“It is time,” a gravelly voice says from the back of the clubhouse. Alone, Gabe Kapler looks up, startled. The players had long since left the clubhouse, returning to their hotels, hoping to sleep before facing the reality of tomorrow, of another the swinging blade inching closer to their prone bodies. The manager had stayed long after the last player had cleared out, his head in his hand, staring at nothing, at everything, wondering how it had all gone downhill so very, very fast.
But he was no longer alone. The shrouded figure moved closer, almost gliding, its robe unrustled, unmoving as he shortened the gap between himself and the fearful manager. The figure extended a bony, pale white hand to an ashen Kapler, looming over the coach, the sharpened blade of a sickle dangerously dangling over his head.
“It is time,” the figure simply repeated.
“I’m dead?!” Kapler asked.
“No. It is time for this season to end,” the figure said calmly, its face obscured by the tattered hood that hung loosely about the deity. Light, color, everything was seemingly absorbed into the hood, drawn into the nothingness. Nothing escaped from the abyss behind the hood.
“But, we have another month and a half left. There is so much left to be done, so much I wanted to do. I wanted to bat Kingery in the cleanup position at least once,” Kapler said.
“The end waits for no season. I’m afraid this is quite final, and no amount of lineup tinkering is going to turn this around,” the figure said.
“I….I challenge you to a game of chess! One game. One more chance to get this right, to keep our hopes alive,” Kapler stammered.
“Very well,” the figure sighed.
The figure waved a cloaked arm before Kapler and an intricate chess board appeared, smelling faintly of pine tar and must, the smell of wet earth permeating the clubhouse walls. Kapler studied the pieces; something seemed familiar about them.
He recoiled. The king was a crude representation of himself. The queen Rhys Hoskins. The knights Odubel Herrera. The bishops Nick Williams. The rooks Seranthony Dominguez. The pawns Tommy Hunter. Each face frozen in a tortured, agonized expression, a final realization of what they had let a once promising season become.
“Do you not approve of my board?” the figure said, peering at Kapler, as both sat down on overturned tubs of Bubble-Yum before the game set.
“It’s the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen,” Kapler said, as he took several of the pieces and started to move them all to the right side of the playing field.
“What are you doing? That’s not how you set up the pieces,” the figure said, for the first time the lilt of his voice changing, bemused and puzzled, as he watched Kapler move the pieces.
“Well, the data I have says most chess opponents tend to attack the right side of the board, by setting up my pieces here I’m playing the percentages and giving my side the best chance to win,” he said.
A choked sound, like rocks tumbling in a garbage disposal, spilled out from robe’s opening. The figure was laughing, as he waved his hand across the board, setting the pieces back in their original positions.
“Data, my boy, is not the answer to everything….and not your way out of this,” the figure said. “Please make your first move.”
The two played. Gaining pieces, capturing others. Kapler winced whenever a piece was captured on either side, as the figures took to shrieking loudly whenever they were felled.
The outcome was never in doubt. Kapler knew from the moment the game began, the board was weighed against him. The figure knew his every move, knew his strategy, having seen every possible outcome from every possible scenario from millions of games played.
There was nothing he could do.
“This is the end,” the figure said, as he moved his queen one final time, placing Kapler at checkmate. The board vanished in a puff of smoke that smelled faintly of coconut oil. The two were alone.
“Come with me, it is time,” the figure said, again outstretching his hand.
Kapler lifted his own to meet the figures, but he hesitated, drawing his hand back.
“Will it hurt?”
The figure sighed deeply.
“This is always so much easier when I visit the Flyers…no my dear boy, it will not hurt. The discussion about you on sports talk radio will hurt, but you will feel no pain from me,” he said, as he took Kapler’s hand and led him to the clubhouse exit.
“But what about next year?”
The question stopped the figure. He thought for a moment, a bony hand moving up to where his jaw should have been, leaning heavily against his sicklee. He turned to the manager, and Kapler broke out in a cold sweat. Goosebumps prickled across his body. He felt sick, nauseous, his stomach contracting as bile rose in his throat.
“I think you deserve to see another season. Now come, it is late and we need to make a stop at Shea Stadium before we go. It’s time to collect on a debt owed by David Wright, he has left it unpaid for far too long. There will be no more seasons for him.”
Death never takes a wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.