Jake Fitzgerald wasn’t even in the room when his carefully contained life was smashed right out of the park.
It rocketed over the field, his pulse zooming as he followed his manager down the stairs from the dugout in the top of the ninth. Their footsteps echoed dully in the dank tunnel leading to the visitors’ clubhouse in Boston, cleats scratching on concrete. Ted wouldn’t look at him. Gruff and unsmiling was Ted’s usual MO, but a different tension hunched his shoulders.
Jake had just been scratched from the lineup near the end of the game even though he wasn’t injured. Sure, his left knee ached with every step, but that was nothing new, and he sure as hell hadn’t complained about it. No, something was up, and as he followed Ted into the visiting manager’s office and closed the door, nausea churned his gut.
They stood there on the faded carpet by the desk, a small fridge humming with a slight rattle beside a brown couch and fluorescent lights harsh overhead. Black and white prints of baseball greats watched from behind glass frames on the beige walls.
Ted took a deep breath and blew it out, his gaze still on the floor. When he raised his head, his eyes glistened, and an electric jolt of terror seized Jake.
“What is it? My mom?” Jake’s voice came out hoarse. The office smelled faintly of lemony disinfectant, and he thought of the hospital where his father had died. Oh Jesus.
“No, no. Nothing like that.” Ted shook his head and took off his cap, scrubbing a hand over his buzzed black hair, his wrinkled face even more creased. “Hell, Fitz. You’re traded. I can’t believe it’s going down like this, but here we are.”
A bark of laughter scraped Jake’s dry throat as the relief that his mom was okay butted up against incredulity. “But Norwalk said he’d give me a heads up if there were talks with other teams. We had an agreement.” Verbal, but still. “He knew I wanted to finish out my career here. He promised if anything changed, he’d warn me. We shook on it.”
Ted grimaced and looked like he wanted to spit. “I’m sorry, Fitz. I guess business is business and money is money, and a man’s word don’t mean shit anymore.”
Traded. The word raked through Jake’s mind, all sharp edges. He managed to get out, “Where?”
Trying to smile, Ted said, “Well, do you have your passport?”
An iron band constricted Jake’s lungs. “Toronto?”
The memory of an easy smile and twinkling eyes burst into his mind. Brandon. Lost to Jake years ago. Only stony silence and avoidance existed between them now—if they had to play together again it would be a disaster. Jake had ruined everything, and Brandon would never forgive him. Should never forgive him.
Blinking, Jake’s mind spun as he tried to remember everything he knew about the new Ottawa team, which wasn’t a heck of a lot. The Capitals had been renamed and built from the ashes of a failed Florida franchise and were in their second year.
They’d visited San Fran the previous year, and Jake’s team had gone up to Ottawa for two games, but hadn’t met yet for interdivision play this season. The Ottawa crowds had been enthusiastic, and the Caps’ new dome was state of the art.
“Ottawa,” Jake repeated. He took off his cap, staring at the gray and green. He’d have new colors now. New uniform, new home, new life.
He didn’t want any of it.
“They’re not doing bad,” Ted said. “Could actually nab the wild card this year or even the division title. You’ve got a better chance of making the playoffs with them.”
Jake bit back the urge to scoff. That was a pipe dream for a team in only its second season. And God, he hated to even think it, but he didn’t care about making the playoffs. He’d established a comfortable routine in San Fran over the last eight years. He had everything under control. Just the way he liked it. Now that control had been ripped away.
It was like a ball to the throat behind the plate, bouncing up and hammering the one spot his pads didn’t quite cover. Unable to breathe, feeling like he might actually die right there.
Inevitably, the panic receded, and he would shakily gasp for air, waiting for the next pitch.
Jake inhaled now, rolling his knotted shoulders. “I only have two years left on my contract. I’ll be thirty-six then, and I’m going to retire. Be lucky if my knees last that long. Why would they want me?”
Ted frowned. “They want you because you’re a hell of a ball player. One of the best damn catchers I’ve ever coached. When you came to us I thought, ‘Fuck me sideways, what am I going to do with a giant behind the plate?’ You’re not done yet. So don’t give me that shit.” His eyes blazed, gruff voice filling the room as he got fired up. “You know why they want you? Because they need a leader to set the tone. A vet with a cool head to inspire that new team. And damn it, you’ll do it. I know you’re blindsided right now, but this is gonna be a great change. Even if we’ll miss the hell out of you. Got it?”
Jake nodded, his throat tight and eyes burning.
Ted slapped Jake’s arm. “Okay then. Norwalk’s waiting on the phone.”
His throat closed up for a different reason. Nails digging into his palm, he snarled, “I don’t have anything to say. Not anything he wants to hear, at least.”
“I know, but you’ve got to talk to him anyway, so let’s get it done.” Ted turned to the phone on the desk and jabbed a few buttons. The speaker crackled to life, and he said, “I’ve got Fitz here with me. I’ve informed him of the trade.”
Henry Norwalk’s oily voice slithered from the speaker. “Hi, Fitz. We’ve got heavy hearts here in the office, but tough choices had to be made.”
Rolling his eyes, Jake only said, “Uh-huh.”
“I hope you know how much you’ve meant to this ball club and—”
“Not enough for you to be honest with me,” he bit out. “You gave me your word that you’d warn me of trade negotiations.”
Voices filled the hallway, a rumble of footsteps going by as the team headed to the clubhouse. Boston had been up by three runs, and Jake’s team had apparently failed to tie it in the top of the ninth. He heard Sanchez’s distinctive peal of laughter and someone’s reply, probably Owen or Manheim.
Jake realized with a pang that they weren’t his teammates anymore. This was how it went in baseball—players were traded around the league fairly regularly, part of a team one week and then facing them in different colors the next. His teammates were already in his rearview mirror, and he wasn’t even behind the wheel.
Norwalk droned on, but Jake could only focus on the sick, clammy powerlessness of knowing he’d taken his last at-bat with his team. That he’d caught his last pitch with them and hadn’t known it. He hadn’t even been able to mark the moment. After eight long years with the same team it was over, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
“—paying you the rest of your contract and you get that million-dollar trade bonus,” Norwalk continued. “It’s an excellent deal for you, Fitz.”
Jake managed to speak evenly. “It’s not about money. It’s about my life.”
Ted kept quiet in the corner while Norwalk said, “Well, I know it’s a tough part of baseball. But at least you don’t have a family to uproot. Heck, maybe you’ll find Miss Right up there.” He laughed awkwardly.
Jake had zero desire to find Mr. Right, let alone Miss. He’d already found the man he wanted to spend his life with, and it would never happen. Even if Brandon was gay or bi, which he wasn’t, Jake had destroyed their friendship. He’d let himself fall in love, and he would never, ever make that mistake again.
A memory of the hospital surfaced, squeaky shoes on linoleum in the hush of night, disinfectant and death in the air. Jake’s parents had been visiting him in San Francisco when his father had collapsed. They’d find out later the cancer was already in his bones.
Brandon had sat shoulder to shoulder with Jake in the hall outside his father’s room all night, even though the first pitch was at 12:07 the next day. Murmuring the stupidest jokes he could think of…
“Hey, J—why’d the girl smear peanut butter all over the road? To go with the traffic jam.”
Jake had to smile, a little piece of his heart lightening amid the sorrow.
“Why do bananas have to put on sunscreen before they go to the beach? Because they might peel.”
In the silence, Norwalk added, “You’re Canadian—this’ll be a homecoming for you. The fans will be thrilled.”
Jake shrugged even though Norwalk couldn’t see him. Sure, but he’d prefer to keep his life exactly the way it was.
Ted cleared his throat. “Okay, Henry. Can you patch us through to Ottawa now?”
“Will do. Fitz, I hope you understand. Tough business decisions have to be made sometimes. None of us enjoy it. But I have to do what’s right for the team.”
“Then don’t shake my hand and make promises you won’t keep.” Jake slumped on the couch, stretching out his long legs. Reddish dirt marred the green of his jersey where he’d slid into second in the fourth inning on a blooper from Moreno. He rubbed at it uselessly.
It was true trades were part of the game, and it was up to team owners to wheel and deal, no matter what the players wanted. It still sucked. He wondered what Norwalk had gotten in return from Ottawa. Probably pitching prospects, but it didn’t really matter. Either way, Jake was traded.
He tuned out until another voice came down the line, this one belonging to Martin Tyson, Ottawa’s general manager and leader in the front office. From what Jake vaguely recalled, Tyson had been GM in San Diego before making the move north.
“Hey there, Jake. You’re probably a bit thrown right now, but I want you to know how thrilled we are to have you on the team.”
Ted watched silently, leaning on a corner of the desk as Jake cleared his throat and sat up straighter on the couch. “Thank you. I didn’t see this coming, but…yeah. Um, thank you.”
“We need leadership, and I know you’re the perfect man to provide it. Your pitch-framing skills and command behind the plate are among the best in the majors. We’ve got a few young pitchers who need a firm hand and a more experienced catcher guiding them. Especially Agresta. He could be a Cy Young one day, but he needs discipline.”
“Agresta? Marco’s little brother?” Jake remembered an intense stare, a pimply face, untamed dark curls, and shy silence.
The season had started six weeks ago—how had Jake not even heard that little Nico was in the majors? Deep down, he knew the answer. He did his job, but his heart wasn’t in it. If he was honest, he knew when the leak started, like air escaping a tire so slowly you don’t notice at first. Since Brandon, baseball hadn’t been the same. Life hadn’t.
Tyson laughed. “The kid’s twenty-two. His rookie season.”
“Wow. And you’re having problems with him? I haven’t seen him in years, but I can’t imagine him being a prima donna.”
“Nah. He’s a little cocky at times, but he stays to himself in the clubhouse; keeps his head down. It’s his temper and impatience. First sign of trouble, he unravels. His command of the ball is outstanding, but he needs to control his emotions.”
“Okay, good to know.” It’d be interesting to see what kind of man Marco’s brother had become.
“Can’t wait to see you up here tomorrow, Fitz. Can I call you that?”
He blinked. No one had ever actually asked. “Of course. Everyone does.”
“Terrific. I know the team’s going to be just as excited as we are in the office. We’ll email you the flight info, okay?”
It wasn’t as if he had a choice, but Tyson seemed to be waiting for an answer. Jake said, “Yes. Thank you.”
“I know this is a big shakeup, but you’ll love it here. I’ll make sure of it personally. Have a good night and see you soon.”
Jake said his goodbyes, and Ted hung up the phone.
He wouldn’t even have a chance to go home from Boston first. The next time he saw the stadium in San Francisco, it would be from the visitors’ dugout. His chest ached as grief spasmed through him. He’d expected his retirement game to be there. He’d wanted to go out on his terms, and now his life was going to change completely, whether he liked it or not.
The truth was, he’d been considering walking on the rest of his contract. He didn’t need the money—had more millions than he’d ever know what to do with. If he’d gone to management, they’d probably have been delighted to save the cash and cut him loose early, get some young prospects to build the team. But that wouldn’t happen in Ottawa. They had their fill of rookies and wanted experience.
“Well, you know I hate to see you go,” Ted said. “But you’re going to do a bang-up job up there.”
Jake sat there on the couch in his dirty uniform—a uniform he’d never wear again. “This doesn’t feel real.”
“I hear you.” He opened the fridge and tossed Jake a can of beer before taking one for himself and flopping down beside him with a low groan. “Jesus, my sciatica. Take my advice—don’t ever get old.”
The cold can was already wet with condensation in his hand, and Jake popped the top and guzzled. “I’ll drink to that.”
After a few sips and moments of silence, Ted said quietly, “Sometimes change is just what the doctor ordered, even if we can’t see it at first.”
Jake took another gulp. The ball was long gone over the wall, and he had to circle the bases or get left behind in the dust.
“Ottawa? Isn’t it too cold for baseball up there?” On the tablet screen, Ron’s green eyes twinkled.
Despite himself, Jake huffed out a laugh. “You realize it’s almost June and we do have summer in Canada. But there’s a dome just in case.”
“That’s cool. Brand-new stadium to play in.” Ron sat back in his desk chair with a sigh. Books lined the shelves behind him. “But damn, I’ll miss you. Who’s going to tie me up and spank me now?”
A voice off-camera piped up, “Don’t look at me, honey.” Steve, Ron’s husband, appeared behind Ron’s chair. He leaned over and waved to the camera, light reflecting off his graying hair. “Hey, Fitz. Sorry to eavesdrop, but this one turns the volume up to eleven. How are you doing? Must be a real shock.”
“Yeah. I guess I’m processing.” In his boxers, Jake leaned back against the pillows on the king bed in his navy and cream hotel room, his tablet propped against the ice packs on his knees.
Beside him, his phone buzzed again, probably another teammate asking if he was okay. News of the trade wouldn’t go out until the morning, and Jake just didn’t have it in him to tell them right now.
“Well, Ron and his ass will really miss you,” Steve said with a wink. “He’s going to be a bear until he finds someone else to give him what he needs.” His smile faded. “But really, I hope you’re okay.”
“Thanks. I’ll survive. There are worse things in life, right?”
“I’m sure there are.” Steve gave Ron’s shoulders a squeeze. “Dinner’s ready in ten, but don’t rush. I’ll keep it warm.” To the camera, he added, “Take care of yourself in the great white north, and don’t be a stranger.”
When Steve was gone, Ron sighed again, his dark, bushy eyebrows drawing together. “I really will miss you. Who am I going to watch Survivor with now? Steve would rather eat glass.”
Jake chuckled. It was his and Ron’s standard weekly routine when he was at home—fuck for an hour or so, then catch up on the latest episode on the DVR with beer and pizza. Ron was in his late forties now, Steve a decade older, and their open marriage worked better than most relationships Jake had ever seen.
“We’ll have to Skype it. And I’ll be back in the Bay Area once in a while. I’ll miss hanging with you too.”
“You bet you will. You’ll have to find a new friend in Ottawa.”
Jake groaned, rubbing a hand over his head. In the small window in the corner of the screen, he saw that his sandy brown hair stuck up on end and his eyes already had dark circles beneath them. Surely they’d been there before, but he hadn’t noticed. “I’m too old to find someone else.”
Ron put on a faux sad face. “I know, it’s so hard being a thirty-year-old baseball star with millions of dollars, a square jaw, blue eyes, and an outrageously hot body. Oh, and you’re six-five. However will you find someone else to fuck?”
“I’m thirty-four,” Jake grumbled. “And you know it’s not… It’s hard, okay? I can’t trust just anyone. If I hook up with some random guy, next thing I know he’s tweeting about it.”
Ron sobered. “I know, man. I’m sorry.”
It had taken several interviews with Ron, who worked at a local newspaper, for Jake to trust him enough to go for friendly drinks off the record. Their mutual love for trashy reality shows had led to viewing nights at Jake’s house, and after too many drinks once they’d eventually discovered a mutual affinity for light BDSM.
It was the perfect arrangement—Jake took care of himself on the road and scratched his itch to get sweaty and dominant a few times during home stands.
“I’ll just stick to jerking off. I’m pretty good at it.”
“That you are. Although I still say coming out would go just fine.”
Jake’s neck tensed, and he rolled it back and forth. “It would be such a thing.” The idea of the headlines and questions and worry about how his teammates and fans would respond sent needles of sticky apprehension down his spine. “Most of the guys in the clubhouse wouldn’t mind, but some would. There’s still a conservative streak in baseball; a religious one. Although the league brass are making a real effort on inclusion, I’ll give them that. They’ve made it clear gay players will be supported. I just…” He sighed.
“It’s still tough. I hear you.”
“Growing up, homophobic comments flew around the locker room. Guys ribbing each other. Even if they don’t mean it, you still hear that shit. Not much now in the majors, but once in a while. I just want to do my job.”
Ron grimaced. “God, high school. The hateful things other kids said, and I never spoke up because I was terrified they’d know. They’d see right through me and turn on me instead of the nerdy kids who couldn’t throw a football or dunk a basketball the way I could. I was such a coward.”
Jake shifted uncomfortably, a hot flush spreading on his skin. “I know I’m being a coward now. There’s no excuse for it.”
“No, no. Coming out is personal for everyone. Who you tell and when you tell them should be your choice. I’m sorry. We live in a different world now, but despite everything that’s changed, there’s still a lot of hatred out there. Jesus, look at the anti-LGBT laws some states are trying to pass. It’s scary.”
“It is. Two steps forward, three back.” He scrubbed a hand over his head. “I just want to be judged for what I do on the field. What does it matter anyway? I’d still be the same player whether the world knows who I fuck or not.”
“There’s the rub, isn’t it? If you came out, it would show people that a gay man can play ball and be damn good at it. That sexuality doesn’t matter and we’re all equal. But coming out puts the spotlight on your sexuality and personal life. We all know there are gay and bi players in the majors, but none of you want to be the poster boy. And I don’t blame you.”
Jake exhaled slowly. “Thanks. I’m almost done. Two more seasons after this one. Then I can just fade away and have a normal life.”
“You could actually try dating.”
Scoffing, Jake rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mother.”
Dating wasn’t for him. Love wasn’t either. Love had cost him his best friend, and he was never going down that road again. He’d find another fuck buddy or two wherever he ended up after retirement, and that would be that. No muss, no fuss.
Ron asked, “Speaking of which, have you told your mom yet? She’s going to be over the moon.”
“It’s too late here now; she’s in bed by nine-thirty. I’ll call her in the morning.” He smiled. This was at least the one good thing about the trade—his mom would indeed be thrilled to have him closer to home, even if Ottawa was still at least a five-hour drive from Midland.
“Is Ottawa nice? I’ve never been.”
Jake pondered it as he shifted the ice packs slightly to get another angle on his knees. “Yeah, it’s nice. Pretty small and clean. I visited as a kid, and we were up there once last season, but I didn’t really pay attention. There are parliament buildings and stuff by the new stadium. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Whatever, I won’t be there too long.”
“I sure hope you’re going to fake some enthusiasm when you meet the press up there. Or—and this is a crazy idea, I know—you might actually look at the bright side for once and feel some. Get out of your rut. The Caps have had a good start, haven’t they? Who knows, you might make the postseason.”
“You sound like Ted giving me a pep talk. There’s no way it’ll happen. It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t need the playoffs. Everything was good in San Francisco.”
“No, everything was comfortable. There’s a difference.”
Jake pressed his lips into a thin line.
“Okay, that’s enough tough love for now. I’d better go eat, and you’d better get some sleep. But just think about this: When you were a little kid playing baseball instead of hockey up on the northern tundra—”
“Ontario is not tundra.”
Ron continued as if Jake hadn’t spoken. “Did you dream of a ho-hum career playing for a middling team? Cashing in your huge paycheck and not really giving a shit? Or did you dream about the big time? About winning it all? Did you eat and sleep baseball and love it?”
Memories flashed through Jake’s mind: In the backyard playing catch with Dad even after the frost came. Mom baking hundreds of butter tarts for the community fundraiser to buy him a ball machine, the house smelling like sweetness for days. Making the provincial team, so proud of the trillium flower on his jersey and his name sewn on the back in real lettering, not just an iron-on stencil.
Scholarship to college in Florida, the humidity unbearable but a funny, cool, sexy roommate in Brandon Kennedy. Drafted by Chicago, quick path to the majors as a catcher. Traded to Philly after a year, rooming with Brandon again while they played minor league ball—cheap beer and pretzels and late nights. Called back up to the Show, teammates again until Jake was traded. Brandon’s gleaming smile when he landed in San Fran a couple years later too.
Jake cleared his throat, looking away from the screen at the faint pattern of squares on the cream duvet. “That was a long time ago.”
“You’re not so old as you think you are. Just remember that. Talk soon, okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Ron. Enjoy dinner.” He put the tablet aside and flopped back on the pillows. His phone buzzed again, and he switched it off completely, rolling over to snap off the light. His ice packs slipped onto the duvet, and he kicked them onto the floor with dull thuds.
In the darkness behind the blackout curtains, Jake closed his eyes and tried not to think about how his life was changing. He tried very hard not to think about anything at all.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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