Part 3: The Game
It was-different. There was still the smell of the grass and of hot dogs and of beer and the solid thwacking of leather on leather as ball met glove. A small crowd still gathered early to watch batting practice. But in the rows behind home plate-it felt like a parking lot as people pulled their chairs into designated spots behind the final row of the field boxes. There were a few regular seats mixed in between the wheelchair slots, allowing the disabled patrons of Coors Field to sit beside their game day buddies rather than behind them, but mostly it was the chairs.
And then there were the regulars.
"John Jones. You brought a *Knights* fan here?" the nun in the row in front of them asked.
"Now, Sister Frances Xavier, you know God says we should forgive others their faults," John replied, resting a reassuring hand on Babs' shoulder.
The man in the electric wheelchair snorted. "Or pity them their teams. Ain't the Knights on their way to losin' 100?"
Babs smiled. "They'll turn it around."
A strange bark came in answer, and a palsied teen grinned widely at her. A young man turned around to look from the teen to her and shook his head. "Damn! Sparky agrees with her."
"Sparky is just a sucker for a pretty lady," an older man commented, leering at Barbara around his unlit cigar.
"Now, gents, hands off. The lady is with me. Barbara, this is the gang. Cap and his son Chris, Dom, Sparky, Sister Frances Xavier, and beyond her is Tigs and Lawrence and the Doc and this peg leg pulling up right now is Charlie. Hiya Charlie."
"John Jones." He managed to make it sound like a curse. "Forget about your friends here?"
"I've been working, Charlie. We can't all be like you bums or nothing would get done."
Charlie's face broke into a grin. "Good t'see you, y'old hound dog." He reached out a hand and clasped John's wrist, pulling himself up onto his leg to give John a quick man-style embrace. The chair that flew out behind him was casually halted by a nearby usher, who wheeled it back behind Charlie and set the brakes.
"He always forgets to set the brakes on the days he's too lazy to wear his peg," the usher remarked to Barbara.
Barbara smiled in what she hoped was an appropriately sympathetic way.
"Hey, who you callin' lazy, McDougall? When's the last time you did any work around here?"
"Shut your trap, Charlie. Your making a bad impression on the lady."
Charlie glanced at Babs. "She looks okay. Think she could hold her own in our gimp squad?"
"Don't ask me, Charlie."
"Leave the girl alone, Charles," Sister Frances Xavier chastised. "Don't mind the boys, dear. Their bark is worse than their bite."
"Shut up, Dom."
John gave Babs shoulder a squeeze. "C'mon, Barbara, let's go find some hot dogs," he suggested, leading her away.
"You doing okay?" he asked.
"It's a little-overwhelming," she conceded.
John smiled reassuringly. "They're good people-not very politically correct, I grant you. But they are honest with themselves and with each other in a way I once thought was impossible for humans."
John's face had taken on a pensive expression, and Babs reached for his hand. "Does it bother you-to hide behind John Jones with them?"
"Heh. Sparky's on to me," he remarked wrily. "As for the others-John Jones is not so different here from J'onn J'onzz-although maybe a tad saltier. How many hot dogs can you eat?"
Babs breathed deep the smells wafting from the concession booth. "Y'know, I normally never eat them, but today? I could eat two."
"Two it is, then. I'll be right back."
They'd returned to their seats and polished off their hot dogs and two large drinks before the first pitch. By the second inning, cracking open peanuts and spying on Chris' scorecard ("I keep 'em for Dad now that he can't write for himself"), Babs was settling in. The rude banter of the regulars embraced her, and John periodic moments of play by play were opening whole new dimensions of the game. In the top of the third he leaned over to say, "The catcher wants a curve. The pitcher wants to throw heat, but that's what the batter wants."
Babs watched as the pitcher shook off the catcher.
"The catcher still wants the curve and the second baseman is getting nervous. He's thinking about how bullheaded the pitcher gets." Now the second baseman shift back and toward first base, rocking onto his toes. The pitcher shook his head again.
"The catcher is going to give in, but he plans to rip the pitcher a new one at the end of the inning. The second baseman might help."
The pitch came in, and as soon as the ball was released, the second baseman was in motion. A resounding *crack* sounded, and the ball screamed in a low line toward the space between the first and second baseman. The second baseman left his feet, stretching his body out to its full length, landing belly first on the ground just as the ball nestled perfectly in the pocket of his glove. With an ease that bordered on nonchalance, the player rose to his knees and lobbed the ball to the first baseman as the crowd roared its excitement.
Babs applauded with them, although the play had cost the Knights a baserunner.
"Now that's good baseball," Charlie remarked, glancing over at Babs with approval.
John was chuckling. "I've been watching this game for years, and the catcher is almost always right. And the pitchers are always bulldog stubborn. Makes for some exciting plays."
"You read their minds?"
"Their thoughts are pretty audible, especially when they're annoyed. Makes the game more exciting, too, to watch them perform amazing feats when you know they've guessed wrong on what the other guy's thinking."
Babs nodded, returning her eyes to the field as the next batter rapped a sharp single to left. "Way to go, Sanchez!" she cried, and a few rows behind her, another voice cried, "Go Knights!" She glanced back to earn a salute from a man in a Knights cap.
She had missed this. The easy camraderie of a crowd, the momentary connection with some stranger over the exploits of some twenty-four year old athlete from Tuscaloosa.
The catcher had run out to the mound, and she leaned toward John. "What're they saying?" she asked.
"The pitcher and the catcher," she said, motioning toward the mound.
John smiled. "I'm sorry; I was paying more attention to the guys at first."
"Oh?" Babs looked at Sanchez and the Colorado first baseman, who stood in a clump with the Knights' first base coach. "So what're *they* talking about?"
John's smile widened a touch, reaching his eyes. "They're talking about the hot red head in the stands behind home plate."
Babs blushed and glanced down, but when she looked back up, his eyes were still smiling at her. With a contented sigh, she allowed herself to lean into him, and he hooked his arm over her shoulders and gave her a squeeze.
"You're too good to me, John Jones."
"Never," he replied, placing a chaste kiss on her forehead.
"Hey, get a room!" Dom objected, causing Babs and John to laugh and disentangle themselves. But she still held his hand.