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The flag race.

The last place Robbie Winslow thought he would be on this Friday night was the back of a pick-up truck behind the left centerfield fence, in the shadow of a twenty foot high Marlboro Man sign, tangled with two starting pitchers, in a battle to win the rest of his life.

Robbie spent Friday morning as he did every weekday, bagging groceries at Wegman's Supermarket in Geneva, New York, home of the Geneva Knights, the summer college baseball team in that memorable 1996 season. What got him through the monotony was his fairly important job at Geneva Stadium. Robbie tended to everything from concessions to foul balls and anything else the ever frantic yet lovely Mrs. Rose Peters asked him to do.

But what Robbie really wanted was to man the microphone in the press box high above home plate, a job held by Tad Davis, blessed with a perfect name and a smooth voice. Tad attended Syracuse University, a junior in the well-respected Newhouse School, which bred such broadcasting greats as Bob Costas and Marv Albert. After graduation, the rising star would shed the shackles of this small town and be off to ESPN or Madison Square Garden, for sure.

Had Geneva rested on an ocean and not a lake, Robbie's sandy hair and scrawny frame would have suggested surfer more than broadcaster. That fall, Robbie was destined for Finger Lakes Community College, but he hoped, with a couple of good years and some real work, he would be Syracuse bound. He wanted to be Tad, not just to announce hitters and pitchers but to run the show--to be the voice of the summer, the one that welcomed everyone to the park and bellowed "Ladies and Gentlemen, your Geneva Knights!" as the home team raced to their positions.

Years back, on the day Robbie was cut from his junior high baseball team, his father, who ran his own painting company and never took off from work, promised to take him to his first Yankees game. One April morning, they made the five-hour drive to the Bronx. Their seats, deep in the upper decks behind home plate, overlooked the fairly empty stadium, downtrodden from years of Stump Merrill-led mediocrity. "We can pretend we're announcing the game from up here," his father said, as they sat, Robbie in awe of the vast greenness that catches everyone on the first glimpse of a major league park. And from that godly height, Robbie's imagination soared, finding this new way in, which didn't rely on how well he could turn on a fast ball, when he heard the majestic voice of Bob Sheppard that reached the rafters with each name and number, just as it did in the glory years when Robbie's father's hero Mickey Mantle would step to the plate.

Mrs. Peters, who directed all Geneva Stadium activities, learned of Robbie's grand plan during a pre-game lull and gave him something to cling to. "Well, maybe we can sneak you behind the mic for an inning or two. I'm sure Tad won't mind," she said. Tad would mind, Robbie knew, from the few and very curt exchanges he had had with him. But Mrs. Peters, who always reminded others that "baseball helped fill her empty nest," called the Geneva Knights "a family" when explaining her role. That one inning kept Robbie going, every evening when he rode his bike across Geneva Turnpike, on his way to the stadium, the hope always returning: maybe this is the night.

On this July afternoon, as the players started arriving, the routine stagger from part-time jobs or sleep, he heard the familiar "Winsy!" from Ken Barton, the lanky right hander, as he passed Robbie, who was fastening a loose banner on a chain link fence. Robbie, never fond of Barton's nickname for him, which seemed ill-fitting of a potential broadcaster, turned his head up to hear, "I'm thinking the black flag tonight, baby!" Only a pitcher could know the minutiae of the ballpark, so Barton knew that Robbie ran the Flag Race in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Starting pitchers, unless they charted the opposing hitters, found ways to fill the hours between arrival and the end of the ninth inning. There might be pre-game throwing and the obligatory "poles," which involved a huddle of pitchers jogging back and forth along the grass that bordered the warning track, from foul pole to foul pole. After a while, with coaches tending to the imminent game, their snail's pace wasn't noticed. During the game, there was some serious color commentary to be made: about the other team, the girls in the stands, the idiosyncratic coaches, the best Bruce Springsteen songs, their shitty dorm rooms, the criminal records of the cast of Diff'rent Strokes, and the outdated ads of defunct businesses on the outfield fence, which included Buster Brown and Ralph's Pancake Castle.

Ken Barton, the most observant, the most astute, enjoyed the ritual absurdities of the home games, especially the on-field events that took place between each inning. For popularity, the only rival to the Flag Race was the Knight Chase, a fairly gruesome event in the fifth inning, when the children of Geneva, armed with Whiffle balls, waited with bated breath on the left field line. "Time for the nightly stoning," quipped Barton, as the gang of kids entered the field like characters in a Shirley Jackson story, before Tad would yell "Go!", their signal to race to the outfield where Ned the Knight awaited, his large head and knight's helmet protected by a foam shield. Ned, this summer, was actually a girl--Sara DelMonte--a standout track star at Geneva High School. The year before, the Knights had lost their longtime Ned when George Wilts came up lame during one of his signature dashes, crumbling to the grass as the kids walloped him at close range. It also happened that one of the little shits who had shagged a foul ball let George have it right in the mesh square that allowed him to breathe. The blood dripping from Ned the Knight's lip, Robbie helped George hobble off the field, his last chase ending in the emergency room with two chipped teeth and a pulled hamstring.

As the Milwaukee Brewers race mascot kielbasas and the New York Yankees race subway trains on their JumboTron, the Geneva Knights raced flags. Every home game, Robbie and two recruited kids from the crowd ran three poles adorned with a white, black, or purple flag, matching the team colors. Only the bobbing flags were visible to the crowd as Robbie and his assistants ambled from right field to left between the tall, wooden fence and the nearby woods. If the winning flag appeared in a fan's program, he or she was awarded a coupon for a free entree at Perkins diner, though the entree could not exceed $7.99. Still, that afforded one the Shepherd's Pie, a favorite of many a Geneva Knight.

Today, Robbie wasn't in the mood for Barton's sharp and often cruel wit, which would lead the pitcher to insist that every new ball boy help him find the "bucket of curve balls." And with the heat picking up the past week and his nightly errands becoming increasingly tedious--scraping up Pepsi-glued straws beneath the seats while Tad Davis studied lineups not far above him--Robbie made a decision he would soon regret.

"It won't be the black tonight," Robbie said to Barton.

"Oh, no? Who ya got?" Barton asked.

"The white. The white's winning."

"OK, man. Better get a fast kid on white then," Barton said.

"I'm running the white flag," Robbie declared.

"Don't you let the kids?"

"For two of them. I always run the winning flag," Robbie said.

"Is the race that important to you, Winsy?"

"No, that's my job. Mrs. Peters tells me who has to win every night." And in that moment, Robbie felt something give. There was no turning back now, and by Barton's expression, Robbie knew that this was a mistake.

In the locker room, as the players tossed through the clean laundry bins, in search of jerseys and uniform pants, Barton entered with a wide smile. He met eyes with Camgemi, another starting pitcher, Barton's college teammate and roommate for the summer.

"You're not going to believe this," Barton said to Camgemi, for all to overhear.

"What?" someone called.

"The Flag Race is fixed."

Even though this made good business sense, the outrage in the locker room was palpable. No more than five programs actually bore the winning flag, and only a few knew this secret: Robbie, Tad Davis, and Mrs. Peters. This revelation was on the heels of Mr. Dinkweather's decision to cut off the Pepsi and Mountain Dew taps that were housed in the locker room. Charles Dinkweather, their proud owner, whose name allowed for variations--"Stinkweather" and "Dickweather" the most popular--had two claims to fame: he was the head of the local Pepsi plant and he had, as a young man, lost most of his right ring finger while working the factory-line. Banning soda served as a shot across the bow, Dinkweather's protest for the Knights' 2-12 start. Mountain Dew wasn't the cause of their woes, but the young men took it as a slight, not unexpected for their nickel and dime team and nickel and dime league. It was easy to complain. If you were special, you played your college summers in Cape Cod or Alaska, where you enjoyed host families and picturesque evenings. If you weren't special, you played somewhere like here, on the Finger Lakes, the "middle finger," as Barton described it.

The plan quickly came together, hatched by Barton and Camgemi after grabbing another starting pitcher, O'Brien, whose smiling Florida grin was always up for something.

The game went along like most. Ithaca jumped out to an early lead they never relinquished. Robbie carried out his nightly duties, and his mood lightened as he chaperoned the dizzy bat race when two kids collided and fell, their heads in a swoon after spinning ten times around the knob of a bat. Meanwhile, Barton, Camgemi, and O'Brien waited for the sixth inning, finding in the twilight Camgemi's pick-up truck, which had been left near the woods. When Robbie approached his usual spot, his face dropped. He knew right away.

"Hey, Winsy," Barton said. "We got this one, pal."

Robbie didn't even protest. These were three large college men. And though he knew it was futile, Robbie said, "The white's supposed to win."

"Not tonight, Winsy," Barton whispered, needing only a poncho to complete his Clint Eastwood moment. "Not tonight. It's black's night, my friend." The two nine-year-old boys, Jim and Kyle, whom Robbie had led from the stands for the race, jumped in the truck bin with great enthusiasm after Barton welcomed them aboard. Robbie handed over the flags to O'Brien, while Camgemi started the truck.

As the top of the sixth ended and the Knights trotted to the dugout, all eyes turned to right field. Then Tad Davis: "OK, ladies and gentlemen (Tad always stressed the "and" in "Ladies and Gentlemen," and Robbie couldn't stand it, thinking it a cheap vocal gimmick). It's that time again--the Geneva Knights Flag Race! Check the back of your program. What's your flag? Purple, black, or white?" A Perkins entree, if it's your knight!" Robbie mouthed the cheesy pun he heard every night, the one he wished he could boom out through the grandstands of this ragged old stadium, somehow majestic in the early moonlight, this once Minor League park where Pete Rose and Dave Concepcion played when they were the Geneva Reds.

"Wait, we need a third," Barton whispered, his plan surprisingly not fully thought out. "Winsy, we need you," Barton said, offering the purple flag.

"OK, everyone! Let's count down!" yelled Tad, who was joined by the 103 people in attendance. "3 ... 2 ... 1."

Camgemi hit the gas, and the three flag holders, who were on their knees in the truck bin, fell over. The players and the crowd saw the flags disappear for a second, before quickly popping up again in a tight bouquet, right above the Finger Lakes Realtors sign. Everyone who worked or played at the stadium knew instantly that something was off. The race usually trotted on for about a minute, but this was paced to be over in fifteen seconds, as the flags whipped around right field. The dugout was roaring as Tad Davis tried to keep some semblance of a play-by-play.

"Wow, and they are off and running tonight! It looks like the black flag is ahead with the purple and white close behind!"

Little Jimmy and Kyle kept their smiles, bouncing in the back. Robbie was glum, keeping his spot behind a determined Barton who leaned forward like George Washington on the Delaware River. As Camgemi peeled around centerfield, the flags lost their height again. Mrs. Peters watched in horror from the press box, grabbed her walkie-talkie and yelled, "Code Knight! Code Knight!"

There were only three other walkie-talkies, and one belonged to Tad Davis, who sat next to her. One resided with sixteen-year-old Tammy Parker who, confused by the message, sat alone in the small box office. In fact, the only one who could decipher the "Code Knight" was Frank Bystrom, the retired banker and long time ticket taker, who would check out after the fifth inning, his talkie now well out of range on his front porch, where he enjoyed his nightly whiskey sour.

Mrs. Peters instituted the "Code Knight" option about ten years prior during a winter meeting, following a season when a small fire had broken out in the concession stand. She felt there needed to be some in-house terminology in case of an emergency. Apparently "Fire!" wasn't sufficient. Prior to tonight, only once did she consider it, when some fans, a few years back, noticed a man asleep under the first base bleacher, donning a "Menace to Sobriety" t-shirt. He was quickly identified as local mechanic Fred Dewer, who, not much of a Knights fan, enjoyed the cheap Budweiser drafts. Content that he was just "sleeping it off," the Code Knight was never in place.

In the stands, in his reserved seat, Dinkweather furrowed his brow, aware that something was awry; however, he was unaware of what Robbie knew: if black won, they would never be able to cover it. Plus there were still ten more home games. There would be anarchy at the door of the press box, an angry horde demanding their coupons, and eventually at Perkins a similar scene, sparked by the ordering of fifty free Shepherd's Pies.

As the players fell to the dugout steps in laughter and the truck came closer to left field, Robbie Winslow made a decision, not for Perkins or the Geneva Knights, but for himself. When this hit the fan, he knew that he would be the one to take the fall. Every year, Dinkweather seemed to take pleasure in firing at least one teenager, as the part-time summer kids were somehow always at fault if the franchise fell short of professional standards. Last year, it was Ricky Beckensworth, who apparently didn't get the memo about the raised Pepsi prices at the start of the season, and Dinkweather felt, much like George Steinbrenner 300 miles south, that a good firing kept everyone on their toes.

When the truck reached left centerfield where the Marlboro Man ad towered, Robbie, holding the purple flag, grabbed the black from Barton and white from O'Brien. In one swoop, he tried to leap down with all three to finish the race and point the white ahead as the rightful winner. Camgemi slammed the brakes, and O'Brien tugged the poles back, as Barton stepped in to help. All the crowd could see was a clash of flags, as if three Arthurian armies battled for a hill on the wooden horizon. For Robbie, this was the fight of his life.

Gone would be the references for Syracuse, and with high school over, there would be no AV Club, where he could work on his craft, reading the morning announcements that echoed through the halls of Geneva High School. The closest team was the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, quite an unrealistic trek on his bicycle. His future doomed, the only microphone in his future would be at Wegman's calling for a clean-up in the cereal aisle. Or perhaps he'd find himself in the Deli, announcing order numbers,

the highlight of the week being when "69" came across the ticker and butchers Mike and Sal, the Meatheads (as they called themselves), would high-five, then remove their rubber gloves for new ones, respecting Wegman's strict cross-contamination guidelines.

As Robbie wrestled the two pitchers, little Jim and Kyle huddled in the corner of the truck bin. "It's ok, kids!" Camgemi yelled, smiling from the front seat.

"Winsy, why are you doing this?" Barton yelled, grinning like an older brother who knows he will eventually wrestle the toy away.

"There seems to be some kind of problem out there," Tad admitted. The flags continued their dance, as if some strange color guard tribute to the Marlboro Man, his peaceful gaze out from horseback, lasso around his knee, while flags of purple, white, and black celebrated his iconic status and generations of lung cancer. Mrs. Peters held her hand to her mouth, looking at Tad in horror, Tad's admission making it real, as even the umpires on the field couldn't help but notice the tussle. Dinkweather put both hands on his face, though his missing finger would always betray him in moments like this.

Barton finally pulled the flag away, and Robbie fell to the truck bin, the small boys' eyes widening, as Robbie crashed next to them. "Just go!" Barton yelled, and Camgemi hit the gas. At that point, the crowd saw no flags but could hear the truck peel away. Then, as if declaring the grim end of Robbie's dreams, the black flag popped up. Excited to see a sign of life, Tad yelled, trying to pick up where he left off, "And it's the black flag in the lead!" With only about fifty feet remaining, Mrs. Peters gasped as Tad's eyes met hers, both realizing the same thing: in plain sight of 103 fans, the black flag was going to win.

"And it's the black flag, the black flag...." Tad stammered, and Robbie, hearing Tad's struggle, held one moment of pleasure. In clear sight of all in attendance, of Dinkweather, Mrs. Peters, the fans, and the gleeful bench of Knights, the black flag breezed past the left field foul pole. The Knights screamed in victory.

"And the black flag is in the lead ... The black flag ..."

The Knights waited for the winner to be called, all of them thinking, "Say it! Say the black flag won!"

But Tad refused to give in. He thought of one other option: "Now batting for the Knights, the shortstop, number 11, Tyler DuPont!"

"Noooooooo!" the players yelled in unison, Coach Davis looking over with mild but brief curiosity. The crowd also booed, disgruntled at the no-call. Then a literal stroke of luck came for the franchise when Tyler DuPont shot a double to the right centerfield gap, allowing cheers to overtake the confused moment.

Meanwhile, Camgemi sped off toward the woods, on his way to the parking lot while O'Brien and Barton raced into the darkness. Robbie stood in the shadows of the dusk with three flags at his sneakers, little Jimmy and Kyle sprinting back to the bleachers. Robbie, his shoulders slumped, awaited the wrath of pillaging Genevans, having failed to uphold his most important duty. He watched as a frantic Mrs. Peters jogged as fast as she could, one hand holding the talkie, to the site of the lost battle.

"Oh, dear, what the heck happened, Robbie?" Mrs. Peters yelled, approaching. The gentility he had known for years was gone. The word "heck" was like her trying out a Richard Pryor joke. Robbie's eyes filled with tears, as he couldn't even begin to explain what had happened, and even if he could, she wouldn't know how much he tried, how he stood up to them, how this job actually meant everything to him.

Each night, in the few moments when he would step into the press box, dropping off a stack of papers for Tad, Robbie could look out over the field as the players leisurely made their way in from batting practice. He would gaze beyond centerfield and the woods that stretched to Yankee Stadium and maybe the end of the world. How many fields were there like this one, with a microphone and a crowd that needed a voice? But now, with Mrs. Peters glaring like the Grim Reaper of his career, he would have settled just to be the voice of this place. That would have been enough. Forget Syracuse and Bob Costas and Bob Sheppard. Geneva Stadium, every summer, for the rest of his life. And it was all about to be brought down by the Flag Race. If he had just kept his mouth shut--just let Barton say what he wanted to say, keep hanging on for that one inning. As Mrs. Peters met his eyes, all he could say, in a sheepish tone, a sound surely never made by Tad Davis, was "I'm sorry, Mrs. Peters."

"Oh, this is just terrible, Robbie. Just terrible," she said. "I mean, what the hell?" Now she was Andrew Dice Clay. "What happened?" she asked, though just as quickly, she shook her head and turned. "Dear me, oh dear me," she muttered over and over again, hurrying back to handle the crisis. Robbie, stifling tears, collected the flags and trudged back to the clubhouse. In the supply closet, behind the slumped Ned the Knight costume, its tattered smile cruel in the fluorescent lights, he leaned the flags next to a milk crate of Whiffle balls, the quiet clubhouse a momentary escape. The next half inning, Tad Davis announced, "Due to a disqualification in tonight's Flag Race, the winner is the White Flag!" The team booed along with the sparse crowd that remained.

After the game, Robbie collected trash in the stands behind home plate, the park mostly empty and quiet, convinced that the next time he gazed through the netted backstop would be after paying the three-dollar general admission. Mrs. Peters, her clipboard in one hand and walkie-talkie in the other, crossed from the first base dugout past the batter's box and approached Robbie, who rose from his crouch, ready to accept his sentence. As he stood, he noticed a tall figure in a t-shirt and shorts jogging in the outfield, a strange sight because the players always cleared out after the game as quickly as they could. It was Barton.

"You, ok, Robbie?" Mrs. Peters asked, returning to her familiar maternal self.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said in a nasally voice that sounded more like fifteen than eighteen. If Robbie's flat note had been heard by Mrs. DiGenaro, Geneva High School's eccentric music teacher and supervisor of the AV Club, she would have reminded Robbie of his breathing. Aware of his vocal dreams, she had convinced him to sign up for chorus. He would listen intently during voice training, when she described exhaling like descending a staircase. "And when you sing," she would always say, when the group was about to start, "sing as if you're pulling the first note down from the sky." Those sessions were long gone now, and so, seemingly was Robbie's dream, a Geneva Knights seat cushion in his hand dripping with mustard on the bleacher steps.

"It's all fine now, honey," Mrs. Peters reassured. "I know it was Ken who took the flags from you. Coach Davis said he'll take care of him."

Barton turned himself in, and what Robbie feared never happened. One woman complained, and to keep her quiet, Mrs. Peters handed over a coupon. Coach Davis served Barton with some extra running, which Barton chose to complete after the game. Robbie, looking out again at Barton shuffling in the shadows of the warning track, still worried about some kind of retribution, even though, for some reason, Barton confessed to the crime. The next home game, two days later, when Barton arrived at the clubhouse, he saw Robbie, who had just dropped a laundry bag in the middle of the locker room.

"Winsy!" Barton smiled. "Purple tonight, baby," he said. Robbie smiled and returned to the field to complete his nightly tasks.

He never did get his one inning that summer. And he couldn't help but think that the infamous Flag Race had something to do with it. He wondered also, as did Barton's teammates, why the inscrutable right-handed ace fessed to his crime. This Robbie mulled over as he sat alone in Perkins one evening in August when the season was over and the team had all gone home. He knew he would be back next year, along with Tad, and maybe he would get his one inning then. This, he thought, as the waitress arrived with his Shepherd's Pie, free tonight with the summer's last coupon.
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Author:Palmieri, Scott
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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