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Game Changer

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Jamie Fraser had made up his mind. He wasn’t a quitter by nature, no. He was as stubbornly determined as they came. But at 28 years old, after years of sacrifice and injury, traveling in beaten-up buses and sleeping in seedy motels, living poor and working his ass off with absolutely nothing to show for it, he’d decided that the time had come. He was giving up his dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player, hanging up his first baseman’s glove, and returning to Scotland.

“I’m goin’ home to Lallybroch,” he murmured, so quietly that no one else in the clubhouse could hear him.

As soon as he allowed himself to articulate this thought, which was against everything he’d wanted or worked towards for almost two decades, he felt his shoulders relax. Tears rushed to his eyes just imagining working the fields alongside his Da, sharing a dram with Jenny and Ian after dinner, and chasing the bairns through the meadow until their breath ran out. After so long of practically being a stranger to his own land, he was ready to make Scotland his home again.

“Hey, Fraser! Angus wants to see you in his office.” Jamie's head snapped up abruptly as he heard a teammate yell to him from several lockers over. His reverie now interrupted, he let out a low groan and slowly rose from the bench, delicately stretching so as not to tweak his back.

Weel, he thought to himself. No time like the present. Might as well get this over with and let coach know I’m done.

As he started to walk down the hallway to Angus Mhor’s office, he thought about the road he had taken to get here. He thought about the steps and choices he had taken that brought him to this place and this moment, so different from where he thought he would be at this age.

He remembered how he fell in love with baseball while watching the Sydney Olympics late one night when he was nine years old. That summer, he would spend his days wandering alone on the heathered hills behind the house, hoping that the fresh air would ease the queasiness he’d felt in his wame ever since his Mam had died the year before. He would spend most nights watching telly in the sitting room, staying awake into the wee hours in order to avoid returning to sleep in his room, where the memories of his mother reading him bedtime stories and comforting him through illness were still too strong, too raw for him to bear.

On one such night, he caught the two am showing of a USA-Japan game in the early rounds of the competition. By the third inning of the game, he was already captivated by the loud crack of bat meeting ball, and the satisfying pop of a fastball caught in a glove. He listened carefully to the announcers, picking up as much as he could to try to understand the game’s rules, which were nothing like those of soccer or rugby, the only two sports that mattered to most of his friends. Baseball was slower than those sports, but also more cerebral and analytical, something that appealed to him even then.

By the end of the Olympics, Jamie vowed to learn, to practice, and to one day be among the very best to play this sport -- never minding the fact that he had never even held a baseball at that point.

 

He imagined bringing joy to thousands of spectators in the stands, thrilling them with home runs and gravity-defying catches. His fantasies were fueled by whatever paltry mention of the sport he could find on TV or in the newspaper, or in the two books on the topic from the Broch Mordha library that he’d read and re-read until the spines cracked.

After 3 months of talking and thinking incessantly about baseball, his father Brian surprised him one afternoon by telling him he could skip his chores for the day.

“Get in the car, Jamie lad,” he had said with his usual kindhearted, teasing smile. “After all your bletherin’ about baseball, we’re goin’ to Inverness to see if ye’ve got any talent in it.”

As it turned out, he did have talent. A lot of talent, in fact.

But sometimes talent isn’t enough.

Jamie startled when he realized that he must have been standing in front of Angus’ office for the past five minutes, lost in his thoughts again. He rolled his shoulders and stood taller, then reached up and rapped on the partially-closed door twice before hearing a surly voice bark, “I don’t know what took ye so long, Red. Get yer ass in here.”

He entered and took a seat opposite the desk, letting out a sigh as he faced his longtime coach. Jamie had played under Angus Mhor for the past four seasons in the Mets minor league system. A retired catcher, he was a player’s manager, willing to defend his men to the end, while also being the biggest prankster in the clubhouse. Jamie was more often than not the victim of these jokes; being a fellow Scot, Mhor felt Jamie was obliged to forgive him no matter how egregious the prank.

Frankly, Jamie could’ve done without some of the mischief and bawdy jokes, but still, he respected his manager for his honesty and for always having his players’ backs.

Mhor looked him up and down with wrinkled eyes and a quirk to his lip before asking, “Why’d ye think I called ye in here tonight?”

“I dinna ken why ye called me in,” Jamie started, his fingers drumming insistently against his outer thigh. “But before ye tell me, there is somethin’ I need to tell you.”

He took another deep breath, and pushed on. “I’m done with baseball. I’ve played my last game.”

“Ahh. Ye’re quittin’, are ye?” Angus asked skeptically, eyes cast downward, focused on his tobacco-stained fingers.

“Aye, I am!” Jamie answered indignantly, on his way to being furious at Angus for not taking him seriously. “Look, my playing’s been shite lately. You know it, I know it, and all the lads know it. I canna hit the damned ball any more. Since my injury last year I just-- I just canna find my rhythm.”

“I’ve put in six years in the minors,” he continued. “They’re never going to call me up to the big leagues, so I need to get on with my life, find a new purpose. I need to go back home to my family.” Once again, a thrill shot through Jamie just to think of it. Home.

Angus sat back in his chair and swung his feet up on the desk, all while shaking his head and looking at Jamie with a glint in his eyes. “Are ye done flappin’ your gums yet?”

“Dinna try to talk me out of it,” warned Jamie, fixing his manager with his steely blue gaze. “I knew ye were going to do this. Just know that this is what I want and need to--”

“YE’RE GOING TO THE SHOW, YOU CLOT-HEID!” Angus roared.

Jamie froze.

With his eyes and his mouth wide open, he attempted to form words, but that was hard to do when it felt as though his heart had stopped beating. “What?” he finally managed to spit out. “That’s impossible.”

He looked up sharply a moment later, understanding hitting him all at once. “You bastard! Ye’re fucking pranking me, aren’t ye? Christ, Angus. I canna believe ye would--”

“Jamie, I swear on my sweet mother’s grave. You’ve been called up. Really. The team needs ye to start tomorrow. There’s an Uber coming to take you to Queens in 20 minutes.”

Jamie sat, silent, shell shocked, and staring out the window onto the ballfield. He had imagined this moment hundreds of times in his life, but he never thought of it happening like this. “I--I just dinna understand it. Why? I’ve never played worse in my life.”

“So, are ye sayin’ ye’d like to turn down this opportunity? I’ll be glad to pick up the phone and let them know,” said Angus, with his signature sarcastic smile.

“No. NO! Of course not. I just dinna understand it, is all,” Jamie replied, deep in thought over what this all meant. Major League Baseball. The Bigs. The realization of his dreams, of everything he’d worked for. Was this really happening?

“Here’s the deal, Red. Both the starting first baseman and the backup were injured in tonight’s game. They’ve got no one else to start at first tomorrow. So, ye’re it. At least until they can trade for someone better. Ye’ll probably be up there for a game or two at most.”

So that was the crux of it, then. He wasn’t being called up because they thought he had talent or promise. It had been years since he had been considered a top prospect, and his glory days were certainly over. He was being called up, as a 28 year old rookie in the worst slump of his career, to fill in during a crisis.

Jamie ran his hands through his curls and exhaled sharply. He closed his eyes to find some peace from the blinding fluorescent light emanating from the ceiling. His mind jumped back to watching Olympic baseball in the middle of the night, when the spark in him was first lit. That spark, and his talent, had gotten him so close, but the flame had all but been snuffed out over the past year. Did he still have it in him? Just a few minutes ago, he was on the verge of walking away from the sport for good, and he hadn’t a single regret about it. But he was suddenly grasped by a sense of hope and promise. He found a determination growing in him by the second, the spark rekindled. His heart started beating quickly, and he felt an urge to get out of this stadium and get on the road, now. It was time to get prepared for the biggest moment of his life.

Standing up quickly, he put his hands on the desk. “I’ll get my things together and will be outside by the time the car gets here,” he told Angus, nodding. “I’m grateful for all yer help. Truly.”

Jamie turned and walked out the door, with one corner of his mouth slowly lifting into a lopsided grin. He was nervous but giddy, simultaneously confident and panicky. Stopping to take a deep breath in an attempt to steady his heart rate, he glanced down at his tattoo, the one he got on his left forearm at 18. He relied on it during moments of self doubt; the words of his family motto helped him to steel himself mentally and physically for all the challenges before him.

“Je suis prest,” he said in a hushed voice, standing in front of his locker. “I am ready.”

*******************

It was a beautiful July day in New York. Claire Beauchamp was grateful that, for once, the humidity was low enough that her blowout didn’t start curling midday. She was grateful, too, for getting to live in this spectacular city, the skyline of which she was currently admiring from the back seat of a taxi hurtling up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. And what she was grateful for above all else was that she was living her professional dream: a fellowship in sports medicine and shoulder surgery with a spot on the medical team of the New York Mets.

Claire’s therapist, Dr. de La Tour, had suggested she find three things to be grateful for every day, and she did find it to be a useful activity. Still, for all that she was grateful, she felt a haze of melancholy surrounding her today, which she couldn’t help but express in a long, deep sigh.

“Lady Jane, are you all right over there?” Joe asked from the other side of the cab’s rear bench.

“I’m all right. I mean, I guess I’m all right,” she said as she turned away from the window to face him. “It’s just that today marks a year since the divorce was finalized. I can’t help but feel . . .” She paused. What exactly was she feeling? She was relieved to be on her own. She was happy --wasn’t she?-- with her life. But she couldn’t help but feel a sense of failure that her marriage only lasted two years. “Well, I know that I’m not sad about it. I know we are better off not being married. Though I suppose I’ll always feel regret that it had to end. That I couldn’t save it. I couldn’t save us.”

Joe snorted but then quickly recovered and presented a more somber face to his best friend. “Listen, sweetheart. Leaving Frank was the best thing that you’ve ever done for yourself. The man never understood you, never appreciated you, never even respected you! My God, Lady Jane. Do you remember how many times you’d come to the hospital with your eyes bloodshot from crying?”

“I know, Joe. I remember,” she said. Of course she remembered. For months and months, she cried. At the hospital, on the subway, at the supermarket. She cried herself to sleep most nights. She cried until the tears ran out, and she eventually decided that she could not live her life like this anymore. So she hid the pain and the humiliation where no one else could find them, picked up the pieces of her life, and threw herself into her work.

“This prick had the nerve to accuse you of infidelity, all because he was jealous that most of your patients were male athletes. Meanwhile, he had his own side piece for most of your marriage!” Joe ranted, looking a little ashamed at how heated he had gotten. “I’m sorry, LJ. I just get irrationally angry when we talk about him. Fuck Frank!”

“I really do appreciate you being so protective of me,” she said with a downcast but thankful smile.

She really could count Joe Abernathy as another thing that she was grateful for. They had met at Harvard Medical School, both specializing in sports medicine, with Joe just a year ahead of her. He matched for his residency at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, and Claire did the same a year later. Now, Joe was working as an Assistant Team Physician for the Mets, while she was on her way to completing her one-year post-residency fellowship with HSS and the team.

“I don’t mean to make you feel even worse about today. I’m sorry for losing it.” Joe apologized while reaching out his hand to her shoulder for a squeeze. “I just want the best for you. I really do think that you’d be much happier if you would consider--”

“No, Joe! Just no. How many times have I told you that I’m not ready to start dating?” she asked. Had she just added Joe Abernathy to her grateful list? She considered taking him off of it. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m still working through a lot of issues in therapy that need to be resolved before I can even consider dating again. Besides, it’s not like there’s a queue of bachelors lining up for the honor.”

“Have you seen you, Claire? Come on. Who wouldn’t want to date you? You’re brilliant. You’ve got that dry British sense of humor that’s hilarious and only a little bit intimidating. You are the most interesting person I know.” Joe continued listing her attributes, as Claire squirmed uncomfortably in the seat next to him. “And, last but not least, you have a fabulous head of hair and an ass that won’t quit. You know how many men at the stadium check you out on a daily basis?”

Claire rolled her eyes at the thought. “At the stadium? Well, it’s not like I’m going to date any of the athletes! They’re all considered my patients. You know that. And anyway, after all of Frank’s allegations, I would never give him the satisfaction of thinking he was right.”

Her stomach twisted remembering the fights. Frank used his words as weapons, hitting her with them in the way he knew would hurt her most, by questioning her professionalism. It was a daily occurrence for him to accuse her of dalliances with her patients, going so far as threatening to force her to quit her job. Claire pushed down the bile that rose to her throat at the very thought of it.

She shook her head to displace the unpleasant memories, and noticed that the cab was taking its exit from the highway. She looked to her right to catch a glimpse out the window at the World’s Fair Marina. Dr. de La Tour had recommended that she take visual snapshots of things that brought her serenity, to help ground her during stressful times. She made sure to take a mental photo of the boats bobbing calmly in Flushing Bay for use at a later time when she might need it.

“Well, LJ, there are plenty of men who work at the stadium who aren’t players or patients of yours. And I have seen them look at you,” Joe said, wiggling his eyebrows. “You may just want to keep it in mind.”

“Ok, Dr. Abernathy. I didn’t know that you had taken on the role of Citi Field’s chief matchmaker, but I will keep that in mind,” she replied, as she turned from the window towards him, giving him a wink.

The cab pulled up to the side entrance of the stadium. Joe paid the driver, and together he and Claire headed to the gate. They made their way inside to the medical offices to check their agendas for the day.

“Well, I’ve got a meeting with the training staff in 15 minutes. I’m going to go prep for that in my office,” Joe mumbled as he popped a mini muffin from catering into his mouth. “What have you got going on today?”

Claire flipped through the file that had been prepared for her and said, “It seems I’ll be doing a baseline physical for a player called up from Triple-A Syracuse. I have another hour until he gets here. Later on I’m going to look over the injury status reports from this week.”

“All right, I’ll catch you later, LJ. And I hope your day gets better.”

As much as Joe drove her crazy, she really did love and appreciate him. She looked up at her best friend and smiled. “You’ve already made my day better, Joe.”

Claire settled at her desk, and started to dive into the thick stack of papers in the folder. What on earth had happened to this man to merit such a massive medical file, she wondered. It was at least double the size of most players’ files coming up to the majors for the first time.

She noted a shoulder dislocation early in his career, followed by a broken hand requiring an extensive amount of surgery shortly after. And then just last year, he missed a significant amount of playing time due to a herniated lumbar disc and left leg sciatica. This chap must have a mighty high pain tolerance, she mused. She dug deeper into the file, wanting to learn as much as she could about the new call-up before he arrived.

She looked again at the label on the file, and was just starting to wrap her mind around the five names listed where she normally only found two, when she heard a tap at the door.

She looked up and found herself staring into the slanted aquamarine eyes of James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser. And she would never be the same again.