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James Blakey
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TOUGH GAME

 

by James Blakey

 

 

 

Dubler positioned himself five feet from the bag, pounded his fist into his glove, and leaned forward on the balls of his feet.

Nakamura’s pitch was inside. Murphy turned on it, hammering the ball down the third base line. Dubler stuck out his glove. He couldn’t field it but managed to knock it down. After a mad scramble, and with no time to look back the runner at second, he launched his throw to first base. The ball sailed wildly over Arroyo’s outstretched glove into the stands.

Dubler, hands on his hips, kicked at the dirt, and stared at the ground.

“Batter to second base, and the runner on second will score, giving the Monarchs the lead,” the radio announcer told his listeners. “Dubler’s having a tough game. Struck out twice, and that’s his third error in as many innings.”

A series of boos filled the air as the Dragons’ fans registered their displeasure with Dubler’s performance. But in the front row, a man in a gray suit and a fedora smiled.

 

#

 

“One out in the bottom of the ninth, and the Dragons have men on first and second,” the announcer said. “Finally, a chance for Dubler to redeem himself. He’s oh for four on the day with three strikeouts. Last time up in the seventh, he tapped a weak grounder to second.”

Dubler walked toward the batter’s box, his face etched with grim determination. The fans greeted him with a Bronx cheer.

The first pitch was a fastball high and inside, sending Dubler to the ground.

“Ball one!” called the umpire.

Dubler stared down the pitcher and gritted his teeth.

The second pitch broke early, and in the dirt. Dubler, appearing to be badly fooled, swung and missed. The spin on the ball sent it bouncing away from the catcher all the way to the wall. The runners advanced to second and third. With first base open, the opposing manager called for an intentional walk, taking the bat out of Dubler’s hands.

He walked sullenly to first base and felt the pit in his stomach grow. Before he had time to formulate a plan, Gorman crushed the first pitch over the left field wall for a game-winning grand slam.

Twenty thousand happy Dragons’ fans celebrated deliriously. The man in the fedora didn’t.

 

#

 

Dubler sat in front of his locker, his head drooping.

“Don’t be low. We won!” Arroyo slapped him on the shoulder. “You had a tough game, amigo. But that’s okay, we’re here to pick each other up.”

Dubler looked up and managed a weak smile.

“Tough game, Dubler.” Carolyn Rodgers, the blond reporter from the cable station, thrust a microphone in his face. “What happened out there?”

Dubler slapped the microphone away. “Why don’t you talk to Gorman? He’s the hero.”

“Hey guys!” shouted Simmons. “Who’s up for a little fun tonight at Engine Forty-Nine? First round’s on me.”

The clubhouse roared with approval.

“How about you, Dubler?”

Dubler shook his head. “You guys go on without me. I think I might be coming down with the flu.”

“What’s that?” Scott Blackbell, the Dragon’s manager, pointed a bony finger at Dubler. “Next time, you’re feeling sick, let me know. Don’t pull that ironman crap on me.”

“Sure thing, Skipper.”

 

#

 

Dubler avoided the remaining reporters, showered, and picked at the food from the post-game spread. When there was no one left in the clubhouse, he grabbed his bag and walked to his truck.

In the gloom he saw a small figure lingering near his F-250. Was it some kid waiting for an autograph? Security was supposed to keep them away. As he got closer to the truck, he recognized Louie in his trademark fedora. Dubler swallowed hard.

“Hey there, Mr. Baseball,” Louie said. “You really let me down today.”

Dubler shook his head. “Did you see the game? I did my worst without being obvious about it.”

 

“Oh. I saw. But this is the third time you’ve been a disappointment. My friends are out a lot of money, and they’re not happy.”

“Look, I’ll do better, or rather worse, tomorrow,” Dubler said. “It was a really tough game.”

“Things are going to get a whole lot tougher.” Louie pulled out a stainless-steel semi-auto pistol and fired twice into Dubler’s chest.

Dubler fell to the ground, his eyes filled with disbelief.

“You play baseball, you know the rules. Today was your third strike,” Louie said. “And now you’re out.”

 

 

James Blakey’s fiction has appeared in Mystery Weekly, Crimson Streets, and Over My Dead Body. His story “The Bicycle Thief” won a 2019 Derringer Award. He lives in suburban Philadelphia, where he works as a network engineer for a software consulting company. When James isn’t working or writing, he can be found on the hiking trail—he’s climbed thirty-eight of the fifty U.S. state high points—or bike-camping his way up and down the East Coast. Find him at www.JamesBlakeyWrites.com.

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