Rob Wardell is a seventeen-year old who feels like he doesn’t quite fit in anywhere–not at home, not at school and not on the baseball field. The small, shy boy stays on the high school baseball team only to please his father since he knows he will never get to play. He’s living his life alone until he finds himself drawn into a friendship with the team’s new star pitcher, Josh Schlagel. The two boys hit it off instantly; maybe it’s because Josh isn’t exactly welcomed by the team either. But as Rob and Josh grow closer and start spending more time together away from the field, Rob realizes this his friend is hiding something. The bruises on Josh’s body and his reluctance to let Rob know about certain parts of his life have Rob suspicious. When Josh’s secrets are finally revealed and become life threatening, Rob and his family must step up to the plate.
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Taylor hit Bobby again, and this time Danny’s ring dug into Bobby’s forehead. Bobby could feel the skin tearing above his eyebrow.Taylor backhanded Bobby so hard his head spun into the wrought iron posts. Bobby staggered sideways, grabbing the cemetery fence to keep from falling.
Taylor slapped Corey Brickman on the arm and they both laughed. They walked back to Brickman’s pimped-out Camaro and got in. Brickman spun the tires to spit gravel as the car fishtailed off the shoulder and back onto Route 303.
Bobby propped himself up against the fence and tried to catch his breath. He looked through the bars at the generations of dead ancestors and wondered if they were laughing at him, too. He picked his iPod out of the tall weeds. Bobby didn’t want his parents to see him, at least not until the bleeding stopped, so instead of heading straight home, he turned down McKinley Road away from his house and kept running.
As Bobby continued running, the sweat stung in his cuts, and once he had to use his shirttail to wipe the trickle of blood out of his eye.He had hoped this year might be different. The new kid on the team smiled at Bobby and had actually said hello a couple of times. Today Bobby had resolved to speak to him and found the boy was friendly. It was that shred of hope which motivated Bobby to really try his best in the scrimmage game at practice.He had been so concerned with impressing the new guy that he hadn’t considered how Danny Taylor would take being embarrassed. He hadn’t set out to embarrass anyone, that was just sort of a side effect, and, as bad as his face hurt, it was almost worth it to see the look on Taylor’s face when, thanks to Bobby’s base stealing, a runner scored.
Danny was the captain and quarterback of the football team, and although not the captain of the baseball team, he was the shortstop and unquestionably the leader of the tightest clique on the team. Danny had the movie-star kind of good looks that seemed only possible with the aid of good lighting and make-up. He attracted the attention of everyone, male or female, as soon as he entered a room. Bobby had watched people fawn over Danny since they were in the first grade together. “Oh, Mrs. Taylor, your son is sooo handsome…” it was the kind of adulation that had helped Danny grow into the most insufferable asshole in school, which, given some of the other competition, was quite an accomplishment.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, Taylor’s arrogance, he always had a flock of disciples around him as though some of his greatness might drop to the ground and they could snatch it up. The first day of baseball practice in tenth grade Bobby had glanced over at Danny. His radiance was such it was hard not to stare, and Bobby was met with a slap to the face and the question, “What are you staring at, faggot?” There was so much threat and malice in the voice that ever since Bobby had averted his eyes in the presence of the young prince.
He had learned long before that when you were his size getting in the way of Taylor and his kind often meant kissing a locker so he stayed away from them as much as possible. As Bobby’s grandmother used to say, “The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down.”
As Bobby ran, his face stinging, he had plenty of time to reflect on the futility and stupidity of having called attention to himself at practice. The grandstanding seemed like the thing to do at the time, but now any chance he had of fitting in on the team was gone. He marveled how he had once again managed to fall so quickly out of step.
Although he often suspected that he was the only one doing the right step, and everyone else was out of sync.
The new player was slipping his hand into his baseball glove as the plastic door twanged shut behind him.
“It stinks really bad,” Bobby continued. “That’s why we use the woods.” Bobby jerked his head toward the trees beyond the leftfield fence.
“I was wondering what was going on back there.” The new kid fumbled to get his glove off his right hand to shake. “I’m Josh Schlagel.”
“I know.” Bobby had noticed him on the first day of school last fall. New kids weren’t that common at Harrisonburg High, although the new housing developments were changing that. “Bob Wardell,” Bobby said at the same moment that Danny Taylor sent a ball soaring over the right field fence. Bobby had said his name so quietly it had been swallowed in the cheer that accompanied the batting practice homerun.
“Nice to meet you, Rob,” Josh said.
“You, too,” Bobby said, looking down. He liked the way it sounded to be called Rob instead of Bob. His parents still called him Bobby, and he wished they would drop the ‘y’ now that he was seventeen, but since his father was Bob, they still called him Bobby.
“What position do you play?” Josh asked.
“Left outfield?” questioned Josh.
“No, left out. As in, I don’t play. That’s my end of the dugout,” Bobby said, pointing to the far end of the bench down the first base line. They called it a dugout although it was just a bench not lowered into the ground and lacked a covering of any kind. “I hear you might start the first game,” Bobby said. “You should. You’re good. I’ve watched you throw smoke in practice.”
Their nervousness was growing into a silence between them.
Both were relieved when Coach Hudson called out in his nasal Southern wail, “Huddle up!”
They trotted over to join the team. Coach Hudson announced the starting line-up for the Harrisonburg Hawks’ first game: Josh Schlagel would start on the mound. There was some grumbling, mainly by Danny Taylor, that Buff Beechler should have started, but Bobby didn’t hear Buff complain. Beechler was one of the few seniors on the team and certainly the largest, hairiest student at the high school, quite probably in the state of Ohio, and possibly the world. His nickname, Water Buffalo, had been shortened by overuse to just Buff.
After giving the line-ups, Hudson said, “We’re going to play a five-inning inter-squad game to get us ready for Belleville next week. The starters will be the A team. The rest of you will be the B team. Since B will be a man short, Beechler, you’ll play left for the A team and first for the B team; when you’re batting we’ll get you a sub.” Josh was to play first for the A team to save his arm for the opener.
Bobby was thinking these line-ups would leave them an outfield of pitchers and him as the only semi-experienced infielder on the B Team besides Buff. Not a good thing.
Harrisonburg High wasn’t so large as to require even having cuts for most of the teams. If anyone showed up for practice and tried, they were pretty much entitled to a spot, even though it might be clear that they were never going to play. The baseball team had only seventeen players, so aside from the starters and five pitchers, Bobby was one of only three extra fielders.
Hudson’s next announcement caused even more concern: “To make sure everyone plays hard, the losing team will run two laps.”
“Yeah!” Danny Taylor laughed.
“And since the A team should have the advantage, win or lose, for every run the B team scores, the A team will run a lap.”
“What?” Danny asked.
“You didn’t hear me, Taylor?” Coach Hudson demanded in his southern twang. “For you, it’ll be two laps per run.” Hudson appeared to be a large man at a distance, but up close, most men would have stood taller than him. Most men, but not Bobby. Hudson’s age could have been between thirty and fifty and his thickness made it hard to tell if his body was muscle, fat, or muscle that had turned to fat. Rumor had it that Hudson had played minor league ball in Arizona or New Mexico or someplace out west, but Hudson never mentioned it or told any baseball stories. He never talked much more than the matter at hand so no one seemed to know if he had a wife or kids or if he had a life off the field.
The threatened laps meant laps not just around the field, but around the campus, which included the baseball field, football stadium and all of the academic buildings. And up two pretty good hills, or at least what passed for hills in northern Ohio. A lap was just under a mile on the path worn to dirt by the many teams that used it for their training runs.
Josh Schlagel led off for the A team. The first pitch sailed by him so low and outside the catcher didn’t even bother reaching for it and let it rattle against the wire mesh backstop. Josh stepped into the next pitch and connected to drive it over the leftfield fence above the fading Harrisonburg Chevrolet banner and into the woods. There was the small applause of a few guys thumping their hands into their mitts and a few calls of “Way to go!” or “Nice one!” But it was just a polite acknowledgement, not the ovation Danny Taylor got, which seemed unfair since this was a game and not just batting practice. Bobby wanted to applaud or shout encouragement to the new guy, but he didn’t. He never did for anyone else on the team so it would seem strange to start now, but he felt bad that the guys were not more welcoming of Josh.
The next two batters flew out. As Bobby ran off the field, Josh stopped him. “Hey, Rob, I noticed you’re the only other lefty on the team. While you’re batting, can I try your glove? Mine’s falling apart. I want a new one so I’d like to try yours if it’s okay.”
“Sure.” He tossed his mitt to Josh. Bobby was flattered that Josh had noticed him enough to know which hand he used.
“Thanks!” Josh grabbed the mitt and trotted to first base.
There was a man on first base when Bobby came to the plate in the bottom of the first inning. He was so nervous, batting in a game, and trying too hard to pull the ball down the right field line, that he missed the ball entirely as it bounced in the dirt and the catcher caught it on one hop. At shortstop, Danny Taylor made a noise with his mouth like a fart. Umpiring behind the plate, assistant coach Milnes said, “C’mon, Wardell,” instead of even calling the strike.
“Let’s go, two!” Josh yelled Bobby’s number from the infield and Bobby was so amazed that one of his teammates had actually shouted encouragement that he made it a point to plant his feet and be certain he connected. He took a full cut at the next ball, and perhaps it was an accident or subconscious aiming, but he drilled the ball to short. If Taylor hadn’t gotten his glove up it would have taken his head off. Instead it bounced off his glove and into short center field.
Bobby made his turn at first and watched the other runner stop at second. When Bobby came back to the bag Josh said, “Nice hit, Rob.”
“Thanks,” Bobby said, smiling. He suddenly felt that maybe he could do something to help the team. Or at least help himself feel like part of the team for a change.
As they watched Buff Beechler trot in from leftfield to bat, Josh said, “It’ll be embarrassing if we lose to the second string.”
“I know we’re going to lose, but at least I have to make sure you guys run a lap or two.” Bobby wasn’t sure where he found the confidence to talk to Josh, let alone act like the B team might have a chance.
Buff smacked one into deep center where the centerfielder chased it down at the fence. Both Bobby and the man on second tagged and went: runners on second and third, one out. Bobby looked over to first and saw Josh smiling at him. He smiled back.
Coach Hudson had told them to feel free to steal if they saw their chance. As soon as the pitcher went into his windup, Bobby bolted off second–towards first. The catcher came up gunning the ball to first to try to get Bobby. Hudson, coaching at third, sent the runner home from third. Bobby was almost to first when the ball arrived there and Bobby turned back towards second. Josh fired the ball to the plate, but too late to stop the run from scoring.
The catcher flung the ball to shortstop Danny Taylor, who was waiting at second. Bobby turned back to first and Taylor threw the ball to Josh. Bobby turned back toward second. Josh ran at Bobby then tossed the ball back to Taylor who started chasing him back towards first. Bobby knew from their sprints in practice that he could outrun Taylor although he had never wanted to win and risk pissing off Taylor. Taylor threw the ball to the pitcher who was now covering first. The pitcher ran at Bobby, but gave up the chase to flick the ball to Corey Brickman, the second baseman, who now was guarding his own base.
Bobby began to feel like a yo-yo, going one way then the other. The catcher was backing up first base and the centerfielder had come in to back up second. As each player charged at Bobby and Bobby outran him, the fielder would flip the ball over Bobby’s head to whoever had now taken over the vacated base. If anyone had been keeping a scorebook, it would have been a ridiculous entry like 2-3-2-6-3-6-1-4-1-5-9-8-3-6-3-5-2-6…, giving pi a run for its money.
Still Bobby wouldn’t give up. Taylor and Brickman were getting angrier. “Just tag the faggot!” Taylor screamed at Josh.
“Get him!” Brickman yelled as he again flipped the ball over Bobby’s head.
“He can’t keep doing wind sprints forever!” Taylor yelled.
“Wanna bet?” Buff yelled. “Go, Wardell!”
Bobby was thinking if he kept forcing throws someone would miss. Brickman positioned himself halfway between the bases and yelled at the pitcher to do likewise. The plan was clear. They’d line the base path with men and throw to whoever was nearest Bobby. It was working. Bobby was now dodging very close tags. Coach Milnes had come out from behind the plate to make the call.
Bobby’s chain was getting shorter and shorter. He lunged at first then spun and streaked towards second. The ball was there ahead of him, so he slid between Taylor’s legs as Taylor swiped the glove down hitting Bobby hard in the back.
“Safe!” Milnes yelled. Bobby and the rest of the team looked to see Milnes pointing to where the ball had popped loose and was resting at the edge of the outfield grass.
Taylor looked up and yelled, “You’re going to pay for that, you son of a bitch.”
“Taylor, you know my rule on swearing,” Coach Hudson said. Bobby was surprised to see Hudson standing next to second base. “That’s a lap for the one I heard and an extra one for what I’m sure I didn’t hear. Wardell, that was good hustle, but don’t you know you can’t steal first? If you set foot on first again, you’re out.”
Bobby said, barely loud enough for Hudson to hear, “I knew that, but they didn’t.” Hudson’s thick brow creased. Bobby met the coach’s eyes for the first time and added, “The run scored didn’t it?”
A slight smile crossed the coach’s face then vanished as he turned to the rest of the team. “These practice games are so you can practice, not screw around. Is that the way we play pickles? Eight guys handle the ball and not one of you able to make the play? There should never be more than three throws. Tomorrow, we will be working just on that. Fundamentals win ball games. Did anyone besides Wardell know there was no point in defending first base?” The downward glances answered that. Hudson shook his head. “We’ve got lots of work to do before our first real game next week.” Hudson stalked off the field.
Taylor returned to short, bumping Bobby off the base on the way. Bobby was stranded at second as the next two batters struck out.
“Nice glove,” Josh said, pulling it off his hand and holding it out for Bobby. “New.” The glove still smelled like a new leather belt and had yet to start giving off the proper aura of a baseball mitt.
“A Christmas present from my dad,” Bobby said. “You’re welcome to borrow it anytime. God knows I’m not going to wear it out. Use it for the rest of the game and see if you like it.”
By the next time Bobby batted he knew his team’s loss was certain. His careful eye earned him a walk but once again he was left on base. The game ended 7-1, the lone run having come during Bobby’s manic base running.
“Pathetic” was the theme of the post-game dressing down Hudson gave the A team.
As they lined up for their laps, Taylor grabbed Bobby’s shirt and hissed, “You’ll pay for this!” Taylor let go just as Coach Hudson arrived and blew his whistle to start them running. Bobby took off at a good clip.
Josh sprinted to catch up with Bobby then fell into stride beside him. “Did you set out to make us look like idiots or did it just turn out that way?” he asked, smiling.
Bobby shook his head, “I was dumb.” Bobby could feel the anger of his other teammates drilling holes in the back of his head.
“That was amazing running. You did us all a favor. Taught us we need to practice a lot harder to win,” Josh said.
“Schlagel!” Danny Taylor yelled and Josh fell back into step with the other players.
Bobby flew away, making sure to finish his laps, shower quickly and be out of the locker room before the others finished running. He had felt like part of the team for one very brief moment and he had hoped to make a good impression, but he hadn’t considered how the rest of the team would react. The rage in Danny Taylor’s eyes had answered that all too clearly.