The Gambler

Fiction is not The Hardball Times’ usual fare. But sabermetricians, fantasy players and lovers of baseball history have this is common: They are, first, fans of the game. Here, then, is a baseball-themed short story to enjoy on this offseason weekend.

Game Day:

The hotel room had a TV opposite two twin beds, and a side table by the window. The man in handcuffs sat at the small side table, beside one of the agents.

There were only two chairs, so the other agent lay atop one of the twin beds, still in his suit and dress shoes, and he flipped the channel from a cartoon show to the Brewers-White Sox game at exactly 6:15, so they wouldn’t miss the anthem.

“Your boy’s playing, George,” said the agent on the bed.

“Yep,” said the man in handcuffs.

The agent tossed the remote on the bed and folded his hands behind the pillow. “He better hit today. Because if he strikes out, he’s going to prison.”

Two weeks before Game Day:

The prosecutor wore a suit not quite too nice to be off the rack, but close: the politician special. His shaved head held enough stubble to trace a receding hairline. Red tie, white shirt, blue suit. He reeked of ambition sheathed in patriotism.

He sat down across from George Kristy without saying hello.

“I am the U.S. Attorney. I drove two hours for this. Don’t waste my time.”

George nodded. “I won’t,” he said.

“The Nevada state police have you on charges you conspired to manipulate the line at the Harrah’s sportsbook on the Brewers – Angels game.”

“Yeah, they got me pretty dead on that.”

“Why that game?”

George shrugged.

The prosecutor opened a red leather folio and took out several photos of George and a young man in a Brewers uniform. He spread them on the table, facing George.

“These were taken less than 24 hours before that game. Milwaukee’s a long way from Reno.”

“He’s my boy. I wanted to wish him well.”

“Before betting against him?”

“I didn’t like where his head was at.”

“Perhaps thrown off his game by the sudden appearance of his deadbeat father?”

George’s laugh was cut short by a smoker’s cough. His face was tanned and lined by decades of desert sun.

“Something to do with it.”

The prosecutor pressed his fingertips together into a steeple. He stared over it at George in judgment.

“You did 10 years for your first conviction, cheating at a game of chance in Nevada. The silver state has a two-strike policy on gaming, so this time it’s life without parole. But a conspiracy that crosses state lines is federal, and that makes it mine.”

“I didn’t cross state lines. It was just in Reno.”

“One conspirator participated from across state lines. All the way from Milwaukee.”

George stared at his hands because he couldn’t look at the prosecutor or the photos. They’d taken off the shackles, but his wrists were still red and sore from wearing them. The lines of his hands were caked with dirt and ash and he didn’t know when he’d last had a bath.

“You know what I want.”

George shook his head.

“You help me build a case against your son, and the charges against you move into federal jurisdiction. My jurisdiction. You can walk away with nothing but probation.”

“But he’s my boy.”

“You’re an absentee father who didn’t know he was alive until you saw him on television. I told you not to waste my time.”

George squeezed his left eye tight to keep it from watering. He wiped at it with the heel of his hand.

The prosecutor stood, ran one hand down his lapel, straightened his tie. He spoke as though he’d rehearsed.

“Baseball, Mr. Kristy, is the nation’s pastime, and I am the nation’s attorney. When someone cheats at baseball, he cheats America; he breaks the hearts of its citizens, of their children, of all those who love this game. I will save baseball from this cheater. I will save America from further heartbreak. And you are going to help me.

“You are going to help me build the case that will bring Joel Strider down.”

Game Day:

The anthem ended, the TV cut back to the studio. The two agents watched with interest; George found he couldn’t look away.

Al, the big story today is Joel Strider. Will he deliver for the Brewers?

Right you are, Debra. Strider has batted .337 this season, but even more important, in all games within one run in the eighth inning or later, he is hitting an astounding .570! This guy just does not miss when the game’s on the line. That’s why they’re calling Strider “Mr. Clutch.”

But Al, his recent slump has fans saying that Mr. Clutch is stuck in neutral. In his last eight games, he has only two hits, and no hits after the fifth inning. Can Joel Strider shift back into gear against a White Sox lineup that has won nine of their last 11 games?

Debra, perhaps the only man who can answer that is Joel Strider. I spoke with Joel about his recent personal troubles and their impact on his game last week on my show: Hardball Time. Let’s take a look.

“Hey, George, there’s your boy on TV,” said the agent.

“Yep.”

The television cut to a taped studio interview. The commentator, Al, was seated across from a man just over 20 years old—if George remembered right—with dark hair (like his mother’s) and George’s eyes.

“Joel, this is going to be tough, but there’s been talk about your personal life, especially in light of your recent lack of success at the plate. Your biological father, George Kristy, an avid sports gambler and convicted cheat, recently returned to your life. Has the turbulence in that part of life been a part of your recent slump?”

“Ha! Al don’t know the half of it, eh, George?” the agent said. The other agent, seated at the table beside George, snickered.

“First off, George Kristy is not in my life and he is not my father. Peter Strider is the only father I’ve ever known.”

“I’m told that Mr. Kristy was pictured with you outside the stadium before the Angels game.”

“He was seen outside because he’s not allowed inside. And I ain’t in a slump. I just ain’t been hitting—but I’m gonna.”

“Okay, Joel, thanks for giving us that frank response. I’m Al Alby.”

George tasted salt, realized he’d bit through his lip.

“That prick Alby,” George said.

“Now, now, George. He was just doing his job. Not like he was helping to send the boy to prison. Not like you.”

Thanks, Al, for that clip from last week’s stirring interview with Joel Strider, seen exclusively on Hardball Time. You heard Joel speaking in that clip about his adopted father and Hall of Fame legend, Peter Strider, also of the Brewers, and his biological father, George Kristy, a professional sports gambler and convicted felon, who left Joel and his mother shortly after his son was born. Kristy was recently photographed with Joel here in Milwaukee.

We’ll have more on “Mr. Clutch” and the Brewers in a moment. Now let’s break for a brief message before the White Sox take the field.

One week before Game Day:

Peter Strider walked into a major league ball club and pulled its star player out of batting practice. It was the kind of thing you could do when you were the hometown Hall of Fame hero. Being the star player’s father didn’t hurt, either.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey, sport. Saw your interview.”

“Guess a lot of people did. Was what they call ‘good television.’”

“You didn’t tell me George came to see you.”

“It didn’t matter. I told him to take off. Security knows to keep him out.”

“What did he want?”

“Money. Inside info on the team. Money.”

“You lost pretty badly to the Angels that day.”

“Hey! I hope you’re not—”

“Of course not. I know what kind of man I raised. But your dad—George—him showing up, you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t mess with your head.”

“You’re my dad. He’s nobody.”

“I’ll always be your dad, but George ain’t nobody. He’s a part of you, and you’ve got to make peace with that somehow. You can’t beat anyone if you’re at war with yourself.”

Joel looked at his feet. He was a baseball star and a millionaire, but he was also a young man just a few years out of school, on his own. Peter put his arm around his son.

“You don’t have to figure it out on your own. Your ma and I, we’re here for you, too.”

Just that quickly, Joel’s uncertainty disappeared, buried beneath a cocky grin.

“Yeah, well, I won’t beat anyone if I don’t practice, either.”

Peter stepped back, chucked his son on the shoulder.

“Darn right, you won’t. Get back out there.”

Game Day:

The TV cameras panned across the packed stadium. Someone behind the backstop had brought a beach ball, and it bobbed above the crowd.

Well, it’s the sixth inning, and the surprise today, with two teams known for hitting, is that we are scoreless in a pitchers’ duel. Heavy hitters on both sides have gone down swinging.

Jack Taylor, a recent trade acquisition from Cleveland, steps up to the plate for the White Sox.

“I liked that guy better when he played for the Indians.”

Runner on third, just one out, and the White Sox look to be the first to put runs on the scoreboard. Taylor doubled in the first inning, but the Sox couldn’t bring him home. Now, Taylor, hoping to drive in a run, steps to the plate.

The White Sox’ young-gun pitcher, Steve Dakota, formerly of the Yankees, pitching for the Brewers. Boy, Debra, that was a rare misstep for the Yankees, wasn’t it, trading Dakota?

Well, Al, everyone knows he had a spectacular start for New York in the World Series, but we shouldn’t forget that he then hit a big slump in his first full season. Still, he’s settled nicely into the Brewers organization.

He sure has, Debra. And he’s held the White Sox to just three hits and no runs so far in six innings. All right, Dakota’s into the windup, and …

Taylor smacked it hard and the ball shot fast and low, bouncing across the infield straight for Joel.

It’s a ground ball straight to the shortstop, Joel Strider and—WHOAH!

George watched, helpless, as the ball bounced off the tip of his son’s glove, and an easy double play became a crucial error. George leapt from his chair and pounded a fist into the table, startling the other men.

“No!”

The two agents glanced at each other, uneasy.

“Easy, George. This is what we all expected.”

Joel threw home, but too late. The White Sox scored, and now the Brewers were behind, with three innings left.

Right off the tip of his glove! And Taylor is safe at first, while Scotty Smalls crosses home plate. The Sox take the lead, one-nothing.

Hard to believe, Al.

Debra, if I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t believe it. Joel Strider couldn’t have made a more crucial error if he’d tried.

One of the agents snorted and grinned at George.

“Oh, I don’t know about that, eh, George?”

48 hours before Game Day:

George sat across from Joel in a booth at the back of a diner outside Milwaukee. The booth was wired for sound and most of the diners were federal agents. George knew. Joel didn’t.

“I didn’t think you’d agree to see me, after last time.”

“My Dad told me I should. He thinks I should … seek closure, or something. I don’t know.”

“How’s your mother?”

“Better off without you.”

George nodded, eyes downcast. He fiddled nervously with the little plastic cups of creamer.

Joel drummed his fingers on the table.

“I bet on you losing the White Sox game in two days,” George said.

“Never bet against me.”

“I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

“What are you asking?”

George wrung his hands.

“I’m in trouble,” he said. And that was the last true thing he said.

40 minutes later, approximately 47 hours before game day

George waited 15 minutes after Joel had gone, just as he’d been told. When he finally walked out of the diner, the door of the surveillance van across the street slid open to reveal a bank of closed-circuit TV screens. The prosecutor and two FBI agents clambered out.

“George Kristy, you do not disappoint.”

The prosecutor extended a hand. George seized the moment and popped him on the nose.

“That’s for making me betray my boy, you bastard!”

Armed men swarmed Kristy, forced him onto the ground and cuffed him.

The prosecutor pressed both hands to his face, blood trickling between his fingers. The grip on his nose gave everything he said a high-pitched, nasal drone.

“That’s it! You’re staying in chains from now on, Kristy,” the prosecutor screamed. He turned to the agent standing beside him.

“You hear me, Agent Ross? I want him in restraints at all times!”

“I hear you. But that conversation in the diner—it doesn’t sit right. George made it sound like he was in trouble with loan sharks or something, like they’d hurt him or kill him if Strider didn’t throw this game.”

“I didn’t hear that. I heard trouble—the kind of financial trouble that’s followed him his whole life.”

“Yeah, but the way he described it, what if Strider thought—”

“Agent Ross, we are here to nail Joel Strider. If you’d like to be his defense attorney, perhaps we can arrange a leave of absence from the Bureau. That’s clear, is it?”

“I’m Smith,” Smith said. He pointed to Ross. “He’s Ross.”

“Does your name affect the clarity of what I just said?”

“No, sir, Mr. U.S. Attorney. We are clear.”

“Good.”

The prosecutor smiled, and George saw that the nosebleed had stained his teeth a patriotic white and red.

“You better hope he goes for it, Kristy. We’ll be watching, and if he doesn’t throw that game, your deal’s off. And then I’ll add assaulting a federal prosecutor to your charges, just for kicks.”

George didn’t say anything. He hadn’t planned to punch the prosecutor. But walking out of the diner, he’d felt a hollow ache inside and wondered why. He wondered if you could be a father without ever raising a son. If he had any right to feel conflicted. He looked inside and found no answers; only emptiness.

Hitting the prosecutor had filled that hollowness a little bit. He smiled.

24 hours before Game Day:

“I talked to him.”

“Who?”

“George. Like you said I should.”

“What did he have to say?”

“He asked me to throw a game.”

“I guess he doesn’t give up easy.”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“And I said no.”

Peter put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“I know. I meant after that.”

“He started some kind of story about how he was in trouble, in deep with serious people.”

“You think he meant the mob?”

“I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know. But he said if I didn’t throw the game for him, that would be it.”

“Well, you can’t throw the game.”

“But what if he’s really in trouble? It’s a game, is it worth more than his legs? Than his life?”

Peter put his chin in his hand and thought. He decided not to answer.

“Do you really think he’s in trouble with the mob?” he asked instead.

Joel shook his head.

“No, he’d say anything to score a sure thing. But what if I’m wrong?”

“What are you going to do?”

“I called the FBI office in Reno, the guys who called after those pictures of me and George showed up in the papers. They said they’d keep a close eye on him, whatever that means. They sounded like they thought it was funny, like it wasn’t serious to them.”

“Well, you said it yourself, George is an addict who will say anything to get his gambling fix.”

“What if he’s not lying?”

“You can’t throw the game. You can’t let a pitch go by that you could hit. You make a promise to the fans when you put on that uniform—your best game, fair and square. Never less, never more.”

“What if I were in trouble, and the only way you could help me was to throw a game?”

“That would never happen.”

“What if it did?”

Peter thought about it, and his eyes got hot.

“Then I’d do it. I’d do it and I’d hate myself but I’d do it again and again. But it’s not the only way. You called the FBI. Plus, you know he’s probably lying.”

“But what if he—what if he is a part of me? I hate him, but I can’t … can’t just let him be hurt, or …”

“You can’t throw the game.”

Game Day:

Well, Debra, Joel Strider has been having what might be his worst game of the season. Two strikeouts, and one crucial error. Mr. Clutch’s slump continues.

Yes, but Joel will be batting third in the ninth inning, and if Mr. Clutch can drive home some runs, all will be forgiven in Milwaukee for that sixth-inning error.

“Well, George, this is it, ninth inning, and your boy’s gonna be having his last at bat ever. Unless they have games in Federal Penitentiary.”

“This ain’t gonna be his last at-bat. He’s gonna hit. I know he is. He’s gonna hit it out of the park.”

“George, you forgotten why you’re here? He does that, your deal gets pulled. Life without parole.”

“Screw that. My boy’s gonna hit. My choices have all been bad, but I’m a part of that boy. He does the right thing, maybe I’m not a complete waste.”

“My God, George Kristy is having a selfless moment for the son he never knew.”

“He’s gonna hit it and they’re gonna win, because he’s not a cheater like his old man. Never will be. He’s gonna hit.”

“Well, hell, Agent Ross, what do ya say?”

“I didn’t want to put in the overtime processing Strider anyway.”

“Me, either. Hell, it just don’t feel right, not to root for the home team. Okay, George, we’re with ya. Swing away, Joel! Swing batta!”

“Come on son!”

“Brewers, baby, bring it home!”

With a click of the magnetic lock, the hotel door swung open, and a chill blast of air-conditioned air swept in. Three hardened men shivered in July.

The prosecutor stalked inside: black suit, shiny wing-tips, a blood-red tie. His broken nose was swaddled in tape and gauze. His nostrils were stuffed with cotton and his breath whistled between his teeth like an old kettle.

“Is it over? I haven’t missed the big moment, have I?”

“No sir, Mr. U.S. Attorney, you are just in time to watch Joel Strider come up to bat and save the day.”

He laughed like a dog barking. “For the White Sox, you mean. And for yours truly. I want agents prepared to arrest him before he leaves the field. The cameras should see him leaving in disgrace.”

“That ain’t gonna happen. My boy’s going to hit.”

“You’d better pray he doesn’t Kristy.”

The agent in the chair gave George an encouraging chuck on the shoulder. “Oh, he knows. Old George don’t care he’s going back to prison.”

“That true, Kristy? You’re dumber than I thought.”

“Ah, go screw.”

What was that, Kristy?”

The agent that had been lying on the bed stood up and stepped in front of the prosecutor.

“Well, Mr. Prosecutor, I believe he told you to go screw.”

“Agent Ross! I am the U.S. Attorn—”

“He’s Ross, I’m Smith, and go screw! If Strider’s dirty, we arrest him. But you’re rooting for him to be dirty. You want him to be wrong. And that just don’t sit right.”

Smith continued: “God, man, it’s baseball. We’re rooting for the home team and their golden boy. And if you can’t do that, there really is something wrong with you.”

Ross pounded the table. “Let’s go Brewers, baby!”

“Well it doesn’t matter who you cheer for. I have the video, I have a sworn statement, and I have this game, in which Strider makes a crucial error and strikes out in every at bat. That, combined with your testimony, Kristy, will—”

“I ain’t testifying.”

“Then I’ll add obstruction of justice and contempt of court to the charges against you.”

“I just want to see my boy hit.”

“Then you should have watched a video, Kristy. He’s throwing this game, and you’ve got yourself to blame for that.”

“He won’t do it. You’ll see.”

“We all will. He’s walking to the plate.”

Well, after a single and a double from the first two batters, Mr. Clutch steps up with runners in scoring position at second and third. We’ve talked about Strider’s batting average in close games, but with runners in scoring position, Mr. Clutch’s average actually jumps from .570 to .580! You just do not want to bet against this kid when the game’s on the line, Debra.

And the game is sure on the line now, Al. Strider is facing Chicago’s closer, recently brought up from the minors, Alvin “A-Bomb” LaLoosh.

And LaLoosh has been a great addition for Chicago—he doesn’t just close a game, Debra, he slams it! Now let’s go to our Milwaukee’s Best Light Brewer-Cam. The umpire has been outfitted with a miniature camera and microphone, allowing us to see and hear all of the action right at home plate.

This has been a really entertaining feature all night. And I have to say, White Sox catcher “Trash” Davis has not disappointed with his trash talk tonight. Let’s listen in:

The television switched to the Brewer-Cam, and suddenly George saw his son in close-up on the TV screen, as though he were peering over the catcher’s shoulder. He could hear Joel and Davis as clearly as the announcers.

“Hey there, Strider, thanks for that error in the sixth. I’ll be sure to thank you in the post-game interview.”

“Maybe trash talk plays in the North Carolina minors, Davis, but do yourself a favor: Shove it.”

“Oooh. Show me a major-league strike out, hotshot.”

“Shut up, Davis.”

“You look like you’re shaking. Are you nervous, or did you just eat some bad Mexican food?”

“It does seem like he’s shaking,” Ross said.

“Shut up.”

He’s into his stance, and … whoah, swing and a miss! He wasn’t even close.

“Golly, Strider! You didn’t even swing until it hit my mitt. You need glasses or do you just have money on the game?”

“Ooh, Kristy, your boy does not disappoint. Not for me.”

Strider doesn’t even pause, just goes back into his stance. LaLoosh winds up, and here it comes …

All four men collectively leaned in toward the television.

The pitch was a fastball, high and straight, and it zipped across the TV screen too fast for George to follow it. But when he saw his son swing, he knew Joel had missed.

Not even close! Another wild swing for Strider. And after a rocky start to this ninth inning, LaLoosh is one strike away from closing out this game.

Strider steps out of the box, limbering up with a few practice swings. He’s wiping at his face—must have gotten something in his eye on that last pitch.

The television switched to the Brewer-Cam mounted on the umpire’s helmet. The images on the TV screen bobbed up and down as the umpire stepped from behind the plate and walked to Joel.

“You okay?”

“Must be the fresh grass.”

“Don’t you play on fresh grass everyday, son?”

“My Dad told me to never let a pitch I could hit go by—and I’m never gonna.”

“Does … that mean you’re all right?”

“Let’s play ball.”

“You hear that? My boy’s going to hit!”

“He still has to hit the ball or it doesn’t mean anything.”

“Don’t you have a soul?”

“Do your job: watch our witness, and witness our suspect miss this pitch.”

“Oh, I’m watching, all right. Go Brewers, baby!”

“Come on, Son!”

“Come on, Strider!”

The four men stared transfixed, breathing in unison, as the pitcher stared down the plate and through the television set. He nodded once, straightened, raised his arms and stepped forward …

This could be the turning point right here, Debra. LaLoosh steps back, into the wind-up, and the pitch …

The TV shot was from the Brewer-Cam strapped to the umpire, and Joel’s bat seemed to fly into the frame from out of nowhere. Joel’s swing was so fast—George couldn’t believe how fast—that it wasn’t until he heard the *crack* of contact that George realized Joel had hit it.

The television cut away to a wide shot of the park, as the ball flew up and into the stands, straight at the foul pole.

High into the stands, but headed straight down the foul line. It’s .. it’s …

“Stay fair!”

“Go fair! Fair!”

“FOUL, you bastard! FOUL!”

The ball sailed into the upper deck, and a jubilant kid in a No. 13 Brewers jersey clutched it in a triumphant fist. George leapt atop his chair and pumped his handcuffed fists at the ceiling.

“Fair ball!”

“Home run!”

“NO! DammitDammitDammit!”

It’s a fair ball—that’s it, folks, home run! The game’s over! The game’s over!

And it looks like—yes, the winning home run ball was caught, if you can believe it, by a young Brewers fan in a Strider jersey.

That young man is going to have a story to last a lifetime.

I tell ya—I tell ya, Debra, if you don’t love this, the home team winning on a ninth-inning homer, you’re either a die-hard White Sox fan, or you’re just un-American.

“Dammit, Kristy, we had a deal!”

George just laughed and wiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand.

“Laugh now, but you’re going to prison,” the prosecutor snarled.

“Yeah, but I have a son, and I finally figured out a little bit of what that means. My boy won the game for the home team, and I’m taking that inside with me.”

But the prosecutor wasn’t done yet:

“I still have the tape from the diner! Joel Strider may not be going to prison, but with that tape, I have enough leverage to destroy his career! He’ll be banned from baseball, he’ll be—”

“You’re going to bury that tape, or we’ll bury your career,” Smith said.

“You’ll what?”

“Don’t you get it? Look at the television: Strider’s the hero; you’re the bad guy. Nobody roots for Lex Luthor.”

“I am the U.S. Attorney!”

“And I am a federal agent, ready and willing to testify before Congress about a certain power-hungry, baseball-hating prosecutor trying to entrap an American hero by bullying his father. So I suggest you erase that tape, and forget this whole mess.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“If he doesn’t, I will,” Ross said.

The prosecutor’s shoulders sagged, and he sank onto the bed under the weight of his own crushed ambition.

That’s the ball game, folks! It’s all over!

The television cut between Joel rounding the bases, and the kid in the grandstands jumping on the benches and waving his baseball. As Joel crossed home, his cheering teammates surrounded him, lifting him up. In the background behind him, the jumbotron showed a man in the stands lifting the boy with the baseball onto his shoulders. The man and boy saw themselves on the jumbotron and waved to the camera. Joel looked up at the jumbotron and waved back.

George stood on his chair in the hotel room and waved to his son on the television.

Wow, Al. What an ending.

Wow, indeed, Debra. West coast viewers, stay tuned for our post-game coverage. On the east coast, we go to your local news and weather. I’m Al Alby; from all of us here in Milwaukee, good night.

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