Better Than Perfect(7)

By: Kristina Mathews

Alice was a mother. Not a big surprise. She’d always loved kids. She was going to be a teacher. Until she’d married Mel and didn’t have to work. Mel was rich. Came from money and probably couldn’t help but make even more money once he graduated and went to work for his father, helping make other rich people richer.

It bothered him more than he wanted to admit. Her having a kid. Not that Johnny had ever really wanted to be a father. But maybe a part of him would have wanted to be the one to give her that gift.

He was wrestling with that thought when his manager, Juan Javier, approached him.

“Just the man I need to see.” Javier had been a catcher during his playing days. A pretty good one too, until his knees gave out. But he was still in good shape. Still had a commanding presence.

“Sure, what do you need?” Johnny didn’t know the man well enough to determine whether he should address him by his first name, last name or just call him “Skip.” His reputation around the league was that of a player’s manager. Well respected and well liked, with a thorough knowledge of the game and an uncanny ability to get the most out of his players. Johnny looked forward to working with him.

“I need a hero.” Javier parked himself next to Johnny. “Got word this morning that Nathan Cooper didn’t pass a drug test. He’s out fifty games, unless he appeals.”

Did that mean Johnny would be moved to the bullpen? Cooper was a relief pitcher, a left-handed specialist. Johnny was a right-handed starter. At least he had been his entire career.

“Don’t worry, you’re still a starter.” Javier clapped him on the back. “This is a PR nightmare. At least it didn’t leak out this morning. That would have put a dark cloud on the Fan Fest.”

“So what can I do?”

“Your reputation is spotless. It’s one of the reasons the team was so interested in signing you.” They didn’t call him The Monk for nothing. His composure on the mound was only part of the story. “We had a few years where...well, you catch the news. The fans are sick of this stuff. Sick of the cheaters. We need someone like you. Someone the kids can look up to.”

“I try to be one of the good guys.” Johnny shrugged. It’s all he’d ever wanted to be. He wanted his name to be associated with honor, integrity and respect.

“Russ Crawford, from the front office, had Cooper lined up for this charity event.” His manager placed a sturdy hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “We don’t want a guy suspended for drugs representing us to the community.”

“No. We don’t.” Johnny never understood what would drive a guy to take such a risk. Or why there were still guys who felt they could get away with it. He balled his fists, thinking about how much harder the rest of them had to work at proving they were clean.

“We need someone to take his place. I thought you’d be perfect.” He gave Johnny a friendly pat on the back.

“I was perfect once in my life.” Twenty-seven batters had faced him. Every one of them had walked back to the dugout shaking their heads. None of them had reached first base. No hits, no walks, no errors.

“You and only about twenty-three other guys.” Javier gave him a smile of admiration. Of respect. Not only for Johnny, but for all the players who’d come before him. “But you’re not just perfect on the field.”

That was his reputation. No wild parties, drugs or women. When he went out with his teammates, he stuck with one beer. Just to be one of the guys. Then he would return quietly to his room. Alone. He politely refused advances and room keys from his female fans.

“What kind of charity thing are we looking at?” Let’s get to the point. What really mattered. As long as it wasn’t a speaking engagement. He could pitch in front of a sold-out stadium. Or an empty one where the few fans in attendance tried to make up for the lack of numbers with an abundance of noise. But talking to a room full of people? No thanks. He’d much rather run the bleachers, drag the field, or even cut the grass by hand, one blade at a time.

“It’s a minicamp for youth players,” Javier explained. “They come to the ballpark after school and we take them through a few drills, demo mechanics and basically share your knowledge of the game.”