Sit down, take a breakTitle: Veteran Leadership
Author: Oliver Lee Bateman
Category: Fiction

I’m sitting in our team’s locker room, slumped down in a folding chair, trying not to look at the man who took my job.

“How does it feel to play with someone like J.P. Crackerjack?” a woman who shouldn’t be allowed in here asks me.

Her face is the color of an eggplant.  I can see spray-on tan lines on her shirt.  I already hate her guts. Why shouldn’t I, you know?  I’m having a hard time of it these days.

“It’s an honor and a privilege, Miss McCleary,” I say in my sweetest and most gentlemanly voice.   I’m a proper southern boy, kept around to provide veteran leadership, and interviews like these are my bread-and-butter. “Honest to gracious, it is such a thrill to watch him play.”

J.P. Crackerjack, who probably doesn’t have brain one in that big fool head of his, is a prodigy.  He stands to break “Herc” Broadsides’ single season home run record and I doubt he’ll stop there.  He’s also the worst fielding first baseman of all time, and I should know because we play the same position.     

“What I mean to say, Miss McCleary, is that he’s redefining the position.  He’s doing things out there that nobody else can do.  He’s special, one of a kind, once in a generation.”

Eight years ago, I was this team’s third round draft pick out of State University.  Fifty-seventh best prospect in the majors two years after that.  When “Two-by-Four” Riggs left as a free agent, I took his place in the lineup.  In my four seasons as a starter, I got on base 35 percent of the time, averaged 20 home runs a year, and played flawless defense.

“Do you think he has a chance at the record?”  When she says this, she runs her tongue over her lips in a way I find suggestive.  I shouldn’t find anything about this woman arousing, seeing as how she’s so terrible, and yet there it is.  I wish I were the kind of guy who could ravish a woman like this, the kind of guy who couldn’t care less about his ex-wife, his kids, any of it really.

“Sure as shooting I do, ma’am.  I think he has as good a chance at 71 as anybody does, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”  She laughs at my corn-pone turns of phrase, which I guess is what someone in her position has to do.

While I’m talking to her, J.P. Crackerjack is picking his nose.  I can’t help glancing over at him, and I see he has this huge booger on his index finger.  He puts the finger in his mouth, removes it, and I see that the booger has vanished.

Do people see what I see?  Could they?

“What do you think is the key to Mr. Crackerjack’s success, ‘Toe?’”

People see a 6’4”, towheaded rube with Popeye forearms and a winning smile. I just watched this man eat a booger, and because I’m five inches shorter and can’t hit the curveball I’m his backup.

“Well, Ms. McCleary, J.P. is darn near the best bad-ball hitter in the league today.  You can’t throw him a pitch that he won’t go out of his way to hit.”

J.P. Crackerjack will set records for errors by a first baseman and strikeouts and nobody is going to say a thing.  He doesn’t bring anything to the table except these moon shots, only lucky for him the moon shots are all the fans want to see.

“Do you think you’ve been able to mentor him, to help him grow as a first baseman and as a person?”

She asks me this because she knows that’s the only thing I’m good for now.  It’s kind of sickening, and I’d much rather be a starter on a terrible team than a backup on this one, but here I am.  I hold this guy’s jock and the paychecks I get each month just about cover my alimony.

“J.P. has grown as a human being, grown by leaps and bounds.  More than that, he is starting to understand the little things, the inner game, the finer points.  Miss McCleary, he is going to be a great one, mark my words.”

A couple months back, J.P. Crackerjack raped some girl outside a bar in Texas.  Well, I don’t know if he actually raped her, but whatever happened wasn’t entirely aboveboard.  There was a settlement and not much media coverage, almost exactly like what happened last year when some Atlanta doctor got busted and claimed he was selling steroids to J.P.

“And how do you feel about your team’s chances?  Three years ago, you were two runs away from winning it all.  Do you think this is the year it comes together for the Spartans?”

This is the year, like the other years, where I wish I were J.P. Crackerjack.  It hasn’t been a bad ride for me, all things being equal, but I want something inside me—something decent and something awful at the same time—like whatever is inside him.   He ravishes women, graces billboards, endorses products, lives the dream.

“I sure do hope so, ma’am.  I have a good feeling about this one, but I’m an optimist at heart and I suppose that’s the feeling I have every season.  You play this game to win, you know.  The second you just start playing it just to play, well, you need to hang up the cleats.”

Who is J.P. Crackerjack?  He’s God’s gift to baseball is who he is, and right now His gift is naked from the waist down and scratching his crotch.

“Where do you see yourself next year, ‘Toe?’  Have you given any thought to coaching?  Maybe a position in the front office?”

Last week one of my daughters—both of whom are growing up just fine without my help–asked me if I would take her to the state fair so that she could watch the ponies.  I told her that I couldn’t, that I was traveling for work, and that maybe we would have some fun when I was off during the fall.

“You don’t even know if there are going to be ponies there,” I say, realizing almost instantly that this won’t, in the context of the interview, make the least bit of sense.

“Say again?” she asks, which is of course the polite thing to do.  She’s a beautiful woman, this McCleary.  I’d give a decade of my life to sleep with her.  I don’t have anything to say to her except for these sports clich├ęs, but even if I had anything else I wouldn’t say it.  Maybe J.P. Crackerjack—that prince, that prize!–could sweep her off her feet.  Before today’s game, I watched him cry while he was losing at a baseball video game.  Should I mention that now?  Is it important?

Oh my burden, so heavy and so light.

Oliver Lee Bateman is one of the co-founders of The Moustache Club of America, a literary collective (or "beehive," as the kids like to say) that specializes in postmodern flash fiction, schoolgirl diary entries, navel-gazing coming-of-age stories set at prestigious New England preparatory academies, and good clean fun. He is also a Ph.D. candidate and Andrew Mellon Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.