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Rounding Third Chapter 4
The first game of the season made the morning announcements, but no one paid any attention to baseball except the guys on the team. Football and basketball
attracted the crowds and the girls.
Josh’s performance on the mound against Belleville was everything the Harrisonburg Hawks could have hoped. By the third inning, only one of the opposition’s runners had reached first base on a hard-hit single on the first pitch that caused Taylor to shout from his position at short to Buff in leftfield, loud enough for everyone to hear, “They should have let you pitch--going to be a long day!”
On the bench Bobby was thinking the least the team could do was give the new guy a chance. But since that one pitch into the fat of the strike zone, Josh had shut them out at the plate, striking out six of the first ten batters.
Unfortunately, the Belleville pitcher, Derek Fujiyama, who was known throughout the league for his fireball, was equal to the challenge and no Hawk had been on base since Danny Taylor drew a walk in the first. In the third inning,
Josh, in the pitcher’s traditional ninth spot, was preparing to bat.
The hoped-for friendship with Josh, small as it was, had Bobby taking a special interest in Josh’s playing. Bobby realized part of the reason he had been trying a little harder at practice was because of Josh. As Josh walked toward the on-deck circle, Bobby was a little surprised to hear himself call out, “Schlagel!” Josh stopped and came over to the fence that separated the bench from the area where the batters took their warm-up swings. “The pitcher drops his shoulder if he’s going off-speed or throwing junk. On a fastball, he pulls his shoulder up. Just a subtle hitch in his motion, so watch for it. If you get on, steal. He’s slow.”
Josh nodded his thanks and turned to watch the Blue Devils pitcher. Corey Brickman nudged Danny Taylor then yelled, “Sit down, Wardell!”
Bobby walked past the wary stares of the other players and back to his seat on the bench.
Bobby heard the boink of an aluminum bat and turned to see a weak pop-up to short that made the first out of the inning and brought Schlagel to the plate. The usual chatter went up from the bench. “C’mon, Schlagel!” “Help yourself out here!” “Let’s go one-seven!”
Bobby said nothing as he leaned forward and grabbed the fence to watch Josh bat. The pitcher’s right shoulder went up and sure enough, he came with a fastball. Josh was waiting for it and took a full cut but failed to get a full piece of the ball and sent it flying high up. The catcher flung off his mask and ran towards the first base dugout, but stopped when he realized the ball would clear the fence out of play. Josh picked up the mask, slapped it against his leg to shake the dust off it and held it out for the catcher who seemed a little surprised, but smiled and thanked Josh. Again Fujiyama went into his wind-up and again the shoulder hitched up. This time Josh was set and sent it sailing over the shortstop’s head into shallow left.
On the next pitch, Josh was off towards second. He took third on another stand-up stolen base. A single scored him. Josh ran across the plate and stopped to whisper to the next batter. Josh ran past the extended hands of the other congratulatory players and right to Bobby. “Good call, Wardell! Way to go!” He slapped Bobby on the back. It stung more than the slaps in the face he’d had from Danny in the past, but it felt great. Josh hurried back down the bench to whisper instructions to the rest of the team.
The rally ended with six runs in. The base runners were going on every pitch. A double steal that resulted in an overthrown ball brought in the last run before the Hawks’ catcher struck out on three straight, very hot fastballs, leaving Josh on deck.
Josh returned his bat to the rack and dropped his helmet. He looked down the bench and gave a thumbs up to Bobby then pointed at him. “You should get six RBIs for that inning.”
Bobby felt the coach’s hand on his shoulder. He didn’t remember that Hudson had ever touched him before. “Wardell, that’s smart baseball.” Hudson’s breathy, nasal way of speaking made it seem like he was trying to yell even when he was talking quietly at close range. Hudson looked down the rest of the bench. “The rest of you should be paying attention. You’re part of this game--not spectators.” Some of them shrugged, having no idea what they’d left undone.
The next inning added three more runs and Belleville pulled their starter, but by then the damage was done. Josh finished the game, his tired arm giving up two walks which led to two runs in the seventh and final inning. Josh had his first complete game and his first win as a Hawk. The team crowded around to congratulate him as much for sparking the rally as for his throwing a five-hitter, but
Josh moved past them, looking for Bobby who was shoving the bats back into their bags. Bobby looked up, surprised to see Josh coming toward him.
Josh announced to the team, “Here’s the guy who should really get the victory. Great job, Rob.” The rest of the team looked confused. Perhaps they didn’t know who Rob was. He wasn’t sure how many of the guys knew what his last name was, let alone his first name and if they were aware of him before this, it was as Bobby. Josh slapped Bobby on the back again. “My first win, but the credit’s all yours.”
Bobby was as surprised by his getting all this attention as the rest of the team was. Josh turned to his teammates and told them that it was Bobby who had spotted the flaw in the other pitcher. This bit of trivia was quickly shrugged off, dismissed by the players as they went back to congratulating Josh. Josh, ignoring their accolades, hollered back at Bobby as he was getting swept away by the crowd, “I owe you one!”
In the locker room, Bobby was stuffing his uniform into his backpack when he felt a hand on his bare shoulder. “Thanks again. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
Recognizing the slight whistle in the subtle lisp, Bobby didn’t have to turn to know Josh was at his side.
“You’re welcome,” Bobby said, but didn’t turn, and continued stuffing.
“Are you mad at me? I’m sorry, I should’ve made it clear to those guys that was all your doing.”
“No, I’m not mad. You tried. They didn’t care. But you don’t have to keep thanking me. They think it’s weird.”
“I don’t think it’s weird to give credit where it’s due. You won that game more than any pitch I threw or ball that was hit.”
“The team won, that’s all that matters.” Bobby still wouldn’t make eye contact.
“Thanks again. With your head for baseball and my pitching arm we make a good team.” Josh again slapped Bobby’s bare back and walked away.
Bobby slipped his shirt on and turned to leave, walking right into the landmass that was Buff Beechler. He seemed to always be running into Buff, but since Buff took up half the locker room, that wasn’t hard to do. Buff was at least two and a half times Bobby’s 110 pounds. “Sorry,” Bobby mumbled as he tried to move around the large obstacle. Buff grabbed his arm.
Here it comes, Bobby thought, I’ve bumped into him once too often, and now he’ll pound me into the tile floor like Bobby had watched Danny Taylor do to a kid after gym
class one day. Bobby had lived in fear that his time was coming and now it had.
“Hey,” Buff said, forcing Bobby to look up. “That was a good catch today.”
“Good catch?” Bobby stammered. “I didn’t play.”
“You know what I mean. Schlagel was right--you were the MVP today. It’s nice to know when a fastball is coming, especially when the guy throws heat the way Fujiyama does. He’s been clocked at over ninety.” Bobby stood in slacked-jaw silence, unsure that Buff Beechler was really carrying on a conversation with him. Bobby could say nothing even if he’d had a clue what to say. Buff chucked him lightly on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work. And if you have any hot tips on any of the other teams we face, clue me in, ‘k?”
Bobby could only nod weakly as Buff eclipsed him. Bobby tried to leave again, but this time found himself face to face with Jason Farino. “Nice going, Wardell, make the rest of us look bad again!” Farino poked him in the shoulder. Next to Bobby, Jason was the smallest kid on the team, and was by far the worst baseball player, but even he had enough size to pound Bobby and they both knew it. Bobby almost felt sorry for Jason that he was so low that the only person he was able to lord it over was Bobby. Bobby
thought there should have been some bonding at the bottom, but Jason was too dumb to notice that picking on Bobby would never be enough to get him accepted by the rest of the team.
Bobby said nothing. Being the center of attention wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He popped in his earbuds and darted out the door to run home.
* * * * *
All day Saturday, Bobby and his father, and at times his mother and sister, took advantage of the warm weather to work in the fields his father jokingly called “the back forty.” It was more of a hobby than work for his father. His father’s accounting business and his mom’s part time work paid the family bills, but they also grew much of the family’s own food. Although his father hadn’t gone hunting in a few years, venison used to provide winter meat. Bobby had a feeling their living off the land had more to do with some kind of tradition than economics, but he never asked. They weren’t rich or poor. He didn’t have his own car, but then many kids his age didn’t either. And he had never even thought to ask for one since he had no place to go.
Although they often spent full days in the field, he and his father didn’t talk much. Bobby thought they should be having some sort of meaningful dialogue when they spent
these long days together, that a male-bonding father-son thing should be happening. He tried to avoid his father, but not any more than he avoided anyone else.
His parents weren’t terribly social and sometimes Bobby had wondered if he got his lack of social skills from them. For someone who had been raised in the town and ran a business there, his father didn’t seem very much a part of the town. He was not an Elk or a Lion or a Kiwani. He belonged to the Chamber of Commerce, but rarely went to meetings. Bobby got the feeling that after Vietnam and four years away at Kent State where his father met his mother, his father really didn’t feel much like going home, but having no place else to go and his parents needing help with the farm he probably never questioned his duty to return home. His father was like that. Quietly doing his duty.
When Bobby was about nine, his dad had erected the basketball hoop and paved a section of the driveway into a half-court. The games were too one-sided and after a while it was clear the son was not enjoying the sport and dad stopped challenging him to after-dinner games. Now his dad played Meg or shot baskets alone. Bobby would sometimes shoot a few baskets or play Meg one-on-one, but he made it a point to never have a basketball in hand when his father
was around. Dad’s coaching embarrassed him since he couldn’t perform as he was supposed to.
The Wardell family really did have almost forty acres. Part of the land was still in woods, and part was the large lawn for the house, although in the tradition of a century ago: the lawn was at the back and to one side, and the front of the house was almost on Route 303. They grew nearly an acre of various crops--the section his mother called their farmlette--corn, beans, tomatoes, and a large garden, plus several fruit trees of various types--which provided lots of food for his mother to can come fall. The excess produce they sold to Frank Greiner for his market. Eighty years ago, Bobby’s great-grandfather had sold his produce through Frank’s father. Some things never changed.
Bobby and his mother were working in the field when his father came out to them. “WTW?” he asked. Bobby’s father had a habit of saying something his commanding officer used to say in Vietnam, Ready to roll? but before Megan could properly pronounce her Rs she had adopted her father’s expression, which had become so routine a family joke it had been shortened to its abbreviation.
“Weady,” Mrs. Wardell answered then turned to her son. “Sure you don’t want to come?”
“Nah, I’ll stay here and finish clearing these weeds.”
“Think of anything else we need?” his father asked him.
Bobby shook his head. He had no desire to go to the lawn and garden center. He wanted to be alone for a bit to try to think of what he might say to Josh at Monday’s game. Since Josh had tried to talk to him, he wanted to be able to have something to say in return instead of staring blankly the way he had when Buff had spoken to him.
As long as Bobby kept his body busy he could think pleasant thoughts, but once the sun was down and the world got quiet, the noise in his head started again and he would put himself through another grueling workout until exhaustion overcame anxiety and he could sleep.
Walter G. Meyer is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel, Rounding Third.
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