At Way Elementary now Kenny said, “Three balls left.”
They’d been going awhile and Brian was actually starting to get tired. Kenny never seemed to get tired. “I promise to groove all three,” he said, “and give you a chance to hit one out.”
“My arms are too tired, dude. I’ll be lucky to get one through the infield.”
“I keep telling you,” Brian said. “
have a rubber arm.
have a rubber bat.”
“Shut up and hit.”
He came close to hitting one out with his last swing, groaning as the ball came up two bounces short of the wall. When they were through collecting all the balls, they stayed in the outfield, sitting in the grass in front of the narrow warning track.
“Things getting better with you and your he-ro?” Kenny said, swigging ice water from the jug he had brought with him.
“No,” Brian said. “But they haven’t gotten any worse.”
“So he hasn’t talked to you at all since the other night?”
“It’s like I’m not even there.”
Kenny said, “What’s he like with the other players?”
Brian laughed. “Pretty much the same.”
After just three days Brian had noticed that Hank did more talking to the media in front of his locker every afternoon than he did to his teammates. Brian would always make sure not to stop and stare when he was in the clubhouse. As he went about his normal work, he’d see Hank smiling his famous smile and answering the reporters’ questions, and he began to think of it all as some part in a play Hank was playing.
Because as soon as the reporters were gone, Hank would lean his bat against the wall of his cubicle and disappear into the trainer’s room to lie down on one of the tables, or go into the players’ lounge and be by himself a little more.
It was pretty clear that Hank Bishop could be by himself almost anywhere.
“He seems like such a great guy when you see him get interviewed on TV,” Kenny said.
“Maybe I should get a notebook or a microphone and act like I’m interviewing him,” Brian said.
“My dad says that you’re better off
knowing these guys,” Kenny said. “He says that way you’re not disappointed when you find out they’re not who you think they are. Or who you want them to be.”
Brian said, “I’ll let you know who he is when I get to know him.”
you get to know him.”
“You make a solid point,” Brian said.
All he knew so far, just watching Hank Bishop in action both on and off the field, watching pretty much every move he made as often as he could, was this:
More than anybody in that clubhouse, from the batboys all the way up to the manager, Hank Bishop looked like this was a job to him, a job Brian wasn’t even sure the guy liked anymore.
After everything that had happened to him, after all the time he’d been away from baseball, what must have seemed like a lifetime even though it was less than two years, Brian had just assumed—maybe like a dope—that Hank would be happier than anybody to be back inside this world.
Only he wasn’t.
It never felt like a job to Brian, like real work.
The constant cleaning up after the players, the never-ending call for more Gatorade and coffee. Running new baseballs to the home-plate umpire at record speed during the game. Grabbing a new bat for one of the players who had broken one, getting
out there at record speed. It was all a game to Brian. Already he had learned the certain sound a bat made when a baseball broke it, and he’d be heading down the dugout steps for a new one before the player even completed the walk over. Then Brian would dash over to gather the broken pieces of bat. He’d learned early how sharp those pieces could be, cutting himself on one of the shards. Even that Brian didn’t mind.
After the game there was the sweeping up. The dugout usually looked like it had been lived in by twenty-five of the biggest slobs in the world. And the bats needed to be organized. And everyone’s shoes shined.
of it felt like work to Brian. Not with this kind of backstage access.
Brian loved it when a foul ball ended up in his area. He’d pick it up and be the one who got to toss it to one of the kids, sometimes his age, sometimes younger, reaching over from the stands, having brought their gloves to the ballpark the way he used to. For that one moment, while he decided where to toss it, while the kids all yelled, “Over here, over here,
here here here,
” he’d feel like one of the players. He had the ability to make somebody’s night.
He’d make mistakes sometimes, usually when trying too hard to please. He made one with Hank Bishop one day, trying to do him a favor—do his job—and getting in trouble for it. It was after a game and he saw Hank’s bat in front of his locker, just lying there on the rug. He went over and picked it up, intending to take it down to No. 3, when he heard Hank’s voice behind him.
“Where are you going with that?”
Brian turned around.
He’d thought Hank was gone.
“I was just going to put it with your other ones in the equipment room.”
“That’s one of my gamers. It must have fallen out of my locker,” Hank said. “My favorite bats always stay in here.
” He gave Brian a look that made him feel like the dirt around home plate. “Unless you were planning to sell one of them on eBay.”
He must have seen Brian’s face fall—crumple was probably more like it—when he said that, because he added, “Just let it sleep there from now on.”
Brian stood there, silent, like a bat rack.
“You’re excused, batboy.”
“My bro,” Willie Vazquez said when he spotted Brian one day. “Get your skinny butt over here.”
Brian was almost relieved to see that Hank Bishop wasn’t sitting next to Willie in front of his own locker. No. Not
Willie handed Brian two twenty-dollar bills. Then in a low voice he said, “Bro, I
to have some real food. I can only take so much of Davey food.
eat better than ballplayers now, least in here.”
Davey Schofield had gotten big on healthful eating after the team had faded down the stretch the season before. So before a game, the only thing laid out for the players on the buffet table in their lounge was fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Real food?” Brian said.
“Bro, lower your voice!” Willie said. “You’re a guy. I got to have some greasy guy food. I got to draw you one of those Happy Meal pictures?”
“Mickey D’s,” Brian said, almost in a whisper.
Willie slapped him five. “What I’m
’ about!” he said. “There’s one you must’ve seen, about two blocks up toward the Ren Center.”
“What do you want?”
“Two quarters with cheese, one Big Mac, double fries, one of those little apple pie deals,” Willie said, grinning. “You got yourself some leeway picking out the main course.”
“The main course?” Brian said.
“I’m just playin’,” Willie said. “Maybe throw in one of those chicken sandwiches. Just don’t stop ordering till you use up the money.”
Brian looked around. “You want me to bring it back here?”
Willie said, “
no, my brother. Where do you and the little freckled dude dress?”
“Equipment Room No. 3,” Brian said.
“I know where that is,” Willie said. “Meet you there in twenty.”
Not only did they meet there in twenty, but that’s how much Willie tipped Brian when they were alone in front of Brian and Finn’s lockers.
Finn showed up just as Willie was finishing up. The skinniest player on the team had eaten everything except one bag of fries. And even though he was through eating, Willie seemed in no rush to leave.
“Ask you somethin’?” he said. “How you two getting along with the Bishop?”
Brian wasn’t sure how to answer that, since Willie and Hank lockered right next to each other. He looked at Finn, who shrugged and said, “He’s a little hard to get to know.”
“I hear you on
” Willie said. “It’s like he’s been mad at everybody so long, he doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t act like he’s hatin’ on the press, but even they know better. He just wants to be on their good side on account of so many of them jumped ugly on him when he took the fall on the steroids.”
Brian said, “How do you get along with him?”
Willie smiled now. “I’ll loosen him up ’fore the year’s over. ‘Cause if I can’t? Nobody can.”
He looked at the last bag of fries now, still sitting there, untouched, between Brian and Finn. “You gonna finish those?” he said.
Brian watched Willie inhale the last of the fries and thought of a quote he’d found on the Internet one time, when he was researching a paper on Jackie Robinson. Roy Campanella, who’d have a terrible car accident later and end up paralyzed, had been the catcher on the same Brooklyn Dodgers teams that Robinson had played on after breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947. And Campanella had been a great player, too, described as the fastest guy to ever play catcher in the big leagues. And one time Roy Campanella had said, “You have to have a lot of little boy in you to play this game.”
Willie Vazquez had enough for the whole American League. He stayed with them a little longer, doing his impressions of some of the other players, Hank included, mocked their pitching styles and their batting styles and even the way some of them walked. He had them laughing so loud he kept telling them to hush or he was going to lose his secret eating place. Finally he said he had to go get ready for batting practice.
When he was gone, Brian found himself wondering if there was a way Willie could lend some of the little boy in him to Hank Bishop.
he Tigers and the Angels, the first-place team from the AL West, were playing a crazy game tonight—one of those big, messy games where there was good hitting and bad pitching all night long and so many runs crossed the plate that Brian imagined the kind of sounds a pinball machine made every time he scored more points.
The Angels were ahead 8-4 in the sixth when Willie Vazquez hit the first grand slam of his career to tie it. The Angels scored three more in the seventh on a bases-loaded triple, Brian’s favorite play in baseball, one where everybody on the field seemed to be running at full speed.
But the Tigers came right back with three of their own in the bottom of the seventh to make it 11-11. Brian looked up at the scoreboard and nearly laughed: eleven runs and nineteen hits for the Angels, eleven runs and twenty hits for the Tigers. Three errors for each team.
A food-fight mess of a game.
There was even what felt like a record number of broken bats tonight. He kept hearing that broken-bat
over and over, which meant he was running as much as the players. And the team had emptied the Gatorade cooler by the end of the seventh inning.
By the ninth inning, the score was 13-13. At that point Davey decided to bring in Brad Morley, his closer, even though it was a tie game. In a crazy game like this, Davey was banking on Morley getting him three outs without giving up a run, giving the Tigers a chance to score the winning run in their last ups.
But Morley was just one more pitcher who didn’t have it tonight. He managed to get the first two outs on rockets hit to the outfield, both tracked down by Curtis near the wall in dead center. But then the Angels’ catcher, Cal Stewart, timed a fastball perfectly and hit an absolute bomb over the left-field fence. Now it was 14-13. Morley got the next batter to fly out, but the damage had been done.
The Tigers were three outs away from an ugly loss. In came Todd Wirth, the Angels’ closer.
Willie Vazquez, who had already scored two of the Tigers’ thirteen runs, led off with a walk, and advanced to third on the very next pitch when Curtis Keller singled to right field. The crowd was raucous now, practically shaking the stadium. But a three-pitch strikeout of Mike Parilli followed by a first-pitch pop-up off the bat of Marty McBain to the third baseman had let most of the air out of the balloon. Until everyone realized what they were about to see. It was something Brian had been waiting for all week. All his baseball life, really.