Sunday, November 11, 2012

It's Only A Game (Part 1) by BJ Neblett

It’s Only A Game (Part 1)
by BJ Neblett
© 2010, 2012

            “It’s only a game!”
            Roger Martin slumped back into his Lazyboy. The Miller High Life in his hand sloshed white foam onto the tired chocolate Naugahyde. He didn’t notice. His team just blew a five run lead in the eighth inning. Roger’s free hand moved to the remote control, his index finger hovering over the button.
            He couldn’t do it. Maybe, just maybe…
            “Roger… Roger!”
            The thin high-def TV went dark, plunging the gaudily decorated den into an eerie red twilight. Roger blinked as the overhead track lighting came to life. He squinted down at the remote, then back to the blank TV and then up at his wife. “What are you doing? The game’s not over yet!”
            “It is for them… and for you!” Helen Martin adjusted a gold studded earring, glancing around the room with a dismissing flash of her pretty eyes.
            What was once considered the family room was now Roger Martin’s man-cave his fortress of solitude from the outside world. Painted an eye popping red with burning white trim, the room more closely resembled a sports bar. Complete with pennants, banners, logo bar stools, and baseball memorabilia, the Astroturf carpeted den was a testimonial to the local team.
            “As is the season, thank goodness.” Soothing her teal satin cocktail dress that hugged her trim figure, Helen extended her hand. “C’mon. We’re late for the Kelso’s party.”
            Roger slouched deeper into his recliner. Spending an evening with Babbling Babs and Boorish Bobby was bad enough. To make matters worse Bobby Kelso was a rabid Yankees fan. Roger could hear the prattling appliance salesman now: ‘How ‘bout them Yanks, boy! Yes, Sir. They are on their way to another pennant. And then the World Series! What a way to christen a new stadium! How many championships is that now? Well, doesn’t matter… By the way, how’d that team of yours end up… the Bluebirds… Boo Birds… what’s their name?’ And then he’d let loose that inane laugh. It always reminded Roger of the ass he rode down the Grand Canyon as a boy vacationing with his parents.
            Bobby Kelso knew Roger’s team. He knew they were the Red Birds. He knew with today’s loss they would end the season in the cellar… just as they did last year… and the year before. Bobby also knew Roger was the Red Birds biggest fan. He delighted in constantly ribbing Roger about his hapless team.
            “Hello… anybody home?” The pointed toe of a blue pump striking ankle bone pulled Roger from his thoughts.
            “Ouch! What did you do that for?”
            “Because, it’s October, it’s time for you to come back to your needy family. Baseball’s over for the season, at least for the Red Hawks.”
            “The Red Birds…”
            “Whatever… Honestly Roger, from April to October it’s like you’re on another planet. The girls rarely see you. You and I seldom…” Helen’s soft heart shaped face flashed Red Bird red. “…seldom… talk. If you’re not at the game, you’re either in this ‘Bird shrine of yours or at that sports bar watching it on TV. If it wasn’t for Jimmy across the street the lawn would never get mowed; leaves wouldn’t get raked.”
            “How much do we pay him?”
            “Nothing… he’s always hanging around here, fixing things, doing chores. I think he likes Jess.”
            Roger scrunched up his face in thought. “Little Jimmy Walker?”
            “Little Jimmy is fifteen and shaves. I see more of him than I do you.”
            Rubbing his throbbing ankle, Roger dragged his lanky, six foot frame out of the lounger. “You know you sound just like a wife.”
            “That’s because I am a wife… a neglected wife. It wouldn’t be so bad if those Red Bums would win once in a while.” Helen began to pace, skillfully skirting a discarded Red Bird’s sweatshirt, an old catcher’s mitt, and several baseballs. “Then maybe you wouldn’t schlep around the house all summer like a lost puppy. Maybe we’d go out. Heck, at this point I’d settle for a beer and pizza at Scooter’s. At least then I’d get to spend some time with my husband.”
            Roger shrunk in a pouty slouch, his hands finding the bottom of his trouser pockets. “You make it sound a lot worse than it is. The ‘Birds win… sometimes. Besides, you don’t like baseball.” He shot his wife a wishful look. “Do you?”
            Helen threw up her hands. “I’m not talking about baseball, Roger. I’m talking about us… you and me… marriage… the kids. You remember them…”
            Roger’s expression morphed into one of puzzlement. He studied his wife for a moment. “Is that a new hairdo?”
            The question caused Helen to stop and check herself in a mirror. “Oh, Roger, what am I going to do with you?” She brushed back a loose lock of ash blonde hair. “I had my hair cut in August. You drove me to the beauty shop.”
            A silly, lop sided smile stole across Roger’s face. “Oh, yeah… that was the day the Red Birds took two from the Cardinals… a makeup double header. Dyer struck out seven; pitched a three hitter.”
            Helen closed her eyes, shaking her head. The unruly tuss of hair landed across a finely arched eye brow. “I guess I should be grateful you noticed.”
            “I like it,” Roger said, taking his wife in his arms. “I like it shorter, off the shoulder. You look younger, sexier.” He kissed his wife’s forehead, scrumming the errant tress back into place. Winking, he gave her a light swat on the back side. “You’d be surprised at what I notice. Like what those indigo eyes of yours do for that dress!”
            Helen looked at her husband wide eyed. “Well, nice to have you back, even if it’s only until spring training.”

            October crawled by like an American League relief pitcher trying to make it to first base. Each torturous day brought new humiliation and frustrations. The Red Birds fired their manager – the fourth in six years. Then, adding insult to injury, they promptly traded off two of their top players – pitcher Dyer and outfield slugger Crowly.
            The Yankees did indeed win the pennant, and the World Series. Bobby Kelso missed no opportunity to ride his long suffering neighbor. Halloween night, Roger answered the persistent door bell only to find himself face to face with a pint sized Derek Jeter. He was certain Kelso had bribed his own son, Bobby Jr., to perform the prank.

            Thanksgiving weekend, with hungry visiting relatives to feed, the Martin’s dishwasher died. When the new Amana arrived from Kelso’s Discount Appliances, Roger found a stuffed toy Red Birds mascot in the top rack. All he could do was grit his teeth and repeat to himself, ‘Next season… next season…”

            Ten thirty AM Christmas morning… the orgy of ribbon, paper, presents and mom’s special eggnog was over. Sara and Jess were back in their rooms, texting and burning up minutes on their new cell phones. Kat, the family cat, was comfortably installed in her traditional place. The grey and black tiger tabby lay napping beneath the tree, next to the antique hand carved nativity set, which had belonged to Helen’s grandmother. Meanwhile, Helen tended to the holiday turkey, leaving Roger dozing amidst the morning’s ruins, a large Hefty trash bag at his feet.
            Kat stretched and yawned, letting out a low, contented yowl. Roger stirred, wiping his sleepy eyes, and a spat of drool from his chin. A large man with a large round head and pumpkin smile was perched on the sofa across from him, eating raisins. He wore an old fashioned grey flannel uniform and a pug nose. The two men sat mutely staring at each other.
            “Ah… Honey…” Roger finally managed.
            Helen stuck her head into the living room. “What, Dear?” She looked straight at her husband. Roger looked at her, then to the imposing figure on the sofa. The stranger grinned, popping some raisins into his mouth.
            “Nothing… nothing, Honey, never mind.”
            “Oh, ok.” His wife disappeared back into the kitchen.
            The uniformed man continued to munch on raisins and smile. “Pretty,” he said between mouthfuls. “Reminds me of the misses. I’ll bet she’s crazy about baseball, too.” He motioned towards the kitchen. “Just like my wife.”
            “Helen? Yeah… sure… do, do I know you?”
            The arresting smile grew, the warm narrow eyes disappearing into slits. “Forty game winner; pitched one hundred ten shut outs; fastest fast ball in the game… just ask Roy Chapman.”  He sucked in his lower lip, shaking his head. “Damn shame what happened to him… hell of a ball player.”
            Now Roger broke into a sheepish grin. He pointed to his visitor. “The Big Train… Walter… Walter Johnson. You pitched for the Senators… won the World Series in ’24.”
            Johnson nodded proudly. “Four games to three over the Giants. I would have won a lot more, too, if I’d pitched for a better ball club.” His rolling laugh shook the room. Roger glanced towards the kitchen. Helen continued to hum and nurse the turkey, oblivious to the scene in her living room. “We were so bad,” Johnson continued, “we made the Phillies look good! But it wasn’t the team’s fault. They were a good hearted, if not very talented bunch. Just the way baseball was back then.” He dug into his back pocket, then extended an endless arm, the meaty hand cupped open, “Raisin?”
            Roger Martin blinked his eyes and shook his head. “No… thank you.”
            With a shrug, Walter Johnson popped the entire handful into his mouth. His cheek puffed out like a squirrel’s. “Suit yourself.” He glanced upwards. “They don’t let us chew tobacco.”
            “What… what are you doing here?”
            “It’s Christmas. You seemed kinda down. I figured I would come cheer you up. They let us do things like that from time to time, seeing as how we got something in common.”
            “We do?”
            The pumpkin grin grew with laughter. “Sure we do… baseball… love of the game. Your bunch sure reminds me of my guys… the way they fall all over each other sometimes.” His demeanor sullen and he waged a chubby finger at Roger. “You just remember, winning’s fine; loosing is part of life. But it’s the game… that’s why we’re here… not to win or lose… but to enjoy the game.”
            “Oh, yes… well…”
            The jovial expression returned. “You got anything to drink?”
            “Ah… eggnog?” With uncertain hands Roger ladled two glasses from Grandma Martin’s crystal punch bowl. He passed one over.
            “Thanks.” The big man finished the white frothy liquid in one gulp, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Say, that’s good! Ruth ought to taste this. He thinks his mix is the cat’s meow. Too much brandy for my taste.”
            Johnson set the glass on the coffee table and leaned forward. “George Herman Ruth,” he said, downing more raisins. “I know you’ve heard of him.”
            “Oh, yeah, sure… the Babe,” Roger replied, trying to sound nonchalant. Sipping his eggnog, he forced himself to relax back in his chair. Of course, he thought, ‘I’m sitting in my living room on Christmas day drinking eggnog with one of the greatest pitchers that ever lived, a man who just happens to have been dead for over sixty years.’
            A twinkle appeared in the eye of the legendary ballplayer. “That’s thee greatest pitcher,” Johnson shot back, “Clemens, Carlton… very good, Koufax… great… too bad his arm went sour on him so early in his career.” Again, as if to read Roger’s thoughts, he held up a hand. “Don’t even talk to me about Nolan Ryan!” He scooped up a new baseball from under the tree, grinding it lovingly between his massive hands. Two protracted fingers gripped the seams as he made a twisting, throwing motion. “For my money, Gibson is the best… after me of course.”
            “Josh Gibson…”
            Johnson laughed again, fetching more raisins from his hip pocket. “Damn things never run out,” he muttered aloud, considering the wrinkled fruit in his palm. Swallowing the handful, he glared back at Roger. “Hell, no, Josh Gibson was a catcher; and a hitter, the best in the Negro League. He was a great player. But I’m talking about Bob Gibson…St. Louis Cardinals… seventeen strikeouts in game one of the ’68 Series. He had devastating breaking stuff… reminds me of old Cicotti.”
            Roger’s trademark lopsided grin blossomed. He knew this one. “Eddie Cicotti… 1919 Black Sox… one of the eight…”
            Johnson nodded, matching his host grin for grin. “Hey… don’t sell those guys short. They were just a bunch of players who got caught up in some tough circumstances. They made us look like a bunch of bush leaguers just last week.”
            Roger’s jaw dropped. “You mean they are…” he said quietly, looking up with reverence.
            “Cicotti, Risberg, Williams, Jackson… every one of ‘em.” Johnson shook his head, smiling warmly, “Haven’t struck out Shoeless Joe in forty years.”
            Roger’s head reeled – baseball… in heaven!
            “Anyway,” the Hall Of Fame pitcher rose and ambled over to the front door. “I’ve gotta’ go. That goody-goody Christy Mathewson is throwing a Christmas party.” He paused, his big face softening. “Aw… I shouldn’t say that. Mattie’s a good kid, if a bit too straight laced. Besides, Hack Wilson always has a full flask handy. And if things get too boring we can start pushing old Ty Cobb’s buttons. He’s always good for a laugh.” The engaging smile returned. “You hang in there. Its guys like you that make baseball great… the loyal, diehard fans.  Win or lose, your team has a lot of heart. And that’s what this game is really about. Trust me… I know.”
            He started out the door.
            “It was only thirty six games,” Roger called out. “You won thirty six, not forty… in 1913.”
            Johnson turned and tossed the baseball. Roger spilled his eggnog and missed. The ball rolled under the sofa. “Hey, it could be worse,” Johnson quipped, “you could be a National’s fan… Of course, then again…” With a wink and a laugh the famous pitcher was gone.

To Roger’s relief the eggnog didn’t stain the chair or the carpet. The dry cleaners could deal with his trousers. Shaking open the extra large, extra strength trash bag, Roger shook his head. “What a crazy dream, huh, Kat?” he said to the purring feline, “too much of Helen’s eggnog…”
As he set about cleaning up the morning’s ruins, something caught his eye. “Well, what do we have here?”
In a forgotten corner beneath the slightly drooping tree, partially hidden under torn wrappings and a green reindeer sweater – a present from Helen’s mother – sat an oblong box. It was neatly wrapped in shiny red paper, and trimmed with narrow white ribbon. The effect reminded Roger of the Red Bird’s home uniforms.
“Hey, honey…”
“What’s this?” Roger bent closer to examine the find.
“What did you say?”
“This package… who…where…”
Helen appeared in the doorway. “What? I can’t hear you. The new dishwasher is acting up again… making that banging sound.”
“This…” Roger pointed to the package.
Wiping her hands on a festive red and green apron, Helen moved to her husband’s side. “I don’t know. What does the tag say?”
Roger lifted the mysterious gift from its resting place. A small green tag held a single elegantly handwritten word, “Roger.”
“Well, that’s just silly. It has to say more… who it is from.”
He carefully checked the prettily wrapped box. “Nope, just the one word, Roger, that’s all.”
“Aunt Themis.”
“Your crazy, great aunt Themis, up in Salem,” Helen answered. “She does things like this all the time. Remember two Christmases ago? None of the presents she sent the girls were tagged. Sara and Jess fought like mad over whose gift was whose. It’s from her.”
Roger held the problematic package to his ear, shaking it gently. “I don’t know. It feels pretty heavy, solid.”
Helen headed back to the kitchen. “Probably a fruitcake, one somebody sent to her last year.”
Planting himself on the sofa, Roger placed the gift on the coffee table. He eyeballed it curiously. It didn’t make any sense. Themis rarely sent him or Helen presents, just the girls. And even if she had, why didn’t she sign the tag?
His name was fancifully scribed with a calligrapher’s hand. It looked gothic.

“If you’re not going to open it dad, I will.” Fourteen year old Jessica Martin sat of the living room floor eagerly eyeing the perplexing package on the coffee table.
“Go on then… I guess…” her father replied from his chair.
The teen wasted no time. In seconds the shredded remains of red wrapping paper lay strewn about the floor. “Wow! Cool!”
“What is it, Honey?”
Jess proudly held up the prize. “It’s a game, dad, a video game.” She read the bold script on the box cover: “’Shimet’s Professional Fantasy Baseball’, puts you in the dugout.” Opening the oversized box, Jess surveyed the wealth of electronics, keypads, cords, cables and connectors.
Roger frowned, “Looks complicated.”
“Can we hook it up, dad, try it out?”
“Ok, but not in here. Your mom would kill us both if we cluttered up her living room. Take it downstairs.”                                                            
The next day Roger wandered into the den. He found Jess and their neighbor Jimmy posed in front of the sixty inch flat screen TV. Both wore odd looking wrist bands, and laughed and exchanged excited comments as they eagerly acted out. To one side, Jimmy wound and twisted his body in a pitching motion, while to his left Jess stood ready with an imaginary bat. On the TV two teams were locked in a two-all tie in the sixth inning.
Roger had to blink his eyes to be sure he was watching a video game. The graphics were crisp, sharp and unbelievably realistic. The characters moved fluidly across the green field. The pitched ball curved and dropped, spun and bobbed as if thrown by Carl Hubble. Even the lifelike spectators waved and cheered as the batter swung and missed. Roger recognized the stadium. It was PNB Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
But what struck him the most was how the players on the screen mirrored the movements of his daughter and neighbor. As he watched transfixed, a perfect image of Pete Hammels, under Jimmy’s control, struck out Pujols to end the inning.
“Got ya,” the teen shouted triumphantly.
Jess turned. “This is so cool, dad!” She picked up an official MLB score sheet, notating the strike out with a red K. Meanwhile, the players on screen began to warm up for the next inning while the announcer made an impassioned pitch for a local brewery.
“You are the boss, see…” Jimmy chimed in. “First you build your team… you are in charge… you make all the decisions.”
“Yeah, then you become the controller! You pitch, field, throw, run, even swing the bat just like you naturally would,” Jess added. “Your players can try for extra bases and even steal.” She held up an arm and pointed to the screen. “These bracelets along with the sensor mounted under the TV pick up your movements and transmit them to the game console. And you can play alone against the computer, too.”
Roger’s mouth remained open. He was still trying to get his mind around the fact that this was indeed a game: computer generated men and images. Avatars and Sprites was the term he’d heard computer people use. Roger looked at video games before. Even the best and most expensive were slow and stilted, with jerky motions and often unpredictable movements. This was light years beyond anything he’d seen available in toy stores or video retailers.
“Looks complicated,” he muttered.
Jess laughed. “No not at all, dad. They even included a control pad and joy stick for old schooler’s like you. You can chill in your lounger and play if you want.”
Roger was pulled from his trance by a sudden announcement from the TV’s speakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, the familiar voice called, “please bear with us during this unfortunate delay.” On screen, players milled about. One kicked the dirt around home plate and spat tobacco. Another scratched himself indignantly.
“Oh…” Jess turned her attention back to the screen. “They don’t like it when you make them wait.” With that she pushed a green button on her left wristband and the bottom of the sixth inning began.
For the rest of the day Roger sat in his recliner completely captivated by the animated action on his TV. The realistic game went into extra innings. Finally, the Phillies emerged victorious on an eleventh inning home run by Ryan Howard. The second half of the double header went to the Cardinals, three to two.
“You sure you don’t want to give it a try, dad?”
Roger rose from the Lazyboy and stretched. “No. You kids have fun.” He looked at his watch and then to the expensive flat screen. The lights had come on at PNB Park. “No. I promised your mother we’d go out to a movie.”
With a sigh, Roger headed upstairs.

“Are you ok?”
Roger barely heard his wife. He looked up from the magazine in his hand. “Huh? Yeah… yeah, I’m alright.”
Helen slipped into bed next to her husband. “You’ve been reading that same page for the last half hour. In fact, you’ve seemed distracted all night. You hardly said a word at dinner. And you never even touched desert.”
Giving up on the magazine, Roger set it on the night stand and switched off the light. “I guess I just wasn’t very hungry.” He kissed his wife’s cheek and rolled over.
Helen Martin woke up three hours later alone.
In the den, a bleary eyed Roger shouted to the TV screen. “No! No, you idiot! You don’t try to steal third on a 3 and 0 count! You guys play worse than the Red Birds!”
Dropping the key pad, Roger sank back into his chair. This was no better than watching the ‘Birds play

“Have you been down here all night, dad?”
“Of course not, Sara, don’t be silly. And what are you doing out of bed? It’s late.”
Sara Martin shook her head and pushed back the heavy drapes. A sharp ray of yellow sun blinded Roger. “It’s after eight, dad! And mom’s looking for you.”
“Oh… Ooh!” Roger jumped out of his seat, stiff bones popping like firecrackers. “Don’t tell her you saw me,” he called and bolted out the back door. A few minutes later he casually sauntered into the kitchen. “Good morning, Darling.”
“Oh, there you are. I thought you’d run away from home or something.”
“No… no… Of course not… I just went to get the paper and decided to take a walk,” Roger said, painting on his best poker face.
Helen turned, sizing up her husband. “Sweetie, it is thirty degrees outside and you’re in your slippers and robe.”
Roger grinned sheepishly. “Well… I…”
“You’ve been in your den playing with your video game.”
Roger frowned.
“Sara told me. She sold you out for an extra pancake.”
“Remind me to cut her allowance.”
Handing him a glass of orange juice, Helen kissed her husband affectionately. “I was wondering when you’d submit to that gadget’s Siren call. You’ve been hovering over Jess and Jimmy, watching them for over a month now.”
Roger dropped into a chair and sipped his juice.
“It’s ok, Honey,” Helen teased. “I don’t mind. At least it keeps you off the streets at night.”

Later that Sunday, Roger was settled into his recliner. He had programmed the game for a Red Birds’ season. The home park graphics perfectly mimicked Red Bird Park, down to the old style faded bleachers in right field and the aging Ballentine Ale sign in center. Following the schedule provided with his season ticket package, Roger set a 162 game schedule that followed the ‘Birds upcoming season.
“Hey, dad, you’re finally gonna try your hand, huh?”
Roger smiled over to his youngest daughter. “Why not… I certainly couldn’t do any worse. I’ve always said the ‘Birds problems lay directly with their poor management.” He scratched his head. “I just don’t like this line up I’m saddled with.”
Jess settled on the floor, next to him. “Why don’t you change them?”
“You can do that?”
Giving him a pitiful look, Jess snatched the key pad from his hands. The screen cleared and changed to a list of players, their positions, stats, and asking cost. “These are the season’s available players and free agents. You’re the manager, dad, you’re in charge. Pick your players carefully, and be mindful of the salary cap. I’d say go for a nice balance of young talent and veteran players.”
Roger eagerly joined his daughter on the floor. “I’d be happy just to get rid of some dead wood and get back Dyer and Crowly.”
Bargaining was tough. Just as in real life, players held out for more money. Some refused to be traded. By evening the Red Birds’ line up was set. With few exceptions it replicated last season’s roster. Most notable was the return of Dyer and Crowly, the two players that had been traded off. It cost the club dearly, including two players to be named later. But Roger was satisfied.
He relaxed back in his chair, a perplexed expression on his stubbly face.
“What’s the matter, dad?”
“This is all well and good,” Roger sighed, eyeing the complicated key pad and joy stick. “But I can’t work that thing like you kids. I’ve tried. I’m not that coordinated. My players act like a bunch of medicated senior citizens. And I’m not up to gyrating around in front of the sensors. I probably wouldn’t last three innings.”
Jess grinned. “You don’t have to. You can play the game on auto. Then all you have to do is map out your strategy; set the day’s line up; position your players each inning; decide on pitches, and make changes as the game progresses. In this way you are the manager. The game does the rest.”
Roger perked up. “And that’s it?”
“That’s it. Just remember, this is a very advanced game. Your players do get tired, make errors, become injured, even fall into slumps and argue with the umps. At times I think it can even read your mind.” She popped up, patting her dad on the shoulder. “You’re all set. You’re the manager. You’re in charge. Remember, it’s a long season.” With that she bounded out the door.
Roger stared at the graphics of Red Birds Park. He became mesmerized by the dancing flags and bright banners; by the trim blue green grass and sharply contrasting rich brown infield with its razor straight base lines; and by the brightly colored inviting seats behind the home dugout. He swore he could smell fresh roasted peanuts and steamed hot dogs.
Helen had to call him to dinner three times.

Next week the conclusion.

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