Get in the game...
As Public Relations Manager for the Charleston Thrashers, I’m responsible for protecting the team’s reputation. But after our right fielder gets sent to prison and we lose the World Series, my own reputation takes a huge hit. There’s only one way I can save my job: by revamping Connor Whitman’s tarnished ex-con image. Keeping my eye on the ball isn’t a problem until I discover what’s underneath his unkempt exterior—a man who’s unexpectedly vulnerable and distractingly sexy. Now, my professionalism is sailing far into foul territory.
I’ve served my time, and now I’m determined to reclaim my spot in the Thrashers’ outfield. Unfortunately, the new General Manager doesn’t want an aging ex-con on the roster, so I have no choice but to go along with Allison’s annoying scheme. Her bossiness drives me crazy—but so do her legs and her hair and her all-too-rare smiles. I can’t afford to fall for anyone when my focus needs to be on baseball, but love is a game I’ve never played before, and for the first time ever, I’m out of my league.
Approximately 76,300 words.
When people are released from prison in the movies, they exit through a massive barbed wire fence and stand on the side of a dusty road with a single plastic bag holding all their worldly possessions. Their clothing is old and dated, and they peer up and down the empty road, blinking in the stark sunlight, unsure what to do with their freedom.
I exit Wayland State Penitentiary wearing a six-thousand dollar custom tailored Prada suit, and drop the plastic bag holding the clothes I’d arrived with into the trash before climbing into the passenger seat of the Porsche driven by my best friend and All-Star baseball player, Tyler Ashe.
The rest of the story is the same, though. I peer around the otherwise empty road, the prison I’d called home for two years on one side, the other flanked by dense forest, its trees a riot of reds and yellows, the autumn foliage not yet ready to fall. The world is as beautiful and familiar as it is foreign. It’s November first, I’m free, the baseball season is over, and I have no home, no job, and no idea what to do next. I’d spent my entire adult life traveling the country with the Charleston Thrashers, devoting everything I had to Major League Baseball, and without that uniform, I’m lost.
“Anything you want to do first?” Ty asks, hitting the gas as we accelerate down the road.
In order to avoid the paparazzi, the prison had “leaked” that my release date would be noon tomorrow. I’d worn the uncomfortable suit today just in case someone had the foresight to stake out the place ahead of schedule, but there’s no one around to document my return to freedom. Or maybe they just don’t care about me anymore. I’d never been as famous as Ty, but before my arrest, I’d had my share of the spotlight. After my arrest, the glare had turned up a thousand percent and I’d loathed it more than ever. That’s why, instead of heading for Ty’s penthouse in the city, we’re driving to his remote cabin deep in the forest of South Carolina, an hour outside of Charleston.
“Nah,” I say, because I want to do everything and nothing all at once. I want to eat a steak and drink a beer and meet a woman, but I also want a dark room with a blanket over my head and for everyone to leave me alone forever.
“Gwen bought groceries,” Ty offers, naming his girlfriend of a year and a half. “I told her you like steak, and she bought, like, an entire cow. I also made the mistake of mentioning that you’d once liked corn, and now we have fourteen different kinds.”
“I didn’t know there were that many kinds.”
“There’s more. But don’t tell her that, or she’ll buy it. We’ll be eating corn all winter.”
“I thought you were going to Mexico.”
“We are. I meant, you’ll be eating corn all winter.”
Ty, being Ty, had offered me full access to both his homes, his cars, and everything in between while I “reintegrate into society.” We’ll be spending a week together at the cabin while I get settled in to the only society I’m ready for, then Ty and Gwen are heading to Mexico for some well-deserved alone time. I’m grateful for Ty’s generosity, but I’m already anticipating having the house to myself, no neighbors for miles, no noise. No guards peering into my cell, no fellow prisoners asking baseball questions, no strangers writing even stranger letters, hoping to become penpals with a disgraced athlete.
I’d spent my life taking for granted the benefits of fame and fortune, and now I want to hide in the anonymous shadows it can also buy. For the past two years, I’ve had one thought: get back on the team. Spring training is three and a half months away. One hundred and sixteen days to get back into shape, to prove to the Thrashers and the world that I’m not too old and controversial to play this game again. It’s all I know how to do, and all I want. That, and a dark room with a blanket.
* * *
Ty and Gwen are gracious hosts, but being here is still weird as fuck. I met Ty in foster care at age twelve, and when we were drafted into the Thrashers organization out of high school, we’d made a silly pact to avoid serious relationships until we retired so our commitment could be to baseball. After my arrest, Ty met and fell in love with Gwen, and now they live together and are grossly happy. For over twenty years, Ty and I had been inseparable. Now, despite their best efforts to include me, I’m very obviously the third wheel on a bicycle meant for two.
I eat my barbecued steak and three types of corn and try to make polite dinner conversation, but I’ve had very few polite conversations over the past two years, and not all that many before. Witty banter isn’t exactly my forte. Neither is not-witty banter. No banter at all, really. I’ve earned my reputation as a grouch.
Gwen finishes a funny story about one of her professors, and Ty laughs so hard he nearly shoots beer out of his nose. I do my best to smile, but it’s not an expression that comes naturally to me, and my face muscles strain at the effort. Some people joke that the reason I keep my hair and beard too long is to hide my scowling face, and they’re not entirely wrong. That and I just don’t feel like shaving.
It’s only eight o’clock, and I’ve been free for less than twelve hours, but I’m exhausted. Ten o’clock was lights out in prison, and I’m feeling a little antsy about the possibility that this night and the required socializing could extend for several more hours. I shovel in the final bites of food on my plate, drain the last of my water from the glass, and glance around awkwardly.
“More corn?” Gwen asks.
“Ah…” This food is far better than every meal I had in prison combined, but a man can only eat so much corn.
“There’s such a thing as too much corn,” Ty answers. Then he looks at me. “Want a beer?”
For a year I’ve been telling Ty that I miss beer, but now that it’s within arm’s reach, I don’t want it. I can’t. “I’m set,” I say.
I’ve followed a strict diet for most of my life, and prison had wreaked havoc with that, along with every other aspect of my existence. Before, I’d have the occasional drink, but with just a few months to train, I need to be strict, which means no beer. No sugar. No processed foods. No fun. Not that I’ve ever been the life of the party. When we arrived at the cabin I’d changed out of the suit and into a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. That’s about as relaxed as I know how to be.
“Dessert?” Gwen offers.
“No, thanks. I think I’ll just head upstairs.” I make a second attempt at smiling, but if Gwen’s cringe is any indication, I’m not successful.
Ty and Gwen exchange a look, and if I know my friend, which I do, Ty has probably read a dozen books about how to treat people upon their release from prison, and is debating if letting me hide out is the healthy approach.
“Sure,” he says, finally. “We’re just at the far end of the hall. Weight room’s in the middle. Games room is downstairs. Help yourself to anything and everything. Especially the corn.”
I nod, put my plate in the dishwasher, and do my best not to run as I leave, keeping my pace measured and normal as I escape.
“You said he loved corn!” Gwen whispers when she thinks I’m out of earshot.
Ty’s retort is a hissed, “I just said he ate it once!”
He calls this place a cabin, but it’s a massive three-story construction that would fit in at an exclusive ski resort. The A-frame design boasts enormous windows that reflect the surrounding forest, and a stone fireplace occupies one wall, flames flickering in the hearth. A large staircase leads to the second floor, and I climb it now, heading for my room.
I’d arrived here with nothing but the suit on my back, but my arrest had not come as a surprise. I hadn’t known I’d been guilty of insider trading until the crime was explained to me, at which point it was clear that I was, in fact, very guilty. I’d had time to prepare my affairs, including selling my penthouse to liquidate the cash to pay my legal team, put my stuff in storage, and leave a few things with Ty so I’d have some personal items available when I got out.
A large trunk and a cardboard box now sit in the corner of Ty’s spacious guest room, the king-size bed neatly made, a bottle of water resting on one of the matching nightstands. I start to open the trunk, then hesitate, then start to sit on the bed, then stop. Eventually I go to the window that overlooks the back of the property, the dark forest gazing back calmly.
I feel anything but calm. I have millions of dollars in the bank and now my freedom, and I don’t know what to do with either. Neither guarantees me a spot on the Thrashers’ roster next year, or even an invite to spring training.
But I can’t think about that. All I can think about are the things I can do. The things I can control.
I go to the en suite bathroom and retrieve the suit pants I’d abandoned there earlier, pulling out a square of folded paper from the back pocket, the only thing I’d taken with me from prison. A to-do list I’d made for exactly this moment. It has five points:
Make the team.