Chapter Onea chance to be a hero
I'm in the on-deck circle, praying for Cal to get a hit. My hands are all sweaty, so I drop my bat on the ground and scoop up a handful of dirt. I rub my hands on my shirt. I don't mind getting dirty. Mama and Dad don't care how dirty I get, either. They just say, "It's part of the game, Kate. If you're really playing hard, you're bound to get dirty. But you already know that."
I do. I've played enough sports with Mama and Dad and my little brother Ken to know it. This is my first summer of playing baseball on a real team. We've been practicing for a couple of weeks, but this is our first game. This is my first time playing baseball under pressure.
I pick up my bat and study the pitcher. Coach always tells us to watch the pitcher closely, especially when we're on deck, so we can get an idea how hard he's throwing.
If Cal doesn't end the game right now with a hit, I might have a chance to win the game and be a hero. The trouble is, I'm not a great hitter. I have an even better chance of making the final out. I sure don't want to do that.
I take my eyes off the pitcher long enough to glance back toward the bleachers. Mama and Dad still aren't here. The last thing they'd said before they left home this morning was, "We wouldn't miss your game for anything."
Why aren't they here?
They were supposed to be home before 5:30, which is when Ken and I had to be at the field. We were all going to go together. They didn't come home, and they didn't even call. So Ken and I had to go without them. Luckily, our ballfield is only four blocks from our house. Ken and I ran all the way here and got here just in time.
Now it's the bottom of the sixth. We're one run behind. Ken led off the inning with a single. He's only ten, a whole year younger than me, but he's a better hitter. After Ken singled, Jack popped out and Andy doubled. Their left fielder made a nice play to keep Ken from scoring the tying run. Now, with just one out, a fly ball or maybe even a ground ball could tie the game. The bad thing is, Cal doesn't hit any better than I do.
Even though I'm not one of the best players, I really wanted for Mama and Dad to see me play my first game. Even though Ken has played ever since t-ball, I was never that into it. Ivy Snow talked me into playing. Next to Ginny, she's my best friend. She played last year, and she was the only girl on the team. This year we have three girls on the team: Ivy, Heather, and me. We tried to get Ginny to play, but we couldn't talk her into it.
The pitch comes in, a foot over Cal's head. He swings. He couldn't have reached it unless he were standing on a ladder.
"Come on, Cal!" I shout. "Make the pitch be in there!"
What I'm thinking is, "Please, please get that run in!"
I really, really don't want to make the last out with the tying run on third.
The next pitch is in the strike zone, and Cal hits a dinky infield pop-up. The second baseman doesn't even have to move. He catches it with two hands and flips the ball back to the pitcher.
Now it's up to me. The only good thing about Mama and Dad not being here is that they won't have to see me make the last out. It's not like them to not keep their word. Maybe they had a flat tire or something. I can't think of a good reason why they're not here. Some of my friends complain that their parents always break promises. But I've never had that problem. Mama and Dad have a lot of pet sayings, and one of them is, "Never make a promise unless you plan to keep it."
I try to focus on the pitcher. All that matters right now is, can I hit the ball? I hold my bat in one hand and jerk at the bill of my green cap with my other hand. In my first at-bat my cap wasn't on tight enough. It flew off my head when I swung hard and missed, striking out. I heard some people laugh. I wasn't sure if they laughed because my cap flew off and I looked silly or because I missed the ball. My second time up I at least hit the ball, but it was just a weak grounder back to the pitcher.
I hope nobody can see how bad I'm shaking. I didn't expect to be this nervous. I've played a lot of tennis with my mom and dad and brother. Mama played tennis on her college team, and she taught Ken and me. We're pretty good. We've had plenty of tight matches where I've had to return serve at match point, but I've never been as scared as I am now. I guess that's because I'm better at hitting a tennis ball than I am at hitting a baseball.
Maybe I'll get lucky and the pitcher will walk me. I hope. Making the last out would be a perfectly awful way to start the season.
I tap home plate with the fat end of the red aluminum bat. The pitcher looks in at me, or maybe at his catcher. Toby shouts to me from the on-deck circle. I suddenly realize I don't really want to walk. I know I have a better chance to get a hit than Toby does. He's struck out both times, not once coming close to making contact with the ball. Even in batting practice, he hardly ever hits the ball. If our team, the Colby Panthers, is going to win our opening game of the season, I'm afraid it's up to me.
"Bring me home, Kate!" Ken shouts from third base. "You can do it!"
I hear Coach call out, "Okay, Kate. Wait for your pitch."
I don't hear the voices I want to hear the most: Mama's and Dad's.
I grip the bat as tight as I can to try to stop my hands from shaking. I stare at the ball in the pitcher's hand. His hand starts to move and now the ball is coming toward me. I want to swing, but my arms don't move.
"Ball!" the ump calls out.
"Way to look!" Ken yells. "Make him throw strikes!"
He doesn't know that the only reason I didn't swing was because I'm too scared.
"No hitter no hitter no hitter," their catcher chatters. Unfortunately, he's right.
The second pitch comes in waist high, right over the heart of the plate. The pitcher couldn't have thrown me an easier pitch to hit if he'd tried all day. My mind shouts, "Swing! Swing!" but my arms stay frozen again. The ump yells, "Strike one!"
I pound my bat hard on home plate, just to prove that my arms really do move. Small clouds of dust puff up.
I've gone out twice, but at least I hit the ball once. Why won't my arms work now?
And they do, finally. But the pitch comes in low, at my ankles. I swing over the top of it. One more strike and we've lost the game.
Their catcher's thinking the same thing because he calls out, "One more strike. No hitter no hitter. Just throw it in here."
I take a deep breath. I look hard at the pitcher. He looks nervous too ... at least I tell myself he does. It makes me feel a little bit better. I try not to watch him, though. I try to focus on the ball. He holds it in his right hand. Then the ball disappears in his glove and his arms go above his head. His right arm comes down, pointing right toward me, and now I see the ball again. I hold back a split second longer on this pitch than I did on the other one. When I see it's going to be close to the outside corner, I swing.
I'm surprised at how loud the sound is when my bat meets the ball. I watch the ball take off on a line toward right field, and I start to run. It lands in front of the right fielder. I see him field it cleanly and throw it toward home. I turn and watch the ball bounce twice before the catcher fields it. He catches the ball just as Andy slides into him. The two players are covered by a cloud of dust.
The ump stands over them with his arms spread in the "safe" signal. Andy scrambles to his feet and starts to whoop. He tosses his cap into the air.
The whole team races out toward me, Ken leading the pack. I'm jumping up and down. I can't help it. I just never thought I would get a hit.
I feel really great. But I can't stop myself from glancing again at the bleachers. I can't stop myself from wishing that Mama and Dad were here to see it.