Don’t think about it.
Do. Not. Think. About. It.
The funny thing about trying not to think about something is that it inevitably becomes the one thing you do think about.
I step off the mound and look at Caden, who is my catcher behind the plate. He nods at me. He gets it. He’s one of the few people who does. He’s also the only person I’ll let talk to me when there is even the slightest possibility of a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game. Of course he’s the only person. He’s my catcher. We might as well be married with as much time as we spend together – on the field and off. And, both on the field and off, he’s the only person who can talk me down or pick me up, depending on the need.
I glance up at the scoreboard. Seventh inning. This is when the absolute improbability of either a no-hitter or a perfect game starts turning into a remote possibility.
I pitched a no-hitter two years ago, and that alone is incredible. But a perfect game – a game in which there are no runs, hits, walks or errors – that is the Holy Fucking Grail of baseball. Only a handful of major league pitchers have ever thrown one.
I look back at my catcher who is raising a scolding brow at me from under his facemask. I don’t need to see it to know he’s doing it. I know it’s there. And in all fairness, he should be raising a brow at me. I’m going to completely screw this up if I overthink the game.
Don’t think. Just throw. Caden gives me a good target every time. Just play catch with the catcher. Don’t even think about the batter. Get your sign and do your job.
I glance around at the crowd. Forty-thousand strong today. Saturdays always draw the best attendance. There are a few girls holding up signs behind the dugout declaring their love for me.
It doesn’t help. They are only saying that because I’m a bad-ass pitcher. It does nothing to get my head out of the game. Why can’t one of them hold up a sign with a joke on it or something?
I close my eyes and count backwards from five. I clear my head as best I can. I step back on the mound and look at Caden for the sign. Breaking ball. It’s his go-to call when things are getting hairy.
I wind up for the pitch and release it down the left side, watching the way it curves across the midline and ends up on the inside right corner of the plate. That’s why batters hate lefty pitchers – we practically graze the hair on their sacs with our curve balls.
The ump pulls his right arm across his body, and in a short, sharp motion, makes a fist next to his head as he calls the guy out.
The fans go crazy as we go back to the dugout.
I get a few pats on the back. But no one speaks to me. No one but Caden. My other teammates barely even look at me. It’s bad juju and nobody wants to jinx it.
“Murphy wanted me to invite you for dinner. She’s making pot roast.”
I laugh. That’s what I like about Caden, he reads me like a damn book and always knows what to say.
“Your fiancée’s pot roast is amazing. So, hell yes.” I put my jacket on to keep my arm warm on this cool fall day.
Caden puts on his batting helmet and heads out of the dugout. It’s then that I notice there is a larger buffer around me than usual. In the dugout, we all seem to have our assigned spaces. Baseball is a game with a lot of superstition. We sit in the same spot every time. But today that is not the case. I’ve been given a wide berth like a force field is around me that people are afraid to penetrate. And when I get up to stand at the railing to watch Caden at bat, it’s like the parting of the Red Sea. I shake my head and laugh quietly.
I watch as Caden’s hit brings in Conner, adding yet another RBI to his growing number. But then they double-up on Spencer, getting him out at first and Caden out at second, ending the first half of the eighth inning.
Spencer comes back into the dugout, throwing his helmet against the far wall. Caden offers him a few words of encouragement while putting on his catcher’s gear. Then Caden turns his focus to me as I remove my jacket and loosen up my arm.
“Let’s do this,” he says, giving me a chin up.
It’s what we say to each other every time we take the field together. Nothing is different about this game and it’s his way of telling me that.
I make my way to the mound, careful not to step on the foul line.
I throw my warm-up pitches and I can tell the crowd is feeling the excitement. They all want it. They want a perfect game. And I want to give it to them more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life.
Well, almost anything. I frown and shake the bad thoughts away.
With each strike I throw, the crowd gets increasingly boisterous. They are all on their feet and the stadium has come alive.
The second batter of the inning comes up. I clear my head and step up to throw a fastball that gets fouled into left field. Conner runs over and catches it, getting the batter out to the collective cheers of the stadium. The fans want this to happen as much as I do.
Who am I kidding? Nobody wants this as much as I do.
I start counting them – four batters left. Twelve more strikes to glory.
Again, I step off the mound and take a breath. Caden walks toward me with a shit-eating grin on his face.
“We leave for Chicago tomorrow,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, wondering why the hell he called time to come tell me the obvious.
“Tanya’s in Chicago, isn’t she?”
I can’t help it when the sides of my mouth curve up into a smug smile.
“What’s your record with her?” he asks.
“Damn, Brady, even I haven’t been able to give a woman five orgasms in one night.” He holds out his glove for me to tap with mine. Then he turns and walks back behind the plate, never having said one thing baseball related.
I shake my head at his unconventional ways. And I think about all the things I can do to break that record tomorrow night as I strike out the third batter of the inning.
Caden smiles at me as we walk back to the dugout. He knows Tanya doesn’t mean anything to me. None of them do. Not really. They are just something fun to take my mind off things when I visit each city. It took me a while, but I finally did it. I finally have one girl in each city where we play ball. Well, except New York and Tampa where I spend most of my time. It’s not like I have thirty girlfriends or anything. They all know the score. I’ve told all of them not to expect my loyalty, my sincerity, and most definitely not my heart. All those things died five years ago.
We take our seats in the usual places as Sawyer gets ready to go to bat.
“Put one out there, Mills,” I say.
He pats his chest right over his heart. “For you, dude.”
All eyes turn to Sawyer, mouths agape that someone other than Caden would speak to me at such a critical time. But what the hell do they expect when I spoke to him first?
“Fuck you,” Sawyer says to all of them before leaving the dugout.
A few empty cups and a can of chew get thrown at him before he makes his escape, and we all hear him mumble, “Prima donna pitchers and their stupid rules.”
I laugh. Sawyer Mills is one of my best friends, along with Caden, and he’s the least likely to put up with my shit. But the thing is, he’s as superstitious as the rest of us, and I really think he only spoke to me out of respect. Damn – did I just put a hex on the whole thing?
I step to the railing and watch him do exactly what I told him to, putting one deep into the left-field stands. I turn to watch Caden cringe, something he’s done ever since he hit a fan with a home run ball. The fan who is now his fiancée. But when he sees on the JumboTron that nobody was hit and the man who caught the ball gave it to a kid, he lets out a relieved sigh and high-fives some teammates.
When Sawyer comes back into the dugout, he doesn’t say anything to me, he just points at me and smiles. We look at each other like we both know what I did, what he did. I walk over and pat him on the back. “Nice job. It’s all on me.”
He nods. Good. I need him to know that if I fuck this up, it has nothing to do with him responding to my comment.
I sit on the bench and try to zone out for the rest of the inning. I think of Murphy and her award-winning pot roast. She’s pretty much the only female friend I have who I’m not sleeping with. And Caden would have my balls on a platter if I even looked at her the wrong way. But frankly, I no longer think of her like that. She’s become more like the sister I never had.
I know she feels sorry for me. She’s one of the few people who knows about my past. And even she doesn’t know the whole story. After she got engaged to Caden, I think she took me on as a project. A charity case. But she’s so damned nice and sincere, I don’t have the heart to tell her I don’t want anyone’s sympathy. So I take it begrudgingly and over the past year, she’s become one of my closest friends.
Murphy thinks she’s going to fix me. But I’m broken beyond repair. Baseball is my life now. It’s my one and only love. The one thing I can’t live without.
Someone touches my shoulder. “We’re up,” Caden says. “Let’s do this.”
I take in a deep breath. Deeper than any other breath I’ve ever taken. I count backwards from five as I blow it out. I throw my jacket on the bench and grab my glove. I nod at Caden as we part on the field, him going one way and me going the other.
It’s the ninth inning and I’m nervous as hell. Caden has already had to come out to calm me down after I struck out the first batter. I’ve done everything I can to stop thinking. I’m tapped out.
Two more batters. Six strikes. I’ll go down in history.
Shut. The Fuck. Up.
I try to calm myself, but damn it if Jay Jarrison – the biggest, baddest, most intimidating son-of-a-bitch to ever walk up to the plate – isn’t sauntering out onto the field like he knows he’s going to break me.
I dig deep. I think of Tanya. I think of Crystal and Abby and Jenn and Holly. Hell, I think of me with Tanya, Crystal, Abby, Jenn, and Holly – at the same time. Anything to shut up the shitstorm in my head.