This is what folks in the publishing industry call “killing your darlings,” because I adore this scene, but it wasn’t strictly necessary to the mystery in BURIED LEADS. Maybe it will turn up in another of Nichelle’s stories someday—but for now, I hope y’all enjoy it.
By the time I got off the phone, it was late enough that Parker opted for ballpark hot dogs in lieu of dinner so he didn’t miss the first pitch.
His lingering love of baseball motivated him to spend his summers outside the realm of most columnists, covering Richmond’s major-league team. Except the away games. He said he’d had enough of questionable motels in his minor-league pitching days, so the low man on the sports totem pole always drew the responsibility of going on the road with the Generals.
I’d never seen Parker in any kind of baseball-associated environment, and I had to admit, it was something to behold. Going into The Diamond with him had to be akin to walking down a red carpet on the arm of a movie star.
The magical combination of cotton candy and popcorn wafting around us made my stomach rumble, and the distant crack of bats meant practice was still going. Several heads turned as Parker led me through the crowds in the concourse, and not all of them were attached to feminine shoulders. Men shouted enthusiastic greetings that made Parker grin as he waved to them. Aaron and Bob were right. Parker was a local hero.
“We’re sitting in the crowd,” he said in response to my furrowed brow when he turned toward the field instead of the elevator to the press box. “Didn’t you say you like to watch the game outside?”
“I can’t believe you remembered that. Thanks, but if it’s easier for you to work, we can go upstairs.”
“Eh.” He waved a hand. “I can take notes just as well down here as I can up there.”
The players were shelving their bats when we got to our seats, about halfway down the first baseline in the front row.
“Close enough to the action for you?” Parker flashed his megawatt grin and gestured to the field.
“It’s great,” I said. “You just be ready to save me when every foul ball they hit out there comes at my head, OK?”
He laughed. “Foul balls are not attracted to your head. There’s a law of physics I’m sure will back me up, but I didn’t pay enough attention in that class to remember what it is.”
“We’ll see.” I waved to a vendor and opened an overpriced bottle of Diet Coke before I turned back to Parker. “I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of baseballs and footballs I’ve been beaned by in my lifetime. Laws of physics be damned, flying objects are attracted to my head.”
He rolled his eyes and pulled a clipboard with a stat sheet on it and a pencil out of his canvas briefcase. “I’ll protect you.”
“Why doesn’t that make me feel any safer?” I dropped my bottle into the green plastic cupholder molded into the armrest. “I think it has something to do with your lack of enthusiasm—or possibly your lack of a glove.”
The announcer asked us to stand and the first bars of the anthem came over the PA system, followed by the ceremonial pitch. It was thrown by a gold-pigtailed little girl who’d won a reading contest in her school district to earn the honor. It made it about five feet past the foot of the mound, but she leapt and clapped, pigtails flying, like she’d struck out Jeter. Flashes popped from a half-dozen directions. That would make the wires overnight and show up in several sports sections in the morning.
The first four innings passed quickly, the Generals taking an early lead over Tampa Bay. I ate my hot dog (why do they taste better at the ballpark?) and cheered when necessary. Every foul hit by either team soared over the third-base line, but I flinched anyway. Parker chuckled and shook his head.
“Maybe we should go up to the press box,” he said when a Devil Ray popped one back a few rows above us in the bottom of the fifth.
“It’s more fun down here,” I said. “Football can be watched any old way. Baseball is better when you’re close enough to experience it.”
In the bottom of the sixth, the Rays were in position to close the gap on the scoreboard with a grand slam. The batter had a full count, and most everyone around us leaned a little farther forward in their seat with every breath. The pitcher tried a curve. A sharp crack echoed off the stadium walls as the bat connected with the ball. And I froze as it came hurtling at my face. Time slowed to a crawl. I could almost count the stitches on the thing. I dropped my head to my knees and threw my arms over it for good measure.
“I got it! I got it!” A man’s voice came from behind me, and I heard the snap of leather meeting itself as he pinched his fingers together inside a baseball glove.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” That was Parker, muttered under his breath as Glove Man shouted excitedly. Parker’s pencil hit the concrete under my feet. I didn’t risk looking up.
A sharp slapping sound. A hiss of quick-caught breath.
“Hey, I called it!”
I sat up just in time to see Parker flip the ball easily into the guy’s glove. Mr. I Got It looked to be in his forties, wearing a starched Generals jersey over Izod shorts, and Birkenstocks on his feet. His cap looked a little ridiculous, sitting backward on his obviously-white-collar-businessman head.
“Keep it, man,” Parker said. “Not trying to steal your souvenir. Just wanted to make sure it didn’t hit my friend.”
The guy stared at the ball, then at Parker.
“Hey—are you Grant Parker?” He took the ball out of the glove and held it out. “Will you sign this for me?”
I smiled and turned back to the game.
“You’ve got me there.” I sipped my Coke when Parker resumed his seat. “I’ve never been asked for my autograph … ever. But certainly not at a crime scene.”
He laughed as he leaned down and reached for his pen. “Does this mean I’ve managed to impress the unimpressable Nichelle Clarke? Well, hot damn.” He winked. “Now, about this business with baseballs and your head. Is one about all we should expect for the game? Because catching them’s not as much fun without a glove.”
“Lord, I hope one is all I get. I’ve been cracked in the head enough this year to last me a while.” I grimaced when I saw the bright red splash the ball left on his palm. “Sorry. And thanks. Though I think I’m well within my rights when I say ‘I told you so.’ ”
The last three innings flew by without incident. I tossed my empty bottle into a trash bin at the end of the row on the way to the press box, where Parker could plug in his laptop and file his story so it could go on the web before the eleven o’clock news. We’d brought my car. The thought that I’d have to wait for him after the game hadn’t really occurred to me, but I didn’t have any place to be, anyway.
Parker hitched his bag over one shoulder and chuckled at Glove Man, who was detailing a phenomenal imaginary foul ball recovery to whoever was on the other end of his cell phone.
“And then I saw Grant Parker in line for a hot dog, and he asked if that was me who made that catch.” Glove Man turned away from us as he spoke. “And I said, ‘Hell yes, it was me!’ And he offered to sign the ball for me, so I let him. Nice guy. Shame about his shoulder.”
Parker’s grin faded, something else entirely flickering on his face. He slid past me and headed up the concrete steps at a jog. I tossed a glare at Glove Man and followed—slower, thanks to my heels. Writing about people who did what he’d always dreamt of had to wear on Parker. Especially when inconsiderate asshats rubbed his nose in it.
Parker was silent on the elevator ride to the press box, and we got off so most of the other reporters could get on. Parker opened his laptop, and I wandered out onto the balcony and amused myself by watching the grounds crew’s methodical postgame routine.
Just as they were wrapping up, Parker joined me on the balcony.
“I love it here.” He spread his arms and leaned against the rail. “The cheers and the crowds and the bustle…but this is also my favorite place to be alone. Clears my head.”
“You want me to wait for you downstairs?”
“That’s not what I meant.” He shook his head. “You’re awfully literal sometimes.”
“I just—that guy, in the stands. It bothered you.”
“And perceptive, too.”
“What happened? I know you got hurt, but people get hurt all the time.”
He sighed. “That is a long story for another day,” he said. “Most of the time, I love my job. I still get to move in this world. And when it’s quiet out here, it’s easy to pretend for a minute.”
His eyes strayed to the field, and the pitcher’s mound in the center.
I stepped back and let him have his moment.