My brain knew it was just part of the game, but my heart felt like somebody had yanked it out, stomped on it, and tossed it out the window.
I shifted in my seat and adjusted the flimsy airplane pillow in a failed attempt to get comfortable. I’d never been bulky, but at six foot three, the middle seat made my knees feel like they were in my chest. Comfort wasn’t really going to happen, so I settled for a position resembling a pretzel and closed my eyes.
Nashville had felt like home. But my team had sucked—at least, the most vocal members of the team did. Santiago and his brood were always talking crap, throwing not-so-subtle gay slurs in my direction. The coaches rarely said anything, and the other guys, the ones clearly bothered, were too afraid to hurt their own standing on the MiBL1 audition stage to speak up.
And for what? Why all the adolescent abuse?
I’d never brought my personal life into the locker room or onto the field. Hell, I hadn’t even dated or been out to a bar since making it onto the roster. A shot at pro baseball was far too big to risk with an overheated libido.
Yet, they rarely missed an opportunity to gin up laughs at my expense.
I told myself it was just locker room talk, that they weren’t really serious, and none of it mattered. When we hit the field, we had each other’s back. That had never wavered. I carried my weight, racking up a .301 batting average and leading the team in error percentage. In any other dugout, I’d be seen as a leader, not a mark.
I shifted again, then moved the pillow from behind my head to behind my back, then tossed it onto the floor near my feet. The team would never pay for a minor leaguer to fly first class, but they’d at least booked a direct flight. I’d only have to play the origami game for an hour and a half, so I gave up on sleep and looked across my row mate out the window at the passing clouds.
My brain buzzed with questions.
What would Ohio be like?
Would Columbus be as cool as Nashville?
Would the team be filled with more players like Santiago, or would I finally get to be just another player?
How long would this be home? Should I even bother trying to settle in?
Every coach I’d ever had offered the same advice after an error or tough play: “Focus on the next play. The past is done. Nothing matters but what’s next.”
Easy for them to say. They hadn’t bobbled the ball, or struck out, or whatever thing a player might do to earn that pearl of wisdom.
It’s far harder for a player, especially one in the heat of battle, to heed those words.
But here I was, leaving the crib of my pro ball youth to start the next chapter with a new team. The Clippers had a solid reputation as a collegial team with a respected coaching staff and professional front office. I did a little cyber digging and was pleased to find the team actively giving back to the local community, even supporting some local charities aimed at the rainbow family—my family. You’d never see my old management sullying their Bible Belt rep by working with struggling gay kids.
Guess I shouldn’t be bitter.
Eyes forward, toward the future, on the next play.
Blah, blah, blah.
I was still bitter.
At Santi. At his friends who enabled him. At the coaches who tacitly approved, then tossed me aside despite my stellar record on the diamond. At my teammates who didn’t stand up, even though I told them not to. At myself for allowing …
“Ladies and gentlemen, that bell indicates our final descent into Columbus. Please stow your tray tables and return your seat backs to their upright and locked position …”
I rubbed my eyes and checked my watch: Four twenty-one.
I was supposed to be at the field by five. I’d be late on my first day.
“Guess it’s good the game doesn’t start until seven,” I muttered to myself.
“Sir?” The teenager in the aisle seat next to me leaned over.
“Nothing. Sorry. Was just thinking out loud.”
She nodded and turned back to her dog-eared paperback, some smutty romance she’d probably read twenty times. I could just make out the man-chest on the cover each time she turned a page. Fabio could indeed have butter, if he ever tired of faking it. With a chest like that, he could have pretty much anything he wanted.
The plane descended smoothly, then thunked to the ground less so. I grabbed my duffel bag from the overhead and race-walked, weaving in and out of amblers who apparently had nowhere to be. A clump of chauffeurs huddling near the departures doors turned and straightened as the mass of deplaned passengers approached. Near the back stood a tall man in black trousers and a white starched shirt holding an iPad that read Dunlap. We made eye contact, and I gave him the obligatory chin raise, to which he nodded and stepped through the throng.
“I’ll take your bag, Mr. Dunlap.”
I grinned and patted the strap on my shoulder. “It would be more trouble to untangle it than to just keep carrying it.”
He gave me a tight smile, then another nod, before turning and leading me out the door toward his waiting black sedan.
“Straight to the park?” he asked as he opened the back for me to toss in my bag.
For the briefest moment, my inner twelve-year-old wanted to make a crack about going “gaily to the park” rather than “straight” there, but some shred of adulthood—and likely a dose of dignity—responded, “Sure. I’m already late.”
He grinned at the unintended challenge. “I’ll see what I can do about that, sir.”
The tires screeched as we rounded the last turn out of the airport, and I wondered why I’d thrown down the punctuality gauntlet and just which limb it might endanger. The driver never looked back. With two gloved hands on the wheel, he leaned forward, a grin parting his lips, as he wove in and out of highway traffic, barreling toward my destiny with a new team and his personal checkered flag.
We pulled into the stadium parking lot at four fifty-eight.
“No way,” I muttered, glancing down at my phone.
My driver grinned and leaned back with one hand draped over the front seat. “Right on time, sir. Can’t have the newest Clipper showing up late on my account. Give ’em hell, sir.”
I shook my head and smiled. “I’m Nick, Nick Dunlap.”
The gloved hand stretched back, so I shook it.
“I know. Center field, three-oh-one average last season, zero fielding errors. I could rattle off your minor stats, but those made the headlines. We’re lucky to have you, Mr. Dunlap. Team needs a strong bat and a golden glove.”
An uncomfortable laugh escaped. “Not sure my glove is golden, but I appreciate the encouragement. I’ll do my best. It’s good to be a Clipper.”
“Aye, aye,” he said, saluting with two fingers to the short bill of his black cap.
The locker room was nearly empty as I strode toward a locker bearing a freshly painted label that screamed “Dunlap” in white on powder blue paint.
“Hey,” the deep tones of a surdo rumbled from the corner, where I found a player leaning over the wooden bench, lacing up his cleats.
Brown eyes blinked up at me beneath two perfectly coiffed black brows. I tried to stare into them, to ignore his ridiculously perfect hair and chiseled jaw, and the five o-clock shadow that begged to be nuzzled and nibbled and licked. Believe me, I really tried to politely maintain eye contact, but perfectly bronzed arms bulged against the piping of his jersey in ways I’d never seen on a teammate. Our uniforms were meant to be worn loose, to allow freedom of movement, but his clung to him like that woman on her raft in Titanic. I could see the arteries or veins or whatever major roadways were flowing down his biceps into the curve of his elbow and down his forearm. Holy crap, I wanted to travel that road.
He cleared his throat, and my eyes snapped back to his.
“Oh, hey,” I said artfully.
“You must be Nick. I am Marcos, Marcos Silva. We are the roommates.”
Even his accent was sex. Thick and Latin, and probably uncut … shit … his voice was thick and Latin. It most certainly wasn’t cut. Voices didn’t get cut.
Although, I wasn’t sure what he meant by “the” roommates. My little head was certainly coming up with ideas.
Fuck me runnin’.
How was this supposed to work? This guy might’ve been the hottest man I’d ever seen in the flesh—well, I hadn’t seen his flesh, only his arms and forearms. Shit, now I wanted to see his flesh. It was all I could think about.
He smiled, and perfect, pearly white teeth lined up for inspection.
And my eyes widened a bit.
“Oh, uh, hey. Yeah. That’s the name they sent me. Marcus. I mean, that’s you, and you’re him. I mean, you’re my roommate, and I’m yours … your roommate. I’m not yours. Not like … shit.” I hadn’t felt nervous walking in. It was just another team, another locker room, but for whatever reason, I suddenly had the urge to pee all over the pseudo-clean floor.
His grin widened, and the slightest lines formed around his eyes. Then he stood and I drank in what must’ve been a six-foot-five glass of sweet gay nectar. I’d seen hotness—hell, I was a pro athlete—but Marcus was on another level. Like model meets bodybuilder meets suntan-bed salesman hot.
“First-day jitters with the new team? I get it. Just breathe in deep and blow it out,” he said.
“I wasn’t … I mean … I’m not …” The team had nothing to do with my jitters in that moment. And fuck, did he have to tell me to blow it out? Although, since he’d decided to remind me, my brain fled to that place every ten-year-old Little Leaguer goes right before stepping up to the plate, and I nearly peed my pants, which would’ve been bad because they’re white and I was about to walk onto the field in front of thousands.
He chuckled. “It is all good. We are not Nashville. We’ve got behind your back.”
My mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. I was pretty sure he meant something other than what I was picturing.
He stood, grabbed his glove, and trotted toward the door that led to the field. “Make sure you meet Kervin and Zack tonight.”
He turned and opened the door. The familiar rush of the crowd’s pre-game roar washed over me, like the steaming water of a much-needed shower after a long workout. There was something in that sound, that encouragement of the masses, that calmed my every nerve and shot adrenaline through my veins, all at once. It was awesome.
As I buttoned up my Clippers jersey for the first time, I glanced down and traced the letters and stitching with a fingertip. Everything was new, unblemished, waiting patiently for me to make my mark. I’ll never understand why, but in that moment, everything settled into place, and I knew I was home.
1 Minor League Baseball, the feeder league to Major League Baseball