CARL: This is Carl Drake, play-by-play commentator for NBS Broadcasting, and we are live at the fifth game of the Continental League baseball series between the Salem Sluggers and the Dunwich Decadents.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting, wondering why it is that you and I seem to be calling virtually all the games in these series.

CARL: It’s true that we’ve called a lot of games recently; it could be a reflection of our practiced and Pavlovian patter, useful in providing white noise to those asleep in the stands or at home.

TOM: That’s right, Carl; either that, or we are just a pair of artificial intelligences not unlike those in sports-based video games, long ago shed of any mortal shells and doomed to an eternal digital purgatory of relating inane and useless information to people too tired or drunk to care.

CARL: Hell of a way to live, Tom.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. Hell of a way to live.

CARL: Looks like the Salem Sluggers are going to try and put another man on base. That’s Proctor at bat for the Sluggers with Carter on the mound for the Decadents. There’s the pitch, an inside fastball.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. Proctor looks like…yes, he’s charging his bat with infernal fire. Looks like he’s going to go for this one with all the dark powers at his disposal! Smart move of his, waiting until the ball was live to reveal what kind of blackest magicks he’d use on this pitch.

CARL: Especially after Corey was struck out by Pickman two innings ago, when the Decadents caused a gibbering mass of writhing tentacles from a place where man dare not tread to spring forth from the outfield to swallow Corey’s ball possessed by the spirit of his familiar.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. In that circumstance, I’d have used a broomstick ball instead of a familiar foul. Much better against the Decadents’ Gibbous Grab. In the meantime, Proctor’s hellfire ball is up, up, and away! It looks like one of the Decadent outfielders has just sacrificed the living soul of a teammate to summon a night-gaunt to pursue and ensnare the ball in its faceless, rubbery maw.

CARL: The Decadents’ outfielders–well, except for left field, who is now a soulless and decayed husk–are in place to catch the ball if the night-gaunt extinguishes and fields it, but…it’s no good! It’s out of here! Home run for the Sluggers!

TOM: That’s right, Carl. It looks like a bench-clearing bewitchment from Proctor’s teammates that got the ball past…but they may have unleashed more than they bargained for. The fans are not happy about this, they are not happy, and they are showing it by throwing it.

CARL: A reminder to our viewers at home that tonight is Ten Cent Potion Night here at Arkham Stadium, and many of the fans are well over the stated limit of six potions per person, and they are throwing those excess potions onto the field. It looks like we have a sentient grass monster in the center outfield, and the Sluggers’ shortstop has just been turned into a newt. Things are about to get ugly.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is fantasy baseball with the Continental League, Arcane division.

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Willis had entertained dreams of being signed to the majors like all kids who ever came back to a dugout with dirt on their knees. He got closer than most, and was in talks with State for a scholarship when a simple fall on a rough old sidewalk led to a devastating rotator cuff injury. He tried playing through the pain, but it was no good; he wound up at State anyway, but as a business/accounting major.

Still, that wasn’t enough to quash the hope–is it ever?–and once he started seeing Lily, Willis became convinced that the next generation was the ticket. He has all the right equipment to train his son to be a great ball player, to create someone with a sharp mind and unerring aim that would lead inexorably from high school to college to the minors to the majors. It was an ironclad plan, and it made the pain of tossing a ball to himself against the back fence almost bearable.

After the wedding came the baby shower, and after the baby shower came Carolyn. Willis held off buying her the baseball pajamas until Lily’s miscarriage made certain there’s be no second crib. Wasn’t this a brave new world, anyway, one with the WNBA and Title IX? Carolyn still had a shot. And she had talent: it was apparent early on that the girl was whip-smart with a dead eye for using a stick to put a ball just where she wanted it.

Softball came and went along with practice in the backyard, but Carolyn chafed under Willis’s regimen. She loved the sport but hated the teamwork, the sitting and waiting, the subterfuge and the dirt. When her father heard about the junior high tennis team, he was distraught at first before reassuring himself that those same skills–his genes–were still in evidence and would still make their mark. Intense practice and a backyard net followed, along with summer tennis programs at State.

But Carolyn  never really hit her growth spurt, and topped out at five foot two in heels in the seventh grade. Good enough for high school, maybe, but it was apparent that against the willowy blondes she met at State, Carolyn was at a terrible disadvantage. The day she left for State on a clarinet scholarship found Willis seated in his garage, disconsolate, spinning an old racket in his good hand and clutching a worn-out old softball in his bad.

Coach Curtl brought his own peculiar Czechoslovakian style to the teams under his guidance, chief among them his overwhelming faith in statistics. Every athlete would be given a mimeographed sheet onto which their times (for track & field), yards (for football) batting average (for baseball) and any other relevant statistics could be entered.

Curtl and his assistant coaches would hover nearby, stopwatch or tape measure in hand, during every practice. Afterwards, he would laboriously calculate derived statistics and normalize them–this in an era of slide rules! Student athletes whose Curtlmetrics (as they called them) showed improvement or at least maintained a consistent level of (Curtl-defined) quality were fine.

Those who slipped got their pick of an escalating series of punishments: extra practices, demotion on the roster, or even cutting. All cuts received a detailed sheet from Curtl explaining their crimes in detail.

When Anderson got his, though, he had an inkling that the numbers weren’t quite right.