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Synopsis

"Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat." BABE RUTH

As the beloved, hard-working general manager of a Major League Baseball team in California, "Baseball Wizard" Joe Ciotola has given his life to the sport but lost too much in the bargain.

Single, childless, disillusioned about baseball, and swamped with regrets after missing the deaths of both of his parents, the 50-year-old Bronx native quits his job and goes looking for something -- anything -- more satisfying than a life spent juggling rosters, recruiting players, and balancing budgets.

On his way to Anywhere, U.S.A., he stops in a strange place called Salvation, a forgotten desert town where time seems to stand still and where Old Testament values divide the locals between the Saved and the Damned.

There, Joe meets Mia, a pitiful creature whose future has been written by the town's leaders, and who can't stay without making the ultimate sacrifice. The choices Joe and Mia make together, and the bonds they create with another woman who emerges from Joe's past, shape their lives forever, revealing the power of connections formed from the ashes of great loss.

CHAPTER ONE


One of the first memories I have is of sitting in my grandmother’s

living room in the Bronx watching the great Sandy Koufax striking

out one Yankee after another to win Game 4 of the 1963 World Series

for the Dodgers, thus completing a sweep of the mighty New York

Yankees after the Yankees had won two consecutive World Series

titles in ’61 and ’62.

My parents, aunts and uncles and my grandmother bowed their

heads in sorrow and disbelief. It was as though a sacrilegious,

blasphemous ritual, one that could be punished only by eternal

damnation, had just been witnessed and verified by the Vatican.

The strangest thing about that memory is that I was not yet born.


***


I felt like a character in a Frank Sinatra song: down and out. Life was

full of laughter and tears, sadness and hope, but through it all I kept

my head held high.

Of course, life could have been a lot worse, but at that moment it

felt like Old Blue Eyes was speaking directly to me through my car

radio. You see, I had just quit the job I had for the last twenty-five

years ... the job that I had dreamed of having since I was a little boy

growing up in the Bronx. Actually, that’s a lie. The job I really wanted

was playing center field for the New York Yankees, but after a brief,

less-than-illustrious career in the majors, playing for a team other


than the Yankees, I hung up my glove and switched over to the suit-

and-tie end of the business.


2 MIA

It was a natural fit, and since I was one of the few major leaguers

with a college degree, it wasn’t such a difficult transition. I didn’t even

have to move; the team that let me go hired me back as a junior

executive, and that was that. We were in a rotten market, sandwiched

between two established teams with a loyal fan base that went back

ten generations. We were lucky to draw a million fans a year at our

ballpark, which was a paltry number compared to the three million

fans in attendance these two teams pulled in per year at their

stadiums. Our TV and cable contracts were a third the size of most

major league team contracts, and our salaries were the pits. What the

New York Yankees paid for two superstars a year was our entire

team’s annual budget.

Even so, I had a pretty good career. In two years, I went from

junior executive to General Manager of Baseball Operations. In the

first year alone, our overall win total jumped an amazing twenty-five

games. After three years, we were consistently making the playoffs,

and over my entire twenty-three years as GM, we made it to the

World Series five times and won the title three times. All of this

without ever once having more than a seventy-million-dollar budget

to work with. To put that in perspective, the Yankees, Red Sox,

Dodgers and Cubs have yearly budgets of more than two hundred

million.

I don’t know if it was me, divine intervention or our great

scouting and farm systems, but in those twenty-three years we put

together some terrific teams. We’d start with a bunch of so-called

rejects — players let go by other teams — and put them on a field with

a bunch of talented newbies, then wait for the magic to happen. More

often than not, it did. Everyone just seemed to blend together and give

us a winning combination. We had some wonderful managers who

really knew how to get the most out of our players. They were able to

relate to the players and make them play as a unit.

I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated more times than most

superstars in all the major sports. It was embarrassing. No matter how

many times I told the press that I was a small piece of the puzzle, they


JOSEPH SCIUTO 3

insisted I was a genius. A “baseball wizard,” they called me. They

wrote books about me and even made a movie, which was a total flop.

I guess my appeal didn’t cross over to the big screen.

For a long time, it was like living a dream. Then one day I woke

up and realized that my success, and even my luck, had come at a

huge cost. Take my parents, for instance. They were thrilled at my

success, but it meant we hardly ever saw each other, and in the end, I

wasn’t even there to say good-bye to them when they died. Both

times, when the players were on winter vacations, I was down in

Central America scouting Latino prospects. By the time I got the

news, both my parents were on the way to the funeral home where a

few friends paid their respects. Then they were on their way to the

cemetery. I made it to their gravesides just before their bodies were

lowered into the ground. My final farewell to the two people who

sacrificed everything for me came as their caskets disappeared into

the cold, unforgiving earth.

Friends tried to console me by reminding me how much I did for

my parents when they were alive. True, I made sure they never had to

worry about money, and I begged them to come live with me in

California, but even that was just selfishness on my part. All their

friends and the few relatives we had left were all in the Bronx. Having

me home for Christmas or their birthdays or their fortieth wedding

anniversary would have meant the world to them. They would never

admit it, but I could sense it when talking to them over the phone.

What I did for my parents was what was expected of any decent son,

but when it came to the really important things, I was missing in

action. The excuse was always work, and it was a shameful excuse,

considering the position I held.

There were other costs too — like never having time to start a

family of my own. The few serious relationships I had with women

always ended poorly. Work always interfered. When the baseball

season ended, my workload only increased ... I’d get hung up in


negotiations with greedy agents, winter meetings, and the never-

ending demands of scouting young talent around the world that we


4 MIA

could purchase for cheap. It was one of the only ways we could

compete with teams like the Yankees and Cubs.


***


I pulled into the parking lot of the Starlight bar and parked. Despite

its bright and shiny name, the Starlight was a bit of a dump, inside

and out. But it felt like home, in that it reminded me of a bar right in

the Bronx. During the day, it had its regular customers whose average

age was “ancient.” At night the place transformed into a hip gathering

spot for the twenty-something set, with hot girls prancing around and

guys playing pool at a lone, beer-stained table. At night, the jukebox

blasted loud unnerving music by bands who I’d been reliably told

belonged to the Seattle grunge scene, whereas the daytime crowd

preferred Nat King Cole.

At fifty years old, I preferred the daytime atmosphere ... just like

I did at forty and thirty-five. The barmaid was a Californian beauty

named Lauren. She had been the daytime bartender for nearly

fourteen years. Now, at thirty-five, she was still gorgeous, if you could

look past the bruises that occasionally bloomed around her face,

courtesy of an abusive husband who she refused to leave. Of course,

I’d never learned to ignore them.

There was a time I had a serious crush on her, but after an

extended trip out of town, I came back to a jubilant barmaid with

a ring on her finger and three months pregnant. She was an

aspiring actress and met her future husband in an acting class.

Naturally, he never landed a role and had an aversion to any type

of work that didn’t involve the film industry. He did specialize in

one thing, and that was beating the shit out of his lovely wife and

occasionally landing a punch or two on the faces of their two

children.

Johnny was a real gem and Lauren simply could not leave him.

Behind the bar, she was a tough, no-nonsense chick who could

exchange barbs with the best of them, but in the grips of her supposed


JOSEPH SCIUTO 5

soul mate she was pure mush, despite repeated promises that she had

had enough and was going to take the children and leave.


Almost as soon as I sat down at the bar, Lauren plunked an ice-

cold Budweiser in front of me. This was before I could comment on


the latest bruises on her face, which were so bad that blue-and-red

patches shone through what looked like three extra layers of makeup.

Catching me staring at her, she raised one finger to her mouth and

looked at me as if to say, “Please, don’t go there.”

When she turned and walked away, I was left admiring the view.

What a wonderful view it was. I was pretty sure it was also covered

with bruises, but unlike her face, she was able to hide any damage

behind a tight-fitting pair of blue jeans.

I had offered to help her many times, but she’d always use the

same comeback. Unless I was willing to pay for a divorce, put a ring

on her finger and adopt a six- and seven-year-old, she didn’t have any

real good options. Strange, I saw it from a totally different perspective,

but then I wasn’t the one married to him.

In the world I grew up in there was nothing more cowardly than

a man hitting a woman. My father wouldn’t raise a hand to my

mother if she were sticking a knife in him.

Even so, domestic violence was nothing new to me, and I did

what I could to stop it from creeping onto our teams. Every contract

I signed included a clause that plainly stated that if any player of ours

was guilty of rape or of hitting a wife, girlfriend or any of their

children, their contract would be immediately terminated. I didn’t

give a shit if they were hitting .350 with 120 RBIs and thirty home

runs. They were gone.

I watched Lauren move around the bar. After touching base with

some of the regulars and refilling and replacing empty glasses and

bottles, she plunked herself onto a stool behind the bar, next to me.

She bumped her shoulder into mine like an old pal, then grabbed a

peanut from a bowl and started to crush it with her lacquered

thumbnail.

“So what brings you in so early?”


6 MIA

“You, of course. What other reason would I have to come into

this dump?”

“Surely, you’re not that desperate. You know, they just opened a

new place not far from where you live, where all the bartenders are

hot, barely clad young women. With your resumé, you should have

no problem scoring.”

“If nothing else, I’m loyal. You should know that about me.”

“What, the little guy not working anymore? You know, they have

pills for that type of dysfunction.”

“Cute! Very cute! Besides, I quit my job today.”

“So the Yankees finally called. Please, please, take me to New

York with you.”


“If I knew that is all it would take to get you away from that piece-

of-shit-husband of yours, I would put you and the kids up at the Plaza.


And no, the Yankees did not call.”

“So you finally went to a team that will pay you the ten million a

year you deserve?”

“No, but I am quite sure there are a few offers on my phone. What

team would you like to see me go to?”

“One of the two other teams in this town. Surely, you don’t think

I want to lose the best tipper to come into this bar, even if it is only a

few times a month.”

“Ah,” I said, poking her in the arm. “So it’s all about the money?

I knew it all along.”

I was expecting her to swat at me and laugh, but she went quiet,

and when our eyes met, I was sure she was about to cry. She swiveled

away and popped off the stool, then stood there, looking down at the

half-crushed peanut between her fingers.

“Hey,” I said, swiveling to face her. “What’d I say?”

“Nothing,” she said, still looking down. Then she tossed the peanut

back on the bar, used one finger to poke at my knee and walked away.

“Huh,” I said to myself.

As she pushed through the swinging door to get back behind the

bar, I could swear I saw tears rolling down her face. But by then she


JOSEPH SCIUTO 7

had already picked up a cloth and was wiping off the necks of a row

of bottles of Scotch, with her back turned to me. I was trying to enjoy

the view again, but she wasn’t making it easy. Something was wrong,

and her silence was giving off sparks.

I moved down three stools to where she was now scrubbing away

at a spot on the mirror behind the bar. I stared at her reflection until

she finally saw me. Her hand hung there in mid-mirror. She was

caught. Those were tears, all right.

“Lauren,” I said. “Get over here.”

She dropped her head and her hand, put the cloth next to a bottle

of whiskey and wiped her fingers under both eyes before turning to

look at me.

I looked up at her and gestured to her battered face.

“That’s a pretty good makeup job, but it’s not perfect,” I said.

She started to turn away again, but I gently caught hold of her

elbow.

The pain and hurt in her eyes were terrifying, yet I did not let go

and she did not offer any resistance. “It’s not too late, Lauren.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks and I reached up to wipe them

away. She grasped my hands and clasped them inside hers. “You

should have let me know.”

“I didn’t think it was fair to you.”

She thought about this quietly for a minute, then walked over to

the fridge and came back with another ice-cold Budweiser.

“I’m going away for a long time, and no, it is not to meet with

owners from other teams.”

“You’re always going away, Joe.” She looked at the TV and at an

ESPN reporter. The reporter was talking about my resignation.

“They already have you going to ten different teams. It must be

nice to be so highly regarded and respected.”

I reached into my pocket and took out a faded business card with

a private phone number written across it. “You can always reach me

at this number. The only other people to have that number were my

parents.” She took the card and placed it inside her pants pocket.


8 MIA

Over the next few hours I had about ten more beers. I had a few

minor conversations with some of the other regulars, but mostly I

kept my eye on Lauren as she moved around the place, taking care of

everyone. At the end of the night, we met at the bar again, and I took

out my money clip, which had about two thousand dollars in it, and

handed it to her.

“There’s enough there for a couple of weeks at a hotel. If you ever

need help, and I mean ever, I want you to call that number.” She

looked down at the money and back up at me, her mouth hanging

open and her eyes misting up again.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Then don’t say anything,” I said. Then I kissed her on the cheek

and whispered, “I love you, Lauren.” She looked at me like she’d just

been hit, but her expression softened, and she let me go.

I walked out of the bar just as the younger crowd started arriving.

It was already dark outside. I decided to walk home and pick up the

car in the morning. Suddenly, I heard Lauren’s voice calling after me.

I turned and looked back at her figure standing in the shadows of the

bar. From a distance, she looked no different than the gorgeous young

woman I’d met years earlier. She ran toward me and threw her arms

around my neck, almost throwing me off balance.

“Please, please, don’t go away for very long,” she whispered into

my ear. She was still holding on to me.

I held her and whispered back, “Just don’t lose that phone

number and I will never be far away.”

When she finally let go, I reached across and ran my hands

through her soft blonde hair, then tucked one of her long front locks

behind one ear. Then I turned and started to walk home.

About the author

Joseph Sciuto holds degrees from both John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Stony Brook University and a certificate in film studies from New York University. He relocated to Southern California to attend graduate school at Loyola Marymount University, where he studied writing and film. view profile

Published on April 27, 2020

Published by Iguana Publishing

100000 words

Genre: Historical Fiction

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