The Nashville Cowboys' clubhouse had plastic wrap on every surface to protect the lockers and the walls and hell, even the ceiling from the champagne popping in celebration. The whooping and cheering reverberated through the cinderblock and steel of the stadium. Flashbulbs popped, and on the field, local police and stadium security tried to round up the fans who'd poured out of the stands.
It was probably awesome to be one of the Cowboys tonight.
Chris Thomas, closer for the Grand Rapids Bengals, sat on the bench in the visiting team locker room. There was no plastic up here, no champagne, no reporters. There would definitely be a press conference, and probably some interview requests. The biggest playoff blunder since Buckner--yeah, they would definitely want a scoop.
What would he say? What was there to say, other than, "Sorry about that."?
He'd come in to a two run lead. Bottom of the ninth, and he'd come in to close. Game five. He'd walked out of the bullpen confident, ready to save their asses and take them into game six. His first few pitches were rough--rough enough to walk a man. There were a thousand excuses for that walk. It had been unusually chilly that night, and his shoulder had been killing him since the start of the series. And all the stretches and soaks in the world wouldn't take off the years.
He'd had an incredible career, until this season. He'd taken the mound with the intention of proving all those armchair analysts wrong. After that walk, all the best intentions in the world couldn't get his head on straight. The next batter had gotten a double off him and had earned him a visit from the pitching coach. What probably looked like a tense exchange to the fans had actually been a pep talk and gentle inquiry. When he'd told coach that he could stay in, he'd believed it. The next batter up left with an out. The one after him, too. Chris had just gotten his good stuff back when a high fly ball advanced the runner. The next batter hit it into the stands. A few seats south and it would have been a foul ball. But it hadn't been.
"Hey, Chris? You still in here?"
He got up and lifted his bag over his shoulder. "Yeah, I'm coming."
Javier Vargas stepped around the corner. A lot of the young guys had looked at Chris with sympathy, but he'd been able to see their resentment. He'd lost their bonuses, their rings, video game contracts and the covers of all the sports magazines. But Javier hadn't tried to sympathize. He hadn't offered false support, and Chris appreciated that more than any of the empty platitudes he'd gotten from the other guys.
"The bus is leaving," Vargas said. "We kind of need you on it."
"Do you?" Chris had thought it would sound funny and self-deprecating. It just sounded sullen.
Vargas tilted his head. He was a catcher, good with body language. Right now, it said, "Are you fucking kidding me?" A clipped laugh preceded his words. "Yeah, we do. But we don't need you feeling sorry for yourself. You had a bad game. It was a big game. Man up, get on the damned bus, go back to the hotel and drink the mini bar, do what you have to do, but don't bring everyone else down. They're already down."
"You're right." It was good advice, but that didn't mean it would be easy to follow.
Javier went out--whistling, the guy was always whistling and driving everyone crazy--but before the locker room door slammed again, he called back, "There's always next season."
And that was exactly what Chris was afraid of.