His lost, blank gaze absently wanders in the direction of gold-toned metal that an hour earlier played host to the white letters "Mike Moustakas #8" cut into a blue plastic placard. Below the naked nameplate housing sits a locker cleared of its contents, those contents stuffed into a duffel hanging from his right hand the weight of which is magnified tenfold by the emotion of the moment.
"Mike," a stolid baritone calls from somewhere behind him.
A pregnant pause hangs in the air. The gravity in the room begins to make itself known.
"Mike," the voice repeats.
The bag in his right hand falls suddenly to the floor. He snaps to, cranes his neck to the left, and spots Ned Yost standing in the doorway of his office. With an embarrassed glance downward and a careful opening of his stance, the implication being that the Chatsworth native is about to enter a conversation lacking in the comfort that their relationship has known thus far.
The Greek third baseman--whose prodigious, supple wrists once seemed all but certain to guarantee him success--bends down and re-grips the straps of his bag, lifting and clenching his grip on the handle, whiting his knuckles in the process. Before acceding to Yost's invitation, he takes in a breath through his slightly open mouth and purses his lips closed behind what could be one of the final inhalations he will take in the familiar clubhouse for an indeterminate period of time.
Without the memory as to how he arrived here, Mike finds himself seated across the desk from his manager. The coarse, calloused fingers of his right hand stretch across his mouth and cheek as Ned thinks of how to begin their talk. Starting with his pinky, his fingers tumble across his jaw, bristling against the resistance of his four-day stubble. His hand makes its way to the white, 20-ounce paper cup on his desk with the name "Frank" scrawled across its side in black magic marker and raises the white lid to his pensive mouth. After drawing in two swallows worth of hours-old black coffee and setting the cup back down on his desk, Ned puts his elbows down on his desk and leans in towards his charge.
"Mike," he finally starts, "do you have that copy of Underworld here?"
"Ummm," Moustakas pauses to think and then reaches into the duffel at his right. From the bag holding the myriad curios that at least symbolically recall the overwhelming disappointment that have festered for the three years in the vacated locker a mere ten yards away, he produces the novel in question. "Right here. Just got to the blackout. Why?"
"I'm going to need it back before you leave."
Trying to mask the incredulity, Mike protests, "I'll take good care of it. I mean I'll be back in a couple weeks."
"It's signed, Mike."
"It's just a couple w--"
"Yeah," he cuts in before undermining his reassurance with a damning faltering in tone. "I know. It's a signed first edition, though. I can't afford to have anything happen to it. Deborah gave it to me for our anniversary. It's irreplaceable."
Moustakas sets the book on the desk and slides it toward Ned. "Here. Y'know, transportation in the minors is pretty dicey. I wouldn't want anything to happen to it."
Ned nods his head with a gentle momentary closing of the eyes, an unspoken thank you.
"Can you keep my bookmark in its place?"
"Of course, Mike."
The saddened third baseman rises from his seat and grabs the duffel before being struck with a thought. He reaches into his bag and grabs a second book. "Can you give Sweeney back this copy of The Purpose Driven Life? Tell him I finished it."
"I'm pretty sure that's yours to keep, Moose."
"I dunno. It's underlined."
A smile breaks across Ned's sullen face. "They all are."
"See ya, chief."
"I'm beh--I'm sure we'll see you soon, son. There's a Town Car ready to take you to the airport."
Mike walks out the office door and into the locker room. A fully nude Billy Butler stands back turned in an otherwise empty locker room, screwing the cap back onto a bottle of barbecue sauce. Without saying a word, Mike sets the foisted copy of The Purpose Driven Life on the seat behind the unwitting designated hitter and makes for the door.
As his feet take him from the bowels of Kauffman Stadium into the harsh light of day, his eyes spot the promised transportation. The driver opens the trunk for the downtrodden third baseman, and Moustakas sets his duffel of broken dreams in the Town Car. "One second." He trots to his car, pulls out a suitcase, and jogs back. "All set," he says as he sets the suitcase beside the duffel.
Taking his seat in back, Moustakas looks wistfully out the tinted window.
"Is there a route you'd prefer, Mr. Moustakas?" the driver asks.
Silence washes over the car, the only sound the muffled rumble of the idling engine on the other side of the dash. The blankness of the expression on his face and absence behind his eyes signal to the driver that pressing may not yield results.
They sit in silence, the driver patiently waiting with an eye on his passenger in the rearview.
Moustakas's eyes flicker.
"I-seventy to twenty-nine, I guess."
Moustakas watches the city pass by through the tinted Lincoln windows, wondering how long it might be before he finds himself back on the Plaza, back at the P&L, back with his bride.
* * * * * * *
The Town Car comes to a stop at the edge of the tarmac, next to the Royals' private hangar. A Learjet stands stoically in front of the hangar, its retractable stairs wordlessly and plainly signalling an invitation to the 25-year-old Greco-Californian.
As the co-pilot gathers the luggage from the trunk and loads it onto the plane, Moustakas takes inventory of the moment. The dichotomy between the present means of transport and the environs to which he is headed is not lost on the once presumed cornerstone of the franchise. With the glimmer of his prospect star a distant memory--a faint, infrequent flicker of hope barely registering as a blip on the EKG monitoring his career status on a roughly monthly basis--the irony of sitting in the lap of luxury while getting sent to meet up with the Storm Chasers in Nashville cuts like a scythe through the wheat.
With no recollection as to how he arrived there, Mike finds himself leaned back in his seat on the Learjet. He looks out the window to his right only to see a massive storm growing. He glimpses his reflection in the window and can tell his eyes are puffy from crying, though he has no memory of crying at all. He puts his index finger to his cheek to confirm that he had in fact been weeping.
He scans the cabin to see if anyone else bore witness to his unconscious breakdown. A blind man dressed in black sits at the back of the plane. Moustakas closes his mouth in bewilderment.
The co-pilot pushes the door to the cockpit open and presses through with an odd urgency. "Mr. Moustakas," he begins, "a huge storm has formed seemingly from the ether. We've been trying any airport in fuel range, and the only one we can get clearance to land at is in Troy, Michigan. We'll have to land there and wait out the storm."
I knew I should have feigned insanity, Moustakas thought to himself.
"Zeus be damned, we'll get this bird back on the ground," the co-pilot adds before heading back to the cockpit.
Zeus? What the hell?