Better Than PerfectBy: Kristina Mathews
More Than A Game, Book One
To my best friend, who long ago swept me off my feet with his green fridge and quality toilet paper.
First of all, I’d like to thank my family for their support and their patience with having to share me with the people who live in my head.
To Mrs. A, I never did get to thank you for helping me believe in myself and my writing.
To M.M., if you hadn’t teased your little cousin all those years ago, Johnny Scottsdale would never have earned his happily ever after.
“Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in thirteen days, twenty-one hours and seventeen minutes,” Hall of Fame broadcaster Kip Michaels announced, and the crowd went wild. “Kicking off today’s Fan Fest, I’d like to introduce one of our newest players. Two-time Cy Young Award winner, perennial All-Star, and the last man to pitch a perfect game. Give a warm San Francisco welcome to Johnny ‘The Monk’ Scottsdale.”
Thirty thousand people were expected at the ballpark today. A great crowd—for a baseball game. But instead of working the count, Johnny would be working the crowd. Answering questions. Signing autographs. Putting himself out there in a way he wasn’t entirely comfortable with. He was as nervous as the day he’d made his professional debut fourteen years ago. Butterflies? Try every seagull on the West Coast taking roost in his stomach.
Focus. Breathe. Let it go.
“Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.” He’d much rather face the 1927 Yankees than sit in front of a camera and a microphone talking about his game instead of playing it. “I hope I can help the team bring home a World Series Championship.”
He tried to relax his shoulders. Tried to hide his nerves. The Goliaths could be his last team. His last shot at a ring. His final chance to prove himself and leave a legacy that went beyond the diamond.
After fielding a few questions about what he could bring to the team, and deflecting some praise about his success so far, Johnny was released to another part of the park to sign autographs. Little Leaguers approached with wide eyes and big league dreams. Tiny tots with painted faces squirmed with excitement about getting cotton candy while their parents shoved them forward to collect an autograph. A shy boy with a broken arm asked him to sign his cast. The look on his face was more than worth the discomfort of being in the spotlight for something other than his on-field performance.
Johnny had signed the big contract. The team paid him a lot of money to pitch every five games. They also paid him to interact with the fans, to be an ambassador for the game he’d loved for so long. The game that had saved him from a completely different kind of life.
He shared a table with another new player, shortstop Bryce Baxter. They were set up near the home bullpen along the third base line. Several other stations were set up around the park, giving fans a chance to get up close and personal with the players. Some tried to get a little too personal.
“So you’re the hot new pitcher.” A busty brunette leaned over the autograph table, wearing what appeared to be a toddler-sized tank top. The team logo sparkled in rhinestones and she was obviously well aware of the attention she drew. “I’d be more than happy to show you around.”
“No thanks. I’m pretty familiar with the city.” He held his pen ready, although she didn’t seem to have anything to autograph. Nothing he was willing to sign, anyway.
“I could take you places you’ve never been.” She leaned over even more.
Johnny kept his head down, trying to avoid gazing at what she had to offer. He reached for a stock photo, scrawled his signature across the bottom, and slid the picture forward, hoping she’d take the hint and leave.
“You forgot your number.” She pouted.
“Sorry. I don’t give that out.” Johnny wished he could retreat to the locker room. Get away from her and the crowd that seemed to be growing. He never understood why people would wait in line to make small talk and take his picture. He gripped the black marker, needing something to do with his hands. If he only had a baseball, he could roll it around in his palm. Feel the smoothness of the leather, the rough contrast of the raised stitches. Find comfort in the weight and the symmetry of the one thing he could always control.