Meanwhile, In The Rainiers' Clubhouse...

he was never seen again - Otto Greule Jr

We all keep tabs on what happens at the major league level, but what about the team that's one step lower on the ladder? What happens in Tacoma, just outside the spotlight? Hint: almost certainly not this.

Mike Zunino took a deep breath to steady himself. Crouched down behind the plate, equipped with his least favorite of the three sets of catcher's gear, he waited for Paxton to finish his pre-pitch routine. As the fifteen seconds stretched into a millennium he heard the crunch-twist of his cleats in the loose dirt, felt the tip of his fingernail scrape the end of the glove, saw the tiniest specks of dirt on the inside of his faceguard... Paxton set. Zunino called the pitch. The big lefty reared back, torqued around, came down a little too hard on his front foot, and sent the ball hurtling through the air. It spun and soared and then dove facefirst for the ground - too soon, too low, but not by much. Zunino flicked his mitt down, snagged the ball, then flicked it back up.

Behind him, John Stearns twisted himself into a ridiculous caricature of an umpire and delivered a knockout blow to the air. "STEEERIIIIIIIIIIIKE THREE!" Paxton grinned as he came off the mound, the call echoing throughout the empty stadium. Zunino, more relieved than happy, came out of his catcher's squat for the first time in what must've been a hundred pitches. He thought he heard his knees sigh in relief.

His manager slapped him on the back. "Not bad, kid, not bad at all. We'll make a pitch framer out of you yet." Stearns looked out to Paxton, who was heading back to the dugout. "You too, Wild Thing! Nice curve." The Canadian lefty rolled his eyes at the nickname before flashing a thumbs up. He trotted back to the dugout.

Zunino turned around to face his manager. Stearns could tell that the catcher was exhausted. Stearns could also tell that the catcher didn't want him to be able to tell that he was exhausted. He decided to pretend he was utterly incapable of reading body language. "You up for another round, son? We've already run through most of the pen plus Paxton, but I'm sure we could get Raspberry out here to blow you a few. You still need some work on the outside ones."

Against his better judgment, Zunino stood up a little straighter and nodded. "I can handle as many more as you need, coach." No you can't, moaned his knees. He willed them to shut up.

Trying to hide his amusement, Stearns turned around, looked towards the dugout... then grabbed his back, wincing. "Actually, tell you what. Think I might've tweaked something on that last called strike." Upon seeing the prospect's raised eyebrow, he put on his best no, really face. "When you get old like me, kid, you can't goof around like a young'un any more. I shouldn't've tried that. Tell you what, let's call it a night. Drop the gear in the locker and we'll blow this joint, all right?" Zunino nodded, trying to hide his knees' euphoria, and they walked back towards the clubhouse together.

Halfway to the dugout Stearns decided it was too quiet. "Hey, Mike." Zunino, who'd been half a step in front of him, looked back over his shoulder, ready for more instructions. Stearns couldn't help but chuckle. "No, no, I don't have anything else for you to do. Keep walking. I was just curious. Uh, you know, I'm really impressed by your willingness to put in all this extra work, and I'm really impressed that you're the one who suggested it all, but I've gotta know? Why these things?"

Zunino looked confused. Stearns tried again. "Why did you want to work on these exact things? Pitch framing, throwing out runners, hitting low and away sliders? Kind of a weird set of skills to practice. What's up?" They descended down the dugout stairs, Zunino seemingly lost in thought. "Mike?"

"Oh, uh, nothing in particular," said the young catcher. "Nothing really. It's just... just some stuff I felt would be important for me to be good at, if I ever get up to the big show, y'know?" Stearns grunted noncommittally, still a little bemused.

They'd reached the fork: to the left was the locker room, to the right Stearns' office. Zunino could hear his teammates playing terrible house music. He hoped it'd be better in Seattle, if he ever got there. Stearns gave him one last pat on the back, as if to congratulate him, then turned away and headed down the hall. "Well, see you tomorrow, kid."

"Sure thing." Zunino turned left, cleats click-clacking on the concrete as he went. Then he thought of something. He stopped. "Hey, coach?"

Stearns turned around, walking backwards now. He half-yelled down the hall to make sure Zunino'd hear him. "Yeah? What is it?" Still headed for his office, he watched the catcher, a dark and unmoving silhouette against the pale walls of the hallway. The catcher's mask dropped further towards the ground, falling to the tips of Zunino's fingers before it was caught again. "What's up?"

"...Do I look funny when I run?"

***

Whap.

The pitch found mitt: Sucre had barely had to move his arm. "Good job," Bernard told Brian Moran, as he caught the return throw, pivoted back around and walked up the bullpen mound. "Nice location."

Moran nodded his thanks, then set. Whap. On the mound next to him, Blake Beavan grinned: his pitch, too, had found home. Moran, un-distracted, began his windup, whipped his arm around, released... whap. Ten out of ten. Perfect placement. Not enough to get me on the 40-man, but...

He pushed that thought down, out of his mind. It wasn't helping his command. Besides, it wasn't worth thinking about anyways. It was a personal tenet of his: thinking about the roster while pitching never fixed anything.

Beavan, it seemed, had different ideas. He grunted with satisfaction as his pitch hit dead on the edge of the zone, a dainty little 90-MPH fastball. "Back in no time," he muttered to no one in particular. He received the toss from Zunino and loped back up the hill.

Moran couldn't resist. "Eager to get back to Seattle?" he asked as he set, trying to keep the jealousy out of his voice. He threw: whap. A little low.

"You know it," said Beavan, as he too set up to throw. "Tell you a secret: it's about how much you want it. Not about how many guys you strike, out or how many hits you give up." He released, watched the pitch arc into Zunino's glove, smiled.

Well that's not helpful, thought Moran. And here I was thinking that 10:1 K/BB ratio was good for something. Still, he tried to make a noise that'd sound thoughtful. "Hmm."

Whap. Dammit. Too high.

The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them: "What's it like? Y'know, up there." Beavan thought, set, threw, caught.

"Everything you imagined. Everything. The good parts... and the bad. All of it." It seemed like he knew that wasn't helpful. "Shit, man, you'll find out soon enough, if you want it."

I want it, thought Moran.

"And I'll be up there with you. We'll find out what it's like together, real soon. And this time... this time we'll stay up for good. Ain't that right?"

"Yeah," said Moran. "That's right."

Whap.

***

The office door creaked, and Nick Franklin poked his head around the door. Stearns held up a hand, as if to pre-emptively cut off the shortstop's request. Evidently he was in the middle of a phone call. As he cautiously pulled his head out and gently, ever so gently, shut the door, he heard the voice on the other side of the phone... and his heart dropped right through his shoes.

Stearns saw him leaving, and just before Franklin managed to get the door closed all the way he noticed his manager madly gesticulating him to stop doing so and come back inside. He winced and gently tiptoed in, then shut the door behind him. Stearns gestured to the chair; Franklin tentatively sat. This was awkward. This was really, really awkward.

He never should've given his mother the manager's phone number.

"Yes, ma'am," said Stearns. "I'm aware that your son is doing very well. He's been very good for us this season." I'm sorry, mouthed Franklin. Stearns nodded, as if to say you'd better be. The younger man couldn't quite make out what the voice on the other end of the line was saying, but it sounded angry. And loud.

"Yes, ma'am," said Stearns again. "I'm also very aware of the shortstops up with the big club. And I'm sure Mr. Zduriencik is, too." Franklin closed his eyes and palmed his face, trying to cover a blush as he wished desperately that he hadn't come in, hadn't wanted to ask his manager if he could play shortstop today, hadn't gotten out of bed this morning... anything to be not-here.

"No ma'am, actually I didn't know that the Mariners' shortstops have been worse at hitting this year than Felix Hernandez has for his career. That's surprising. No, I didn't know about Randy Johnson, either." Franklin wanted to die. He really, seriously, wanted to die. Maybe if he'd eaten more Chick-Fil-A.

"Really? Your son has more walks than the big leaguers have hits? Combined? Well I confess that I didn't know that either, ma'am. And that's real interesting. But I'm sorry - if you'll excuse me, I need to go set the lineups, and to be frank, this isn't my decision anyways. If I could promote your son, I would, though I'd be sorry to lose such a fine ballplayer. But it's not up to me. Tell you what. I can give you the GM's number..." Quicker than Stearns had previously thought possible, Franklin yanked his head up out of his hands and started gesturing madly, mouthing over and over: nonononononononono...

Stearns decided to be nice. "Actually, ah, on second thought, I just remembered. Jack doesn't like to leave his phone on. Tell you what, I'll give you the front office email address, OK?" He dictated it into the phone. Franklin let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "All right, ma'am. Thank you for calling. Always good to hear from you. Have a happy mother's day. Bye now."

They sat. Sun streamed in through the blinds, dust motes hung in the air, and they sat. Franklin's hand was gently shaking. After a minute he decided that he needed the silence to end even more than he needed to be the second one to talk, and he opened his mouth, but for a second he couldn't get any sound to come out. Finally he managed to produce some noise. "So, uh..." It was a croak more than a clause, but he decided it was good enough. Like a meek kitten, he whimpered: "second base today?"

Stearns nodded. Franklin left as quickly as he possibly could without making any noise whatsoever. The door, despite his best efforts, creaked shut.

The manager cracked a smile, then picked up the phone again and hit redial.

"Hi, Mrs. Franklin... Yep, we got him. You did great - that's an 80 angry mom impersonation. I loved the Randy Johnson bit." She made a joke, and he laughed. "Wonderful. Brilliant. Tell you what, though: I wasn't lying about the lineups. I gotta split." Sounds good, he heard over the phone. Beat him up for me! And then, click. Evidently Mrs. Franklin wasn't one for drawn-out goodbyes.

He put the phone back on its mount and leaned back in his chair. With one foot, he pushed himself around, spinning ever so slightly from side to side... he sighed with satisfaction.

All was well.

***

Disclaimer: This is all completely fictional. Any resemblance to actual Rainiers is entirely coincidental, because I couldn't write a "real" Brian Moran even if I tried. No offense is intended to any persons described herein, except for Jesus Montero, who looks funny when he runs. Please don't sue me.

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