Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Card - A Van Stone Novel

CHAPTER
1
Silence dominated our drive until Dad broke the ice, “I’ve got something for you.” 
“Something for me?” I asked.
The steel framework of the retractable roof soared across the sky as we approached the looming stadium. With every block, my heart pounded harder against the walls of my chest. A nauseous feeling rumbled in my stomach. 
“I hope it’s some Pepto-Bismol. I can’t believe how nervous I am.”
“C’mon, Van, you’ll be fine. I’m really proud of you.”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing. I had one afternoon of training that consisted of, ‘… here’s your locker, here’s where the bats go, don’t talk to anyone and never ask for autographs.’”
“Just relax and have fun. You went through a lot to get this gig. You beat out hundreds of kids to get this chance. You’re the first one in the family to make it to the big leagues. Go ahead, check the glove box,” Dad said as he pointed across the dashboard.
With a click, I whipped open the small door and inside sat a wrapped box. “What is it?”
“Just open it already.”
The traffic slowed outside the stadium. Through the open window, I felt the energy of opening day. After ripping open the box, I withdrew a lone baseball card. My puzzled look told the story. “Thanks, Dad. Who’s Moe Berg?” 
“A relatively unknown player that bounced around a little bit back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I’ve always been fascinated by him. Who knows, maybe the card is worth something.” 
Sitting at a red light, I examined the card and looked up to catch Dad staring ahead with a distant look.
He snapped out of his daze and said, “You should always hang on to this card—it’s special.”
“Of course—I will,” I said as we pulled up to Safeco Field. 
“Mom and I will be back later for the game. Look for us, if you can. We can’t wait to see you in action.”
I placed the card in my backpack and stepped into the sunshine. I took a deep breath and looked up at the fa├žade. The glass and brick entrance yielded to the giant steel framework of the retractable roof, which squatted like a giant beetle over the rail yard. With no chance of rain, the rounded structure sat in an open position. I jumped at the blast of a train horn and started toward the gate. A few fans milled about with opening day optimism, looking at me with an expression of “Who’s that?”, as I approached the player’s entrance. 
Feeling uncomfortable with the attention, I hurried to the gate. 
“Hi’ya, Van. Are you ready for the big day?” Charlie asked. He opened the gate with his weathered hands and gave me a big smile, partially hidden by his white, bushy mustache. He acted as if he had known me for years, even though I only met him yesterday.  
“Uh, sure, I guess,” I said. 
“Ah, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I’ve seen tons of kids come through here in the last fifteen years, and you’re the best of any of them. I can tell. I have a special knack for figuring people out. That’s what has kept me alive for so long.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, trust me. I met many a bad guy working as a Seattle Police officer for thirty years.”
“Wow, that must’ve been cool. I guess things are a lot quieter around here, aren’t they?”
“Oh, you bet they are. I’d probably do this for free, but don’t tell anyone,” he said with a chuckle.
“I’ve got to get inside. See you later,” I said, moving into the darker reaches of the stadium. Around me, people buzzed with activity, the kind that can only be associated with opening day. Workers stacked cases of giveaways by the entrance gates, a Cushman whizzed by with bags of ice dripping off the back and I walked through a crowd of new wide-eyed interns listening to instructions from their boss. 
With the excitement building, I picked up my pace. The pale yellow walls of the tunnel behind-the-scenes contrasted with the beauty that existed beyond the catacombs. I followed the natural curve of the hallway as the exposed pipes snaked along overhead.
Arriving at the visiting clubhouse, I pulled open the door. My nervous excitement grew as I walked down the long clubhouse to the far corner. The room was raucous as the players dressed for the game, with laughter and music filling the space. An Oakland Athletics uniform hung in my locker.    
Sitting down, I pulled out my iPhone and logged into the web browser. After typing in Moe Berg, I read the entries. Clicking on Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide, I entered Berg. There weren’t many listed and mine wasn’t a rookie card, so it was worthless. 
“No phones in here. I don’t want to catch you on your phone ever again or you’re out of here,” Greg Napolini shouted. The visiting clubhouse manager ruled over this domain since the beginning of baseball in Seattle.
 “Sorry, I didn’t know,” I said while throwing my phone and the card into the locker. 
Changing into my uniform, I pushed and felt the fabric stretch as my redheaded mop popped through. I guess my almost six-foot frame was a little bigger than most batboys. I laced up my cleats, grabbed my glove and jogged down a corridor leading to the dugout.
Trotting up the steps to field level, I caught a cleat on the last one. Stumbling, I quickly turned it into a walk, hoping that nobody noticed. The stands were almost full and a buzz of crowd noise filled my ears. The open roof squatted over the right field bleachers, casting an ominous shade. The rest of the stadium basked in brilliant sunshine, perfect for opening day.
I felt as if I had just won the lottery, all of this because I was lucky enough to have won an essay contest. During the many interviews, I never dreamed that I would actually get to be on the field. Walking toward the end of the dugout, I allowed myself a little smile.  
The shouts echoed from the crowd.
“Peanuts, programs.”
“Ice cold beer.”
“Freeze your teeth, give your tongue a sleigh ride—ice cold bea hea.” 
Around me, I watched the high fives, fist bumps and laughing from a hundred different people that included players, trainers, coaches, photographers and other media types. 
Interrupting my excitement, a man with a clipboard and headset walked toward me with his arms outstretched, as if he was trying to herd a flock of chickens. “Let’s get you in the right place for the introdu—” he stopped mid sentence. “Oh, you’re the batboy. Wow, you sure are bigger than most. I thought you were one of the players.”
He continued into the crowd, lining up the Oakland players. On cue, he sent them to the third base line, synchronized with the public address system introductions. 
The first few chords of the National Anthem brought a lump to my throat. I stood near the dugout holding my cap over my heart. As the music reached its crescendo, the crowd grew louder and my eyes welled up with emotion. The cheering fans muffled the final notes, then the fireworks erupted, the smoke dissipated and the sulfur smell of spent gunpowder drifted down on the most beautiful setting I had ever seen. 
The view from the field was a different one than from the stands. The crowd, perfectly positioned, faced directly at the infield. I realized that the 47,166 fans did not even know that I existed. However, it felt like I had all 94,332 eyeballs focused on me. A constant and growing murmur filled the stadium as the players came into the dugout from the pregame ceremonies. The starting pitcher sent the ball into the catcher’s mitt with a pop. The players prepared their bats with pine tar and rosin. The coaches met with the umpires at home plate. It seemed that everyone knew what they were doing—except me!
A few players stood around in front of the dugout, awaiting the start of the game. Isolated from the masses, I overheard one of the players conversing with two people at the fence. Dressed in black suits and sunglasses, the men did not fit the description of the typical fan. “We have to meet tonight.”
 “If the game doesn’t go into extra innings,” the player responded.
“It’s very important that you’re there,” the one on the left insisted. “The boss is getting concerned about your approach.” 
Scanning into the stands, I listened intently. I did not recognize the player.
 “Don’t worry about my approach. I’m getting closer and I don’t want to blow it,” the player said.
“Just know, this has been going on too long.”
The player looked toward the outfield. I read the name on the back of his jersey—Thompson. Before the opener, I had studied the team and I did not recall a Thompson. Suddenly, the three men looked in my direction. Looking away, I waved to an unknown person in the crowd.
Thompson continued, “You will not …” the crowd noise drowned out his voice, “… again, is that clear?” He turned and started toward me. I bent over and picked up a hot dog wrapper as he walked by, acting as if I did not exist. When I straightened up, the men in suits were gone and Thompson had blended in with the rest of the team.

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