Actions

Work Header

Wherever It Goes

Work Text:

Wherever It Goes
by ruintooeasy & stele3


Bottom of the 1st

Spencer sets his alarm for eight o'clock on days when he’s pitching, but he usually wakes up before it goes off. He likes to have enough time for all the little game-day rituals he has instituted over the years. Individually, they are inane, but collectively they are a necessary part of a successful outing.

He takes a cold shower -- not ice cold, but not warm. He'd read something somewhere once about cold water stimulating the muscles more than warm water. He doesn’t have the science to back that up, but it might be true. It works for him, anyway. He dresses in his lucky shorts, his lucky shirt, and his lucky socks. He doesn’t have a lucky uniform. He hasn’t been on the Reds long enough to have a lucky uniform.

Some of the guys eat like horses before the game. Spencer doesn’t like to feel too full, so he has oatmeal and a hard boiled egg and a banana. He's eaten the same thing before each game since he was a kid. Back then he'd eagerly devoured any interviews with the great arms of the day, hoping that maybe the secret to being a great pitcher was wearing a certain brand of socks, or following a certain warm up routine, or making sure you looked at the seat directly behind home plate but two rows up before you released the ball. One of those guys -- maybe Maddux, maybe Martinez -- had mentioned something about hard-boiled eggs and oatmeal. Spencer was sold on the idea as easily as that. Those pitchers, not yet retired but already destined for the Hall of Fame, were his heroes, and their word was his gospel.

It turns out none of those things have much to do with being a successful pitcher, but Spencer sticks with his routines anyway. They’re familiar. They are a comfort.

Some of the other guys are already down in the hotel dining room. There’s an unappetizing odor of fried food in the air. Spencer takes a seat at an empty table. Most of the guys leave him alone on days he has to pitch. Ricky and Dave are chatterboxes; they can talk up a storm before they take the mound. Spencer has to find some quiet still place inside himself where he can concentrate completely on the next pitch.

He used to take an hour before each game to go somewhere quiet and listen to music. He had a specific play list he’d made, exactly sixty minutes long. It wasn't filled with high-energy pep rally music. The intent hadn’t been to get himself amped up, it was just that sometimes, a particular song -- or a particular voice -- resonated so deeply that it could settle him and calm him when he felt himself getting too caught up everything but the mechanics of each pitch. It had worked a little bit like meditation, Spencer thinks.

But he doesn’t do that any more. He can’t. As awful and jarring as it is to change his routine, it is worse by far to listen to Brendon's voice and Brendon's words and know that he gave that up. It doesn’t settle him any longer -- it evokes a real and deep fear that he has made a terrible mistake and there is no longer anything he can do to set things right.

The bus is idling outside. It’s empty except for the driver and one of the trainers. Nobody looks up as Spencer gets on. He takes a seat almost all the way in the back -- not the very back seat, because that is Carlos' seat and everyone knows it. Spencer doesn’t want to cause any trouble. He doesn’t want to give anyone another reason to resent him. He just wants to go out tonight and pitch a good, solid game. He wants to give his team a chance to win.

He is pretty sure he can. He isn't sure of much these days, but he is sure he can pitch well enough to give them a chance to win, if he remembers to keep his breaking ball down, and remembers to change up his speeds, and remembers that Alvarez always swings on the first pitch and Steinhauer can be counted on to take the first pitch and and and…

He has it all in the scouting reports he makes the back office prepare for him. He needs to know everything about the opposing team and every one of their hitters. Tonight they’re playing the Dodgers. Spencer has followed them with a devoted passion since he was six years old. He knows their line up as well as he knows the Reds’. He doesn’t need the scouting reports.

LA traffic is worse than Spence remembers. It’s only been three years since Spencer finished at USC, and already the city feels foreign. It’s changed. He has changed, too. Still, when the bus pulls into the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, it feels a little bit like coming home. He saw his first game here with his father, years and years ago. He’s given up a lot to get where he is, but he’s the starting pitcher in the second game of the 2012 Wild Card playoff series. He has wanted this for as long as he can remember.

He changes into his uniform in the visitor’s locker room. The other guys are milling around, joking and flipping channels on the television, but Spencer’s pre-game routine takes a while. The trainer says that Spencer exerts himself too much before games. He doesn't think he does.

The seats are already filling. Spencer sprints along the first base line a few times. He stretches. Spencer's hamstrings are very tight, and he worked with a trainer back at USC to come up with a routine that would get him loose enough to prevent injury. One of the guys joked one time about Spencer doing yoga, something asinine that wasn't even an insult. Everyone laughed. Spencer hasn't changed his routine. An injury means time on the DL and then back down in the minors for rehab. He's not taking the chance, even if the other guys think his stretching is funny.

Eric Brown jogs out onto the field. He and Spencer toss a ball back and forth. Eric is nervous. One of his throws almost goes wide; Spencer has to jump to grab it. Eric was called up during the middle of last season to fill a spot on the roster that had opened up when a veteran had gotten injured, same as Spencer. The other guy had retired unexpectedly at the end of the year, and Eric kept his roster spot. They’re the only rookies on the team this year, but they haven't bonded over it or anything. Spencer likes Eric, but they’re not friends.

The back-up catcher shows up and Spencer starts his throwing routine. He feels good today. Maybe he’s been missing the LA smog, but he feels like he could throw for eighteen innings. His locations are spot on. He's hitting the corners of the plates. His breaking ball is sinking.

"You feeling good?" the manager asks, when he jogs back to the dugout.

"I feel great," Spencer says. He's not above lying to stay in the game, but he's being completely truthful right now.

He fills a plastic cup with juice and sits down. He's pretty sure that the Reds are going to lose this series. He’s not the only one: everyone who matters has forecast a Dodgers win. The Reds weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs. Either way, it’s out of Spencer’s hands. He’s got control over just two things: his arm and, for nine half-innings, the ball.

Spencer flexes his fingers. He keeps his nails cut almost too short, but that's the way he's used to throwing. One of the older guys on the team goes every week and gets a manicure. He says it keeps his hands baby-soft and in prime condition. Spencer thinks there might be merit to his claim, but he knows what the guys on the team would say if he started going to a beauty parlor. He’s not looking to change up his routine anyway.

There's a kid singing the national anthem. He’s just some young kid, about college age. Spencer doesn't know if he's a local guy or someone famous. He doesn’t keep up with popular music much, these days. The kid singing is doing a fine job, and if he resembles Brendon a little -- if he's got dark expressive eyes and a strong, limber voice -- well, the resemblance is only passing. Spencer’s got other things on his mind.

Some actor Spencer’s never heard of throws out the first pitch, and now it’s time. Spencer is ready. He throws off his jacket and grabs his glove. He takes the mound. Neil Prado -- first base, righty, slumping heading into the post-season but hit a triple in game 1 of this series -- is the lead-off man. He’s a patient hitter, and he’s got a good eye. Spencer’s faced worse.

He plants his left foot on the rubber and steps just to the right. He pivots, kicks his right leg up, and releases.

It’s a strike. Spencer exhales and closes his eyes. He hadn’t realized he was holding his breath. Pedro flashes the next series of signs.

The Los Angeles sky is salmon this evening. The weather is cooler than usual for this time of year. Spencer’s missed Los Angeles. He’s not sentimental; he doesn’t think his college years were the best time of his life. LA isn’t home anymore, it’s just another city now that he passes through -- but the color of the sky and the smell in the air, that particular musty odor of pollen and rotting food and car exhaust, are intensely familiar to him.

He has a lot of memories tied up in this city, for better or worse.

 

***

 


December 2011

"When is your flight getting in?" Ginger asks. "Your dad will meet you at the airport."

“I’m not sure yet, Mom," Spencer says. He’s in Florida. It’s raining. The water hits the window at an angle, smudging everything. Spencer watches it, distracted. "I'm going to try to be home for at least two weeks though."

"Good," his mother says. She makes a little noise in the back of her throat. He recognizes that noise; she only makes it when she's nervous. "Is Brendon coming this year?"

Spencer closes his eyes. He's had a headache since he left the gym. All the lights are off in his hotel room, but his head still throbs. "No," he says.

"Is he on tour?” Ginger sounds older and tired. He hasn’t seen her since the twins’ birthday, six months ago.

"No," he says. He pauses. "We broke up, Mom."

"Oh, Spencer," she says. She doesn’t sound surprised. She is disappointed, probably. She loves Brendon.

Spencer loves Brendon too. After everything, he still loves Brendon.

"It was just… too much," he says.

That's what he'd told Brendon, too. It’s the truth, or part of it. Everything is too much right now. Spencer has ten thousand things he has to worry about; finding a few spare minutes in his schedule that don't coincide with Brendon's shows so that they can have a brief, hushed phone conversation is no longer one of them.

"I know, honey," his mom says. "I know it's a lot, but he made you really happy."

"Yeah," he says. He feels a little shaky, like his blood sugar is low. He needs to order something to eat. The trainers are trying to get him to put on some muscle, and they tell him he needs more protein in his diet.

"Do you think you're happier without him?" his mom asks. She's not going to let this go. She's not. He knew she wouldn't. That’s why he didn’t tell her.

The rain falls so hard that he can't see the sodium glow of the street lights. He is trapped in a tiny box, surrounded by gray water.

"No," Spencer says. That's the truth. "But I never saw him. Mom, I hadn't seen him in two months, and he's going back out on tour soon, and they want me to come back down here after the holidays to work with Steve. They’re talking about giving me the fifth spot in the rotation."

"That’s wonderful, Spencer," she says. She does sound truly glad for him. "I know how hard you're working right now."

Her comfort is also a reproach.

"Yeah," he says. He can see himself in the mirror by the door. He's pale beneath his subtropical tan. His eyes are red. "Listen, I'm going to go get something to eat and then go to sleep. I'll call you when I know what time my flight gets in."

"Okay," she says. "I love you, Spencer."

"I love you too," he says.

Those were the last words he said to Brendon in person, that last night in Chicago, before Spencer had left for Florida. He had a red-eye flight. Brendon had driven him to the airport. They stood just before the security check, anonymous in hooded sweatshirts and jeans. Spencer held Brendon. He hadn’t cared who saw. He’d pressed his face into Brendon’s neck and closed his eyes and thought dizzily of all the work ahead of him. Brendon had said, 'I love you' and Spencer had said it back and then gone to board his plane.

He sets his cellphone down on the bedside table. The room is too cold. He calls the front desk and orders food. He's been in this hotel so long he's got the room service menu memorized. There's an unlabeled DVD sitting on the corner of the dresser. Spencer grabs his laptop and the disc and pops it in. Shot after shot of his delivery, filmed from various angles. Steve thinks it's essential he knows what is body is doing.

It's kind of torturous, but Spencer will do anything -- anything -- to get a place on the roster. He is willing to work as hard as any person has ever worked. He has already given up more than he knew he had to give.

The food comes. He eats. His appetite hasn’t been good. He can't watch the damn DVD any longer. He knows he turns his shoulder too much when he's throwing his slider. He knows that. It's still raining. Brendon is on tour now, Spencer knows, but he doesn't know where. He wonders if, maybe, Brendon is sitting in some hotel room somewhere too, watching the rain fall.

That thought is consolation, just barely.

 

***

 

Bottom of the 2nd

It's three up, three down in the top of the second. Spencer's barely back in the dugout before Eric charges down the steps. He slams his batting helmet down. It bounces off the rough cement. One of the bat boys jumps up to get it. He got called out looking. The ball looked outside to Spencer too, but he's not going to complain if the home plate umpire has a wide strike zone tonight. All the better for him.

He tosses his jacket on the bench and watches the rest of the inning. The heat of the day has subsided; that’s one thing he still misses about Southern California, the sunshine. There's a breeze blowing in from the coast: it's not too strong, but he watches the way the flags whip back and forth. It's blowing in from the third base side, which is good so long as it doesn’t turn. A strong wind out from behind home plate can be the difference between a long pop fly and a home run. Spencer has seen it happen; but this wind is in his favor.

When the third out gets called, he trots out to the mound. He’d felt okay in the first inning -- he'd gotten a strike out and two ground outs -- but his speed wasn't quite what he'd hoped. When he'd gone back to the dugout after the 1st Steve had said his fastball was averaging about ninety four. On a good night Spencer throws closer to ninety eight.

Shaun White, the center fielder, is leading off the inning. He was traded to the Dodgers from Philadelphia a few years back. Spencer's only seen him play a couple of times. White hasn't got a great average, but he hits for power. He leads the Dodgers in home runs this year. Spencer's not going to give him anything to hit. His first pitch is a slider that just tags the corner of the strike zone. Strike one. Perfect. He was right about the umpire being generous tonight. Pedro signs for another slider, and Spencer waves him off. He throws a breaker. White swings and misses.

Spencer clenches his fist. He knew that would get him. The crowd is quiet. There are still pockets of empty seats up in the nosebleed section. It’s a playoff game, but it’s only the division series, and it's a Wednesday night. People are probably still making their way over after work, fighting through traffic on the Hollywood Freeway.

The stands might not be full, but the press box behind the visitor’s dugout is. Spencer can see camera flashes from that direction. It’s been this way for a few months now, ever since… well, Spencer would like to think it’s been this way ever since the Reds got hot after the All Star Break and won twenty two games out of twenty seven in the month of July. It’s one of the most remarkable streaks in baseball history. Spencer won six games in that stretch. The Reds are the Cinderella story of this year’s playoffs, and reporters eat that kind of thing up.

There are other reasons that the press junkets have become restive and tense, though. There are other stories the press are interested in telling about this year’s Cincinnati Reds and their young star pitcher. There is a reason Spencer has a standing conference call scheduled with two of the team’s PR people. He never reads press about himself, but he’s not ignorant of what people are saying about him.

Third pitch is a fastball that misses just outside. Spencer expects the ump to call it a strike, but he doesn't. Spencer hates when they're not consistent.

Fourth pitch is a breaking ball, and Spencer can tell as soon as he releases that it's not going to break. It wobbles a little but never really curves in towards the plate the way it should. White takes a huge whack at it. He's got an irritatingly exaggerated swing, like every at bat he’s going to get a home run. This time his bat hits the ball like gunshot, and for a moment the ball is lost in the glare of the lights. Spencer's mouth goes dry. He narrows his eyes and tries to track its flight.

It's foul, falling back into the seats behind home plate, sending fans scrambling.

On the next pitch, White hits a fly to shallow left that Carlos gets to with no problem. First out.

Spencer takes off his cap and wipes his forehead. It's a little more humid here than he's used to. He's always been sensitive to fluctuations in the weather.

Ray Ortiz is up next. He's the best hitter in the Dodgers' lineup; he's been one of the best hitters in the league for years, even won the batting crown back when Spencer was in college. This post season, though, he's been in a bit of a slump.

In high school, Spencer had a Ray Ortiz jersey he wore everywhere. It should be more surreal than it is to be staring him down over ninety feet of manicured grass, but it's not. Spencer's been preparing for this for so long, even longer than since he wore that jersey. There’s nothing he hasn’t already imagined a thousand times.

Ortiz fouls out. Pedro throws aside his mask and catches it. He tosses the ball back to Spencer with a flourish. Tonight's one of those nights when everything is slotted together and working smoothly. It's a good feeling. Spencer feels pretty decent, even though he's still not getting the velocity on his fastball that he'd like.

The crowd has grown since the start of the inning. Some cheerful fanfare is playing, designed to inspire the home team. All that is just background noise down on the field. Spencer can hear Carlos and Freddy behind him, yelling to each other. He's not on great terms with them at the moment. He knows, though, that they'd never let a ball through to spite him. They all care about this game too much. It's at the center of all of their lives. They are professionals.

He knows they'd never do that.

Spencer strikes out batter six in the Dodgers' lineup on four pitches. The last is a fat, juicy fastball right in the heart of the plate. The guy swings and misses, a total whiff.

Spencer clenches his fist. He’s done his job, for this inning.

 

***

 

May 2012

Spencer doesn't want to watch. He doesn't want to watch but he has to watch. His fingers find the remote of their own accord.

There are other things he could be doing. He could go out. Well, no. He pitched yesterday and he has to ice his shoulder. It’s still a little sore from the sprain he got back in April. Plus he’s woozy on Vicodin. He can’t go out. He could lock himself in the bathroom, far away from the television, but that seems extreme to the point of insanity.

So he watches.

Brendon looks good. Spencer always thinks he looks good, but he's tan and his hair is cut shorter than Spencer remembers and he's wearing new glasses. He smiles broadly.

"So, Brendon," Jimmy Fallon says. "You've put out five records as part of Small Robots, but this is your first solo effort. What was behind the decision to strike out on your own?"

Brendon smiles brightly, like that’s the most clever question he’s ever been asked. He's so good at interviews. Spencer has always envied him that. "You know, I'm totally still happy working with Ryan. He's my best friend in the world, and I can't wait to get back into the studio for our next album. But, uh, I think I just had some stuff I needed to say myself."

"So I've listened to your album -- which is great by the way, you all should go get a copy -- and it's kind of a bit, uh, bleak... "

Brendon starts laughing. "Yeah, you might say."

"Bitter, even."

"Yeah, sure," Brendon says. "Uh, I guess I wrote this about the end of a relationship -- pretty classic songwriting fodder, right?" He smiles again. The in studio audience is charmed. He's gotten so much more... slick. Something. Or maybe it's just the gloss of the television cameras and the pain medication swimming through Spencer’s veins.

"How long were you with her?" Fallon asks.

Spencer tries to sit up, but his shoulder pulls.

Brendon is wry. "Him, actually," he says. "I've always been open about the fact that I'm bisexual, and..."

Spencer’s heart constricts -- he can feel it, tight and cold.The audience titters, hushed. Fallon seems to take it in stride. “Him, then. How long were you dating?”

"Well, we were together for four years. And it got to the point -- I'm really lucky, I guess. I can be honest about who I am and still do what I love, but um, my boyfriend... he couldn't be."

"Well, I guess that explains the bitterness."

Brendon laughs. "Just a little bit. I don't want to suggest that I'm bitter towards him. I mean, I love him, still. I just... it really drove home that there are still a lot of walks of life where you can’t be open about who you are if you’re gay."

Spencer can't watch any more.

The next morning there are reporters waiting for him outside the bus. There are always reporters, but this isn’t the regular cadre from ESPN2 or the local news network who travel with the team. Those guys could care less about what some mildly famous musician might have said on late night television last night.

These reporters have different kinds of questions than what Spencer is used to.

"You're good friends with Brendon from Small Robots, aren't you, Smith? Did you catch his interview last night?" The questioner shoves his microphone in Spencer's face. He's orange-tan and his teeth are blinding.

Spencer feels sick. He looks around for Michi or Pedro, but they’re already boarding, way ahead. He's never been asked about Brendon before. The people that care about Small Robots never gave a shit about some minor league pitcher, and the people that care about the Reds’ new starter are focused on his velocity and his delivery, not who he’d palled around with on weekends back in college.

He keeps his voice as even as he can. "I'm here to play baseball," he says. "I'll talk to you about how I fell apart in the sixth on Tuesday. I'll talk to you about what I think our chances of getting into the playoffs are. I'll even talk to you about these ridiculous Cy Young rumors. But I'm not going to talk to you about what any friends of mine may or may not have said about their personal lives."

He shoves through the thicket of cameras and microphones. His heart is pounding. He's tried to cultivate a reputation as a nice guy. He always makes time to sign autographs. He knows they're standing back there muttering, annoyed that he won't give them their story and more than willing to speculate about his refusal to discuss the subject.

He knows what they want him to say. He knows what people insinuate -- Brendon used to read the Page Six items to him in silly voices. In the morning, in Brendon’s wide bed, it just seemed funny, but now it makes his heart pound. He wasn't always so careful in the past, before he realized he how much he had to give up.

 

***

 

Top of the 3rd

Pedro pops up on the first pitch of the inning, and Henderson is heading to the plate. Spencer’s on deck. He grabs his bat and heads to the circle to take a few swings. He is about average for a pitcher, as far as hitting is concerned, maybe a little bit better.

Henderson takes a strike, and the crowd cheers. They’re getting louder, more raucous as the game goes on, even though the innings are passing quickly and uneventfully.

Henderson grounds out to the shortstop. He hustles down the first base line but the throw beats him there. He’s an older guy, quiet, not someone who Spencer knows well. He doesn’t look at Spencer as he heads back to the dugout. They’ve probably spoken a total of ten worlds all season.

Spencer settles into the batter’s box. Arthur Wallace is pitching for the Dodgers tonight. Spencer chokes up a little on the bat, and watches as Wallace adjusts his cap and gets set in his stance. He’s got a pretty unique delivery: Spencer would recognize it anywhere, and not just because he grew up watching Wallace pitch. He throws sidearm, closer to ninety degrees than anyone Spencer’s ever seen. The popular opinion is that sidearm throwing’s a good way to get yourself injured, but Wallace hasn’t seemed to suffer from it.

The first pitch is inside, too far inside. Spencer tries to check his swing but the third base umpire says he went around. Goddamnit. He grits his teeth.

Wallace is wearing a brace on his left knee. Spencer can see it through his uniform. A few years back, in seventh inning of some inconsequential June game against the Nationals, Wallace had collided with the third baseman while angling for a pop fly, and he’d fallen. In the fall his cleat had gotten stuck. His leg had twisted and he’d torn out all the ligaments in his left knee. Everyone had written him off after that, including Spencer. Most guys -- especially most guys who’ve already had a long and fruitful career -- would call it quits at that point. Most guys would figure that they’d already sacrificed enough.

Second pitch, Spencer wises up and doesn’t swing. The ball’s inside again. Wallace has always thrown inside. He’s never had a reputation for being wild, but he’s hit a few guys in his day.

Spencer remembers reading an interview Wallace did while he was rehabbing in Michigan, stuck playing A ball with a bunch of pimply kids fresh out of high school. Wallace had been asked about the months right after the surgery, how he’d managed to stay motivated and in shape while he’d been almost bed bound. He talked about the first April in a decade when he hadn’t been out on the mound, how he’d spent more time with his wife, how he’d gotten to watch his daughter’s softball team. He’d sounded wistful, but he’d come back, fighting through the pain and the stiffness and the failings of his aging body. Now he’s throwing in the playoffs again, maybe just a few wins away from a trip to the World Series and a chance at that ring he never got.

Spencer gets that. He knows that the day he decides he’d had enough, he’ll get to live his own life again. No thankless club will have any dibs on his time or any say on who he spends that time with. He thinks it wouldn’t be so bad, really. It could happen at any time. Up at bat, a ball thrown too far inside could hit his hand and shatter all those little bones. He could stumble trying for an extra base and break his ankle. His delivery could be fractionally off and he could wrench his shoulder or tear his UCL or anything. Any day, he could get so badly hurt he’d be justified in giving up.

He wouldn’t, though. He knows he wouldn’t, no matter how badly he longs for the privacy of a civilian life. He read about the efforts Wallace went through to get back to playing shape. It seemed extreme; that was probably the intent of the article. But Spencer gets it. Even just to be here, standing in the square of reddish dirt next to home plate, you have to give up everything.

Wallace throws a fast ball. Spencer sees it coming straight down the heart of the plate. He swings, and connects. The ball pops up and for a split second he thinks he’s got himself a single, first base hit of the game.

No such luck today. He’s hustling down the bag, but he can hear the crowd cheer. The left fielder’s on the ground, grass stains smudged up the front of his jersey. He made the catch. Spencer grits his teeth. It’s okay. It doesn’t matter. He’s not here to score runs.

As he heads back to the dugout to grab his glove, he crosses Wallace’s path. Their eyes meet, and they nod to each other.

Three up, three down. Game’s still scoreless. It’s unbelievable that Spencer’s pitching here tonight, but it’s more unbelievable still think he could still be doing this in ten years. He will be, though. He’s willing to work that hard. He’ll do whatever it takes.

 

***

 

April 2012

Spencer gets called up late in the season, when Tyrone Givens develops a mean case of elbow tendinitis. He’s been fighting it all year, missing starts here and there when it flares up; but Givens was supposed to be the anchor of the Reds’ rotation, and Hussein hasn’t turned out to be the dependable starter the team was hoping for. They’re sliding in the standings. The press and public opinion demand that something be done, so Givens goes on the DL and Spencer is flown up from Louisville on one day’s notice.

When Spencer first comes in, the team’s machinery has already been in motion for months. He’s just a temporary patch, a replacement part to get them through until Givens heals up. No one really makes him feel welcome but no one messes with him too much. The veteran pitchers make him carry the backpack full of Twizzlers and Jolly Ranchers and gum out to the bullpen, but whatever. Spencer’s more than willing to play along.

The team’s in survival mode, trying to keep their record from going too lopsided before they’re out of contention. They’re still in the hunt for the Wild Card slot, and they’re only interested in what he can do to help the team win. Spencer actually prefers it that way: he’s here to pitch, that’s all.

Spencer does well. Not great, but better than anyone expected. Whitmore is beside himself. He spends hours on the phone with the back office, campaigning on Spencer’s behalf. Spencer wishes he wouldn’t be so blatant about it. Spencer’s not trying to steal anyone’s spot in the rotation. He does want this, more than anything, but Givens is well-liked by the team and the fans. Already people are bringing signs to the games demanding, “BRING BACK THE TYRNADO.”

The coaching staff delays making a decision, and then puts Givens on the 60 day disabled list. That’s the kiss of death. It’s after August 1st, so that means Givens’ season is over. On the team’s website, the fan forums erupt. Accusations fly in all directions but most seem inclined to blame the GM, who kept a star player dangling on the hook in favor of some nobody. Givens is a free agent when the season’s over. The consensus is that there’s no way in hell he’ll re-sign with the Reds.

Spencer tries to keep his head down, but it’s hard. Brendon winds up instituting a no-fan-forum-reading policy in his apartment.

“Trust me,” he tells Spencer as he wraps his arms around Spencer’s shoulders, pulling him deeper into the couch, “I know all about over-invested fans, okay? Be glad no one’s giving you cookies laced with their own hair.”

Spencer mutters, “They’d be more likely to give me cookies laced with cyanide.”

Brendon rolls his eyes. “Not everyone is out to get you,” he says. “You’ve got fans. You’re going to have legions of fans. I’m going to be the president of the official Spencer Smith fan club. I hope you send me an autographed baseball.”

Spencer makes a face but lets Brendon settle him against Brendon’s chest, Spencer’s head pillowed on his shoulder. “Hair cookies? Why hair? I mean -- was it like, they didn’t wear a hairnet and some got in?”

“Oh ho,” Brendon says. “You are so very, very innocent to the ways of fanaticism. Just you wait. It was pubic hair -- ”

“Oh my god.”

“ -- a lot of pubic hair. They were chocolate chip and pubic hair cookies. Which we discovered when Ryan started to put one in his mouth and it tickled.”

“Oh god,” Spencer groans, covering his face with both hands. He can’t help laughing, partly out of horror but mostly from the mental image of Ryan’s reaction. “Why, just -- why?”

Brendon twists to one side and turns his head so that they are face-to-face, inches apart. Bugging his eyes out, he whispers dramatically, “Love makes us do crazy things, Spencer,” then grins when Spencer laughs harder.

At the time Spencer thinks maybe Brendon’s right. Maybe by the start of the next season everyone will have forgiven and forgotten and he’ll be welcomed as part of the team. It’s months, anyway, before he’s got to worry about that.

But then he and Brendon break up in November. It’s not a monumental blow-out, but Spencer feels raw and hollow from the backlash. He plays spring training in a fugue -- he’s pitching better than ever, a sure thing for a spot in the rotation, but everything else is dark and dull and pointless. He spends every free hour in the weight room, watching video in the clubhouse, working with the pitching coach. He hasn’t got time to make friends with the other guys. He hasn’t got the energy. Mostly, they’re willing to leave him alone.

He thinks that, anyway, but he’s wrong, and Brendon’s wrong. He hasn’t got legions of fans, not among his teammates. Pitching a few decent games last season hasn’t earned him a place in the fabric of the team. It hasn’t erased the bitter taste left by the fact that Givens signed with the Cardinals in the off season.

On opening day Spencer gets to his locker and there, hanging there in place of his uniform and jacket, is a silky pink dress with a long tulle skirt spangled with rhinestones.

It looks like something one of his sisters would wear to the prom. He closes his eyes. He’s heard rumors about stuff like this, sure, but he figured that he’d be off the hook this year, even though he’s technically still a rookie.

He isn’t exactly best friends with any of the guys on the team, but he only realizes now how much they dislike him, dislike the idea of him.

The locker room is filling up. Nobody’s paying him any particular attention. They’re all in on the joke. Eric’s a rookie too, but nobody’s making him wear a dress.

His insides freeze up for a second as he wonders if maybe they know. Maybe they overheard him on the phone with Brendon or maybe they saw an embrace that was lingered a little too long for ‘just friends’ when Brendon met him at the airport or maybe they just connected any of the many, obvious dots and despite Spencer’s lies, they’ve realized he’s gay.

He sits down on the bench. His hands are shaking a little bit, so his grabs his knees. He closes his eyes. He wants to call Brendon. He wants to call Brendon and have Brendon reassure him. He wants Brendon’s confirmation that this is totally fucked up. He wants someone else to agree that this is not okay.

But he can’t call Brendon any more.

Dave Lewis claps him on the shoulder as he walks past. “What’s wrong, deb? This is your coming out party -- get dressed! Or is pink not your color?”

And weirdly, that makes the knot in Spencer’s chest loosen. This is no different than the juvenile nastiness he endured in middle school. These guys are professional ball players. They make millions a year, and they’re no better than a bunch of seventh graders.

Spencer unties his shoes and takes off his tee shirt. He steps out of his jeans. He takes the dress off the hanger gingerly. It’s hideous, with a bunch of weird flowers on the neckline and sequins everywhere. If this is the worst they can think of, he’ll be okay. He’ll wear a different dress every night of the week as long as he gets to pitch.

He really doesn’t care. It’s not like he thought he’d be friends with any of them anyway.

He unzips the dress and pulls it up around his hips. The skirt flairs out around his legs in a poof. The top part gapes hugely in the chest. The skinny straps look ridiculous against his shoulders.

He walks over to Dave’s locker. Dave looks up from lacing up his cleats.

“Zip me up,” Spencer says.

Dave grins. Spencer grits his teeth and grins back.

There’s a picture of him that night on ESPN, sitting in the dugout with his jacket on over the dress and his cap tugged low. He hadn’t been pitching, so he’d sat in the dugout, wearing the dress, all night. The skirt is just a little too short, and his bony pale ankles and cleats stick out underneath. Some of his old teammates from the minors and from college and stuff call to bust his chops. Spencer plays along, but each text is like a little dart, pricking him where he’s softest.

His mom calls too, that night. She tells him how proud she is that he’s made it to the majors. She tells him that she has always known he’d make it. She doesn’t mention the dress. He’s glad, because he’s not sure if he could lie well enough to convince her it hadn’t hurt him.

It had, but it hadn’t been more than he could endure.

 

***

 

Bottom of the 4th

Spencer’s back on the mound in the 4th. There’s no set plan on when they’re going to pull him -- in the last regular-season game he’d lasted all the way through the 7th, though he’d kind of fallen apart near the end. Spencer’s stamina is good, but Steve’s always on him about his mental focus.

Spencer takes a deep breath and narrows his eyes, zeroing in on Pedro’s glove. The invisible box hovering above home plate. The bat. The white baselines branching out to either side. The ball, his glove, all the specific muscles -- biceps, rotator cuff, deltoids, hamstrings -- that coil up tight. Like a spring, Steve’s told him a million times. His whole body is one giant spring.

Kicking up his leg, he throws. The umpire calls strike three.

Next up is Victor Alvarez. Brooklyn native, traded from the Brewers. He has a reputation as a hothead, fighting in games -- and not always with the other team. Rumor has it the Brewers were only too happy to be rid of him: trash-talking and even brawling with the other team is one thing, but bad blood in the dugout is toxic.

Spencer takes a deep breath, trying to push all the scouting reports to the back of his mind. The problem, his big problem as a pitcher, is that sooner or later his tunnel vision fails. He tries to keep the world out but it always seeps in on the edges, and once he makes one mistake he has a hard time recovering. Some guys can shake off a hit or a homer, but Spencer tends to fixate on what went wrong.

Steve keeps telling him not to over-think it, which is funny coming from a man with stacks of DVDs showing Spencer’s delivery from every angle.

Alvarez swipes at a slider and grimaces as he rocks back into his batter’s stance. Pedro tosses Spencer the ball.

Spencer’s slider has improved. That first round of training with Steve had been horrible: he’d thrown sliders again and again, and Steve would stop him to explain all the ways he was turning his shoulder wrong. Spencer tried to follow every detail and somehow the pitch would still go wrong. He’d felt so frustrated. Then one day, Spencer doesn’t even know how, it had started going right. He’s no slider specialist -- he’s no specialist at anything, really -- but he no longer cringes whenever a slider leaves his hand.

It’s another positive in his favor. His agent, a forty-something guy named Kevin Whitmore with silver hair and a fake tan, tells him that every manager has a chart of their top prospects, listing their negative and positive attributes. It’s all about trying to get the positives to outnumber the negatives.

Spencer tries not to think what, besides his lousy knuckleball, is on his list of negatives.

He throws a fastball. Alvarez clips it, sending it bouncing into the infield dirt. Pedro jumps up from his crouch, ripping his mask off.

Spencer gets to it first, scooping up the ball before it ricochets past him. Alvarez is sprinting towards first base. He’s fast, but he’s got to know that didn’t go far enough. Spencer plants his foot and makes eye contact with Freddy on first base before he throws.

Freddy catches it with plenty of time. The crowd, which had cheered when Alvarez made contact, quiets down again. The game is still scoreless. The Dodgers are actually on Whitmore’s shortlist of teams to talk to this off-season. Spencer’s not sure if that means he should show them his best in this series or if he should go easy on them, maybe let a few hits through. Of course they’ll be looking for pitching talent, but no one wants to sign the guy who strangled them in the playoffs. It feels a little deceitful to think that way when he’s still in a Reds uniform, but Whitmore’s always at him to think long-term.

His parents would be thrilled if he got signed to LA. Ohio is a long way from Las Vegas, and his dad used to root for the Dodgers. They’re not in the crowd tonight, but only because Crystal’s getting married next week. The rehearsal dinner is actually tomorrow. Spencer’s going to miss it. She’d asked him last year when the season would be over, and he’d expected to be done by now. Despite his mid-season boasting to the press, he’d never expected they’d make the playoffs.

Gresham Steinhauer takes the plate. Spencer breathes in and out, wrestling those thoughts back behind the closed doors in his mind. He throws a sinker. It drops perfectly, curving just out of the way of Steinhauer’s swing.

So far, so good.

 

***

 

February 2011

"Where are you?" Spencer asks. He should know. He's got Brendon's schedule written down but his head is full to the brim right now. He spent twelve hours working with the pitching coach. They're not happy with his slider.

"The city of lights!" Brendon sings. "We're in gay Paris! It's kind of awesome, Spence."

"Awesome," Spencer says. "You've never played there before, huh?"

"We were supposed to one time, like, two years ago but Ryan forgot his passport in Prague and they wouldn't let us enter the country even though Zack screamed on the phone for two hours. I thought they were..."

Spencer closes his eyes and tries to focus on Brendon's story. His arm is sore. His hands are sore. His fingers are curled, arthritic, towards his palm. The hotel room is not that nice; there's no central air, just a window unit, and a bit of condensation drip-drips regularly on to the carpet. The team says they're going to be moving into short term apartments soon. Spencer will be glad to leave the hotel, but he doesn't care that much, not like some of the guys. He's heard some of them on the phones with their agents, griping about substandard accommodations.

Spencer has three unanswered voice mails from his agent. He doesn't want to talk to him, but he'll have to call back soon.

"You fall asleep?" Brendon asks.

Spencer opens his eyes. "No," he says. "No. It's only... nine o'clock. Not late."

"I guess my tales of debauchery in Amsterdam just weren't entertaining enough, huh?" Brendon's voice is quiet, all the thousands of miles between them intervening.

"They were entertaining," Spencer says softly. "Sorry. I just had a long day."

"Yeah?" Brendon asks. "What did you do?"

Spencer sits up. "Took in the sights. I woke up this morning and I went on a hover boat tour of the Everglades. Wrestled a few alligators. Then we went to Disney World for a few hours. We ended the evening in the Florida keys, swimming with manatees."

He tries to keep his voice light. He's trying to make a joke. He knows Brendon knows what he did.

"I always wanted to see a manatee," Brendon says wistfully.

"Maybe they have a Sea World in Paris," Spencer says.

"What would they call that?" Brendon muses. "Euro Sea? Mer World?"

"I vote for Mer World," Spencer says. He can hear some of the guys out in the hall. The hotel walls are thin, and the team has rooms all in a row. They're boisterous, heading out for dinner or a club.

"You're okay, right?" Brendon asks.

Spencer closes his eyes. "I'm okay," he says. "Tell me what you're doing today."

"We've got a tour of the Louvre," Brendon says. "And I think Ryan is going to kill someone if he can't go to Versailles."

"That sounds fun," Spencer says. "I've never been to Europe."

"You know you could come out here for a week," Brendon says. Spencer can tell he's been waiting for this opening. "Even Ryan has been asking about you. I haven't seen you in months, dude."

"I know," Spencer says. "I know. I can't come now."

They've talked about this. Spencer can't travel in February. He can't travel in March. He sure as hell hopes he can't travel in April, May, June, July, or August, because he is going to make the 40 man roster for the Cincinnati Reds this year, and he is going to be one of their starting pitchers. Those seven months are sacrificed to the team. He's not staying in Triple A Louisville. He's not.

"Maybe just for a weekend you could come?" Brendon asks, plaintive.

"I can't come," Spencer says, and he can't keep all the heat out of his voice. He hates when Brendon does this. He hates that he hasn't seen him since September. He hates so many things but he endures them because he has to.

Brendon makes a kind of frustrated noise in the back of his throat and someone calls his name on the other end of the line. Funny that French static sounds exactly the same as good old American static.

"Listen, I've got to go," Brendon says, in a rush. "Ryan says they're going to leave me here."

Spencer's eyes burn. He squeezes them shut. "Sorry," he says. "Sorry. I'll see, Brendon. Maybe I can come for a weekend. Maybe I can ..."

"We can talk about it later," Brendon says. "I've really gotta go Spence."

"Love you," Spencer says.

"You too, mon amour," Brendon says.

He hangs up.

The halls are quiet now.

Spencer wants to keep his eyes closed and lay back on the pillow and go to sleep. He wants to forget to set his alarm and sleep long and hard until he wakes feeling rested. He forgets what that feels like, only remembers it as an abstraction.

He wants to call Brendon back, and apologize, or ask for an apology, whichever would set things right quickest.

But they're playing a spring training game against the Nationals tomorrow, and he's got scouting reports on their lineup to read before he sleeps.The scouting reports are bound in a folder on the dresser. He grabs it and flips on the bedside light. This is what he needs to be doing right now. This is what he needs to concentrate on. He can't explain to his team why he needs to take a week off and go visit his 'friend' in Europe.

 

***

 

Bottom of the 5th

Spencer gets all the way to the bottom of the 5th before he notices, and only then because of Johnny.

They’re jogging off the field towards the dugout after Spencer strikes out the Dodgers’ six-hole batter, Jim O’Dell. Jamie and Michi got a couple of hits off of Wallace in the 4th, and they’re up 1 - 0. Spencer’s thinking ahead: he’d faced White and Ortiz again this inning, and got them both out on balls that went foul or into the dirt. Batters are more inclined to swing at more pitches with each subsequent at-bat. Spencer’s thinking he can probably play it safe and go a little further outside next time as he jogs alongside Michi. Pedro’s just behind him

Which is when Johnny comes jogging up alongside Pedro and says in a low voice, “0 for 5. You think he’s got it in him?”

It’s not unusual for Johnny to talk about Spencer in an undertone, but it is unusual for Pedro to snap back, “Dude, shut the fuck up.”

It gets Spencer’s attention, makes him frown as he goes down the dugout stairs and peels off his glove. He’s careful not to look at either Pedro or Johnny. Usually the two of them get along just fine, despite whatever shit Johnny wants to talk about Spencer. He’s heard Pedro defend him a few times -- half-heartedly -- but it’s never been a big deal.

It’s not until he turns toward the field and sees the long line of zeroes on the scoreboard that it connects in his head.

0 for 5. He’s given up zero hits for five innings, and he hasn’t walked anyone either. Not a single Dodger has gotten on base so far this game. That’s not -- it’s not such a big deal by itself, plenty of pitchers have been perfect through five innings.

If he makes through nine without anyone getting on base, though, then he’ll have pitched a perfect game. That’s why Pedro snapped at Johnny: it’s an old baseball superstition that you can never talk about a perfect game when there’s even a chance of one. In a game built on old wives’ tales, everyone from the bat boys to the announcers keep the words ‘perfect game’ or anything close to it from passing their lips until the last pitch.

There have only been twenty perfect games. Cincinnati’s had one before: Tom Browning in ‘88, the great lefty out of Syracuse. Against the Dodgers, no less, though it’d been a home game in Riverfront, not here... and it was the regular season. In the entire history of baseball there’s only ever been one perfect game in the playoffs: Don Larsen, pitching for the Yankees in the ‘56 World Series. Spencer knows these facts like a priest knows the Bible. In his mind he can see the famous black and white photograph of Yogi Berra jumping into Larsen’s arms after the last out.

That was over fifty years ago, though. No one’s pitched a perfect game in fifty years of baseball playoffs. It’s absurd to think that Spencer would actually do it tonight. He’s worked hard to be where he is and he’s felt great through the first five innings, but he’s just not that good.

Spencer turns it over in his head as he pours himself a plastic cup of water. All around him, the batters on deck are gearing up, grabbing their helmets and taping up their hands, tucking a fresh bud of dip in their mouths. No one says a word to him. He carries his cup of water over to the railing and stands with it in his hand, watching Wallace warm up. Now that he’s paying attention, he realizes that not even Steve has said a word to him since the 4th. The whole team must have noticed before he did, and they’re all trying to avoid icing him by avoiding him entirely.

Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell. It’s not like anyone talks to Spencer that much in the dugout on a regular night. He keeps to himself and everyone else -- well, no one talks to him much.

A weird chill runs across his back, making him tremble. It’s got nothing to do with the weather. He wonders if the television commentators have picked up on the fact that he’s been perfect so far. Maybe -- their job is to create a narrative, filling up the empty, disjointed pauses between pitches, the lulls when the next batter steps to the box. It would make a pretty good story: the unproven rookie going perfect through five, maybe on a date with destiny, maybe just waiting to fall apart in the sixth.

They’re probably showing flashbacks to the last regular season game he’d played, against St. Louis. He’d gotten through the first six innings with only one run on an outfielder’s error -- a ground ball had gotten past Hudson in the 4th -- but the 7th had gotten away from Spencer. The third batter had scored a two-run homer and Spencer... once he loses focus, he’s lost it for good. Everyone knows that.

Everyone’s waiting to see if he’ll make that first mistake tonight.

He wonders if his parents are watching the broadcast, if his sisters are. Crystal’s getting married out in Napa Valley. When they’d secured the Wild Card slot she’d offered, nervously, to reschedule, but he’d told her that was just ridiculous. Who reschedules a wedding, even for their brother’s playoff game? It does hurt, though, the knowledge that there’s nobody up in the boxes cheering specifically for him, nobody who’s glad just to see him play. It makes it all the worse, having to deal with his teammates’ skepticism, their doubt. A panicked feeling rises in his chest.

Before, whenever he got like this between innings he used to put on noise-canceling headphones and listen to Brendon sing until he remembered that he had someone to go home to even if he screwed up everything else. The fact that he can’t do that now hurts in ways that Spencer didn’t know it could. It’s been almost a year since they broke up and he keeps thinking that he’s through the worst of it. He keeps thinking that one day soon he’ll be able to hear Brendon’s voice on the radio and not have his heart seize up.

This moment, though, this moment right here, surrounded by the silence of expectations, while he stares into his leaking cup of water and knows that when he fails he’ll have no one waiting for him at home...

This is a new way to hurt.

 

***

 

August 2011

“Believe me,” he says. “I get why you waited. I totally get why you waited.”

Spencer nods. The leather couch he’s sitting on is huge. He’s not short, but his feet barely touch the ground. He took a behavioral psychology class his junior year and he wonders if this is an intentional ploy to intimidate. If so, it’s obvious. It’s also working.

“I get why you waited, Spencer, but now’s the time to make your move.”

“I’m not even sure they’re going to start me, Mr. Whitmore,” Spencer says. He is wearing a shirt and tie. He wishes he weren’t. The agent, Kevin Whitemore, leans back against the edge of his desk, his arms loosely folded across his chest. He wears a black polo shirt, vivid against his unseasonal tan. Behind him is a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows that show the Chicago skyline. Outside, the buildings seem to waver in the heat. Inside, the environment is rigorously air-conditioned. The sweat on Spencer’s back as turned cold.

“Kevin, please, Spencer,” Whitemore says. “Listen, I’ve seen a lot of kids come up through the college system. I’ve seen a lot of teams blow their money on guys who didn’t have half your dedication or talent. That Italian fuck down in Cincinnati can talk all he wants about rebuilding, but it was a dick move to offer you a three year contract. We’re going to make them regret that.”

“Yeah,” Spencer says. The entire conversation makes him feel uneasy. A three year contract seemed generous at the time, and his coach at USC had told him that there wasn’t any reason to get an agent until after he went pro. He is almost sure that was good advice. He’s just grateful he’s gotten to pitch at all.

“I got it,” Whitmore says. He snaps his fingers. “You’re thankful they signed you.”

“I am,” Spencer says. “I just want to play.”

Whitmore laughs, but not like he finds anything funny. The veins in his temples bulge. “You’re going to play,” he says. “Oh god, kid. You have no idea how valuable that arm of yours is. You’re going to have teams begging you to pitch for them. What was your ERA this season?”

“2.98,” Spencer says. He knows his stats like he knows his birthday. “But I only started six games… ”

“Two point fucking nine eight,” Whitmore says. “And you started six games of a half-season. What the fuck did those assholes think they were doing when they signed you for three years? They knew what you did at USC. They had the scouting reports. They must have been blind, because you know what I see when I look at you?”

Spencer shakes his head. He doesn’t know.

“I see a future Cy Young winner. I see someone who’s going to lead a team that’s a hell of a lot better than the Cincinnati Reds to the World Series.” Whitmore drums his fingers against the edge of his desk. “I’m going to get you signed with that team. That’s what you want, right?”

“Yeah,” Spencer says. “Yeah, I do. I just …”

“What? Try me. I’ve heard everything.” Whitmore narrows his eyes. Spencer wishes he’d brought someone with him -- his dad, maybe, or Brendon. “You think you’re not good enough? You think maybe you want to go back to school and study the Romantic poets? You’re nursing a prescription painkiller addiction? You got married at sixteen and have three kids?”

“I’m gay,” Spencer blurts out.

Whitmore’s face goes pale, except for two spots of color over his cheekbones.

“That’s okay,” he says. “That’s fine. We’re a very modern agency, very progressive. Hell, I even donated money to Obama.” He laughs, like that’s some great joke.

Spencer is sweating. He needs air. He wishes his phone would ring. He’s been honest. He’d talked about it with Brendon, and they agreed he should be honest. This isn’t the reaction he was expecting.

“You’re going to be a star.” Whitmore’s voice is low. He is speaking quietly but quickly. “You’re going to be a star, and I’m going to be the one who makes you a star. I don’t care what you do on your own time, Smith, but if there’s anything else that’s going to make you a liability for a team, you need to tell me.”

Spencer nods. He wants to call Brendon. “There’s nothing,” he says.

“Good,” Whitmore says. “Your… preference stays between us. Our little secret. I’m glad you told me.” He leans back. The too-wide smile returns. “Trust is essential in my line of work. You’ve got to trust me to do what’s best for you and get you what you deserve.”

Outside, the sun is so bright and relentless that it bleaches the color from everything it touches. Spencer closes his eyes for a second. Brendon is waiting for him at his apartment. They’re supposed to go get pizza, after Spencer gets back. That’s what Brendon said: pizza and beer, because Spencer was going to be the next Tim Lincecum. Spencer had laughed, surprised and pleased Brendon even knew who that was.

Whitmore clears his throat. “I have to trust you, Spencer, not to do anything that would jeopardize your chances. You know what that means, right?”

Spencer nods. He knows. He gets it. Maybe he’s always known.

He tells Brendon all about it as they sit and eat breakfast in the sunlit kitchen in Brendon's apartment. Brendon shakes his head and agrees.

"You don't need an agent," he says. "I'll get a book on contract law. We’ll read up."

He smiles, only half joking.

The thing is -- Spencer does need an agent. He got called up unexpectedly, but he did well enough in his first half season in the major leagues that people are paying attention. He schedules more meetings, but he quickly realizes that Whitmore is fairly representative of sports agents as a class. He meets a few people who are worse, and a few who are better, but nobody that seems like they are going to be overly sympathetic towards an out ball player, no matter how well he pitches.

Spencer signs in September. Kevin takes him out for a steak dinner at this gauche restaurant in Chicago. Spencer asks Brendon if he wants to come, and Brendon frowns and refuses. Spencer flies his father out instead.

Things start to happen more quickly after Spencer gets an agent. Kevin arranges for him to be featured in a magazine article about the top young pitching prospects. Spencer has the phone interview scheduled on a Tuesday morning. He sits in the kitchen in his apartment in Cincinnati and makes chitchat for a few minutes with the young woman conducting the interview. The article is a fluff piece. Spencer realizes that quickly when the woman asks him what he likes to do in his spare time, who his favorite pitcher was growing up, where he wants to go on vacation with his first big league pay check.

"So," the woman says. Spencer tries to picture her, but he can't imagine what she looks like at all. "Tell me about your perfect woman. What do you look for in a girl, Spencer?"

Spencer swallows. His throat is suddenly dry. He opens his mouth, and thinks of Brendon, and he says, "Um, funny. Yeah. Definitely someone with a good sense of humor."

The woman laughs. "That's it? Well, jeez, the ladies better start lining up. They're not going to have to work very hard to impress you."

"No, no, that's not it," Spencer says. He laughs too. It’s forced. He is thinking about how many people are going to read this magazine, how people he never will meet are going to hear him say these things and they are going to think he’s... "She definitely has to be a good cook. And um, I like a girl who can play music."

"Oh yeah?" the woman says. "So you like the arty type, huh? What about in the looks department? What pushes your buttons?"

Spencer closes his eyes. "Uh. Breasts." He sounds like a complete and total fraud. "Yeah. You know. Uh. A girl with a nice rack."

The woman laughs. Spencer feels like an enormous idiot. He wants to stop the interview and apologize, maybe tell her the truth off the record. The whole interview lasts only a half an hour but after that question it seems like it stretches on for an eternity. All Spencer can think about is how he just told a blatant lie, and not a very good one. His stomach twists up tight, and when the call is over, he texts Brendon a quick 'I love you.’

Brendon doesn't respond, not right away. He's on tour. He is busy with his own life.

Spencer doesn't tell anyone what he said in the interview, not even Brendon, who sometimes thinks it's kind of funny when girls flirt with Spencer. Every time he thinks about it he feels sick to his stomach. He hopes maybe they'll edit that part right out, because honestly, good sense of humor? That doesn't make for very exciting copy.

He’s not that lucky, though.

Two days after the interview is posted, Brendon calls and, without saying hello, spits, "So I hear I've got a great sense of humor, good cooking skills, and a pair of knock out tits."

They wind up screaming at each other, Spencer standing in the middle of a Home Depot parking lot and Brendon -- wherever he is. Spencer’s never argued with anyone like this, just yelling until his voice starts to go hoarse. People stare as they pass him, pushing their orange shopping carts. Spencer fumbles with his keys, scratching the side of his car before getting the door open. The inside is claustrophobic and still. His own shouts make his eardrums flinch.

At some point Brendon hangs up on him. Spencer doesn’t even realize it at first; he’s too busy yelling, “I need this, okay, I haven’t, I’ve never been good at anything else, this is all I have. What if you lost your voice? Brendon? Brendon. Brendon?”

The line is dead. Spencer takes the phone away from his ear for a second, staring at the welcome screen, before flinging it away from him as hard as he can. It rebounds off the dashboard, hits the opposite door, and shatters open.

Spencer’s shaking. He presses his hot face into the window.

It takes him a couple of days to get a new phone, by which time he has a series of increasingly freaked-out voicemails from Brendon. When Spencer finally calls him back, Brendon’s relieved enough to hear from him that the whole thing sort of gets smoothed over.

The cracks stay, though, and they only get wider with time.

 

***

 

Bottom of the 6th

The first batter up in the 6th is Theo Hardy, a baby-faced rookie outfielder from Stanford. Spencer played against him in the college league a few times; that should give him an advantage, but mostly he remembers that Hardy had freckles and was almost too sweet to be real. Spencer had even wondered -- with some dread -- whether they would someday wind up on the same team. They had never had much chance to interact, though, and then Spencer had met Brendon.

Spencer shakes his head sharply, once, trying to clear away those thoughts. They cling like a net, trapping him.

Hardy swings at the first pitch: he catches a piece of Spencer’s breaking ball and sends a bouncer between first and second. Carlos dives for it then springs right up and loops it to Freddy with plenty of time. Hardy slows to a trot halfway to first, his head tilted back and his eyes closed, before making a U-turn for the dugout with his shoulders slumped.

Spencer looks away from him, trying to refocus on home plate, and blinks in surprise when he sees Pedro walking towards him.

Then he turns his head further. Coach Taylor is jogging his direction, too, and Spencer thinks, No, no.

He stands his ground, fingers digging into the webbing of his glove, as the two men intersect on him. The crowd’s gone unfocused, a distracted mash of voices, but Spencer still feels like they’re all watching him, seeing how he’ll react. He hadn’t even noticed the relief pitcher, Hussein, getting warmed up in the bullpen.

“Smith,” Coach greets, “how you feelin’?”

“Good,” Spencer answers. “I feel good.”

Coach nods once, brusquely. He always cuts to the point. Usually Spencer likes that about him. “They’re substituting Cooper in for DeMillo. How you feel about that?”

Spencer steals a glance towards the batting circle and sure enough, Andy Cooper is there warming up. He’s a big red-headed guy with a beard and the thickest shoulders Spencer has ever seen. His bat swings in wide circles; he’s got a ridiculous reach. There’s no hoping of getting past him outside. It’s breaking balls inside or, if Spencer’s feeling fast enough, change-ups down the middle.

He relays this assessment to Coach Taylor and Pedro, who nods along. Coach Taylor listens, too, then comes right back with, “He got two homeruns off of you last time.”

Spencer breathes in through his nose. It’s true. The only reason it hadn’t been three-for-three was that Coach Taylor and Steve had pulled Spencer right before the eighth and put in Hussein -- who had immediately beaned Cooper in the thigh.

“I’m not going to the outside again -- and I’m not gonna hit him, either,” he adds, feeling a little guilty for Hussein, whose only real fault is that he’s the one they bring in when they think Spencer can’t hack it anymore.

Coach Taylor huffs and looks at Pedro.

“I think he’s got this, Coach,” Pedro says, glancing sideways at Spencer. Spencer wants to hug him. They’ve never been close but he feels like they have a rapport. It’s important for pitchers and catchers to have a good working relationship, so Spencer’s made an effort to ask about Pedro’s wife and their toddler son. It isn’t something that comes naturally to him, but he’s tried.

Unfortunately that means that Pedro’s made an effort to get to know him, too. Spencer’s told more lies to Pedro than anyone else in his entire life.

That’s the thought that stays with him even after Pedro and Coach Taylor leave him. They’ve decided to trust him with the game, with everything, and Spencer --

Spencer’s lied to them both so many times, in so many little ways, that he can’t even separate out the individual instances anymore. They heap together into one big falsehood that’s wrapped around his whole life, strangling him.

Cooper steps up into the batting box. He looms over Pedro and the umpire. Spencer squints at Pedro’s signals. The gestures seem to drift through his brain, not taking root. He feels a little like he’s high, even though he’s never taken any drugs in his life. He rocks back, enters his stance. Throws a curveball.

It cuts just inside. Cooper stays still as a statue. The umpire calls a ball.

Spencer takes it back and turns away. The visit from Coach Taylor rattled him but it’s more than that. Spencer always does this. Cooper is waiting for him at the plate and he can’t -- he can’t stop thinking about that interview, that argument with Brendon. Logically he knows that so many different things went wrong between the two of them but he feels like the end started right there -- that stupid, insipid fucking interview, the first lie in a long list of them.

But it was the only decision he could have made. There was nothing else he could do. His whole life, he’s only ever wanted to play baseball. The coaches, the guys on the team, the fans and reporters and fucking agents... all of them have so many reasons why it shouldn’t be him out here on the mound right now. He knows how many people want his job. He can’t give them more ammunition.

But it all happened anyway, didn’t it? The rumors, that fucking dress that he’d worn so dutifully, letting them make him feel ashamed.

His eyes burn. His shoulders are way too tight and he can’t get them to relax. The stadium around him is full of people, his team surrounds him on all sides, and he’s more alone than he’s ever been in his entire life. He feels like he’s been hanging on by his nails and now, finger by finger, he’s losing his grip.

He throws a fastball. Even in the middle of his windup he can feel how it’s all wrong, how his body hasn’t committed to the motion. It’s as if there’s some small part of him fighting back, refusing to give in.

The ball leaves his hand too slow. Cooper sees it, too, and steps right into the swing, picture-perfect diagram that Spencer can almost see in snapshots, on a training DVD, from multiple angles. The bat connects loud and Spencer feels it in every molecule of his body. Every atom seems to flinch.

The ball shoots upward. Spencer doesn’t even want to track it but he’s helpless not to. He turns, his neck craned back, squinting against the lights. It’s just a little white speck against the orange glow of the LA sky. The crowd roars. Spencer stands with his arms at his sides. The ball rises and arcs and falls, down, down towards center field. Spencer can’t look away from it. He wants to sink down with it as it drops.

It goes back almost to the fence and Hudson is there, sprinting straight back underneath the ball’s flight, his head turned to look over his shoulder as he runs. He looks like he’s going to run right into the wall, but barely ten feet away he snaps his head to front.

The ball’s picking up speed as it drops towards the wall. It’s going to go over. It’s going to go over, but Hudson is leaping up, using the wall as a springboard.

He catches the ball in the very tip of his glove, bounces off the wall, falls to the ground, rolls, and comes up from the dirt with the ball held aloft in his bare hand.

 

***

 

Elsewhere

Someone tries to change the channel away from the game and Brendon panics. One of the makeup artists is working on him but he’s watching the green room’s shitty little TV out of the corner of his eye and when someone says, “Dude, who put on fucking baseball?” and slaps at the little buttons below the monitor, Brendon snaps his head in that direction. The makeup artist’s pencil drags across the bridge of his nose.

“Turn that back!” he cries, pointing at the dude. It’s a guitarist in one of the opening bands. He has long hair, gauges, and full sleeve tattoos on both arms. When he puts his hands up, staring, Brendon can see knives and chained hearts around his wrists. Brendon glares at him, completely ignoring the makeup artist’s indignation. “Turn it back.”

Somebody else sitting on the couch below the TV mount reaches up and turns the game back on. The guitarist shoots Brendon a dirty look and wanders off. Brendon should call him back and apologize for snapping--he doesn’t know a lot of people on this tour and he needs to make more allies--but Spencer is throwing a 2-2 pitch and Brendon digs his fingers into his thighs as Spencer goes into his windup.

The batter lets it pass unmoving. The umpire makes a motion that he doesn’t understand. The hand-signals for a ball and a strike are way too alike in Brendon’s opinion and it isn’t until Spencer ducks his head, jogging away from the mound, that he knows it was an out and the end of the inning.

The camera switches angles on Spencer, watching his face as he jogs towards the Reds’ dugout. There’s too much noise in the green room for Brendon to hear the announcers but the score comes up: 2 for the Reds and a long line of 0s for the Dodgers.

Despite the score, Spencer’s expression is closed-off, tense. Brendon knows that look. It makes his stomach clench.

A beer commercial comes on. Brendon forces his fingers to relax. The makeup artist stands with her arms crossed. He musters up an apologetic smile for her. It’s not going to be a good night for makeup. When that pop fly had almost gone over the wall, Brendon had actually jumped up from the chair, helplessly chanting no, no, no.

By the time the makeup artist gets done the game’s still in commercials. Brendon hates the commercials during baseball games. They’re all about trucks and beer and flirtatious, large-breasted women that have absolutely nothing to do with trucks or beer but seem really turned on by those products. The only person who hates those commercials more than Brendon is Ryan: he has whole dissertations about how sports advertising is slowly rending the very fabric of mankind’s eternal soul.

The game comes back on. The Reds are up to bat. The infographic says that the first batter is Jamie Parker. Brendon doesn’t know him; he’s never met any of Spencer’s teammates and Spencer was never social enough to have stories to pass on--except for the bad ones. He knows Parker is the cleanup hitter, though, which means unless the other pitcher totally loses it, Spencer won’t be up to bat this inning. Brendon’s happy for that: he has enough time to freak out when Spencer’s pitching, he doesn’t need to worry when he’s up to bat, too.

A couple of the techs sitting on the couch have been drawn in by his interest. Brendon hates watching with other people: they always want to strike up conversations about baseball and he never knows what to say. He can’t exactly admit that he doesn’t know anything about RBIs or bunting or sliders, that he’s only watching because he’s dating the pitcher.

Was dating the pitcher.

Someone taps his shoulder and Brendon nearly jumps out of his skin. It’s Zack. “Stage manager called your five minute warning about three minutes ago, little dude.”

“Fuck,” Brendon says. For not the first time since he started the solo tour, he wishes Ryan were here. Ryan would know exactly what to say, some eloquent remark delivered in a voice so deadpan that it made Brendon laugh from sheer absurdity.

On-screen, the Dodgers’ pitcher throws a strike. Brendon lifts his hand to rub at his eyes then drops them when he remembers the makeup, the carefully-smudged eyeliner that won’t stand up to actual smudging. “Fuck, okay.”

When the stage manager comes back Brendon follows him out into a dark hallway, then up some stairs, then through a zoo of wires and backup equipment. The stage doesn’t have a curtain so people see him while he’s still awkwardly trying to not trip on a cable. The volume of screaming in that part of the crowd goes up. Brendon lifts his head, smiling and giving a little wave and hoping that he doesn’t fall on his face.

Spencer used to tell him that he moved completely differently when he went out onstage. Brendon never really figured out whether that was a good or bad thing -- though Spencer had always told him it was good, it was hot, the way he moved -- but he can feel himself slide into that zone now. His eyes narrow to block out the lights and the formless mass of arms and faces in the crowd. All that’s left in the center of his vision is the mic and Brendon goes to it, plucking it out of its cradle and fitting it into the palm of his hand.

“Hi, you guys,” he says into the head of the mic. His voice branches out through the air like veins of sound.

He doesn’t pause, just goes right into ‘Ghosts in Daylight.’ The band follows behind his lead: the vocals are two beats ahead of the guitars, which are two beats ahead of the rhythm section, which is two beats ahead of the crowd, which starts singing, too. It’s like synapses firing, coming together.

Brendon tilts his head back and the crowd sings along.

 

***

 

Top of the 7th

Jamie gets put away. So does Carlos. The Dodgers’ relief pitcher, Hank Amatto, is moving pretty quickly through their batting order.

“Should I start warming up?” Spencer asks.

Michi, the third baseman, squints up at Spencer. He’s crouched on the floor with his back to the opposite wall, his glove balanced perfectly on one knee. Everyone else is still avoiding Spencer, but Michi had come right over and parked in front of him. “Fuck no. You crazy? If they get around to you, Coach’ll put in a pinch hitter.”

Spencer sits back on the dugout bench, his teeth grinding together. He’s too warm: his hair sticks to his forehead but Steve had still made him put on a jacket for his arm.

Sometimes Spencer feels like his entire existence narrows down to that one limb.

Michi’s watching him, his brow furrowed just slightly. It’s no surprise that he’s talking to Spencer: they’re not close but Michi’s the team mother.

Spencer wants to tell him to go away. He takes a deep breath and lets it out. The corner of Michi’s mouth tics up slightly, like he knows what Spencer is biting back. “How’s your arm?” he asks.

It’s sore. It’s tired. It’s hot, sweating against the jacket. “Fine,” Spencer says.

“And how’re you?”

Spencer breathes through his teeth. His mind keeps racing. He can’t stop thinking about that second when Cooper had made contact, the solid crack of the bat, how it felt like he’d been hitting Spencer instead, right in the gut. Remembering every picture that Steve’s ever showed him, all the endless loops of videotape focused on Spencer’s arm, his shoulders, his hips, every move his body makes. Sitting there, he’s aware of how all the muscles in his body are built and honed and trained for one purpose; he knows how they all operate together to throw the ball how he wants. He knows all the different ways they can betray him. He’s remembering Brendon in a quick succession of snapshots: the TV interview, the last time they were together, the first time they met.

“Hey Smith,” Michi says, snapping his attention back around. “You believe in God?”

Spencer blinks, startled. “Um...no? I don’t know. Do you?”

Michi tilts his head to one side, letting his eyes slide past Spencer then come back around. “Don’t know, either. I like the idea, though, you know? That there’s somebody out there to take care of all the things I can’t.”

Spencer’s saved from having to come up with a reply by the crack of a bat. They both twitch forward reflexively, heads turning towards the field and eyes scanning for the ball; but it’s a foul. Mike Coughlin’s got a full count against Amatto.

Michi resettles and asks, “Why are you here?”

Spencer frowns at him, distracted. “What?”

“Why. Are you. Here? Not, like, existential bullshit, I mean why are you here, on this team, playing this game? Are you doing it because it pays well? ‘Cuz you want to become an automated pitch machine that throws a perfect breaking ball every time? ‘Cuz you want a title ring on every finger and your face on Wheaties boxes?” When Spencer doesn’t respond, Michi shifts a little in place and goes on. “You know my parents moved to LA from Japan when I was 14, all because a scout told them I’d go further here than in the Nippon league? I’ve wanted to do this my whole life, man. My whole life, I’ve only ever wanted to play baseball.”

Spencer nods mechanically. He knows. Anyone else in the dugout would probably say the same thing. They’ve all made sacrifices to be here, long nights and trips away from home, bloody knuckles and knees and strained muscles. You have to love the game to endure all that; otherwise it would be unbearable.

Spencer’s brain trips over that. He blinks.

Michi is watching his face, like he caught the stumble and knows what it means. Low and private, he asks again, “So what are you here for, man?”

There’s another sharp crack, and this time the whole dugout surges forward to the railing. Spencer squishes in next to one of the batting coaches. Michi’s at his back, stretching up to look over his shoulder.

It’s a fly ball, arcing back and back through the sky. Spencer has to squint to see the little speck of white. It rises up and up. His eyes dart between the ball and the outfielders, between the ball and the foul poles. His hands twitch; he almost pulls a Fiskie and reaches up to shove the ball fair.

He doesn’t have to. It drops sweet as you please into the stands, high above the outfielder’s outstretched glove. A bunch of teenagers scrabble for it among the seats. The crowd screams. Mike Coughlin jogs around the bases, beaming with exhilaration. Spencer and his teammates cheer him in. Mike Roberts is waiting for him at the plate when he comes in, giving him a double-five and a slap on the butt as he heads for the other end of the dugout and all the raised hands there.

Spencer waits his turn to high-five Mike Coughlin and gets a nod and a grin in exchange. The floor of the dugout shakes with pounding feet and the roaring crowd. Spencer feels the vibrations through his feet, moving up through his shins into his legs to make his whole body tremble. It’s a strange, giddy feeling, almost ticklish. Spencer turns just in time to catch Amatto, grim-faced, throwing a beauty of a curve ball to Mike Roberts. It’s such a perfect pitch, rising out of catastrophe, that part of Spencer wants to cheer for that, too.

Two more pitches hit the catcher’s mitt. The umpire calls it. The outfielders fold inward, heading for their own dugout, and on all sides of Spencer there’s the dull creak of stands as the crowd rises to its feet for the seventh inning stretch.

Take me out to the ball game
Take me out to the crowd
...

Spencer exhales slowly. When he turns, Michi is watching him. A grin spreads over his face. Spencer realizes that he’s grinning, too--has been since the ball fell in the stands.

Watching Spencer’s face, Michi calls over the noise of the crowd, “Can you believe they pay us to do this shit?”

Apparently he’s not looking for a response because he wanders off before Spencer can think of one, going for a water bottle and his cap.

Spencer tilts his head back, closes his eyes, and sings along to the crowd.

For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game.

 

***

 

June 2012

It's a long flight, from Miami to San Francisco, and then they've got eleven games in twelve days, the final leg of a three week long road trip before they're back to Cincinnati for a nine game homestand. Spencer usually likes looking at the schedule, likes seeing all those future games queued up. He likes to figure out when he's going to pitch, who he'll have to face. He likes the anticipation, usually, but the Reds are 1 - 9 in their last ten games and Spencer gave up five runs in four innings last night. It feels like they haven't been home in a year.

Spencer's not sure where home is for him right now, but even his empty apartment in Cincinnati would be an improvement over this.

He's played on teams who've had rotten seasons before, but he's never played on a team where such a black mood like this one takes hold. Everyone is silent and scowling during team meetings and the game almost -- almost -- has started to feel like routine drudgery.

Maybe it already has for some of the guys. That's how they act. It never feels routine to Spencer, but when he isn't playing well, it's something worse -- the sharp blade of a guillotine poised over his career.

He's sitting at the end of an empty row of seats. The chartered plane is big enough that everyone can spread out. More space for those bruised feelings to grow and spread. Spencer's heard some of the top players on the big market teams have provisions in their contracts for private jet travel. That's bullshit, he thinks. You're not a team if a handful of your guys get whisked away to their private jets while Joe Schmoe utility outfielder has to wait for the team bus to the airport. Spencer would never do that.

Doesn't matter, really. The Reds aren't a big money team. Nobody's got a private jet, especially not Spencer. He's lucky he's still got a spot in the rotation, the way he's been throwing lately.

Pushing the arm rest up, he spreads out and pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. It's his sweatshirt from college: he feels a little disloyal wearing it, because they've given him more warm up gear emblazoned with the Reds logo than he knows what to do with, but it feels familiar in a way that little else does right now.

It's barely morning. The broad flatness of the middle of the country is mauve, speckled with darker lakes and wooded plots and parking lots. He can't get comfortable enough to sleep. He tries to read a little bit but Spencer's never really been much of a reader and he can't focus on the book he's borrowed from Michi. Without any distraction, his mind rewinds back to the game, back to the passed ball he'd thrown in the second, back to the home run he gave up in the third.

If he doesn’t get his mind off the game, the next eight hours will be reruns of 'Why didn't I throw the slider on the third pitch to the fourth batter in the 6th?' He hesitates, then unzips his backpack and pulls his iPod out of the front pocket.

The album -- Brendon's album -- comes out today. Last night after the game Spencer had stayed up late, cross-legged in the middle of the hotel bed with all the lights out. The glow of his laptop had made eerie shadows on the walls and floor. He’d waited, and waited, and then it was midnight and he opened iTunes and he paid $9.99 for the debut solo album from Brendon Urie of Small Robots.

He hadn't listened to it right then, just synced it to his iPod and shut down his computer and gone to sleep. This morning's flight was early.

The album comes up on his iPod’s small screen. The cover art is just Brendon's face, no extravagant makeup or costume or anything. It couldn't be more different than what he did with Small Robots, but to Spencer it feels right. Brendon's always been so open about who he is, what he wants. He's never needed to hide behind grease paint or a uniform. Spencer’s not going to listen. That would probably make a bad situation even worse, but he scrolls through the track listing. None of the titles sound familiar. Spencer doesn’t know much about music but sometimes Brendon would talk about song ideas or even run some lyrics past him. He wonders if Brendon's been writing these songs in secret, all along, or if he's really found so much to say in the eight months since they broke up.

He doesn't know which would be worse.

He doesn't want to listen, not really. He shifts. His knee's a little sore from a bad turn he took rounding the bag at first base. He stares at the tiny image of the album cover.

His thumb hovers over the play button then slowly presses down.

Brendon's voice starts strong and unaccompanied, and then the guitar joins in, just a simple few chords, varied in repetition. It’s always amazed Spencer how the same handful of chords are used in almost every modern pop song, and yet Brendon can make each one sound unique.

The square of sunlight on the wall
Says it’s time to go
Box me up and send me down the road, oh

I’ve got a box full of your clothes
Below the stairs, in my home
The label says ‘to parts unknown’

But I know
And I know
I know
That we’re already ghosts

Brendon sounds different than he did on the Small Robots albums. It’s still him, and Spencer thinks he could pick Brendon’s voice out from a screaming crowd. He has a certain timbre and elocution -- and yes, Spencer remembers that terminology -- which comes from a classical training. From church. It’s hard to believe that Spencer ever thought of Brendon as carefree and careless: he knows, now, that Brendon spent a year sleeping on couches when he and Ryan were recording their first album, not quite homeless but without a home all the same. He knows how much Brendon has given up for his own dreams.

He never knew that Brendon had this much anger in him. It seeps into every word, every note of the opening song. It’s a punch to the gut and a strange comfort at the same time. Spencer knows how long it takes to put an album together: Brendon spent months writing this, composing the music, recording and re-recording the different parts, mixing the channels, and preparing the publicity. And for each of these songs, he probably had two others that didn’t make the cut.

Spencer wonders if those ones were about him, too.

Someone passes by him in the aisle. Spencer switches off the overhead light and rests his temple on the cold glass of the window. They’re crossing over a city: the streetlights form orange squares, criss-crossing the dark ground below them.

Spencer watches them slide slowly past as he listens to Brendon sing an entire album of songs about everything that went wrong between them.

 

***

 

Bottom of the 8th

Shaun White is up to bat, again. He looks exhausted. Spencer’s put him away twice already, in the 2nd and 5th, and White’s been running ragged on defense all night. It hasn’t been a high-scoring game on either side, but there have been a lot of pop flys on the Reds’ side. In the bottom of the sixth White had taken a rough dive to the turf. His uniform is dirty.

His swings are sloppy, unfocused. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world right now. Spencer almost feels bad for him.

He still puts White away in three pitches.

Ortiz is up next. Spencer’s on his third trip through their batting order. No one is talking about it but the whole ballpark has filled with a strange tension. It’s a little hushed for a playoff game, even one with low attendance.

The stillness sends chills up and down Spencer’s spine, but in a good way. He used to feel that way all the time inside ballparks, gripping his father’s hand against the press of the crowd. He can’t pinpoint exactly when the stadiums started to run together in his mind. He’s missed this feeling.

Pedro gets a new ball from the umpire and tosses it out. Spencer catches it with his glove then rolls it out onto his palm as he backs over the mound. The ball is smooth, clean, and real. He digs his fingers into its sides, feeling the give and the underlying hardness. His hand switches through the pitching grips on automatic. It’s a comfort, something that he does whenever he’s nervous or tired. He doesn’t feel tired, though. It feels like he’s getting his second wind.

For the first time he starts to think, Maybe, yeah...

Out of nowhere he thinks of the first and only time he’d ever played catch with Brendon. Brendon had bugged Spencer to show him all the different pitches, but Spencer hadn’t trusted Brendon to catch the ball with a glove rather than his stomach. It’d been right after Spencer had signed with the Reds: they’d gone exploring in Cincinnati at night, and pulled over in an empty parking lot. Spencer had thrown into a concrete wall, catching the ball on the rebounds.

His new coaches probably would have been furious if they’d found out -- they hadn’t even released his name to the trades yet and already scouts from other teams were poking around -- but it had been worth it, especially after Brendon had started a ridiculous announcer’s commentary. In Brendon’s version of the world, Spencer was the star of the Series, the Comeback Kid, and Babe Ruth reborn, all in one. He’d created moustache-twirling enemies for Spencer to bean on the head and gave the latest, very official stats on Spencer’s ass, until Spencer hadn’t been able to stand up for laughing.

Spencer realizes that he’s laughing right now, smiling and tugging his cap down low. Brendon used to tease him about that, duck down until he caught Spencer’s eye under the bill. He called Spencer shy, but in a sweet way, as if he liked it.

When he looks back at the plate, Ortiz has his head cocked in Spencer’s direction. It’s hard to read his expression at this distance, but his body language is tense, uncertain. Spencer wants to wave, tell him that he’s not laughing at him, but he’s not sure the umpire would allow that.

Pedro calls for a change up. Spencer doesn’t know how to tell Pedro that it’s okay, that his arm doesn’t hurt at all, that right now he feels like he could stand out here and pitch until the sun comes up. So he shakes his head again and again until Pedro, exasperated, finally signals for a fastball.

Spencer rocks back on his heel and he doesn’t even mean to grin, it just happens. His mouth just moves that way. He’s not trying to scare Ortiz, he’s not trying to do anything. He just feels like smiling, so he does.

He winds up, throws the fastball. As the ball leaves his hand Spencer imagines that he can feel every point of contact as it sling-shots out of his grip, everywhere that his fingertips and hand muscles are guiding it to go.

It whips past Ortiz. He goes for it at the last second, but checks his swing. It doesn’t matter: Pedro cradles it safe in his mitt.

The umpire calls a strike.

It’s easier to see the Reds fans in the stands now: there aren’t a whole lot -- Cincinnati is a long way from LA, and they’re not expected to go far in the playoffs -- but many of them are on their feet, clapping along when the music tells them to, even though it’s not their announcer or their field.

The sky overhead is the deep, muddy orange of a Los Angeles night. Spencer’s watched a lot of games in this stadium; he even came here with Brendon a few times. They kissed for the first time ten rows straight back from the first base line. If he closes his eyes he can still remember the flash of Brendon’s teeth, the taste of his mouth.

Spencer pulls in a deep breath and smells sweat and grass and, faintly, hot dogs. Leather and wood. Car exhaust. The crowd’s doing one of those rhythmic clapping chants. The lights all around the edges of the field are so bright that Spencer feels like he can see every blade of grass on the edge of the outfield as he turns, walks back over the mound, paces his territory. Michi’s standing on third base and Spencer grins at him, jerking his chin. Michi grins back, laughing a little and shaking his head.

Spencer turns back towards home plate. It’s a great night for baseball.

 

***

 

June 2011

The manager pulls Spencer after four innings.

He rubs his fingers along the webbing of his glove and stares at his feet. The red clay of the mound has stained his shoes. Spencer wants to argue that he should stay in. His control is a little off. He walked the first two guys up this inning. One ball, one strike, and then another seven balls in a row. He's down 3 to 1 on the guy currently up to bat. Things aren't looking good.

He knows he could get himself out of this jam if the coach would give him the chance. It's not a high stakes game. It's a balmy afternoon; there are long months of baseball left to play. Spencer's got plenty of time to redeem himself, so he doesn't argue, just stares tight-lipped and then trots to the dugout after Steve dismisses him with a pat to the shoulder.

“You did fine, kid,” the manager said. “Everyone gets nervous their first time out.”

He hadn’t done fine.

Spencer has spent his entire life waiting for this day. He is never going to forget what it felt like to stand on the mound at a major league stadium for the first time and throw towards home plate. That first pitch felt like the culmination of entire lifetime of work.

His form held for three innings, and then something happened. He tries so hard to keep himself focused during games but sometimes errant thoughts creep in. When he gets distracted, he gets sloppy.

He isn't really friends with any of the guys on the team yet. He’s a temporary replacement for a well-liked pitcher who will likely be back before the end of the season. He sits down on the end of the bench, away from everyone else. He could go into the locker room and clean up. Probably nobody would be too upset if he did, but he was taught as a kid that the right thing to do is to stay and support your team.

So he stays and watches as the Reds lose to the Cardinals eight to two.

Two of those runs are on Spencer’s tab. Nick, the relief pitcher that had come in when he was pulled, hadn’t fared much better, and the two batters Spencer had walked both score.

One game, and he’s got a ERA of 6.0.

It's not an auspicious way to start the season, but nobody's really got high hopes for Cincinnati this year. In the locker room, some of the guys clap him on the shoulder or shake his hand, telling him he did a good job. He knows he didn't.

Later, he sits in the passenger seat of Brendon's car and stares morosely at the tail lights of the car in front of them. There's late night traffic on the highway, bumper to bumper.

"We should get something to eat before we head back to your place," Brendon says. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. The radio is on, but it's turned down so low it can barely be heard.

"I'm okay," Spencer says. "We can if you want to."

Brendon shakes his head. "You're not allowed to be upset right now, Spencer Smith. This is an awesome day. We should go get ice cream."

Spencer smiles. Brendon's enthusiasm is infectious, but he's not pleased with how he did.

"I screwed up pretty badly."

"It was your first game," Brendon says. "And you totally did fine for three innings. That's a third of the game right there."

"I was supposed to try to last six innings," Spencer said.

That was the goal he'd worked out with the pitching coach, a compromise between Spencer's desire to pitch, to stay in, to work as hard as he could possibly work for his team, and the coach's legitimate concern that he needed to build up his strength and endurance gradually.

"So what?" Brendon asked. "You can't be so hard on yourself, dude. I've screwed up on stage plenty of times. Nobody cares."

Spencer bit his lip. That was different. Those kids that went to see Brendon play loved him with a purity and passion that defied explanation. Spencer is a mid-season call-up on a run of the mill team. He doesn’t inspire the same kind of devotion.

"People care when we don't win," he said. "The guys on the team... I know they care."

"I don't know why it matters," Brendon said. "I thought you said they were being kind of jerky to you."

"No," Spencer said. "Not jerky. It's just..."

He doesn't know how to explain that he’s got to play by the rules until he’s earned his place. He's not like Brendon. He’s never made friends easily.

Brendon pulls into the parking lot of this little, old-fashioned ice cream place down the road from Spencer's apartment. It’s a cool evening: they're the only people there. The light over the door flickers, a few ambitious bugs circling. There's a bored teenager behind the counter staring at his cell phone. Brendon sticks his hands in his back pockets as he muses about what flavor to get.

Spencer doesn't even want ice cream. He feels sick to his stomach.

Brendon orders a scoop of pistachio and a scoop of cherry vanilla on a cone with rainbow sprinkles. Spencer gets vanilla in a cup, no sprinkles.

"Boooring," Brendon says, as he digs his wallet out of his back pocket.

They sit outside at a picnic table with sagging benches. There's not much traffic; this area is quiet in the evenings. Spencer eats his ice cream. It's good, but he's not hungry. He stirs it until it's a liquid mess.

"Stop playing with your food," Brendon says. He sounds almost like Spencer's mother.

Spencer pushes the cup away from himself. "Sorry," he says. "I'm being stupid about this."

Brendon frowns. "You're not being stupid," he says. "Spence ... I get it. I get how much you care about what you do. It's not stupid to want to do well."

Spencer squirms, tearing a napkin into little shreds. He feels so dumb sometimes, so unsure of what to say to Brendon. "I disappointed everyone," he says, lamely.

Brendon sets his ice cream down on a napkin. He is wearing a jean jacket with the collar popped up and thick-framed glasses and it should look ridiculous, but Spencer never thinks that about him.

"Nobody's disappointed," he says. The levity is gone from his voice. "You've never disappointed me, dude. I know how hard you work."

Spencer gives him a half smile. "I bet the guys on the team are disappointed in me right now," he says.

Brendon frowns. "I don't know why you care so much," he says. "They aren't giving you a fair chance..."

"They don't have to," Spencer says. "That's why I've got to be perfect."

"You don't," Brendon says. "They're not going to hate you even if you do give up a run once in a while."

Spencer closes his eyes. "I know," he says quietly. He hasn't talked to Brendon about how hard it's been, how little he's liked, how easy it would be for him to mess up this one chance. He hasn't talked to Brendon about it, and there's nobody else he could even think of telling.

Brendon picks up his cone again. It's melted into an awful sticky mess that runs down Brendon's wrists. He doesn't have enough napkins so he resorts to using his tongue, but it doesn’t really work.

He gets up and tosses it in the garbage can. Spencer hands him a spare napkin.

"Thanks," Brendon says. He's got ice cream all over his face and hands. "You know that even if you screw up, I'd still love you," he says, glancing sideways. "Especially then."

Spencer nods. "I know," he says. "I know." He closes his eyes tight, for just a second, and breathes in. "You're not driving my car if you're all sticky like that."

Brendon looks up, and laughs. He gets the keys out of his pocket. Spencer smiles and takes the them.

 

***

 

Bottom of the 9th

The Dodgers use two pinch hitters in the 9th, pulling people off the bench to rattle Spencer. They don’t work.

Spencer’s whole right arm is trembling, from the back of his knuckles to his scapula. It’s only gotten this way once or twice before, in training camp, when Steve had him running stamina tests and Spencer hadn’t stopped when he knew he should. He’s got maybe another twenty pitches, tops, before the muscles simply stop obeying him. There’s sweat in his eyes. Spencer peels his cap back and swipes at it. His feet hurt.

One more, he begs silently with his body. One more out.

That one more is Shinji Takahana. He eyes Spencer from the plate, swinging the bat into the strike zone again and again like he’s trying to direct Spencer there. He’s a conservative hitter, never reaching for pitches that are way outside.

This time when Pedro signals for a change up, Spencer accedes. Takahana clips it, sending it into the seats just above the Reds’ dugout. Strike one.

Pedro throws out a new ball. The front-row seats vacated by departing Dodgers fans have all filled up with the red jackets and hats of Cincinnati fans, moving down from the back tiers. They’re all on their feet, have been since last inning. Spencer can hear them yelling for him above the PA system and automated music. He breathes in and out, slow.

The next two pitches miss outside, one so badly that Pedro has to scramble for it. Takahana stands his ground. 2-1. The tenor of the crowd turns anxious, keening.

Spencer catches the return throw and grits his teeth. His head spins. There’s a slight buzzing in his ears. His heart is pounding. The ball feels slippery, impossible to grip. At this point he’s pretty sure if he tries to throw a slider it’ll hit Takahana.

He tries another curve ball. The second it leaves his hand he knows the grip was wrong, the speed is off, it’s not going to break inside. Spencer’s breath stops.

Takahana starts to swing--but then second-guesses himself mid-stroke and pulls up just short of the plate. The umpire signals for an opinion from the first base umpire, who calls a strike. The crowd cheers. Spencer swallows hard. Takahana grimaces, stepping back from the plate. He should have had that one and they both know it. The count’s even.

Pedro throws the ball back out. Spencer takes it and closes his eyes, trying to find his way back to that zen place he’d been in the 8th. Nothing had mattered, then, just how much he’d love this game. He does. He loves it, whether he wins or loses. He’s never wanted anything else.

Except for how that’s a lie. The game’s almost over. Whatever happens in the next five minutes, the game will be over. If they win this series, they’ll advance in the playoffs; if they don’t, they’ll have three months off before spring training starts and they’ll do it all over again. And maybe they won’t make it to the playoffs next year. Maybe Spencer will have an ERA above 4.00 and never come this close to a perfect game ever again in his career.

“It’s all right,” Spencer whispers to himself. He can barely hear himself over the crowd, the PA, the rush of his blood. “Even if he hits it, it’s all right. Even if you screw up, I'd still love you. Especially then."

He throws a slider, even though he hates them, hates how long they hang out there in front of the batter, hates having to rely on the batter’s eye to deceive him.

Takahana swings... and misses.

-o-

Later, Spencer will watch clips online of himself tearing his cap off and throwing it up into the air. He can remember doing that, but he can’t remember deciding to do it, more like his body just moved without his permission. Technically it’s a team violation to take their caps off while they’re on the field, unless they’re batting; the next time they meet he apologizes to Coach Taylor, who shoots him an incredulous look and tells him not to worry about it.

Later, there are pictures in Sports Illustrated of him on his knees on the mound, yelling his head off with his fists clenched. A lot of press use that image, actually. Some of the commentators remark on the “explosion of emotion,” so unexpected from a player known for pitching with his head rather than his heart. There is speculation about changes in his training regime, and which teams are paying more attention to him now. Some wonder why they haven’t seen this level of passion out of him before this.

Later, after the post-game dog and pony show, and the unfamiliar embraces of his teammates, Steve takes him back to the hotel and makes him do some arm exercises to flush the lactic acid out of his arm, then ices his shoulder and elbow. There’s a big debate going on about whether or not it’s good to ice after a game. Steve’s a traditionalist, but he’s cautious, too. He only leaves the ice sleeve on Spencer for about 15 minutes.

“Rest up, kid,” Steve says, thumping Spencer’s leg. “We may need you again.” They’re 1-1 in the series now.

Later, after they lose the series 3-1, the media circus stays alive. More people have orbited the moon than have pitched a perfect game. Spencer is only the second pitcher in history to do it in the postseason, and the second-youngest. Whitmore is beside himself. He sorts through the interview offers and accepts a few more than Spencer would like.

When he sits for the first one, sweating under the camera lights in a tie and blazer, the interviewer asks him, “What was going through your head, out there on the mound?”

Spencer blinks a couple of times then says, “Honestly, I was mostly thinking about my ex-boyfriend.”

After that, the interviews multiply. Spencer fires Whitmore and hires a new agent, does an interview for Advocate and then no others. Surprisingly, not a whole lot else changes. The people on his team who didn’t like him before still don’t like him now. A few -- led by Michi and Pedro -- make a point of expressing their support, to Spencer’s eternal embarrassment. He’s never wanted to be -- he doesn’t know why it has to be such a big deal. He just wants to stop feeling like he’s done something horribly wrong that he has to hide. There are players who have DUIs, who’ve spent time in prison. Spencer’s biggest transgression is that he’s had sex with two guys in his life -- only one seriously -- and he just... he can’t let himself think of it that way anymore.

It is a big deal, though. He’s the first openly gay male athlete in any major American sport. People who don’t know or care anything about baseball want to talk to him, or about him. Reporters camp outside the training facility and hound him for comments. Some talk to his teammates. Spencer tries not to read those articles.

An early storm blows through the second week of October. Spencer catches a cold. He’ll never get used to the weather in Cincinnati. His mom comes to stay with him, making him chicken noodle soup and cranking up the thermostat in his apartment until they’re walking around in bare feet. She talks about holiday plans, his sisters’ grades, and Christmas wishlists. She wants to get Jackie a car but worries about spending the same amount of money on Crystal. It’s a familiar problem, one she wrestles with every year. Spencer always just gets them both a gift certificate for the same amount from the same store.

The Dodgers lose to the Brewers in the NL Championship Series. The Orioles take all seven games to beat the Red Sox and make it an East Coast matchup in the World Series. Whenever he turns on the Series his mother presses her lips together tight. Spencer wishes he knew how to convince her that this off-season is different from every one that’s come before it in his entire life. He doesn’t feel so lost anymore, like he has to have a baseball in his hand to know who he is or how to make sense of the world.

His mom goes home just after Game 3, a back-and-forth battle that lasts 12 innings. It’s shaping up to be a great series. Yovani Gallardo is starting for the Brewers. He’s been under-appreciated for a while now and Spencer is genuinely happy to see him getting his due. Game 4 begins with a thrilling three scoreless innings. At least, it’s thrilling to Spencer -- home runs bring in the crowds, but pitching wins pennants.

It’s the bottom of the 4th when someone knocks at Spencer’s door. He frowns, hefting himself to his feet. He lives in a gated apartment complex, thought not out of choice. His mother had read a few too many articles about the crime rate in Cincinnati when he first got signed, and Spencer hadn’t had the heart to tell her that after living off-campus at USC, everything else seems blasé.

It isn’t until he’s halfway to the door that Spencer remembers he’s only ever put five people on the list with the doorman. His mom’s long gone, his dad is at work, and his sisters are in the middle of their school year, which just leaves...

He pulls the door open without bothering to check the peephole. Brendon smiles, holding up a six-pack of beer and a bag of chips. “Hi! I come bearing gifts.”

Spencer looks at him then at the chips and the six-pack. “Ranch Doritos and Miller Lite?”

“The TV commercials tell me that these are what every red-blooded American sports fan wants, Spencer,” Brendon tells him very seriously. He’s wearing skinny jeans, bright red Converse sneakers, a non-descript sweater, and Spencer’s old minor-league baseball cap. He has on his glasses. It’s as good a disguise as any: no one looking at him would think he was a rockstar.

He’s wearing his picture smile, too, the one he wears when he’s not sure who he’s talking to and he’s trying to show his best side. Spencer stares at him long enough that the smile slips and he can see the uncertainty underneath, the vulnerability.

“I didn’t,” Spencer says. He’s suddenly very conscious of being in black sweatpants and his gray USC hoodie. His hair is a mess and his nose is red from all the tissues. “I didn’t know you were … that the tour was. Around.” Actually, he’s pretty sure the tour was nowhere near him.

Brendon hums and tilts his head from side to side, but says nothing. They stand there in silence, taking in the differences a year has made. Finally Spencer steps a little to the side, hesitant and unsure of what to say but willing to try. “You wanna come in?”

Brendon’s smile widens, blinding and sweet and familiar. He steps across the threshold, sets his presents down on the floor, and wraps his arms around Spencer’s waist. “I’m -- I’m sick,” Spencer stammers, his heart thudding. The fabric of Brendon’s sweater is cold under his fingers. “I’m all gross.”

“I just spent three months on a summer tour,” Brendon tells him. “Your level of grossness cannot compare.” Spencer expects him to lean in for a kiss but he just stands there holding Spencer around the waist and studying his face. The close scrutiny makes Spencer want to look away, but he forces himself to meet Brendon’s gaze.

“I watched your game,” Brendon murmurs. “Well, most of it. I had to go onstage towards the end. Never wanted to say screw it and cancel a concert so much before.”

Spencer swallows and admits, “I listened to your album. I’m sorry, Brendon.”

Now it’s Brendon who breaks eye contact, ducking his head. “Don’t... I didn’t write it because I was angry at you.”

“It sounded like you were,” Spencer says.

Brendon sighs and pushes his face into Spencer’s shoulder. The bill of his cap tips up. “Maybe a little. But most of it wasn’t at you. I just... I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” Spencer whispers, his throat tight. He leans in until his nose brushes the fragile skin behind Brendon’s ear. The baseball cap tips higher, then tumbles off Brendon’s head to the floor. In its absence Spencer digs his fingers into Brendon’s thick shock of hair, tugging a little on the ends out of habit.

Against his shoulder, he can feel Brendon huff a laugh. His hands slide up Spencer’s spine to rest on the backs of his shoulders. Spencer closes his eyes and shivers.

For once he’s the brave one: he always used to feel so far out of his depth with Brendon that even after they’d been dating for months he had a hard time initiating anything. Now, though, he ducks his head down until he can press his lips to the corner of Brendon’s mouth. It’s been so long since he was this close to someone. It’s not something that he really used to miss, before Brendon.

He wants more, he wants everything, but right now he wants to stay right here, trading halfway-chaste kisses with his front door still hanging open.

Behind Spencer, the game announcer’s voice says, Welcome back... In his arms, Brendon shifts a little. “Gonna miss the 5th.”

“Fuck the game,” Spencer says. Brendon laughs, startled and strangely hopeful, and Spencer pulls him in tight.