Better Than Perfect(6)

By: Kristina Mathews

“Hey Mom?” He had an idea.

“Don’t tell me you’re still hungry.” She smiled at him, but she was kind of distracted.

“No.” Not really. But he would be after dinner. They’d probably have a big salad or vegetable stir-fry—something healthy to make up for all the junk food. “I was just thinking. Maybe I’m getting too old to be in the minicamp.”

“You’re not too old.” She folded up her napkin and wrapped up the last of her unfinished hot dog. “There will be plenty of other kids your age.”

“I guess.” He wasn’t as excited about it as he’d been the last few years.

“You don’t have to do the minicamp.” She tried to sound like it didn’t matter to her, but he knew she’d be disappointed if he wasn’t there. “I hope you’re not quitting because I haven’t asked Johnny Scottsdale to join us.”

“That’s not it.” He grabbed the last garlic fry. Except maybe that was part of it. “I just don’t know how much more I can learn from the same guys.”

That kind of made him sound like a jerk. Like he thought he was some great baseball player already. That’s not what he meant. He just didn’t know how to say it without sounding like he was spoiled or something. How many kids got to work with real Major League baseball players every year? Not many. For most of them it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.

“If you don’t want to come, that’s okay. You won’t hurt my feelings.” She said that, but she didn’t like when he didn’t want to do stuff with her. It was hard for him to tell her he’d rather be with his friends. She always worked so hard at finding fun things to do together. Maybe it was because he didn’t have his dad around anymore and she felt like she had to make it up to him. Or maybe it was because she didn’t have his dad around and she was lonely.

“I’ll come,” Zach said. But he didn’t really want to.

* * * *

Johnny plopped down in front of his locker to change out of his jersey and into his street clothes. He was wiped out, but not in a good way like after a game. His muscles were sore from tension, not exertion. He was still reeling after his encounter with Alice. For years he’d pretended they were both dead to him. Come to find out, Mel had died. And even though they hadn’t spoken in years, it still came as a big blow. The man had once been Johnny’s best friend. Almost a brother. And now he was gone. Was it an accident? A long and painful battle with disease? Whatever the cause, Alice was left to raise their son alone.

Alice was a mother. Not a big surprise. She’d always loved kids. She was going to be a teacher. Until she’d married Mel and didn’t have to work. Mel was rich. Came from money and probably couldn’t help but make even more money once he graduated and went to work for his father, helping make other rich people richer.

It bothered him more than he wanted to admit. Her having a kid. Not that Johnny had ever really wanted to be a father. But maybe a part of him would have wanted to be the one to give her that gift.

He was wrestling with that thought when his manager, Juan Javier, approached him.

“Just the man I need to see.” Javier had been a catcher during his playing days. A pretty good one too, until his knees gave out. But he was still in good shape. Still had a commanding presence.

“Sure, what do you need?” Johnny didn’t know the man well enough to determine whether he should address him by his first name, last name or just call him “Skip.” His reputation around the league was that of a player’s manager. Well respected and well liked, with a thorough knowledge of the game and an uncanny ability to get the most out of his players. Johnny looked forward to working with him.

“I need a hero.” Javier parked himself next to Johnny. “Got word this morning that Nathan Cooper didn’t pass a drug test. He’s out fifty games, unless he appeals.”

Did that mean Johnny would be moved to the bullpen? Cooper was a relief pitcher, a left-handed specialist. Johnny was a right-handed starter. At least he had been his entire career.

“Don’t worry, you’re still a starter.” Javier clapped him on the back. “This is a PR nightmare. At least it didn’t leak out this morning. That would have put a dark cloud on the Fan Fest.”

“So what can I do?”

“Your reputation is spotless. It’s one of the reasons the team was so interested in signing you.” They didn’t call him The Monk for nothing. His composure on the mound was only part of the story. “We had a few years where...well, you catch the news. The fans are sick of this stuff. Sick of the cheaters. We need someone like you. Someone the kids can look up to.”