The rain had stopped, but Joe Aquila was still underwater. Three hours after his scheduled home debut the rookie right hander sat in front of his locker in between the lockers of the back-up catcher and the future hall of famer captain shortstop, both of whom were chose to wait out the rain delay by watching the rival Minutemen in the clubhouse. Joe sat alone, slouched deeply in a director's chair, his hat pulled low over his face and a pair of large headphones covered his ears. His New York Americans jacket was pulled over his right arm to the shoulder, but the rest hung limp between his muscle corded back and the cloth chair backing. His duelists eyes were covered by the navy blue cap which was pulled right to the bridge of his Roman nose. His head nodded in time to the music, his music, the music they would play in American Stadium, the house that George built, as he raced to the mound that had seen more Fall Series' decided than anywhere else in the world. The Sultan of Swat may have built the place but Joe was sure that mound was made for him, and tonight, he would claim it. It was his, and like Jacob who acquired it from his starving brother with a bowl of lentils, Joe Aquila would let nothing come between himself and his birthright.
The guitar riffs of the heavy metal flooding his headphones called to his tendons, the bassline was the cock, the snare the fire. The passion of the rapping soloist echoed the need in Joe's heart to bring the gas. He imagined the crescendo in the music to be the roar of the New York crowd, and he reached to turn the volume on his walkman up, only to find out it was already at ten. Joe's fingers flexed and unflexed, his head nodded purposefully, he was the calm and the storm, the hammer and the anvil. Joe's shoulder was shaken, pulling him out of his thoughts, he quickly pulled back his headphones looking at the man who had removed him from his temple, Joe's duelist eyes quickly softened when he realized he was staring at the Captain. Captain Jeets would have his number retired, a great white penant adorned only with the number two and pinstripes, hanging above in the outfield pavillion with the rest of the legends. Joe often envisioned his own number Seventeen hanging there next to the Captain's two, the Babe's three, the Iron Horse's four. But that would have to wait until his career was over, and tonight it was just starting.
"Rain stopped, you ready to go, Rook?" The short stop asked.
"I've been ready since the fifth grade when I struck out fat Benny to clinch regionals." Joe said throwing his headphones in his open locker, "Let's go kick some ass!"
The Captain smiled, "Skip says you aren't pitching tonight, since you were warm three hours ago, we're throwing Schmitty, but you should be in the dugout all the same, good experience."
Joe's eyes hardened, like he'd thrown down his gloves and drawn his steels, like he was on the mound. His jaw set, he stood up and looked down into the New York icons eyes as if he were a child. "Where's Skip?"
"It's unlocked." Walt said easily. He'd been managing in the Big Leagues for nine years, had won four championships, and wore the rings in the dugout. To motivate, he said. The Door flung open and stopped violently inches from the poorly placed file cabinet in the corner of Walt's cluttered office. Flamethrower Joe, the first pick from the draft earlier in the season stood in his door. Joe, from Sola Dei Academy, via a quick stop in the Carolina leagues was Walt's newest roster addition, and Flamethrower Joe didn't look happy.
Walt smiled diplomatically, "Can I help you with something, Rook?"
Joe looked across the little room, jaw somehow both relaxed and set at the same time. "I'm ready to pitch, skip." Joe said every word as if it pained him, but he said every word levelly and articulately, Walt had to give him that, even if the rest of Joe's demeanor had all the charm of a lava golem.
"I can't let you go tonight, you've been cold for three hours. Injury risk is too high, that golden arm of yours is worth more than a September rainout against Tampa, you know that."
"Skip, it's American freakin' Stadium, do I look cold to you?"
He didn't look cold to Walt Calhoun. The rookie's cheeks were flushed, his fingers were flexing, his jacket covering his throwing arm to the shoulder. Those eyes didn't look cold either. Maybe his nickname, Flamethrower Joe didn't just refer to his fastball. Walt sighed, he'd dealt with all kinds of rookies. potheads, lazy pull hitters, insecure players rushed too soon for whom the game was too big, he'd take the hotshots any day of the week, and Joe Aquila was nothing if not a hotshot. Still, with the signing bonus they'd already given him, caution was paramount. With what Walt had heard of Aquila's golden arm the Swamp People weren't worth the trouble even on a clear warm night.
"Save it kid," Walt said with an easy air about him, "It's the Swamp People. Half my lineup is gonna be scrubs and we'll still win easily enough. You can throw on Thursday. We play the Minutemen, it'll be nationally televised and you'll have four hall of famers in pinstripes on the field behind you. Doesn't that sound better than throwing at a bunch of 4A players in the rain? You wouldn't even be able to grip the ball out there. Shoot, I'm gonna send Shmitty out there, and next week we'll probably end up cutting him. What's the rush? It's not like your just up for a cup of coffee."
Joe sat down in front of the desk, running his fingers through his hair with his right arm, the Americans jacket flopping around his back like the fin of a captive orca. His breathing was shallow and rapid, eyes darting around. Walt frowned. What the hell was going on up there between the kid's ears? Whose idea was it to bring him up to the Show after a few months in A ball anyhow? The big club wasn't in playoff contention, and wouldn't likely be helped by Flamethrower Joe anyhow.
"Tampa. Rain. Minutemen. Nationally televised. Thursday. Television." Joe was muttering under his breath before his face shot up, his eyes burning holes in the Manager's face. "No good! It's gotta be tonight! I'm warm! It's gotta be tonight Skip!" He was standing now, was he panicking? Walt couldn't think of a better word. He'd like to call someone in to take care of the situation, security would probably be the most appropriate, but this wasn't a four year old asking for Candy, this was a man who had just signed a $7 million dollar contract and was considered the best prospect in America.
"What's the problem Joe?"
"My folks are out there, Skip. Family section, right behind home plate. Sitting together. They haven't done that since I was in Little League. Haven't spoken face to face for two years."
Walt nodded. "I see." So that was it. All the money a nineteen year old could ask for, and he was looking for a hallmark moment. Of course he was. Too young to believe it was baloney, even though he'd no doubt seen enough to put it together. But that was the deal with kids, they didn't put things together, not if they didn't want to. But if it took a comfortable lie to keep that golden arm attached to a level head, maybe Walt could risk it. Maybe.
"All right Joe. But I want you to take it slow. 80% until at least the third inning. Pitch to contact, keep the ball down. You understand? You get carried away and I'll pull you and let Shmitty get himself injured in this weather. Understood?"
Joe's demeanor softened, even if those piercing eyes didn't. Joe nodded.
"Go get warm."
Welcome back everybody, this is Charlie Stengel, thanks for staying with us, or coming back, after a three hour rain delay we're happy to have you. I've just received the lineup cards from downstairs and it looks like most of the starters will be taking the rest of the night off rather than fight through a late September night. Captain Jeets will not be in the lineup tonight, nor will Tim O'Neill, or Bruce McCoy, the starting catcher. We won't be seeing the originally scheduled starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Swamp People either, who apparently hit the showers an hour ago. Interestingly enough, one face we will see is rookie sensation Joe Aquila, and I for one can not fathom why. With absolutely nothing to gain and the risk of injury fairly high in these types of situations I'm not sure why Walt Calhoun hasn't elected to replace Flamethrower Joe with a pitcher who wasn't throwing 95 mile per hour warm up tosses three hours ago, but here we are.
And now with rain sprinkling down again, the Americans take the field. Even with this dreadful weather the pinstripes shine through, and by golly, it's good to be an American. And now here comes Joe Aquila out to the mound for his Big League debut. Joe begins his warm-ups tosses, and you can tell by his body language that this is a man on a mission. At nineteen years old Joe is the youngest active Big leaguer, having joined the team last week in Dallas, though he wasn't used against the Deputies. In his last Minor league game, Joe went five and two-thrds innings, walked seven and struck out ten. So with this kid it's feast, famine or both, and we'll see what we get tonight in his Big League debut.
The Umpires are signaling for warm-up's to end and here comes Dalton Parker, the lead off hitter for the Swamp People. Dalton, a scraggly fellow, hitting .268, and obviously facing young Joe Aquila for the first time in his career. Joe's first pitch here in American Stadium, he rocks back and fires a strike at the letters, and boy did he fire that one in there. The clock is saying ninety-nine miles per hour, and it can't be more than forty-five degrees out here. I suppose they don't call him Flamethrower Joe for