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By Lawrence Block
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Lawrence Block
All right reserved.
Keller, a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other, walked up a flight and a half of concrete steps and found his way to his seat. In front of him, two men were discussing the ramifications of a recent trade the Tarpons had made, sending two minor -- league prospects to the Florida Marlins in return for a left -- handed reliever and a player to be named later. Keller figured he hadn't missed anything, as they'd been talking about the same subject when he left. He figured the player in question would have been long since named by the time these two were done speculating about him.
Keller took a bite of his hot dog, drew a sip of his beer. The fellow on his left said, "You didn't bring me one."
Huh? He'd told the guy he'd be back in a minute, might have mentioned he was going to the refreshment stand, but had he missed something the man had said in return?
"What didn't I bring you? A hot dog or a beer?"
"Either one," the man said.
"Was I supposed to?"
"Nope," the man said. "Hey, don't mind me. I'm just jerking your chain a little."
"Oh," Keller said.
The fellow started to say something else but broke it off after a word or two as he and everybody else in the stadium turned their attention to home plate, where the Tarpons'cleanup hitter had just dropped to the dirt to avoid getting hit by a high inside fastball. The Yankee pitcher, a burly Japanese with a herky -- jerky windup, seemed unfazed by the boos, and Keller wondered if he even knew they were for him. He caught the return throw from the catcher, set himself, and went into his pitching motion.
"Taguchi likes to pitch inside," said the man who'd been jerking Keller's chain, "and Vollmer likes to crowd the plate. So every once in a while Vollmer has to hit the dirt or take one for the team."
Keller took another bite of his hot dog, wondering if he ought to offer a bite to his new friend. That he even considered it seemed to indicate that his chain had been jerked successfully. He was glad he didn't have to share the hot dog, because he wanted every bite of it for himself. And, when it was gone, he had a feeling he might go back for another.
Which was strange, because he never ate hot dogs. A few years back he'd read a political essay on the back page of a news magazine that likened legislation to sausage. You were better off not knowing how it was made, the writer observed, and Keller, who had heretofore never cared how laws were passed or sausages produced, found himself more conscious of the whole business. The legislative aspect didn't change his life, but without making any conscious decision on the matter, he found he'd lost his taste for sausage.
Being at a ballpark somehow made it different. He had a hunch the hot dogs they sold here at Tarpon Stadium were if anything more dubious in their composition than your average supermarket frankfurter, but that seemed to be beside the point. A ballpark hot dog was just part of the baseball experience, along with listening to some flannel -- mouthed fan shouting instructions to a ballplayer dozens of yards away who couldn't possibly hear him, or booing a pitcher who couldn't care less, or having one's chain jerked by a total stranger. All part of the Great American Pastime.
He took a bite, chewed, sipped his beer. Taguchi went to three -- and -- two on Vollmer, who fouled off four pitches before he got one he liked. He drove it to the 396 -- foot mark in left center field, where Bernie Williams hauled it in. There had been runners on first and second, and they trotted back to their respective bases when the ball was caught.
"One out," said Keller's new friend, the chain jerker.
Keller ate his hot dog, sipped his beer. The next batter swung furiously and topped a roller that dribbled out toward the mound. Taguchi pounced on it, but his only play was to first, and the runners advanced. Men on second and third, two out.
The Tarpon third baseman was next, and the crowd booed lustily when the Yankees elected to walk him intentionally. "They always do that," Keller said.
"Always," the man said. "It's strategy, and nobody minds when their own team does it. But when your guy's up and the other side won't pitch to him, you tend to see it as a sign of cowardice."
"Seems like a smart move, though."
"Unless Turnbull shows 'em up with a grand slam, and God knows he's hit a few of 'em in the past."
"I saw one of them," Keller recalled. "In Wrigley Field, before they had the lights. He was with the Cubs. I forget who they were playing."
"That would have had to be before the lights came in, if he was with the Cubs. Been all around, hasn't he? But he's been slumping lately, and you got to go with the percentages. Walk him and you put on a .320 hitter to get at a .280 hitter, plus you got a force play at any base."
"It's a game of percentages," Keller said.
"A game of inches, a game of percentages, a game of woulda-couldashoulda," the man said, and Keller was suddenly more than ordinarily grateful that he was an American. He'd never been to a soccer match, but somehow he doubted they ever supplied you with a conversation like this one.
"Batting seventh for the Tarpons," the stadium announcer intoned.
"Number seventeen, the designated hitter, Floyd Turnbull."
Excerpted from Hit Parade by Lawrence Block Copyright © 2006 by Lawrence Block. Excerpted by permission.
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