Slide Home – A Short Story

SLIDE HOME

Originally published in the anthology “Astounding Hero Tales,” edited by James Lowder and published in 2007. AHT was a collection of stories written in the style of the old pulp magazines, stories written about an older time. I took the invitation to this book as an opportunity to write about something I love — Baseball.

Sunlight sliced through Tommy Barnes’ open window and worked its way up the length of his body until it splashed against his eyelids. He shook his head groggily, brought his arm up to shield his eyes, and felt sweat dampen his brow. A fairly mild California spring was about to crumble into the unrelenting heat of summer, and the light breeze that had cooled him through the night had died.

He sat up quickly and fought for his bearings. His first thoughts were of the docks, and work. Then he saw the bag resting on his dresser. He rose so quickly he tripped and nearly sprawled face first on the hard, dusty wood floor of his room. He ran to the window and looked outside.

Clouds hung like limp cotton balls against an azure sky. Below him on the street, he saw some kids headed for the vacant lot two blocks down. One had a baseball bat in his hand, his glove dangling from the handle. A cart jostled down the street. It was loaded high with milk, one of the last holdovers to earlier days, pulled by a single horse and driven by a man so old he’d been old when Tommy was young. The horse shied slightly as the loud group of boys passed, but kept to the blinder-defined path set for it. A lone motorcar puttered down the street toward the docks, and on the corner a young man in a peaked cap and jeans a size too short shouted something about the morning paper.

Tommy cracked his head painfully pulling back in through the window, and rushed to dress. He was late. The single most important day of his life, the day that he’d told his mother to be certain he was awake and dressed on time, she had let him down. She had been at his door every day since he’d dropped out of school and started his job at the docks, long-haired clock with a cup of coffee and a soft smile for her son, the workingman. Her son the breadwinner.

He knew that he shouldn’t have expected it today, but she’d promised, and she had never backed down on a promise. He slipped into the plain gray pants and striped gray shirt with the stylized word “Ravens” emblazoned across the breast. He pulled on his dirty work boots, rose, and grabbed the bag from the battered wooden chest that had held his clothes since he was five. It was hopelessly small and stood on only two of its original four lets. Wooden crates propped the remaining sides.

He was out the door, bag in hand and passing through the hall at a dead run when his mother stepped out of the kitchen and smiled at him.

“Up so soon?” she asked innocently. In her hand she held a dishtowel and one of the previous night’s dinner plates. It was so shiny that it seemed to Tommy she must have been polishing it for about an hour, waiting to pretend she hadn’t let him sleep in.

He wanted to stop and ask her why, but he knew what she’d say. “You’re not a boy anymore, Tommy. You can’t play games all your life. You could see Mr. Lynch down at the docks, get another day a week…”

He’d heard the words before and seen the vacant, accusing stare she returned each time he explained himself. Today there was no time. It might already be too late, but he had to go, and he had to try.

He didn’t even speak to her as he crashed out the door, and down the stairs. Their apartment was on the third floor of a brownstone so old it was ready to prove the adage dust to dust at any moment. The stairs were littered with garbage, lounging kids, and cobwebs. Tommy dodged all these deftly and hit the ground floor at a run. He shot out onto the sidewalk, turned toward downtown, and was gone. One thing he could do – one thing he’d always been able to do – was to run.

In the window three stories above, his mother continued to polish the plate and frowned at his retreating back. She watched until he was out of sight, and then disappeared into the apartment to put away her long-dry dishes.

* * *

Cappy stood, one foot up on a short wooden fence, one hand in his back pocket, and stared down the dusty street. There was no one in sight. He sighed and spit a brown wad of tobacco juice into the street. Behind him he heard the laughter of the players  and the bustle of equipment bags being lugged to the bus at the curb. The bus came to life with a hiss and splutter and shot a burst of white smoke from its exhaust. The engine whined and complained like a first baseman with a hangover, but after a few moments of warm up it would be good to go.

“Any sign of him?” Coach Brownridge asked. He laid a hand on Cappy’s shoulder and followed his general manager’s gaze down the street.

“Not a sign,” Cappy said with a sigh. “Bob ain’t in good shape, John. He might not make it through nine innings.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Brownridge sighed. “There’s always Moose.”

Cappy shuddered. ‘Moose’ O’leary was their equipment manager. He had the size and mental capacity of his namesake, and the thought of the huge man lumbering around on the field in a Ravens uniform made Cappy cringe.

“Maybe the kid’ll show at the field,” he said resignedly. “I bet that mother of his is behind it.”

Coach Brownridge didn’t reply. He had a team to herd onto the bus, and a game to win. There would be time enough to deal with matters beyond his immediate control once the day was done. He turned and headed for the bus.

Cappy stood and watched the street a few moments longer, then straightened, pressed his hand into the small of his back, and groaned. He shook his head, and then turned to climb onto the bus and take his seat. He thought nostalgically of the old days, when he’d played for the Anaheim Angels. Their home field had been attached to their clubhouse. Here in the minors, three local teams shared a single ball field, and the bus trips back and forth from the clubhouse were murder on his back.

“Come on, kid,” he whispered under his breath. “Come on.”

* * *

The bridge between State and Madison streets was an engineering marvel. Every hour on the hour it swung open in the middle. Smaller wheels attached to controls in a tower turned huge hydraulically operated gears. Barney Wicks had sat in that control seat for nearly two decades, and he ran the bridge like clockwork, open on the hour, closed when the last of the ships lined up for passage slid through.

Even clocks get gummed up, though, and Barney was only human. It was a busy morning, and Clem Dalworth, Barney’s oldest friend and daily companion, had climbed up the ladder and taken the seat beside Barney to watch the day pass. Clem called his chair “the co-pilot’s seat” and liked to swivel it to the huge windows and watch his friend manipulate river traffic. Boats moved steadily up and down the river all day long, low-slung barges that could slip beneath the bridge without a care, fishing boats, and the hourly back-up of larger craft, lined up pretty-as-you-please and waiting for Barney to free them for the next leg of their various journeys.

This day nothing was cooperating. Traffic on the roads was backed up because of an accident, and despite the approach, and then the passing, of eight o’clock, Barney was unable to clear the bridge and get it open. He chattered away to Clem as he fidgeted at the controls, watching deadlocked automobiles and the brilliant red flashes of the huge warning lights at either end of his bridge. The flashers washed the line of cars in colored light, but they could do nothing to get it moving, and the longer the drivers, passengers, and machines sat, the harder and longer Barney glared at them.

“It ain’t right,” he said for the hundredth time. “Boats got a right to travel, just like cars. Someone ought to do something and clear them out.”

Clem nodded distractedly. He counted at least fifteen tall boats lined up and waiting to pass the bridge. He’d never seen quite so many, and now and then one of the captains sounded his foghorn in frustration.

The sound of sirens rose from below, and the two men turned toward the near side of the river. A black and white police car with its siren wailing pulled slowly up to the foot of the bridge, then turned to the side and parked in a restricted parking zone. Two officers emerged from the vehicle and started toward the street.

“Now we’ll see some action,” Clem advised. “See if they don’t clear this up in nothing flat.”

As it turned out, nothing flat was a bit of an exaggeration. The two men — a tall, florid-faced Irishman and his short sparkplug of a partner — stepped in front of two of the oncoming cars and directed them to turn. It was a slow process. Several of the automobiles, not designed to sit and idle for so long, had overheated. One man turned beet red and screamed that he had to get to the other side of the river, that there was a wedding waiting for him and he’d be damned if his daughter would be given away without him present.

Barney and Clem caught bits and pieces of this on the breeze, and they shook their heads in silent commiseration with the officers below. Everyone had to be somewhere, but the bridge couldn’t stay open to automotive traffic all day long. The line of boats waiting now stretched around the first bend in the river, and the sound of their foghorns and crews echoed up and down the banks on either side.

Eventually a sort of rolling dance began. Once the first few motorcars had been turned back, the officers created a gap between those on the bridge, and those waiting to be on the bridge. The latter rolled away in a looping U-turn. Those on the bridge were backed out to one side, and then inserted into the flow of traffic leading back away from the bridge. There were only the beginning signs of relief on the far side, either. Sirens screamed, and lights flashed that rivaled those blinking away angrily on the bridge. Whatever had happened, it was bad.

“Reckon I’ll climb down, get us a drink and see what’s what in a bit,” Clem observed, staring off across the bridge in mild curiosity. “Damned if I’ve ever seen it so backed up.”

“Well, nothing we can do about it from here,” Barney observed glumly. “Wish I could get over to the ball field today. The Ravens are playing.”

“You and me both, buddy,” he said. “There’s a new kid trying out on first base today. Cappy says he’s a real firecracker.”

Clem nodded as he spoke, lost in thought of other times and places. The two of them caught night games when they could. In his day, Barney had been a catcher. He’d never played for the Ravens, but he’d had a tryout, and it was one of his favorite stories. They watched in silence as the two policemen below continued to try and clear the bridge enough for it to be opened.

*  *  *

Tommy rounded the corner at a full run, and then stopped in the center of the street. His shoulders slumped, and tears stung the corners of his eyes. The bus was gone. The clubhouse was locked up and looked abandoned. He trudged the last couple of blocks and stood in almost the same spot where Cappy had stood less than twenty minutes before. He turned toward home, scowled, then turned the other direction, toward town and the ball field and gritted his teeth in determination.

He had less than an hour, and there was no way he could reach the ball field on foot, but there were buses, and taxis. He had his last week’s wages in his pocket, and it would serve his mother right if he wasn’t able to make the rent. She could just work it off doing old Mr. Multinerry’s laundry again. Or, more likely, he could get a couple of evening shifts at the docks and make it up. It didn’t matter. He took off running again.

As he passed the spot where the bus had stood a cold spike drove into his spine, and he stopped. He could almost hear their voices, could smell the well-oiled leather and hear the chatter. It had been his dream to be part of it since he was old enough to totter onto a field with his father, now he saw it slipping away, leaving nothing behind but exhaust fumes. Eyes wide, he wrapped his arms about him and shivered. Then the moment passed, and he hit the road. He had to get three streets over to Lombard to have a chance at the bus, and if that failed he’d have to make it another five blocks to the taxi stand on 38th Street.

He missed the bus somehow, though he should have been on time, and took off like a shot for 38th Street. When he reached the corner, he stopped cold. It looked like every taxi in the city lined that street, and the drivers, rather than cruising for passengers, lounged on the hoods of their cabs and talked in small groups. In that instant Tommy caught the first wail of sirens in the distance, and frowned. Then he shook it off and stepped up to the last cab in line.

“What’s going on?” he asked the driver. “Why are all of you sitting here?”

The cabby shrugged. “Big accident on the other side of the bridge,” he replied. “No one can get through here, have to take the long road out toward Lavender, or down south to 13th St. With the traffic, it would take a couple of hours. Cops are clearing the bridge and they won’t let anyone else cross until they’ve opened the draw for all the boats lined up and waiting. Won’t be much work at this end of town today.”

Tommy stared at the man, then turned toward the river.

“No one can cross?” he asked.

“Not driving, that’s for sure,” the cabby replied. “Not today.”

Tommy didn’t wait to ask further questions. There were taxis on both sides of the river, but there was only one way across. He took off like an arrow from a bow, his bag flapping in one hand and his worn boots slapping pavement in a steady rhythm.

* * *

There were only about three cars left on the bridge. Two of them were stopped with steam puffing from their radiators. These had been turned off and pulled to the side. The police had sealed both ends of the bridge, and the last car moving under its own power, a black and white taxi cab with a harried driver and red-faced, angry passenger who had seen the far side, but was not meant to cross this day, backed slowly off the ramp onto the docks.

Barney watched in satisfaction, and Clem shook his head in admiration at the tenacious officers below. The lineup of boats waiting to pass was as chaotic as the traffic on the streets. Some of them had tried to turn, and blocked others from passing. Tugboats chugged back and forth lending aid where they could. Getting the bridge open was only going to be the first step toward clearing the mess.

“Look at that!” Clem exclaimed. He pointed down at the near side of the bridge where a young man ran full-tilt at the bridge. The smaller, stouter police officer waved his hands and blew his whistle, then tried to shift in front of the boy and block his way, but it was no use. There was a bollard on the pier for tying off tugs during storms, and the boy hit it at a dead run, leaped, flew over the officer’s head and was gone out onto the bridge, which was already moving slowly under Barney’s experienced hands.

The two halves of the bridge began to part. Huge metal gears spun smoothly and the gap widened slowly as the road separated lazily.

“He ain’t going to make it,” Clem exclaimed, standing up and shielding his eyes from the sun. “There ain’t no way in hell, Barney, he’s gonna…”

But he did make it. It was a leap to make any athlete proud. The boy took off, one leg planted and the other extended, and then he was airborne. He floated over the widening gap like a bird. It seemed he’d fall short, but somehow, as if gathering speed in midair, he stretched the final inches. His toe caught on the edge of the far side, and he rolled, did two somersaults, and was up again, running for the far shore.

“I’ll be damned,” Clem exclaimed. Barney was busy at his controls, but he shook his head in amazement.

“I hope he had somewhere damn important to be,” Barney said at last, smiling in satisfaction as the two halves of the huge bridge parted ways, each rolling around to it’s own shoreline to finally allow the passage of the boats. “If he’d broken his neck, they could’ve used the paperwork to wallpaper a house.”

The boy passed the second policeman, who was busy arguing with a line of irate drivers, turning them back one by one. He hadn’t even seen the amazing leap, and only caught a glimpse of Tommy as he flashed past and onto the street beyond. A block later, Tommy hailed one of the cabs that had been turned back, slipped into the back seat, and was gone into the city.

* * *

Tommy watched the sky and tried to judge the time by the sun. He didn’t own a watch, and he didn’t want to get the cabby started talking. He knew he was late, but he didn’t know how late, and he hoped with the accident that the game might have been delayed. All the hopes of a young life were tied up in that slim possibility.

He rummaged in his bag and drew out the worn baseball shoes, the long, knee-high socks, and changed quickly. He’d worn the rest of his uniform, such as it was. His glove, carefully oiled and older than Methuselah, was last to be pulled free of the bag.

The cab turned the last corner and passed down a row of trees. The next thing Tommy saw was the dusty infield and the rising wooden bleachers of the stadium. Bright advertisements had been painted on the wooden walks of the old clubhouse and on the wall that surrounded the outfield. Players were on the field, but, miraculously, the game hadn’t started. They were warming up, peppering the ball about the infield and hitting fungos into the outfield. The bus was parked along the near side of the fence, just short of the clubhouse, and Cappy stood, hat in hand, staring down the road.

Tommy paid the driver as quickly as he could and was out of the cab before it was fully stopped. He saw Cappy’s face light up, first with recognition, then anger, and finally shifting to relief.

“Get your ass out there on first base, son,” he said gruffly. “We were on the verge of putting Moose in left field and sliding Murray to cover first. They’d have killed us.”

Tommy tried to run and nod at the same time and bit his tongue painfully. He gulped, said nothing, and hurried onto the field. He dropped his bag beside the dugout, where coach Brownridge gave him a quick glance, then turned his attention back to wrapping Jimmy Jones’ bum ankle.

No one spoke to Tommy as he trotted out onto the field, but Murray shifted back to shortstop, and Moose stepped off the field looking both confused and relieved. When Tommy put his foot on the first base bag, Merle Smith whipped the ball at him from the pitcher’s mound, and Tommy snagged it barehanded, still fumbling with his glove. It stung, but he caught it easily and whirled, snapping it off to Murray.

It seemed only a second or two before the umpire stepped up behind the plate, flipped the leather and iron mask down to protect his face and cried “Play Ball!” at the top of his lungs.

The Ravens had the field, and Tommy bore down. He pushed his mother’s scowling face, the taxi and the bridge and all of it out of his mind and focused on the batter. He’d watched a thousand batters. His father had explained it to him like a science lesson. You could learn from the motion of the hip, the drop of a shoulder, the cock of the head. You could follow the batter’s eyes and gauge the pull of his swing by the bend in his knee.

First up was a swarthy man with a carefully groomed handlebar moustache. He glared a challenge straight down the line at Tommy, and when Smitty let lose the first pitch, the batter swung hard and connected. The ball drove hard down the first base line, and Tommy lunged. The ball was a white blur, but Tommy was faster. He stretched, wrapped the worn leather of his glove around it, went into the same roll he’d used to cross the bridge and was back on his feet, holding the ball high in his free hand. One down.

The sun was hot. The dust rose in choking clouds, and the game wore on, hard-fought and gritty. Tommy didn’t have time to think, so he let his mind and his body have their way with him. He caught, threw, spun and whirled. In the first inning he struck out, but in the second he laid down a bunt that sent Murray scurrying past second and sliding into third. He beat it out, too, everything a blur of motion and sound, grunts and curses.

The ninth inning started slow. The Ravens were down by a run, and Smitty had put their opponents down in order. All that remained were three outs. Smitty led off, and he managed a looping single into right field. Murray followed, laying down a bunt that advanced Smitty to second, though Murray himself, not quite as fast on his feet as Tommy, was out at first. One down, man on second, and Jones was at the plate. Tommy stood on deck and watched as the wily little outfielder squared off. He was a short man, not an ounce of fat on him and fast as greased lightning. When the ball slid in over the plate, curving to the outside and taking a wicked dip, he followed it. The crack of the bat was solid, and the ball took off for left. Jones flew down the line toward first, but Smitty held back. He hovered between second and third, watching, and when the opposing fielder made an impossible leap and came up with the catch, Smitty dove back to second, tagged, and he was off.

When the dust cleared, Smitty was on third, there were two out, and Tommy stepped up to the plate. Everything looked strange, like a field just before a thunderstorm. The sunlight had gone deep green, and Tommy saw the opposing pitcher’s eyes as clearly as if he stood a foot away from the man. The pitcher’s cap was tilted back at a cocky angle, and his arm seemed as big around as a tree trunk from where Tommy stood. He’d seen the heat that arm could release.

The secret at times like this was not to think about the pitch. Tommy whispered to himself. He talked the plays through his head, talked the angles, right field?  Left field?  Down the first base line, or should he hit toward third?  Was that a limp he’d seen in the third baseman’s gait?  Was the pitcher as fast to catch as he was to pitch?  What would he do if the ball came straight back at him?

The possibilities spun like a pinwheel in his head, and then the moment was on him. The pitcher reared back and let fly. It came in hot and fast, high and a little outside. If he’d been thinking about the pitch and trying to anticipate the ball, Tommy would’ve swung. He would have gone straight at it expecting it to power to deep left field. He would have missed.

All day long this pitcher had confounded Ravens batters with that wicked, dipping curve to the inside. Tommy hesitated just a second, dropped his shoulder slightly, and swung for the lower inside. He pulled the swing around and connected hard. The ball sliced straight through the gap between third and second. The third baseman lunged and stretched, but the ball kicked up dirt just beyond his reach, and it shot past.

Tommy never looked up. He spun at first, saw that the outfielder was just reaching for the ball, and sprinted to second. When he rounded second, the outfielder had the ball in hand and leaned back to heave it home. It was then the miracle happened. The outfielder slipped. His leg went out from under him and, instead of holding the ball and trying to recover, he gave a desperate heave toward third base as he went down hard on his hip.

Tommy saw the ball was short. He lowered his head and shot forward. He never stopped at third. He spun on the toe of his right foot and raced for home. There was no looking back, and no excuse if he failed. He’d made the choice to go for it on his own, and he was stuck with it. He heard the players of both teams screaming. He saw the odd, green sunlight glitter off the catcher’s mask. It gave the man’s glove a slick, strange sheen. He saw Cappy behind the backstop, fingers gripping the mesh tightly and features taut with excitement. Tommy closed on the plate and saw in the catcher’s eyes that the ball was incoming.

Two choices. Hit the man head on, a man twice his size, age, and experience and try to knock the ball free, or slide. Make it past this ape and touch that bag. Instinct took over.

Tommy hit the dirt. He feinted to his right, drove left and hooked he leg. He passed the catcher and saw the man reach. He heard the solid THUNK of the ball striking leather and sensed the lightning strike of those meaty arms. With a grunt, Tommy arched and dragged his toe, felt it strike the plate, slide over, then felt the ball and glove collide with his thigh. Dust rose all around him. He choked on it, and he was momentarily blinded. He heard the screaming of the players, but he couldn’t hear what they said.

“You did it kid!” Cappy’s voice burst through. It was right at his ear. Tommy heard it clearly, but Cappy’s voice was a whisper. It faded like the hiss of wind through grass.

Tommy closed his eyes and lay very still in the dirt. Then, shaking his head, he rose and dusted himself off. The sun was high in the sky, bright and clear. He looked around, blinked, and backed toward the dugout. He started slow, but picked up speed, staring first at the plate, then at the field. It was empty. No one was in sight, though the dust kicked up in his run from third still hung in the air.

He ran to the dugout and glanced inside. Nothing but dust met his gaze. He ran past the dugout to the street, scanned the road in either direction, but there was no sign of the bus. No sign that either team had been there. He looked up and saw that the sun had only progressed slightly in its path across the late afternoon sky.

He turned back and walked onto the field. The solitude was palpable. He stood shaking and stared out over the desolate scene; unable to comprehend it’s emptiness. It was so silent that when Tommy heard a cough behind him, andhe bolted.

He didn’t see the lone man step down from the stands, brush off his pants, shake his head and wander onto the field.

He didn’t grab his bag, his work boots, or even the Ravens ball cap that fluttered to the ground behind him. He ran until the field was out of sight, and then ran some more, his cleats clattering and skidding on the street. He barely missed running into the side of a slowly moving cab, bounced off, and continued off down the street. His heart hammered, and he still saw the angry glare in the pitcher’s eye as they’d stared one another down on that final play. That was the point that things grew hazy.

He knew he had to get back to town.

There were still roadblocks near the bridge. Tommy flagged down another cab.

“Can you get across the bridge?” Tommy asked, his voice shaky.

The man stared at him. He took in Tommy’s bedraggled, sweaty appearance and stared a long time at the word ‘Ravens’ emblazoned on Tommy’s shirt. He nodded. “Might take a little while, but they got traffic moving. I can get you where you’re going.”

Tommy gave the driver his address, slipped into the back seat, leaned his head on his knees, and tried to think. He was drained, as tired as he’d ever been in his life, and his head pounded. He couldn’t sort one thought from the next. He needed to get back, to get to the clubhouse and find Cappy. He had to ask the old man what had happened. If they’d left him on the field like that, maybe hurt, he deserved to know why. If something else was wrong…

The cabby broke the silence.

“You okay son?” the guy asked. They crawled through traffic and neared the bridge. He didn’t even glance into his rearview to see if Tommy was listening. Tommy didn’t reply, but the driver continued.

“Hell of a thing,” the man said. “Hell of a thing. The whole team, dead. Bus driver tried to stop it, but they just tipped over into the ditch on Market. The guy in the truck lived, but the gas tank on the bus exploded. Hell, I have season tickets for The Ravens. I mean, who am I gonna watch now?”

Tommy stiffened as if he’d been slapped.

“The Ravens?” he whispered.

The driver heard him, and nodded. “Yeah, didn’t you know?  Isn’t that a Ravens uniform you’re wearing?  How come you weren’t on that bus?”

Tommy shook his head and offered no answer. The man drove on in silence. They caught the bridge closed, slipped across, and a few moments later Tommy handed the man his money and stumbled up the steps toward home. He held his glove under his arm, and for the first time since leaving the ballpark he was aware he’d forgotten his boots, and his hat. He was numb and tired and unable to wrap his mind around any explanation that made sense.

He stepped through the door into his apartment and braced himself. Next would be his mother. She’d see he wasn’t wearing his boots right off. She’d lay into him eight ways from Sunday and he didn’t know how he’d survive it. He ducked and plowed straight ahead, making for his room. He made it only halfway down the hall before his mother’s voice drew him to a halt.

“Tommy?” she said. “Can you come in here a moment?”

He’d been ready to snap at her. He’d been ready to throw her accusations and her insults right back at her. He hadn’t been ready for this almost obsequious tone. When was the last time she’d called him Tommy Dear?

He turned and trudged down the hall until he stood in the door to the living room. It was a sparse, overly neat space with two chairs, a lamp for reading; an old desk covered in postcards and photographs an inch deep. The room was separated by a half-wall from the kitchen.

In the chair that Tommy would normally have taken, a man sat staring back at him. Steely gray eyes watched him from beneath dark hair with flecks of snow around the tips. The man wore a dark blue suit and polished black shoes. He held a cup of coffee cupped in his hands, obviously being careful not to spill it on Tommy’s mother’s furniture or floor.

“I was just telling your ma here I saw you play today,” the man said. He met Tommy’s gaze dead on, and though Tommy started, those gray eyes held him steady. “Told her it was one hell of a game – sorry for the language, ma’am.”

For once, Tommy’s mother did not seem inclined to complain. In fact, she hovered nearby, the coffee pot in her hand, as if the man’s cup had to remain filled to the brim or the universe might go out of balance. Tommy felt like it already had.

“You were there?” he asked tentatively. “The whole time?”

The man nodded turned his head, coughed, and Tommy thought of the sound he’d heard from the bleachers. “Quite the performance,” the man said. “I particularly liked that last slide. Showed more heart than a lot of players, and talent, too. I come down here from time to time, and when I do I like to concentrate on one player. That’s what I’m here to talk to you about.”

Tommy’s mother could stand it no more. “Mr. Rosselli is from Anaheim.” She said.

Rosselli nodded. “Ever hear of the Anaheim Angels, Tom?  I can call you Tom, yes?”

Tommy nodded, thought about it, and said, “Tommy. They call me Tommy.”

Rosselli nodded. “I’m Sid. I came down today to watch the Ravens. I wanted a look at the pitcher, Smith, but…”

The silence thickened like syrup, and Tommy grew light-headed.

“He pitched a hell of a game,” Tommy said.

Rosselli watched him for a moment, and then nodded. “That he did. Anyway, kid, I was just telling your mother here that if you didn’t have any plans for the next few days, I’d like to take you back up to Anaheim. We have the playoffs in a couple of weeks, and our first baseman went down for the count with a bum knee last week. Kotz is good, but he’s getting up in years, and if he gets hurt, well…we could use you, if you’re interested. I can pay half a month up front.”

Tommy just stared. His knees felt like rubber, and the aches of a hard-played game stiffened his muscles. He glanced down at the dirty cleats he wore, and at the glove still dangling from his hand. He wished he hadn’t left his cap at the field. He wished he knew what was happening.

“I talked to your manager,” Rosselli said softly. “Guy by the name of Cappy?  He said you forgot this.”

Tommy snapped his gaze up to meet Rosselli’s. He saw something coming at him, looping lazily through the air. He snatched it so quickly his hand was a blur, and the moment he touched it he knew what it was.

Tommy Barnes slapped the Ravens cap onto his head. In his mind he heard the roar of a small crowd, the crack of his bat, and felt the ground flying beneath him as he rounded the bases, headed for home. He crossed the room in two strides and held out his hand.

“I don’t know what you saw out there today, Mr. Rosselli, and I’d be obliged if you never told me. If you’re serious, you’ve got yourself a first baseman.”

Rosselli nodded, and the two shook hands.

In a field across town, lined up straight against the front of the wall of the clubhouse, a pair of worn boots rested. On the field mist rose as the evening air grew chill. It danced over the bases and raced through the outfield. In the distance a voice that might have been Cappy, and might have been Coach Brownridge, and might even have belonged to a young man with dreams, cried, “Play Ball!”

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