Story:Changing of the Guard
Changing of the Guard
Written by Tazel
Changing of the Guard
Story Copyright 2015 by Tazel Sixpaws
All characters copyright to their creators
The FBA is copyright to Mitchell Redding
"I'm sorry about that, had some last minute things come up at the office."
The coyote nodded. "I understand," he said, relinquishing control briefly, only to take it back. "You do realize we are talking about the future of your team here and now, though?"
The rat in the slightly unkempt casual shirt tugged on his ballcap. "Mr. Hunter, believe me, that has been one of many things on my mind."
The sound of a dropped tray of dishes made the rodent startle for just a moment, his banded tail shooting straight out behind him. Jeff Hunter, agent, raised an eyebrow. "Everything alright, Mr. Louis?"
Hector nodded. "Sorry, just - yeah, sorry." He settled back into the lush chair that was reserved for the private room at the Salt Lick Barbecue, as he took his water and sipped at it. His eyes danced from the coyote to the figure alongside him, at the opposite end of the table.
"If you'd rather do this another time, sir, I'd understand," said the unmistakably minimized twang of the koala. His paws were clenched together, all four thumbs interlocked, as the forward looked on casually to his boss, the general manager of the Texas Lone Stars. He was the only one at the table in a suit and tie, but knowing Travis, that was appropriate. Especially given the nature of the meeting.
"No, no," replied Hector, waving away the concern. "We need to get this done."
Travis nodded. "Agreed," he replied, and nodded to Jeff, who turned back to Hector. "You realize, Mr. Louis, that Travis' rookie contract is expiring this year?" he asked, his paws laced together as well.
"Of course. That's been one of the big things on my mind."
Jeff smiled. "Excellent. Then I don't mind telling you, I have gotten offers from other franchises for Travis' services." Jeff had taken a stack of papers from his briefcase, papers which bore the letterheads of various other teams. Some big names too. Playoff contender teams, moreso than the Lone Stars had been for this last year.
Hector was aware, of course. You do not become and maintain your position as a general manager without knowing what was coming down the pike for trades and contract re-negotiations, after all. Admittedly, however, he was a bit confused. "I was under the impression Travis wished to stay with the Lone Stars," he asked, his eyes flitting back to his star forward.
Travis nodded. "I do, sir. The Lone Stars took a chance on me, and thanks to excellent leadership and some hungry rookies, we got to the playoffs."
"However," interrupted his agent, leaning forward to interrupt the visual interaction, "There has to be the issue of appropriate compensation, considering who was the most reliable Texas performer during the season and post. We..."
The conversation stopped abruptly, as one of the Salt Lick's best servers brought in the food ordered by the duo. A salad for Buckner, naturally, and a half-rack of ribs for Hunter. The cougaress also brought Hector a highly-stacked pulled pork sandwich. The rat looked to Travis, who smiled. "I thought I'd order for you since you were running behind. Hope you don't mind?" It was easier for him to do so, now that he was a part owner in the establishment.
"Thank you, Travis. It's fine, just fine!" Hector smiled, and the next minute or so was spent taking first nibbles into the late lunch. Jeff dabbed his muzzle off, and continued where he left off. "We feel that Travis has brought a very high level of professionalism, ability and image to the Lone Stars, and would hate to see your team MVP spirited away to another club."
Hector looked up from his sandwich, his ears laid back a bit. "I'm not able to give counteroffers at this time, until I can analyze the ones on the table." He looked back to Travis, who was calmly picking at his salad, moving some of the steak strips off to the side. "You wouldn't leave for money, would you son?" he asked.
Travis' eyes flicked up, over the rim of his eyeglasses and smiled. "No sir. But," His eyes flicked to Jeff, who subtly nodded. Hector's keen senses picked up the agent's go-ahead. Travis cleared his throat and continued. "There are other considerations I need to make."
Hector sighed a bit inwardly. <<Here we go. I hate agents.>> he thought. "What are you asking for, Travis?" he asked, turning on professional mode.
The koala began to answer, only to be interrupted by Jeff. "A contract slightly better than Marcus Knight, for one," he said, firmly. To this, Travis kept silent, picking at his salad again.
Hector went wide eyed, as Jeff had expected. "I don't know if we have the funds for that," he protested, putting down his sandwich and looking at the coyote incredulously.
Jeff shrugged, and picked up another rib. "Not our issue. That should have been a consideration when the offer was made to an undrafted rookie. Overbuying talent is dangerous, no matter if it's a decade-plus veteran or wet-behind-the-ears newbie."
Hector's eyes narrowed. "He's our most improved player this year. He's gotten his share of POTGs. Marcus is worth every penny. I know what I'm doing with my team, sir," he said, his tail whipping a bit. He then turned back to Travis. "This really what you want?" he asked, disappointment toning his voice.
Travis let out a soft sigh. "It's not about the money, sir," he said, gently. "It's about perceived value." He put a forkful of eucalyptus salad in his muzzle and chewed. There was no such salad on the menu, but as co-owner he was able to have the chefs have a 'special' menu just for the Lone Stars. Grilled carrots weren't offered publicly, but Mitchell Redding knew he could order them anytime, thanks to Travis.
Hector crossed his arms as he sized up his star 3-spot. "What do you mean?" he asked, trying to get some clarity.
Travis put down the fork and leaned over his salad, his hands lacing fingers together again as he assumed a very engaging body language. "When someone is overpaid for their job, especially in sports, people tend to have negative imagery associated with them. I'm not saying that's what happened with Marcus, but if he starts losing his ability on the court, his AND the team's image will suffer as a result."
"I'm well aware, Travis. But that is conjecture. You don't have proof."
"Sir, if you pay for a good player, and he keeps being good while simultaneously being good for the community, you'll see a lot more return on that investment than someone who is not engaging those who are buying the tickets to the arena," Travis' fingers templed against each other as he spoke. "Marcus is solid, but he's been distracted. I'd wager being a new father would do that to a person. His meltdown in the last game of our playoffs cemented that, I'm afraid."
"I'd say his focus is just fine," retorted the GM. Hector was done coddling the koala - a far cry from the rookie he had to rescue only a year ago after his altercation with that damn reporter. Maybe too far a cry. "Plus, I recall Franz Volker doing fine with a few POTGs after his kid was born Christmas last year. Your old teammate, Dreyfus, just had a kid recently too, and he did well enough in the playoffs! Just having a child doesn't mean your mind wanders on that court."
Jeff cleared his throat. "May I remind you that Travis' applications to his game resulting in a near 100% increase in his pointage almost across the board in every game? And the game with his triple double, to boot?"
"We lost that game as I recall."
The coyote shrugged. "Supporting players do not define the worth, pro or con, for one individual. The playoffs proved that."
Hector glared at the coyote from that last statement. It was a common criticism in social media and analysts that Texas being in the playoffs, as well as winning the divisional title, was a fluke, with a bench that couldn't stand up to the Bikers when it mattered. He didn't need an agent reminding him of that, even one that was an ex-athlete.
Travis put his hand on Jeff's shoulder, which halted his agent's speech. He looked back to the hat-clad rat. "Sir, he's not saying Marcus WILL falter. he's just saying Marcus could be in DANGER of it. I fear he was more focused on his kids than the game during the playoffs."
"Again, you don't know that for a fact, Travis."
"No, I don't. But what I do know, is that every time I saw him, he was glued to his phone for most of the time, even during practices, hanging on Mercedes' every word. I don't have such detractors for my game. My focus is on my team, and on winning games. Aside from going to the jazz club once in a while and my charity work, I don't have a social life. The FBA is my mate, to whom I'm committed 100%. But as I also support the community and the fans, you can show you're supporting the area and trying to keep appropriate talent by making the offers of finance to those that *are* actively bringing in furs to the games. That way, nobody devalues those that do bring in bodies, by claiming a pittance of reimbursement."
Hector scoffed. "So, in brief," he muttered, punctuating that last word as the subtle request for Travis to become such, "It's 'show money'."
"In a manner of speaking," admitted Travis. "Please believe me when I say my donations are for the good of charity, but also for the good of my team. I make sure everybody wins, or I don't go forward."
Jeff turned back to Hector, and smiled with a bit of predation. "We know Marcus has improved, but he's not engaging the fans as much as Travis does. Marcus is a cheerleader. The team doesn't need that. They need a role model and a leader. And that's what Travis is. Mitchell himself called him a superstar. If one of the most well known names of the FBA's endorsement isn't any indication of my client's value, I don't know what is."
The coyote paused to take a drink of sweet tea, then continued, much to Hector's unhappiness. "Plus, he's got his charities and donations to ensure there is maximum fan involvement. He never steps away from meeting fans, giving autographs, and committing his valuable time to your organization."
"In brief," Jeff concluded, also punctuating the word, "Travis is worth more than Marcus. However, we don't want to bleed you. Just, make it reasonable per the expectation. To at least give the impression you're giving value back to your fans through Travis."
Hector pushed the sandwich away, as his appetite had suddenly left him. "Anything else?" he muttered.
Jeff cleared his throat again, and readdressed Hector. "We wish for the designation of Travis as sole team captain." he said, simply. Travis looked back to his salad, lightly pushing it around with his fork.
The GM shot up in his seat. "What? Why?" he growled. "They're both captains! And Mitchell's a valued veteran! We owe our presence in the playoffs to him! He deserves that co-captain position more than anyone!" He turned a narrowed glance to the koala. "Travis could learn a lot from him," he admitted.
Travis appeared hurt by the comment, as Jeff stood up and leaned forward towards Hector, his eyes narrowing, and becoming more animated in his defense of his client, his paw gesturing towards the apparently embarassed koala. "Really? What is the purpose of the team captain? To direct, to motivate, to make suggestions to the trainers for areas that are needing team focus? Tell me, how much of that in the last few months have been Mitchell, and how much has been Travis? When his team was under fire in social media, who went to bat for them more often? When the team lost by one point, who rallied the troops in the last twenty games? Who has been the eyes and ears of the trainers, to ensure the highest health and efficiency of those around him? And who stayed professional in all the social media during the playoffs, when Mitchell would shoot his mouth off about Malone, and your rookie fish either sulking or becoming ragers?"
Hector's tail whipped behind him, aggravated. "EVERYONE is supposed to be supporting their team like that! That's what we train them to be!"
Jeff sniffed. "Some are apparently needing more training. And Mitchell's been hurt a lot, lately. People are beginning to think he's not cutting the mustard, and that he might be an overpaid over-the-hiller."
"I didn't see Travis get a Player of the Game during the playoffs, but Mitchell did!" countered Hector, his tail whipping about.
"Oh Travis WOULD have in the games where Dakota won. Had the rest of the Lone Stars picked up the slack, you would have still been in the running against Santa Ana. Face it, Mr. Lous, when people think of the Lone Stars, they don't think about Mitchell Redding scoring the points, rallying the team, or leading anymore. They think about Travis Buckner. Mitchell's star is dimming, and Travis' has never shined brighter. So it's time to give the credit where it's due! Besides, we need just ONE voice. We have two, and people start going to Mitchell if Travis does something they don't agree with. Or vice versa."
Jeff sat back in his chair, his arms folded under his bolo tie, as the table went quiet for a moment, Hector breathing a bit hard as he glared at Travis' agent. The coyote just sat there with the superior smile, seemingly enjoying making the rat's blood pressure rise. Then a few more moments of quiet passed. Then a few more. The deafening roar of silence became unbearable, until finally, the light twangy voice piped up. "Mr. Louis?"
Hector's accusing gaze levelled at Travis. He was to be the brunt of the overflow anger the rat was feeling right now, unfortunately. "I can't believe you'd think that about your teammate, Travis! After all he's done for you! I heard what happened at the end of your rookie season - it was Mitchell who helped you out of your funk, wasn't it?"
Travis hadn't raised his head since Hector's comment. "I think Mitchell Redding is an amazing athlete. I've - WE'VE - learned a lot from him, and I will be taking his lessons with me for the rest of my time with the FBA. And yes, he saved me from myself. I owe him the world." The koala slowly rose his head, his eyes looking a bit sad. "But Mitchell's been hurt so often, though, and with another loss to his arch rival - he's frustrated. And it's showing in how he deals with his teammates. Prior to the playoffs, they've not been as supportive of his decisions as of late. And Jeff is right - we do need just one voice to represent."
Travis continued, his hands out, palms up. "I just want to do right by my team. I felt that if I could alleviate the stress for him, let him focus on managing his injuries and his game, that he'd be back into his prime in no time. The losses to Dakota, and his animosity towards Ryan Malone - it's been palpable in the air. We know not to talk to him about it, for fear of him going off."
He looked to Jeff, who bowed his head softly, then back to his boss. "We have a great group of players. Hungry rookies, a talented sharpshooter, and a wise veteran. I know I can lead them, and if Mitchell isn't doing it enough, then...you need to make the hard choice if we're going to have a shot at getting past the Bikers next year to get a swipe at the championship. I honestly believe Mitchell would want this too, but his pride would prevent him from suggesting it."
"Are you saying Mitchell can't cut it as a leader anymore? I haven't received any complaints from any of the staff or the other teammates!"
Travis paused a moment, to consider his next words. "You're not with him all the time, sir. You don't see what we see. Marcus is too good natured to speak bad of anyone on the team, and the rookies are too inexperienced to know what's right. You've seen Wesley's tweet about him during the playoffs - that's not support."
A disappointed sigh came from the rat's muzzle. "You've got a pretty damn high opinion of yourself to think you know it all in two years, Travis."
Travis' gaze softened. "I don't know it all, sir. But knowledge is one thing. Being able to deliver and motivate is another. If I felt Mitchell was up to the task, I'd be happy to give him the reins. But I honestly feel this is the right thing for Texas to do. I'm just doing everything I can to make sure we make it to the championship next year, like I know we can do."
Jeff piped in to back up his client. "Aside from a few 'attaboys', Mitchell hasn't done much to change Billcheck's mind when the team's roster was not appropriate. Only Travis had the gumption to talk to him about it. Travis' voice has been strongest in the locker rooms, on social media, and in interviews. That's leadership, Mr. Louis."
Hector's gaze didn't soften, but he did get a sarcastic smirk. "And you'd tell Mitchell - THE Mitchell Redding - you want his captain position? Good luck with that."
Jeff piped back up. "No sir, that'd be YOUR job." Again, the predatory smile.
This made the rat's muzzle gape open as he stared at Jeff. "What?"
"If Travis says it, or you say it came from Travis, Mitchell's history of intra-team arguments and negativity will poison the Lone Stars. We don't need another Biker animosity situation. We don't want that to happen, and you know you don't either."
The hard line in the rat's eyes returned back to Travis, whose face still seemed sorrowful. "You want me, to tell Mitchell Redding, that I'm booting him out of the captain position, and replace him with a sophomore?!" he asked incredulously.
"Junior, come this next season," corrected the agent. "And the confidential signing of the Lone Star contract depends on neither Mitchell nor any other individual knowing the suggestion came from my client. For team stability."
Hector looked back and forth between the slight pleading of Travis, and the hard-nosed agent persona of Mr. Hunter. The gall was tremendous, but he also admitted Travis' words were true about getting people to buy tickets. GMs had to think about getting the team that brought in the supporters. Not just talent, but engaging talent. And if Travis left, he'd take a lot of business with him. Not to mention, Travis was probably the coolest head in the starting lineup, especially where Dakota was involved. And the team's best, most reliable performer.
The rat took a breath, and got up from the table. "I'll think about it," he muttered. He still couldn't commit to anything now, but strategies had to be remapped. Damn, did Hector hate agents.
"Don't think too long, sir," replied Jeff, grabbing the stack of papers back from him. "I don't relish the idea of telling my client he has to move from a home that he has worked so hard to make."
Hector took another big breath, choking back some food that was trying to escape, and looked at the koala. "Thank you for lunch, Travis," he said, again with the tinge of disappointment. "I'll see you at the hospital this weekend." Travis smiled softly at that, and nodded. "I'd like that, sir."
The GM glanced to Jeff. "Good bye, Mr. Hunter," he said, with less than a trace of politeness.
Jeff nodded, unaffected by the curtness. "We will speak again, sir. Good bye." Hector muttered something else about agents and a circle of hell, and left, leaving the two alone in the VIP room.
Travis leaned back in his chair and let out a soft sigh as Jeff turned to him. "Done to your satisfaction?" he asked, through an anticipatory grin.
The koala looked back, seeming tired for a moment, but then the same grin creeping his face. "Perfect strawman. You do the 'bad cop' pretty well. It's a lot of hate, but I know you can handle the heat."
Travis grabbed his root beer. Too early in the day for gin. "Now, we wait. I'll have to prep for Mitchell."
Jeff finished his last rib. "You sure Hector's going to do it? You sure Mitchell is going to find out?"
The bubbling of the sarsaparilla fizzed over Travis' facefur, before he replaced it on the table. "Redding's no idiot. He'll know where the idea came from. He'll come to me. I have to make sure his impending argument with me gets witnessed. And yes, Mr. Louis will do it, if he has to, to keep me." He shrugged a bit as he pulled his salad back to him. "I don't think he will be as much in my corner as he once was, though. But the numbers don't lie, and the PR is doing wonders for Austin. As long as I'm pulling in the numbers and the good image for Texas, he'll be under my thumbs."
"And you're that confident you know what you're doing with this?" The coyote had a warning tone in the question.
Travis looked to his agent and raised his eyebrow. "We talked about this during the signing discussions, Jeff. You seemed eager to do this then. Why the cold feet now?"
Jeff wiped the last vestige of barbecue sauce from his muzzle. "Just thinking you might be aiming a bit too high, too soon, is all. I've played against Redding, and he's an ornery sort when he feels like someone's stabbing him in the back."
Travis grinned as he put the last forkful of salad in his muzzle. "That's precisely what I'm counting on, Jeff." he murmured.
It had been a while since the Lone Stars had been beaten 4-2 by their rivals the Bikers, and summarily ousted from continuing the playoffs. Still, the fact they had gotten TO the playoffs, as well as clinching the divisional title, was a matter of pride.
But to some, that pride paled in comparison with *winning*. They all dealt with the disappointment in their own way. Ahti managed to spend a lot of time with his sweetheart on the similarly losing Kahunas. Wesley punched the body bag until it almost came off its chain. York and Vaughters were nonstop at each others' throats with insults. And Marcus had his kids and wife to take up his time.
Travis? There was no downtime for him. He was about the game, about improving, about beating everyone, and showing the doubters who was boss. Just like high school. Just like college. While others might be working on their social lives, Travis continued to train during those weeks following the first round dropout. If he wasn't at his home, or at the Salt Lick dealing with owner business, or at the Downbleat in his rare modes of recreation, he was at the training facility.
Others were here too, of course. Wes accompanied Travis, as did Phinneas, the shark rookie from last year. At least before his contract was bought out. It was a shame - Phinneas was probably the fastest swimmer of the 'Aqua TEX Hunger Force' as the two of them had been called along with Ahti Nereus. It was good for them to give him a challenge for swimming - give him an expectation to supersede. Sherman Downward was there too, trying desperately to improve on the bench so that he wouldn't have to relocate again. Or worse yet, be bought out.
So the locker room was somewhat busy with a pawful of players post-workout and drills. Travis had stepped out of the shower, towel around his waist, and opened his locker. He peered at a piece of bulbous gray rubber stashed in the back. He smiled. It didn't matter anymore. Everyone knew. Everyone accepted. Everyone moved on. After this last season, nobody called him 'ball-less' anymore. Nor a jinx. Finally, he...
Mitchell Redding's voice filled the room as the entirety of the teammates there stopped what they were doing, and almost all turned towards the koala. While his head was still in his locker, Travis smiled briefly, expectantly, unknown to his teammates.
It was showtime.
He modified the smile to be more friendly, and turned to his teammate. "Hi Redding. What's up?" he asked.
The bunny was visibly livid, his hands clenched and his eyes narrowed. His ears and whiskers twitched as he stomped his huge feet into the room, his gaze never leaving Buckner's. "Why'd you tell Hector to dump me as captain?!" he yelled.
The remaining players looked from Redding to Buckner, slowly. What had they just heard?
Travis' face contorted into a confused look, giving them all no immediate answer to their silent queries. "What? What are you talking about?" he asked incredulously.
Redding's lip raised up from his gritted incisors. "Don't play dumb with me, koala!" He jutted a finger into Travis' shoulder. "You told the GM to remove me from captain position!"
Travis rubbed the spot Redding poked him as if he had been hurt by it. He looked left and right. Other members of the team had oriented themselves towards the altercation, as he'd planned. "Mitchell, perhaps we should take this conversation somewhere more private," he suggested, softly.
Mitchell seemed unmollified. "Oh no you don't! We're going to settle this right now! Did you tell Louis to dump me as captain?" The other players dropped what they were doing and gathered around. Travis looked out of the corner of his eye to confirm. Inside his mind, he smiled widely. Perfect.
"Alright, if we're going to have this here... we had a discussion with my agent, and Jeff brought up the topic. Apparently Hector thought it was a good idea," Travis replied, softly but firmly.
"And you didn't fight it?" growled Mitchell. "You didn't stand up for me?"
"I thought my agent was being rather grabby, and I told him such. We got to the playoffs with us as co-captains - why dock that boat in the harbor?"
Mitchell's eyes narrowed at his teammate. "You tell Hector that?" he pressed. Travis had to admit, Mitchell was no idiot when it came to verbal gymnastics. But Travis excelled in spin.
"I told him during that meeting, that you are an amazing athlete, a great teacher, and a friend, and that I didn't want to see anything bad happen to you," he recalled, cherry picking his words. He gave a hurt appearance, as others began looking to each other, and then to Mitchell. "Any action Mr. Louis did concerning your position, Mitchell - that was on him. I didn't strongarm him into it. Heck, I think you're a great captain." Travis paused a moment. "Wait a second, did he say *I* told him to let you go?" he asked, his eyebrow arching.
The white rabbit grunted sarcastically. "Didn't you?"
"No. I never said that!" protested Travis. Technically, it was true. He never said those words, exactly. Besides, it was Jeff who offered the solution. "My agent can back me up on that. Hell, I could probably get the waitress who heard it all if you want another character witness!"
"So you'd support me staying on as captain? I can go right back in there and tell Louis that you said you want me back?" Mitchell was not letting up on the topic.
"Mitchell, I promise you, I will do whatever is best for the team. If you being sole captain would do that, then I would gladly support it," said Travis, gently. "But apparently, Louis made the decision and is saying it was my request. You know that's not correct. You know it's not fair. But I would hope you knew me well enough to know I want my team to win, whatever the cost, whatever the decisions." he finished, gesturing to the others who were listening in. "If the GM made that decision, then I'm going to spend my energies making sure it was the right one. I don't get involved in politics or grudge matches. I want us to win that championship we deserve! That's what all of us want!"
Mitchell's eyes darted left and right, seeing his teammates' expressions. They seemed to be less focused on the rabbit, and more on the koala. And they were smiling. Mitchell had hoped some of them would be giving him looks of support, but his brash accusation might have pushed them away. No matter. They'd come around. They'd see the light, the truth, and then they'd be on his side.
He'd acquiesce. For now.
Mitchell leaned in to Travis and narrowed his eyes. "When you slip and fall, and you will, you know I'm going to be there to pick up where you couldn't cut it. Remember that!"
Travis' gaze went a bit wide. "Mitchell, please I don't..."
But the rabbit wasn't having any more conversation. He stormed out of the locker room, slamming the outer door and having the sound reverberate within the now silent walls. All eyes seemed to alight on Travis, who looked around a bit sheepishly. "I'm ... I"m sorry you all had to bear witness to that. I really think the world of Mitchell." he offered, a light blush in his ears.
Ahti Nereus was the first to come over, putting a huge webbed hand on Travis' shoulder. "Hey, don't sweat it, Trav," he offered. "We know you have our backs." Other players were chiming in with agreement. Travis managed a very sincere smile - the thought of their approval really did make him very happy.
"Thank you, guys. That means a lot to me. Whatever happens, I don't plan on leaving, and next year, we're going to take this team all the way in to the finals, and WIN!" He paused, gauging the reactions. They were rallying to the cause, no doubt. He pressed on, to close the deal. "Because next year, we'll have experienced and strong players, fresh moldable talent, and a hunger like no other! Right? Who's with me?!"
The teammates shouted their enthusiastic affirmations back towards Travis, clapping him on the shoulder, pumping their fists into the air, and just being ebullient in general as to their chances for next year. Travis beamed wide at his teammates, feeling that hope build for a moment, until his mind was filled with another, more dominant thought.
It had worked. The team saw him as more of a leader than Mitchell Redding. Travis Buckner would be captain. Travis Buckner would be the face of the Texas Lone Stars. And soon, Travis Buckner would be the face of the FBA.
All according to plan.