Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A sneak peek at a work in progress

As I mentioned last week, the last time I reached the 50K word mark during November was in 2012 with a work called Dropped Third Strike.  I haven't written a summary yet, but I want to share a bit of it with you, so here are the first few pages. Please keep in mind it's a rough draft!

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Dropped Third Strike

A dropped third strike occurs when the catcher fails to cleanly catch a pitch which is a third strike (either because the batter swings and misses it or because the umpire calls it). On a dropped third strike, the strike is called (and a pitcher gets credited with a strike-out), but the umpire indicates verbally that the ball was not caught, and does not call the batter out. If first base is not occupied at the time, the batter can then attempt to reach first base prior to being tagged or thrown out.   


            
Kate hung up the phone with a sigh and swiveled her chair halfway around to face away from her desk. She sat up straighter, arching her back slightly as she tried to work out the tension that had accumulated during that phone call. Her job put her every move under many microscopes. Currently, however, it was her lack of movement that was drawing ire from all angles.

            She let out a long breath and looked out the floor-to-ceiling window. Her view was magnificent – a perfect blanket of white currently covered what was usually flawlessly manicured grass and crisp reddish dirt. For six months out of the year, this picture also included dozens of fit, agile young men running, hitting and throwing. She smiled, perhaps a bit smugly, but deservedly so. Kate was proud of where she’d gotten, and while the road to being general manager of the Portland Pioneers hadn’t been easy or altogether pleasant, she believed it had been worth it.

            Portland, a three-year-old franchise, was one of the newest additions in Major League Baseball, and Kate was one of the few female general managers in the history of the game. When her hiring was announced, her gender had garnered her plenty of criticism in the press and on message boards. Surely, no woman could handle a man’s sport. There were comments about the trade deadline being too near her menstrual cycle and her inability to accurately assess talent instead of just a nice physique. A few tongue-in-cheek positive comments were peppered in as well. Some speculated that she used her well-toned legs, low-cut blouses and sparkling green eyes to negotiate a contract that saved the owner a million here and there. There was no proof to support that theory. Or debunk it.

            As she surveyed the grounds, she smiled.  So far, she had managed to prove most of the naysayers wrong. She had made more smart deals than bad ones. Sometimes she lamented the few times she’d made a mistake, but she told herself that every GM had a bad trade once in awhile.

            She couldn’t count the number of times her father, a long-time Mets fan, lamented the 1971 trade that sent Nolan Ryan, Don Rose, Frank Estrada and Leroy Stanton to the Angels in exchange for Jim Fregosi. The move did nothing to improve the Mets’ infield, and Ryan went on to become one of the game’s greatest pitchers.

            She also remembered the shock of seeing Atlanta move Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones to Texas in exchange for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. A few years later, the Rangers went to back-to-back World Series with three of the players in that trade, and Atlanta had nothing to show on their side of the deal.

            She took comfort in the fact that her mistakes hadn’t been quite as bad as those, and the team had not suffered too much in the end. In fact, the Pioneers were gradually moving out of newbie status and into the realm of being legitimate contenders. Opponents no longer looked forward to the Portland series as an easy and automatic sweep. Just last season, her boys had played the role of spoiler for two teams making late-season runs at the playoffs. Indeed, the Pioneers were coming along, and it was all because Kate and her colleagues had made the most of a moderate budget and assembled a fine group of athletes.

            Today, none of these athletes were running around on the field below. It was January after all so much of the athletic activity was conducted in the facilities two floors below her offices. Spring training was approaching, so the traffic around the ballpark had become a bit heavier as athletes began to gear up for a new season.

            Opening Day was still a few months away, but Kate still felt it was too close. The club’s hitting coach had resigned just before Thanksgiving, citing family reasons. So far, only about a dozen applications had come in, and none of them felt right. Kate didn’t like the thought of hiring someone who was just “OK,” especially when their club was third in the league for home runs and second in runs scored during the previous season. Offense was their centerpiece and the only thing that saved their mediocre pitching. She needed the perfect candidate, but she was quickly running out of time. The media was on her back, the owner was calling her daily and the manager stopped by whenever he was in town, which was becoming more frequent as Opening Day grew closer. All of them were less than pleased with her answer of, “I haven’t found him yet.” If she didn’t make a hire in the next few weeks, the players might report to camp without someone to tweak their timing and adjust their batting stance. And she might find her employment status hanging by a thread.

            She sighed and turned back to her desk as Bart, the mailroom assistant, strolled in with the day’s correspondence.

            “Looks like there might be a few more candidates for the hitting coach job, Ms. Marks,” Bart said. “There are some big envelopes here. I put them on top for you.”

            Kate smiled at the young man in appreciation. Other GMs might have snapped at the college sophomore for prying, but not Kate. Bart had been a genuine find. His head was full of baseball knowledge, and not just the generic everyday kind. He knew more about VORP, OPS and range than most men ten years his senior. Bart had made no secret about his aspirations to work in Major League Baseball full-time one day, and while the mailroom was hardly a place to utilize Bart’s knowledge, he had taken the part-time job just to be around the sport. Recognizing his value early on, Kate happily worked around Bart’s college schedule to get him the hours he needed. On top of that, she listened to his insight and let him have access to information no other mailroom kid in the league probably had.

            “Let’s hope they’re good ones,” Kate said. “We’re running out of time, Bart.”

            “I know,” Bart said. “And the Mariners just hired Stan Beasley this morning.”

            Kate groaned. Beasley had been on her fallback list. Instead, he’d taken a job with one of their division rivals in the American League West. She couldn’t blame him. They’d offered the job first while she was still waiting for the perfect candidate. Beasley hadn’t been perfect, or even great, but he would have been adequate. She only hoped her hesitation wouldn’t come back to bite them in the standings.

            “Great,” Kate said. “Well, there’s another name I can cross off the list.”

            “Oh well, he probably wouldn’t have been right anyway,” Bart said. “He enjoys small ball a little too much for the Pioneers’ style.”

            Kate smiled again. The kid was once again showing off his knowledge.

            “That was my hang-up too,” she said.

            “Someone better will come along,” Bart said.  “Anyway, I need to get moving. I have stats class in an hour. See you later, Ms. Marks.”

            Kate waved as Bart left her office and continued on his mail route. Mentally crossing her fingers, she opened the first big envelope. She scanned the résumé – a triple-A bench coach and former AA player who specialized in outfield defense. Next, she thought. The second one yielded even less promise. She found no inspiration in the third, fourth or fifth either. An hour of reading and re-reading was gone, and Kate was no closer to finding her coach.

            Her phone intercom buzzed, and her secretary said Mr. Scott was on the line. Kate took a deep breath before answering. She already knew how this call would go.

            “Why is it that the Mariners have a hitting coach now and we don’t?” the team’s owner barked.

            “Beasley wasn’t right for the Pioneers,” Kate said confidently, or at least that was the tone she tried to convey.

            “The Mariners have the worst offense in the division, and I’ll be damned if we swap places with them because you’re waiting for the ‘perfect’ candidate to fall into your lap,” James Scott snapped.

            “I don’t think that’s possible,” Kate said. “Not with Tanner and Davis coming back. Those two don’t need a hitting coach to replicate what they did last year.”

            Kate knew throwing out the names of the Pioneers’ all-star middle infielders would help calm the owner. Justin Tanner and Ian Davis had been two of her earliest signings, and they had quickly become the cornerstone of the franchise. Their bat speed and power was rivaled only by their ability to turn at least two fantastic double plays in every game. She couldn’t count the times their defense had saved a pitcher from being overworked, to say nothing about the number of runs they’d driven in. They were the Pioneers’ version of the Bash Brothers and the most fearsome three-four hitters in the league.

            “I suppose not, but they can’t carry the offense again this year,” Scott said, sounding a bit less edgy. “And Kensington and Walker still need a lot of work.”

            “I know, sir,” Kate said. “I’ve been monitoring their work in Mexico this winter, though. Kensington has become a lot more patient at the plate. Walker has started to drive the ball to the opposite field more often.”

            “That’s promising, but their progress may be for naught if you don’t get someone to keep them going,” Scott said.

            “I know, and I will find that someone,” Kate said. “I plan to narrow things down later this week.

            The owner guffawed on the other end of the line. Kate knew she’d made the same statement a few times since their search began. She had yet to deliver on her word, and she hated that. Kate prided herself on following through.

            “I promise,” she added, using those two words for the first time.

            “You better,” Scott said. “I’m counting on you, Kate. I didn’t hire you to dilly-dally around. Pitchers and catchers report in thirty-five days. We have a mini-camp next week. I expect you to have an announcement before fan fest at the end of the month.”

            Kate glanced at her calendar. That gave her little more than two weeks. Her stomach rolled a bit.

            “I will,” she said, reluctantly.

            Kate hung up and slumped in her chair. She wasn’t defeated yet, but she was definitely feeling the pressure. She supposed she should be thankful she only had one boss now instead of four or more as she had endured in previous jobs. But that didn’t do much to ease the pressure on her. Not when you considered the power her boss had – he could ruin her easily. And not even blink an eye while doing it. He wasn’t the only one leaning on her either. He was the most vocal, but certainly there were others waiting to pounce on every failure.



           

            A week later, Kate had conducted a handful of interviews. The résumés had underwhelmed her, but the looming deadline usurped her hesitation. She brought in the most promising from the stack.

            Two of the candidates had been older and had reputable careers. They had each played minor league ball in their prime and had since managed a few AA teams. They also shared a confidence in their ability to add to the Pioneers’ offense. Kate listened patiently as each explained in detail some of the exercises he would use to improve the hitters’ patience and timing. Their methods sounded good, but Kate was unmoved by their interviews. They were smart enough and certainly experienced, but she wasn’t sold. The other three candidates were younger and completely new to coaching. Their vigor and energy was their main appeal.

            After the last interviewee left, Kate put her face in her hands and let out a long breath. Over the course of her career, she had never sweated this much over a hiring. That was saying something. When she came on board, the franchise was brand new, so she had to start from scratch – hiring a manager and an entire coaching staff, not to mention assembling a 40-man roster and building a farm system. She had made good decisions along the way, with many of the faces staying the same, unless she opted otherwise. Despite all of her success, she knew her job could be in trouble if she did not make a hire before her deadline. On top of that, she had to make up for this delay. The candidate she contracted had to be worth the wait. It had to be someone with a recognizable name and reputation.

            She rubbed her fingertips from her forehead down to her temples and back up over and over, racking her brain for a name. She had worked in independent league baseball and a few minor league offices before landing with the Pioneers, compiling an extensive contact list along the way. She opened up the contact list on her e-mail and perused the names. Surely, there was a hitting coach in there somewhere. Kate hated asking for help. It made her feel vulnerable and out of control, two things she worked hard not to feel. But desperate times called for desperate measures. After several moments of simply reading names, she composed a brief message about her mission and sent it to a few of her most-trusted former colleagues.

            As soon as the e-mail was sent, she closed down her computer and gathered her things, anxious for a bit of an early exit. It was nearly five. Even if someone read her e-mail today, she wasn’t likely to receive a response until the next day. She might as well take advantage of a full evening. With the hitting coach search coming down to the wire, she had been putting in a lot of long days. Those were usually reserved for the trade deadline and post-season meetings, and they always left her feeling weary.

            Regardless, she intended to hit the gym on the way home to work off a bit of her frustration as well as some of the winter weight she’d put on - not that anyone could see it except her.

            There really wasn’t anyone to notice anyway.

            Kate was a bit of a loner – half of that was by design and the other half was a result of her profession. She worked a lot of long hours and traveled frequently from February through September. This didn’t leave a lot of time for much of a social life, let alone a love life. Her field gave her plenty of opportunities to meet available men – some more desirable than others.  Of course, they usually wanted to talk shop all the time, so their dates ended up feeling like an extended workday. Her well-intentioned best friend, Sarah, had introduced her to a few men outside of her professional circle. Unfortunately, the few Kate had actually liked were unprepared for the rigors of her work schedule. They were looking for marriage and family, and those things were not on Kate’s immediate agenda.

            That hadn’t always been the case. Although the baseball business had long been her dream, Kate had once envisioned herself trading wedding rings instead of outfielders. More than once, actually. Kate had given her heart to the same man twice; and twice, he’d returned it to her in pieces.

            After the second break, Kate decided she couldn’t go through that again.  Not with him or anyone else.  It wasn’t worth it. She threw herself completely into her work, and it had paid off. She had an impressive title and an equally impressive salary to go along with it. Her profession had not only allowed her to have nice things, but also the opportunity to meet a lot of different people and see a lot of places. She was completely happy with her life, even if most of the people in her life thought she was lying when she said so.

            All four of her sisters were married, and between them there were nine grandchildren for her parents to dote on. Still, that hadn’t taken the pressure off of Kate. The Marks elders were still concerned about their first-born daughter. They didn’t think it was healthy for her to spend so much time at work and alone, even though that’s what she claimed to prefer. They wanted to see her happy and settled, and she seemed so far from that at the moment. Her relationship status was still among the first things questioned whenever Kate ventured or called home, which explained why the time between visits and phone calls had grown.

            Then there were Kate’s married and coupled friends. They were even worse than her parents. On top of the constant queries about who she was dating, there were the not-so-sly set-ups masked as dinner parties and game nights. Kate accepted the invites and was never surprised to hear, “oh, [insert name] is here and he’s single too. You two should talk.” Kate learned to just let it roll off her back and be friendly.  She could have stopped accepting the invitations, but then when would she see her friends? Her social time was sparse already, and she wasn’t willing to let it go completely just because her friends – and their good intentions – couldn’t accept her decision to be single. She was irritated and angry at first, but after she spent some time thinking about it, she realized she didn’t really care whether her friends accepted her choice or not; it only mattered that she accepted it. And she did.

            That’s not to say Kate didn’t sometimes miss the perks of being part of a couple. She often felt like she was the only single surrounded by couples. Logically, she knew that wasn’t true, and fortunately, she was too busy to dwell on these thoughts for long.  Her job was demanding of her time, thoughts and energy. But even at work, she couldn’t escape being inundated with images of couples. At the ballpark, her gaze was inevitably drawn to the screen during the “kiss cam” segment. A bit of jealousy surfaced whenever the focus was a young couple obviously in the early stages of their relationship. Kate remembered those days, when it seemed like you were the only two people in the world and the electricity between you would never fizzle. She was also decidedly touched by the occasional elderly couple caught on the cam who were clearly as enamored with each other as they were comfortable. She missed the affection and companionship of a relationship, but not enough to chance having her heart broken again.

            Every time she started longing for a boyfriend, she reminded herself of the pain that one man had caused her. She remembered the tears, the countless boxes of tissues, the sad songs and the ice cream. She recalled the shattered dreams, the broken promises and the lost sense of hope and self. The longing for a boyfriend quickly disappeared.

            Besides, if she wanted to maintain and even improve her professional reputation, she needed to stay focused. A boyfriend would only distract her from her work. She couldn’t afford a distraction – especially not one as worthless as a man. The only men she was allowed to focus on were those whose checks she signed – the players, the managers and the coaches. Those were the relationships that would benefit her in her mission to build a championship team.

            That was the long-term goal.

            The short-term goal was to hire a hitting coach.

            She mulled over her options and contacts in her head once again as she hit the treadmill at All-In Fitness. Kate had specifically sought out a 24-hour gym to accommodate her unconventional work schedule. She preferred to workout before heading to the office, but occasionally a late meeting or game would keep her in bed later in the morning. On those nights, she opted for a late-night workout. They weren’t ideal, but they were necessary. Working out had become a staple in her life after her break-ups. She’d found them to be a great way to fight stress and emotional outbursts. If she wore herself out, there wouldn’t be any energy left to cry herself to sleep. Her workouts were also a good time to give her brain a break from the business of baseball.

            As her brisk walk turned into a slow jog, Kate plugged her headphones into the treadmill’s console and looked up at the television in front of her machine. Her feet pounded against the belt, and the one-liners and laughter of “The Office” chased work concerns from Kate’s mind. She didn’t have much time to watch TV, so she didn’t really have many favorites. One of the guys she briefly dated had mentioned this show a few times. While the relationship obviously hadn’t worked out, his sense of humor had been one of his most endearing qualities, so Kate checked the show out one night. She loved it immediately, and since it was only 30 minutes long, Kate had managed to keep up easily.

            When the credits rolled, Kate began flipping through the channels. Unable to find anything else she could get into, she finally stopped it on the MLB Network. They were discussing some of the latest moves as teams geared up for spring training.  It might have been a little too work-related for what was supposed to be off-time, but Kate couldn’t resist. Even before she’d entered the baseball industry as a professional, she’d had a hunger for constant information on the sport and the business behind it. As a GM now, she was always interested to see what her colleagues were doing. Most of the topics were old news to her, as she’d received calls and e-mails about various transactions and happenings all day. However, there was one announcement which consumed mere seconds of the broadcast, but it literally stopped her in her tracks.

            “The Mets have released one-time top prospect Reid Benjamin. After rising quickly through the farm system, Benjamin’s stock has been dropping since his debut three years ago. He hit .250 with 30 walks and 120 strikeouts in his second season as the starting centerfielder. He also managed 89 RBI, 20 home runs and 40 doubles, but his inability to play a full season without injury has management moving in a different direction.”

            Kate nearly fell on her face, her feet stopping as the brief segment started. Fortunately, she was able to stop the treadmill and find the side rails with her feet before looking like a klutz in the near-empty gym. For several long moments after the TV had gone to commercial, Kate’s gaze remained on the screen, letting the name resonate through her brain – Reid Benjamin.

            It was a name with which she was well-acquainted - even more so than her colleagues, who had been discussing the power-hitting outfielder with more than passing interest for years. Scouts had drooled over Reid, the third overall pick in the 2005 draft. Managers begged their GMs to trade large chips for him. Many GMs had tried to do just that, but the Mets had clung to their prize prospect. They’d invested millions in him immediately and saw the fruits of their investment returning as Reid’s raw ability and well-developed skills materialized on the field. Reid had started in Low A, but found himself in AA by the end of his first professional season. The following season, he spent just two weeks in AA before being promoted to AAA. He remained there for a few seasons, waiting for a call-up. Unfortunately, Reid’s rise was stunted by a crowd of very talented outfielders already on the big league roster, and none of them were performing in a way which put their jobs at risk.  Several teams continued trying to pry Reid from the Mets’ organization, but New York wasn’t keen on giving up on their investment, even if they had no immediate need for his services.

            Reid’s big break came when the Mets’ All-Star right fielder dislocated his shoulder and strained several muscles on a spectacular diving catch. Facing at least a few weeks of recovery time and a tough August schedule, the Mets brought Reid up to the majors. For the first few games, he remained on the bench, but finally the outcry from the public and, undoubtedly the GM, won out, and Reid made his much-anticipated major league debut against the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies. Reid pretty much lived up to his hype in that first game. He went 2-for-4 with a double, one RBI and one fantastic outfield assist to nail a Phillie trying to get home during a tense eighth inning. He managed to maintain that performance for the rest of the season, impressing the front office enough that they traded one of their veteran outfielders for a couple pitchers and let Reid have a shot at the starting nod.

            He earned the centerfield duties during spring training and was standing in Citi Field on Opening Day in 2011. Reid’s spectacular September had set the expectations very high with very little room for the typical rookie growing pains, so when they inevitably hit, fans grew agitated. At first, the Mets faithful were quiet about it, merely mumbling when Reid struck out. As the weather grew hotter, so did the fans’ temperament. Reid was no longer just striking out; he was flailing at horrible pitches outside the zone. Occasionally, he would have a good game with a bomb of a home run or timely double, but this success only further angered the masses, as they got their hopes up about his struggles ending, only to watch him strike out four times in the next game. The Mets missed the playoffs that year, and while a team certainly isn’t made of one player, much of the blame fell on Reid’s shoulders. Fans and local media argued that the traded player would have made all the difference and that Reid was a waste of money. While he bounced back a little in 2012 season, Reid was still the most popular target of message board ire. His extracurricular activities rivaled his on-field failures, making him the punch line of nearly every bad Mets joke that was told. His rise had been short-lived, but his fall seemed as though it would never end.

            From a professional standpoint, Kate was not all that surprised by the news of Reid’s release. His off-field headlines combined with his declining value and a saturated outfielder market would likely leave Reid without a job this season. She actually felt a bit sorry for him, and that sympathy annoyed her. Why should she feel sorry for Reid? He certainly hadn’t done anything to deserve it.

            Indeed, Kate knew Reid Benjamin far better than any of those scouts, managers or GMs ever would. Reid also knew her quite well – in ways she preferred not to think about. Much to her chagrin, they occasionally snuck up on her. Usually on nights when she let her mind wander a little too far into the past.
            This is not going to be one of those nights, she thought.
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That's just a taste of the story. It becomes a lot more complicated.

By the way, here was my visual inspiration for Reid:

What do you think?

P.S. My current NaNoWriMo wordcount is 4,524. Not too shabby after two days.


4 comments:

  1. Awesome! I'm not even a baseball fan and I'm hooked. You go girl, keep it up!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ooooh! I'm certainly intrigued! Thanks for sharing a preview! :)

    ReplyDelete

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