Better Than Perfect(7)

By: Kristina Mathews

“I try to be one of the good guys.” Johnny shrugged. It’s all he’d ever wanted to be. He wanted his name to be associated with honor, integrity and respect.

“Russ Crawford, from the front office, had Cooper lined up for this charity event.” His manager placed a sturdy hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “We don’t want a guy suspended for drugs representing us to the community.”

“No. We don’t.” Johnny never understood what would drive a guy to take such a risk. Or why there were still guys who felt they could get away with it. He balled his fists, thinking about how much harder the rest of them had to work at proving they were clean.

“We need someone to take his place. I thought you’d be perfect.” He gave Johnny a friendly pat on the back.

“I was perfect once in my life.” Twenty-seven batters had faced him. Every one of them had walked back to the dugout shaking their heads. None of them had reached first base. No hits, no walks, no errors.

“You and only about twenty-three other guys.” Javier gave him a smile of admiration. Of respect. Not only for Johnny, but for all the players who’d come before him. “But you’re not just perfect on the field.”

That was his reputation. No wild parties, drugs or women. When he went out with his teammates, he stuck with one beer. Just to be one of the guys. Then he would return quietly to his room. Alone. He politely refused advances and room keys from his female fans.

“What kind of charity thing are we looking at?” Let’s get to the point. What really mattered. As long as it wasn’t a speaking engagement. He could pitch in front of a sold-out stadium. Or an empty one where the few fans in attendance tried to make up for the lack of numbers with an abundance of noise. But talking to a room full of people? No thanks. He’d much rather run the bleachers, drag the field, or even cut the grass by hand, one blade at a time.

“It’s a minicamp for youth players,” Javier explained. “They come to the ballpark after school and we take them through a few drills, demo mechanics and basically share your knowledge of the game.”

“That sounds like something I could do.” Johnny was just beginning to think about what he might do after his career was over. Coaching was something to consider; it would keep him in the game. But he wasn’t sure if he’d be any good at it. He didn’t know if he could explain things in a way others would understand. He could show them, though. He could demonstrate what worked for him.

“So you’ll do the pitching clinic.” It wasn’t a question. The new guy on the team had to prove himself, no matter his reputation, and picking up a teammate was a good way to do just that.

Johnny nodded. Why not? Anything to keep his mind off Alice and Mel. And their kid.

“Tell me about the kids.” Johnny didn’t have a lot of experience with kids. Like, none. Even when he’d been a kid, he didn’t really know how to relate to them. He was the quiet boy in school and in the dugout. “How old are they?”

“I think anywhere from about nine to twelve or thirteen.”

“Old enough to tie their own shoes, then.” In other words, about Zach’s age.

“Yet still young enough that they don’t think they know everything,” Javier added with a slight smile. “About baseball, at least.”

“So these kids should be coachable.” When he’d been that age, he’d soaked up every tip and tidbit of information about the game. He’d been eager to learn and apply the knowledge to his rapidly growing skills.

Could he be the kind of mentor he’d had back then? Could he pass down his knowledge of the game to the next generation? He hoped so.

“They’re good kids. Some of them may have caught a bad break. Single parent homes, families fallen on hard times. Some of these boys might be homeless or in foster care.” Javier was starting to make Johnny a little nervous. He’d been one of those kids. He’d known hard times. Lived with a single mother who’d worked too much. Without a father or a man to look up to.

Until his coach had stepped up.

“I guess you’ve got your man.” Johnny hoped he could be the kind of man these kids needed. “Just give me the time and place.”

“I knew I could count on you. The camp starts Monday. Here’s your contact at the Harrison Foundation.” The manager handed him a slick business card. Johnny’s heart seized as he read the name.

Alice Harrison, Director

“She’s a great gal. Professional. Knowledgeable.” Javier seemed not to notice all the air had been sucked out of the room. “You’ll love her.”