Jacques LaRocque, nickname Jockey Rocky, left fielder for the Providence Phantoms of the Northeastern League of Major League Baseball and last year’s recipient of the Most Valuable Player award, is about to commit murder.
LaRocque was drafted in the first round by the Phantoms out of the University of Arkansas, where he broke every standing NCAA batting record, and had subsequently won every batting and home run title in his three years in the Majors. He’s a big young man, lean and strong, supremely confident in his abilities and arrogantly so. But the Phantoms have never, since coming into the league in 1887, won a World Series title. In all that time the Phantoms have only appeared in three series, not counting this one.
In this, the seventh game against the mighty Stockton Condors who were heavily favored to win, LaRocque had tallied five RBI’s, including a one-run homer in the top-of-the-ninth to give the Phantoms an 8-6 lead. The Stockton home crowd groaned in anxious disbelief as the second out in the bottom of the ninth was recorded, reducing the Condors to a single remaining out. LaRocque’s body was taught in anticipation and he could feel his brain tingling and bubbling like champaign. He knew he would become a World Champion.
Then the Condor’s number seven hitter fouled the ball off six times and eventually drew a walk, and the number eight hitter was nicked by a pitch at the thigh on a 3-1 count to put two men on with two out, and the number nine hitter, the left handed, great fielding but light hitting second baseman Carmelo Pizarro coming to the plate. There was a palatable shift in the Earth’s polarity, the moans of the crowd transposed into electric shrieks of 45,000-plus standing room human beings deliberately trying to scream themselves hoarse. Only problem being that Pizarro had only one scratch single in the entire series and had never had one against the Phantoms reliever currently on the mound. LaRocque salivated in anticipation.
It could be that the murder was ordered by the Phantoms’ manager who did not pull LaRocque, not known for his defensive prowess, for a defensive replacement. But the manager felt Jockey Rocky deserved to be on the field at the end. Or it could be the word came from the bench coach, who ordered the players on the field into an extreme right-side shift, because the left-handed Pizarro hit the ball in that direction every time. That shift meant LaRocque was positioned so far to the right he was almost in center field, with a huge amount of ground uncovered in left field. Or the guilty party could be the pitcher, who on the first pitch tossed Pizzaro what was supposed to be a hard breaking slider that would start inside then break over the right corner of the plate, but instead started belt-high in the middle of the plate and broke only a little towards the outside, which Pizzaro, having already choked up, sliced into left field.
LaRocque was convinced he could get to it and sprang after it. Just a slow little blooper, slicing towards the line with just enough height he could almost feel it landing safely, basket style, into his glove, even though the smart play would be to lay up, let it land and then corral it to hold Pizzaro to a little single and protect a run from scoring. He raced after it, knew, knew with absolute certainty he would get to it, ran faster than he’d ever run in his life, ran so hard his legs felt like they might explode, ran so fast his hat flew off his head, reached his glove out as far he could stretch and dove for the ball now falling in a perfect trajectory into his grasp.
And missed. The ball barely nicked a piece of the glove and went scooting back into the left field corner, all the way to the wall, the deepest part of the field.
The shot went right into the heart of a man named Eddie Malinski, sitting on his couch in front of his TV 2,800 miles away.
LaRocque quickly gathered himself off the ground and chased after the ball, utterly confused by what was happening. The Condors’ baserunners racing like falcons towards home, the ball ricocheting around the left field corner. It took LaRocque three attempts to finally gather it in and heave it towards the cutoff man, who turned to fire it home just as Pizzaro crossed the plate. The Condors were champions on an inside the park home run hit by their least threatening hitter, past the outstretched glove of the Phantoms marquee star, who stood befuddled and disbelieving with his mouth agape as the Condors celebrated around home plate and the crowd convulsed in raucous joy.
Eddie Malinski slumped off the couch to the floor, hand to his chest, eyes unable to look away. He had been a Phantoms fan all his life. When he was in his early teens it looked one year like the Phantoms would finally win it all and Eddie expected them too because, after all, wasn’t it their turn? Wasn’t it his turn? Everybody gets a turn, right? But the Phantoms collapsed down the stretch and Eddie realized that he didn’t get a turn. And the certainty he would never get a turn dogged him, affected his self confidence in everything he did for the rest of his life. A World Series win now, even at this later stage, would have put all that to bed and given him a certain contentment with his life, but no. Just no.
That, however, was only the shot. The bullet came from the person on the couch next to him, his wife of 34 years, who’d been watching absently while reading a gossip magazine, who said, “Oh, for pete’s sake, Eddie, it’s just a stupid game, who cares! Chill out! Besides, everybody knows the Phantoms will never win.”
Every bit of hope still beating in Eddie’s chest died. Rubbed out. Murdered.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.