The players lined up on the infield, hats off for the National Anthem. Albert stood beside Sylvie at the plate, the rest of the Cubs in blue jerseys along the baseline toward first. In yellow and black on the third baseline were the Pirates, Hartness twins included.
Sylvie had heard those two sing the Anthem in school: farts bursting in air, poop through the night, the stink still there. Disgusting.
The ballpark felt electric with excitement, crowds jostling at the concession stand. Players warmed up in the batting cages and bullpens by the gravel parking lot. Now and then a ping of the bat, the pop of leather, a mighty cheer from the fans watching other games on the four fields, the public address system announcing players’ names.
The stands were full on both sides of Sylvie’s field. Miss Spider had convinced Sylvie’s grandmother to come, and Mrs. Clapp sat with a few other teachers just behind. Younger brothers and sisters licked melting ice cream and ate popcorn or scrambled around the edge of the woods bordering the fields.
Most exciting of all, the scoreboard lit up with the teams: Cubs (Home) vs. Pirates (Visitor).
When the anthem ended Coach Rawlings met with the Pirates’ coach and the umpire by the mound. Coach returned to the dugout clapping his hands three times hard. “Alright, Cubs. Last game. We’re trying something new today. No pitching machine. Player pitch. Just like the big leagues.”
Sylvie’s teammates cheered and high-fived, excited to take another step to playing real baseball. But Sylvie felt her heart sink and stay down in her stomach. Getting a hit depended on steady pitches from the machine.
Coach kept talking, barking out the positions and line-up.
“Sylvie Perch. Right field. Batting ninth. Now, let’s put our hands in and give me a shout. On three.”
The players put their hands on Coach’s and after the count shouted, “Let’s go Cubs!” They ran out, gloves in hand, to their positions.
“Perch, you know where right field is?” coach shouted. “Show some hustle!”
Sylvie jogged out behind first base and stood alone in the grass watching Tommy Rawlings throw his warm up pitches. Albert tossed grounders from first to the infielders. Will Patton in center called, “Heads up!” but Sylvie looked too late. She couldn’t find the ball against the pale sky. It whizzed past her ear and skipped off the grass just behind her, rolling all the way to the foul line. By the time she got it the ump called, “Play ball!”
Tommy got the first two batters on strikes and Sylvie felt pretty good she would get out of the inning without an error. Third up came Milo Hartness, who hit a hard liner past short and into left field, where Midge Hastings misjudged it. The ball rolled to the fence, giving Milo a stand-up triple. The fans behind the visitor dugout cheered and Milo stood on third pumping his fist in the air. He fist-bumped his father, who instructed from the base coach box.
Tommy Rawlings stalked the mound, angry. He glared at Midge in left, climbed the mound, and punched his glove.
“Let’s go, Tommy,” Albert encouraged. “Shake it off, kid. Shake it off!”
Tommy gave Albert a nasty look, then stared in toward Rodrigo Tellez, catching behind the plate. Albert held up two fingers to let the fielders know: “Two down! Play’s to first.”
Tommy faced Cyrus Hartness next. Cyrus hovered close to the plate and Tommy buzzed his ear with the first pitch. He hit him with the second. Cyrus strutted to first and called out something to Tommy, who shouted back. Sylvie couldn’t hear what they said, but the ump came out with his mask off, waving his arms in a warning to both boys.
“Forget it, Tommy,” Albert called. “Let’s get this last out. You got it. Hey Cubs, force at first and second.”
A righty came to the plate and Albert called, “Shade right!”
The outfielders all took a few steps in Sylvie’s direction. Albert called to Sylvie, “Power hitter. Might hit your way.”
Sylvie’s stomach pinched. The batter was big, large as Albert and maybe a third grader. Sylvie worried how hard he could hit. She took a few steps back, then a few more. Maybe she was too deep. Tommy pitched and the ping reached Sylvie’s ears before she could see the ball coming toward her.
It was a clean hit, and the ball landed on the edge of the outfield between Sylvie and first. She couldn’t field it before Milo and Cyrus made it around to home.
Pirates up, 2-zip. The visiting fans cheered wildly.
Tommy stared at Sylvie as if the hit had been her fault. He shouted something but Sylvie couldn’t hear over the sound of the crowd. Had she played too deep? Well, what about his pitching? Coach Rawlings was shouting at Tommy to get back up the mound and throw strikes.
Albert was at the mound to calm Tommy. The ump started toward them to get the game moving. Whatever Albert had said to Tommy did the trick: he struck out the next batter one-two-three.
Sylvie jogged to the dugout amid the commotion of players throwing down gloves, grabbing water, preparing to bat. Albert had his helmet on and was heading to the on-deck circle.
“Who’s pitching?” Sylvie asked.
“Milo Hartness. Watch.” He pointed at the mound. “He’s fast, but looks like he’s throwing it right down the middle.”
“Sure.” Sylvie didn’t feel good about her chances.
“Just watch his timing. Swing off the count. You’ll hit as long as he’s throwing strikes. Just like off the machine. Pretend he’s the machine.”
Albert went out full of confidence. He had the black Easton, the team’s lucky bat. He took the first pitch for a strike, the way Coach Rawlings instructed: “Make them earn the first strike.”
Albert fouled off the next three then took a ball. Milo Hartness looked in from the mound, frustrated at having to work so hard for one batter. Albert crowded the plate. Milo delivered a fastball up and in, buzzing Albert’s chin.
“Hey, ump!” Coach Rawlings called. Albert shook it off and dug back in. But Milo’s next pitch hit the outside corner, barely at the knees. Albert, a little off balance from the inside pitch, didn’t swing.
Milo stalked the mound like a rooster after that and brought down the next two Cubs hitters on three pitches each. They both returned to the dugout shaking their heads. “He’s throwing heat,” Rodrigo said.
Just like that the inning was over and Sylvie was back on the field. The rhythm took over and it was like any other Saturday game, just louder: more fans cheering and the public address announcing each batter. Sylvie no longer worried about missing fly balls, and anyway Tommy wrung up the batters three up, three down.
Tommy batted first for the Cubs, drawing a walk, but the next two Cubbies struck out. Marti Shah and Will Patton both returned to the dug out with defeat on their faces, commenting on Milo’s arm. But tiny Midge Hastings got the Cubs on their feet when he planted a perfect bunt midway up the third baseline. Tommy moved to second and Midge reached first safely.
Albert gave Sylvie a thumbs-up when she grabbed her helmet and went to the on-deck circle. She watched Sammy Gonzalez’s at-bat, timing Milo’s pitches. She planned to swing at half a breath after two. She practiced at the on-deck circle and each pitch was exactly the same: cock the bat, breath in, one, breath out, swing, pop: the ball hitting Cyrus Hartness’s mitt.
But Sammy Gonzalez never took the bat off his shoulder. Milo had gotten wild and wasn’t throwing strikes. “Ball four!” called the ump.
“Time!” the Pirates’ coach called.
Sylvie looked to Albert behind the dugout fence. He pointed to the field. The Pirates were changing pitchers, with Cyrus taking over on the mound for Milo. While Cyrus got out of his catcher’s gear Sylvie went to the chain link fence to talk to Albert.
“What do you think?”
“Same thing, Sylvie. Just get the timing down during his warm ups. But remember: Milo’s the arm. Cyrus is the armpit. He’s wild. Watch the chin music.”
Albert must have seen how this worried Sylvie, because immediately he took it back. “Not that I think he’ll throw at your head. Bases loaded. If he hits you, he forces in a run.”
Sylvie smiled. “So he’s got to throw strikes.”
“He’s gonna do his best. Now get out there and get the timing.”
Sylvie watched Cyrus warm up. He didn’t throw as hard as his brother and the ball took longer to reach the plate. Sylvie felt confident about swinging on three sharp.
“Play ball!” the ump called.
Sylvie stepped into the batter’s box and kicked the dirt around like a pro. She looked up at the mound, faking a fire in her eye to make Cyrus think she was in charge.
“Swing away,” Coach Rawlings called from third base.
Sylvie dug in again and watched a wild pitch far outside. Then another.
Sylvie felt comfortable and got ready to swing. No way Cyrus would throw a third ball. After the wind-up she counted one, two, three and brought the bat around. She never hit it. The ball smacked her jaw good and her vision exploded with stars dancing in sudden darkness.
She dropped to the dirt.
The sound of the crowd concentrated itself as a single ringing in her ear.
When she looked up, the umpire’s face loomed over her behind his mask, eyes wide. His lips moved but she couldn’t hear. He held up four fingers, three, two, and Sylvie thought she was counting down with him.
Now Coach Rawlings and the Pirates coach were hovering. Sylvie tried sitting up, pushed against the dirt with all her might, managed to sit. She sat a moment, dizzy. The head rush passed.
She got to her feet, wobbly, and heard the fans cheering. For her. In both stands people were on their feet clapping.
Albert, batting next, jogged alongside her up the first baseline. She reached the bag in time to see Tommy cross the plate. Sylvie’s first RBI.
The ump took Cyrus out of the game. He reprimanded both coaches and put a stop to player pitch.
Albert tied the game with a soft grounder that squeezed past short. Rodrigo ended the rally with a third out.
Before she returned to right field coach asked Sylvie how she felt. Her head hurt but she didn’t want to sit it out. She wanted another chance to hit. It was the final game of the season and there was no way she’d let Cyrus Hartness take away her only chance to get a hit.
“If you feel dizzy at all I want you off the field,” coach said.
She jogged out and took a practice fly from Will in center. She fielded it cleanly then threw it in toward the dugout. The Pirates coach was on the mound with the machine ready to go.
The Pirates made three quick hits off the machine, the last one driving in a run. Milo Hartness hit a deep fly to left but Midge Hastings was there and made the catch. With one down Cyrus came up and hit a line-drive past Marti Shah playing the second base gap. Sylvie charged and fielded it, but another run scored. Next up was the big third grader who’d sent a fly to right field in the first. Sylvie played him shallow, unsure if she’d be able to see the ball in time if he hit it her way.
Sylvie looked up, desperate for a glimpse of the small white object against the big, pale sky. The high, slow arc was easier to spot than a zippy fastball from 60 feet. There!
“Got it!” she called, watching the speck grow. “Mine!” She held up her glove and made the catch.
“First!” Albert called. The runner hadn’t tagged up and Albert stood at a stretch, his foot on the bag. Sylvie tossed it to him.
“Out!” called the ump. The Cubs fans cheered the double play as the team jogged to the dugout.
Before their last at bat Coach Rawlings gave a quick pep talk. “We’re down by two,” he said. “And I know we can do this. We can win. We need three quick runs before we get through the order. Let’s go, on three.”
The players put their hands in. On three they shouted, “Let’s go Cubs!”
Tommy led off with a double and Marti drove him in with a single. Sylvie cringed when Will Patton struck out, but felt even worse when Midge Hastings made it to first on another bunt. With runners on first and second the Cubs had one out and only one more batter before she got up and faced the machine. The game might come down to whether or not she could time the pitch, swing at something she couldn’t see, and hit.
She wrung her hands and looked over at Albert at the end of the bench. He gave her a confident nod, then she went to the on-deck circle.
Sammy Gomez took two big swings, hoping to drive in the winning runs with a deep shot. Coach shouted, “Take it easy, Gomez. Let’s get a hit. Nice and easy now. Get on board, drive one in.”
But Gomez swung and missed and walked back to the dugout in a funk. As he passed Sylvie he said, “You can do it, Sylvie. C’mon.”
Sylvie dug in and looked out at the field. She knew the count and took a breath. Coach signaled the machine was ready and released. Sylvie breathed, swung, and missed.
“Keep your eyes open!” coach called.
“Swing flat. Nice and even.”
Sylvie stepped in, readied her bat. Coach signaled.
On two, with half a breath, Sylvie brought the bat around with all her might, PING!
She looked out at the field and saw the shortstop running back toward the outfield.
“Run! Run! Run!” she heard. The Cubs in the dugout were on their feet and yelling for her to run to first. The others were circling the bases, Tommy rounding third already. Sylvie didn’t bother looking for the ball and made it to first. She reached in time to see Tommy tie the score.
Midge wasn’t so lucky. The catcher got the ball and tagged him out on the slide.
“Out!” the ump called. “That’s the ball game.”
Tie score and out of time, the next two teams already warming up just outside the fence.
The Cubbies groaned, but Sylvie looked at Albert and knew he felt like a winner, just like she did.