Three Strikes

By dee_ayy ( and Peggy (

July 29, 2000

Well, he kept reminding Roy afterward, it was the most important game of the year. On the one hand, it had been one bad day for John Gage. But on the other, it had been pretty great.

It was the final game of the Sheriff’s Department vs. Fire Department fast-pitch softball tournament. The winning team would get five hundred bucks for their widows and orphans fund. How could he bench himself? He was their star center fielder.

+ + + strike one + + +

First it was his groin. He felt the twinge while running to first after hitting a fly ball in the third. But he ignored it, and waited for Roy to bring him his glove, before taking his place in the outfield. Then he had to dive for a ball. It was a spectacular catch—saving one, maybe two runs. But man, did he feel it when he stood up. Jogging back from the outfield without letting Roy or any of the other six paramedics on the team see his discomfort was a challenge. But he did it, and surreptitiously filled a sandwich bag with ice, sticking it up his shorts when no one was looking

Or so he thought.

“What’s that?” Roy asked, pointing at the wet spot on the bottom of his partner’s shorts.

Johnny flushed red with embarrassment. “Oh, um . . . I uh . . . spilled some ice,” he stammered.

“Uh huh,” Roy replied knowingly. “It hurt much?”


“Why don’t you let me take a look?”

“At what?”

“Your groin. I saw you come up lame.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Roy!”

“Uh huh. Why don’t you let me take a look?”

Johnny moved up close to his partner and hissed in his ear “Not out here, Roy! In front of all these people? I put ice on it. It’s fine!” The very idea of stripping off his shorts in front of 20 cops and firemen and their families was horrifying. He turned and limped back to the bench, ending the conversation.

His team scored three, giving him a good amount of time to ice his muscle, and luckily the last out was made right before he had to scrape himself off the bench and go to the on-deck circle. All he had to do was discard his ice and make his way out to the field. As long as he didn’t have to make any mad dashes for the ball, he’d be fine.

The ball never left the infield and as he jogged back in after the half-inning, he was encouraged. The muscle was loose, and felt pretty good. Maybe it had just been a cramp. He was up second, so he immediately grabbed a bat and started warming up.

+ + + strike two + + +

It was the bottom of the fifth, and they were down by one, when he came up. Dwyer was on second with a double. Johnny dug in, and gave the pitcher his most confident leer. He’d hit a three-run homer off this guy in the first. With a single he could tie the game. But his intention was to get much more than a single.

The pitcher, a guy that Vince had once told them was a real bastard to everyone, not just to firemen, leered back.

Johnny saw the pitch coming, and was paralyzed like a deer caught in headlights. At the last second he ducked a bit, and that only made it worse. Next thing he knew he was on the ground staring up into Roy’s concerned face.

“Johnny? You all right?”

“Oh, man, did you get the plates on that truck?”


“The truck that hit me?” Johnny sat up and gingerly touched his left temple.

“Lie back, Johnny,” Roy advised.

“I’m okay, Roy. Really. There’s only one of you.”

“You’re not dizzy?”

“Nope.” To prove his point, Johnny popped up limberly. It was only then that he noticed that there were six paramedics hovering over him. He gave them his best smile. “What’s the matter, guys, you never seen a guy get beaned before?”

He started to take his base when Roy grabbed his arm and stopped him in his tracks. “Where do you think you’re going,” he challenged in his best fatherly tone.

“First base!”

Roy gave an exasperated sigh. “You’re worse than a kid, Johnny. Would you let someone else who got hit like that play on without getting checked?”

Johnny slapped himself in the chest for emphasis. “I’m fine, Roy. I’d know if I wasn’t. To tell you the truth, my leg hurts more than my head!” He could hear Roy start to protest again as he jogged away, and took his base.

It wasn’t until he was in the outfield during the sixth inning that Johnny started to feel a little off. First it was a growing headache. Then a vague sense of nausea. He reminded himself to eat something when he got back in.

But then Vince hit a high fly ball deep to center. Johnny was getting under it, back-pedaling his way toward the fence, looking up the whole time. He saw the ball, it was right there, and then it wasn’t, falling to the ground right in front of him. Humiliated, he quickly bent down to retrieve the ball, and fired it in to third, keeping Vince to a double. The throw was true, but as he followed through he suddenly had no idea which way was up.

At least he didn’t fall. He glanced over at Roy, who was playing first, and even from far away he knew his partner was watching him. He waved his glove, indicating that he was fine, then bent over, resting his hands on his knees. He took a few deep breaths, and felt much better. It had only lasted a second, and it was awfully hot out there; nothing to worry about.

+ + + strike three + + +

It was the kind of situation that Johnny lived for at these games. Bases loaded, two outs, tie score, bottom of the final inning. It was his chance to be the hero or the goat. He planned on being the hero.

They’d replaced the pitcher after the beaning incident, so he knew he didn’t have to worry about that. In fact, he was betting that everything to him would be well outside after what had happened. He was right, the first two pitches were balls.

On the third he thought he knew where the ball would be—high and outside—so he was ready for it, and swung hard. And missed. He did a 360, and when he stopped his head didn’t. It was spinning faster than his bat had been. He stumbled out of the batter’s box, and again bent over to rest his hands on his knees. Damn this heat.

He heard Roy from the bench: “Johnny?”

Without turning around he waved back at his partner. He was fine, and he stepped back into the batter’s box.

The fourth pitch was a strike looking. He couldn’t have swung that bat if he wanted to. It felt like it weighed 30 pounds on his shoulder, so he’d just stared dumbly at the ball as it had whizzed past.

“Hey, Gage, you okay?” the umpire asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, and forced himself to dig in and pay attention.

Pitch number five, a ball way outside. The count was full.

Johnny watched the pitcher wind up for the payoff pitch. But he never saw it arrive at the plate.

+ + + inning over + + +

He woke up retching. Hands pushed him onto his side unceremoniously, and a metal bowl was shoved under his chin.

Man, he hated throwing up; but he was powerless to stop it.

“You done?” a kind voice asked. It was Dixie, and he wondered briefly what she was doing at the game. Then the familiar antiseptic smell hit his nose and he knew he wasn’t at the game any more.

How’d he get to Rampart?

He rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. Brackett, Dixie, Roy. The usual suspects.

“Ball or strike?” were the first words out of his mouth.

“How do you feel, Johnny,” the doctor asked. “You gave your team quite a scare.” Kel assaulted his eyes with his penlight, and Johnny tried to swat him away; that’s when he noticed the IV running into his arm. Damn.

“I’m okay, doc.”

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two,” he told him impatiently. “Was it a ball or a strike? Roy?”

Dr. Brackett was looking concerned. Uh oh. Musta been the wrong answer. “Was it only one?” he asked him.

“Only one, Johnny. I think we’d better get a complete skull series here.” The x-ray machine was already in the room, and his three friends left without answering his question.

+ + + game over + + +

“X-rays are negative, Johnny. You were lucky—looks like it’s just a concussion.”

“That’s why they call it soft ball, doc. Now will someone please answer my question?”

“What question, Johnny?” Dixie asked.

“The last pitch! Was it a ball or a strike?”

Roy finally stepped up to the treatment table and into his field of view.

“I don’t believe you, Junior. But it was ball four. We won.”

“Good Deal!”


Dedication: This is for Kelly, who couldn’t be there. And for Randy, who was.

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