Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Only A Game (Part 2) by BJ Neblett

It’s Only A Game (Part 2)
by BJ Neblett
© 2010, 2012

Throughout the remainder of the winter Roger managed his fantasy Red Birds. Mindful of his youngest daughter’s chidings, he followed the ‘Birds regular season schedule, rotating his line up and even taking a few days off. Still, just as Jess warned, unexpected things happened. Roger found it comical to watch a digitized player argue calls or limp off the field with a pulled hamstring.
The season got off to a slow start. The computer game ‘Birds seemed little better than their real life counter parts. Then, three weeks into the season the team made a startling come back. Down six runs, the ‘Birds beat the Mets nine to seven. The following day Dyer pitched a four hit shutout. As Roger became more familiar with the game controls, and more confident as a manager, the team went on to win six straight, taking three from San Francisco and a weekend set from the Dodgers.
The ‘Birds were making a strong turn around.
Roger couldn’t be happier, sneaking off to the den at every opportunity. Helen didn’t share his enthusiasm.
“I thought that game was a good idea, now I’m not so sure.” Roger’s wife heaped an extra large spoonful of green beans onto his dinner plate. “You certainly seem happier… but how about sharing some of your joy… and time… with the rest of your family? Honestly,” she continued, returning the pot to the stove. “It might as well be the middle of the summer.”
Staring at the mushy green mound on his plate, Roger frowned. “I figured you’d be happy. The Red Birds are winning. We’re in second place.”
With a sigh, Helen rolled her eyes. “It’s only a game, Roger! Not even a real game… its fantasy!” She kissed the top of her husband’s head, and then took her place at the table. “But… as long as you are happy…” she smiled coyly and winked, “…then I’m happy, too.”

Spring training brought a shock to the baseball community. The local papers screamed the headline news: Dyer and Crowly to return! Under pressure from fans, new manager Wojciechowski had somehow convinced the Red Birds’ front office to buy back the popular pitcher and fielder’s contracts. The move cost the club dearly. But with the return of the two veteran players, and the addition of some promising rookies, things were looking up. Sports writers across the country eased their constant condemnation of the team. Some bookies went as far as to offer even money the jinxed ‘Birds would finish the season out of the cellar.
By the first day of spring, the real Red Birds had won a half dozen tough exhibition games, even taking one from the Yankees. Roger didn’t pass up the rare opportunity to flaunt the sweet victory in the face of Bobby Kelso, even if it was only spring training. Meanwhile, Roger’s fantasy ‘Birds were past the All Star break with a very respectable fifty-one and forty-five record.
Opening day, Roger and Helen sat behind the Red Birds’ dugout, sipping cold beer and rooting for the home team. In the third inning Kessler was thrown out trying to steal second. Roger felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. When pitcher Blake opened the sixth by hitting San Diego’s Gonzalez, the strange tickling grew into an eerie uncomfortable sensation.
The ride home was a quiet one. Finally, Helen broke the pall of silence. “Sorry we didn’t win, Honey.”
Roger’s eyes remained fixed on the road ahead.
She patted his knee. “I did have a good time today…”
“Huh… what…?” Roger’s blank expression morphed into a crooked grin. “Oh… yeah… me, too… I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.”
“Sorry the ‘Birds lost,” she repeated.
The grin grew to a satisfied smile. “Yeah… but you know what? I was proud of those guys today. They played well… despite losing… they played a good game.”
By seven PM all that remained of dinner were empty glasses and gnawed pizza bones. Roger paid the check, leaving behind a generous tip for the friendly waitress with the inviting smile and bulging Red Birds T shirt. Exiting Scooters the game as well as the feeling of déjà vu were soon forgotten.

Roger continued to manage his fantasy team. The avatar ‘Birds were doing well, winning games and holding firmly onto second place. The real world ‘Birds continued to improve also. No longer the butt of jokes the team was slowly earning a reputation. One columnist went as far as to tag the team the turnaround of the century, antagonistically adding that in his opinion the turnaround would continue… into a full three-sixty.
Roger Martin didn’t care. His team was playing better than ever. And, his computerized players provided him with plenty of armchair excitement.

One Saturday afternoon, a few weeks after the real All Star break, Roger stiffened in his Lazyboy, the fingers of his left hand digging into the faux leather. “Put Cox in, you idiot!” he screamed to the flat screen. “Can’t you see Murphy’s arm has had it? Cox will get you out of this mess!”
Before Roger could relax in his seat, the Red Birds pitching coach strolled to the mound. Taking the ball from Murphy with a pat to the southpaw’s shoulder, he made a quick signal. From right field a red and white baseball shaped golf cart appeared. It bore pitcher Danny Cox to the mound. Nine warm-ups and seven regulation pitches later the relief hurler had retired Hardy, leaving the bases loaded and putting an end to the Brewers’ rally.
That night Roger couldn’t sleep. Try as he may, every time he closed his eyes he re-witnessed the diamond drama played out earlier in Milwaukee: the struggling Murphy; the misplayed double play; the slow, deliberate walk to the mound; and Cox’s masterful handling of the Brewers short stop to end the inning.
Giving up on sleep, Roger Martin found himself in his den, staring at the darkened TV screen. From the corner of his eye something caught his attention. It was his score book. Flipping through the well used, dog eared pages, Roger found what he sought.
The feeling in the pit of his stomach made him wish he hadn’t.
There it was, in the hastily scribbled red ink language of baseball. Gwynn had started the Brewers eight by striking out. An easy bouncer to short had gotten Weeks.
There were two outs.
Then the bottom fell out.
The struggling Murphy served up a smash line drive. Ideal positioning and a bull’s eye throw by Komati, the ‘Birds’ left fielder, held the speeding Cameron to a single. Next up, Kendal hit a shot to second. A bobbled ball and a costly error and Milwaukee had runners on first and second; and then Murphy walked Heether to load the bases.
Manager Roger Martin had seen enough. He’d punched the red button on the controller, pausing play and sending the pitching coach Balcom to the mound.
He made the right decision.
Relief pitcher Danny Cox struck out Hardy to end the inning. A big red K marked the end of the inning. Cox and Roger’s fantasy ‘Birds had held on to beat the Brewers three to two.
Roger glanced down at the day’s sports page which lay open on the floor. The headlines confirmed the coincidence: Red Birds take Milwaukee 3-2 on brilliant pitching from reliever Cox.
An oddly familiar feeling came over Roger as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Instinctively he reached to smooth them. “This is crazy,” he said to no one, “damndest coincidence I’ve ever seen!”
But was it a coincidence?
Recalling the Red Birds’ opening day, Roger flipped back to page one. His fingers skidded across the score sheet like a blind man’s reading Brail. When his fingers stopped so did Roger’s heart. In the third inning of the fantasy ‘Birds’ opening day, rookie right fielder Kessler had misread Roger’s signals and was thrown out stealing second. Just like the real game.
Swear began to bead on Roger Martin’s forehead. He forced himself to focus further down the page. Pitcher Bobby Blake’s first pitch of the sixth inning had caught San Diego batter Gonzalez square on the shoulder. The incident had nearly cleared both benches.
Just like in the real game.

The incredible circumstances surrounding the coincidences dogged Roger throughout the week. Sitting at his desk at work, Roger found he could concentrate on nothing else. He also found he couldn’t bring himself to watch the ‘Birds play, surprising his wife by showing up at the dinner table on time.
But even eating Helen’s delicious creamy homemade Mac and Cheese became a chore, as Roger’s mind continued to return to the two games.
Saturday morning, Roger was back in his den. “Here ya go, dad,” Jess said, handing her father a stack of papers. “You know you really should learn to use the computer. There’s a whole other world out there beyond spreadsheets and solitaire; it’s called the Internet.” She giggled. “Anyway, there’s what you asked me for, lucky for you the Daltons next door never throw anything out, enjoy.” With that Roger’s young daughter skipped out of the room.
With unsure hands, Roger began to shuffle through the pile of newspapers, scanning the box scores, stopping occasionally to circle a play or call. Finally he reached for his score book.
“This is crazy…”
An hour and a half later Roger changed his tune.
“I must be crazy…”
Comparing the Red Birds’ season box scores in the papers Jess had provided to his own score book, Roger found more than just a coincidence… more than several coincidences.
The random plays Roger selected from the box scores mirrored game for game those in the fantasy ‘Birds score book. The more Roger compared the two, the more unbelievable it all became. Finally Roger realized that his own Red Birds games actually predicted the real Red Birds outings. Already deep into the season, the real Red Birds games exactly replicated the outcome of each game played by his fantasy Red Birds… game for game, score for score… play for play… hit for hit.
Sweat beaded Roger’s forehead and his hands shook. Dropping the revealing material on the floor, he darted out the back door.
It was another week before Roger Martin returned to his den.

“Ok, now…” Roger sat uncomfortably in the worn lounger. With his open score book in one hand and the remote in the other, Roger nervously pressed a button.
“Welcome to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.” The announcer’s voice boomed from the Dolby surround sound speakers as the sixty inch flat screen came to life. “It’s a beautiful August Sunday here in the City by the Bay, perfect weather for baseball. Today the Giants face the re-born Red Birds. As fans know, the ‘Birds have won ten of their last fourteen on the road, and seem virtually unbeatable at home. Our Giants have their work cut out for themselves today, as a Red Bird win combined with a Philadelphia loss will put the red hot Red Birds firmly in first place.”
Glancing at his score book, Roger let slip an ironic laugh. “Work cut out for them…” he repeated, laughing again. It was Saturday afternoon, August 18. The date inscribed on the open score book was August 18. Roger’s fantasy Red Birds had soundly trounced the struggling Giants 10 to 2, six weeks earlier.
Checking his lineup, the first batter should be Wang. “Play ball!” the televised ump barked. Wang, the Red Birds lead off power hitter strode slowly, confidently to the plate, pausing to knock some dirt from his cleats with the end of his bat. Roger felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to itch.
“Lead-off double…”
The words no sooner out of Roger’s mouth, Wang ripped the third pitch served to him between center and left for a double.
Roger’s neck hairs began to tickle.
“Strike out…”
Richards tried in vain to check his swing. “Strike three… out!” the home plate ump called, wildly waving his arm in a chopping motion.
Roger’s neck hairs broke into a jitterbug.
“Double play…”
The Giants’ second baseman Scutaro leaped into the air pulling in a sharp line drive, then turned and tagged a stunned Wang. It was an unassisted double play… exactly as the fantasy player Scutaro had executed it weeks earlier. Roger’s score book slipped from his hands as his mouth dropped open.
Some three hours later, Giant’s catcher Posey popped up to shallow right field to end the game. The final score: Red Birds 10, Giants 2. Roger had given his family strict orders not to disturb him during the game. Keeping meticulous track of the game on a blank score sheet, he now compared it to his fantasy Red Birds August 18th game.
The two were identical.
Not close…
… not similar…
… identical.
One could have been a photo copy of the other.
“This is nuts…” were the only words finding their way past the stunned fan’s lips as he repeated himself. “This is nuts…”
Crazy, delusional, supernatural, or whatever, the proof rested in the documents at Roger’s feet. Every game the Red Birds had played so far this season was a real life replay of Roger’s fantasy season. Roger could just as well have been watching a taped rerun of the games.

It took some time but eventually Roger accepted the idea that his video game could predict the outcome of his favorite baseball team’s games. And the short lay off he’d taken from playing the seemingly enchanted game had proven what Roger already knew: he was a better manager than the ‘Birds real skipper. For two weeks Roger refused to touch the game console; for two weeks the Red Birds fell into a slump. It was time for action; the Red Birds needed his help.
As September ended Roger’s teams, both real and virtual, were firmly seated in first place. Their record had garnered them a first round bye and assured the team of home field advantage. A week before the playoffs, Roger set about his work in earnest, easily handling the Philadelphia Phillies, and then sweeping the surprised Cardinals for the National League Pennant. By the time the real Red Birds had taken their second game from St. Louis, Roger had his World Series tickets firmly in hand.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart? You’ve been moping around here ever since we returned home. You were even quiet at the game. Are you feeling ok?”
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. He looked up at his wife. “Nothing, Helen, nothing… I’m ok…”
“Well, I can tell something is bothering you. When you are ready to talk about it I’m here.” With a yawn and a smile, Helen Martin placed a kiss to the top of her husband’s head and started up the stairs. “I’m off to bed… don’t stay up too late.”
It was a chilly Thursday evening, a week before Halloween. From their seats behind the home team dugout, Roger, Helen and the girls had watched the Red Birds take the first two games of the World Series from the New York Yankees. Murphy’s masterful handling of Jeter and Rodriguez had shut out the American League champs in game one; and tonight a booming three run homer into the right field bleachers by catcher Pena in the sixth inning had secured a 6 – 1 win for the Red Birds.
Roger glanced down at the score book in his right hand. The sixth inning homer by Pena was circled in red. A notation at the top of the page read: Red Birds/Yankees World Series Game Two Red Birds Park. The fantasy World Series game had been played a week earlier. With a sigh, he flipped the page: Red Birds/Yankees World Series Game Three Yankee Stadium. The page held partial, tentative starting lineups for the opposing teams but was otherwise blank. The real third match-up between the Birds and The Yankees was scheduled for the day after tomorrow in New York.
Roger felt the game controller slip from his left hand.
“Boy, what a series! Lots of action, some great plays, not too one sided…”
Roger Martin turned with a start. Kat stretched and yawned, letting out a low, contented yowl. On the sofa next to her, a large man with a large round head and pumpkin smile popped a handful of raisins into his mouth.
“… just enough intrigue to keep it exciting, but still a win for the home team. But, then again, you already knew that, didn’t you?”
“Oh… it’s… you…”
Walter Johnson pulled more raisins from his hip pocket. “Thought I’d pop in and see how you were doing now that you’ve got yourself a winning team. There’s nothing like a winning season to lift a man’s sprits!”
Roger did his best to smile. “Yeah, yeah, sure…”
 “So, what’s it to be? Who will be starting game three, Blake? He’s well rested since the NLCS. Or maybe you should go with Jimenez and save Blake for game four, the final nail in the Yankees coffin.”
Roger looked at the score book again, and then let it drop to the carpet. “I… I don’t know…”
Downing more raisins, a knowing grin crossed the Hall of Fame pitcher’s face. “Not having much fun are you?”
“I don’t understand… I mean… I thought this was what I wanted. The ‘Birds have had a great season; we’re in the Series… hell, we’re winning the Series… from the Yankees!”
“You should be proud! You’ve turned the team around. It’s you… your managing of the team… you’re why they are winning. You said it yourself; you’re a better manager than Wojiechowski. You’ve proven that.”
Roger leaned back into his recliner, closing his eyes; gently rubbing his weary forehead. “Then why isn’t it fun anymore?”
“You’re a smart guy, Roger, you’ll figure it out.”
When Roger finally opened his eyes Walter Johnson was gone. “Wow, another crazy dream, huh Kat?” Scooping up the score book, he rose from the Lazyboy and stretched. “Guess I’ll finish Saturday’s line up in bed,” he said to the purring feline, “I’m beat.”
In the living room, Roger paused to poke at the embers in the fireplace. Bluish-yellow flames leapt to life on the few remaining logs, sending their warmth across the room. Returning the poker to its resting place, something caught his eye. On hands and knees, Roger retrieved a dusty baseball from behind the living room sofa.
Standing, he read the hand written signature: Walter Johnson.
For the first time in weeks, Roger Martin smiled.
Tossing the score book into the growing fire, Roger placed the autographed memento onto the fireplace mantle and headed to bed.

                                                                                                            Seattle, WA
                                                                                                            October, 2012

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