The Slump: A Short Story in the Absence of Baseball for Fiction Friday
What I’m sharing today, in the absence of Opening Day for Major League Baseball, is a short story I wrote about a ballplayer in a slump. Working in baseball, we saw a lot of slumps, from top-tier players to rookies. I’m not sure when or why this short story popped into my head, but I’m glad it did.
I enjoy writing about baseball. It’s the one baseball story that’s included in The Postcard and Other Short Stories & Poetry, and I thought I’d share it during these days of being at home and social distancing due to the coronavirus outbreak. The second book I published, Baseball Girl, is a novel about a woman who works in baseball as she becomes entangled in two relationships: one with a ballplayer and the other with a sports writer, as she mourns the death of her father. Baseball Girl won an honorable mention for sports fiction in the annual Readers Favorite Contest in 2015.
I hope you enjoy the story, and stay well, all.
The game ended at ten thirty-five on Friday night. It had been a long one, with numerous pitching changes. The opposing team hit a grand slam in the top of the ninth off of the star relief pitcher after he was brought into the game. The manager still had confidence in Moore, the reliever, but the sports journalist had very little left in him. Moore had been struggling on the mound as he’s blown the last four saves. The truth of the matter was that Jameson Moore was in a slump, and Devon McFadden had to write about it for the newspaper.
Grueling business, actually, when it came down to it. Writing on a beat covering a baseball team required sports reporters to cover and write about 162 games a year and travel with the ballclub on every trip they made. McFadden had lived out of a suitcase when he began this career, as he traveled all over the country to cover the games for The Herald, sacrificing a relationship with Estella in the process. She realized after a couple of seasons that she didn’t want to be alone most of the year, but at least she had the guts to be honest with him. Others would have made an excuse, but she—she was brutally honest.
“If I’m going to be in a relationship with someone, I actually want to be able to see the person more than I don’t see him,” she had said.
And that was that.
Last year, he had been promoted to a columnist, but it was too late to salvage the relationship with Estella. She had moved on to a young, financier and McFadden remained in the city writing about the team from his own perspective, where he could be both observant and critical.
McFadden wasn’t devoid of emotions, and he tried to keep them in perspective in his new role at the paper. He knew what baseball was all about. He had played at a high level in college. There was even a point when he thought he might have a chance at the minors. But an arm injury prevented that from happening and he devoted himself to writing about sports. His career started with an internship at a small, local paper in his hometown, and then he made the jump to the top paper in the city. Before long, the beat reporter covering the team relocated to cover a team on the West Coast, and McFadden slid into his spot. After five years as a beat writer, and now serving as a sports columnist for the paper, he felt himself grow weary of it all.
On Saturday during batting practice, the prospective Hall of Famer, Andres Martinez, walked over to McFadden on the field. It was sunny and warm, the clouds high in the sky, making it a perfect afternoon for baseball.
“Why you givin’ Moore such a hard time in the paper? Dude—he’s doing his best. You’ve got to go easy on him.”
McFadden looked up at Moore, as he had several inches on him and was built like a brick house, and said, “It’s my job, man. I’ve got to cover what I see happening.”
“But he’s not slumpin’—he’s just having a little rough patch.”
“Where I come from, after doing what he’s done repeatedly for a few weeks and getting a few ‘Ls’ in the column, we call it a slump.”
Martinez scratched his head. He liked McFadden—he’d always been fair—but he was unhappy with the way Moore’s playing had been scrutinized. That was his buddy he was writing about negatively.
“Try to go easy on him. He’s strugglin’, man. He just wants to get his groove back.”
“We all want him to get his groove back. Management and the fans especially.”
Martinez walked away and into the batter’s box to take his swings. His bat looked good. He had a million-dollar swing, but more than that, Martinez had a multi-million dollar attitude. He was the leader in the clubhouse—all the guys looked up to him. He was a faithful supporter of his teammates, and a devoted friend to Moore. The two of them were inseparable. They had been since they’d both joined the team seven years ago.
McFadden walked closer to the batter’s box and leaned on the cage, watching Martinez take swing after swing, each one looking better than the last. He should write about that, McFadden thought. He should write about this seasoned player, his leadership role, and the way he works hard every day to be an All-Star and future Hall of Famer. McFadden pulled out his reporter’s notebook and started to jot down some notes.
“Why don’t you write about something positive tonight—like how these balls are flying out of this park,” Martinez shouted to him.
McFadden’s eyes narrowed. “Show me what you can do in tonight’s game, and I’ll think about,” he teased back.
Martinez’s eyes grew wide, and he nodded his head. “I’ll show you,” he said.
At game time, McFadden took his spot in the press box. His elevated status of columnist warranted a front row seat situated just a few chairs away from the public relations director for the ballclub. Night after night and day after day he sat there, his laptop plugged in, writing about a variety of things that were going on—from the play on the field, to the management changes and minor league call-ups, to timely topics such as analytics and defensive shifts. Sometimes it all felt new. Sometimes it all felt tired.
When he felt like this—worn out by baseball’s lengthy home and road schedule by August—he had to remember why he was here in the first place. It was because of this ballpark, with its classic, retro feel of ballparks of yore; it was because of this game, with heroes McFadden loved such as Gehrig and Ruth, Clemente and Robinson; and it was because of the aura of a night filled with scents of popcorn, Cracker Jack, and the more modern cinnamon pretzels and barbecue. He had to remind himself often that although this occupation had the potential to take its toll on people—he’d seen it happen to many people he knew over the years—it was a job done for the sheer love of it. The sturdy breeze blew into the press box from the outfield, and he fell in love with it all again, as he’d done time and time again when he wasn’t sure he could write about yet another game, another disappointment.
McFadden had his eye on Martinez that night. He was waiting for him to put his money where his mouth was during tonight’s match-up. He was poised and ready to construct something glowing about him. He knew the fans could use an article that gave them hope—that gave them something to cheer for as the season began to wind down.
Martinez’s first at-bat resulted in a triple—his tenth of the season. McFadden remembered what he had said during batting practice earlier: “I’m chasing Willie Mays’s triples, McFadden. A few more, and I’ll hit that 140 career-high set by Mays.”
“Maybe you’ll get there sooner than later,” McFadden said back to him, encouragingly.
This triple bagger tonight brought him to 135, closer to tying Mays’s career triples total. Martinez was obsessed with Mays—he’d been his grandfather’s favorite and he had met Mays as a kid. Both he and his grandfather could recite Mays’s stats. And although Martinez had a long way to go to break some of the other more impressive triples records, he set his sights on Mays’s 140 number to make his grandfather proud. It was yet another quality that made Martinez both likeable and a force to reckon with on the team. He was a goal setter.
The opposing team’s bats were hot that night, unfortunately, and there was little Martinez could do to get some runs on the board when he was the only guy hitting that afternoon. The rest of the team looked lethargic. It was going to be another long game, and McFadden began to fear it would be another painful night of disappointment as he repositioned himself to get more comfortable in the press box.
And then, something changed, as can often happen in sports. Martinez’s bat continued to stay hot, and some of the other players started a rally. The team bounced back in the seventh and eighth innings and scored six runs to take a one-run lead.
That meant Moore would come into the game.
That meant all eyes would be on Moore—the once stellar closer who was clearly smack in the middle of his first-ever slump.
McFadden felt his palms start to sweat, as they often did lately when this reliever was brought into the game in the top of the ninth, when his pitches were wild and his concentration seemed off.
Moore stood on the mound and warmed up. His throws looked a little more controlled, a little more confident. He adjusted his cap after every pitch to the catcher, looked down at his feet, and set himself up for the next warm up throw.
When the umpires were set and Moore was to make his first pitch, he threw it beautifully. The home plate umpire called it loudly—STRIKE!
The second pitch Moore threw was on the inside edge of the plate. STRIKE! called by the home plate umpire.
The third pitch, well, McFadden could see what happened when it came off Moore’s fingers. It was a fastball, but it was thrown down the middle, perfectly aligned for the batter to hit it on the sweet spot for a double.
McFadden watched Moore shake his head. He watched the confidence get sucked out of him right then and there as it happened. Moore tried to settle himself as the crowd became suddenly quiet. Nervous. There was a visit to the mound by the pitching coach.
The on-deck batter stepped into the batter’s box. He stared down Moore with a look of sheer power. He was a huge guy and was leading his team in RBIs.
Moore set and then threw.
The sound the bat made indicated it was a good hit. A damn good one.
It soared over the head of the centerfielder and into the crowd behind him. The homer scored two runs.
Now, Moore’s team was down by a run, and Martinez may not bat in the bottom of the ninth.
The crowd grew sullen and the energy inside the ballpark dissipated. Fans began to exit the ballpark, either expecting their team would lose or simply not wanting to watch the tragedy continue to unfold.
McFadden, himself, moved to the back of the press box to stand as he watched the final half inning. He knew the focus of his piece for tomorrow’s column couldn’t be about Martinez and his stellar talents and the chase for Willie Mays’s triples career total, but rather it had to be about Moore’s collapse—about the star reliever who had lost his confidence and was experiencing an excruciatingly painful, undeniable slump.
It was Sunday at the ballpark, and despite the sunshine and crisp blue skies, the tone surrounding the club felt dismal. It’s neither fun to play for a losing ballclub, nor is it any fun to write about a losing ballclub.
McFadden walked into the clubhouse early, as players were suiting up for the early afternoon game and preparing for batting practice. The music was already thumping in the ballpark, and the vibrations could be felt in the clubhouse. The morning newspaper had been delivered.
“Get him out of here!” Moore shouted, directing his instruction to the clubhouse manager and pointing to McFadden as the guys were dressing and doing their media interviews.
The room became silent. Still. Everyone looked at McFadden.
“I don’t want him in here, and I don’t want to talk to him!” Moore shouted again.
Martinez, watching his friend become unglued, walked over to McFadden and put his arm around him, and guided him away from his upset friend.
“Stop talking to him!” Moore shouted at Martinez.
“I got this,” Martinez said, turning around and addressing Moore, gently escorting McFadden in the direction of the door.
“You had to go and write about him again, didn’t you,” Martinez said quietly as a statement rather than a question.
“It’s my job. His job is to get saves and wins. Mine is to write what’s happening. You can’t fault me for it.”
“Maybe just lay low for a while. Let him get his mojo back.”
McFadden looked at Martinez, who was a nice guy. He understood that Martinez just wanted to protect his friend, his friend who seemed to be experiencing a bit of a mental block—and breakdown.
“Today, I’ll lay low,” McFadden said. “I like the guy. It’s nothing personal,” he said.
“But to him, it’s only personal. You gotta understand that,” Martinez said.
“It’s a game, Martinez. You’ve got to take the good and the bad with it. You can’t ask us writers to coddle players. It’s not the media’s job.”
“Well, let him take the bad by himself today. He don’t need you asking him questions about what happened out there yesterday. We all know what happened out there yesterday. I want to win some games, too, and I want to catch Willie Mays.”
McFadden patted Martinez on the back.
“Then go and do it,” McFadden said. “I’ve got a piece ready to publish when you get that 140th triple.”
“You go polish that piece,” Martinez said. “I’ll take care of the rest.”
copyright 2018/The Postcard and Other Short Stories & Poetry/by Stephanie Verni
Stephanie Verni is Professor of Communication at Stevenson University. She is the author of 5 works of fiction and the co-author of one academic textbook on Event Planning. Her character-driven books are set in beautiful Maryland locations and examine the realities of the human heart. She also enjoys writing about baseball, having worked in the sport for more than a decade. Connect with her on Instagram at stephanie.verni or on Twitter at @stephverni. Or, visit her Amazon page at Stephanie Verni, Author.