LOVE BATS LAST: EXCERPT CHAPTER TWO
LOVE BATS LAST
The crack of his bat told Alex his hit was going over the wall. Way over. He ran toward first base and watched the ball track a perfect arc into a throng of cheering fans in the center field bleachers. He kept his pace around the bases, lifted by the roar of 40,000 voices.
Some days that sound was an elixir, at least this year. Last year the crowd response had been mixed—his game had been off. This year would be different. He was focused. He was on.
His foot barely touched home plate before his teammates leaped out of the dugout and mobbed him. The team had trailed by a run for two innings. This win put them five games out in front of LA, right where they liked to be.
“Hey, Tavonesi,” a woman’s voice called out of the crowd, “you made us wait long enough for that.”
He glanced up. A beautiful young woman stood in the seats behind the dugout. He recognized her; he’d spent an evening with her that he probably shouldn’t have. Now she was dating their rookie right fielder, and Alex was out of her sights. At least he hoped he was.
He smiled and tipped his hat to the cheering crowd, then ducked into the dugout.
“You saved our asses, Tavonesi,” Scotty Donovan, the Giants’ young starting pitcher, said as he clapped him on the back. “Can’t say the same for my pitching record.”
Alex took off his batting helmet and tossed it into the cubby. “Batista was looking for your fastball. He just got lucky connecting to your slider.”
“Two runs’ worth of lucky,” Scotty groused.
“Lucky all the same.”
“It was lousy pitching.”
Alex knew better than to argue with him.
“Show time, Tavonesi,” the Giants’ press liaison said as she tugged on Alex’s sleeve. “Time to feed the beast.”
He didn’t resist as she herded him back up onto to the field. His body was still zinging from the hit and the rush, so it was easy to smile. He fielded the usual questions from the network and then turned to a young reporter wielding a mike like a lance.
“You’ve got your swing back. Feeling good?” the reporter asked.
“We’re a team. We just get out there and do our best, one game at a time, back each other up.”
“Duarte’s already slugged twelve home runs,” the reporter said with a glinting challenge.
Alex wouldn’t take the bait. It was every hitter’s dream to lead the league in the three categories that made up the Triple Crown. Racking up the highest batting average, hitting the most home runs and blasting hits that brought the greatest number of base runners across home plate was nearly impossible. Only three players had earned the title in the past forty-seven years. This year Duarte was everybody’s favorite to do it. Alex intended to prove them wrong. But it was far too early in the season to be talking about winning batting titles.
“Duarte’s one of the best in the game,” Alex said with a smile. Then he turned and walked down the tunnel to the clubhouse.
He stripped off his uniform and tossed it into the bin in the center of the locker room. He wrapped a towel around his waist and headed for the showers.
The buzz of the win sizzled through the steaming bodies and raucous laughter. The clubhouse was a sacrosanct haven; there was no substitute for the flow of energy that powered through it. Where else could you gather thirty alpha males, all at the top of their game, all happy to be there and do what they loved? Some guys found it so hard to leave behind, they manufactured reasons to hang out even after they’d retired. Not many succeeded; the clubhouse was a place for men active in the game.
When Alex’s father had died of a heart attack two years before, Alex had shocked everyone by taking a year off baseball and busting ass to get the hang of managing Trovare, the family vineyard he’d inherited.
Most would say he’d succeeded.
But the truth was, he’d nearly gone mad.
Not from the pressures of running the business—that he could handle. It’d been the gnawing feeling of having a gaping hole in his life, of missing something the way he imagined an amputee would miss an arm or a leg. Carrying on his father’s dream hadn’t been enough. Trovare hadn’t been enough. Sometimes he wished it were, but it wasn’t.
Some claimed baseball was just a game, but to Alex it was like oxygen—he couldn’t imagine life without it.
And as much as he’d missed the game during the year he’d taken off, he’d also missed the camaraderie. He was at his best, physically and mentally, when he was in his place, doing his part for the team.
He let hot water flow over him and lost himself in the chorus of voices lacing through the steam. He rotated his wrist behind his back; the way it was acting up, this could be his last season for a run at the title.
When he’d returned to the team last year, he’d made mistakes. He’d tried to keep Trovare going, to keep his game going, had tried to be all and everything to too many.
In baseball, numbers never lie.
He’d played so poorly for the first four months that management had made noises about sending him down to the minors. He wasn’t ready for that sort of ending and never would be. Only his hitting had kept that nightmare from happening.
He’d lost track of what was important.
Baseball was important.
Trovare was something he’d been born to, but baseball was his. And this year, he’d vowed, nothing was going to get in the way of his game.
But in spite of his resolve, he couldn’t let go. Trovare was all that was left of his connection with his father, a living bridge that death hadn’t destroyed. If he were to be honest, he loved Trovare. Maybe not the castle—that had been an obsession of his dad’s, he could see that now—but everything else about the vineyard, the gardens, and especially the older vines he’d helped his father plant near the south slope. The feel of the soil, the sugared, heady scent of the ripening grapes, the vital interplay of sun and water and earth, it was in his blood, always would be.
A sharp zing to his left flank brought him out from under the steaming stream of the shower.
He grabbed the towel that Scotty had thwhapped him with and tossed it aside. “Courting a shorter life span?”
Scotty grinned and turned his face under the flow of the adjoining shower. “Are we still going to have a look at those team videos, old man?”
Alex ignored the old-man barb. Scotty was all of twenty-three. And already he was the best starting pitcher on the team. Anyone over twenty-five was ancient to him. Alex had just hit thirty-one.
“Not today,” he said as Scotty trailed him to his locker. “I checked out that marine mammal center I told you about. I’m running over to have a look. Then I have to head up to Sonoma; there’s a party at the vineyard.”
“How about I come with you and we look at the videos up there after?”
Alex chuckled to himself. Scotty said up there as if the wine region to the north of San Francisco was a foreign country. What with the hyperfocus on the grapes and the odd mix of country and city, it might as well be.
“Can’t,” Alex said. “I’m meeting with my farm manager in the morning.” He slipped a sweater over his head and grabbed his jacket. “I plan to stay over.”
“My fridge’s empty.” Scotty protested. “And I love parties.”
“Pretty insistent for a heartlander, aren’t you?”
“Afraid you might not show up back here.” A grin curved across Scotty’s face. “You’re my career insurance, so I like to keep you close.”
Scotty hardly needed that. He’d already racked up a brilliant rookie season with the Giants, and this year he was likely to do even better. But he was right about one thing—Alex’s glove-work in the infield kept runners off base.
“I’ll have to loan you a tux,” Alex said, conceding to his enthusiasm. “One party at Trovare should cure you of snarking invitations forever.”
Alex’s cell rang as he and Scotty drove out of the stadium parking lot. He knew the ringtone; it was Sabrina.
“Answer that, would you?” He nodded to Scotty. “It’s my sister.”
“Sea World Express,” Scotty said. He pushed the speaker button.
“Alex, tell me you’re coming up for this party. I can’t bear another round of Where’s Alex tonight.”
“On my way. Scotty’s coming with me. I have a stop to make and then we’ll be up. Kiss the gargoyle for me.”
Scotty clicked off the phone. “Gargoyle?”
“My father bought it at an auction before he died.” He shot Scotty a grin. “It’s supposed to ward off dugout dollies.”
He was only half kidding. The women who tracked players, often developing elaborate plans to make contact, kept Scotty well in their sights. They tracked Alex too. Though he’d dated a few, he kept to his rule to keep it casual. He’d learned better than to drag a woman into his life. He’d done it once, when he was in the minors. Another mistake he was determined not to repeat.
He’d been young and foolish that summer, and he’d fallen hard—he hadn’t been reading the signs. Not that anyone liked life in the minors. The long bus rides, cramped motels, terrible food... it wore the best of them down.
But it’d turned out that the woman he’d loved was in love with Trovare, in love with the flash. She was interested in Alex in his role as vineyard heir. Being dragged around from one small town to another during the minor league season, into a life without the glamor or the swirl of San Francisco, was of no interest to her.
He’d been foolish to think she loved the game, that she’d loved him.
At one point she’d even tried to talk him out of playing, and into returning to the city. But worse than that, she’d ridiculed one of his friends, a young outfielder from Tennessee. One thing the game held sacred was respect for anyone’s honest effort.
When she’d put down Tom’s life and his dreams, Alex had finally realized he’d been fooling himself all along. He wouldn’t do that ever again.
He should thank Tom.
“You’re losing your touch, Tavonesi. You don’t need a gargoyle. Just handle the lovely ladies like grounders. A moment in the hands”—he whirled his hands in the space between them—“and then a gentle and mutual toss-off.”
“Thanks, Yoda,” Alex said. “Remind me to ask you for hitting advice as well.”
That wasn’t going to happen. Nobody expected a pitcher to hit, and Scotty met that expectation handily by hitting well below .100. He managed to put down a good sacrifice bunt on occasion, but that was about it. Alex couldn’t imagine life without the challenge of hitting. Reading the pitchers and learning their patterns, watching the seams, tuning his body to the pace and the arc, the ritual and the focus, it ran in his blood.
The last light of day glowed a dim line under fast-moving clouds along the horizon as Alex and Scotty crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Whitecaps peaked on the waves in the bay, and the wind had picked up in the past half hour. The city and the hills of the Marin Headlands were shrouded in clouds by the time they turned off at the first exit at the end of the bridge.
“Maybe it’s not such a great time to head to the coast. Looks like a mighty storm headed this way,” Scotty said, pointing to the northwestern horizon. “I thought we’d get hammered before the end of the seventh inning.”
Alex shrugged. “If I waited for a break in the odd weather patterns we’re having, I’d never get anything done.”
He fired off the strange weather events in his mind: earliest frost, hottest summer days, longest stretch of winter with no rain and now rain, warm rain, that just wouldn’t let up. If late rains kept up into May, they could affect the fruit set at his vineyard for the second year in a row. El Niño, they called the storm pattern that brought these rains and winds. But there was nothing child-sized about its effects.
The rain and wind intensified as he nosed the car over the last ridge separating the headlands from the sea. In the distance, a side road snaked down toward the Point Bonita lighthouse.
“Wouldn’t want to be out there in waves like this,” Scotty said. “How far is it to this seal hospital?”
“Rescue center. It’s about a half mile from here. The whole place looked pretty ramshackle on the website. I was surprised to read that they’re doing some first-class science out of such a small place.”
“Is this science or a woman piquing your interest?” Scotty gave him a sidelong glance. “Rescuing river maidens might be your new calling.”
“I know about curious. Not exactly what we need right now.”
Scotty was right; chasing about the coast was the last thing he should be doing. He needed to rest up and stay in the zone. He’d set a high bar for the season and even on his best days he wondered if he’d overreached. He’d seen what overreaching had done to McQuinn last season, watched the guy wind himself so tight that he’d started making mistakes. But unlike McQuinn, Alex knew how to keep his perspective. At least he hoped he did.
His car hugged the curves as he eased it down the hill to Rodeo Beach. It’d been a favorite haunt, yet how many years had passed since he’d been there?
He turned onto a road that edged a small lagoon just past the beach. The hills of the headlands jutted down to steep cliffs and pitching waves. He opened his window, breathing in the salty marine air.
Driving to Trovare and donning a tux, smiling at people he barely knew, lost all its appeal.
“Mind if we skip Trovare tonight?” Alex asked.
Scotty shot him a look. “I was looking forward to meeting some of those society babes up at your place.”
Alex shook his head. “They eat boys from Nebraska for breakfast.”
“Sounds intriguing,” Scotty said. “I might like being someone’s breakfast.”
“Trust me on this one,” he said as he punched at his cellphone.
“Alex, it’s storming up here,” Sabrina said when she answered. “It came in fast, and Mother’s furious. She still doesn’t believe she can’t command the heavens.”
Alex laughed. “I’m going to skip the party. Forgive me?”
“I always do. I’ll find a way for you to make it up to me.”
He knew that playful tone. “No dates or set-ups, Sabrina. None. Zero.”
“You left out infinity.”
“That too.” He took in a breath. “And would you tell Emilio that I’ll meet with him when the team gets back from the road trip? The new irrigation for the vineyard can wait until then.”
Captain. It was Sabrina’s favorite nickname for him. As a child, he’d wanted to go to sea. Years later, when he’d rebelled at being handed his life on a platter, he’d lost himself in the mysteries of marine biology. He’d majored in it at USC, but he’d quickly discovered that he had to choose between his love for the sea and baseball. Baseball had won out. When he’d been called up to the majors, everything else dropped away. After his dad died and left him to handle Trovare, any dreams he’d harbored for pursuing his passion for the sea dissolved into the added responsibilities. Tonight, those early, carefree days were a past he barely remembered.
The rain morphed into a light mist. A hundred yards down the rutted road, a chain-link fence surrounded a cluster of buildings lit by floodlights on poles.
The gate was open, and he pulled into a parking area gutted with potholes. Several large, round blue tanks stood next to the buildings, and a square of fenced pens ran along one side. Every pen held animals. Alex pulled a raincoat from behind his seat and tossed it across Scotty’s lap.
“Dress for battle.”
Scotty laughed. “I’d rather dress for breakfast.”
Alex stepped out, donned his overcoat and walked over to a pen where a big man in yellow slickers stooped over a sea lion laid out at his feet. The slickers made him look like a giant who had stepped out of a children’s cartoon. He held a board against the animal, pinning it into the corner of the pen. The sea lion easily weighed 300 pounds, Alex estimated, but unlike the animals he’d seen when he was out sailing, this one wasn’t frisky.
“Hey there!” the man called, without looking up. “Push that IV tower over here, would you?” The flat vowels of his accent marked him as Canadian.
Alex took hold of the metal pole that held the bag of fluid and rolled it to him. Without taking his eyes off the sea lion, the man felt his way down the tubing with his other hand, found the needle and pulled it. With a flick of his wrist, he inserted the needle at the back of the animal’s neck.
“Hand me those towels,” he ordered.
Alex grabbed the bundle and handed them over just as the man glanced up. Even in the dim light and at the late hour, the man’s eyes danced with merriment.
“Oh, sorry,” he said, still pressing the board against the sea lion. “I thought you were a volunteer.” A smirk crept across his face as he scanned Alex’s attire. “I told them we needed another pair of hands, but you don’t look the type.” He looked over at Scotty. “Neither of you do.”
The man paused, his eyes scanning Alex’s face. Alex stiffened and prepared himself for the usual questions and comments about baseball, but the man didn’t say anything. He just turned back to finish taping the IV to the sea lion.
Alex let out the breath he’d caged. “Never mind what I’m wearing. I’m willing to offer a hand.”
The man looked up again, nodded and then rubbed a blue stripe of paint across the animal’s forehead. He stood. To Alex’s surprise, they were eye to eye. Not many men reached six four.
“The name’s Gage,” the man said. “I won’t offer to shake your hand.” Like his slickers, his gloves were streaked with blood and muck. “I’m the assistant vet,” he said with a wry smile.
“Alex. And this is my buddy Scotty.”
“These guys are way bigger up close,” Scotty said as he walked over and acknowledged Gage.
A roaring bark sounded from the pen next to them, and Scotty jumped.
“Teeth. Lots of teeth,” Scotty said, shaking his head.
“The man needs a hand,” Alex said.
Scotty pulled Alex aside.
“If you’re going to hang around here,” he said in a low voice, “I’d rather rustle up a date back in the city.” He looked over his shoulder. “Those things could bite.” He made a snapping motion against his arm. “I’m pitching in four days.”
“Living up to your reputation as a precious pitcher,” Alex chided. He fished his car keys from his overcoat pocket. “Take my car; I’ll find a way back.”
“Bad idea, Tavonesi. Leave your number and have the mystery woman call you.” He glanced over to where Gage stood at a distance, watching them. “Where is she, anyway?”
“It looks pretty tame,” Alex said, looking out at the pens and ignoring Scotty’s question. He’d find the woman from the river, if not tonight, then next week. She’d left more than an impression. She’d haunted his dreams.
“Should’ve kissed the gargoyle,” Scotty said with a knowing smile. “This mystery woman must be awful pretty.” He took the keys Alex held out. “Maybe she’s having a beer at O’Doul’s.” His grin stretched even wider. “I’ll call you if I see anyone matching her description.”
Scotty nodded to Gage and headed for the car. Within moments he was driving down the hill.
Gage jerked his head in the direction of the car’s receding tail lights. “Your friend know his way back?”
Gage raised a brow, then turned and wrote something on a chalkboard-like poster that hung between the pens. A wail from an enclosure farther down the line had Gage bolting. He pulled a pair of gloves from where they were wedged in the fencing and tossed them to Alex.
“You’ll be useful for this one,” he said.
This one was a 600-pound behemoth, maybe heavier, and he was not docile like the first. Though large, the sea lion was obviously starving; its ribs showed and its skin hung loose.
Alex took the board Gage pushed toward him, grabbed the two handles at its front and helped to herd the creature into a corner of the enclosure. Gage was strong, and he worked with a deft confidence.
The animal bucked and tried to rear up.
“Lean into it,” Gage instructed, gesturing with his hip. Alex leveraged his weight on the board and felt a pull along his ribs as he did. He ignored the pain and held the board steady. In less than a minute Gage had inserted an IV and started the drip. He pushed a piece of fencing up to the animal.
“Hand me those bungees,” he said, pointing at strips of rubber hanging on the pen. He fastened the fencing into a makeshift restraint pen and turned to remove the wooden herding board.
“Where’s the rest of your crew?” Alex asked as he followed Gage to the back of the pen.
“Out on rescues. We had no idea it’d be this busy—hadn’t counted on another storm so soon.” He shook the water from his hair and wiped his forehead with the back of his glove. “Two El Niño years in a row and a new batch of animals coming down from the North Bay, harbor seals, mostly.”
He tugged on the IV. Evidently confident it would hold, he motioned to Alex and together they backed out of the pen.
A truck roared into the lot, its headlights flooding the pen and path, temporarily blinding Alex.
“Damn!” Gage swore under his breath. “They should yank her green card and her license.”
Alex’s eyes adjusted, and he saw the woman from the river hop out of the truck, calling out orders to the two men unloading crates from the back. Even at a distance there was no mistaking her English accent or the confidence and strength woven through the lush tones of her voice.
“Take these two down to the hospital,” she said, pointing to the heavy crates the men were hefting from the back of the truck. “And set up the X-ray; that one’s been shot.” She nodded toward a smaller crate still in the truck.
She whirled to face them and froze when she saw Alex. The wariness in her eyes surprised him.
Wet auburn curls fell loose and tangled around her face, framing her beautiful and honeyed hazel eyes. She was even lovelier than he remembered.
“You do turn up in the oddest places.”
Without a glance back, she headed toward the building she’d called the hospital.
“You know her?” Gage asked.
“Not really. Ran into her up in Sonoma last week. We weren’t introduced.”
“That’s Jackie,” Gage said, tilting his head toward the departing woman. “She’s the boss. And that’s her at her most suave. She might be wanting in bedside manners, but she’s the best marine mammal vet in the world. She’s why I’m here.” He handed Alex the IV bag he’d lifted from its hook. “Watch to see that this drains properly.”
He walked to the truck and lifted the smaller crate from it and headed toward the hospital.
Standing in the misting drizzle, holding an IV bag hooked up to a very sad-looking sea lion, Alex calculated how ridiculous he must appear. His shoes were coated in mud, and he was soaked through. A loud snort sounded behind him, and he turned just in time for the sea lion to sneeze snot all over his overcoat. The smell had a stink like no other. Even so, as he snagged a towel off the fencing with his free hand and began to wipe down his coat, an odd elation flooded him, like hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. It made no sense.
But he smiled anyway.
Then he hung the towel back on the fencing and watched the last of the IV fluid drain from the bag. When Gage didn’t return, he hooked the empty bag to the fence and started across the parking lot. Whether he was headed for his car or to the lighted hospital, he wasn’t sure. Then he remembered he’d let Scotty take his car. Not a very clever move. He’d have to call a cab. The promise of a hefty tip was the only hope he had to entice a driver out into the headlands on a night like this.
Before he reached the dimly lit building, the door swung open and Gage and Jackie stormed toward him. Well, she was storming. Gage was shuffling along beside her, his long strides easily keeping up with her shorter ones. She marched right up to Alex.
“We’ve got a stranded whale—the fisherman who reported it said it’s about nine feet. Has to be either a newborn or a juvenile minke. The rescue crew has to deal with the animals they brought in,” she said, nodding toward the hospital. She took a breath and tilted her head toward Gage. “Genius here says you offered to help.”
She flicked her eyes over Alex. He felt he was being sized up for auction. He’d been sized up many times—by scouts, by owners, by managers deciding how much they would pay for his services—but he’d never felt the awkwardness that ran through him as she looked him up and down.
“He doesn’t have any training,” Gage muttered, as if he was trying to let Alex off the hook.
“He has muscles,” she said. “Right now, that will do.”
“Be happy to help,” Alex said.
He thought he saw the hint of a smile flicker behind her scrutiny. She had a strong, beautiful face that would’ve been lovelier without the frown. She turned away and fished in her pocket, pulling out a fistful of keys. She gave him a last, long scan and shrugged.
“Get in the back.” She nodded toward the truck. “And try not to fall out. I’m fresh out of Band-Aids tonight.”
Gage shot him a look that said, You don’t have to do this.
It would take a team of bulls to hold him back.
Gage motioned for Alex to jump over the tailgate.
“She smashed it in last week; it won’t open,” he said apologetically.
“If you hadn’t distracted me with all your budget woes and lists of things you desperately needed, I would’ve seen the bloody hydrant.” She turned to Alex. “I’m a fine driver.”
If her driving matched her boating skills, he was in for it.
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