Top of the 1st
Acid waved in my stomach, reaching for the peak of my throat.
Stop it. You can do this. Just go at it like you own the place. Stride up to the coach like Mom does when she’s on the donation hunt.
The fields sat at the southern end of Jackson Memorial Park: one for softball, one for baseball. I had parked on the baseball side by a beat-up orange truck. The boys were already there, tossing balls and joking loud enough that I heard them through the closed windows of my car. Thankfully, the softball field was empty. Taking a deep breath, I climbed out of the car, pulling my equipment from the backseat.
Maybe it was my BMW, or maybe it was me, but the only sound I heard as I stalked toward the field were birds chirping to one another. No doubt the guys recognized a girl when they saw one. Mother Nature blessed me a bit too much in the boob department for anybody to mistake me as a boy.
I strode onto the soft dirt of the field and straight toward the older man with the clipboard. Coach Bernie Strauss stared back at me. He was easily six-eight with tree trunk legs and arms that UFC fighters would die for. He looked more like a Marine Corps drill instructor than a summer league baseball coach. I totally wanted to test him by shouting “Semper Fi.”
I stopped in front of him, waiting for what I knew was coming.
“Softball practice ended about twenty minutes ago.” He sounded like he ate gravel for breakfast.
“I’m not here to play softball, Coach.” I straightened my back and channeled my mother’s unbending confidence. “I’m here to help you win the city championship this year.”
No one laughed like I expected. So I exhaled, relaxed. Big mistake.
“Get off my field. I ain’t got time for this,” he shouted loud enough that birds scattered from a nearby tree. Coach Strauss turned his back to me and continued to bark at the team. “If you don’t get back to practice, you’ll be running laps in three … two …” His slight Texan accent made the “you’s” sound like “ya’s”.
The boys started throwing and stretching again, but they didn’t stop watching us.
“Coach –” I began.
“I ain’t your coach.”
I lost my cool, just like my father. “This is bullcrap. Look at your registration sheet.” He didn’t, so I snatched the clipboard from him and pointed. “See the name Vic Hudson? Well, that’s me. I paid to play. And I fully intend to. It isn’t against the rules.”
Coach ripped the clipboard from my fingers and flipped to another page. I waited. He read. I tapped my foot. That’s not nearly as dramatic on a dirt infield. The boys stopped warming up again.
He looked me up and down. “Fine. I’ll give you a shot, Hudson. You suck and you’re gone.”
“I can deal with that.”
“Get out there.” He pointed at a tall, super skinny boy. “Delvin, warm her up.”
I tossed my bag into the dugout and jogged onto the field. It didn’t take me long to figure out why Coach Strauss told Delvin to warm up with me. He kicked his leg like a pitcher and tossed a pretty nasty fastball. If I had to guess, he could hit ninety from the mound on a good day. It would’ve been stupid if I said anything, even though every ball he threw at me stung my fingers like tiny pricks of a hundred safety pins. I didn’t even try to throw my hardest. I warmed up like it was any other day.
Then he began stepping back. One step here, then another.
I threw hard and high to make my point. Delvin had to reach to get it. He may throw harder, but I can throw farther.
“Alrigh’, get in here,” Coach yelled. He raised his eyes at Delvin, who shrugged. “I know most of you from last year. We only got two potential newbies. One’s a girl. Anyone got a problem with that?”
If they did, they sure as hell weren’t going to tell Coach Strauss.
“Good. I expect you to treat her like you’d treat anybody else.” He looked at me and softened his tone. “What position do you play, honey?”
“Third.” I glared at him. He smirked then turned back to the team. Before he could open his mouth, I said, “And I’m not your honey.”
His head snapped back like he’d taken a right hook to the cheek. “Excuse me?”
I pointed at Delvin. “Do you call him ‘honey’?”
Delvin’s cheeks glowed light pink with either rage or embarrassment. I didn’t know which and really didn’t care.
Coach didn’t answer me though. His chin grew beet red, which crept up his cheeks all the way to his pale yellow crew cut. Steam came out of every clogged pore on his face as he yelled, “Everybody at third. Jayden, get your ass to first.” He sneered at me and I expected to get kicked off the field. “We’re going to field some grounders and see who handles them best. I’ll hit you three then rotate. Hudson, ladies first.”
Crap. Me and my big mouth. He’s going to either hit me a line drive at a hundred miles an hour or make me go so far out of range that I make an ass of myself.
I jogged to third and dug my cleats into the stubborn dirt. The rest of the guys lined up along the fence, amused grins matching Strauss’s own jack-o-lantern expression. Coach tossed the ball into the air.
I jumped spread eagle and dropped my glove between my legs, catching the line drive. I came down ready to throw to first, but Jayden wasn’t on the bag. He stood three steps off with his mouth open. Smiling, I rolled the ball back to home plate.
Coach didn’t give me time to get back into position when he hit a grounder to my left. In a game, the shortstop would’ve played it, but this was a different type of game. I dove and knocked it down. My throw to first was in the dirt, but I was on my butt when I whipped it across the infield. That shouldn’t be held against me. It was an almost impossible play.
The last ball went up the line. I hustled and would’ve had it clean until it hit the bag. It took a nasty bounce that was nearly out of reach. I jumped and brought it down barehanded, throwing to first off balance as I fell into foul territory.
I stood up without looking to see if Jayden caught it and walked to the fence to wait for my next turn. The guys gawked at me as I leaned against the fence, ignoring them. I’d made my point. I could field. My next time up, Coach hit some routine grounders.
After rotating through every infield position, it was time for batting practice.
“You’re up,” Coach announced as he pointed his chunky finger my way. “Delvin, pitch to her.”
While Delvin threw some warm up tosses, I pulled my large batting gloves on, stretching them over my long fingers. The shin guard came loose as I walked to the plate, but I didn’t dare adjust it. Not yet anyway. I’m a switch hitter in softball but more natural from the right side. So that’s where I started when I stepped into the box. I wasn’t entirely certain I could hit a fastball from the left anyway.
Delvin dug at the rubber. I did the same at the plate. Kicked some rocks out from under my right foot. Buried my left foot in the front of the box. Right arm cocked at a ninety degree angle, my bat perched above my shoulder, I waited. A trickle of sweat ran down my cheek. This felt more like a playoff game than a practice.
My swing was graceful as I rocked the fastball over Jayden. He stretched, revealing his dark walnut skin. His long braids smacked his back as he dropped to the ground. Jayden could jump for a big guy.
“Nice,” Coach said.
The Asian boy behind the plate whistled low and said, “Sweet.”
Delvin tossed a few more pitches before Coach snapped at me to get to third. I didn’t hesitate, grabbing my glove and hustling onto the field.
“Get in the dugout,” Coach commanded after everyone had hit.
I stood at the end of the bench, waiting for the axe to drop. I’d played well enough to warrant sticking around, but I was still lacking the mandatory testosterone. If Coach told me to go, I would. It was his team and I wasn’t about to make things worse by throwing an epic hissy.
“We got a tough schedule this year. Last year, the Rebels kicked our ass to take the district. Well, half those boys can’t play no more. Hell, we’re missing three of our own. It’s time we take our game to the next level. The Rebels need to rebuild more than we do. We can take ‘em. Now get outta here. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He glanced my way. “All of you.”
I grabbed my gear and practically bounced out of the dugout when Coach called me and Shane Anders back.
Shane was short, plump, and had a face pot-marked by zits and craters. Something told me that his dad made him play to get him out of the basement. Coach Strauss towered over him. Shane tremored a little.
“Alright. Vic, what’s your real name?”
He sighed, sending a poof of peppermint my way that didn’t conceal his bad breath. It smelled like he didn’t bother to brush his teeth in the morning. Ever. “Don’t bullshit me, girl.”
“I’m not, Coach. Vic’s short for Victoria.”
He stared at me and shook his head. “Fine. Here’s the drill. We practice every day at the same time, at the same place until the first game. Ain’t hard to remember. No excuses for tardiness or missin’ a game. Miss a practice, you don’t play the next game. Bring your own equipment. Forget your glove or your cleats, you don’t play.
“Games start next week. Your jersey will be clean. If it ain’t, you ain’t playin’. We play on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for six weeks. Team that wins their district plays in the city championship tourney. I don’t know nothin’ about either one of you, but there are a couple of boys here that could move on to college ball. Scouts look at summer programs, too, especially if they’re already interested in a player. Neither one of you is goin’ to play baseball at the next level. I just ask that you don’t screw it up for everyone else.
“Now get out of here. Today’s practice was a short one. Tomorrow’s not gonna be this easy.”
Shane took off in a hurry. It was obvious he was scared of Coach. We watched him run to a small pickup truck and scamper in.
“Can I ask you something, Vic?” Coach crossed his arms and glared at me.
“Why’re you here?” He nodded toward the empty softball field. “You could be playin’ ball over there. Tell me the truth.”
I knew the question was coming, but I didn’t expect any sincerity behind it. “Softball isn’t baseball, Coach. It may seem similar, but it isn’t the same. I wanted to play ball one more time. That’s all.”
He nodded, then turned away from me and started gathering his bats.
“Am I really on the team?” I asked. I needed absolute confirmation.
“Yeah, got no choice.” He straightened up and smiled at me. “Looked at the regs. Doesn’t say this team is for boys sixteen to seventeen. Just says players. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”
I smiled. Of course I did. “See you tomorrow, Coach Strauss.”
He grunted and I took off to my car, trying not to skip like a ten-year-old.
I’m in. I’m going to play ball again.