ALL BASEBALL players have OCD. That was the only explanation, Matt Blanco thought, for all the pregame ritual. He carefully went through his home-game routine: he closed his locker and tapped the door twice; he fiddled with the collar of the T-shirt he had on under his uniform; he touched the wall in the hallway leading out of the locker room. As he walked toward the dugout, he caught sight of June Redstone, the elderly widow of a former star of the team, and leaned toward her as he passed; she dutifully kissed his cheek.

He heard the din of the crowd roaring as he got closer to the field. The rise in volume was probably due to Matt’s teammate Jefferson Jones jogging over to the bull pen to warm up. Normally Matt would have trotted out to the field and waved, but today he had other things on his mind. Namely his new teammate.

Matt was trying really hard not to think about his new teammate.

He sneaked into the dugout and pulled on his cap. The new guy was nowhere in sight, luckily. Shortstop Manuel Cruz sauntered over and plopped down on the bench, where he kissed the thin gold bracelet on his wrist, part of his own pregame ritual. That completed, he grinned at Matt. “You’re out here a little early,” he said.

“Eh. Warm-up was done sooner than usual. I figured I’d come and look at my adoring fans.”

“Sure,” said Cruz. “Did you hear about Miller?”

“No. What about Miller?”

Cruz leaned back, his smile smug. “As of Monday, he’ll be wearing a Red Sox uniform.”

“Oh fuck, no.” Matt didn’t especially like Evan Miller, but he was a terrific third baseman with a pretty high batting average.

“They took him and a handful of Triple-A guys in exchange for Rodriguez.”

“Oh.”

And speak of the devil, who should appear in the dugout just then but Ignacio Rodriguez, apparently the Brooklyn Eagles’ new starting third baseman. It was his first time in the Eagles’ blue-and-white home-game uniform, but he wore it like he’d been born in it.

Matt had attended the big press conference the day before. He’d learned two important pieces of information: first, Rodriquez had been batting above .400 when he’d been in the minors, playing for the Pawtucket Red Sox, which was probably why he’d been such a hot commodity when it came time to trade players; and second, he was about the best-looking man Matt had ever set eyes on, if you liked your men Latin and young—which Matt did. Although, man, this guy was young. He also had close-cropped black hair, dark skin about the same color as Matt took his coffee, a long nose, a wide mouth, and a tight body. When Rodriguez grinned, light seemed to bounce off his teeth.

The stats were good. The other thing was a huge problem.

Cruz leaned in and whispered, “What do you think of the new kid?”

The new kid was talking to Bill Haverman, so Matt felt safe offering an opinion. “Good numbers, if you buy the sabermetrics.” It wasn’t always enough to have good numbers, though. Maybe that was an old-school opinion, but Matt’s experience bore it out. Players with good numbers didn’t work well with some teams. If Rodriguez bombed, it wouldn’t be the first time the Eagles had traded for an ace who ultimately had an abysmal season.

“That’s something,” said Cruz. “I talked to him yesterday. He seems like a nice kid. Also, Mistry’s finally off the DL.”

“Oh, I hadn’t heard that either.”

“Dude. Where have you been all day?”

“PT.”

“Everything okay?”

“Dandy. Ain’t nothing wrong with me except that I’m an old man.” That and his knee had been sore all week, but he wasn’t eager to volunteer that information.

“Good to hear, I guess.” Cruz patted Matt’s thigh.

Terry Wistler, the batting coach, walked over and glared at Cruz. “Focus” was all he said before he moved on to something else.

Matt looked at Cruz, who shrugged. “I was sloppy yesterday,” he said. “So what did you end up doing last night?”

“Friends of mine had a party,” Matt said. Cruz didn’t need to know that at said party Matt had met a hot guy who knew absolutely nothing about baseball. Matt had then taken the man to a hotel room in Brooklyn he’d reserved just in case. It pained him a little that he couldn’t say this to Cruz, who was probably his closest friend on the team after pitcher Roger May.

Roger wandered into the dugout then. Matt nodded at him. Cruz said, “Sounds fun. You get laid?”

“I got laid,” Matt said. He grinned.

Cruz thought sex threw him off his game, so he stayed celibate most of the season. He made exceptions for special occasions—during the All-Star break, the night he’d hit his two hundredth home run—but he stuck to that for the most part. His abstinence, however, did not keep him from getting the scoop from everyone else. For a straight man, Cruz was a terrible gossip.

“And you, sir?” Cruz said to Roger. “You and your lady friend have a good night?”

“Lauren and I are married now,” Roger said. “She’s not my lady friend. She’s my wife.”

“You pitching tonight?” Matt asked.

“Nope. I’m starting tomorrow.”

While Cruz and Roger shot the shit, Matt looked around. Rodriguez pulled his batting helmet out of its slot and weighed it in his hands. He put it back. He seemed nervous. As unofficial team captain, Matt knew it was his duty to go try to calm down the new guy, to be friendly and welcoming. But that would involve actually talking to Rodriguez.

Besides, just then Haverman started barking orders. For all intents and purposes, the game had begun.

 

 

FROM A practical standpoint, this game was no different from the thousands of others Iggy had played. He stood at third, gazing out at the landscape before him, noting where each of his teammates stood, noting how this batter tended to hit the ball. It was easy and familiar.

And yet it wasn’t. For years he’d dreamed of just getting into the stands of FSB Stadium. Now he was on the field.

Not only that, but Matt Blanco—legendary Eagles first baseman Matt Blanco, the greatest player who had ever played the game as far as Iggy was concerned—was standing just on the other side of the infield. And he kept shooting Iggy looks.

Iggy couldn’t figure out what any of those looks meant. Had he done something to offend Blanco? Was he this surly with all new players? Iggy worried briefly that Blanco might know something about him that he didn’t want anyone to know yet, but he couldn’t figure out how that could be the case. Iggy maybe hadn’t been as discreet as he could have been, but he didn’t think anyone knew his secret.

The inning ended, and Iggy jogged back toward the dugout. Given the way the top of the order had been batting, he thought it unlikely he’d be up that inning, so he took a deep breath and tried to relax.

But then Matt Blanco walked up to him and wrecked any hope of that. Because the thing was, not only was Blanco Iggy’s idol, he was incredibly handsome, even more so close up than Iggy had imagined. He had olive skin and dark hair—classically Italian good looks—as well as a square jaw lined with stubble. He looked relaxed and casual, like he was perfectly in control of the game.

“Hey, Rodriguez. Nice play against Jackson,” Blanco said.

“Uh, thanks.” God. Blanco’s dark eyes were incredible, much more intense than they seemed in photographs. And Iggy had looked at a lot of photos of Matt Blanco over the years.

“I, um. I mean….” Blanco took off his cap and ran a hand through his flattened hair. He seemed… tongue-tied. Nervous. But how was that possible? This man was one of the greatest ballplayers there had ever been. Iggy was just a rookie. “It’s always weird adjusting to a new team.”

“It is, yeah. Although you haven’t had to in a long time, eh?”

Blanco shrugged. “I guess not. Anyway. Nice work. Welcome to the team.” Then he turned and walked toward the shelves where the batting helmets were stored. Iggy might have felt insulted for the abrupt end in the conversation, but he realized Blanco was up second that inning.

Everyone who knew Iggy had assured him that playing for a big-market team in a city with a voracious tabloid industry would be okay if he just kept his head down and didn’t draw attention to himself. What was it his friend Cary had said? “Gay men have been playing baseball for a hundred years, and no one’s ever been the wiser.”

So there was no way Matt Blanco knew Iggy’s big secret. Unless he’d cottoned on to the fact that Iggy was seriously in lust. Iggy had a hard time keeping his gaze away from the man, who was now in the on-deck circle taking practice swings with a weighted bat. Iggy ducked behind Manuel Cruz so he could better covertly watch Blanco’s arm muscles strain and stretch as he swung.

He turned away. Lusting wouldn’t do him any good. Matt Blanco was so far out of his league, it wasn’t worth wasting his thoughts on him. It was better to focus on the game. No matter how horny he was or how much he missed sex, there was too much at stake to risk it.

He chastised himself for thinking about sex in the middle of a game. Instead he found a spot on the bench and watched Blanco bat, which effectively put his attention back on the field.