Author's Note: I dedicate this story to the memory of my father. Baseball was always his favorite sport, and the Detroit Tigers were his favorite team. They were his one true love, win or lose. I can remember many nights last summer, and even early in the season this year, before he passed, listening to him screaming at the TV when the Tigers botched a game, and singing their praises when they did well.
Whenever people met my father, if they were willing to talk about the Tigers or baseball in general, they had a friend for life in him. He encouraged me to start writing again a few years ago and you could say he was my best and my worst critic. He loved reading what I wrote and giving me ideas to take stories in directions I never would've thought of on my own. He also told me when he didn't like a particular character or scene and gave his feedback on what I could improve.
While this story contains fictional characters, it is based on real teams. Keep in mind, I know very little about how the major leagues and minor leagues work behind the scenes so please forgive any inaccuracies. I know I'll never have a love for baseball the way my father did, but I hope wherever he is, he'll read this story with a smile on his face. I miss you, pop. This one's for you.
"Why the hell did they pull me up from Toledo if they didn't intend to use me?" Steve Strathmore sat on the bench in the dugout at Comerica Park in Detroit, watching as the fans slowly filed out of the ballpark.
He'd been called up from Triple A Toledo for a month while one of the Detroit Tigers' star players recovered from an injury, and since his arrival two weeks ago, he'd played exactly two games. He loved the game, had since he was a kid. This was his shot at the big leagues.
This had only been his second season playing professional baseball, a dream he'd had since he was a child. He and his father had never missed a game when Steve was growing up. They'd either head on down to Michigan and Trumbull, where the legendary Tiger Stadium used to be, or if they couldn't make a game in person, they'd always catch it on TV or radio.
It didn't matter if the Tigers won or lost, he was a die-hard fan, and once he'd made it to high school, he'd worked hard to get onto the school's baseball team. He'd led his team to two championships, one when he was a junior and one in his senior year, and had even had offers of scholarships from several colleges and universities.
He was one of the best players in the minor leagues. He'd worked hard and waited patiently for his turn to be called up to the major leagues. He remembered the conversation with his coach as if it had just happened.
_Manager Lonny Parker motioned for Steve to take a seat across from him.
"You wanted to see me, Lonny?" Steve asked, feeling his heart thunder in his chest. He'd heard the Tigers needed someone to fill in for an injured player, someone coincidentally who played second base and had an excellent batting average.
Lonny ran his hand over his beard stubbled face and sighed. "I really don't want to lose you right now, Steve. Not when we're doing so well this season, but they need someone to take over for Guillen for a month. Think you're up for it?"
Steve couldn't suppress the smile on his face. "Hell yeah, I'm up for it."
"I thought you would be. As I said, they only need you for a month, but this is your chance to go to the show, albeit it temporarily. Show them what you've got."
Steve rose to his feet and shook hands with his manager. "Thanks, Lonny. I won't disappoint you."_
Now, two weeks later, he'd played only two games and watched as the Tigers fell further and further from first place in the American League Central. He knew he could've helped them to play better; he knew his batting average spoke for itself, yet they'd decided against using him. Instead, he was a glorified bench warmer. Picking up his glove and hat, both of which he'd tossed on the ground at his feet after the game, he rose to his feet and made his way to the locker room. He didn't know what he could do to convince the Tigers' manager to let him play.
Suzanne Mahoney watched as her all-time favorite minor league player slowly rose to his feet and headed toward the locker rooms. She'd been following his short career since he'd joined the Toledo Mud Hens, and she was surprised and ecstatic when she'd seen his name on the roster for the second base position for the Detroit Tigers. She'd managed to snag tickets for the past few home games for the Tigers and this particular game had been a night game at Comerica.
She'd loved baseball since she was a little girl, much to her mother's chagrin, and had made sure to follow her favorite two teams, the Detroit Tigers and the Toledo Mud Hens. When she learned her high school crush would be playing for the Triple A Toledo team, she'd managed to find herself an apartment halfway between Detroit and Toledo. She chuckled at herself, thinking if people knew about her secret crush on the young second baseman, they'd think she was either stalking him or seeking him out for his money.
She didn't care about any of that. She loved watching him play. He was one of the best players she'd ever seen. Suzanne could see from the look on his face when he was on the field that he dearly loved to play the game. She didn't know much about him, other than what she'd learned from when they were in high school together. She asked around or did research on the Internet too, but she did know without asking, his heart belonged to baseball.
As she'd sat and watched him sitting in the dugout after the game, she wondered why they'd called him up from Toledo. She knew he'd only played two games since he'd been in Detroit and the look of disappointment on his face told her he'd been wondering the same thing.
Gathering up her empty soda cup and her purse, she made her way toward the exit. Pausing once she reached the main concourse, she saw a sign indicating where the locker rooms were. She wondered if Steve Strathmore was still in there, then wondered if he'd be willing to give her his autograph if she asked. She also wondered if he'd even remember her, the geeky girl who used to always cheer him on at their high school games.
Suzanne walked slowly toward the locker room, smiling at the tall, lanky security guard standing nearby.
"I'm sorry, miss. You can't go any further. This area is restricted."
"Oh, I know. I'm sorry, I just wanted to see if — oh, never mind, it's silly." She blushed like a schoolgirl and turned to leave.
"You wanted to see if what?" the security guard asked.
Suzanne turned and smiled at the man again. "I wanted to see if Steve Strathmore was still here."
The security guard cocked a brow at her. "Is he expecting you?"
"Well, no. Uh, we went to high school together and I'd just like to say hi." She paused and blushed again. "He probably won't even remember me." Suzanne shifted nervously from one foot to the other. She tucked a wayward strand of blonde hair behind her ear and turned her eyes away from the security guard.
The security guard smiled. "Let me see if he's still here." Turning, the man pulled a set of keys from his belt loop, flipped through them then unlocked the door, pulling it open and stepping inside. Suzanne heard the click as the lock snapped back into place once the door closed again.
She fidgeted with her purse strap while she waited. Unconsciously, she began nibbling at her thumbnail, a nervous habit she'd had since she was a child and one her parents were never able to break. After about ten minutes, she realized she hadn't given the security guard her name. She knew Steve probably wouldn't come out anyway so she turned and made her way toward the exit when a deep, sexy voice stopped her in her tracks.
"Suzanne? Is that you?"
She turned slowly to face the object of her desire since she'd been a teenager. Smiling, she moved slowly toward him.
"You remember me?"
"Of course I remember you." Steve moved closer. "It's been a few years, and you look different, but when Marty told me there was someone here to see me, I knew it had to be you. You were always my biggest fan." He smiled again and reached out his hand. "How've you been?"
Suzanne took his hand and fought the powerful reaction she felt by simply touching him. "I've been good." She smiled. "I see you finally made it to the big leagues."
"Yeah." Steve sighed and reluctantly pulled his hand away. "Only temporarily though, I'm afraid."
"But you're here! You've played baseball — professional baseball — for your favorite team, Steve. You're living your dream. Not many people can say that."
He glanced around, noticing the place was clearing out fast. "Can we go somewhere and catch up?"
Suzanne felt her heartbeat kick up a notch. "Where did you have in mind?"
"The food court is still open. Why don't we go there?"
Steve reached for her hand and sighed contently when she took his and tangled her fingers with his. They walked at a leisurely pace while chatting and getting to know each other a bit.
He wasn't lying when he said he remembered Suzanne from high school. He smiled, remembering she wasn't all that popular and well, she was kind of nerdy, but she'd always managed to make it to every baseball game, and she'd always cheered the loudest when he was at bat or when he'd made a particularly good play.
They'd only gone out once, and it was with a group of both their friends after one of the final games of the season his senior year. They'd chatted a bit, but with all the excitement of the team making it to their second championship in as many years, and Steve being a big part of them being there, they hadn't had much opportunity to really get to know each other.
He'd known after they'd graduated that she'd stayed at home and attended a local college so she could be closer to her parents. He'd also known she had remained single since high school and had only had a few casual boyfriends.
She wasn't entirely unattractive when they'd gone to school together. She just hadn't been the type of girl he'd "chased" after back then. As far as he knew, teenage boys went for the tight clothing, the big boobs and the brainless, everything Suzanne wasn't. They didn't want brains, they wanted a girl who would put out. At least that's what he liked back then. He'd noticed Suzanne in those days, but not in the way he'd noticed her now.
She'd filled out nicely in the past few years and she'd ditched the coke-bottle glasses for contacts. Her blonde hair was different, too. It just brushed her shoulders, but it looked nothing like the dull blonde hair she'd sported in high school. Now it shimmered in the soft lights overhead as they walked the concourse to the food court. And those curves under the low rise jeans and cropped t-shirt she wore had all the blood in his veins rushing south.
His breath had caught in his throat when he'd first seen her again. Those big brown eyes captured his attention and held it. She'd long since had her braces removed and there were absolutely no blemishes on her pale skin now. Her lips, he remembered, had always been full and sensuous, and when he'd seen them again, he couldn't help but wonder what they'd feel like against his own.
So lost in his thoughts, he didn't hear when she'd spoken. "Steve?"
"Oh, uh," he blushed. "Sorry, I was daydreaming."
Suzanne smiled at him. "That's okay. Happens to me all the time." She tugged on his hand as he kept walking. "We're here."
Glancing up at the sign, Steve blushed again. "Oh, yeah. So we are."
He led her to a small table near Little Caesar's and asked if she wanted anything in particular. Glancing at the sign, Suzanne smiled. "Actually, you picked the perfect table, Steve. I could really go for some pizza." Steve grinned and Suzanne felt her heart slam against her ribs.
"Whatever the lady wishes."
He bowed gracefully and turned toward the line forming at Little Caesar's. Suzanne sighed dreamily. She couldn't believe he remembered her. Watching as he moved forward in the line, she admired the way his faded jeans hugged his long, powerful legs. She'd had many fantasies over the years about that fantastic ass of his. Blushing when he turned his eyes her way, Suzanne lowered her eyes, feeling like all types of a fool for ogling him.
She'd noticed when he'd walked out of the locker room that his brown hair was still damp from his shower. It was longer than she remembered, curling slightly and just barely touching the collar of his t-shirt, but it looked good on him.
She remembered the deep blue of his eyes as they sparkled with happiness and excitement after they'd won the final game of the season, putting them in the championship. She remembered him smiling at her when he came out of the locker room today, the same sparkle of happiness in those beautiful eyes at seeing her, remembering her.
The day's worth of beard growth covering his cheeks and chin made him look even more sexy. Suzanne fantasized about how that stubble would feel against her sensitive flesh while he made love to her. Blushing clear to her hairline when she caught his gaze again, Suzanne tried desperately to turn her mind away from those erotic thoughts.
She fiddled with the strap on her purse, keeping her focus there instead of on him and didn't hear when he'd returned with their food. Taking one of the plates from him when he held it literally under her nose, she mumbled a thank-you and reached for a napkin.
"Everything all right?" he asked as he sat down beside her.
"Uh, yeah," she replied quietly. "Everything's fine."
"Okay." Steve placed a cup in front of her. "Diet Pepsi if I remember correctly, right?"
All embarrassment gone now, Suzanne beamed a smile in his direction. "Yes, you remembered correctly." Taking a sip through the straw, she was pleased he'd remembered when she'd ordered a Diet Pepsi the one and only time they'd gone out together with their friends.
"So tell me what you've been doing with yourself since I last saw you," Steve said, then took a bite of his pizza slice.
"Well, I went to Schoolcraft College, as you know. I majored in Culinary Arts." She smiled. "I'm currently assistant chef at Coach Insignia. Have you heard of it?"
Steve smiled. "Yeah, I have. I'm impressed. That place is pretty ritzy. Do you like it there?"
"I love it. I've always loved cooking and coming up with new recipes and my boss lets me tinker a bit sometimes. He even named one of the dishes I created after me."
"Really? That's cool. What's it called?"
"Quiche Suzanne." Suzanne laughed. "I know, pretty corny. I took a bunch of stuff that I thought would taste good together one day and made it into a quiche. Antoine loved it and now it's a featured item on the menu."
"Don't be, it's not all that glamorous."
Steve set his pizza slice down and took her hand. "To you it might not be, but to me it is." He smiled that thousand-watt smile, and Suzanne thought her heart would melt. "Now being a baseball player, that's not so glamorous."
It was Suzanne's turn to gape at him. "Are you serious? Being a baseball player is way more glamorous than being an assistant chef. You get to travel the country. You get to do something you love. You have millions of adoring fans." She paused to take a sip of her soda. "And probably hundreds of women just dying to get you in the sack." Grabbing her napkin, she wiped her mouth, hoping he didn't see her blush again at her bold words.
"Honestly, I don't like all the attention. You know that from our school days. I'm just a regular guy doing something I love." He finished his pizza and took the lid off the cup of his soda. Draining the rest of it, he took his plate and cup and dropped them in the trash. "And as far as the hundreds of women, I can do without them. They're only after their fifteen minutes of fame to be seen with a professional baseball player."
Suzanne loved his honesty. When he asked if she was finished, she nodded and handed him her plate. Finishing off the last of her soda, she rose to her feet and dropped the cup in the trash can near their table.
"So where to now?"
Steve glanced at his watch. He didn't want to go back to the hotel just yet, but it was getting late. He didn't know if Suzanne had to work in the morning or not, but now that they'd reconnected, he wanted to spend more time with her. Thinking quickly, he took her hand and led her back toward the locker rooms.
"Steve, where are we going?"
Suzanne didn't argue; she just followed as he pulled her along the concourse. She couldn't imagine what he wanted to do, but at this point, she didn't care. She was getting to spend time with him, and that's all that mattered at the moment.
"Hey, Marty," Steve said as they approached the security guard who'd gotten Steve out of the locker room for Suzanne earlier. "Come here, I've got a favor to ask you."
Releasing Suzanne's hand, he leaned in and placed a soft kiss on her cheek before shooting her a wink then pulling Marty closer to the locker room door. Steve spoke in hushed tones, casting a glance toward Suzanne every so often.
He didn't know what had motivated him to ask Marty to let them back into the dugout, but he desperately wanted to take her there, show her the field from the perspective he sees it from every day. He knew she'd love it. He also hoped he could finally get to kiss her under the lights of the ballpark.
Smiling in her direction, Steve told her he'd be right back, then disappeared into the locker room behind Marty. Suzanne stood where he'd left her, wondering exactly what was about to happen.
"Okay, close your eyes." Steve took Suzanne's hand and led her through the locker room and out into the dugout. He'd had Marty talk to the guys in charge of the lighting for night games and they'd agreed to show him how to work the controls so they could shut everything off once Steve and Suzanne were finished.
Marty had then made his way back to the main concourse to give them some privacy. Now, Steve stood behind Suzanne while she felt her way around and nearly ran into the rail at the edge of the dugout.
She opened her eyes while Steve caught her before she seriously injured herself. "Whoa, easy there." He turned and led her to the bench running nearly the entire length of the dugout. "Sorry about that. Let's sit down." Taking her hand again, he sat in the middle of the bench and pulled her down beside him.
"So, what do you think?"
Suzanne hadn't taken her eyes off the field. She glanced around, wide-eyed, taking in the sights of her favorite ballpark from a whole new angle. The field looked twice the size it did from the stands or on TV, but she supposed that was normal. The whole field was lit up so brightly, unless you looked up at the sky, you wouldn't know it was night time.
"It's amazing," she said, finally turning to look at him. "Thank you, Steve."
He smiled and pulled her closer. "You're welcome." Turning his gaze out to the field, he suddenly felt very nervous, like a teenager on his first date. "Uh," he cleared his throat, unsure of what to say next. The look she was giving him rendered him even more speechless than he already was.
Pulling his hand away from hers, he rose to his feet and took the few steps to the rail. Comerica Park was truly one of the more beautiful ballparks in the country, and he'd seen his fair share of major and minor league parks.