...following a solid month of gray and gloom, of chilly temps and infinite rainfall, the sun found a crease in the sky, and within a day, Summer had returned.
Bottom of the last inning. No outs. Bases loaded. Winning run at the plate.
Unable to remain in the dugout, I inched my way through the dust and lowered to a kneeling position under what little shade was provided from the nearby bleachers.
As the opposing fans rose in anticipation, I studied my pitcher with gathering dread. A lanky ten year old kicking up a cloud of dust, the brim of his cap shadowing fear etched into his brow. His throwing arm was misbehaving. Trying to protect our three run lead, he'd walked the first two batters to start the inning, and plunked another in the rib cage.
I turned to my assistant coach. "What do you think?"
"Gotta pull him. Kid's tired."
"Yeah, geez. But for who? Bases are loaded. No outs. Can't ask any of them to dig us outta this mess."
I listened to the rattling of phlegm, the wheeze of a smoker's cough, then, "Put in The Heater."
Standing at the shortstop position was our best pitcher. A lefty, feared throughout the league. He boasted a fastball that screamed.
I exhaled a breath, lifted a hand toward the home plate umpire, stopping play, and rose to my feet. "But he's already got too many pitches under his belt," I said over my shoulder.
"What choice do we have?"
A pair of wiry shoulders sagged with my approach. I stood before the boy, held out my hand for the ball. "You did well, son," I said. "But I think that arm of yours has had enough."
"Okay," the boy mumbled.
I glanced over his shoulder, making eye contact with The Heater, who'd already started toward the pitcher's mound.
Then I caught sight of the kid standing alone in the outfield. A thin silhouette rising under a skyline set ablaze. He noticed and straightened, as if fearing he'd done something wrong.
The kid from my cover. A shy thing, too short for the coasters at an amusement park.
I entertained a thought, released a giggle, and motioned him in.
"You're using him?" The Heater asked, jaw hanging open.
I nodded. "You've thrown too many innings. Head back to short. Stop every ball in your path."
The Kid From My Cover stood atop the mound, a wiry set of fingers reaching for the ball.
I dropped it into his hand, lowered myself to his eye level and asked, "Are you okay with this?"
He squared his chest, offered me a nod. "I'm good."
"Good enough for me," I said. "Keep it low in the zone. 1-2-3 and we go home."
I returned to the dugout, studied my assistant's shocked expression. "Call it a hunch."
The Kid From My Cover can throw a nifty fastball, but had been knocked around a bit during his last stint on the mound. That thought in mind, I figured maybe he was due.
He struck out his first batter in three pitches. Low fastballs. I offered my assistant a wink. He answered with a grunt.
The second batter knocked two foul balls into the stands, then swung at a low change up, missing badly.
My assistant rose to his feet. Joined me at the dugout fencing. "No way he strikes out the side," he mumbled. "Ain't got it in him."
The Kid From My Cover tossed a lazy fastball that managed to stay in the strike zone just long enough to get the call. "Strike!"
His second pitch was swung at, ripped down the first base line, foul by inches. "Strike two!"
"One more, Kid!" I encouraged. "Blow one by him!"
The Kid From My Cover dug himself a foothold in the dust. Gritting his teeth, he reared back, an arm thin like spaghetti, searching for an ounce of added strength.
He launched forward, released a baseball set aflame, and followed its trajectory over home plate. The batter swung, missed by an inch, and left his bat at the plate.
The Kid From My Cover pumped his fist, offered the crowd a sheepish grin. That smile of his...this would be a night he'd remember for quite some time.
Come to think of it, I think I will too ;)
The Kid From My Cover, "South of Charm," is available through my publisher's website...
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