Intentional Walk

 

E. G. Fabricant

 

From Matters Familiar. A girls’ softball team rebels and instructs parents and coaches in the true value of competition.

 

“’Won’t you be my luh-ver (yeah)/
I’ll treat you ri-ight (uh)/
I know you hear your friends when they say you might…’”

The nascent 16-year-olds rocked and bumped hips under the earnest, two-dimensional eyes of their favorite boy-band, crooning along into their hairbrushes.

“LeLe!” her mother cried from below. “Turn that racket down!”

They froze and eyed each other. “Uh-oh—Busted!” They embraced in mock terror and collapsed onto LeLe’s bed in peals of laughter.

“You two are supposed to be studying!”

LeLe rolled her eyes. “Yesssssss, Mu-THER.” On reflex, she reclaimed an abandoned book, browsed, and listened for disengagement. “So, Tif; you ready to crank it tomorrow?”

Her best friend in the 10th grade world and starting pitcher for the Scottsdale Copperheads made a face.

“Whatever—regionals and all. At least we’re at home; travel-ball so, like, totally sucks.”

This took the shortstop/leadoff hitter by surprise. “It’s all still fun, right?”

“Oh, yeah.” Tiffany waved the concern away like a minor odor. “Playing is so cool. When the hitter’s dug in, you’re all down behind me, and Tonya’s glove goes up, it’s like I’m in charge of this big, powerful machine. Everyone is tense, straining, and nothing happens until I make it. I kick to the plate—BOOM!” She slapped her hands together, startling LeLe a little. “Everything, something, or nothing. Then I do it again!”

“Yeah, gurrrrl!” They clasped hands, holding it just long enough to allow the sensation to course through them both. Tiffany’s soaring eyes returned to earth. “It’s all the other stuff I can do without.”

“Like?”

“Drills. Camps. Videos. Special coaching. The rants. ‘Trophy, Tiffany.‘ ‘Scholarship, Tiffany.’ ‘The Olympics, Tiffany.’ It’s not bad enough that we play half the year…” She drifted away, lost in her laced fingers.

LeLe bounced into her, trapping her thick, blond French braid against her neck in a soft headlock. “Hey—we’re sixteen. What else are we gonna do?”

Evil Tiffany rolled her eyes up to meet LeLe’s. “Boys?”

They tumbled backward, smothering giggles and kicking their feet. Again, quiet descended. Tiffany stared at the ceiling. “What if I’m not that good? I mean, like they all want? What then?”

LeLe took her hand firmly. “My Dad has this favorite Zen saying: ‘Wherever you are, be there.’”

Tiffany smirked. “That’s deep, Le. What in Hell does that mean?”

“It means, you’re spending all of today worrying about tomorrow. You’ve got the ball now. Live in that as long as you can before you have to find something else. Softball ends—for all of us.”

Tiffany was pensive. “Do Buddhists play ball?”

“No, but Christians do.” LeLe jerked Tiffany toward the computer. “We’d better check Arnie’s web site. You know there’ll be a quiz in the dugout.” They logged on, bringing up “Arnold Jeffries’ First Calvary Chevrolet—Proud Sponsor of the Scottsdale Copperheads,” and clicked on “Today’s Inspiration.” They read, aloud:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?
The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?
When evildoers come at me to devour my flesh,
My foes and my enemies themselves stumble and fall.”

–PSALMS 27:2

Tiffany screwed up her face. “I wonder if he has a clue what a goober we all think he is.”

“Dunno.” LeLe chewed a thumbnail. “Four sets of uniforms for us, and the 14Us and 12Us, plus equipment and fees. That’s got to run into serious money.”

“Yeah, but it’s not like he owns us. And why do we get the same Old Testament ‘vanquish mine enemies’ rap all the time?” Tiffany was up again, hands on hips. “Jesus is about love and forgiveness, right? What do fear and hatred have to do with competition, anyway?”

WhirrrrrrRRRTINK! The dimpled rubber sphere leaped off the aluminum barrel and ploughed a blurred canary trench into the upper netting, then stalled and sloughed harmlessly into the back of the cage.

Outside, Tiffany pulled her gloved fingers out of the chain-link and clapped. “Good contact, Le—keep it up!”

LeLe striped the last five pitches methodically into almost the same location. As the machine whined to a stop, she squatted and peeled her batting gloves into her teal-and-copper helmet—marking the end of their Saturday, pre-game warm-up ritual. She wiped her face on her jersey and looked up into the cross-hatched glare as a shadow fell over the half of her not already covered by Tiffany’s.

“Hey, ‘Britney.’”

Jarred, Tiffany peered over her Ray-Bans at the profile a half-head above her own. She might have been an Aztec princess, with her strong bronze features and her thick headdress of black ringlets offset by a gold earring.

LeLe stood and shaded her eyes, circling her bat handle lazily around its head planted on the concrete. “Hey, ‘Queen Latifah.’” She picked up her gear and made for the gate.

“Marisela Rivas.”

“Uh—Tiffany Queensberry.” They shook hands.

LeLe arrived and Marisela enfolded her. “What’s up, home-girl?”

“Same-same. Playin’ ball. What’re you doing way over here?”

“Cage time—and regionals.” She eyed LeLe’s bag. “You a Copperhead now, huh?” LeLe nodded.

Tiffany conveyed her puzzlement. LeLe saw and pushed gently away. “Oh—me and Marisela played 12Us together on the West side, before we moved over here. Tif here’s my best friend, and our starting pitcher.”

“All right!” Marisela extended a low palm toward Tiffany, who slapped it tentatively. “Me, too!” The big girl’s mirthful eyes narrowed on LeLe again. “She any good?”

LeLe pinkie-pointed back. “You get past the Bombers this afternoon, you’ll find out tomorrow!”

Tiffany finally understood. “Oh. You pitch for the Strikers!”

Marisela opened her jacket. “One and the same!”

“Marisela! You’re up! Let’s go!”

She wheeled and waved at a husky Latino in a ball cap matching hers. “’Kay, Coach! Well, gotta go. Get your ya-yas out, sistahs!”

LeLe caught her arm. “Good luck.”

“What’s luck got to do with it?” They stared at her; she laughed. “You, too, now. See you later—I hope!” She loped away. Tiffany watched her quads and glutes ripple in retreat. All she could manage was a low whistle. LeLe seized her shoulders and got up in her face. “You two are going to be awesome, tomorrow. I can’t wait!”

“Bring it in, ladies!”

Pete Lopez—auto parts distributor, retired semi-pro infielder, and die-hard diamond tactician—had coached the Copperheads from 12Us up after taking his granddaughter, Letitia, to their first meeting and impulsively sticking up his hand. His love for her and for the game took care of the rest.

“All right, Copperheads. Coach Young—“ Pete nodded toward Ronnie Young, his lanky assistant sucked in with daughter LeLe the meeting after that—“has the book on the Sting. Their pitching is decent but nothing you haven’t already seen. Relief is weak when coming from behind. Defense is adequate but inexperienced, so they tend to short the field and press when leaned on. We’re faster, so let’s get on them early. We’re away—LeLe, you can expect to lay it down to test the first baseman and how they cover, so pay attention to Pops over at first, for a change.”

LeLe and her father traded grins.

“Tif, I’m moving you to the two-hole. I need you to work a walk, so pick her up as quick as you can. We might try to move Le over before then, depending how sharp she is. Sierra? You move from seven to three; be ready to punch it into the alleys. And Tonya, you’re cleanup for Tif today. I want those bases cleaned and all those Sting shorts dirty, so gimme that Tonya glare.”

Their massive catcher smiled and slid her face into a passable Shaquille O’Neill glower. She couldn’t sustain it, though, and delicately covered her mouth as laughter and playful punches rained in on her.

Pete mused just long enough, then raised his hands. “Okay, people. Everybody else check with me before I give the card to the ump. Otherwise, Plan A. Tif, I might rest you if we’re up early to let Brie get good and loose before tomorrow.”

Tiffany the competitor suppressed a frown.

“Hey,” Pete said. “You’re my leader, and I’m going to need every bit of that rotator cuff if we get the Strikers tomorrow.” He chucked her chin to bring her back. “How’s it feel, by the way?”

She melted a little. “Good to go.”

“That’s my girl,” he said, and turned. “Anything else, Coach Young?”

Ronnie traced an arc with a Nike in the dirt below his folded arms and poked at the smokeless behind his lower lip with his tongue. He husbanded a smile. This guy is so good, he thought. Short, sweet, complete. You can almost smell the focus on these girls. “No, Coach Lopez.”

“Any questions?” He glanced around, satisfied. He thrust a fist out, waist high; fourteen hands landed on it.

“One, two, three—COPPERHEADS!”

They broke. The players busied themselves with bench positions, managing the nervous excitement with low trash talk. Pete detected a prominent Adam’s apple in his peripheral vision.

“Coach?”

Pete stifled his pique out of sheer habit. “Oh. Hi, Arnie. A little late today, aren’t we?”

“RV sale—what can I say?” The sponsor flashed that car-closer grillwork—all the enamel, with most of the pink tissue thrown in. “Lord’s work is never done.”

Pete rubbed his face to erase any evidence of true feelings. “Ladies, bring it back in for Arnie, please?” He shifted backward a little to allow the reluctant semicircle to form and to find his own shelter. A couple of throats were cleared; Arnie closed his eyes and abruptly raised his arms to the Jesus-over-Rio position. Brie ducked, successfully.

“Our Dear Lord Jesus, guide us on Thy path and make our bats to be true as we lay Thine enemies low, as Samson slew the Philistines with the jawbone of an Ass…”

“Amen!” Tiffany cried. Heads were bent in practiced piety; yea, many were buried in backs, and it was good. The blasphemer gave LeLe such a baleful look that she almost swallowed her fist. Arnie rambled to a close and a proper chorus of “Amens.” Pete crossed himself deliberately, knowing that it made Arnie uncomfortable, and commanders and warriors resumed their girding.

 

Like What You’ve Read?

Click on your vendor’s link above to buy this story in your favorite format!