After five months they let the Hit King out of prison and move him to a halfway house in Cincinnati. He isn't exactly free yet, but at least he can roam around. His life is almost his own again. Practically the first thing he does, he gets on the telephone and calls his son and tells him he's dying for a Big Mac and fries.
"All right," replies the son. "No problem, Dad."
They agree to meet at a sports mall in town. It's an amusement park of sorts with, among other things, batting cages where you pay to challenge machines that fire baseballs. The Hit King and his son embrace when they see each other. The boy can feel something drubbing hugely in his throat, keeping time with his heart. When the Hit King finishes eating, they walk to one of the batting cages. It's way in back: the one that throws 80-mph fastballs, the highest speed offered by any of the machines. "Turn that damn thing on, Jay," the Hit King barks to the fellow who runs the place.
Who can guess how long it's been since he stood in a batter's box and took a swing? Years, the boy would estimate.
The Hit King gets a bat and goes to stand at the plate. He looks the way he did in the old days, before the world came to know him as a gambler and a tax cheat. He again could be baseball's greatest star, its most prolific hitter, the workingman's hero, adored for how he scrapped and hustled. He crouches over, with his feet set shoulder length apart, the bat held steady, his thick, blunt hands gripping the handle, a gaze of bitter defiance on his face.
The machine hums and spits a hard one. The Hit King steps forward, and the bat whips around and lets go a crack, and the ball flies on a bead and clanks noisily against the contraption from which it sprang. A clutch of people witness the demonstration, and none of them doubt that the studbolt in the cage is Pete Rose.
"He could get a hit off God," the boy mutters to himself. "God could be on the mound, and he'd still get a hit."
The Hit King looks up to the heavens with as much curiosity as contempt, then over at the boy, Pete Rose Jr., whose flesh has suddenly gone cold with chills. "Gentlemen, some things never change," the Hit King announces in a voice way louder than usual.
He lets the bat fall to the ground and strides out of the cage, the boy closely following.
Well, maybe he really wasn't a boy. After all, Pete Rose Jr. was 21 then, in 1991, and a professional ballplayer himself, though one banging around minor league towns such as Erie and Frederick, South Bend and Kinston. Maybe it's the Junior that brings to mind a child, less than equal to the Senior who sired him.