"Whoever would know the mind and heart of America had better learn baseball..."
Shoko wasn't sure when the weirdness started. Soon after she moved in to Bell's Garage she figured. Ken and André would stand outside looking at the sky and talking about the weather. "Soon?" one would ask, with a reply of "Soon." from the other. Then they'd start in on a long talk about the Yankees and Sox and Bluejays and Knights and Orioles, and who knows what-all. There was also a lot of talk about names Shoko had never heard of and didn't seem to belong to anyone in the Zone. Was Rubin going to hit another 50 this year? How was Blount's arm? Was he good for another 20 wins? How about Gould's ERA? What about Will's on-base percentage?
Shoko listened this to a few days in utter bewilderment. Her intent to ask Ayane what was going on died the moment she and Ken got into an extended discussion (okay, argument) over who was going to win the Series this year—the Mariners or the Giants. Obviously she was just as nuts as the other two.
Finally, Shoko had gone to the only sane person in the Garage: Bell. She'd cornered the small woman chopping vegetables in the kitchen (and slowly brewing up a delicious smelling soup) and asked her: "What are they going on about?"
"Baseball." Bell had responded with a smile.
"Baseball. It is spring you know."
Baseball? Shoko had to think about this one. What was the big deal about baseball? It wasn't a real sport, not like Rugby or Australian Rules Football (which didn't seem to have any rules now that she thought about it). Baseball was a bunch of people standing around while one guy swung at a little ball with a stick. It was almost as bad as golf, except the guy hitting the ball didn't run after it, but just ran around in a big circle until he got back to where he'd started from. Feh... baseball.
Armed with this knowledge, Shoko promptly gave her opinion of the so-called national pastime to the rest of the Garage crew.
"Baseball?" she stated. "You have to be kidding me."
The reply was less than pleasant. "You got something against baseball?" Ayane had asked darkly. And Shoko was reminded this was the same nine-tailed synthetic who had gone nose to nose with one of the towering Puma sisters.
And so it ended up that Shoko found herself in a roughly laid-out diamond-shaped field with a little stick in her hand. Well... 48" of hickory wasn't exactly a "little" stick. Anyway, André made her goal clear. Hit the ball Ken threw. Simple, right?
Shoko promptly went down swinging on three pitches. It wouldn't have been that bad except on her last attempt she'd ended up losing her grip and sending the bat somewhere into left field. André watched the bat arc through the air and shook his head. "There was no joy in Mudville," he intoned. "The Mighty Casey had struck out."
Shoko had no idea what he'd just said.
In between odd jobs and helping out at the Garage, the rest of the gang slowly instructed Shoko in the fine art of batting. Fortunately, as a Puma-derivative, she was a quick study and the day came where she connected solidly on one of Ayane's pitches, sending the ball on a meteoric shot that probably landed somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, if she hadn't actually put the thing into orbit.
This has prompted more incomprehensible dialogue from Ken and André. "Ruth?" one had asked. "McGwire." had been the response. Shoko wasn't sure what a "McGwire" was but apparently hitting one was a good thing.
So she'd continued to bat, finding there was more to this than it looked. While Ayane and André could throw decent fastballs (heck, Ayane threw a blazing fastball), Ken could make the ball virtually dance. She was pretty sure he must be a closet PK, because he could throw pitches that just seemed to out-and-out die the moment she went to swing at them. Or pitches that came in at full speed, stopped for a sandwich somewhere between the mound and the plate, and then landed in Ayane's glove after she'd swung at them. And André would helpfully inform her the first pitch was a "sinker" and the last was a "change-up." Great... it still didn't let her hit the damn things.
Shoko almost thought someone was playing a trick on her until she realized Ayane couldn't hit Ken's pitches either. Only André could, and even he had trouble. Bell didn't even try. She simply sat in the stands under an umbrella and shouted encouragement.
As it grew warmer the radio was tuned from the FIZZ to several Neo York stations. And then one day in April the Garage closed early and a number of locals arrived, all carting tubs of ice, beer, and food. The radio was rigged with an accompanying TV screen and the whole crowd cheered their way through Opening Day, the official start of the Major League Baseball season. Apparently it was national holiday of sorts up here in the UNA.
After that the practice sessions had become far more crowded, and more people Shoko had never seen arrived to throw the ball around and swing a bat. She was pleased to discover her synthetic origins were of no concern here, only if she could hit a sliding fastball or the curve. Shoko simply shrugged, smiled, and nodded.
It turned out all the practice was for more than just exercise and having a good time with your neighbors. There was a vaguely organized league of sorts in the Zone. Games were held on lazy Sunday afternoons in a field that had been part of a local college. Apparently, there had been an attempt to use Shea Stadium (home of the old New York Mets) up to the north, but the gang controlling it wasn't going to give up their precious turf. So they'd turned to the next best thing, which in Shoko's opinion was just fine. The field was flat and green (and well-tended), they had real dugouts, and the stands were still solid enough for the meager crowds that gathered to watch.
Apparently, a ball game in the Zone was something of a major event. The FIZZ would make a note of it during their broadcasts. 93 Underground slapped up a notice outside their door. The local garages up near Bell's would gather and discuss such arcane bits of trivia as what would the lineup be and who were they getting to bat cleanup?
It was enough to drive one crazy.
Of course, Shoko couldn't complain too much. Here she was, sitting in the Grease Monkeys dugout (The Grease Monkeys? Sigh... How original.) laughing and cheering as they battled the Bouncers (comprised of various people from the Entertainment District) on a warm and pleasant Sunday afternoon. Ken was their pitcher, while Ayane played second base. Shoko's position was DH, which was fine, as Shoko wasn't sure about her fielding skills.
The opposing pitcher was Sylvie from 93 Underground. She was an escort synth, and it showed in her delivery. She'd start with one leg cocked high in the air and then come down with a fluid motion that usually resulted in the batter missing wildly. It was, Shoko had to admit, an impressive sight.
The stands were filled with cheering and shouting spectators. Over to one side, Bell and several others grilled an assortment of meats and served up cold drinks, adding to the festivities. Even the FIZZ was there, with an announcer broadcasting the game from a remote mike. A radio in the dugout was tuned in, and Shoko spent several confused minutes trying to match up what she was watching with what she was hearing, until she realized someone at the FIZZ's soundboard was spicing things up with various sound effects.
Even the Puma Sisters were there. They sat high in the stands and shouted loudly and with great enthusiasm. Shoko figured they were pretty drunk, since they were as apt to cheer for a strong single as for someone dropping the ball. Shoko also spotted a few faces she'd never, ever seen before. One who attracted her eye was a short woman in a white robe with hair the same color as her own flame-red tresses. Shoko had no idea who the woman was, but considering she was missing an eye and her right arm, it was no wonder she held on tightly to her sheathed sword with her left.
"Hey, Shoko? You're up."
"Oh, right." Shoko hefted her bat, stepped out to the on-deck circle and took a few practice swings. Satisfied, she strode over to the batter's box and dug in. Sixty feet six inches away Sylvie stared at her from under the brim of her cap, watching the signs flashed by the catcher. Shoko grinned. This would be too easy. All Sylvie had was a little baseball, she, on the other hand, had a bat.
"Of the sixteen teams that existed in 1949, all have won league championships—all but the Cubs. And which of the old National League teams was the first to finish in tenth place behind even the expansion teams? Don't ask."
George F. Will
Sandra rushed into her apartment, eagerly thumbing her newspaper. "News, opinions, letters, comics, business, computers supplement, where is it..." she muttered as she slammed the door behind her and somehow managed to drop her coat on the floor without dropping her paper.
It was that time of the year again. The time that she most waited for each and every year since she'd left the force, moved into the Zone and become a Sam. The one thing each year that had made her life seem so wonderful and full of life and joy. And it was coming around again.
For the last two years, she'd been unable to exploit this to its fullest. She'd been stuck in the Zone, living without what she really needed to enjoy this precious time of the year. But now she was in Hong Kong, living in a luxury apartment with a huge, wide-screen TV with worldwide cable access.
She frantically flipped the newspaper until she came to the section she was after. Sports. She flipped through a few more pages, checking matches... Aha! Throwing the paper aside, she checked the TV guide, going through the sports channels... It's got to be in here somewhere... She thumbed through the pages. The North American sporting channels were stuffed full of different games, but there was one she was after...
There it was!
She threw aside the TV guide and did a short, shaking fists in the air victory dance. This was perfect! It was what she had wanted to do for years. Well, not quite. She wanted to be there for real but this would suffice in the meantime. Heck, all she needed now was someone to share this moment with.
Sarah. Her landlady, friend, sometime employer, and guide to the best eating and shopping spots in HK. Sarah was possessed of a very dry, cynical sense of humor. Perfect. Sandra grabbed the phone and called her.
"Hello, Sarah J Ferrari speaking."
"Hi there, Sarah. It's Sandra here, how's things?" Sandra all but shouted into the phone.
"I'm... fine. Thank you. And how are you?" Sarah replied, seeming strangely apprehensive.
"Couldn't be better!" Sandra cheerfully replied. "Say, do you like baseball?"
"Baseball?" Sarah asked. "I can't say I'm too familiar with it."
"Of course, you're Australian. You don't play baseball there, do you?"
"No. We play four different types of football, very bad basketball, and cricket, but no baseball. Why do you ask?"
"Well, it's the start of the baseball season and the team I follow is playing, so I was wondering if you wanted to come over and watch the game on TV with me."
"Uhh... well, I'd have to see what I'm doing, but I could, I guess..."
"Great!" Sandra cheered. "I gotta say, you'll love my team in action. They're awesome."
"Really?" Sarah replied, sounding a little nervous. "What makes them so great?"
"My team? Well, they..." she paused to think about it. "Do you know what a World Series is?"
"Is it like the grand final, the big game at the end of the season to determine the overall winner?" Sarah asked, probably unsure what to make of it.
"Yep. Well, my team is great when it comes to the World Series."
"They win it a lot?" Sarah asked. "They're the greatest team in the whole league?"
"Win a lot? The Chicago Cubs?" Sandra replied, laughing. "They haven't gotten to a World Series since 1936. They never win anything."
"I see." There was a long pause. "And... you cheer for them because they'll win eventually?"
"Not really." Sandra said. "It's just that during the bad old days in the Zone, I latched onto them simply because they were doing worse than me. I love them for it."
"Right. What time's this game on?"
Kristen was lost in thought when the other bike drew up alongside hers. Whoever was riding the other bike revved his motor a couple of times to get her attention, turned, then sped off down a road that led into the Wastes.
Kristen took almost a full second to react before tearing off down the road after him. She was familiar with this particular run from her days with the Tenth Street go-gang. It was a long loop run through mostly uninhabited territory, common amongst several of the daredevil racers. Long enough to give the bike a good workout, but curved and erratic enough to seriously test the skill of the driver. It just wouldn't do for someone to be able to buy a win with a new bike, after all.
She caught up enough to see the other bike again; it looked like an unmodified No-dachi, enclosed faring and all. Kristen grinned, and gunned the accelerator again. Her bike was a little heavier than the usual No-dachi, but the extra accleration and power from the rebuilt engine mostly made up for the loss in maneuverability.
An advantage she needed given the head start the other fellow had. She hoped that he hadn't slowed up to see if she was actually following; that would have made it too easy. One long relatively straight stretch along the old Long Island Expressway finally gave her a chance to catch up, though the exit on this run was close enough she'd have trouble passing him before they hit it. Instead, she started to move up beside him, then dropped back into his slipstream as he turned onto the exit ramp.
Sure, the race wasn't going to last long enough for the fuel savings of riding his slipstream to be useful, but it at least made sure that she wasn't going to lose track of him. Unless he did something likely to cause an accident, she could stay right here behind him.
Of course, that wasn't going to win her the race, but she had a plan on that, albeit one requiring fairly precise timing. The last major turn on the route was a fairly sharp corner, over 120 degrees. Kristen let her bike drop back a little, and slid out to the outermost lane of the curve. Her opponent slowed down as well, the street corner not leaving a lot of room to maneuver as he leaned into the turn.
Kristen let her bike nearly brush the building on the outer edge of the corner before she began to accelerate again. She hauled the bike around as far as she could, then leaned back and slammed on the gas, popping up into a wheelie just before she reached the side of the road. Throwing her weight back forward bounced the front tire off the sidewalk, lifting the rest of the bike up just enough to get the rear wheel onto the sidewalk without damaging the suspension too much.
Once she skimmed past the burned-out gas station in the corner and dropped off the sidewalk on the other side, she was at least three meters ahead of her competition and gaining speed on the straightaway. She had a good two and a half second lead by the time she crossed the 'finish line'.
Kristen coasted to a stop and watched as the other bike slid by. She got a view through the faring of someone giving her a thumb's up before her mystery opponent zoomed off again.
She never did figure out who that was.
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