Authors: Matt Christopher
Copyright © 1992 by Matt Christopher Royalties, Inc.
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First eBook Edition: November 2008
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Sylvester Coddmyer III dropped the bat and stared deep into the outfield. The ball soared over the center fielder’s outstretched glove. It was heading toward the fence. It was going over. It was going … going
“Wake up, Sylvester! ” Coach Stan Corbins raw voice cut through the cool spring air. “Did you come here to play baseball or nap?”
Pulling his cap over his thatch of blond hair, Sylvester blinked and jumped up. He’d been dozing at the far end of the bench. The dugout was so warm, and he really hadn’t expected to hear his name called. After all, he hardly ever got to play these days.
It was such a nice dream, too. It reminded him of last season when he was the Hooper Redbirds’leading hitter. Back then it seemed as if he could hit nothing but home runs — except for the last game. He had struck out twice before getting a double, but that drove in what turned out to be the winning runs. That amazing season had earned Sylvester a trophy for being the best athlete in the histoiy of Hooper Junior High.
To this day, he felt it was all due to Mr. Baruth. Sylvester wasn’t even good enough to be considered a so-so player until that mysterious stranger showed up and started giving him pointers.
But Mr. Baruth had left town almost as suddenly as he had appeared. This season there was no outside help. At first Sylvester had figured he didn’t need any. He thought he’d just show up and start belting the ball without a lot of effort or a lot of practice. It hadn’t happened that way. Coasting along just didn’t work, and his game had turned dismal. The coach really had no reason to let him play.
Now it was the top of the fourth inning, the score 3–0 in the Seneca Indians’ favor, and the coach had decided that Bobby Kent, the Redbirds’ star outfielder, needed a rest.
“Grab your glove, Sylvester, and take Bobby’s place out in center. Bobby, you’ve done well, ldd. Take a break,” said the coach.
The Redbirds’ tall center fielder looked surprised. He glanced over at the short and stocky Sylvester and smirked as he flopped down on the bench.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bobby, Sylvester thought with a scowl. Just because you’re hot out there now.… Well, I can tell you it doesn’t always last.
Glove in hand, Sylvester ran out of the dugout and nearly tripped on his straggling shoelaces. He’d loosened them when he felt his feet getting cramped from dangling off the bench. Quickly tying them, he ran off toward his playing position.
“Hi, Syl!” yelled Ted Sobel from his position in left field. Dressed in his Redbird red uniform with white trim, Ted looked neat and bright, like a Christmas ornament.
“Hi!” replied Sylvester. It felt good to be out on the field with the sun shining down on him. It was a little bit like last year when, following Mr. Baruth’s coaching tips, he’d made a series of fantastic catches on top of his great hitting. Maybe the coach and his teammates remembered how well he had played, after all.
“Hey, Syl,” Les Kendall, the right fielder, greeted him offhandedly.
Les was the team’s second leading hitter — right after that new kid, Trent Sturgis, who played shortstop. Trent did a good job fielding, but it was his hitting streak that made him the focus of everyone’s attention.
As Syl mentally compared Trent’s playing abilities to his own, his confidence sagged. He forgot all about Mr. Baruth and silently wished that any balls hit to the outfield would go to either left or right field.
The infield chatter rattled on as the Indians’ catcher, Scott Corrigan, stepped into the batter’s box. Wearing a black-trimmed yellow uniform, Scott was the Indians’ cleanup hitter. So far he’d gotten a two-bagger.
Scott took two balls and a strike, then laced one deep to left.
“Back! Back!” Sylvester yelled to Ted as the ball rose in a high arc over the field.
Ted raced back as far as he could go, then watched as the ball soared over his head and disappeared behind the fence.
As he turned and watched Scott trot around the bases, Sylvester groaned. No need to hurry, he thought. I know just how he feels. A pang of envy pinched somewhere deep in his chest.
Rooster Adams was up next and slammed a low, clothesline drive straight out to center field. Sylvester’s heart leapt into his throat as he saw the ball coming directly at him.
Mr. Baruth sprang into his mind. Remember what he told you. Keep your eye right on that ball and get under it. Sylvester ran forward, his arm stretched out in front of him.
Splat! The ball smacked into the pocket of his glove. And then it vanished.
He searched the green turf around his feet, thinking that he had dropped it.
“Your glove! Your glove, Syl!” Ted yelled at him from over in left field.
Sylvester looked at his glove and his heart uncoiled like an overwound spring. There, nesting in the center of the well-oiled glove, was the red-and-blue-threaded white ball.
He breathed a sigh of relief, picked out the ball, and tossed it to Jim Cowley, the Redbirds’ second baseman.
“Good catch, Syl!” Jim called to him.
Syl’s smile faded. Was Jim surprised he’d made a good catch or was he saying that to be nice?
He wondered whether Joyce Dancer was in the stands and what she thought of his catch. Joyce was twelve, a year younger than Sylvester, but they spent a lot of time with each other. They’d just started going to movies together.
There was no time to think about that. He had to pay attention to the game.
Stan Falls, up next, rapped out a single over shortstop. Then Jon Buckley struck out. Terry Barnes, the Redbirds’ pitcher, was erratic today first hot, then cold. Sylvester remembered the two batters he’d fanned in the first inning as well as the three runs he’d given up to the Indians in the second.
“C’mon, Terry! Strike ’em out!” Sylvester yelled as the Indians’ shortstop, Dick Wasser, stepped into the box.
Dick hugged the plate as if he were defending it. He let two of Terry’s pitches go by for strikes, then took a walk as Terry flubbed the next four.
Two out, two on as the Indians’ pitcher, Burk Riley, came to bat.
“Easy out!” Sylvester yelled. “Easy out!” Burks bat had hardly touched the ball so far today.
Burk took a called strike, then laced Terry’s next pitch to right center field. Both Sylvester and Les Kendall raced toward the ball. Les got there first, scooped it up, and heaved it to third base. But his throw was short. Dick Wasser held up on third. Stan Falls raced in to score.
Bus Riley, the Indians’ leadoff batter, then flied out to left to end the inning.
Seneca Indians 5, Hooper Redbirds 0.
Sylvester ran off the field, glad that the half inning was over without any disasters on his part. He had made a good catch, but what if he had missed it? What would happen next time a ball came at him like that? Would he remember what he’d learned from Mr. Baruth again? All these thoughts seemed to bounce around in his head at the same time, making him nervous.
“Grab a bat, Sylvester!” the red-haired, freckle-faced scorekeeper Billy Haywood called to him as he came trotting off the field. “Start it off with a big one, pal!”
Start it off? Sylvester hadn’t realized he’d be up at bat so soon. This made him even more nervous than he’d been in the field.
Sylvester took a couple of deep breaths, hoping that would help calm him down.
He yanked his maroon batting gloves out of his pocket, slipped them on, selected a bat — a brown one with white tape around the handle — put on a helmet, and strode to the plate.
Heart racing, he scraped the dirt with his shoes, pretending to get a better grip by digging them in. Time, just a little more time. That’s all he needed. Time for his heartbeat to slow down.
Burk steamed in two pitches, a ball and a strike. Then came another pitch that looked as good as any Sylvester could hope for.
Clunk! Bat barely connected with ball, and the ball rolled away from the plate like a frightened worm.
Sylvester dropped his bat and raced for first base, knowing all the while that his short legs would never beat the throw. It was a sure out. He could practically hear the call.
Suddenly, there was a yell from the crowd, and he saw the ball fly over the first baseman’s head. It was a rotten throw! What a break!
He touched first and ran on to second, where he stayed, listening to applause from the Redbirds’ supporters and boos from the Indians’.
“Hey, Codfish,” yelled one of the Indians’ fans. “You know what? You’re just lucky!”
That stung, but Sylvester tried to brush it off. Sticks and stones, he thought. Mr. Barutli had pointed out that there were characters like that in every crowd — and that you just had to ignore them. Instead, he tried to concentrate on the next batter.
Duane Francis, the Redbirds’ sandy-haired third baseman and Sylvesters closest friend on the team, took the first pitch — a strike — then rapped the next one between center and left field for a double, to score his pal.
“Nice going, Syl,” second baseman Jim Cowley called as he came into the dugout.
Nobody else said anything. They hardly looked at him. It even seemed as though Trent Sturgis, bat in hand, deliberately turned away as Sylvester walked by him.
“Okay, bring him in, Eddie!” shouted Coach Corbin, standing and clapping in the third base coaching box.
Catcher Eddie Exton didn’t. He fanned out. Terry, up next, bounced a one-hopper to the pitcher for the second out. Sylvester groaned with his teammates as they saw one of their best hitters go down.
It was now Jim Cowley s turn at bat.
“Out of the lot, Jim!” Sylvester yelled.
Jim’s hit off the first pitch didn’t go out of the lot, but it was good enough for a single, scoring Duane.
That was the last hit of the inning. Seneca Indians 5, Hooper Redbirds 2.
Terry and the Redbirds’ defense held the Indians in check in the top of the fifth. In the bottom of the inning, with Les on first, thanks to a walk, and Trent on first by virtue of a clean single to short right field, the first baseman, Jerry Ash, flied out. That brought Sylvester up to the plate.
“Okay, Syl!” yelled the coach. “Let’s see you clean the bases!”
Sylvester swung at Burks first three pitches. He missed every one of them.
ooooo!” yelled the same Indians’ fan who’d called him names before. “You know what? You really stink! Like a dead codfish!”
Sylvester knew better, but the words still stung. As he headed for the dugout, he felt like a total failure. Of all the dumb times to strike out, he thought.
It wasn’t like this last year, he reminded himself. He would have gotten a three-run homer if he was hitting like back then. That would have shut up that wise guy!
Yeah, but that was then. This is now. He couldn’t avoid reminding himself of that, too.
“No sweat,” said his pal Duane, as he passed Sylvester on his way to the plate. “You’ll get ’em next time.”
Sure, thought Sylvester sourly. Next time.
Duane singled to keep things alive, but then Eddie Exton struck out.
Indians 5, Redbirds 3.
Stan Falls, leading off for the Indians in the top of the sixth and last inning, hit a three-two pitch to deep center field. As it came at him, Sylvester wished that it would be deep enough to sail over the fence.
It wasn’t. Still, he only had to back up a few steps and it would be his.
But the ball hit the tip of his glove, not its pocket, and glanced off onto the ground.
“Oh, no!” he groaned, as he sprang forward, retrieved the ball, and pegged it in to second base to hold the runner at first.