St. Louis

Above the stadium, a small plane made slow circles. From his place on the field, Jake Lincoln could hear its single engine droning along, sputtering occasionally. While he waited to take his cuts, he strained his eyes, trying in vain to make out the text on the long banner that flapped in the wind behind the plane. He vaguely recognized the shape of a phone number toward the tail end, but the rest of the advertisement escaped him. The plane reminded him of the dusters his grandfather had hired to spray their crops when he was a kid. He’d begged him to let him go up – to see the farm like a bird just once. On the mound, Jenkins let loose a sharp whistle to get his attention; Ramos was finished.

Lincoln stepped onto the AstroTurf mat, digging into the protected batter’s box out of habit. He made big circles with the bat, loosening his lead shoulder, before squaring up and giving Jenkins a small nod. The big righty piped him a couple meatballs to establish location. Lincoln let them smack the back of the cage before settling in and hacking away at everything near the zone for the next quarter hour. Twice he parked the ball in the right-center bleachers, much to the delight of the handful of kids that had shown up early to collect souvenirs and snag a few autographs.

He’d always liked St. Louis. It was one of those rare places that was still a baseball town. By this point in the summer, most cities were already gearing up for football season – making the trek to training camps to watch their teams run around in helmets and gym shorts. But in St. Louis, you could still spot a good amount of people keeping a scorebook and cheering for a smart hit-and-run. Jenkins held up the final two balls for Lincoln to see. The first he roped down the third base line, then rang the last off the center field wall on one hop. He left the cage and headed inside to change out of his warm-ups; he felt good.

The clubhouse was loud when he sat down in front of his locker to tape up. Pedro Gutierrez, the rookie out of San Juan, was balancing a bat on his chin while the rest of the outfielders counted backwards from two hundred. A couple of them gripped handfuls of cash, trying to rattle him into letting the bat fall. It was the type of gambling that was only found in two places – first place locker rooms and dead last locker rooms. At last count, the Reds sat a full seventeen games out of contention. He let them have their fun.

Lincoln began unspooling layer after layer of tape around his knee. It’d been holding up as well as could be expected, but he knew another surgery was in the cards. It’d been two years since he caught the inside of second base awkwardly and heard the telltale “pop” of a ligament going to hell. He built the tape on top of itself, adding another quarter inch of bulk to the north and south of the damaged joint. When the roll was finished, he stretched a tall sock over it and gave it a test flex, flinching as the tape ripped out a few leg hairs. Behind him, Gutierrez’s bat crashed to the ground with thirty-four seconds to go.

First pitch was at 1:05 pm – a ball in the dirt to Masterson. From the top of the dugout steps, Lincoln watched as the Card’s lefty, Diaz, threw three more just like them. The kid had the strength but his control had been dogshit all summer; he doubted he’d get much to hit in the three spot. Masterson jogged down to first, and Holt lumbered up to the plate. Lincoln took his spot in the on-deck circle and slid a weight on his bat. Holt took a mean swing at the first pitch and sent it ringing into the stands along third base. He was way out in front of it, Lincoln noted, and could count on something off speed. Like clockwork, the lefty threw him a piece of junk and Holt nearly swung himself out of his spikes before the ball crossed the plate. 0-and-2. The speedy second basemen – Lincoln’s partner in the middle infield – was not one to wait. He dropped the weight from his bat and took a few fast swings, anticipating a quick strikeout to bring him up with one out. Instead, Diaz failed to get on top of a follow-up curve ball and drilled Holt in the small of his back. In a hail of obscenity, he made his way to first, bumping Masterson into scoring position and bringing up the veteran shortstop with no outs. The Cardinal fans were already letting the pitcher have it.

Lincoln dug in; without the AstroTurf, his cleats gouged deep into the clay, rooting him in the comfort of a strong berth. Again, he made large loops with his lead arm and eyed the struggling hurler – the kid was sweating heavily. Lincoln eased back in his stance as the first pitch came in low across the outside half of the plate.

“Steeeee-rike,” bellowed the umpire.

Lincoln bristled at the blown call, but said nothing as he stepped out of the box for a breath before repeating his routine. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Holt taking a generous lead at first. Masterson was leaning on his right leg, daring a throw to second. The lefty wound up and delivered a gift in Lincoln’s wheelhouse. He sprung on it, driving his wrists through the zone, but only nicking the bottom half of the ball. It struck the net behind the home plate harmlessly and fell to the clay at the foot of the wall. His bad knee twinged at the effort, but he was more upset at the wasted swing. Stepping out once again, he unlatched each batting glove and cinched down the Velcro, cussing himself for missing the pitch.

Up two strikes on the veteran, Diaz got cocky and threw a junk slider low and away, followed by a fast ball off the plate. Lincoln watched both without flinching. He’d been in the league long enough to recognize bait when he saw it. Finally, with the count even, he knew he’d get his chance. He evened his breath, and shot the runners a quick glance – they were in motion before the ball was released.

He connected well in front of the plate, sending the ball reeling into the corner of left field. Masterson would score easily from second, and Holt was hot on his heels. Lincoln bolted from the box, and knew without looking he’d be waved to second. He made a wide turn, building energy and catching the inside of the bag midstride. Holt rounded the corner at third and was barreling toward home – the throw from left close behind him. Knowing there would be no throw to second, Lincoln pulled up into a jog, not risking the slide. He rounded the bag slightly, in time to see Holt and Masterson exchanging high fives on their way back to the dugout.

He looked again to the sky – the plane was still circling. He thought maybe it was advertising a body shop. Under the tape, his knee began to growl with a dull pain.

 

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