Itís a game of eccentrics. So no one thinks twice when he goes and locks himself in a bathroom stall to tie his shoes. Itís his ritual, thatís it. Who doesnít have one?

Eight years, six teams not including the minors. Never left a friend behind; never really made one. Mediocre at best but stays employed. Doesnít ask for much. Gets less than he asks for. Itís his ritual. Who doesnít have one?

Eight years. Thirty-four years old and feels seventy. Ties his shoes in the bathroom.

Twenty years ago it was so easy. Grew early, moved well. Sixteen years ago it was even easier. Drafted out of high school.

But rookie league was hard. AA was harder. He wasnít used to anyone being better than he was. He didnít have the talent, didnít know how to learn. Didnít have an edge. So he invented one: Doing as he was told became his secret power.

They told him to find a wife, so he did. Pick me, pick me! Iím married and I speak English! That was just about eight years ago.

His wife. Now heíd gladly hand her half his money just so he wouldnít have to brave that look again. Soon enough, he will. When his playing days are over. Soon enough. Love and career didnít go as planned. At least he keeps his disappointment to himself.

He thinks of all the things heís never done. Heís never gotten a ring. Heís never walked it off. Heís never been on Sports Center. Heís gone eight years without a post game interview. Heís never really made a friend. Heís never played Pepper.

The old stadiums Ė the ones he dreamed about when the dream seemed inevitable Ė the old stadiums had stenciled signs: No Pepper Games. He never knew what it meant, and even when someone told him he was pretty sure they lied. Why have a sign on a major league field telling major league ballplayers not to knock a ball around? But whatever it was, he is who he is. He has a job because he does what heís told, and doesnít do what heís told not to. So: No Pepper Games.

Day game after a night game, and a west coast flight right after: Heís in the starting line-up. He locks himself in the can and ties his shoes. Itís his ritual. Everybodyís got one. Strike it up to superstition but the only streak heís ever had that heíd want to keep alive is having a job. This job. Heís terrified of losing it. What could possibly come next? Whoring off his flat line stats? Color commentary from a nobody? A coach teaching boys that the game is like loving a woman you love who doesnít love you back: You watch her sleep around and forgive her. She marries someone else but you still hang around, doing whatever she asks you to, thinking someday sheíll realize youíre the one but she never will. And even though youíve given her everything and youíre happy just to be her dog and never complain about it, sheíll still throw you away and forget you. Because thereís always another dog, a younger dog, a dog that claims to love her even more than you do.

He was never a student of the game. He didnít care about the history until he realized he would be a part of it. Flat line stats, six teams, hopefully seven or even eight. His name, noted and not mentioned, forever. DiMaggio, Mantle, Aaron, Griffey, Mays. Never saw any of them, but they left marks. Stole numbers. Probably played Pepper too.

So today heís starting. He locks himself in a stall and ties his shoes. He does this every day, then he tapes down the laces. He doesnít want anyone to see him wince when his right leg comes up. He flushes the toilet so no one will hear him groan. Thereís paper right there to wipe the sweat from his lip and his forehead when heís done. He wonders how many pregame rituals out there are really just about hiding pain.

The sun is bright. He steps out of the dugout. He hears a child call his name. His name. Probably read it off the back of his jersey.

Heís never walked it off. Heís never been on Sports Center. He hears a child call his name.

In this moment there are a million things he does not know. He doesnít know if heís lucky or cursed. He doesnít know for sure the tape will hold. He doesnít know that he will fall in love with a high school Science teacher who worked picking peas, cantaloupe and strawberries when she was just ten years old, and that she will love him back. He doesnít know she will convince him to get his first dog, and that he will love that dog so much that he will become a bit of an activist. He doesnít know that he will teach as many girls to play baseball as he will boys, and that he will do so purely for pleasure. He doesnít know that he will look back on his playing days without a shred of regret, or that his greatest joys lie elsewhere; he doesnít even know itís possible that his greatest joys could lie elsewhere. He doesnít know how to hit a curve. Or a fastball with any movement. Or that, with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth and no one on, his manager will decide, with no outs, not to pinch hit for him, but rather to pinch run for him if he happens to get on. He doesnít know that he wonít see a single curveball, just a slow fastball without any movement, and that a pinch runner will never come into play.