“Quit on that one,” Hank said.
“Was going to.”
“Just do it like that from now on and you’ll be fine,” Hank said, already reaching into the front pocket of his jeans for his cell. “If you’re going to play this game, play it the right way.”
When he heard that—do it the right way—it made Brian want to ask him the same question he always wanted to ask him, about the steroids. But he didn’t. Not tonight. He wasn’t going to do anything to screw up tonight.
He watched as Hank punched out a number on his phone, walked through an opening in the netting, and said into the phone, “Leaving now. Got held up.”
He didn’t say good night to Brian. He just walked up the runway toward the clubhouse stairs, Brian hearing his voice until he disappeared.
Brian collected the balls, stuffing them into the two bags. He looked up and saw Finn standing on the other side of the netting.
Finn said, “I saw.”
“The last few minutes.”
Kneeling there, Brian said, “Wow,” feeling the smile on his face.
“Yeah—wow,” Finn said. “Now we gotta roll, ’cause my mom’s been out there waiting and I think she’s getting ticked.”
“You go,” Brian said. “Tell her I’ll be right out.”
Finn grinned at him. “Wow,” he said again, and left.
Brian ran the two bags of balls into No. 3, came back, and wheeled Iron Mike back in there, back into its storage closet. He thought he was finished, then remembered he’d left Willie’s bat and went back to the cage for that.
He was about to slide it back into its slot when he stopped.
He took the bat with him into the middle of the empty room, took his stance in front of his locker. Hands back, just the way Hank had shown him. Stance open. Head facing more toward the pitcher. Or where a pitcher would have been.
Hearing everything Hank had told him tonight as if he’d already burned the whole thing for his iPod.
Made sure he had room and then took one more big cut.
Yeah, he thought, smiling.
he Sting were in second place in their league as they headed into August. And as hard as it was for Brian to believe, they were starting to move up on the end of the regular season, the league playoffs and the state tournament, if they won the league and made the states.
The Tigers were in New York to play an interleague series against the Mets. This meant Brian would get to play all three games of the Sting’s biggest weekend of the series so far:
Clarkson on Friday night.
The Birmingham Bulls, always their biggest rival because the towns were so close to each other, on Saturday afternoon.
Finally, a game against first-place Motor City on Sunday afternoon.
The Sting were tied with Birmingham in second place, both of them two games behind Motor City. Clarkson was in third place, just a game behind the Sting and the Bulls. Everybody was trying to move up, because only the top four teams in the North Oakland Baseball Federation made the playoffs. The semis would be played on a Thursday night in Royal Oak, the week after next. The finals would also be at Royal Oak this year, again under the lights, just two nights later.
Brian had checked the Tigers’ schedule when he’d first gotten the job, knowing when his league season would end and the tournament would start. So he knew that the Tigers would be in Cleveland the weekend of the tournament, and he would have no conflict and no worries if the Sting finished in the top four.
Making the playoffs was still no sure thing. But for Brian and Kenny and Will Coben and Ryan Santoro and the rest of the guys on the team, these three weekend games were the beginning of all that, the beginning of their own stretch run. It all felt like the playoffs.
In the big leagues, they always talked about the “dog days of August.” But if you were fourteen and knew school was a month away and you were staring the end of your baseball summer in the face, there was no such thing as dog days. Even if you were in a slump, the way Brian was.
Brian felt that the best part of the Sting season was starting right now. And thanks to that night with Hank, he’d finally come out of his slump. His second time up on Friday night he lined a clean single to left. His last time up he hit one right on the nose, even if the ball ended up in the third baseman’s glove.
For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t chasing bad pitches and actually felt as if he had some idea about what he was doing at the plate.
“Hank says that when you chase, you don’t just develop bad habits,” he said to Kenny on the bench before Saturday afternoon’s game. “He said you also turn bad pitchers into
Kenny grinned. “Oh, is that what Hank said?”
Brian ducked his head, embarrassed, and was glad they were at the end of the bench and nobody else had heard him. “I make it sound like the two of us are tight, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Kenny said. “Like that’s the way the two of you roll.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Dude, you don’t have to explain,” Kenny said. “I’m just fired up that
fired up about your brand again.”
Brand. One of Kenny’s favorite words.
a brand,” Brian said. “Just one clean hit in the books last night and one that should have been a hit. Now I’d like to get a couple more and support our excellent starting pitcher—you—against our hated rivals.”
“You sound like one of those guys on television,” Kenny said, lapsing into his deep announcer voice. “Fans, these two teams really don’t like each other.”
Brian smiled at that and turned to Kenny, putting out his fist. It
only been a couple of good swings the night before. But they had been enough for Coach Johnson to move him up to second in the batting order, right behind Kenny, who would be leading off for the first time all season.
When Brian had asked him why he’d juggled the order, Coach had shrugged. “Got a feeling,” was all he said.
Kenny had said, “Sure it’s not gas, Coach?”
But Kenny made Coach look like a genius when he doubled over the right fielder’s head leading off the bottom of the first. The Bulls also had their ace going today, a kid named Johnny Hastings, who was small but had a big arm.
So there was Kenny on second, clapping his hands, telling Brian to bring him home.
Wait, he heard Hank telling him in the cage.
He took a first-pitch fastball for a strike, then laid off the next one, another fastball, this one just high enough to be called a ball—the kind of sucker pitch he’d been missing all season.
Wait, he told himself again.
Johnny Hastings didn’t take anything off the 1-1 pitch. But this one was right in the middle of the strike zone and Brian was on it. Not over-anxious. Not anxious at all, actually. He kept his weight back. Kept his hands still and his rear foot planted and his head back—doing these things without having to think about them—and hit the ball as hard as he had all season long. Top-handing it—one of Hank’s favorite expressions—just enough, putting just enough topspin on it that it became a gapper instead of a routine fly to left-center. Neither the center fielder nor the left fielder could cut the ball off before it rolled all the way to the wall.
Brian was running hard out of the box, not needing a lesson in what to do in baseball when you got all of one.
He didn’t even hesitate coming around second, didn’t have to pick up Coach Johnson windmilling him toward third thinking triple the whole way. He could have gone into the bag standing up but decided to slide anyway because sometimes you just had to do that. You wanted dirt on your uniform after a swing like that.
His mom was working today, so there was no reason for him to look up into the stands, nobody to share the moment with. And it was all right with Brian for a change. Nothing was going to take this feeling away, being out of breath, heart pounding, feeling pure satisfaction.
He looked over at Kenny, who’d slid into home plate even though he hadn’t needed to slide either. Kenny was back up on his feet now, uniform full of dirt, standing next to the ump. Kenny wasn’t about to show up Johnny Hastings or the Bulls, not after scoring the first run in the game. He just pointed at Brian, grinned, and nodded. Better than anybody on the Sting he knew what Brian had been going through and knew how much giving one a ride like this meant to him.
Brian nodded back. Ryan Santoro, batting third, singled Brian home on the first pitch, giving the Sting a quick 2-0 lead. When he got back to the bench, Kenny pounded him some fist and said, “You know what happens when you start swinging the bat like this, right?”
“Actually, I don’t. What happens?”
“You don’t stop.”
“And you know this because of one swing?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact I do,” he said. “And it’s not just one swing, you had the two last night.”
“I try to keep up.”
After that it was just one of those dream days. Brian doubled to right his next time up, going with the pitch and hitting it to the opposite field, knocking in two more runs in the process. Now the Sting were ahead, 5-2.
The Bulls came back later when Brendan DePonte dropped a fly ball he should have been able to catch with his teeth and gave away two cheap runs. But Brian singled in another run in the sixth. Three-for-three. The Sting ahead 6-4 now. Kenny, whose pitch count was uncommonly high today even though he had nasty stuff, was back at shortstop by then when Kevin Mahoney had relieved him.
Kevin gave up an unearned run in the top of the seventh.
Sting 6, Bulls 5.
Some ball still left to be played.
When Brian came up in the bottom of the eighth with bases loaded and two outs, it was still 6-5. Not the first inning now. Not a 0-0 game. This was a Big Moment. The best kind. This was the kind of chance, game on the line, he hadn’t had in a long time. The Bulls were going with a pitcher Brian didn’t recognize, a tall kid who looked skinny enough to slip between the keys on his laptop, who came out with hard stuff and a lot of motion. But he got wild after getting the first two outs of the inning, hitting Andrew Clark before walking Brendan and Kenny.
No need for Brian to go through his to-do list as he dug in. He was locked in today. The only thing he told himself as he set his hands was to keep his stupid head still.
Hank had said, “You keep your head on the ball and sometimes the whole thing’s as easy as hitting a golf ball off a tee.”
Sometimes Coach Johnson had you take a strike in a situation like this, especially against a pitcher gone wild. Not now. Not the way Brian was swinging the bat.
The tall kid came right after him, not wanting to fall behind with the bases loaded, throwing Brian a fastball in a spot Kenny liked to call the middle of Woodward Avenue.
on a tee.
Brian hit this one even harder than he’d hit the triple in the first.
But this one had some air under it.
There weren’t many fields in Bloomfield that had an outfield fence. The field at Way Elementary did. And as he came out of the box, Brian thought he’d cleared it.
Thought he’d cleared the fences at last. His first-ever home run.
You didn’t stop to watch, didn’t pose, not if you respected the game and the other team. So Brian came out of the box as if he were trying to leg out an infield hit. But eyes tracking the ball the whole way. Begging the sucker to get out.
One time, he thought.
He was around first when the ball hit about a foot from the top of the left-field wall and came off it in one hard bounce, right into the glove of the Bulls’ left fielder, who wheeled and threw to second—a perfect one-hop throw that held Brian to a bases-clearing, three-run, stand-up double.
Brian had known when he stepped to the plate—everybody on the team knew—that a home run would have given him the cycle. And nobody in their league had ever hit for the cycle, at least according to Kenny Griffin, who said it with such authority that he made everybody on the Sting bench believe him.
Now Brian had come as close as you could come.
He didn’t look in at the bench. He just leaned over, hands on his knees, out of breath, and stared at the spot where the ball had hit.
Brian knew he hadn’t gone up there swinging for the cycle. Not thinking about it that way. But he
been swinging for the fences. He sure had.
No matter what, you had to keep swinging for the fences.
ow Hank Bishop was the one in a slump.
Lost in what Willie Vazquez liked to call a “deep, dark forest.”
It happened that way in baseball.
This wasn’t a slump in the North Oakland league. It was one everybody was talking about—in the newspapers and on the radio and during Tigers games on television. By the time the team came back from New York to open a ten-game, AL Central home stand—against the Royals, White Sox, and Twins—Hank was 2-for-his-last-30 and his batting average had dropped to .227.
He was still stuck on 499 home runs. For three weeks now, stuck. Knowing that everyone in the ballpark was waiting for number 500. Everyone watching on TV. He would see the larger-than-life scoreboards in every stadium, shouting out the number with every at-bat. So now he was pressing, feeling the pressure, just wanting it to be over. And the more he pressed, the worse his swing grew. Now the sportswriters were starting to wonder if the only reason the Tigers hadn’t released him was because he
that close to hitting number 500.
Getting there, getting to 500, had seemed like a sure thing when the Tigers first signed him. Now Hank Bishop wasn’t even a sure thing to make it to the end of the regular season, forget about what might be his last best chance at making the World Series. Mitch Albom had written a column in the
the day before, speculating about the Tigers possibly releasing Hank, hoping that didn’t happen, saying that’s not the way the story was supposed to end.