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Authors: Cal Ripken Jr.

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Super-sized Slugger

BOOK: Super-sized Slugger
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A special thanks to Stephanie Owens Lurie, Editorial Director of Disney • Hyperion Books, for her incomparable guidance and boundless patience and good humor. All writers should have an editor this good.

—K. C.

Copyright © 2012 by Cal Ripken, Jr.

All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion Books, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.

ISBN 978-1-4231-6987-1

Visit
www.disneyhyperionbooks.com

To Maura and Bill, and Stephen and Anne. Thanks for everything.

—Kevin Cowherd

Cody braced himself
for the usual reaction. It was the first day of practice for the Orioles of the Dulaney Babe Ruth League, and Coach Ray Hammond was going down the line, asking each kid to say his name and the position he wanted to play.

“Cody Parker. Third base,” he said when it was his turn.

From somewhere behind him, he heard snickers.

Here we go, he thought.

“Third base, eh?” Coach Hammond said. He studied Cody for a moment.

Cody knew what was coming next. Coach would try to break it to him gently.
Why not try the outfield, son? You're
a little, um,
big
for third base. In fact, I'm thinking right field
would be perfect for you.

Everyone knew the unspoken rule: right field was for fat guys. And slow guys. And guys with thick glasses and big ears and bad haircuts. If you smacked of dorkiness at all, or if you looked the least bit unathletic, they stuck you in right field, baseball's equivalent of the slow class. Then they got down on their knees and prayed to the baseball gods that no one would ever hit a ball your way in a real game.

That's why Cody hated right field. Hated it almost as much as he hated his new life here in Dullsville, Maryland, also known as Baltimore, where the major league team stunk and people talked funny, saying “WARSH-ington” instead of “Washington” and “POH-leece” instead of “police.”

No thanks, he thought. Give me Wisconsin, any day.

Immediately he felt a stab of homesickness as he thought about his old house on leafy Otter Trail. He pictured his corner bedroom on the second floor with the wall-to-wall Milwaukee Brewers posters, especially the giant one of his hero, Prince Fielder, following through on a mighty swing to hit another majestic home run. He saw the big tree house in his backyard, and the basketball hoop over the garage, and the trails in the nearby woods, where he used to—

“Cody?” Coach was saying now.

Cody shook his head and refocused.

“Okay,” Coach said. “Let's see how you do at third.”

Hallelujah! For an instant, Cody thought of giving Coach a big hug. But Coach didn't seem like the hugging type. He was a big man with a short, no-nonsense crew cut and an old-fashioned walrus mustache. He looked more like the hearty-handshake type. Except his hearty handshake could probably crush walnuts.

Minutes later, the Orioles broke into groups for infield practice. Trotting out to third base, Cody was surprised to see he was the only one trying out for the position.

Then he heard the sound of heavy footsteps behind him and felt a sharp elbow in the ribs.

“Out of the way, fat boy,” a voice growled.

Wonderful, Cody thought. The welcoming committee is here. Looking up, he saw a tall, broad-shouldered boy he recognized as Dante Rizzo.

“Instead of ‘fat,' could we agree on
burly
?” Cody said, smiling.

That's it, turn on the charm, he thought. Kill 'em with laughter.

“Shut up and stay out of my way,” Dante said, spitting into his glove and scowling.

So much for trying the charm, Cody thought. But the truth was, he
didn't
consider himself fat—not in your classic Doritos-scarfing, Big Mac–inhaling, look-at-the-butt-on-this-kid sort of way.

His mother said he was big-boned. It was his dad who called him burly. To Cody, burly was preferable to big-boned, which sounded like he had some kind of freak skeletal disorder. Cody thought he was built along the lines of the great Prince Fielder, if you could picture the Brewers' first baseman as a thirteen-year-old with a thick mop of red hair and freckles.

Big, sure. Even chunky. But nothing that made you wrinkle your nose and go, “Ewww.”

On the other hand, Dante obviously didn't share this assessment of Cody's body type, which came as no great surprise. Cody thought back to the first time he had met Dante—although
met
might not be the right word—on his first day at his new school, York Middle.

Cody had been eating lunch, sitting in the back of the cafeteria with a few other kids, mostly nerds and misfits who seemed just as lonely as he was. Suddenly, something warm and moist smacked him in the back of the neck. It turned out to be a soggy pizza crust.

Whipping around, Cody had seen a tall boy with long dark hair smirking at him and nudging his buddies.

“Congratulations,” the kid sitting next to Cody had said. “You've just been introduced to Dante the Terrible.”

“Yeah,” another kid had added. “He's in eighth grade and he's fifteen—draw your own conclusions. His hobby is pounding people. And if you mess with him, he's got two older brothers who'll mess with
you
.”

“Vincent and Nick. We call them the Rottweiler Twins,” a third kid had chimed in. “On account of they're so warm and cuddly.”

Remembering the pizza incident now, Cody shot a nervous glance at Dante. Just my luck he plays baseball too, Cody thought. Why can't he play lacrosse like every other kid in Maryland?

And what are the odds we'd both end up on the Orioles? And be trying out for the same position?

About the same as the odds of me being confused with Prince Fielder, he decided.

Coach picked up
his black fungo bat to begin hitting ground balls to the third basemen, and Dante elbowed Cody aside.

“Back of the line, rookie,” he said. “Veterans go first.”

“My boyish good looks don't count?” Cody said.

At this, the rest of the infielders covered their mouths with their gloves to hide their smiles. Cody wasn't sure whether they were laughing
with
him or
at
him.

Dante glared and shook his fist. “I thought I told you to shut up,” he growled.

Great, Cody thought. I'm the new kid. I'm a little out of shape. And now the local thug wants to use me like a piñata.

Maybe this was Dante's second year with the Orioles, and maybe he had played third base last year, but he was an awkward infielder, anyone could see that. He was a good two inches taller than Cody, yet he crouched way too low and took short, clumsy strides to each grounder, bobbling the first two. As a big guy himself, Cody sometimes felt he had all the mobility of the Washington Monument. But he knew the key was to take advantage of your height and strength to cross over and move laterally.

One weekend last year, in fact, he had watched YouTube videos of every big third baseman in the major leagues, just to see how they set up and moved to a ground ball. “How come you don't study this hard for science class?” his dad had asked. And the short answer was simple: it wasn't baseball. Nothing in the world got Cody excited like baseball.

The other thing Cody noticed was that Dante's throws to first base tended to sail. This was because he never set his feet properly. Only a couple of great leaping grabs by the first baseman—a rangy kid with terrific hands—saved the throws from going over the fence.

After botching yet another grounder, Dante slammed his glove to the ground and cursed loudly.

“Language!” Coach yelled, shooting Dante a look. “We had this problem last year.” Dante kicked angrily at the dirt and muttered under his breath. A couple of players shook their heads.

“All right, Cody,” Coach said. “Your turn.”

“Don't let the pressure get to you, lard-butt,” Dante whispered.

“Remember: I'm
burly
,” Cody whispered back, earning another death stare. “I thought we went over this.”

Now Cody sensed that all eyes were on him, the way they always were whenever he had to prove himself on a new team. It was always:
Let's see what the big guy's got—
probably nothing.

He dropped easily into his crouch, weight balanced evenly on the balls of his feet, body tilted slightly forward to get a jump on the ball. He punched the pocket of his glove and straightened the brim of his cap, at the same time marveling at how relaxed he felt.

This was what he loved about baseball: how comfortable he always felt when he stepped across the white lines. Everywhere else he felt like a dork—a
giant
dork—most of the time. But never on a baseball diamond.

“You're always smiling when you play ball,” his mom had said once. And why not? Cody thought. Baseball's easy. It's the other stuff in life that gets complicated.

He gobbled up the first four grounders hit to him and made strong throws to first each time, earning a nod from Coach. But Cody could tell he was about to be tested. They always think it's a fluke when the big guy looks good, he thought.

Sure enough, the next ball was a scorching two-hopper to his right. He dove and snared the ball backhanded at the last second, kicking up a cloud of dirt. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet and fired a bullet to first.

“Not bad!” Coach yelled. “Almost made that look easy!”

The last ball was another shot, this time to Cody's left, in the hole between shortstop and third. He took three quick steps, lunged for the ball, and spun 180 degrees before whipping a strong throw to first.

The kid at first nodded and pointed his glove at Cody, as if to say:
You da man!

“Hey!” Coach said, grinning now. “That's a big-league play right there!”

“You got lucky, fat boy,” Dante muttered from a few feet away as Coach moved on to hit grounders to the shortstop. “No way you're that good.”

Cody shrugged and said nothing. That was the other thing he loved about baseball: the chance to prove people wrong, make them shut up. He'd been playing the game since he was, what, six years old? How many times had kids made fun of his weight, then stared slack-jawed when he backhanded a hard shot at third or legged out a double with a headfirst slide? The name-calling tended to stop pretty quickly after that.

Besides, he thought, the big leagues were full of terrific players who didn't exactly look like they lived on salad and granola bars. David “Big Papi” Ortiz with the Boston Red Sox. C. C. Sabathia with the New York Yankees. Pablo Sandoval with the San Francisco Giants. Adam Dunn with the Chicago White Sox. There was a time when fans might have blamed steroids. Now players just seemed to be bigger and stronger, and a lot of that came from their work in the weight room.

After hitting balls to everyone, Coach announced that it was time for batting practice. He grabbed his glove and a bucketful of balls and headed for the pitcher's mound.

“Everyone gets ten swings,” he said. “Make 'em count, boys.”

Hearing this, Cody pumped his fist and thought,
Yessss!
He loved playing third base, but hitting was his favorite part of the game. He could have had a bad day at school, his mom and dad could be on him about his messy room, his mind could be buzzing with a hundred different thoughts, but as soon as he stepped into the batter's box, he felt calm and focused. It was an amazing transformation—maybe not as dramatic as what Spider-Man or Thor went through when they went from supergeek to superhero, but close.

The Orioles broke into hitting groups. Right away, everyone saw that Coach was throwing some serious heat. He was pitching from a full windup, and even though his control was good, the ball was whistling as it smacked into the backstop.

Cody noticed that few of his teammates seemed eager to dig in.

“Hey, ease up, Coach!” Dante yelled when it was his turn. “Let the big dog hunt!”

“You guys want me to throw underhand?” Coach said in a mocking voice. “Maybe we can get the Braves to throw underhand for the season opener too.”

Cody shagged balls in the outfield until Coach finally waved him in to hit with the last group.

Right before he was up, Cody unzipped his equipment bag and pulled out his bat. Then he carefully wiped it down with a towel. Just looking at the bat made him smile. It was a beauty, all right: silver with red flecks, a thirty-one-inch, twenty-one-ounce birthday present from his mom and dad. If you held it at just the right angle, with the sun glinting off it, it looked like a flaming sword as you walked to the plate.

He gripped the bat, brought the barrel to his lips, and glanced around to see if anyone was looking. Then he whispered, “Time to go to work, buddy.”

He wasn't sure when he first took to talking to his bat—it had been a couple of years now. He guessed he did it for good luck—not that the bat always listened to him. And he probably did it to calm himself down at the plate too, and help him focus. But this little ritual wasn't something he wanted to share with his new teammates just yet.

He could imagine the reaction:
So you talk to your bat,
huh, Parker? And what does Mr. Bat say back? Does he tell
you to lay off the high fastball? Or: don't swing at anything
in the dirt?

That's all I need, Cody thought. People thinking I'm fat
and
crazy.

As he dug in against Coach and took a couple of warm-up swings, he stole a glance at the short left-field fence. It looked so inviting for a right-handed hitter, like there was a big neon sign out there flashing the message: HIT IT HERE! Forget the fence, he told himself. Start trying to jack home runs to impress Coach and you'll mess up your swing, big-time.

Instead he focused on the mantra his dad had preached for years: “Short, level swing. Just hit the ball somewhere—and hit it hard.”

As it had so many other times, the advice paid off. Cody roped the first three pitches for what would have been clean singles and followed that by driving two balls into the gap in left-center field. On the sixth pitch, as often happened when he was swinging well, he smashed a long, soaring drive that cleared the fence in left field by ten feet.

Now Cody heard excited murmurs from the Orioles ringed around the backstop behind him.

“Whoa!” one kid said. “Tagged!”

“Big kid has game!” another voice said.

You like that? Cody said to himself. Watch this!

But this time he swung too hard at the next pitch, swung from his heels, missed it completely, and almost fell down, the way Prince did sometimes. Then the big man would climb back in the batter's box and flash a sheepish grin that seemed to say
Kids, don't try that at home
.

“Felt the breeze back here, dude,” a third kid said as the others chuckled.

Relax, Cody told himself. Don't lunge at it. Wait for it. And this time he turned on the pitch perfectly, smacking another shot that easily cleared the fence in left. Now the murmurs grew even louder.

After he whipped around to see where the ball landed, Coach let out a whoop.

“Boy has some thunder in his bat, doesn't he?”

Big kid comes through, Cody thought, more relieved than anything.

When practice was over, Cody was tired and hungry. But he was pleased with how he'd done the first day with his new team. As he walked off the field, the lanky kid who had made the great plays at first base tapped him on the shoulder.

“You're the new kid, right?” he said. “I'm Jordy Marsh. You looked pretty good out there.”

“Thanks,” Cody said. “You looked pretty good yourself. Way to get up for those high throws.”

Jordy smiled and leaped in the air, pretending to throw down a ferocious dunk. “Yeah, I'm a regular Kobe Bryant when I have to be,” he said.

Now they were joined by another boy. Cody recognized him as the brown-haired kid who had taken most of the balls at shortstop, effortlessly vacuuming up one hard shot after another.

“Connor Sullivan,” the kid said, giving Cody a fist bump. “Boy, you were killin' it in practice today.”

Cody looked down and scratched idly at the dirt with his spikes, searching for something to say.

“Coach was probably taking it easy on me,” he said finally.

“No way,” Connor said. “Coach wouldn't take it easy on his own grandmother. You were dialed in, dude.”

Jordy and Connor jogged off, saying they'd see him in school the next day.

Seconds later, Dante ran by and jabbed another elbow into Cody's ribs.

“Do yourself a favor, fat boy!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Find another position!”

Terrific, Cody thought. Eleven other kids on this team, and I have to play the same position as the budding middle school hit man. Who is definitely not happy now that I showed him up.

Cody changed out of his spikes, gathered up his bat and glove, and began the long walk to the parking lot, where his mom would be waiting in her car.

The late April sun was setting. The tall pine trees that ringed Eddie Murray Field cast long shadows everywhere. He shivered slightly in the damp air.

He had a feeling he'd be seeing a lot of Dante Rizzo from now on.

Which might not necessarily be a good thing.

BOOK: Super-sized Slugger
8.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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