“Do it with two,” Mike tells me as he ambles back to the dugout. “He don’t throw that hard.”
“Looks hittable,” I mutter as I get up off my knee and toss the donut off to the side. Time to play tennis with Mister Swope. He serves, and I serve it back. No return, no deposit. It’s about position, two gone, outfield deep or in, third guarding the line, short fudging the middle, getting on, turning the order over.
“Time!” I yell.
Manny nods and asks for the ball, gives it a spin and flings it back at Swope. “Get in,” he barks.
I hate lefthanders.
Mike left me a hole. I gotta fill it in. I need my thirty, not my thirty-two. “He any good?” I ask Dutch, who grunts and spits on the plate.
“Nothin’ for you to hit, Hughes.”
“First time,” I say. “They all screw up.”
“Not this time. He‘s a bitch on you lefties,” Dutch shifts and drops his mitt.
I can hear his fingers tapping his shin guards. Lefty’s goin’ away on me, maybe down.
Big kick, no wind. Heater, down.
“Way down, Manny. Get in the game!”
“You need a shave, blue.”
“Didn’t come out here to look good.” Manny adjusts his mask and his pad. “Hit.”
“Fuckin’ oh-one. Damned pitch was no strike.”
Dutch is patting his shin guard again. Down and out again.
Big kick, white spot. Low and away.
“Manny, ya puke, ya! At least let me save my career!”
“Hit strikes, make the Hall, Hughes.”
“Damned pitches are down, Manny. Ain’t even catchin’ black.”
He steps up and brushes the dirt off the plate, puts his broom back in his pocket, pulls his mask down and nods. “Oh-two. Hit.”
Manny points at Swope, who backs off, gets rosin, rubs the ball, turns to me.
He’s gettin’ rosin. What did Ziggy tell me? Rosin means the hook. Pitcher goes to rosin for the hook. Fuckin’ oh-two. I can’t hit oh-two. I look down at Ziggy. “Dutch, you ain’t believin’ this. Ziggy’s givin’ me the take.”
Dutch snickers. “You pay attention to third-base coaches? No wonder you’re oh-two.”
“Ump sucks,” I tell Dutch.
“One more and you’re gone, Hughes,” Manny informs me.
“Just acknowledging your fondness for Tootsie Rolls, Manny,” I said. “No offense.”
“Zig tells me to take.”
Dutch gets up and calls time, adjusts his cup and settles in again. I can hear his hand against his shin guard. Hell, they’re wastin’ this one. Hook? Straight change. Heater off and high.
Swope comes set.
Up and way in, heater. Not the best I ever saw.
“I’m in a slump, Dutch. No point dustin’ me.”
“If we wanted to hit you, we’d do it.”
I nod. “Frickin’ one-two.” His edge. I step out. “Time.”
Infield moves back. Outfield moves in. Ziggy flashes a sign. “No kiddin’, Zig.”
Protect the plate.
Heater, too high. I foul it back.
Swope gets a ball.
He’s in a hurry now. “Time,” I say, and back out.
“Hit, Hughes,” Manny says.
I step in, dig around a little and come set. “Throw me that change,” I say under my breath.
Way off. Two-two. Lookin’ better.
Swope’s in a hurry. Kicks, here it comes.
High and in. I can’t handle it. Dribbler foul, right side.
“Check the ball, Manny,” I say.
“Ball,” he tells Swope, who delivers it. Manny rolls it over, throws it back to Swope.
Two-two, down and away. Too close.
“Full,” Manny barks.
“You called one of them a strike earlier,” I tell him.
“He throws one more like that and I’ll call it a strike again,” Manny laughs. “Hit, Hughes.”
Ziggy’s coachin’ at third, playin’ with his zipper or something.
Twice up and in. Three times, down and away. Gotta be down and away. Heater, I bet. I step out. “Time!”
Manny points to Swope. “Full. Play ball.”
I get in and wrap my hands around the end of the bat, settle it on my shoulder and … flick away a pecker gnat. “Time. Bug alert!” I step out.
Back in. Swope bends down, kicks … up and over the middle. I foul it back.
“Stretchin’ this out, huh?” Dutch says. He takes a ball from Manny, flips it to Swope, who backs off the mound, gets some rosin and rubs the ball up in his glove.
He nods. Heater, down and out.
“THREE!” Manny barks.
J.C. Updike is a writer living in Indiana.