Frankie’s old man pulled the car over by Gate C, which was just about at left field, and not even close to Gate A, which was where everyone seemed to be getting into the stadium on that particular day.
“I’ll pick you up here in a couple of hours,” he said.
Frankie looked at the short distance ahead of him, at packs of kids and their fathers all heading toward Gate A, the proper gate. “You can’t pull up a little bit more.”
Frankie’s dad surveyed the scene. Lines of cars with other fathers dropping their kids off, a mess of traffic that was sure to delay his getting over to Sal’s for an early round. At least from Gate C his old man could back the car up a little bit and head right down Spring Way without getting caught in any of that miserable shit. “No.”
“Fine,” Frankie said. He grabbed his satchel and go out of the car.
“Gate C.” Then his old man backed up the car, cut it quickly right, honked once, and was gone down the lonely, narrow street. “Lousy drunk.” Frankie wasn’t sure if this was true or not, if his old man was, in fact, a lousy drunk, but he’d certainly heard his mother call his dad one enough to believe there might be some level of truth to the statement.
Frankie stopped over by a vacant hot dog stand, for no vendor felt that being stationed up at Gate C, left field entrance, was worth his time on a day like this, and checked his satchel. Three National League issue baseballs. Check. A color 8x10 photo of Roberto Morris going deep on a Rawlings. Check. One glossy Ticket to the Crusaders All-Day Autograph Bash. Check. Frankie put it all back in the satchel and nodded proudly. He’d been waiting months for this. Crusaders All-Day Autograph Bash. It happened once a year. All the Crusader players sat in groups of three around the stadium, and fans lined up to get autographs and their pictures taken with their favorites.
Frankie had one favorite, Roberto Morris, AKA, Bobby Mo. Bobby Mo was the Crusaders to Frankie. The lone hero on a team that was destined to lose ninety games this season, for the third straight year. Bobby Mo had a .380 batting average at the All-Star break, and people were already throwing his name around with Teddy Ballgame, and the immortal mark of .400. He’d just made a splash at the big game in New York last week, going 3-4, and hitting in the final three runs on the deepest triple anyone had ever seen on television. Of course all the television announcers could talk about was how Bobby Mo’s free agent season was coming up, and that chances were good that triple was the first in a long line of big moments for him in New York. Screw that, Frankie thought. Bobby Mo came up with the Crusaders. He defined the Crusaders. This town wouldn’t be shit without Bobby Mo.
Of course, Frankie’s old man hated Bobby Mo. He called him a hot dog; said Bobby didn’t hustle for the ball out there in right field. Frankie’s old man said that Bobby threw like a girl, and wasn’t worth all the money those goddamned owners were going to throw at him once the season was over and he realized that he could get out of this shit town for a brighter skyline. It pissed Frankie off to hear this, so much so that he quit watching the games with his old man. He’d go down to Mickey’s house and together they’d watch the games with Mickey’s old man, a guy who loved Bobby Mo, and could appreciate a .380 batting average in July. Mickey’s dad said that Bobby’s arm was average for right field, and that some girls threw an awful lot harder than we fellows thought. Frankie’s dad said that Mickey’s dad probably threw like a girl too.
Frankie made his way toward Gate A, and the throngs of people working to get in. He felt the baseballs in his satchel, and wished that he didn’t have to do this alone. Mickey was supposed to come. It was supposed to be the two of them, but Mickey’s goddamned mother had to go into labor that morning, and Mickey’s grandmother had to be in town to stop him from going. One of the baseballs was for Mickey, for sure. The other was for Mickey’s dad. Frankie already had a shiny new ball holder at home for his baseball. It came with an extra slot for a baseball card as well. Frankie had already selected the card; Bobby Mo’s rookie card. Now all he needed was that third ball signed. The glossy 8x10 was going on his wall of fame, third wall in the room, covered with Crusader pennants and used game tickets. The Bobby Mo photo would be the centerpiece.
“You got your ticket, kid,” the usher at Gate A asked.
“Um.” Frankie fumbled around in his atchel and pulled out the ticket. It was only a little bit bent. “Here.” The usher scanned it and handed it back. Then he sent Frankie through the gate with the other excited masses.
It was like being at a regular Crusaders game, Frankie thought. All of the concessions were open. You could smell hot dogs and popcorn, and even some stale beer. The team gift shop was open and there were tons of people inside, buying souvenirs, and getting last minute things for the players to sign. Frankie walked over toward a row of box seats, and looked out onto the field. He sighed. The field looked beautiful and green, like a real diamond out there. The scoreboard even looked better from this vantage point.
Frankie looked to right field and imagined Bobby Mo firing one in to home plate. He cringed. Well, at least he could picture Bobby Mo lobbing one to the cut-off man at second. Then he touched one of the dark, plastic seats in front of him. He never got to sit in the box seats. They were too expensive his old man said. When they went to the game they sat in the nosebleeds and Frankie’s old man bought him a hot dog and a soda, and sucked down three beers for himself with a thing of nachos. Just once Frankie would’ve forgone the six-dollar hot dog and three-dollar soda, for a chance to sit so close to the action. He would’ve gladly eaten at home.
Then his cell phone rang. “You lucky bastard,” Mickey said.
“I know,” Frankie answered, still looking around the place with awe. “I wish your gram would’ve let you come.”
“I told you not to tell her your dad was driving.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Nothing,” Mickey said. “Anyway you still got my ball?”
“Get him to sign it on the sweet spot.”
Mickey sighed. “Bobby Mo written right on the sweet spot.”
“You’re goddamned right about that,” Frankie said, trying to sound like his old man.
“Are you getting a picture with him?”
“I don’t have anyone to take my picture. That was your job.”
“Damn,” Mickey said.
“How’s your mom?” Frankie asked.
“Who cares?” Then Mickey’s grandmother began yelling in the background. “I have to go.”
Frankie hung up the phone and looked around the stadium, trying to figure out where the players were. Around the Taco Hut he found the first group of them: Charlie Grissom, Mark Presley, and fireball relief pitcher Neal Rivera. Charlie Grissom was the big stud rookie who’d just come up in May. The sportswriters called him the future of the franchise. He was currently batting about .235, and had yet to knock one out of the park. Presley was good, and Rivera had been good in his day. Frankie liked them all as much as he liked all the Crusaders, but Grissom, Presley, and Rivera were no Bobby Mo. No one was Bobby Mo. Frankie looked further in the distance, at another batch of players, but could make out whom they were. Finally an usher walked by. Frankie grabbed his arm, and the guy gave him a gruff brush.
“Excuse me,” Frankie called to him.
“Where’s Bobby Mo?”
The usher groaned then pulled a sheet of paper out of his back pocket, examining it as if it contained vital information. Frankie knew that it did. “He’s down that way.” The usher pointed in the opposite direction of the Taco Hut. “Down toward Left Field.”
“Yeah. You shoulda used Gate C.”
“Shit,” Frankie said to himself. He began the long walk back toward Gate C.
There was a huge line. Of course there was. You couldn’t even see where the players were sitting. The line was filled with guys like himself, boys carrying satchels full of memorabilia, and old men with big, graying caterpillar moustaches, sports merchandise peddlers, holding stacks of glossy 8x10s. They all smelled of cheap cigars and beer. Last year one of the peddlers tried to pay Frankie and Mickey to go into lines, and get some of the stuff signed, but they refused because of all the security guards standing around. There wasn’t even enough time for themselves to get autographs, even with Bobby Mo missing the big session due to a groin injury.
Frankie stood on this toes and craned his neck. In the deep distance, he could see him. Bobby Mo was sitting on the left side of the table, signing things, and talking to a guy standing to his right. The guy was wearing a suit, had sunglasses on, and his gray hair was slicked back. It was Sean Horton, the big sports agent. Everyone knew about him. He was the agent for most of the big stars in the game. Frankie looked at Horton talking to Bobby Mo and then into his cell phone, and a small surge of hatred well up inside of him. Frankie’s old man thought that Horton was a genius. He said Horton was going to get Bobby Mo out of the city by hook or crook next season. He had it all worked out on the down low with one of those teams in New York. If only something could be done about Sean Horton, Frankie thought.
“Are you a big Bobby Mo fan?” some kid asked. Frankie took his hateful gaze away from Sean Horton, and looked at the kid standing in front of him in line. He was some fat loser with blonde hair and glasses that were too small for his face. He had a replica Bobby Mo jersey on. The jersey didn’t even fit him right.
“Yeah,” Frankie said, hesitantly.
“What do you have?” the kid asked, trying to look down into Frankie’s satchel.
“Some balls and stuff.”
The kid nodded. He was holding a replica Crusaders helmet, so Frankie didn’t bother asking him what he was getting signed. “They’re only signing like one thing.”
“Bullshit,” Frankie said.
The kid’s eyes widened like he never heard the word before. “No, it’s true. My brother got Charlie Grissom’s autograph, and the guy before him had like a stack of things to sign, and they wouldn’t let him.”
“That’s because he’s one of those sports merchandise guys,” Frankie said. “They never let those guys get more than one thing signed. We’re just kids.”
“Well, I’m just telling you what my brother said,” the kid said.
“Well, I don’t care what your brother said.”
Frankie turned away from the fat kid and looked back up toward Bobby Mo. He was still signing away and talking to Sean Horton. This line will take forever, Frankie thought. He wanted to throw down his stuff and shout at the people around him, get things moving a little bit. He hated waiting. Waiting was all that Frankie did. He waited for his mother to get home from work to make dinner. He waited for his old man to finish dinner, before he’d toss him a few pop flies in the backyard. He waited for Mickey, waited countless hours for Mickey, to get done digesting food before they could play wiffle ball in the street. He waited until almost seven every night for the Crusaders game to come on, and for the announcer Jim Farrington to say, “Sounds like some hits to me,” when Bobby Mo came to bat. Life was one big, goddamned wait to Frankie. His old man told him to get used to it. He said get used to waiting and back pain, whatever that meant.
Then he heard shouts behind him. Frankie looked back. Some younger kids were crying and people were shouting at a small pack of ushers.
“What’s going on?” Frankie asked the fat kid.
“They closed off the line,” he said. “Sucks.”
Frankie breathed in deeply, suddenly happy for his long wait in line. “No kidding.”
It took a long time, over an hour, and there’d be no time to get anyone else’s autograph before his old man was waiting back at Gate C, but Frankie didn’t care. He was less than four people away from his hero. He looked at Bobby Mo. Bobby looked bigger in person than he did on television. The navy colored short-sleeve shirt that he was wearing made his muscles bulge. Frankie wanted muscles like that. He and Mickey spent hours lifting weights in his basement, and then holding a baseball bat the way that Bobby Mo did, taking swings, pretending to knock the stuffing off of a Rawlings. Mickey had even perfected doing that thing Bobby Mo did whenever he missed a ball. Bobby Mo would walk out of the batter’s box, clasp the bat with both hands, take in a deep breath and look up at the sky as if praying to God, before lighly tapping his helmet with the bat and stepping back in the box. Mickey had it down pat. Frankie always missed the intake of breath, so his Bobby Mo was less than perfect.
He was next. The fat kid stepped up to the table, and set his helmet down. Bobby Mo didn’t even look at it, as he signed. He kept his head turned toward Sean Horton, talking to him in between Horton’s cell phone call. The fat kid kept trying to talk to Bobby, but Bobby would answer him. He spoke only to Horton. Bobby Mo won’t do this. Bobby Mo won’t pay that. Bobby Mo won’t play there next season, unless they’re serious about winning. Frankie heard all of this talk and his heart dropped. But then he thought maybe the fat kid was just a drag. Bobby Mo better be getting paid that, or they can find someone else.
The fat kid was gone. Frankie took in a deep breath, the way Bobby Mo did it, and stepped up to the table. He figured he’d ask Bobby about his .380 batting average and what it felt like chasing Teddy Ballgame. He reached into his satchel and pulled out the first ball. Bobby Mo took it without looking at him, and signed that ball underneath the table. Frankie couldn’t see where he signed the thing.
“Bobby Mo wants at least a mil,” Bobby Mo said to Horton while he signed Frankie’s ball under the table. Horton turned away from his phone and nodded. “I’m serious, Sean.”
“Mr. Morris,” Frankie started. But Bobby Mo didn’t even acknowledge him.
He gave the ball back to Frankie. Actually Bobby Mo set it on the table and let it roll. Frankie grabbed the ball and looked at it. He hadn’t even signed it on the sweet spot, and the signature was smudged. Damn it, Frankie thought. His heart raced. He could feel the sweat collecting underneath his Crusader’s hat. Bobby Mo wants at least a mil. Quickly he grabbed his second baseball and tried to hand it to his idol.
“Bobby,” Frankie started again.
“Kid,” an usher said. It was a woman, some tall, lanky chick. It felt like she came out of nowhere. “The players can only sign one thing.”
“But,” Frankie looked at Bobby Mo for some help, but Bobby Mo was asking Sean Horton about his car commercial deal. “I have some more stuff.”
“Everyone has more stuff,” the usher said. “One item per person.” And then she pointed at the huge line behind Frankie as if to get her point across.
“Can’t I just to one more thing?” Frankie asked. The ball for Mickey, or maybe the glossy 8x10. Again he appealed to Bobby Mo, but he was talking to Sean Horton about his deal with Pepsi.
“No,” the usher said. “There’s still time to get someone else’s autograph. How about Charlie Grissom?”
“Come on, kid,” another usher said, some pimple-faced college student this time, taking Frankie by the arm and pulling him out of the line.
Frankie sulked up against a wall. He watched Bobby Mo sign for a few more minutes, stupefied, as if he couldn’t believe what had happened. One goddamned item? But it was true. Nearly every person that came up after him had to be told the same thing. Kids with baseball cards and pictures were turned away after one signature. Sports peddlers were berated by the ushers, and escorted promptly out of line by security guards if they got too loud. Sean Horton even made it a point to interrupt one of his phone calls to yell at a guy. Bobby Mo didn’t say anything to anybody except Horton. He didn’t even say anything to the blonde usher when she handed him a cup of water. He just kept on saying Bobby Mo this and Bobby Mo that. Frankie’s world felt crushed. He looked at his one signed baseball, the smudged signature that was not even on the sweet spot, tossed it in his satchel, and he headed out of Gate C.
There was a garbage can right by the unused hot dog vending cart. Frankie opened his satchel and took out the glossy 8x10. He took one last look at Bobby Mo going psycho on a Rawlings before he ripped the picture and tossed it into the trash. Then he took the two unsigned baseballs and threw them away as well. Lastly he came to the signed baseball, the tainted jewel that had a ball holder waiting for it at home. Frankie looked at the signature. It didn’t even look like Bobby Mo’s signature, at least not the way he wrote his name on all of the balls that they had for sale at the sports store in the mall. Tears welled in Frankie’s eyes. He brushed them away, feeling like a fool. He was just about to throw the signed baseball in the garbage can when he heard his old man’s horn honk.
“Two hours, right on time,” his old man said, pulling up to the curb. Frankie got in the car and stared straight ahead. “So was it everything you hoped it would be?”
“Yeah,” Frankie said, quietly.
“Well, let me see them.”
“Huh?” the old man said.
“They would only let me get one thing signed.”
Frankie handed the baseball to his old man, and his dad examined it. “Didn’t even sign it on the sweet spot, did he?”
“No,” Frankie said. His old man tried to give the ball back, but Frankie wouldn’t take it. So his old man leaned over and put the ball back into the satchel. “Bobby Mo doesn’t sign on the sweet spot.”
“I see,” his old man said. Then they were silent a while, the car still idling outside of the stadium, as happy kids and their fathers walked by. Frankie breathed in deeply, the way Bobby Mo did. The whole car smelled of sweat and stale beer.
“Can we just go?” Frankie finally asked.
“Sure,” his old man said, pulling the car back out onto the street. He made a left and took them down Spring Way. “How about a burger and a Coke at Sal’s?”
“Fine,” Frankie said, quietly. He felt serious hunger pains in his belly. Or maybe it was something else.
“He still throws like a girl,” Frankie’s old man said. Frankie looked up at his old man. He wanted to be angry at him, to cry, but instead he laughed. His old man seemed shocked at first, but then he laughed too. He took off Frankie’s hat and tussled his sweaty mop of hair. Then the two of them kept on down Spring Way, until you couldn’t see the stadium anymore, just houses and houses full of people doing ordinary and common things on a summer afternoon.