on the staid accountants and dentists they had lived with for all those years. They were surprised by such a late-blooming spousal mid-life crisis.

It suddenly occurred to me that these were my countrymen, and women, but a breed of Canadian I didn’t know. Where do they hide out when they’re at home? You seldom see seagull-poop caps or hibiscus-print Bermuda shorts in downtown Toronto.

I decided that I didn’t want to know, turned my back on the miles of varicose veins, and opened the door marked Media Only.

Understanding the connection between happy reporters and favourable reporting, the Titans hadn’t scrimped on their complex for the press.

The lounge was the central hangout spot. The white walls were brightened by blown-up action shots of Titans past and present. There were couches and easy chairs, cheerful red carpeting, and a table for playing cards. A bulletin board held clippings, snapshots, and an ever-growing collection of strange headlines and sportswriting clichés. The rest of the reporters and hangers-on were in there, drinking coffee, eating sticky Danish pastries, and talking trade rumours.

As I came out of the ladies’ room, I heard Bill Sanderson, from the Toronto
World,
trying to defend his latest column, in which he had Joe Kelsey, the left-fielder, headed for the San Francisco Giants.

“It’s a natural,” he was assuring his dubious audience. “He’s gay. San Fran is full of them. Attendance will go up at least a million.”

“Sure, Bill,” I said. “And what are the Titans going to get back in exchange for the guy who was their MVP last season?”

“I’ve heard Granyk,” he said. “His thirty-seven home runs wouldn’t look too shabby here.”

“Your theory is a bit flawed,” I said. “But what else is new? First of all, Tom Granyk is a first baseman, and last time I looked, the Titans have last year’s rookie-of-the-year at first. Second, if they traded Kelsey, they’d need a new left-fielder. The closest they’ve got in the minors is Domingo Avila, and he’s at least a year away.

“The third flaw,” I said, counting on my ring finger, “is that Kelsey, despite your inability to deal with his sexual orientation, is the biggest star they’ve got. The fans would picket the Titan Colosseum if they traded him. And finally, Granyk happens to be forty-one years old and can’t score from first on less than a home run. He’s washed up.”

(Oh, my God. Had I just said someone the age I was yesterday is washed up?)

“That’s the talk out west,” Sanderson said, smugly. “You’ll see.”

“I’ll put it in the same file as the rest of your rumours.” I said. “The circular one.”

Sanderson is a bit of a pain in the ass. He’s in his mid-thirties, good-looking if you’re turned on by Ralph Lauren ads, and has an ego as big as the players he covers.

He used to be the
World’s
hockey guy until Harold Ballard banned him from Maple Leaf Gardens and he changed beats. Knowing nothing about baseball gave him no humility, even in his first day on the job, and three years later, he is insufferable. Most reporters get their stories by hanging around, listening and watching, talking to players, coaches, and other baseball people, picking up tips, and putting the story together. That’s not Sanderson’s style.

Partly because the players won’t talk to him, his main tool is the telephone, and what he considers a select and reliable network of informants. Most of them are agents and front office people, who use him shamelessly to float stories that will help their clients or teams. Sanderson, in his egotistic enthusiasm, believes he is getting scoops. The rest of us would find him harmless enough, except for two things.

First, every time the
World
prints one of his outrageous stories, our editors immediately order us to match it. This usually involves simply dropping a denial into the last paragraph of our stories, but it’s irritating nonetheless. Second, he has convinced his bosses that he is worth about twice the salary I make. That really rankles.

There were half a dozen other media types hanging around the room, listening to Sanderson and waiting for some action. A couple of locals, including the seventy-three-year-old sports editor of the Sunland
Sentinel,
were there for the free coffee.

Keith Jarvis, my other competition, from the tabloid Toronto
Mirror,
had on an outfit that would have looked tasteful standing in the meal line with the winos at the Scott Mission: frayed running shoes, baggy shorts, and a shapeless old T-shirt that once might have been white. He had a Titan cap over his greasy blond hair, backwards. He was cramming food into his mouth while he read through the major American baseball magazines, cribbing his pre-season analysis. He calls it research.

A couple of photographers were getting their equipment ready, including Bill Spencer from my paper.

“It’s ten below at home,” he said, smugly. “Snowing.”

His daily greeting consisted of a Toronto weather report. I couldn’t convince him that I didn’t care.

“Got anything lined up?” I asked.

“Medical checkups,” he said. “I should be able to get someone looking scared of a needle or something.”

“It would be nice if we could get something that hasn’t been in the paper every spring for the last decade,” I said.

“Find something better, let me know,” Spencer shrugged. “I’m just a hired shooter, not an
artiste
.”

“Yeah. Fine,” I said. I got myself another coffee to wash down the couple of grams of vitamin C I hoped would nuke my cold, and sat in one of the armchairs in the corner of the room.

Lucy was sprawled in the matching chair, one sandal dangling from a foot keeping time to the music on her Walkman, a vacant expression on her face.

Lucy, by the way, is the holder of a legitimate spring-training press pass as a “reporter” for some two-bit fanzine distributed up and down the Sun Coast. She first showed up about three or four seasons ago. Her journalistic standards and techniques are not exactly the same as mine. The players like her style better, for some strange reason. I guess she’s the kind of woman they can understand.

I picked up the St. Petersburg paper to catch up on all the swap meets and bingo games. I’d barely got into it when Hugh Marsh, the Titans’ public relations director, came out of his office.

“Warner is ready to meet with the press,” he said.

“What is this,” asked Sanderson, “a royal command? What if I’m not ready to meet with him?”

“When the Supreme Commander beckons, we obey,” said Keith Jarvis, finishing his donut and grabbing his notebook. The rest of us followed him out the door, grumbling. Lucy freshened her lipstick and fluffed her hair.

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