Team Sports

“Paul, put down those contract bids and meet our new software genius.”

I swiveled my chair to face the doorway where my boss, Brian Mallard, stood with his arm around a skinny guy in glasses. Another computer nerd, I thought with a chuckle. The newcomer wore a rumpled gray suit, generic white shirt, and a crazy pink and green tie. His eyes peeped around my office with eager intelligence. A slight furrow in his forehead placed him near my own age, early thirties, yet there was something in his expression—boyish, familiar—that made me half expect to see a cowlick rising from his fine, pale hair. As I stood to shake hands, a joyful look of recognition illuminated his face.

“Paul, this is Fowler Bates,” said Brian proudly. “Fowler, meet Paul Jessup, head of our contracts department and captain of our winning baseball team.”

“Fowler Bates?” My memory reeled back twenty-five years: Fourth grade in Sandusky, Ohio. Wooden desks and a gravel playground. A frail kid nicknamed “Chicken” who did long division in his head and tripped over his bat on the way to first base…

Brian hugged his new employee with possessive delight. “I got him away from M.I.T., and we’re going to put him on the Aries project.”

“Paul,” Fowler said, pumping my hand. “Boy, this is like a time-machine trip. Who’d ever think I’d come all the way across country to Silicon Valley and end up at the same company as an old friend?”

“You two know each other?” Brian asked in surprise.

“Paul and I went to elementary school together,” Fowler explained, “at least until my family moved east.”

“This is great!” said Brian. He brought us together with a clap on the back. “You two take some time and get reacquainted. What a team!”

“So,” said Fowler, as Brian left. He glanced appreciatively at the executive desk, leather chairs, and museum poster prints that decorated my suite. “How long have you worked here?”

“Eighteen months.” I invited him to take a seat, still not believing. “How did you recognize me?”

“It was easy. Take your fourth-grade image, darken the hair a little, account for the expected height, computer age the facial features, and that’s you.” He gave me a sweeping gesture and a grin, and I laughed. Fowler would fit right in with the other eggheads in our R&D sector, the kind of people whose brains registered in bytes and who waxed ecstatic when a command function had been reduced from two keystrokes to one.

“So tell me everything,” he said, as we sat on the couch. “Where you went to school, how you got here…”

I dug back into my past, from fifth grade through an M.B.A. at Stanford, the jobs in defense and aerospace, the move to Brian’s company. And all the time I kept seeing little Chicken Bates, cowlick waving, small jaw set, as he tried so hard to score the winning run for my team.

“And are you married? A family?” Fowler peered toward my desk in search of a photograph.

“Not yet.” A smile came on my lips, and Fowler said softly, “Aha.”

“Her name is Wendy Danvers. She’s a consumer affairs reporter for Channel 9.” I didn’t add that in the seven months I’d known her, I had already proposed, and been rejected, twice. Nevertheless, I was gearing up for a third try. Though Wendy was reluctant to admit it, I knew we were meant for each other. “But what about you?” I asked.

“Oh, not much.” Fowler gave a modest shrug. “I got my doctorate at M.I.T. and have been in academic research ever since.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I decided I needed a little excitement. There wasn’t any urgency to my work, not like here in the business world where products have to sink or swim in the marketplace. And Brian seemed so enthusiastic. What’s he like to work for?”

The answer caught in my throat, and I recalled with unease my boss’s euphoria of a few minutes before. Excitement and enthusiasm, that was Brian all right, and as long as you performed magical feats and kept him wowed, he’d do anything for you. But make a mistake, dare to point out the flaws in one of his pet projects, and you were no more than yesterday’s toy to a quickly bored child. Brian’s disappointment to think he had overestimated your abilities was as sincere as his good wishes when he fired you without notice.

“And he’s obviously pretty successful,” Fowler continued, missing my silence and glancing again around my suite.

“Yes, he is.” That was the other half of it. Despite the seven hundred dollar suits, Brian had neither the look nor, I thought, the brains of a savvy entrepreneur. He was paunchy and girlish with dark brown hair, a primly cut nose and rosebud cheeks. The previous autumn he had divorced his first wife and acquired a newer model, a baby-doll brunette whom Wendy scornfully dismissed as a trophy wife. Yet for all the caprice with which he treated people, all the projects he started and abandoned on a whim, Brian had built a software company that had made him a comfortable multi-millionaire. Much as I hated to admit it, he was either deceptively bright, unfairly lucky or both.

“Well, you probably won’t have much day-to-day contact with him in R&D,” I said, promising myself I would caution Fowler more about our boss later. “That’s the one area he doesn’t know a lot about and tends to leave alone. But he’s very big on employee togetherness and morale building, so you can expect a lot of company dinners and picnics and parties.”

“And you’re captain of the company baseball team?” Fowler shook his head. “Boy, this really is like old times. Who do you play against?”

“It’s nothing special. Just some evening games with guys from the other high tech firms.”

“Can anybody in the company play?”

“Yeees.” A foreboding feeling grew in my stomach, and I added reassuringly, “But it’s not mandatory. The R&D people usually find they’re too busy.”

“Oh, not me.” Fowler pushed up his glasses with a smile. “I decided even before I came here I was going to get out from behind my terminal and get some exercise. Is it too late to sign up?”

“I guess not. But we have only a month left before the season ends on Labor Day.”

“Well, gee, it sounds like fun,” said Fowler, happily swinging an imaginary bat. “You know, it’s thanks to you I always think of baseball as a great sport.”

“You do?” The remark was so unexpected I forgot my apprehensive train of thought. Thanks to baseball, Fowler had been the butt of the other boys’ jokes. Thanks to baseball, Fowler had spent every spring with scabby elbows from falling on the gravel playground. Thanks to baseball, Fowler had suffered the public indignity of being the last one called, until I broke down and beckoned him onto my team. How could anyone like a sport that had treated him so badly?

“Sure.” His eyes took on a faraway look, and he nodded to himself. “I’ve never forgotten what a good captain you were. How you made everybody play fair and take their turn. How you always encouraged us and made everyone feel part of the team. And when we lost that last game, I saw how bad you felt. But you went over to the other captain and shook his hand, and I knew you meant it when you told us we were still winners.” He gave a vigorous nod, and the action seemed to jerk him from his reverie. He smiled sheepishly. “Funny what sticks in a kid’s head, isn’t it? Anyway, baseball.” He became brisk. “Good exercise. Team spirit. How about it, Paul? Can I be on your team?”

I took a deep breath.

“Sure, Fowler,” I said.

*****

“I hate team sports.”

I threw my cleats into the trunk of my car and tossed my mitt in after them. Wendy watched, one eyebrow lifted in curiosity. Around us, the last players and spectators were exiting the parking lot, and the empty diamond was fading into the twilight.

“Why don’t I drive and you can tell me about it,” she said.

I followed her into the car. Brian liked to see wives and families clapping in the bleachers, so Wendy made occasional appearances to help me out. She wore a Kelly green jumpsuit that brought out the red in her russet hair and the green flecks in her brown eyes. On her wrist was the gold bracelet I’d given her for her birthday. She was warm and pretty rather than beautiful, and people trusted her when she reported on day care options for sick children or differences in banking services. Unlike a lot of TV journalists, she also understood that getting a truthful answer was more important than phrasing an interminably clever question.

“Go on,” she urged, when I still hadn’t spoken. “What’s the problem?”

“Fowler Bates.”

Or should I have said Foul Ball Bates, for already the new nickname had begun to surface among my disgruntled team. It had been three weeks since Fowler had joined the company and picked up the bat, and in that time we had slipped from a secure four-game lead for first place to a desperate tie with our nearest rivals. Not that it was all Fowler’s fault. We weren’t professional, we made mistakes—especially Brian, whose fumbles we graciously overlooked. But Fowler had a knack for standing out. He was the smallest one on the team, and it had been too late to order a special uniform. He made do with an old one that drooped off his shoulders and flapped on his thin chest. His cap fell down to his glasses and squashed out his ears. I thought he’d be safe tending right field, and he was until a lefty smacked a high fly and it dropped between Fowler’s knees. From then on, wherever I tried to hide him in the outfield, he was barraged with balls. At bat, the new nickname said it all.

“I thought he was awfully nice,” said Wendy. I had introduced her to Fowler before the game, and they had spent some time chatting while the team assembled.

“But he can’t play baseball.”

“He got a double in the fourth inning.”

“Because their shortstop missed the ball.”

“And a walk in the sixth.”

“Their pitcher was distracted by a bee.” I blew out a long breath and got to the heart of the matter. “Brian’s been dropping none-too-subtle hints that he wants him off the team.”

Wendy didn’t look at me. She was negotiating a left turn at a busy intersection. But I sensed her interest quickening.

“Can he do that?”

“Technically, no. The league rules say the teams must be open to any employee who wants to play.” I had even gone so far as to mention that to Brian who, by the look he gave me, made it clear he didn’t thank me for the reminder. “I think Brian thinks that because Fowler and I are old friends I can gently persuade him to quit baseball.”

“Why doesn’t Brian tell him himself?”

“Because Fowler’s doing great work on the Aries project, and he doesn’t want to upset him.”

Wendy pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store. “I’ll get some beer, and we can order a pizza at my place,” she said, switching off the engine and slinging her purse strap onto her shoulder. “Listen, Paul, maybe you’re taking this too seriously. Most of the other teams I’ve seen you play have their share of weak players, and no one seems to mind. Isn’t it all just for fun?”

I glanced down at my uniform, custom embroidered with our company name and logo in blue and gold. “If that’s what you think, you don’t know Brian.”

“Oh, yes, I do.”

She got out of the car to enter the store, and my thoughts trailed after her. I had met Wendy the previous November and on our third date took her to the company Christmas party. During the cocktail hour, Brian, new wife on his arm, had cornered us with his latest philosophy about youth being a state of mind.

“For example, how old do you think I am?” he asked Wendy.

My ears perked up. I knew Brian had teenaged children, but he had never given out his exact age. It had taken Wendy all of two seconds to eye him up and down.

“Forty-eight,” she announced.

Brian’s jaw dropped. He smoothed his hair, pulled down his jacket, and settled his shoulders like a fussy duck. “But I look younger,” he said.

“No, you don’t,” said Wendy sweetly and sallied away. It was all I could do to keep from shouting after her, “I love you! Marry me!”

Two months later I did propose, and when she declined—“Paul, we hardly know each other”—I swore I’d never let her know how I ached for her. In June I proposed again, thinking I knew my previous error.

“It won’t even change anything,” I assured her. “You’ll keep your job, your name, your friends. We can have a pre-nuptial agreement and separate bank accounts if you like.”

“Then why get married?” she said shortly.

Now as she emerged from the store carrying a brown bag, I thought only of her warm skin and the way her perfume lingered in the cleft of her collarbone. She got in and handed me the six-pack.

“I have just three questions,” she said. “One, if you really dislike the hypocrisy of team sports, why do you play? Two, if you don’t like Brian, why stay at his company? Why not move to another firm or take Fowler and go into business together? And three, suppose Brian does issue you an ultimatum that he wants Fowler off the team? What are you going to do?”

Her eyes held mine, the green flecks shading into the brown, her expression determinedly noncommittal. But there was just the slightest tilt to her head, as if to back away from a dishonest answer, and I realized she was looking at me just the way she would regard a potentially defective product.

*****

“Paul, can I come in?”

“Sure, Fowler.”

I pushed aside the papers on my desk, and Fowler took a chair, crossing his legs at the ankles and lacing his fingers in his lap like a schoolboy.

“First of all I wanted to thank you for introducing me to your girlfriend, Wendy.” He smiled wistfully. “She’s really pretty, and I can tell she loves you.”

“You can?” I sat straighter. I hadn’t been able to give Wendy a coherent answer to her questions the previous night, and she had shrugged it off with “Why don’t you think about it?” She had been quiet the rest of the evening.

“Oh, sure. The way she talks about you, the way her eyes follow you on the field. I don’t need a computer program to interpret that data.” He grinned, then the smile faded. “I also don’t need a computer to tell me how I’m faring at baseball. So I think it’s best for the team if I miss the last game.”

“Fowler—?” He had already risen, and I pushed away my chair and hurried after him to the outer office. “Fowler, what are you talking about?”

“It’s okay, Paul. Really. Anybody can see Brian’s team means a lot to him. He wants to win on the playing field as much as he does in business. And I admire that. It’s the kind of competitive environment I came out here to experience.”

“But these games are just for fun and team spirit.” I raked my hand through my hair in bewilderment.

Fowler patted my shoulder. “I know you mean that, Paul. But you have to understand this isn’t fourth grade.”

He slipped away just as Brian appeared around the corner. Our boss took in the scene at a glance—Fowler’s brave face and slumping shoulders, my expression of remorse—and broke into a wide smile.

“You did it!” he exulted, shaking my hand. “Good work, Paul. That’s the kind of sacrifice it takes if we’re going to be a winning team.”

He added a wink to his handclasp, and I saw several of my colleagues, in passing, stare with envy. I also saw Fowler’s retreating back and—I started—a pale lock of hair rising in a cowlick.

“Fowler!” I shook off Brian’s hand. “Wait!”

He turned and I drew him back into the center office where everyone could hear.

“You can’t quit the team.”

“But I…but I…”

“You have to play. I’m the captain, and I refuse to accept your resignation.” I didn’t look at Brian. I could feel the dagger glances at my back. “And I expect you to be there on time tonight. No excuses.”

“But I…but I…”

“No excuses.”

I walked straight past Brian into my office and closed the door. Then I turned and banged my head against the wall.

*****

“Strike two!”

I kicked the bench where my team sat waiting their turns to bat, and groaned. Bottom of the ninth inning. Our rivals leading six to five. Runners on second and third. No outs, and Joe Henshaw, one of our best batters, was supposed to be saving my neck…

“Strike three!”

“Sorry, Paul,” Joe muttered as he trudged back to the dugout. “Sorry, Brian. Mean fast ball.”

On the diamond, the pitcher called up his catcher to confer. Our next hitter, Craig Riley, rubbed plate dirt on his hands and picked up the bat. Fowler rose slowly from the bench and gave me a questioning look. I set my jaw and nodded him on deck. Brian scowled. In the bleachers Wendy chewed her lower lip.

“Batter up!”

This couldn’t be happening again, not twice in one lifetime. I willed all my mental focus to Craig, six-three, two hundred pounds, with a swing like Babe Ruth…

“Ball one!”

I shoved my hands in my pockets. I pulled them out again.

“Strike!”

The anguished faces and voices of fourth grade came back: You’re crazy, man! You can’t let Chicken bat. We want to win! Much as I had hurt then, this time the consequences would be a lot worse than a few days’ snubs by my friends.

The crack of ball on bat brought my heart to my throat, only to swallow it again. It was a line drive straight into the pitcher’s mitt, an instant reflex play that brought cheers from the opposition crowd. Moans echoed from our bench as Craig, head hanging, returned from his aborted run.

“Damn,” snarled Brian.

“Batter up!”

Fowler hesitated. Brian rose. There was an eerie, time-stopped silence as we glared at each other.

“You know,” he said through clenched teeth, “baseball is just like business. If you want to win, you don’t keep losers on your team.”

“No,” I retorted, “you find a way to turn them into winners.” I turned to Fowler. His face was sheet white. “You’re up. What are you waiting for? And get your cap out of your eyes!” He gulped and hurried off to the plate.

The crowd craned forward. The pitcher paused, shrinking his estimate of the strike zone to correspond to Fowler’s short frame. The catcher squatted lower. At second and third, our runners edged off the base. The ball whizzed toward home plate. There was a wild swing, a whack, and shouts as a crooked drive veered outside first base.

“Foul ball!”

Come on, Fowler, I prayed. Don’t blow it now. And suddenly there came an answering call.

“Sock it, Fowler! You can do it! Blast that ball out of the park!”

It was Wendy, on her feet in the bleachers, shaking her fists above her head. She jumped onto the seat and yelled louder.

“Whack it! Knock it! Rock it! Sock it!”

I leaped up from the dugout and added my cry to hers. “Fowler! You can do it! Fow-ler, Fow-ler, Fow-ler!”

The crowd looked from Wendy to me as if we had lost our minds. The pitcher dropped his arm and scratched his head. Then two more voices rose behind me—“Fow-ler, Fow-ler!”—and I turned in amazement to see Joe Henshaw and Craig Riley on their feet shouting. Then the whole team was chanting, the wives and girlfriends joining Wendy on the seats, all of us except Brian cheering, “Fow-ler, Fow-ler, Fow-ler!”

Fowler lifted his cap. He shouldered his bat. The pitcher drew ball and glove up to his chest, wound up, let fly. Fowler twisted to meet it. There was a magnificent crack! as leather and wood connected…

Yes! The ball arced into the air and my heart flew with it. Yes! This was the way it should be! I had done the right thing in fourth grade, and this proved it once and for all. Our first runner scored, the next rounded third, and Fowler whirled like an out-of-control windmill past the astonished first baseman. The left fielder dashed out in futile pursuit, straining his mitt, searching blindly into the blaze of the setting sun. As the ball dropped from the sky he stretched and fell backward in the dust.

“Ohhhhhhhh!”

“What? What?” I craned my head to follow the crowd’s gaze. Our second runner touched home, and my teammates surged to the plate. Our rivals were shouting and pointing to left field where two of them had rushed to assist their fallen player. Brian stood alone, twisting his cap in his hands as if he would wrench it in two.

No! Across the diamond, wild cheers broke out from the other team as their fielder rose groggily to his feet and held his glove high to expose the fatal ball. At home plate, where Joe and Craig had just hoisted Fowler on their shoulders, everyone grew quiet. They lowered Fowler slowly as Brian and I approached.

Fowler looked regretfully to where the triumphant fielder was being mobbed by his comrades. He pushed up his glasses. “I guess it was somebody else’s day to be the hero.”

The crowd began to disperse, families descending from the bleachers, the winners coming in to the plate. They shook our hands in passing, and their captain sought me out.

“It was a great game,” he said, with a nod that included all of us. “You guys are quite a team.”

“Paul.” Brian’s voice cut into the evening, and I froze even as the others continued on their way. “Well,” he said primly, “second place. Can you explain to me why we should be satisfied with that?”

I gave a sigh. “Oh, grow up, Brian,” I said. “This isn’t fourth grade.”

As I turned away I felt Wendy’s hand slip into mine. She led me to the bleachers, and we sat on the bottom row. Brian marched off, followed by half the team. But the rest, including Fowler, had begun laughing, pointing fingers at each other and crowing over their better plays. Fowler trotted toward us, beaming.

“Hey, Paul, we’re going out for a beer to celebrate. You and Wendy want to come?”

“No thanks, Fowler. Not tonight.”

“Okay.” He looked at Wendy and gave me a broad wink before scampering off.

“It isn’t supposed to happen this way,” I said, slapping down my mitt and gesturing to the worn diamond. “When you do the right thing, there’s supposed to be a miraculous ending with floodlights and fireworks. Instead Brian’s going to fire me tomorrow morning, and you’re never going to marry a second-place finisher who’s out of a job.”

“Yes, I am.” Wendy’s hand tightened on mine. “Tell me, don’t you think marriage is a lot like team sports? So I guess that twenty years from now, when we’ve had our share of outs and losses, you won’t trade me for a younger player.”

I put my arm around her, and she laid her head against my chest. At the edge of the field my team disappeared in the falling dusk, a small figure bobbing amidst the taller ones. Slowly the dark obscured the chalk lines, the bases, the mound, and the smile growing on my face. I took off my cap and with a fling of my arm I sent it high into the air.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1992)

Bellowing Ark, May/June 1992

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