"It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift."
-Roger Angell, "Agincourt and After"
Jared hadn't been in a Major League ballpark for five years. If it had been up to him, he would have chosen to be in another one, almost any other, right now. This particular ballpark hadn't existed the last time he'd played in the majors and, like many of the newly-constructed parks, it was dismal in its ugliness. Sure, most of the very newest ones were all pretty and high-tech, but this one had been built in the gap before baseball became cool again. There was a dome, for one thing, which no one ever liked, and catwalks that seemed to serve no purpose and go nowhere, and, of course, Astroturf, garish and green in a sort of fake-cheerful way. The Vancouver Cougars played in this park, showing off for a mixture of bandwagon folks (during their occasional hot streaks) and loyal fans. The loyalty was touching, considering they were an expansion team who'd only existed for fifteen years or so. It was also a little confusing, even in baseball; the Vancouver Cougars had never rewarded the faithful with anything even remotely resembling a pennant, and showed no signs of doing so in the future.
"We've had a lot of injuries from that Astroturf," Kripke, the manager, had said earlier, rather dourly, while giving him a tour. "A lot of ankle injuries."
"Look," he was saying now. Jared sat across from him in the warm, cramped office, sweating, not just from the heat. He'd done some good throwing earlier and was glad of it, but Kripke was a weird little guy, and he was making Jared even more nervous than he would have been otherwise. "We've got an offer for you, Padalecki. Sometimes you'll be in the bullpen. Sometimes we'll use you as our fifth starter, depending on how you perform." He paused. Jared nodded, fighting down the surge of relief. He didn't want to look too eager. "But the offer's a little unusual."
Jared had expected that even before his agent had warned him about it. Kripke was known for trying weird stuff that sometimes worked and usually didn't. Jared had read that one time, back in the old days of baseball, P.K. Wrigley had hired a man to put the evil eye on the other teams' pitchers at Wrigley Field. Jared didn't think the Cougars had tried that yet, but it sounded like old P.K. Wrigley would fit right in with their club. If they ever actually made it to a World Series, he was pretty sure you could bet on seeing some guy behind home plate, flashing hex signs. "You know our catcher?"
"Ackles, right?" Jared said. "Jensen? I know the name. Like Jensen Lewis. I don't know him personally."
Kripke snorted, even though nothing appeared to be funny. This made Jared a little more nervous. "Personally, right." He sighed, looking resigned. "Come out to the field. There's something I want you to see."
They walked out and stood in the first row of bleachers. The field looked a little better with the sun setting, its harsh edges softened by the gold and pink light, the Astroturf just another pretty expanse of green. Men in white-and-gold uniforms ran laps around the field or tossed baseballs back and forth. Several players stood around in a small group, their backs to Jared and Kripke, observing something Jared couldn't see. He could hear it well enough, though.
"You know the best thing you could do for this team?" an extremely angry person was saying, a person who clearly was not enjoying the nice sunset, or anything about life on any level at all. "The best fucking thing you could do for this team is drop dead on your way home tonight. You think you could manage that one? Because then maybe, just maybe, we could get somebody up in this fucking bullpen who actually knows how to throw a fucking fastball."
Jared looked sideways at Kripke. "Well, now," he said. "Is that - "
Kripke smiled, looking more cheerful already. As the bystanders on the field moved around, Jared saw a kid with a ball in his hand, looking on the verge of tears, and, standing with his back to them, a guy wearing a mask and chest protector. He was on the tall side, not quite as sturdy as your typical catcher, and that was all Jared could see of him. His jersey, of course, said ACKLES across the back.
Kripke watched the scene with disgust but not surprise, which told Jared that this was pretty much business as usual. He didn't like the thought. "One thing I keep hearing about you, Padalecki," Kripke said, "is that you're a people person."
It didn't sound at all like a compliment. "Thank you?" Jared ventured anyway.
"You shouldn't thank me," he snapped. "That means you've proven yourself to be an unreliable ballplayer. Which you already know."
"That's fair enough," Jared said quietly.
Kripke nodded. "You're a liability, actually. Which I guess you also know. You're probably wondering why you're here."
"Well, yeah, since you mention it," Jared said.
"You're not here just because of your ERA," Kripke said. "You're here," he paused to spit a long, emphatic stream of tobacco onto the Astroturf, "because of that." And he jerked his thumb towards their catcher, who looked about ready to start chasing the rookie kid around the field, maybe hitting him with his gear.
"He's a liability, too," Kripke went on, staring hard at Jared.
"I see," said Jared, who was beginning to.
"Been around since he was eighteen or something," Kripke said. "Maybe he wasn't quite as bad back then, I don't know, but that was a long time ago. And now he's getting too old for this, especially with that elbow, and he knows it, and it's making him meaner than ever. He's still got talent and I'd like to keep him - we'd have to give up a lot of men to get another catcher who's as solid as he is. But I don't know if we can stand another season with him. We've got this backup catcher, Kelly. He's got a lot of potential, and we'd be happy if he could take Ackles' place someday soon, but he's not ready yet." He took off his glasses, rubbed them on his shirt.
"So, Padalecki, here's what we're offering. I know you managed to get along with our whole triple-A team, even the guys who fight with everybody. You're going to have to work with Ackles every day anyway, so get him under control. I'm not saying he has to be Mother Teresa, just get him to act like a human being so nobody'll kill him in the middle of a game, which is the last thing I need. You do that and keep your pitching like it is now and we'll keep you on, maybe even see about starting you. If you fuck up, we're sending you back to triple-A and trading him to the most desolate team I can find. Oh, and don't fucking steal anything or start any fights, or you're out. What do you say?"
"Well," Jared said, drawing the moment out a little, trying to preserve whatever he could of his dignity. There was no question of what he'd say, though, and never had been. Jared had known that from the moment he'd walked into their terrible stadium - his terrible stadium, now, he thought with a mixture of relief and irritation. His agent had told him, straight up as she could, that they'd take whatever he was offered and like it. "No matter what crazy thing he proposes," she'd said, "We're going to tell him yes. Do you have any idea what I had to go through to even get anyone to talk to you?"
So he knew there would be more formal meetings, of course, but the outcome would be the same: he'd be joining this going-nowhere team that had finished second-to-last in the NL West for the past several years, not even able to secure the distinction of coming in dead last. And he'd be shackled to this catcher who sounded like the worst person in baseball - if seasoned professionals didn't think they could make it through another season with him, how bad must he be? Jared was sure what he was seeing right now was only the beginning.
But Jared was grateful for all of it, even more grateful than his agent had been. He couldn't even feel sorry for himself for more than two seconds at a time, because the ludicrous situation he was about to agree to was entirely his own fault. Five years ago he'd been signed to a real team, picked up a beautiful advance, and couldn't have been more satisfied with the world or his place in it.
He didn't like to think too often about what he'd gone out and done with it all. He'd always been naturally cheerful enough to irritate plenty of friends and family members, but when he thought about everything he'd thrown away, how unbelievably stupid he'd been, even he felt real regret. Incomprehension, too - had he really been that young? That idiotic? It seemed like fifty years ago, not five. There was no changing it, though, of course, and he'd paid for it.
He looked across the field at Jensen and remembered he wasn't close to done paying for it yet.
"I say yes," he said.
Kripke nodded, businesslike. "Good," he said. "I thought so. Walk with me."
They stepped onto the Astroturf, and all Jared could think about was how badly he didn't want to talk to this guy, his new catcher, but he figured he'd better start getting used to it fast. "You come out here and pitch like that during a game," Jensen was saying. "You just try that one. The fans are gonna build a statue of you just so they can set it the fuck on fire. They're gonna stomp on it and your talentless ashes are gonna get all over everyone's shoes."
That has got to be one ugly son of a bitch, Jared thought, watching in amazement. He imagined a cross between Randy Johnson and Julian Tavarez, but shorter. The kid stared at the ground, pretty clearly blinking back tears now. "You gonna cry?" Jensen said. "You think that's gonna clear up your pathetic smear of a changeup?" Jared added some warts and crossed eyes to his mental picture.
"Congratulations, Medina," said somebody off to the side of them. "You're not really on the team until he makes you cry."
"Fuck you, too," said Jensen. He pulled his mask off and threw it on the ground, turning around and locking eyes with Jared as he did it.
That's not fair, Jared thought, clearly if nonsensically. Jensen was obviously a monster of some kind, all right, but it didn't show on the outside. Jared hadn't seen too many players who looked like him, even though he was scowling at the moment, pouty little mouth and freckles and big green eyes. The furious scowl seemed like it might be his permanent expression, but still, it wouldn't be so bad having to stare at him for a good long while every day. Of course, that was assuming he kept his mouth shut.
Jensen stared back. "What the fuck are you looking at?" he said, then stomped off the field, not quite bumping shoulders with Jared as he passed.
"Huh," said Jared.
"Welcome to the team," said Eric. "I think he likes you already."
He met Jensen more formally the next day, out on the Astroturf that looked even worse in the bright daylight. "Ackles," Kripke said, pulling him aside from catching for another guy that Jared recognized, "this is Padalecki." Jared held out his hand and was a little surprised when Jensen shook it. "Padalecki?" Jensen said. "Don't expect me to remember that."
"Well," Jared said nicely, "it is written on the back of my jersey. Or can't you read?"
Jensen stared at him like a cobra. He tilted his head to the side and looked at Jared with new, if malevolent, interest. "I'm surprised they taught you to read in your corner of the state," he said, then added, "I heard you had some trouble on your last team, a while back. How'd that work out for you?"
Jared pretended to think about it. "Must not have been too bad," he said. "I'm here, aren't I? Nice of you to be concerned, though."
"You sure are," Jensen said, smiling unpleasantly. "Well, we'll see how long you last. You want to show me what you've got?"
Jared's first pitch was over 90, he could tell, and he was disappointed that Jensen caught it without reacting in pain. The second and third were solid, too, and then they started to slow down a little. He could see Jensen smirking behind the mask. "You have some trouble with staying power, Jared?" he called over, and Jared, imagining the next one breaking Jensen's face, threw a pitch that had to be close to a hundred, but went a little wild, so that Jensen had to hop up to catch it.
"That's not going to do you any good if you can't control it," Jensen said, not even flinching much as the ball hit his glove. Jared couldn't help but admire how graceful he was, how he seemed to predict right where the ball would appear every time. He could see why Kripke would rather not get rid of Jensen, even though he was a terrible specimen of humanity.
Jared noticed that they were attracting an audience. He'd hoped to meet his new teammates, some of whom made him feel a little starstruck, under conditions that didn't involve him being embarrassed by Jensen, but he couldn't help that. He still wanted to shove Jensen around, though, which was too bad, since they'd only known each other for five minutes.
"Good," Kripke said, writing something down in his notebook. "Padalecki, throw to Kelly for a while. Ackles, go take batting practice, and don't give Padalecki a hard time. It's only his first day." He said this in the exact preoccupied, slightly bored tone in which a parent would tell their especially diabolical child to stop pinching his brother. "You're going to be spending a lot of time together."
"And I'm sure looking forward to it," said Jensen, staring at Jared, who smiled back. Then he jogged off as a kid who looked almost young enough to still play in Little League appeared. "That was pretty impressive," he said to Jared. "Maybe we'll make it to third-to-last in the division this year after all. I'm Brock Kelly."
The one they were grooming to replace Jensen? Jared could imagine that would take a while. "Backup catcher, right?"
"That's right," Kelly said, crouching down. "You starting off in the bullpen?"
"Seems like it," Jared said. "How often do you get to start?"
"Not too often," Kelly said. "Jensen's usually pretty healthy, even with that elbow. Which is good. We need him."
"Yeah?" Jared said. "If I were you, I think I'd look at it a little differently."
"Jensen's - well, I won't say he's a nice guy once you get to know him," Kelly said, and Jared laughed. "He's taught me a lot, though. He's got plenty of experience."
"Still," Jared said, "it doesn't seem fair that you've got to wait around until he retires or gets traded before you get your shot."
Brock shrugged. "Management knows best, I guess. I'll be out there when I'm ready for it."
"Well, best of luck," Jared said, thinking more than ever that it was past time for Jensen to get his pretty face busted by a foul ball or an irate opposing pitcher. And he didn't even feel guilty about it.
Later that day, Jared saw their new Japanese pitcher talking to a couple of other guys, mostly from the bullpen, with somebody who was probably his translator. He went over to say hello, but hesitated when he saw Jensen approaching from the other side. The group Jensen had just come from was watching him with horrified interest, like gapers at a nasty car wreck. Jared was starting to notice that this was people's default expression around Jensen.
"Hey, amigo," Jensen drawled, shaking hands with the Japanese guy with what appeared to be great cheer. The translator looked alarmed. "Que paso?"
Jared felt himself assume the same horrified expression as the others. He couldn't tell if Jensen was just being an asshole or if he really thought this guy spoke Spanish. He wasn't even sure which would be worse. Of course, if a baseball player wasn't a white dude, there was about a 90% chance that he was either from the D.R. or Japanese. Jensen must have known that perfectly well, so if he'd just guessed the wrong one...could that even be possible? What was wrong with him?
Jensen smirked at Jared, probably content with the damage he'd caused, clapped the new guy on the back heartily and then wandered off. Their new pitcher stared after Jensen, smiling thinly, clearly wishing him dead. For a second, Jared watched Jensen's bowlegged stride, then turned back to the new guy, irritated with Jensen for leaving him to somehow follow up that awful greeting. "Hi," he said, as apologetically as he could. "That guy who just...did that? Don't worry about him. He's a really, really bad person."
And I've got about six months to make him act presentable, he thought with a mental shudder, but didn't say. But that was all right. The sun was warm, he could hear baseballs cracking into mitts, the best sound in the world, and the season ahead of them might as well have been endless.