Baseball was on death row. It took a drag on its last cigaret.

“Tough break, kid,” said an inmate.

“To a better life,” said another.

One by one they came by for the farewell handshake. Baseball forced a smile. For nine months it had waited for a life-saving appeal.

Now, time was up.

“Down in the vall-eeey,” sang a prisoner in cell 2, “the vall-eeey so lowwww . . .

It was a soft refrain.

“You know, I didn’t think it would end this way,” Baseball said. “I know it sounds stupid. But, well, I never really believed there’d be a strike. I kept thinking I’d be, be . . . rescued . . . “

The inmates nodded in sympathy. “We all feel that way, kid,” one said.

Baseball sighed, and gathered up the bubble gum cards that were spread across the cell.

There were all the favorites from this season. Vince Coleman. Tommy Herr. George Brett. Dwight Gooden. Rickey Henderson.

“Sorry pal,” Baseball said, scooping up the Pete Rose card, “not this year.” Hold the sauerkraut The cards were placed in a small box, next to some Red Man chewing tobacco, a scorecard, a Tigers cap and the old glove, a Richie Ashburn model for left-handers.

“Put this somewhere safe, will ya?” Baseball said. “Maybe a museum, or under the bed in some little boy’s room.”

The posters came down next. There was Murphy and Strawberry and Rice and Seaver. Near the sink was a framed 8-by-10 of Peter Ueberroth as Time magazine’s man of the year.

“Guess you can’t always make miracles, huh, Pete?” Baseball said glumly.

Finally, all that was left was home plate, which was under the bed. Baseball dusted it off, then handed it to a fellow prisoner.

“Take this. Keep it hidden. When you get out, drop it off in the first empty sandlot you see.”

They were interrupted by a guard who banged on the cell bars.

“Last meal,” he said.

“Thanks,” Baseball said, “but I don’t feel like it right now.”

A cell mate leaned over and whispered, “Come on, friend. For old times sake.”

Baseball shrugged. “OK. I’ll have a hot dog. But no sauerkraut this time.”

The guard returned a minute later with the final repast, wrapped, as usual, in waxed paper.

“Hey Willie,” someone hollered to the singer in Cell 2. “Play that number one more time.”

Willie strummed a chord on his guitar. Suddenly the concrete walls echoed with voices:

“Taaaake me out to the balll-game, taaake me out to the–“

A preacher appeared at the door. The singing stopped.

“Son,” he said, looking sadly at Baseball, “it’s time to go.” Every lawyer has his day They walked along slowly.

“Anything to say?” the preacher asked.

“What’s there to say?” Baseball answered. “I always thought I was too precious for this. I always thought everybody loved me too much to let this happen.”

“What did your lawyer tell you?”

“Lawyer?” Baseball said. “Don’t ever mention that word around me again.

“I was supposed to be for kids, for athletes. What do I know from arbitration and pensions? It’s a frame-up. I’m innocent, I tell you. I’m just the game. But I’m taking the fall.”

The preacher nodded. They turned the corner. Tears began to run down Baseball’s cheeks. It removed its cleats and its batting glove.

“Won’t be needing these, I guess.”

“Go with God,” the preacher said.

Baseball closed its eyes. Suddenly a voice rang through the corridor.

“WAIT! WAIT! THERE’S A SETTLEMENT!”

A phone call. From strike headquarters. A stay of execution.

“I knew it!” Baseball screamed. “I knew they wouldn’t let me go!”

Baseball grabbed the guard who had delivered the message. “Oh, thank you, sir. From the bottom of my stitches. No more lawyers! No more unions! I’m free again! Free! Hallelujah!”

The guard looked down at his feet.

“Uh, well, sir,” he said, “not exactly free . . .”

Now somewhere in New York, the briefcase men are toasting themselves. And somewhere in America, the fans sigh in relief.

Back in the cell block, Willie strums a few chords. And off in the corner sits a prisoner with cork insides, flipping bubble gum cards and nibbling on hot dogs.

“How long till the next strike?” Baseball asks, but nobody answers.

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