The Future of Baseball

Another in a series honoring Spring, and with it, the opening of baseball season. This is a work of fiction by Howard Lachtman.                                                 

 

I       

“And I think you know my wife?” Kevin Marston asked in a tone whose hint of suspicion went unnoticed by the less worldly Buddy Bauer.
 
“Doesn’t everyone?” Buddy responded with what he thought was respectful praise for the stylish woman making her way toward the two men across the crowded room of celebrants. 
 
Kevin saw it differently. Eve Marston had kept an eye out for Buddy, as if she was waiting for him, and her expression of delight at his arrival was more than social pleasantry, Kevin decided. Given that, and the enchanted look on the face of the young man beside him, he drew a logical inference. After all, he reasoned, faces reveal far more than words ever can.  
 
It was true Buddy couldn’t help staring, but then everyone at the party was staring at Eve. Exquisitely groomed and gowned, she was a showpiece, adorned with the glow of a rare emerald necklace from India. She also wore an odd medallion bearing the image of a rampant boar that Kevin insisted was a Marston heirloom, dating from the time of King Richard and heraldic proof of noble descent. Eve wore it not out of any regard for him or respect to his claim, but as an item that enabled her to poke fun at Kevin’s pretensions. 
 
Not that anyone in the room paid much attention to Kevin. Eve was the star of the show. Even her earrings were show-stoppers—cut in the shape of baseball diamonds with actual diamonds marking the bases and home plate. That’s what caught Buddy’s admiring eye. Having seen the iconic baseball exec on TV and magazine covers and heard her hailed as “the fearless fashionista and prima donna of the ballpark,” it was only natural for Buddy to say “Doesn’t everyone?” Eve, after all, was a public figure. But judging by what happened next, it was the wrong compliment. Buddy could run, hit, and play major league catcher as if born to play the role, but there were things about life off the field of play that he had yet to learn.
 
“Well, don’t worry about everyone else, kid,” Kevin answered his question. “If you haven’t had the pleasure of her company, allow me to introduce you—and don’t say I didn’t warn you!” 
 
So saying, he grasped the hand of Eve Marston, gave her a graceful ballroom twirl and another to increase velocity. He then released her with a snap that sent her spiraling into Buddy. The rookie was not prepared for that, but he reacted as adroitly and defensively to this brazen delivery as he might a pitcher who ignored his signal and thrown whatever he pleased.
 
“The two of you can now get acquainted,” Kevin said with bemused satisfaction at the newly formed couple, “and each of you can start worrying about just what it is you’ve caught!”  
 
The crowd fell silent. Were they witnessing the marital blowup of a celebrity couple? Were the “Marvelous Marstons” unraveling before their eyes?  Or were they simply having a spot of fun with their guests? Was it a floor show comedy, complete with a twist of tango?
 
Buddy made the catch and held the woman to steady her—and perhaps to shield her from her impulsive husband. The next move was up to Kevin. What would the next moment bring?
 
Lou Briscoe winced at the sight. As team public relations director and press liaison, he’d been appointed Buddy’s personal guide and mentor to life in the majors. He did his best to counsel the youth in matters pertaining to adoring fans and clamoring media. The Marstons were less easily explained. They played by their own rules, sometimes partnering for mutual profit and other times competing in a no-holds-barred contest of executive power and privilege. Caught in that turbulent cross-current of personalities, there was little Lou could do to shield Buddy from volatile Kevin and opulent Eve, except to warn the newcomer that the two club owners often behaved as if the rules of social and professional conduct did not apply to them.  
 
Buddy wondered why Kevin had flung his wife to him like a careless fast ball. He was also mystified by Eve’s composure. Any other woman would have screamed. Eve seemed amused.
 
“Nice catch, kid!” she purred, patting Buddy‘s cheek with gratitude for her rescue. Perhaps she knew what was coming, Anticipating changes and trends was part of her reputation as a woman of financial and commercial foresight. It was she who first saw Buddy as a key to the team’s turnaround. Impressed by his remarkable talent, innate modesty and youthful charm, she declared him “a one-in-a-million catch,” sensing that the gifted player was the nucleus to repurposing a team that had lost faith in itself and the loyalty of disgruntled fans.
 

II

The pandemic catastrophe that butchered the 2020 baseball season and plagued the 2021 season with uncertainties about the lingering menace of the coronavirus and its variants had now been eased and mitigated sufficiently by a combination of plentiful vaccines and powerful booster shots that granted more than token immunity. But a new problem had arisen for professional baseball. How to bring the big crowd back to the game? 
 
Lou and Eve had worked closely to seek a solution to the problem. Their plan was to offer ticket price bargains, holiday festivities and new car giveaways, expanded menus with health foods as well as gourmet garlic fries, treats and gifts for Little Leaguers, smart new uniforms to smarten up their otherwise undistinguished team, and a bit of showbiz before and after nine innings of play. None of it worked as well as they’d hoped. And then the answer arrived with a kid from Stockton.
 
Buddy Bauer was exactly what the crowd was waiting for—an unpretentious baseball prodigy with a hot bat, a smart glove, a rocket throwing arm and a quick brain for the game. The more he grew into his new role, the more fans warmed to him. Youths idolized him. Men envied him. Women sent him cakes and casseroles, motherly advice and club invitations, sisterly concerns and brazen solicitations. The ladies also formed fan groups and cheering sections, wearing caps and tees that identified them as “Buddy’s Buddies” and “Buddy’s Babes.” Their voices rose in high-decibel delight whenever Buddy approached the plate and cried out in anguish whenever Buddy met an occupational hazard such as a foul tip, a 95-mile fastball that fooled his glove, or a free-swinging batter whose full-circle rip knocked the catcher instead of the ball. 
 
The fans were coming back now in a big way. Given the growing interest and affection Buddy inspired, Eve decided that “the new face of baseball” was the future of the team. Both she and her sometimes adversarial husband planned to change the game on their home turf and create an example for the rest of pro ball. But Eve’s plans for Buddy went farther than that.   
 
Buddy was called up from the minors on short notice due to a rash of injuries to catchers. He’d been enjoying a dream season in Class A ball, hitting .377 for the Mudville Majestics, drawing approving crowds and curious scouts to the riverside ballpark of a Delta town best-known for its billion-dollar agricultural industry, its billion-dollar inland port, and two All-American City Awards that conveniently ignored persistent civic problems such as unemployment, hunger, homelessness and homicides.  
 
Questioned about the discrepancy, the mayor insisted the best of Stockton had won the admiration of the judges and that the awards were authentic and legitimate.
 
“Nobody’s ignoring problems,” his honor asserted. “We simply recognize that all cities have their faults and that cities are like those who live in them: nobody’s perfect.” 
 
He ended the press conference by hinting about using native son Buddy Bauer as a poster boy for a third go at All-American honors. “He could easily be elected when I leave office,” his honor predicted.  “In fact, I could easily be persuaded to be Buddy’s campaign manager!”    
 
Some skeptics doubted that Buddy could live up to his inflated reputation. They were certain “the wonder kid from nowhere” was not ready for prime time. “A vacation in single A” was not a valid ticket to the majors. Even if he lasted, his luck wouldn’t hold long enough for him to avoid suffering one or more of the injuries plaguing the team’s corps of catchers.  
 
Buddy proved the skeptics wrong. He invigorated the team with a combination of kid-like enthusiasm and professional prowess, generating a sense of excitement that sparked his teammates and rescued them from another dismal season. In doing so, he brought business back to the ballpark. Not bad for a kid who had yet to reach his twenty-first birthday. 
 
It was true that Buddy had been rushed into the lineup with little time for him to learn how to adjust to play in the big leagues. The wonder was that he arrived so fully equipped—hitting impressively, blocking the plate against all comers, winning the confidence of even skeptical pitchers and gunning down base stealers who assumed they could pull a fast one on a rookie.
 
But this was not your average rook. With a .286 batting average at mid-season and a cluster of extra base blasts to match his defensive skills, Buddy earned the cheers of fans, the praise of sportswriters and the eyes of Eve Marston. She began a campaign to see him nominated for Rookie of the Year. “The Kid” was an outside choice until game experts declared him “the hottest new player in baseball”. Invited to the mid-season All Star game, he singled, doubled and threw out the fastest runner in the game—Hector Emiliano “Speedy” Gonzalez. Some kid.   
 
Here, then, was a new hero, a modest young catcher who could do it all without losing the common touch. At the moment, however, Buddy was wondering if he was out of his league with the Marstons, a couple hailed as “The two best brains in baseball,” “Anything-goes innovators,” and “hip transformationalists plotting a new future for America’s pastime.” 
 

III

Buddy now recalled what Lou Briscoe had told him in the elevator as the two rode forty floors up, rising high above a brilliantly illuminated skyline to the lavish Marston penthouse.
 
“You’re about to enter a new world, Buddy. You have to learn how to conduct yourself with the Marstons. It won’t be easy, given who they are—and what they are.” 
  
“What are they, Lou?”
 
“Opportunists. You can understand them if you try to understand what they want from you.”
 
“And that is?” 
 
“Well, Kevin wants a player who can light a fire on the playing field, make headlines, bring the folks back and inspire the club so it can move up in the standings. And up. And—up.”
 
“You wouldn’t happen to be talking pennant, would you?”
 
“How did you guess? Of course, that’s not going to happen unless Kevin and Eve make a bunch of improvements. I think they have more than a few in mind. As you may have noticed.”
 
Buddy had noticed. From his position behind the plate, he had made a mental shortlist of everything wrong with the team.
 
“We need two starters, a reliable reliever, a third baseman who can field, a second baseman who can hit and an outfielder who can outrun the long fly without fear of smacking the fence or other outfielders who don’t always remember to call for it. I think those guys are setting the major league record for most collisions in the outfield.”
 
“And what about you and Mrs. Marston? I presume she’s been talking to you about all that and more?”  
 
“One smart cookie. I think she has something in mind for me, but I can’t figure it. What do I need to know?”
 
“Well, to put it in a nutshell, she’d like to turn you into a commercial commodity—the kind who makes currency leap out of cash registers every time he passes by.”
 
“Like a stickup man?”
 
“I mean she sees you as a ready-to-go advertising icon.”
 
 “Advertising acorn?”
 
“Icon. Guess what that is.”
 
“Advertising? Sure, I get it. But what does Kevin think about that?”
 
“Given his mountain of debt investing in things she told him not to invest in, he’s not in a position to say no. She’s already swung a few sweet deals. There’s an auto line that would like to put you behind the wheel of a new sporty model. And a breakfast cereal line that wants to use baseball to sell bran flakes. And a razor company that wants you in front of a mirror with a full face of cream and a yen for a luxurious shave.” 
 
“I didn’t come up here for that. I came up here to play ball. What if I say no?”
 
“You can’t and you won’t. There’s too much at stake. For you and everyone else.”
 
“Maybe I should have stayed in Stockton.”
 
“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The best part is the toy company. She’s wrangled a deal for something young kids will love. It will help perk their interest in the great American pastime.”
 
“The kids want to play ball?”
 
“Not at their age. They want to hug something soft and cuddly in a baseball uniform.”
 
“Don’t tell me!”
 
“You’re going to charm the small fry. They’re working on a Buddy Bear with your name and number on his back. And then, for older kids, a brand new video game featuring—can you guess who?”
 
“I should have stayed in Stockton,” Buddy concluded, shaking his head. “I thought all I had to do up here was play ball. It’s all I wanted to do.”
 
“That’s for starters. Now you have to play ball with the Marstons. Help them expand their business empire and investments. Get the picture? That’s the way it is with the big money.”
 
“Fine for them. But where does all that investment baloney leave me?”
 
“Very well off. In the blue chips. You can even run for president. Leave it to your agent while you charm the Marstons. You won’t always know what’s going on or just where it’s going, but  you can retire at 30 and buy whatever you please if you play your cards right.”
 
“Play them how?”
 
“Keep on playing like you belong here, keep in Kevin’s good graces and don’t tell him his wife happens to be an IQ and a half smarter than he is, which happens to be the case. She’s on third by the time Kevin reaches first. She can read his mind. She knows all his shenanigans. No one is going to outsmart her or take her by surprise.” 
 

IV

Lou was nothing short of prophetic, Buddy thought as he caught the whirling Mrs. Marston  in full spin and earned her smile of gratitude. It was like playing a pitcher’s mistake, but Buddy made the play, noting as he did Eve Marston’s close-cut hair, subtle perfume, smartly angular gown, glowing necklace, coolly appraising green eyes and those sporty diamond earrings that had to be one of a kind. Not to mention the purring note of praise in “Nice catch, kid!” 
                                                                                                                        
It was a rapid impression, but Buddy wondered if he’d caught more in that moment than most men might see or sense in a woman. After all, the business of a major league catcher is to note all the details and nuances of a game he directs like a field general while locked in a squat. The duties of a catcher teach the man in the mask to be watchful and wary, and never take the game for granted. As in baseball, so in life. He was still learning, but he was a fast learner.
 
The tension of the moment dissolved as Kevin Marston stepped forward with arms spread wide as if to bestow congratulations. But it wasn’t Buddy that Kevin wished to congratulate.  
 
“You’ve just become the envy of every woman in the room, dear!” Kevin announced. “You’ve been caught by the most talented kid in baseball—destined for fame and fortune and a teddy bear contract. Lou, I will trust you to keep Buddy on the straight and narrow. Thank you, Buddy, you did splendidly. You may release the lady now and give her your autograph…..”
 
Laughter and applause erupted from some of the guests who encircled the scene. Others looked askance at Kevin’s unpredictable action and his unbridled personality. Some stared admiringly at the decorous Eve. And some stared appreciatively at Buddy, whose play on the field–and the attentive publicity of television and the press—was making him a star, though a far less flamboyant or fashionable one than his employers. His sport jacket needed cleaning and pressing, his scuffed shoes needed polishing, and his nest-like hair needed a buzz. But his future was apparently as golden as his employers predicted.
 
“Whatever stunt Kevin pulls, just go with the flow,” Lou counseled him on the ride up. “Like the old proverb says—‘When the king jests, take care to laugh.’ Don’t displease his majesty.”
 
“And if I do?”
 
“He’ll send you somewhere south.”
 
“Richmond or Shreveport?”
 
“Mexican League. Dominican League. Or the Amazon…..”
 
“Oh, come on, Lou! You know they don’t have ballparks in the jungle.”   
 
“Kevin’s got farm teams where players go to die. Bottom line: he wants a pennant. He thinks you can help him get it. He thinks I can help you. That’s why you and I are here. We either get the king what he wants or we look for another line of work.” 
 
“No wonder I miss the minors,” Buddy mused. 
 
“Why? You had it so good there?”
 
“Life was a whole lot simpler down there. I had buddies—the kind that cared about me. A guy with a sailboat, a friend on the local rag who wrote decent stories about me, a nice girl whose home cooking beat taco takeouts.  I did some fishing out in the Delta with my friends and hit a little club out on the islands where we had a wild time—”
 
“Well, you’re not in Stockton anymore. Like the wicked witch told little Dorothy.” 
 
“Dorothy? Was she from Stockton? Wasn’t it like Kansas or Nebraska?”
 
“A farm town is a farm town,” Lou shrugged.
 
“And where does the witch come into it? Wasn’t the kid talking to her dog?”
 
“Did the dog agree with her?”
 
“He didn’t disagree.”
 
“Well, you know what they say about people who talk to dogs.”        
 
“Suppose you tell me what I’m supposed to say if Kevin starts talking to me?”
 
“You don’t have to say a word. Just nod your head—or wag your tail.”
 

V

Buddy tried to remember all of Lou’s well-meant advice as he stared at the woman in his arms. She didn’t seem eager to be released. 
 
“Welcome to our heavenly hideout,” Eve said. “Elevated living at its finest. We’re over the rainbow up here. Cocktail and sushi bars now open. Can you be a darling and get me both?” 
 
Buddy obediently went to the bars, looking about the top-of-the-world penthouse with its all-glass views of the incandescent city and its wall-lined cases of baseball photos, trophies, uniforms and mementoes. Who else but “The Marvelous Marstons” would choose to live in a multimillion-dollar museum in the sky?
 
“It’s a little too high for my taste, but there’s always a price to pay if you want to reach the heights,” Kevin informed Buddy later that evening. “Eve has redecorated so often that I can’t even find a pencil. She insists on her own ideas about everything and we don’t always agree. Well, a chacun son gout, as the French say.”
 
Buddy did not know French. He supposed the phrase translated as “One fine mess.”
                                                                                                                        
“We really only agree on one thing—building the best team in baseball,” Eve added. 
 
“How do you plan to do that?” Buddy asked.  
 
“We’re taking this club to the top with all the resources we command. I‘m lining up the advertisers and broadcasters, doing what other women only dream of doing, and excelling at what I do. Even Kevin says so—and he hates to give me compliments because I get twenty to his one. I return the compliment by trying to guide him in advertising, outreach and influential media, blessed as I am with my talent for mixing high fashion and high tech.”
 
“She’s what you call a designing woman,” Kevin explained.
 
“I even tell him my secrets,” Eve said, helping herself to a glass on the tray of a passing server. “A husband is the best person in the world for a woman to tell her secrets to. They never reveal a thing you tell them because they seldom listen to a word you say.”
 
I’m getting an education all right, Buddy thought. If I was back in Stockton now, Elena would be cooking me up some breaded catfish and Flora would bring me some home-made peach pie. I wouldn’t have to wonder what either gal was talking about. Not like these two birds. No wonder they live up here. They live in a world of their own and make up the rules, like Lou said, to suit themselves.
 
Buddy had caught his share of wayward sliders and stingers, foul tips that jangled his mask and his brain, and breaking balls with minds of their own that broke on the wrong side of the plate, but he would have to learn how to play a new kind of game in the world of the Marstons.
 
“So how are you enjoying life at the top?” Eve asked. “You came up from where was it?  Stockton? Never heard of it. Near Los Angeles? Is it on the map? Farm town? A place where chickens, cows and piggies are leading citizens?”
 
“He’s living his dream of wearing a major league uniform,” Lou assured her, ending the  geography quiz. 
 
“He couldn’t have come at a better time,” Eve said. “Not after you lose all your catchers. Talk about luck! But we heard about this fine young man and we got our luck back, didn’t we, Lou?”    
 

VI

Buddy remembered his first day when he came up to the show and was taken aside by manager Red Washburn who unloaded his grievances about disabled and underperforming catchers. 
   
“One’s back went out, one can’t throw out a lame duck, and the other can’t hit a buck ninety-eight,” Red said, with a summation of profanity and a spat of sunflower seeds. “It’s your turn , kid. Let’s see what you can do. Make the most of the opportunity and you might stick around.”
 
Buddy stuck, but not because Red was desperate. He showed an alert intelligence, a sense of tact handling tricky pitchers and stubborn umpires, made squeeze play thieves pay dearly for any attempt at home, left little doubt who was in charge of the field and routinely sent outfielders back-pedaling to the warning track or the wall. One memorable hit soared high and far beyond the upper deck, striking the carefree girl of summer depicted on a lofty Pepsi ad whose slogan read: “Hit this sign and win a year’s supply.” His irreverent teammates asked “Of what?” They poked fun at Buddy saying he could only get lucky with Miss Pepsi if she was knocked out by a fastball.  Lou countered by arranging for Miss Pepsi to come to a game, throw out the first pitch (it fell at her feet) and reward Buddy with a kiss that silenced the hecklers.    
 
“And don’t let your teammates tease you with that ‘tools of ignorance’ stuff,” Lou urged. “They’re just envious. The catcher is the brains of the outfit, the director of the show, the professor of team defense and the master of pitcher psychology. That’s how dumb you are!”   
 
Even more than embracing the Pepsi Maiden, Buddy earned his teammates’ respect with all-out hustle such as one that decided a contest in the bottom of the ninth. With two out, two on and the game on the line, the batter hit a high pop fly that Buddy chased to the third base boxes and refused to let the barrier stand between him and the final out. Over he went at full speed, headlong into seats where some fans scattered and others obligingly broke his fall before he broke his neck. 
 
Seeing the ball in Buddy’s glove, the ump raised his arm. The crowd cheered a miracle catch. And when Buddy quickly presented the ball to a child in fan uniform who marveled at the gift, the crowd went wild. Sportswriters crowned him as a heaven-sent gift to revive the game.
 
“The team gained a never-say-die spirit from you,” Kevin praised the rook. “We’ve been on a roll ever since. You’re taking the team into contention. I like that. The fans like that. The ad boys are upping their final offers and Eve keeps telling them to make better ones.”
 
“They say it’s their final offer, and I say think twice—and think of what you’ll be losing. They think about it and they raise their offer. And off we go again. I love negotiations!”   
 
“And wait until you hear what we’re planning for next year,” Kevin boasted. “We’re hiring a meditation guru and other specialists to help players achieve peak performance— not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Eve’s idea, of course. Tell the boy why we are doing that, Eve.” 
                                                                                                                        
“It’s called winning. Players who achieve wholeness within themselves play superior baseball. We’re going to put that concept into play. I believe the results will speak for themselves. And we’re going to have fun, too. Tell him how we’re putting the fun back into baseball, Kevin.”
 
“We’re buying robots from Japan to brighten up the entertainment picture and make every game a happy occasion. My idea.”
 
“Robots?” Buddy asked.
 
“The fans will adore them once the idea catches on. We’ll paint them with team colors and give them cutesy names like Tony Spumoni, Chickie Cacciatore and Frankie Furter. They’ll play exhibitions in the pre-season and pre-game warmups before regular games.”
 
“I wouldn’t bet on a robot to lay down a bunt, steal a base or slide home,” Buddy said doubtfully.
 
“It won’t be long before you’ll see them everywhere,” Kevin predicted. “The experts say humanoid robots will soon be a common sight in our life —robots as waiters, child teachers, companions for the elderly, retail assistants, restaurant servers, you name it. Might as well start putting some of them to work for us and see how they strike the fans. My idea, as I said.”
 
“We’re also thinking of signing the first female major leaguer in baseball history,” Eve said. “My idea! Can you Imagine the reaction? Women will come out in droves to cheer her on. Our boys will play like champions to impress her. Of course she’ll need her own locker room…..”
 
Buddy asked why specialists were needed when the team already had trainers and therapists. Eve said it was “more scientific and systematic.”
 
“We’ll tap into players’ heads, clear up any problems they may have and step up the mental game. Ask them philosophical questions like, ‘When does the last pitch end and the next begin?’ Now let me ask you one, Buddy. Do you know the most important area in baseball?”
 
“The sweet part of the bat,” Buddy answered unhesitatingly.
 
“Tell him, Kevin.” 
 
“The seventh-inning stretch. With a seventh-inning snack. I believe in honoring that  tradition with all kinds of food options, including some you never heard of, but you can’t beat the original. A hot dog at the ball park beats a filet mignon at the RItz.”       
 
Eve made a face and urged both men to guess again. They did. Wrong again.
      
“Think, boys, think! It’s what’s between a player’s ears. The idea is to out-think and out-play your opponent. Maximize not just physical, but untapped mental abilities. Sports psychology is the name of the new game. Deep breathing, focusing and refocusing, evaluating, staying in control of the moment—that sort of thing. Players will be much more open, receptive to talk about the mental side of the game, their emotions, their thoughts, how they prepare, how they compete. Of course, it would be useless on robots….”   
 
“Unless they have artificial intelligence,” Kevin corrected her.
 

VII

What he heard from the Marstons led Buddy to lie awake at night, pondering the future of baseball and his place in it. A future with the Marstons and their “specialists” probing his brain and tapping his emotions; meditation “gurus” asking where the pitch truly begins and truly ends; the first female in the major leagues powdering her nose in the dugout; and robots playing exhibition and pre-game contests. 
 
Was it only a question of time before highly engineered robots began to replace humans on the field of play? Would the game be changed in ways even the Marstons could not foresee?
 
One thing was clear. The Marstons were intent on altering baseball to maximize performance and profit. Buddy would be an integral part of their plan. But Buddy continued to worry and wonder. How much could the Marstons really know of what lay ahead for baseball? Was theirs a theory of probability or a Disney fantasy? 
  
Buddy evaluated his new role as a servant of the Marston organization. Though a great deal of money could be made if he ignored his misgivings, he began worrying about losing what he cared about most. Game after game, he put himself down in the squat, plotted the next pitch, surveyed the position of fielders through the portcullis of his mask, and let his right hand slip from its casual position on his thigh to give the signal for which his pitcher was waiting.
 
As soon as he put his fingers down and knuckled his mitt, the pitcher would begin his motion, the batter would stop his bat-waving and lock into position, the fans would lean forward expectantly and the game would begin again. 
 
That moment of holding the game–and time itself–in his hand was worth more to Buddy than a battalion of advertisers or a steak at the Ritz. Above all, he did not wish to lose what the game could teach him. He felt he could, in time, master the game and by so doing, learn what he needed to know about himself. 
 
But the Marstons? Suppose he was in a position of contention between the two, one against the other and each determined to have his or her way? What would happen to him then?
 

VIII

And so the season passed, spring, summer and fall, until the team found itself in the heat of a pennant battle, where no one expected them to be. Kevin urged them on with promises of fat contracts. When it ended without a miracle finish, Eve invited Lou Briscoe and Buddy to come up to the penthouse, toast the season gone by and put things in perspective for the season to come.
 
This time, Buddy discarded his wrinkled sports jacket for an immaculate tuxedo. The glass elevator rose again to the 40th floor. In that leisurely conveyance, the riders’ view widened and enlarged as it rose above the brilliantly illuminated city. Buddy felt once again as if it was taking him into another world, but this time, he had the sense that he had at least some preparation for it, some mastery of the fundamentals of the game as it was played off the field. 
 
“I guess you know Kevin wants you as our new poster boy,’’ Lou summed up his master’s wishes. “I guess Eve convinced him.”
 
“About what?” Buddy asked.
 
“Oh, any number of worthy causes.  Charity, clean living, commercial endorsements and adoring fans, advance ticket sales and sellouts. How does that sound?” 
 
“What’s in it for me?” Buddy asked. 
 
The question stopped Lou short. He’s learning too damn fast now, Lou thought. 
 
“A major league salary. Long term contract. Job security. A profitable percentage of commercial endorsements. I’ll let your agent work out the details.” 
 
“He’s not working for me anymore.”
 
“Come again? You hired somebody else?”
 
“Not exactly. Eve Marston is doing all that for me. She says one hand washes the other. What I’m doing for the club, she said, deserves equal reward.”
 
After a long road trip that ended a long season, Buddy wanted nothing more than a hot tub and soft bed. But he’d begun to see that his value to the club lay beyond hitting and fielding, befriending Little Leaguers, charming the customers and calming pitchers. He had passed the test. He was a member of the family now. He had become exactly what the Marstons had hoped: a valuable commodity.      
                                                                                                                                 
“It’s a lot easier on the field,” he told Lou. “There are rules of conduct. A code of fair play. Reviews for disputed calls. We tip our cap to good sportsmanship. But Eve taught me that when it comes to business—-”
 
“Every man for himself,” Lou sighed, as security checked the guest list and waved them through.
 
“And every woman,” Buddy added. Lou knew exactly who had taught him that.  
 

IX

Once again, the doors opened on the lavishly decorated penthouse, the baseball exhibits, the cocktail and sushi bars, and the unparalleled view. The Marstons had it all and more, and they didn’t mind showing it off. But the more he’d come to know them and the more he listened to their plans and the more their rivalry became plain to him, the more the mystery of the duo lingered in his mind.                                                                                                    
 
“If you don’t mind me asking, how long do you think the two of them will last?” he asked Lou on the way up. Lou shrugged, but he was wondering if the time had come for him to tell Buddy the truth.
 
“This may surprise you, Buddy, but whatever happens, including divorce, they’ve planned for it. They’ve mapped out everything each will receive before the divorce. That way, it’s already divided between them.  The prenup covers everything down to the last dime. If they decide to split, both will be sitting pretty. No need to call in lawyers, thanks to what Kevin calls ‘a little advanced estate planning’. He should know. He’s been there more than once.”
 
“Because he’s a lawyer?” Buddy asked.
 
“Because he had three wives before Eve. He gets a new one every few years, about the time he feels the need for a new Mercedes. The old Mercedes–and the wife—seem to lose their appeal at about the same time. It’s what big money can do to you. You think you can buy the ideal life if you keep trying. But the truth is money can’t buy it.”
 
As the two men entered, they saw Mr. Marston at one end, surrounded by the usual toadies and sycophants. His entourage hung on his every word and laughed at his every attempt at humor.
 
“A billionaire’s jokes are always hilarious, aren’t they?” Buddy asked.
 
“What did I tell you? The monarch jests and the courtiers feel obliged to laugh.” 
 
Encircled by her own coterie of admirers, Eve held court at the other end until she spied the two newcomers and hastened to join them.
                                                                                                                         
Kevin arrived next with what appeared to be a facial touchup and a questionable hairpiece on his dome. His mask of congeniality could fool newcomers, but the flaws of his personality and the ambitions of his wife were now so obvious to Buddy there was little more Lou could teach him.   
 
“How’s our golden boy doing tonight?” Kevin asked his publicity chief.
 
“The number one fan favorite and the darling of the press. Just as you wanted, sir.”  
 
“Lou has been taking good care of you?” Kevin asked Buddy.
 
“Of me—and of you,” Buddy answered, putting in a good word for the go-between.  
 
“And I understand Eve has been preparing your career in advertising. Well, you two have had a season to get acquainted. No doubt you’ve found she has all the wiles and guiles of her Biblical ancestress.”
 
“Her what?” Buddy asked, puzzled by the allusion.
 
“You know the old Biblical tale? No need for a serpent in this garden. The modern Eve can cast a spell all by herself.”
 
Eve made a face and thanked her husband for finding her spellbinding. 
 
“Kevin fancies himself a student of the Bible, but the truth is he was dismissed from Sunday School for being a little devil. As for me, I’m an absolute dope when it comes to the infield fly rule and the reason why we have to speed up a game that doesn’t mind taking its time. It’s what we need more than ever today when everyone’s moving much too fast and suffering high anxiety, stress and burnout. Baseball is good medicine for that. And there are better ways to smarten up the game than speeding it up, don’t you think, Buddy?” 
 
“I’d be interested to hear what our catcher says to that,” Kevin said. ”I hope Eve hasn’t been doing too much of your thinking for you?” 
 
“The speedup is designed for impatient fans, but most folks tell me they don’t like changing the rules. I think you have to move the contest along without losing the elements that made the game what it is.” 
 
“Amen, brother!” Eve toasted Buddy, casting a withering glance at the Sunday School reject.
     
“Our young friend here won the last game of the season with a walk-off f homer,” Lou summed up. “He always came through when the game was on the line. He’s made a name for himself by making a habit of being our go-to guy.”
 
“Way to go, Mr. Clutch!” Kevin said, offering Buddy a congratulatory high-five. “Keep up the good work, young fella, and we might have something interesting to offer you, come contract time.”  
 
“He won it with a walkoff?” Eve asked. “Would you mind explaining how you win a game by walking off the field?”  
 
Kevin shook his head. “For a bright girl, you can be awfully obtuse sometimes. Maybe what you need is a tutor. Suppose I ask the All-American boy here to teach you all you don’t know about the game. Then you can teach him all you don’t know about running a corporation.”  
 
“Oh, would you, darling? How thoughtful! What in the world would I do without you?”
 
“You seem to be doing quite well without me,” Kevin said, pausing as if his next statement would invite another tango twirl. Lou Briscoe held his breath. Buddy did not.   
 
“We all are doing great, thanks to you, Mr. Marston,” Buddy said, praising the owner, and then the manager, coaches, trainers, executive chef, nutrition expert, sleep specialist and others whose combined efforts were making players highly motivated and strongly competitive.    
 
Lou wanted to lay a restraining hand on the catcher’s shoulder, but it was too late for that. Buddy was off and flying on the merits of playing in the big leagues for owners who understood the needs of players and provided them with the best opportunity to develop and display their talents. 
 
The kid has learned how to counter Kevin by flattering him, Lou perceived. 
 
Measuring the sincerity of these compliments, Kevin betrayed not a flicker of emotion. His wife remained as smooth and cool as the other side of a pillow. In the theatrical setting of the penthouse, Eve was again in her element. The mask of the sophisticated, ultra-stylish socialite and businesswoman never slipped to reveal the woman behind the mask.
 
“A word with you,” Kevin said, motioning Lou to his nearby office. The two men withdrew. Watching them go, Buddy wondered if he‘d made a mistake in what he said or how he said it.  Had he crossed the line by working too often and too closely with the success-driven Eve?
 
Eve took him in hand to the hors d’oeuvres table and invited him to partake. Then she shared information that told Buddy she knew far more about the game than her husband realized. 
 
“I don’t know if you know that you’re attracting a strong female fan following,” she said. “It’s as much your attitude as your looks. Strength and confidence aren’t just a guy thing, you know. It’s what women want to demonstrate as well.”
 
“Is that why I see you so often at our games, Mrs. Marston?” 
 
“I’m delighted you noticed, Mr. Bauer. Why don’t you start calling me Eve? i don’t know if you know that the two of us can go a long way to taking this team where it belongs.”  
 
Buddy knew, but he didn’t know if there was a way he could be as successful as Eve wanted him to be. She had the strength and confidence she wanted to distance herself from her authoritarian partner and play her own game. How did she get away with it? It made Buddy wonder if Kevin actually respected people who stood up to him and didn’t back down.  
 

X

When Lou came back from his meeting behind closed doors, Eve took her cue. “So very nice to see you again,” she said, extending her hand to Buddy. “My husband and I both hope we shall have the pleasure of seeing more of you in the future—on and off the field.” 
 
“I was just telling Mrs. Marston that a walk-off is a game-winning hit,” Buddy said.
 
“There you are, Eve,” Lou said. “Talk to a player and you’ll learn the game in no time.”
 
“Would you mind signing this for me?” Eve asked, providing Buddy a cocktail napkin and a pen. “I promised one of your lovesick fans I’d get one for her. Poor girl is absolutely smitten.”          
 
“I hope Kevin doesn’t think you were writing your cell phone number,” Lou said after Eve departed. She rejoined her guests with a long backward glance, as if having left something unsaid. Buddy waved and Lou twinkled his fingers. Both men received a warm smile of reciprocation that the all-seeing Kevin did not miss. Lou wondered what, if anything, Kevin read into convivial meetings and convivial farewells. Then he took Buddy’s elbow and steered the star of the show to the elevator.
 
“Hey, friend, what’s the rush?” Buddy complained. “The evening’s young and I’m enjoying myself up here.”
 
“Maybe a little too much,” Lou said.     
                                                                                                                        
That’s the thing about these young guys, he sighed as the elevator doors closed. They don’t think they can lose. They think they can have it all. They think life owes them a living and a perpetual fan following. They haven’t been through the game of life yet.  
  
“He loves me, she loves me, the fans love me, and the sportswriters think I’m God’s gift to the game, so what’s the problem?” Buddy asked. It wasn’t the old Buddy talking now.   
 
When Lou didn’t answer, Buddy shrugged and looked up at the roof of the elevator as if he could see into the penthouse and find the woman who was making him forget Stockton.
 
“No problem,” Lou said. Under his breath he added “for now”.
 
Buddy continued the party with a little victory dance, shutting his eyes and pumping his fists to the elevator’s spritely salsa music by Los Mariachis de Jalisco. 
 
Lou also looked upward, but what he saw—and heard—was Kevin Marston telling him what he had confided when the two men were alone in his private office. There, he laid down the law of his expectations for the post-season, the next season, and the season beyond that.
 
“My idea is to give them everything–absolutely everything they need to play like champions. I’m sparing no expense to make that happen. I’ve hired an army of experts to improve every aspect of their lives. Playing like champs is what I expect. Those who don’t will be dropped or traded. I’ve doing everything I can to get a pennant. Now it’s their turn—and yours. I don’t mind whatever you and Eve have going as long as you keep our boy on his winning streak. You have my permission to do whatever it takes so long as she doesn’t try to take advantage of him–or me.  I’m relying on you to prevent that. Your job depends on that. Do I make myself clear?” 
 

XI

The elevator descent from the penthouse was without any sense of speed or urgency. The two men stood shoulder to shoulder, but the silence and distance between them seemed to grow with each passing floor. Buddy was on his way up, aided and abetted by Eve who was urging him to go higher and higher. And where exactly did that leave Lou Briscoe? 
 
His thoughts were interrupted by the optimistic voice of baseball’s most popular new star. 
 
“Say, Lou, considering how far we came this season, how much money do you think I can squeeze out of Kevin next year? Eve says I have every right to ask for much more than he’ll be offering and Kevin can do nothing to prevent it unless he wants me to sit out the season, and that’s the last thing he would want since he wants to win at any cost, and he can’t do that without me, so she figures he can protest all he likes because he’s powerless to do anything about it except pay me what I deserve. Does that sound about right to you?”
                                                                                                                        
Viewed through the glass of the elevator, the night was brilliant with constellations and the illuminations of glass and steel towers. The pulsating glow of the big town seemed to have a life of its own beyond the power of electricity. But Lou saw none of that. He was struggling how to reckon the costly price of success for both Buddy and himself.
 
In the end, all he could think of to say was, “Well, you’re a big boy now. Remember you represent the game. Accept your independence and use it wisely. Play with passion, have fun and break a rule only when your conscience says you have no other choice.  And have Eve sign you up with Gatorade.” 
 
It was just what Buddy wanted to hear. 
 
And then, mindful of the coming winter and Kevin’s inevitable tantrums, he asked Buddy if he thought Stockton might be a relatively friendly and relatively inexpensive place in which to retire.
 
Before Buddy had a chance to respond, Lou’s phone rang. It was Eve. He assumed the call was intended for Buddy, But Eve had someone else—and something else—in mind. She explained that she’d had a question she wanted to ask Lou, but could not do so owing to the proximity of the crowd, the lack of privacy, and Kevin hovering nearby. Seeing Lou and Buddy depart gave her an opportunity. She adjourned quickly to a private room and made the call, certain she could reach Lou before the leisurely elevator reached the lobby, forty floors below.
 
Lou wondered why Eve felt the need to communicate so soon after he and Buddy had left the party, Eve wasted no time telling him..
 
“As you may know, I’m handling more and more of our financial strategies this season, especially when it comes to creative possibilities for the business,” Eve began with a fact of which Lou was quite well aware.
 
“I wanted to run an idea of mine through you because you’re really the only one whose opinion I trust and whose judgment I respect.”
 
But not as highly as your own, Lou wanted to tell her, sensing that a compliment from Eve was merely an invitation to agree with whatever she had in mind.
 
“We’re putting all our six-and eight-person suites up for sale to accommodate the demand from season ticket holders. The going price at this time is about five or six grand higher than the value of one Bitcoin. That’s what gave me the idea to offer buyers a price reduction on a full season package and sell each suite for one Bitcoin. They get a saving and we get an investment. If the Bitcoin’s value increases, which the experts say is probable, we get our money back and more. The way it looks now, my guess is that we’re going to attract enough prestige-craving high-rollers for a sellout–and gain a long-term payoff from a cryptocurrency deal. Your thoughts?”
 
Lou’s first thought was that Eve had already made up her mind. His second was that she would accept nothing less than praise for what she clearly considered one of the smartest deals of her career. His third was to shudder at her offer to put him in charge of what she called “Operation Bitcoin Bonanza.”
 
“I’ll put a few Bitcoins in your pocket for your efforts in advertising and promotion,” Eve promised, assuming Lou would jump at the chance of a hundred grand bonus.
 
But Lou wasn’t tempted, He made no reply because in his mind and in his heart he was already halfway to California.
 
“Lou? Hello? Hope I didn’t stun you. Are you with me on this? Are you there? Having trouble with your phone? Can you hear me? Oh, hold on, maybe it’s my phone. Is that better? Can you hear me now? Hello? Lou?”
 
The silence that followed made Eve suspect that it wasn’t her fault at all, but that Lou’s smartphone had suffered a malfunction that turned it into a dumbphone,
 
But there was nothing wrong with Lou’s phone. His thinking had gone West and the rest of him would follow. Would he find the good life there? One thing was already clear. Boating, camping and fishing beat a bank vault of Bitcoins.
 
Stockton was a different life and a different lifestyle, but it was also an invitation to try his luck at whatever he pleased—small-scale farming or grape growing, meandering in a small boat up glittering rivers under cloudless Delta skies, and visiting what Buddy remembered from his playing days as “a great little ballpark out on Banner Island.”
 
I’ll put in a good word for you, if you wish, with a friend of mine at the club, Buddy offered, hoping to keep Lou connected to the game and remote from the Marstens.  “I’m pretty sure the Mudville Majestics can use a man of your experience and connections—especially if yours truly recommends him.” Which I will do gladly, and then the rest is up to you. Does the idea of building another winning team appeal to you?”
 
Eve hung up and dialed back in a different tone of voice before the elevator opened its doors.
 
“Call me back immediately!” she demanded, unaware that the developing blueprint of Lou Briscoe’s happiness had put him beyond her reach. “Are you in or are you out?”
 
Related:  “What Baseball Means to Me” by Howard Lachtman
 
###

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