Authors: Sue Stauffacher
I had to turn the batting roster over to find my name, which gave me some hope that I might not see active duty in this game. I would have appreciated at least one game to get used to wearing the team uniform. My skin is very sensitive and, as a result, I have a strict policy about natural fibers. But our baseball uniforms, purchased by Modern Hardware, our team sponsor, came only in a polyester blend. I had on a long-sleeved 100 percent organic cotton T-shirt, but this did nothing for my thighs.
Of course, my mother had to use up three rolls of film snapping pictures of me in my uniform, as well as crouched in my batting stance.
“Grimace a little,” she'd said. “This could be our Christmas card.”
The other team was from Brownfield Elementary. They were sponsored by Z's Bar and Grille. Not particularly talented, the team had a couple of solid hitters. They weren't fast and they weren't polite. That's what I'd picked up from watching them practice.
We were up first. Graham popped up and Leonard grounded out, so we were already two down by the time Marvin got up to bat. He hit a nice double between short and second base.
I guess there really are some good things about being on a team. I bet Marvin Howerton never thought one nice thing about Sarah up until that moment. But as he sat there on second base, the desire to be the first to score in the very first game of
the season for Pelican View Elementary's Modern Hardware Team had him thinking positive thoughts about her.
Come to think of it, maybe that's what jinxed her.
“You got a girl? Batting cleanup?” the pitcher asked to no one in particular.
“You got a problem with that?” Sarah asked, advancing toward the mound.
He held up his glove and tiptoed backward, pretending to be afraid of her. “No problem there. I just hope I don't hit you anywhere sensitive, is all.”
Sarah would have clocked him, but my mother was on the field by this time, talking her down. I felt pretty confident that she would not clock my mother, who at this moment, I would just bet, was telling Sarah that famous Franklin Delano Roosevelt line “If you treat people right, they will treat you right.”
Of course, she might have left off the last part. FDR was an optimist, not a dummy. The last part of that quote was “ninety percent of the time.”
When Sarah got back in her stance, I knew something was wrong.
The thing about Sarah Kervick is she's so flexible and wiry. Like her punch that seems to come from nowhere, she doesn't have to hold a bat just right to knock the ball out of the park. It's just instinct.
But now she was in position with her bat cocked just so. All of a sudden, she cared. I knew that was dangerous.
On the first swing, her timing was off. On the second, she swung like a girl, in a high arc that looked more like a dance
step than a batter's move. On the third, she'd already accepted defeat. She slouched back to the bench and didn't even turn around when the pitcher said some rotten thing about girls being good at cleaning up, he just wasn't sure that meant baseball.
I can't tell you how I felt right then, but “pure lousy,” as Sarah would say, comes pretty close. The things you knew about Sarah Kervick were that, yes, she had a dad swinging at her and she lived in a dirty old trailer. She didn't have two dimes to rub together, but that girl was going to end up okay. She had this way of persuading people. Okay, so maybe it was a little prehistoric, but knowing that last thing about the girl made you feel better about the first things.
“Girls can't take the pressure,” Marvin said to Leonard as they got their gloves.
I thought she was going to clean his clock. I thought she was going to make his lungs exchange places. But Sarah just shrugged and sat on the bench. I handed over her glove.
“I'm not goin',” she said. “I'm tired.”
“You gotta go out there. You're the mighty vacuum of the left field. You're the black hole. Every ball that will be hit this season will be magnetically attracted to your glove,” I said.
“Forget it, Franklin. I said I'm tired.” She said that a little mean, pressing her lips into a frown. Even I wasn't afraid of her.
“You're gonna let that lousy pitcher get the best of you? Come on, you're more than that.”
She shifted away from me and started pulling splinters off the bench. I knew it was time to say something right. I knew it was time to give that important speech that they give in movies,
the one that turns everything around. But I'm good only at a couple of things and making speeches isn't one of them.
“Are we a team?” I asked, thumping my chest just like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I had to resist the urge to look under my shirt to see if I'd produced a bruise.
Instead I blurted out, “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement,” which was the only FDR quote I could think of at the moment.
Except for a little spittle on her hair, I was having no effect on Sarah Kervick.
“We're the greatest, remember? Kervick and Donuthead. Your arms and my eyes. Our secret weapon.”
“Yeah, they're gonna write about it in the newspaper,” she mumbled.
“You're the greatest vacuum in the history of Pelican View Elementary, and I'm going to show you where the dirt is!”
I was hopping up and down at this point.
Sarah Kervick gave me a long, slow look. She wiped a little spit off her face and said, “Are you okay, Franklin? Maybe you better sit down.”
Coach Jablonski came sweeping along the bench. “Get out there, Kervick,” he shouted from close range. “Shake it off.”
“Get out there, Kervick,” I shouted for effect. “And keep your eyes on me.”
So Sarah took the field and I stood along the third base line.
And by some miracle she did decide to keep her eyes on me.
On the first play I waved her in, right behind the second baseman. She caught the lazy fly easily.
The second play was going to right field. Bryce Jordan was
playing too far back, but I had no way of telling him that. The ball dribbled into the outfield between first and second. I consoled myself with the knowledge that Bryce didn't have the arm to make the play anyway.
Luis got wild on the mound and walked the third guy, which wasn't a bad decision because he was a switch-hitter and those were hard for me to judge.
What do you know? The pitcher was batting cleanup. In the pros, the pitcher never bats cleanup. Pitchers are notoriously bad at the plate.
Never say never, Franklin.
I sent Sarah Kervick to the horizon before he'd even cocked his elbow. This guy could hit. She was at the fence, twirling a piece of her long blond hair, when she took the catch.
The guy on first base made the mistake of thinking that Sarah Kervick threw like a girl. He almost lost an ear as she fired it back to second. Three down.
“I don't know how she does it,” Coach Jablonski said, rubbing his stomach in admiration. “That girl always knows where the ball's gonna be.”
“It's practice, Hank,” my mother said. “Hours and hours of fine-tuning in practice.”
The bottom of the order had to come sometime. Top of the third. Pelican View leading, 1–0. The only good thing about going up to bat was knowing that Sarah Kervick would soon follow. Now that she'd loosened up a bit, she was going to show them what for, she was going to show them what little girls are made of, I thought, practicing in my mind the inspirational speech I was going to send her to the plate with.
But first, I had to make the long, lonely walk to the on-deck circle myself.
I decided to spend my time choosing a bat rather than practicing my swing. I didn't want to give the other team a preview of what I could do.
It's all mental,
I told myself to quiet the shivering.
Let 'em think I'm the Pelican View Elementary secret weapon.
It's true, I have a pretty active imagination, and if people can go into a trance and walk over beds of burning coals, I should, theoretically, be able to convince myself to get a single for Modern Hardware and my teammates on the Pelican View Baseball Team.
Unfortunately, imagination can work two ways.
As I stood facing the pitcher, I realized that this was not my mother, not Sarah Kervick, not even Coach Jablonski. This was the enemy about to fire a missile at me. And I, Franklin Delano Donuthead, was giving him a clear shot.
The pitcher zinged in a strike at the rate of a speeding bullet. Some part of my brain told me to swing, but it must have been that part that nobody listens to. My feet grew roots.
Another strike fired by. The breeze gave me a chill.
I could hear my mother's distant voice screaming, “Swing, Franklin!”
“Snap out of it, kid,” Sarah yelled to me. Even in my disordered state, I could tell it was more of a threat than a plea.
“Whatsa matter?” the pitcher asked, laughing. “He turn into a statue or somethin'?”
“Maybe I need to wind him up,” the catcher said, and they laughed so hard the catcher started wheezing and the ump called time out so he could take a shot on his inhaler.
“Play ball,” Coach Jablonski yelled from the sidelines.
The pitcher threw a crooked lob that bounced in the dirt. “Maybe his batteries ran down,” the catcher snickered as he scrambled for the ball.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Another wild pitch, this one blissfully wide. Ball two.
To make a long story mercifully short, I got on base because the pitcher couldn't stop laughing long enough to throw a third strike.
“Let's see if he moves,” the catcher said, coming up behind me and giving me a shove.
As any orthopedic surgeon could tell you, my center of gravity is severely affected by the differing lengths of my legs, so it will come as no surprise that I stumbled and almost fell to the ground.
“Lay off, catcher,” I heard Sarah Kervick threaten. I'd heard that tone of voice before.
Dazed, I trotted down the first base line, trying to console myself. After all, whether I got a hit or not was immaterial. Even FDR understood that. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” he told the American people as he was trying to rebuild the country after the Great Depression. “What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself, but for my team.”
So there, Mr. Fancy-Pants Pitcher. I bet he didn't even know what the letters FDR stood for.
Upon reaching first base, I tried to tag up, but the gorilla who was guarding it kept shoving me away.
Sarah had followed me down the baseline. She stood, just a few feet away, watching this.
“Don't mess with him,” she said, both hands clenched into fists at her sides.
“Whaddryou? His bodyguard?”
We were at the top of the order, and Milton Summers was up. But the focus of the game seemed to have shifted to first base.
“If I could be allowed to make a point here,” I said, tapping the dough-colored bag at our feet. “The rules of the game stipulate that runners on base have one foot in contact with the base at all times—”
“But my rules say that when nobody's watching, I mess with runts like you.”
“I'm watching,” Sarah said quietly.
“Oh yeah? Then watch this.” And he gave me a shove between my shoulder blades that sent me to the ground.
I believe I lost consciousness for a moment, because the next thing I knew the first baseman screamed, “I'm bleeding!”
“Fight!” someone called out. Then bodies piled on top of me and we were all squirming in the dirt.
“I'm hyperventilating,” I screamed in agony. “I need oxygen!”
“Shut up and hit somebody, Franklin,” Sarah Kervick growled. “It's a fight.”
I threw up my arms to protect my face, and my fist came in contact with soft flesh.
“Ouch,” came a muffled voice by my ear. “The runt gave me a shiner!”
Needless to say, Sarah Kervick did not get another chance to prove her abilities at the plate. But I doubt that anybody on the Z's Bar and Grille team walked away saying that the girl can't hit.
“After all that work, Sarah …
“This was your chance to show them what you're made of …
“If you can't learn to concentrate better than that …”
Blah, blah, blah. My mother was in fine lecturing form all the way home.
Sarah Kervick was quiet. She looked out the window at the blur of houses and trees and mailboxes and didn't say a word.
Not until my mother said she didn't work so hard just to have a kid turn out to be a bully, et cetera, did she get a reply.
“How come I have to do all the work? That's what I wanna know,” Sarah muttered.
“What's that?” my mother said. “He's your kid, right? You ever teach him any get back? My dad would have somethin' to say to that first baseman's dad. If my dad just stood there and took it while I was bein' shoved around, why, he'd be no dad at all to me.”
She sank down in her seat then, folding her shoulders in toward her chest like that little speech had exhausted her.
My mother was silent.
“You've got a point there,” she said finally.
I reached over and touched Sarah Kervick's cheek. She winced. A bruise was beginning to form.
“Are you okay?” I asked quietly.
“Don't think about it and it doesn't hurt,” she responded.
“Thanks for sticking up for me,” I said. “I'm not really used to it.”
Though I could get used to it.
“Don't mention it.”
So I didn't mention it, or anything else, the rest of the way home. I just sat with the fact that I, Franklin Delano Donuthead, had participated in my first “base-brawl.” Actively, mind you. I did deliver a shiner. I waited for my conscience to catch up with my principles and assault me with guilt. I waited for several miles. But it didn't happen.
Sarah's regular clothes and her backpack were at our house, so we swung by there first before taking her home. There was a package on the doorstep.
At first, I thought my eyes had been affected by the brawl. We all stood around gaping at the lettering. It was from the National Safety Department. And it was addressed to “Franklin's Friend, Sarah.”
“It's for you,” my mother said, breaking our astonished silence. “Do you want to open it here or wait until you get home?”