A Short Story
By Ben Belth
“Take him, Joey. Take him!” Glenn said. It was late in the day and late in the season. Import Corner wasn’t going to the championship game for the first time since he started coaching Little League five years earlier, and Glenn was frustrated.
It was the top of the final frame, the score was 0-0 and Joey, his star pitcher, was throwing a perfect game. It should have been exciting but like everything this season, it felt like a grind.
When Glenn started coaching, baseball was easy. He had an eye for talent and kept his team stocked with good players. Three years in a row, he won the championship on autopilot. During the tryouts for his fourth season, just when he started to get bored with the whole Little League thing, he spotted Joey, a pint-sized boy with big eyes and sure hands. Joey could handle the bat enough to bunt and would crouch down and you couldn’t pitch to him. When he got on, he could run the bases like crazy. He was the ideal leadoff man. Glenn took him with the first pick and aimed for the championship again.
They won it again that year, and Joey was the coup of the league, the only rookie that went to the traveling All-Star team. He walked a ton, stole bases, and was fine with sitting on the older kids’ laps for the crowded post-game car rides for ice cream. He was easy. Glenn would watch him play, holler “Take him, Joey,” and it was like activating their secret plan.
But this season was different. Glenn’s daughter Sara joined the team, one of only two girls in the whole league. That wasn’t easy. She made it even tougher by being the best player on the team. And Joey didn’t want to work walks or bunt any longer, he wanted to hit home runs. Never abandon a good thing, Glenn warned him but Joey didn’t listen and suffered. They all suffered. No matter how much encouragement Glenn heaped on him, Joey couldn’t hit. And without Joey on base, the team didn’t win. No matter how many doubles Sara hit that year, it wasn’t enough.
Their final game was against Fire Department, the first place team. Joey warmed up on the mound knowing there’d be no championship game for him, no All-Star team selection. He was in his final year of Little League and who knows what happened after that. He’d let everyone down by thinking he could be more of a player than he actually was.
Then he brought a perfect game through 5 and 2/3 innings.
It was the top of the sixth, two out. Fire Department was at bat. Will, a free-swinging lefty, came to bat. “Take him, Joey, Take him.” Glenn snapped, trying the old refrain again.
Will swung and missed at the first two pitches. He stepped out, took a sign from his coach and dug back in. He took the next three pitches, all balls, never lifting the bat from his shoulder.
“Take him, Joey.” Glenn tried again, but it came out sounding more like a scolding. Joey made the next one close but the ump called ball four and Will ran down to first. “Swing the bat, you putz.” Glenn said as he trotted out to the mound. He put a firm hand on Joey’s cap.
“Guess you can relieve me now,” Joey said.
Glenn shook his head. “The game is still yours. Just throw strikes.”
Dave was next, Fire Department’s best hitter. After he swung through the first pitch, the next was in the dirt and rolled away from the catcher. Will jogged down to second without a throw.
“Christ,” Glenn said, “Forget the runner, Joey, make the pitch. Take him.”
Dave hit the next one into center field and Will scored standing up. It didn’t seem to matter when Dave was thrown out at third. The perfect game, no hitter, and shut out were all gone.
Import Corner dragged themselves into the dugout and hung their heads. The 8th and 9th hitter went quickly and Joey came up with no one on. Sara was on deck so they still had a shot. Glenn gave Joey the bunt sign and Joey nodded. But the bunt attempts went foul, so with two strikes, Glenn let him swing-away. Joey crouched as low as he could and the next three pitches were high and the kids in the dugout started cheering.
The pitcher adjusted and threw one right down the plate. Joey closed his eyes, swung and hit the ball. He opened his eyes in time to see it heading towards the hole between third and short. He took-off for first but the ball arrived just before him. Joey heard the ump call him out, but didn’t stop running. He ran into foul territory, flung his helmet against the fence, and yelled as loud as he could. The parents in the bleachers quietly moved away and his teammates kept their distance.
“Hey take it easy. Jesus.” Glenn said, coming over, “Settle down. You gave it your best. Right? No one tries harder, Joey.”
“I can’t freakin’ hit.” Joey said.
There wasn’t much Glenn could say. But after a long silence he tried anyway. “You played for me for two years,” he said. “We won a championship last year. You came one out from throwing a perfect game.”
He gave the boy a stiff hug. “A perfect game.”
They walked back to the rest of the team. That was when Glenn decided to send Joey to the All-Star team. He’d break the news to Sara over dinner. He knew she could handle the disappointment. Not everyone could.
[Photo Credit: Mike Reinhold.com]