By the sixth inning he knew he had made a mistake, and that Carla had been right. "You're going to take the Stick?" she asked incredulously when he told them, and the bar patrons groaned in disbelief. One of his old buddies gave him the tickets, right behind the Red Sox dugout, and everyone had been vying for the extra one.
"Sammy," Norm grumbled. "Come on, this is a lost cause."
But it hadn't seemed like a lost cause at the time, because she asked – actually asked! – if she could go with him. He was dumbstruck and agreed without thinking, but as he gave the matter more consideration, his bafflement transformed into a muddled combination of pride and pleasure. She really wanted to go! He wasn't entirely sure why this development delighted him so much – her seemingly newfound interest in baseball – and in fact, his excitement almost embarrassed him, but something about the situation was so appealing. He doubted she had ever been to a baseball game before and as he anticipated their afternoon together he found himself grudgingly succumbing to fantasy; when she saw the game in real life, not on TV, she would be transfixed by it – especially the pitchers, who were strategists and vague intellectuals in their own way, and who he knew accommodated her sensibilities best. She would be surprised and awed by the strategy behind it, as he described their various pitches, how they got ahead of the batters, and then – maybe – the conversation might turn to him, he explaining the way that his slider hooked out of the strike zone at the last minute, just perfect, and she proclaiming that she now saw him in a whole new light. And then (this he tacked onto the fantasy, as he tacked onto all fantasies) he might finally get her into bed.
The plans went awry the moment she walked out of the pool room to meet him, her purse and a thick paperback under her arm. "What's that?" he asked warily, pointing to it.
"This," she said, smirking, "is a book. I take it you haven't seen one before, Sam Malone?"
"I know it's a book," he snapped, feeling stupid. She always made him feel so stupid. "I meant, why are you bringing it?"
"To read," she said brusquely, and when he tensed with irritation – the bar patrons and Carla looking on in amusement – she added, "Just for during the breaks, you know, half-time."
"Between the innings," he corrected, his upper lip twitching into a vague sneer.
"Yes, that," she agreed, seemingly oblivious – or rather, immune to – his disappointment. "Shall we go?"
Her decision to bring the book unnerved him, but on the car ride to Fenway she launched immediately into an impassioned description of something fascinating she had once done or seen, and his frustration slipped from his mind. He had no idea what she was talking about because the meaning of her words became lost in the sound of her voice – like a song he could never get out of his head – but he liked how her eyes lit up, and how she cocked her head with confidence as she spoke. He had to admit that sometimes he didn't really mind that she never shut up.
But then at the game she had shut up, paying only cursory attention during the top of the first and opening up The Brothers Karamazov after the third out. He knew she was reading The Brothers Karamazov because she brought it up, irrelevantly, in every conversation, and had taken to sarcastically calling him "Dmitri" when he made certain comments – snide remarks like, "Thank you for your insight, Dmitri Karamazov." From observation he gathered that Dmitri was probably some kind of babe hound, so he wasn't altogether troubled by this, but today it struck him as unforgivably obnoxious. Although she promised she would only read between the innings, she never closed the book after opening it, and his frustration quietly mutated into anger and then downright fury. He told himself he was upset because he had wasted the ticket on her when anyone at the bar would have loved to see the game, but this explanation still didn't account for his sense of overwhelming disappointment, and so he uncomfortably pushed it from his mind.
"Are you going to watch any of this?" he asked her scornfully as Glen Hoffman struck out and the opposing Indians trailed back into their dugout.
"I am," she shrugged, without looking up from her book.
"No, you're not!" He reached over and wrenched the paperback from her hands, causing her to recoil in surprise and glare at him.
"Give that back!" she demanded, but he shoved it into the pocket of his jacket and sneered at her gloatingly. "Sam," she reproached. "You're being ridiculous. I don't see why I shouldn't be able to read when nothing else is happening."
These words reignited his anger, and he took a deep breath to keep himself from exploding at her. "Something is happening!" he snarled in a strained voice, gesturing at the field. "Look, these guys are pitching a great game! Hurst has only given up two hits."
"Okay," she said dully.
"Y'know," he snapped, "I don't understand you. Why did you even want to come if you're just going to read the whole time? I must have been an idiot to think you really wanted to watch the game. What is this, some kind of joke for you?"
"No!" she protested, looking proud and reproachful at his accusation. "I've already told you, I have a burning desire to understand this vein of American cul—"
"Yeah, sure," he mumbled, crossing his arms and looking sullenly at his feet. "You probably just wanted to use this as more evidence that I'm just some dumb jock, right? I bet this is real funny to you."
He regretted his words when her expression softened to something resembling compassion, maddening him. "What?" he demanded.
"I'm sorry," she said, laying a hand on his forearm. His stomach gave a jolt and he retreated from her touch, scowling. "You're right. I've been very rude. I did try to watch, though."
Her sudden concession unnerved him and served only to further elevate his aggravation. "How?" he snapped. "You watched, what, half an inning?"
"Well, you didn't explain anything!" she burst, looking somewhat hurt. He winced.
"You didn't ask anything!"
They glowered at each other for a long moment before she finally broke eye contact, looking down at her hands as she spoke. "Look," she said diplomatically. "I said I'm sorry. Now are you going to tell me what's going on, or do you just want to mope?"
He glared at her pointedly but nonetheless took the bait, leaning forward in his seat to direct her attention towards the various players. She mimicked his movements, also leaning forward, and studied the field with rapt attention. When his arm brushed against hers his focus momentarily wavered and he glanced at her, but then their eyes met and he looked away hurriedly, staring fixedly at the field and pointing to the pitcher.
"Okay," he said. "So look, there's a guy on first and one out."
"That's first?" she asked, inclining her head towards the base.
"Um," he said, torn between amusement and annoyance at her utter lack of understanding. But part of him liked knowing something she didn't, for once. "Yes," he answered. "Anyway, right now he just wants an out, but preferably something that won't let the runner move up. A pop-up, or a ground ball in a good spot. Ideally, a double play."
"How does he do that?" she asked, and he felt a sudden lightness in his chest at her seemingly genuine interest. Without thinking, he leaned in closer. "Isn't he just throwing the ball?"
"No," he explained. "No, you see, baseball is all about deception. This guy has four pitches he can throw, and he's trying to get the batter off balance. So maybe he'll hit the corner with a few fastballs and then surprise him with a curve for strike three, or get him to chase a ball in the dirt… There's a million ways."
"I see," she said, nodding.
They watched the batter hit a grounder to short, so Hoffman got the out at first but the runner advanced. Now there were two outs.
"What's he going to do now?" Diane asked as the new batter took his place in the box, and Sam couldn't stop himself from smiling. He directed his focus towards the catcher; he had gotten into the habit of watching the catcher whenever he sat close enough, to see if he could pick up the signs, and found that he was rather adept at it. Squinting, he told her, "I think he's calling for a fastball."
"I must admit," Diane conceded, her tone nonetheless dignified and haughty, "perhaps I have been a touch overly critical of your interest in sports. It's not, well, The Brothers Karamazov, of course, but there does seem to be a kind of intelligence to it. At least some parts."
"Yeah?" he grinned, looking at her crookedly, and then repeated it as a statement. "Yeah. You, uh, you might even say there's an art to it, y'know."
"An art?" she repeated, and he turned to glare at her but found her smiling absently into the distance, charmed by the idea rather than condescending or skeptical as he had anticipated. "Well, perhaps. Of course, it all depends on how one defines art. I myself am partial to a work of Tolstoy's on the subject, entitled –"
"Look at this," he interrupted, pointing at the field. "Okay, it's a one ball, one strike count, and he doesn't want to walk this guy because the heart of the order is coming up. Let's see what he does."
From the corner of his eye he could see Diane studying him with some amusement. "It's interesting," she said, "how you describe it as being about deception. So he's basically lying, the pitcher."
Sam shook his head, smirking indulgently. "It's not lying," he persisted. "It's strategy. It's what makes it a game. He has to be deceptive so he can win, or else these guys would get a hit every time. It's how he keeps his advantage, his edge."
"Right," she said, grinning, and he looked at her quizzically before redirecting his gaze to the field. The game continued, and they both watched in silence. Hurst tried to hit the upper corner of the strike zone with his fastball, but overthrew, almost sending the pitch over the catcher's head for ball four.
"Damn," Sam murmured, leaning back in his seat. "He's choking."
"So four… balls… make a walk?" Diane asked.
"Yeah," he confirmed, then added triumphantly, "Hey, you're paying attention!"
She gave a soft laugh. "Yes, Mr. Malone. Perhaps even someone with tastes as refined as mine can sometimes appreciate these primitive displays of machismo."
He knew that somewhere in there she was making fun of him, but it was lighthearted and he was too pleased by her interest to care much. His earlier frustration had vanished almost entirely and he swelled with pride at the possibility that he might actually be able to teach her something of interest, that he was capable of interesting her with his own knowledge, even if he was no academic.
"Sam," she said incisively, cutting into his thoughts. "I really am sorry about before. I think it must have been a misunderstanding between us, but it was very tactless on my part, especially considering how you've been carrying such a torch for me…"
At her words he hunched his shoulders instinctively and spun in his seat to gape at her. "I am not!" he protested. "How many times do I have to tell you?"
She pursed her lips, trying to fix him with a sympathetic look as she struggled not to laugh. She patted his hand with her own. "Poor Sam," she said. "It's okay. You don't have to deny it."
He jerked away, gawping soundlessly before finally managing to speak. "Oh yeah? And what about you, huh? Why else would you want to come today, answer me that!"
"Hush, Sam," she reprimanded, watching the field stoically, but he could see the corners of her lips twitching in the suggestion of a smile and it made him crazy. "I'm trying to watch the game. What is he going to throw now?"
Sam bit his lip in irritation but nonetheless indulged her, still reluctantly pleased by her show of interest. He leaned in to look at the catcher. "This is good for us," he said. "See, it's a two-strike count, so Hurst is ahead of the batter – that means he's in control of the situation - and I bet you he's going to throw a fastball up and in. This guy always strikes out on fastballs up and in, he has a hole in his swing."
"We'll see," said Diane.
Sam was right about the pitch, and had Thomson not swung it would have been ball one – but he did swing, the crack of the bat like a boom of thunder, and Sam slunk back helplessly into his seat as they watched the ball arc like a comet into the sky and over the Green Monster in left field. "Oh boy," he groaned.
"I don't think his deception worked," Diane observed. He looked to her and was unsettled by the mischievous glint he saw in her eyes and smile, and looked away. "I don't think," she continued, "he has as much control as he thinks he does."
"No," Sam conceded wearily. "I guess he doesn't."