Authors: Micah K Chaplin
Dropped Third Strike
A Portland Pioneers Novel
By Micah K. Chaplin
Cover by Stacie Ricklefs Photo + Design
Copyright © 2016 Micah K. Chaplin
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publishers, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.
ISBN: 978-0692623169 (MKC)
For Amy, who helped me develop a deep love for baseball before leaving this world far too soon.
For the many other baseball fans in my life who have imparted upon me their baseball theories, wisdom, and opinions.
For my readers – Rachel, Jamie, Jill, Bruna, Nikki, Bridget, Laura, Angie, Candace, Alicia, Jessica, Courtney, and Will – for your invaluable support and feedback.
Special thanks also to the Texas Rangers, who seduced me into the tumultuous relationship of being a fan of the game. Despite all the heartbreak, I wouldn’t trade a minute of my fandom. It has lead to some incredible friendships and given me many moments of pure joy.
A dropped third strike occurs when the catcher fails to cleanly catch a pitch, which is a third strike (either because the batter swings and misses it or because the umpire calls it). The pitcher gets credited with a strikeout, but the umpire indicates verbally that the ball was not caught, and does not call the batter out. If first base is not occupied at the time, the batter can then attempt to reach first base prior to being tagged or thrown out.
Author’s note: There’s a glossary of more baseball terms used in this story at the back of the book.
Kate hung up the phone with a sigh and swiveled her chair halfway around to face away from her desk. She sat up straighter, arching her back slightly as she tried to work out the tension that had amassed while she was getting chewed out over the phone.
She let out a long breath and looked out the floor-to-ceiling window. Her view was magnificent – flawlessly manicured grass and crisp reddish dirt. For six months out of the year, this picture also included dozens of fit, agile young men running, hitting, and throwing. Kate was proud of where she’d gotten, and while the road to being general manager of the Portland Pioneers hadn’t been easy or altogether pleasant, she believed it had been worth it.
Portland, a three-year-old franchise, was one of the newest additions in Major League Baseball, and Kate was one of the few female general managers in the history of the game. When her hiring was announced, the press and message boards immediately made her gender an issue. Surely, no woman could – or should – handle a man’s sport. There were comments about the trade deadline being too near her menstrual cycle and her inability to accurately assess talent instead of just a nice physique. A few insults masked as compliments were peppered in as well. Some speculated that she used her well-toned legs, low-cut blouses, and sparkling green eyes to negotiate a contract that saved the owner a million here and there. There was no proof to support that theory. Or debunk it.
Kate did her best to ignore her critics. She knew she’d earned this opportunity, as did the people who had hired her and those who had helped her along the way. College internships with the Arizona State Athletic Department and the Arizona Diamondbacks provided her with experiences and contacts. She continued on with the Diamondbacks after college, working as an assistant in the front office. She never shied away from speaking up in meetings and sharing her opinions. Brian Dockery, the assistant general manager, took note of her skills and insights and then took her along with him when he moved on to Pittsburgh, giving her a small team of scouts to manage. It was a huge step up for such a young person, especially a woman, but Kate handled it quite ably, and built a reputation as a hard-working woman with extensive baseball knowledge. A few other organizations tried to lure her away to their operations teams, and while they were tempting, she stayed where she was. The offers were not only flattering; they helped her standing in Pittsburgh, as the general manager gave her raises and promotions to retain her. She had inched her way to role of assistant general manager for the AAA affiliate when James Scott approached Brian and told him he was buying a baseball team in Portland and was in need of a general manager. Brian connected James with Kate, albeit a bit reluctantly. He told Kate he hated to lose her but felt she was ready to move into a position of more prominence.
As she surveyed the grounds in Portland, she smiled. So far, she had managed to prove most of the naysayers wrong. She had made more smart deals than bad ones. Sometimes she lamented the few times she’d made a mistake, but she told herself that every GM had a bad trade once in awhile.
She couldn’t count the number of times her father, a long-time Mets fan, lamented the 1971 trade that sent Nolan Ryan, Don Rose, Frank Estrada, and Leroy Stanton to the Angels in exchange for Jim Fregosi. The move did nothing to improve the Mets’ infield, and Ryan went on to become one of the game’s greatest pitchers.
More recently, she remembered the shock of seeing Atlanta move Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones to Texas in exchange for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay. A few years later, the Rangers went to back-to-back World Series with three of the players in that trade and Atlanta had nothing to show on their side of the deal.
She took comfort in the knowledge that her mistakes hadn’t been quite as bad as those, and the team had not suffered too much in the end. In fact, the Pioneers were gradually moving out of newbie status and into the realm of being legitimate contenders. Opponents no longer looked forward to the Portland series as an easy and automatic sweep. Just last season, her boys had played the role of spoiler for two teams making late-season runs at the playoffs. Indeed, the Pioneers were coming along, and it was all because Kate and her colleagues had made the most of a moderate budget and assembled a fine group of athletes.
Today, none of those athletes were running around on the field below. It was only early January after all. The field wouldn’t be busy again for several more weeks. Occasionally, she’d see a handful of the players who lived locally jogging laps around the perimeter of the park or climbing the stairs, but most of the athletic activity was contained to the weight room and cages, which were three levels below her office.
Opening Day was a few months away, but to Kate, it still felt too close. The club’s hitting coach had resigned just before Thanksgiving citing family obligations. Had he resigned right at the end of the previous season, Kate might have found his replacement swiftly, but the late start in her search meant a lot of potential candidates had already been scooped up by other teams. So far, a dozen candidates had been considered but none of them felt right. Kate didn’t like the thought of hiring someone who was merely “OK,” especially coming off a season in which their club was third in the league for home runs and second in runs scored. Offense was their centerpiece and the only thing that saved their mediocre pitching. They hadn’t made many improvements in the pitching staff, so they would need to rely on the bats again in the season ahead. She needed the perfect candidate, but she was quickly running out of time.
Her job put her every move under many microscopes. Currently, however, it was her lack of movement that was drawing ire from all angles. The media was on her back, the owner was calling her daily, and the manager stopped by whenever he was in town, which was becoming more frequent as the new season loomed closer. The club president made his share of calls as well, including the one she had just hung up. None of these individuals or entities were pleased with her answer of, “I’m still searching.” If she didn’t make a hire in the next few weeks, the players might report to camp without someone to tweak their timing and adjust their batting stance. And she might find her employment status hanging by a thread.
She sighed and turned back to her desk as Bart, the mailroom clerk, strolled in with the day’s correspondence.
“Looks like there might be a few more candidates for the hitting coach job, Ms. Marks,” Bart said. “There are some big envelopes here. I put them on top for you.”
Kate smiled at the young man in appreciation. Other GMs might have snapped at the college sophomore for prying, but not Kate. Bart had been a genuine find. His head was full of baseball knowledge – and not just the generic everyday kind. He knew more about VORP, OPS, and range than most men 10 years his senior. Bart had made no secret about his aspirations to work in Major League Baseball full-time one day, and while the mailroom was hardly a place to utilize Bart’s knowledge, he had taken the low-paying job just to be around the sport. Recognizing his value early on, Kate happily worked around Bart’s college schedule to get him the hours he needed. On top of that, she listened to his insight and let him have access to people and information no other mailroom employee in the league probably had.
“Let’s hope they’re good ones,” Kate said. “We’re running out of time, Bart.”
“I know,” Bart said. “And the Mariners just hired Stan Beasley this morning.”
Kate groaned. Beasley had been on her fallback list. Instead, he’d taken a job with one of their division rivals in the American League West. She couldn’t blame him. They’d offered the job first while she was still waiting for the perfect candidate. Beasley hadn’t been perfect, or even great, but he would have been adequate. She only hoped her hesitation wouldn’t come back to bite them in the standings.
“Great,” Kate said. “Well, there’s another name I can cross off the list.”
“He probably wouldn’t have been right anyway,” Bart said. “He enjoys small ball a little too much for the Pioneers’ style.”
Kate smiled as the young man once again showed off his knowledge.
“That was my hang-up too,” she said.
“Someone better will come along,” Bart said. “Anyway, I need to get moving. I have stats class in an hour. See you later, Ms. Marks.”
Kate waved as Bart left her office and continued on his mail route. Mentally crossing her fingers, she opened the first big envelope. She scanned the résumé – a triple-A bench coach and former AA player who specialized in outfield defense.
, she thought. The second one yielded even less promise. She found no inspiration in the third, fourth or fifth either. An hour of reading and re-reading was gone, and Kate was no closer to finding her coach.
Her phone intercom buzzed, and her secretary said Mr. Scott was on the line. Kate took a deep breath before answering. She already knew how this call would go.
“Why is it that the Mariners have a hitting coach now and we don’t?” the team’s owner barked.
“Beasley wasn’t right for the Pioneers,” Kate said confidently, or at least that was the tone she tried to convey.
“The Mariners have the worst offense in the division, and I’ll be damned if we swap places with them because you’re waiting for the ‘perfect’ candidate to fall into your lap,” James snapped.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Kate said. “Not with Tanner and Davis coming back. Those two don’t need a hitting coach to replicate what they did last year.”
Kate knew throwing out the names of the Pioneers’ All-Star middle infielders would help mollify the owner. Justin Tanner and Ian Davis had been two of her earliest signings, and they quickly became the cornerstone of the franchise. Their bat speed and power was rivaled only by their ability to turn at least two fantastic double plays in every game. She couldn’t count the number of times their defense had saved a pitcher from being overworked, to say nothing of the number of runs they’d driven in. They were the Pioneers’ version of the Bash Brothers and the most fearsome three-four hitters in the league. The owner loved them.
“I suppose not, but they can’t carry the offense again this year,” James said, sounding a bit less edgy. “And Castaños and Walker still need a lot of work.”
“I know, sir,” Kate said. “I’ve been monitoring their work in Mexico this winter, though. Castaños has become a lot more patient at the plate, and Walker is starting to drive the ball to the opposite field more often.”
“That’s promising, but their progress may be for nothing if you don’t get someone to keep them going,” James said.
“I know, and I will find that someone,” Kate said. “I plan to narrow things down later this week.”
The owner guffawed on the other end of the line, and she couldn’t blame him for having doubts. Kate had made the same statement a few times since beginning her search. She had yet to deliver on her word, and she hated that. Kate prided herself on following through.
“I promise,” she added, using those two words for the first time.
“You better,” James said. “I’m counting on you, Kate. I didn’t hire you to dilly-dally around. Pitchers and catchers report in 45 days. Workouts are ramping up. I expect you to have an announcement before Fan Fest at the end of the month.”
Kate glanced at her calendar. That gave her less than three weeks. Her stomach rolled a bit.
“I will,” she said. Her tone conveyed more confidence than she possessed.
Kate hung up and slumped in her chair. She wasn’t completely defeated yet, but she was definitely feeling the pressure. She supposed she should be thankful she only had one boss now instead of four or more as she had endured in previous jobs. Even though there were many people waiting on her decision, she only had to answer to James Scott. But that didn’t do much to ease the pressure on her. Not when you considered the power her boss had – he could ruin her easily. And not even blink an eye while doing it. He wasn’t the only one leaning on her either. He was the most vocal, but certainly there were others waiting to pounce on every failure.
A week later, Kate had conducted a handful of interviews. The résumés had underwhelmed her, but the impending deadline usurped her hesitation so she had brought in the most promising from the stack.
Two of the candidates were older men with respectable baseball careers. They had each played minor league ball in their prime and had since managed a few AA teams. They also shared a confidence in their ability to add to the Pioneers’ offense. Kate listened patiently as each explained in detail some of the exercises he would use to improve the hitters’ patience and timing. Their methods sounded good, but Kate was unmoved by their interviews. They were smart enough and certainly experienced, but her instincts told her to hold off.
The other three candidates were far younger and completely new to coaching. Their vigor and energy was their main appeal, but when asked about how they could impact the Pioneers hitters, they stuttered and spat out clichés in their answers. Their lack of conviction left Kate feeling uneasy.
After the last interviewee left, Kate put her face in her hands and let out a long breath. Over the course of her career, she had never sweated this much over a hiring, and that was saying something. When she came on board, the Portland franchise was brand new, so she had to start from scratch – hiring a manager and an entire coaching staff, not to mention assembling a 40-man roster and building a farm system. James Scott had been tied up in the financial dealings, so he let her take the reins on all the staffing decisions. It had been empowering and also a lot of work, but she couldn’t remember feeling this stressed during that process. Since then, she had made countless decisions – more good than bad. Many of the faces in the organization had stayed the same. She liked consistency, and it had worked well for her. Despite all of her success, she knew her job could be in trouble if she did not hire a hitting coach before her deadline. On top of that, she had to make up for this delay. The candidate she contracted had to be worth the wait. It had to be someone with a recognizable name and reputation. Someone James Scott could get excited about. Someone the fans would embrace.