Named to Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2018
Courtney Morgan is a female knuckle-ball pitcher trying to break into professional baseball. Parker Westfall is an aging slugger with one last chance at the ultimate carrot—a spot on a major-league roster. She’s gorgeous, and he’s having the season of his life. Together, they’ll try to change a losing team’s fortunes on their way to the big show. But when tragedy strikes, will their dreams still matter? The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song is about what it means to be part of a team, and part of a community in the heartbreaking world of minor league ball.
|Publisher:||Black Rose Writing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.44(d)|
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"The waiting is the hardest part."
When the call comes, Parker Westfall is on his sixth beer, staring at his motel phone and the television, wondering why one is silent and the other won't shut up. Empty bottles stand in a row across the motel dresser. As he drinks, he peels off the labels. Curled, silver strips tumble out of the ashtray onto the chocolate-colored carpet.
Both the Cubs and the Mets have expressed tepid interest, but the new season starts in a week, and he's still unemployed.
At the sound of the ringer, Parker lurches out of the brown, stuffed chair and snatches the phone. "Westfall residence," he says, without a hint of desperation. Mets or Cubs? He hopes for the Mets. The Cubs are a lousy organization.
"This is Christopher Randall. I own the Fort Collins Miners. We're an independent ball club in Colorado. Are you under contract?"
This is not the call he expected. Parker mutes the television and waits a moment to answer. "No, but I'm expecting a call from the Cubs and Mets."
"Do you want to play?"
Parker sits down, falling into the battered chair. "Where are you calling from?" His mouth is slow and gummy. He wishes he hadn't opened that sixth beer.
"Fort Collins, Colorado. Do you want to play ball this season?"
"Sure. What level are we talking?"
"Independent Minor League. We're not classified, but it's double-A ball. Are you in shape?"
"How did you get my number?" Parker asks. He'd taken a room in a rent-by-the-month motel in Arizona, hoping to be close by when a spring training call came. He doesn't have a permanent home address. His mail goes to his Mother's house in Ohio.
"You were recommended to me by Stan Piper. He said you still had a year or two left."
"A year or two?" Parker stares at the phone. Stan Piper had been his manager in the Carolina League. Parker wants to hang up, but he also wants to let the jerk on the other end of the line know how far off base he is. "I hit 31 homers last season for that son of a bitch," Parker says. "You're talking like I'm ready for the meat wagon."
"He recommended you," the voice says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be calling. Are you interested? Yes, or no?" Parker settles deeper into the chair. He wants to hear from the Mets. Or the Cubs. "How much money?"
"Two thousand a month."
"No. That's what we can afford. And that's one of the top salaries on the club, by the way. Is the money going to be a problem?"
"No." Parker's voice says otherwise.
"We're an independent, Mr. Westfall. We don't get money from the majors. We live or die by the fans. We play to win. We don't have to develop talent. We don't put up with high draft picks with fat contracts and attitudes. We just have to win. Stan Piper said you were a winner."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Come to Fort Collins. Northern Colorado. Do you need a ticket?"
"Sure, if you want to send one." Parker has $120 in his wallet. If they don't send a ticket, he'll hitch a ride with a trucker. Hell, if he sends a ticket, I might sell it and hitch anyway.
"Wait an hour. There will be a bus ticket waiting for you at the station," the voice says. "Don't cash it in. I need you here tomorrow."
Parker rubs a meaty hand across his eyes. "What did you say your name was?"
"Randall. Christopher Randall. Welcome to the Miners."
"I've played in the minor leagues before," Parker explains, but the line is dead. Randall has already hung up.
Parker turns off the television. Marcia Brady's braces won't be removed for another 10 minutes, but he has things to do. The box from his room-service pizza sits open on the bed. One slice left — thick with sauce, cheese, and some red sliced meat that is not pepperoni. He regards the lone, uneaten slice and decides to leave it alone. He needs to get in shape.
When he started playing ball more than a decade earlier, he'd carried everything in an orange backpack. The pack held his dress jacket, sweats, a few tees, jeans, and the odd assortment of socks and boxers. There was a clip on the back for his baseball glove — a romantic way to live. Whether camping, or on the road with a team, he had everything he needed on his back. No strings. No complications. He was a nomad, a wanderer, a hired gun. Now, he is older, and he keeps everything in two brown, vinyl suitcases. He's added a few books, a baseball signed by major leaguers he'd met in his travels, some random souvenirs, and a zip lock bag full of vitamins and pain remedies.
In the shower, anger wells up in his throat. He tries to let it wash down into the bathtub drain, but he is going to rage. He can't stop it, any more than he can stop breathing.
Independent minor leagues. He's hit bottom. The majors have given up on him as a prospect. He hit 31 home runs, and no one noticed.
Hell, I hit 40 in Texas, just four years ago. But 31 in the Carolina League is pretty good. The Carolina League is a pitcher's league. Nobody hits well there. Only one guy hit more homers than I did — that big, black fella from Charleston. And he got the call. He's starting in left field for the Cardinals, and I'm headed to Colorado to play for an Independent.
He starts to punch the shower wall, but that seems dramatic and stupid. Instead, he shuts off the water and tries to focus his frustration. I have to do things differently this time. I keep making the same mistakes. This time, I'm going to keep my mouth shut. I'm going to smile. I'm going to smile a lot. Those bastards won't know what I'm thinking. I'll just shut up and hit.
He decides that this time, he won't talk to the coaching staff. Advice just pisses them off, because they don't want anyone to know how ignorant and helpless they are.
And I won't talk to the reporters. Minor league reporters want to move to the big city papers. I won't be their ticket. I won't give them anything to twist. His eyes narrow, and he nods as if this hasn't been his plan for the last two stops.
He makes a quick call home. The answering machine picks up the call — a blessing. His mother has been panicked about money, and he doesn't want to have another argument. He is relieved to have a team to play for. A paycheck is a paycheck. He leaves a message, telling her that he's been signed again, and he is headed for Colorado. "Give Dorothy a hug for me," he says, and then hangs up.
He stares at the hotel mirror. The age thing is frightening. Minor leaguers are old at 25. He has papers to show that he's 28. But the truth is, he'd hit one homer in the Carolinas for every year he'd been alive. He is past his prime playing years. Things could only be worse if he were a female gymnast. They are over the hill at 18.
That's okay. I can get in shape. No more late nights. No more eating crap. He glanced at the half beer sitting on the dresser, then at the last pizza slice.
Another season.CHAPTER 2
"In baseball, you don't know nothing."
Parker Westfall sits, watching his new manager's frenetic movements. Grady O'Connor's hands jump across the desktop, finding and dropping pencils, paperclips, sales reports, and other memos, changing piles while he speaks. His eyes race back and forth, faster than his fingers — tiny darting minnows that will not come to rest. O'Connor is a younger man, perhaps as young as Parker. "We play a different brand of ball here," he says. "The Miners play Grady Ball. We run. We take extra bases. We steal what they won't give us. We manufacture runs. Old-fashioned ball. The hit-and-run. We play fundamental ball. We bunt. We move the runner along."
"Are you looking for something?" Parker asks.
"No." His hands freeze in place. "I thought I had your record here somewhere. No matter. No biggie. I know your record. Now, I want you to understand, we play defensive ball here. We emphasize the fundamentals. We don't throw the ball around. We hit the cutoff man —"
"First basemen don't throw from the outfield."
"I know that. I'm telling you what we expect."
"I hit 31 homers last year in the Carolina League," Parker says. "Hopefully, I won't have to bunt every time I bat."
Grady's hands jump, landing on a pile of papers.
"I've got a solid game," Parker says. "I know the fundamentals. I've been playing a few years. And I'm a team player. I take signals. I run out ground balls —"
"Well, I certainly hope so. Players who don't hustle, don't last here."
"You won't have any complaints about my hustle."
"I wouldn't complain. I'd drop-kick your ass out of town."
"I won't be a problem," Parker says.
Grady's hands have found a pencil. He wraps his fingers around it, and Parker wonders if the pencil will snap. Grady wears a scowl and a goatee, which make him look fiercer than his size might allow. His close-cropped hair is thinning. He leans forward. "A lot of guys come through here, thinking about getting to the show, and what they ought to be thinking about is keeping a job here. It's pro ball. Once in a while, a player gets the chance he's looking for. Just last year, Willie Black got a look, and now he's playing second base in Denver. But Willie could do it all. Not right away, but he listened. And it payed off. Every drill, every —"
"You're preaching to the choir."
"You're preaching to the choir," Parker repeats, tired of the pep talk. "I believe you. Every word. But tell me, there's nothing in my record that says I don't hustle, is there? Because I run my ass off."
"About that ass. You're a little over playing weight, aren't you?"
"I'll play into shape."
"That's if I play you." Grady glares at him. Parker looks away, wondering if the manager of the Miners objected to Parker's contract. Some managers want to be general managers. Perhaps the owner had offered him a contract against Grady's wishes.
A knock at the door interrupts the interview. A wiry man in a towel peers in, his wet hair pasted to one side of his head. He grins at Parker. "Hi. I'm Terry. Terry Grimes. I play second base."
"What do you want, Grimes?" Grady shakes his head. "I'm in the middle of something here."
"So am I, boss. I'm in the middle of a shower, and there's no soap. The soap's all gone. Again. I'd buy bars of soap and bring them here, but I did that last week, and it's not my job." Grimes smiles, and the light catches his eyes just so. He looks insane, head rocking back with a manic grin. "I want soap, my Captain, soap."
"Get out of here," Grady says. He looks relieved, even a little amused, as if the complaint is nothing out of the ordinary. "I watched you during infield practice. You stink, whether you shower or not."
"Soap," Grimes says, slowly closing the door behind him. The door clicks shut, but the shadow stays, a silhouette on the opaque glass. "Soap ..."
"Damned guys," Grady mutters.
Parker stares at the door. "No soap, eh?"
"These guys take the stuff home with them," Grady says. "Anyway, where were we?"
"I was getting off on the wrong foot."
"I think I was pissing you off," Parker explains.
Grady nods thoughtfully. "Well," he says at last. "Don't do that."
"Practice tomorrow at 10. Be on time. Season starts Wednesday. We play at home." He pauses. "Oh, and the owner wants to talk to you. He has some things he needs to discuss."
"Let him tell you."
Parker shrugs and offers a handshake. Grady seems confused by the gesture, but manages a quick shake. Parker leaves the office as quickly as he can without running.
Parker takes the runway to the inside of the stadium. He wants a look at the facility. The late afternoon sun still rides high in the April sky. The grass glistens. A patch of snow sits along the left field line — a reminder of the previous week's storm. "Colorado," he laughs.
That is when he spots a well-dressed man standing in the rows above the dugout.CHAPTER 3
Christopher Randall stands at the bottom of the right field bleachers, his arms resting on the rail. Westfall stands below him, in the grass, looking up as he speaks. "Grady said you wanted to talk." The sun is in Westfall's eyes. He's squinting, and he steps to the side, so he can see the owner better.
"Give me a moment," Randall says, and then he's silent. Westfall looks older than expected, and he's got a tire around his middle. Maybe I made a mistake, listening to Piper. This guy looks like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I wish Tatum hadn't retired. Son of a bitch had all winter to let me know he wasn't coming back. I don't have time to find another bat. This team needs some punch. Another season in last place will kill us. Home runs sell tickets, but this guy?
Randall inherited much of his money. His parents ran a profitable print shop, selling the business before digital files cut the legs out from under the industry. When they passed on, he sold the home they left him, collected some insurance money, and put everything into the owner's group that founded the Miners.
Originally conceived as a Double-A affiliate for the Denver team, the Miners have a new stadium, courtesy of the taxpayers of Fort Collins. Despite the new facility and an agreement in spirit with the parent club, negotiations bogged down. Other cities made offers to host the minor league team.
Meanwhile, Randall and his partners were approached by the representatives of a new independent league being formed along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Provo, Santa Fe, and Laramie already had teams, and Lincoln would eventually join. Randall and his partners had a decision to make.
On the surface, the offer seemed a poor option. Affiliated minor league clubs receive financial support from their parent club, support that often spells the difference between survival and failure. In return, major league teams own the contracts of all their minor league ballplayers. Because minor league teams are stocked with "prospects," the business of minor league baseball becomes player development.
By contrast, independent clubs own their players, but they live and die by ticket sales. Randall understood the risks and argued for Indy ball in spite of them. The Denver club wanted too many financial concessions and too much control. "It's our club," he told the other owners, "and they're beating us over the head with it." After much debate, the group opted for the independent league.
The move was not popular with the city council, who expected to get a look at the future Denver players before they began big league careers. One of the owners got cold feet. Randall found enough financing to buy him out.
Sadly, the club lost money in their first year of operation. Randall's reticent nature got in the way of his relations with the community. The city's newspaper hated him. His gruff manner of speech seemed rude. There was no malice in his abrupt style, just a respect for precious time. But that didn't seem to matter. The media expected to be stroked.
Randall is not a stroker.
He brings other skills to the table, however. He has an extensive network of contacts who understand player evaluation. An ex-ballplayer himself in the Cardinals system, Randall might have been a scout if two years as a player hadn't killed any desire for a life on the road.
Instead, he spends time on his computer, looking at film, making phone calls, searching out rough gems for his Miners. Some are undervalued because of injuries. Others are long-term projects that the major clubs lost patience with.
Randall's sense of team building is another plus — a forgotten part of management. He knows how to bring together diverse ingredients and let them stew, hoping for a unique result. That is why he signed Parker Westfall. Every club Westfall played for had an improved record with him, and a worse one when he left.
But the man standing in front of him is clearly over the hill. He has more wrinkles than a heavy man ought to have. He claims to be in his late twenties, but that's a lie, unless "P. Westfall" of the Texas League played ball at the age of 14. Westfall is probably in his thirties. Still, he might hit in the thin air of the Rocky Mountain foothills, perhaps enough to offset the loss of Tatum and Willie Black. I hated selling Black's contract to Denver, but we got more out of that sale than just cash flow. Half the team thinks they're going to end up in the big leagues now, thanks to Willie. He glances down. Westfall is waiting patiently for him to speak, arms folded.
"How out of shape are you?" Randall asks.
Westfall waits a moment before answering. "I'm worse off than I'm comfortable with. But I'll be ready soon."
Randall nods. Honesty is worth something. "This club is talented, but they play down to everyone. I want someone to shake them up."
"Grady's the manager."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fat Lady's Low, Sad Song"
Copyright © 2018 Brian Kaufman.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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