END OF JUNE
I was sick and didn't know it. By the time I did, it was already too late.
Patrick and I tossed a baseball back and forth in the backyard. He stood by the tree at one end of the yard. I aligned myself with a fern my mother had planted. We knew it was about the right distance from a pitcher to the catcher because we had practiced out here lots of times before.
We took it easy since we had a Little League game the next day and didn’t want to wear ourselves out. Ever since T-ball days we’ve managed to be on the same team. How lucky is that?
He is the catcher for the team. I’m one of the pitchers. I guess Batavia Little League coaches didn’t like to split up a pitcher-catcher pair. It could be devastating, like separating twins, or something.
“Hey, Mark? Did you get that new baseball video game?” Patrick asked.
I knew what he was talking about. The game was the latest, hottest on the market. “Yeah, I got it. It cost me a few weeks worth of allowance, but it was worth it, I think. It’s so real, it’s like being at an actual game. Get this, you can even make the players spit!”
“Oh yeah. It’s awesome,” I said. He threw the ball high, a simulated pop fly. I ran to get under it and caught it.
Had to close my eyes a second. My head hurt a little.
I nodded. “The graphics are wild. The players look so real, it’s like you’re really playing in an actual ball game. The ump calls balls and strikes. There’s an organ player charging up the audience between pitches and after the top and bottom of each inning. Players grunt when they’re sliding into home. What can I say, it’s awesome.”
“That’s what I figured.” His eyes were wide and his tongue practically dangled from the corner of his mouth. I knew what he wanted.
“Want to go play it?” I took in a deep breath, held it, and blew it out. Maybe I needed to rest. A video game would be easier than playing catch.
“Definitely. Let’s go.” He took off his mitt.
“Hey guys!” It was Jordan and Tyrone, two guys from Patrick’s and my sixth grade class. They leaned on the chain link fence set around the backyard. For the first time, Tyrone was on the same baseball team as Patrick and me. He usually played first or second base.
Jordan’s team was the coveted Joe’s Collision Shop. The owner, Joe, chose to buy shirts with his cool car wreck logo on the back for the rivals.
Sally’s House of Hair wound up sponsoring my team. Our logo was nothing more fancy than a pair of scissors instead of a “Y” in the name Sally. Yuck! Thank goodness we didn’t have to wear something like pink jerseys.
But it wasn’t only the cool name and jerseys that made Joe’s team seem better—it was their batting and fielding stats. They were a solid team, year after year. When we talked about ourselves, we dropped the Sally.
Patrick and I strolled to the fence and shook hands with Jordan and Tyrone. I wanted to get inside, get on the couch, rest my head. It looked like the video game would have to wait. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” Tyrone said. “Jordan’s Dad took us took us to the batting cages.”
I tried not to look at Tyrone like he was some kind of traitor for hanging with Jordan the night before our big game. The last thing our team needed was Tyrone, our second basemen, telling Jordan, our opposition, our strengths and weaknesses.
Sure, he and Jordan were good friends. They always hung out together. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. How could I blame Tyrone? I tried to look at it this way, at least he got in some batting practice. Not to mention, I liked going to the cages. Most ballplayers did.
They were indoors so you didn’t have to practice batting when it was cold or rainy. You wore a helmet, locked yourself in a caged room, dropped some coins in to get the machine started … and swung at perfectly thrown pitches until your arms were too tired to lift the bat anymore. What’s not to like? “Cool,” I said. “How’d you guys do?”
Tyrone shrugged. “I did all right, but Jordan was killing the balls. He missed, like, only five out of fifty pitches!”
“Nice going.” I wasn’t really glad to hear this.
The coach had me pitching tomorrow’s game.
Now here was my teammate telling me about what a hot-hitter I’d be facing. But if Tyrone wasn’t telling us how good Jordan had done, Jordan would have been telling us himself. He liked to talk big.
Sweat beaded on my forehead. Probably pre-game jitters. Too bad Jordan didn’t play on our team. We could always use another hard hitter. But he didn’t. So now it became more important for us to win. If I didn’t strike Jordan out, he’d never let me live it down.
“Want to play catch?” Patrick asked.
I shot Patrick a look. Why would he ask them to play catch?
“Nah,” Jordan said. “We’re headed to my house.”
“See you guys at practice tomorrow, before the game?” Tyrone asked.
“Get there early,” I said. We all shook hands over the fence. “I want to practice some new pitches I’ve been working on.”
Jordan arched his eyebrows.
“Cool,” Tyrone said. “See you guys then.”
Patrick tossed me the ball. I caught it.
“You got new pitches?”
“Nah. I just wanted to psyche out Jordan a bit. Think it worked?”
“He looked scared to me.”
We laughed, and put our mitts back on. The video game momentarily forgotten.
This time I sent the ball toward him like a rocket. The air whistled as it parted to let the ball pass. Then came the satisfying sound of the ball slamming into padded leather.
“That stung, man.” Patrick shook off his mitt and rubbed his palm down the front of his jeans. “I thought we were just taking it easy, you know?”
“Sorry. I just, well, I guess Jordan got me worked up.”
“Why?” He threw the ball back to me.
“Because he wanted me to know he went to the batting cages.”
“You think he told you that to rattle you?”
“Yep. I sure do.” I sent the ball back to Patrick—hard.
“He knows you’re pitching tomorrow?”
“He’s with Tyrone, right? I’m sure Tyrone told him.” It didn’t matter. Jordan would have found out at the game tomorrow. But knowing in advance gave him the chance to stop by and make me nervous, or at least to try to make me nervous.
“Ah, so what,” Patrick said.
“He’s a good hitter.”
“And you’re a good pitcher. You got nothing to worry about, and if you pitch like this tomorrow, Jordan won’t be hitting a thing.”
I smiled at the thought of him striking out. “If he was smacking them at the cages…”
“Forget it. He was probably in the slow-pitch cage. Who couldn’t hit a ball floating at him like a butterfly? Your arm is like a gun. The ball is like a bullet. He’ll be swinging at shadows tomorrow.”
“You mean that?”
“You know it.”
Mom pushed the kitchen window open. “Mark?”
I rolled my eyes. Patrick laughed.
“Patrick’s Mom just called. He has to go home for dinner.”
I looked at Patrick. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“You know it.”
“Mom, can he eat with us tonight?”
“It’s okay with me. I’ll call his mother back,” she said. “Dinner’s just about ready here, too. Why don’t you two come in and get washed up?” She closed the window.
“All right,” I shouted. We ran together and slapped high-fives. “Hey, want to play the video game right after dinner?”
“Perfect!” he said.
“I’m hungry.” I patted my belly.
“Me, too.” He smiled. “Race you!”
We ran at the house like hungry cheetahs chasing after prey.
He won. I had to stop. Running made my head feel like it might fall off my shoulders.