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Prologue (Wherein we meet Karen playing the game)
They fought back tears as they walked on field, for it was the last game they would ever play in their home town of St. Cloud, Steve wrote. He shook his head and deleted the line.
For the seniors at St. Cloud--
My friend Jimmy Lakes--
Steve pushed back from his desk and looked through the window. Outside, the sun shone down like a weight on everything, a singed scent on the freon air, and the Negra Modello he'd been drinking was sour on his tongue.
"This is a joke," he said.
"You're a joke," Alan replied. "Write with your imaginary friend Jimmy Lakes. Those are always good for a laugh."
Steve looked back. "You shut up."
"Just pound something out. Mention all the names, praise everybody, sell the papers, get pasted into scrapbooks, and for god's sake let's turn this in and start drinking."
It was a great year for St. Cloud sports. This was a year of achievement and a year to remember for the community and the players who lived it. For senior Warren Rubin, there was a scholarship at local powerhouse FSU.
"Now you're talking," Alan said, and took another slug from his beer. "Come on, let's churn that out, you're paid by the word, not the hour."
Including time to consult his notes and get more beer, Steve had the article done in an hour and they left. Disk in hand, Steve walked outside and instantly felt pinpricks of water start to bead on his scalp.
"Don't sweat," Alan said. "You're only contributing to the humidity."
"I hate this state," Steve said.
"You'll get used to it."
"What do you think it is, 90?"
"It's not the heat, it's the humidity, Steve."
"Would you shut up?"
"I don't know what your problem is. It's almost baseball season for us."
Steve stepped into his Dart. "What are you talking about? Baseball started this spring. My fantasy team's getting their ass kicked. By you, no less."
"You should have taken Sheffield when you had the chance."
"I don't need to win that bad."
"Have you so soon forgotten? We get to cover the Gulf Coast Astros, based in your own Kissamyassi."
"Whatever. It's baseball."
"I don't care anymore."
"You should. Baseball, man. What do you care if it's single-A half-season?" Alan made a wanking gesture at Steve. "Baseball."
"I'm thinking of getting out of Orlando," Steve said.
"You should think about buying a car with air conditioning is what you should think about," Alan said. "What do you want to leave Orlando for, anyway?"
"I came out here to take a position for a small local paper as a sportswriter and now I'm working as a stringer for the Orlando daily and three other crappy papers no one's ever heard of and no one cares. I should be in college, getting a degree in journalism so I can do something. And this car is a classic."
"No degree ever got anyone anything," Alan said. He finished his beer and tossed it out the window. "Will you shut up for a minute?"
Steve stared ahead.
"We can get out of here this year, I guarantee."
"What are you talking about?"
"You know what I'm talking about. I've got the story, Steve, we can bust out into the nationals. I'm serious."
"What is it?"
"The Gulf Coast League reports in two weeks. Check out the roster." Alan pulled a folded sheet of paper from the back pocket of his shorts and pushed it towards Steve.
"I'm driving," Steve said.
"There's a player here on the list, supposed to show up, name of 'K. Moran'."
"Related to the Astros' pitching coach?"
Alan grinned widely and reclined on the bench seat.
Steve turned. "Are you shitting me?"
"I'm not shitting you. Karen Moran."
Steve looked back at the road.
"Who knows? How is she?"
"I don't know anything more than that -- I got the word from one of my women in the front office."
Steve stared into the sunlight and traffic and blinked.
"I'll be damned." He turned to Alan. "One of?"
Alan laughed nervously. "Uh...well..."
"You're going to get yourself run off two coasts," Steve said. "Karen Moran, huh?"
Steve sat alone in the stands, drinking steadily off one of his water bottles. The players on the field were almost all eighteen, maybe twenty, drafted out of the Dominican Republic, Panama, Venezuela, and the back lots of Confederate states. Alan was down on the field, circling, working the photo file. Steve leaned over the rail.
"Hey, Javier," he said.
The instructor looked up at Steve and walked across.
Steve introduced himself and then paused. "Where's Moran?"
Javier shrugged. "Haven't seen her yet."
"Hey, I remember seeing you manage triple-A in Portland for that month," Steve said. "You were a smart manager."
Javier snorted. "Lot of good it did me."
"That organization was worthless anyway. What do you think about having a woman on your team?"
Javier seemed to waver between wanting to confide and toeing the line. "Her dad does good work for the team," he finally said.
"You think this is a favor?"
"If it doesn't work out, it's no loss to us, you know?"
Steve nodded. "Was she drafted?"
Javier laughed. "No," he said. "But like I said, her dad does good work."
"She a pitcher?"
"I don't know, man."
"Well, thanks, Javier. I'll see you around."
Javier nodded, spit in the dust and returned to the fungo drill he was supervising.
Steve sat back in his seat and watched the workout. He picked up his phone and called the front office. In twelve hours he was in Yakima with Alan still bitching at his side.
It was twice as hot in Yakima. Instead of making Steve wish for shade and air conditioning, it made him want to die. Steve was used to this, and it felt like home.
"I'm going to turn into a spiced Slim Jim. It must be a hundred-and-ninety out here," Alan said.
They walked slowly up the drive to Moran home. It was a modest brick-and-wood house in a decent, open neighborhood.
"The trick," Steve said, "is to move as little as possible. Don't waste energy."
Steve knocked on the door. After a minute, a woman answered.
"Hi, is this the Moran residence?"
She regarded them for a minute.
"Yes," she said.
"Can I speak to Karen, please?"
This got Steve a strange look.
"I flew up here from Orlando. I'm with the Sentinel, and I heard she was going to play for the Gulf Coast Astros this season. I'd like to talk to her, if I could."
The woman's look changed to a different kind of suspicion.
"Oh. You're with the media."
"Yes, I'm sorry. Is it a bad time?"
The woman shook her head. "She's around back swimming laps. Can I get you something to drink?"
"Water," Alan said immediately.
"Maybe some iced tea?"
"That'd be great," Steve said.
The woman led them through the house and onto the patio. The coach's money was more evident here: the deck of the finest wood, the pool deep and long, maybe 3/4 Olympic length, all laid out beautifully.
Steve and Alan took seats in shaded patio chairs.
In the pool was a tall girl, swimming laps almost without splashing, switching strokes with every lap, her grace so natural they ignored it in favor of their drinks.
Karen stopped, much later, and stepped out.
"Who are you?" she asked, standing in the sun in her one-piece, wet hair behind her like a tail, drying before their eyes.
"I'm Steve Kelitts, of the Orlando Sentinel."
She regarded him neutrally. "You're ahead of the curve," she replied.
"I'd just like to talk to you for a minute."
"I don't have a media strategy yet," Karen replied, and she smiled. "Sorry."
"Isn't that pool warm?" Alan said, his face disgusted.
"Nah," Karen said. "Evaporation takes a lot of heat energy, keeps it real cool."
Steve nodded and took a sip of his iced tea. "I saw you play," he said.
Karen's expression changed, and her shoulders dropped a little. "Yeah?" she said. "How's that?"
"I used to be the high school sports section for most of East Oregon. You played soccer for Yakima, came down one time and made Jessica Spacek, star defender, look like a retarded brick. Scored two goals, if I remember."
Karen laughed. "Yeah."
"I don't think I ever saw anything as impressive," Steve said.
Karen picked up a towel and sat down. "How'd you get to be in Orlando, then?"
"I was writing for my high school paper and a bunch of the locals. So instead of going to college and getting a degree I decided to take a job with a little Florida paper and work my way up in a major market. Paper went under, now I'm a stringer."
"So you don't really work for the Sentinel."
"I do, I do. I'm just not in the staff box just yet."
Karen nodded. Steve and Alan sat in the shade, trying not to check her out stupidly.
"Who's he?" Karen asked, looking at Alan.
"He's our photographer-in-exile."
"Long story," Steve said, and waved his tea. "Not here. We'll be wandering around town later, maybe interviewing people, taking scenic pictures in case we get to do a puff piece."
"Please don't," Karen said.
"We flew all the way up here," he said. "We've got to do some work."
"Please. Look, I'm on the team as a favor to my dad. I didn't even get drafted. If I wash out and you make a big deal out of it... it's going to be an embarrassment for everyone."
"It's still a good story, you trying."
Steve paused. "It's funny, I've talked to some people already, got some quotes. Everyone here knows who you are. And they all, even the ones with the redneck hats drinking Schmidt's Ice on the corner, they all seem to think you can make it but they're not willing to say that in as many words. They all wish you luck in the same way, like they've been coached on it. Or maybe they're not willing to jinx it. I think they know something. So what's next, Karen? What're you going to do?"
Karen shook her head in the same way her mom had. "Tonight, I talk to my dad. In two days, I fly to Orlando without a position, number, uniform, or any idea of what's going to happen."
She stood up and rolled her towel around her shoulders. She looked at Steve with steady grey eyes. "Then I play in the minor leagues."
To Chapter Two
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