Willie Strikes Out
LOOK, IF I'M GOING TO TELL you everything that happened between me and Dodger, you have to promise you won't tell. And you won't laugh. And you won't mention any of this to dumb old Lizzie from England. I have a weird feeling she wouldn't appreciate it.
Not that I care what she thinks.
Anyway, I guess I'll have to trust you on this, right? Plus, I'm busting to tell somebody about it. So here goes.
It all started one Sunday afternoon on the base-ball field. It was the second-to-last game of the fall Little League season. My team, the Bethlehem
Bulldogs, was losing 3â2 in the bottom of the seventh inning. In the ten- and eleven-year-old league, we only play seven-inning games, so this was it: We were coming up to bat for the whole enchilada. It was all or nothing, score or lose, the victory pizza party with the team or the PB&J at home with Mommy. Plus, the team was in first place, but we needed to win one of our last two games in order to finish the season as champions. There were two outs with runners on second and third when I stepped up to the plate.
Can you believe it? Me, Willie Ryan! The guy who had never gotten a hit all season. The kid who prayed to get hit by the ball just so he could get on base. Of anybody on the team, I should have been the LAST person you'd want batting in that situation. I'm serious: If you could have taken a vote of all the kids on my team, they would have agreed a hundred percent. They would have sent any other player out there in my placeâeven Joey Carbone, who had a broken leg. They would rather have sent my seven-year-old sister out there. Heck, if my grandma Lillian had shown up with regulation cleats on her feet, they would
probably have wanted to bench me and send her up to bat. But instead they got meâand my team would lose if I didn't get to first.
By the way, not that it matters to me, but dumb old Lizzie from England was watching from the stands. And get this: She was cheering for me super-loudly as I approached the batter's box. I swear, when I grow up I'm going to invent a special portable soundproof booth for this exact situation. It will slide on special rails built into the bleachers at athletic fields, and it will have a detector built into it that picks up embarrassing cheering noises. So let's just say, for example, that there's a boy who doesn't particularly like girls, okay? And there's some girl who keeps following him around and showing up at his baseball games, even though it's totally unusual for a girl to show up at a boy's game in the first place, and completely unheard of for the girl to scream encouragement at one single player the whole game. Plus, the girl doesn't know a thing about baseball, so she keeps screaming the wrong thing at the wrong time. And let's imagine, for a moment, that the boy's whole team starts laughing at him
even more than usual because they start to think he's in love with the girl. So they tell the boy stuff like, “Hey, you and Lizzie should get married. She's the only person in the world who doesn't know how much you stink!”
Well, anyway, if a thing like that happened, the booth would slide right over to the girl's seat, come down around her, and keep all of her humiliating sounds from reaching the field.
Since I didn't have a cheer-proof booth handy that day, I just had to stand there taking my practice swings and try to tune out the constant clapping and strange accented hooting noises that were coming from Lizzie. Right before the game, my little sister, Amy, had asked me, “Is that weird Lizzie going to be there? She sounds like a cross between a trained dolphin and a dodo bird. It gives me a headache!” Looking up into the stands as Lizzie's cheers reached their maximum level, I saw Amy holding her hands up near her face. It looked like maybe she was trying to shield her ears. Poor Amy. Poor me!
I stepped into the box and gave the pitcher my best glare. Unfortunately, because I have gigantic
glasses and my mom makes me wear a special helmet with a mouth guard, he probably couldn't see my face at all. But he was glaring at me, too, and I could certainly see his face better than I wanted to. The kid was huge. I mean seriously huge. And tough. And old-looking. I knew he had to be my age, but if I'd seen him driving a motorcycle to the game, I wouldn't have been very surprised. Plus, he'd already gotten a warning for hitting two of my teammates with fastballs. I gulped and got into my stance. Now, I've spent hours and hours practicing my stance in the mirror, and I think it looks cool. But Amy says it makes me look like a praying mantis with arthritis.
Doesn't that girl have a great vocabulary?
Anyway, as the pitcher wound up, I did my best to stay calm and focused. When he let the ball fly, though, all I could
on was the fact that the ball was streaking toward my head at about eighty miles per hour. I just barely had time to hit the dirt as the ball whistled by, about an inch above the top of my helmet. The catcher couldn't get his hands on the ball, and it went all the way to the backstop. My whole team started shouting to the
guy on third, “GO! GO!” This was a perfect opportunity. He could steal home and tie the game without me having to actually hit the ball!
The runner, James Beeks, who happens to be the best athlete and the coolest kid in my fifth-grade class, hesitated for about half a second, and in that time, the umpire tried to step aside so the catcher could get to the ball. Then a lot happened at once. As I scrambled across the plate on my hands and knees to get out of the base path, James started to go. So did the guy on second. The catcher stretched his glove as far as he could along the ground. But just as the glove closed around the ball, the umpire accidentally stepped on it. The catcher yelped in pain and yanked his hand away. This made the ump fall backwards. The ball squirted free of the glove and rolled between the ump's outstretched feet. James was about five steps from the plate when the catcher finally managed to grab the ball bare-handed. The catcher lunged. He slapped the ball against the side of James's leg just as James's foot touched the corner of the plate, and as every Little Leaguer knows, a tie goes to the runner. My whole
team started jumping up and down, cheering and pounding each other on the back. It was a nice little moment for us.
Then the ump got up and called a meeting with the other umpire and both coaches. As the catcher took off his mitt and rubbed his crushed hand, and James walked slowly toward our dugout with his eyes on the huddled grown-ups, I stood there and thought,
If I ever needed a break, this is it. Please, please let the run count. I just need some help here.
I guess there's a reason my nickname isn't Lucky, because the umpires ruled that the entire play after the ball hit the backstop didn't count. James started trudging back to third as our coach tried to calm the whole bench down. As I got back in the batter's box, James slapped me on the back and said, “All right, Wimpy, just bring me home.”
That's another reason I can't be called Lucky: because everyone on the team already calls me Wimpy. The only guy who used to call me Willie was my best friend, Tim, and he moved to another state right at the start of the season. So now I was Wimpy one hundred percent of the time in the
dugout, unless a coach was talking to meâand even the coaches sometimes almost slipped and used the nickname. Plus, even if the coaches weren't saying it, they were probably thinking it.
Back to the game: The count was one ball, no strikes. All I needed were three more terrifying pitches at my body and I'd get the walk. Then I could relax on first base and let the next guy worry about tying the game. The second pitch was nowhere near me, though. It was way outside, but the catcher managed to grab it before it could become another wild pitch.
Two balls, no strikes. The third pitch came screaming inside again, this time about an inch in front of my ribs. I stood my ground, mostly because my reflexes hadn't been fast enough for me to take another dive, and it was three balls, no strikes.
All I needed was one more ball. As I got ready for the fourth pitch, the catcher whispered menacingly to me, “Here it comes â¦ .” And what came was a slow pitch, right down the middle. I had been waiting for another scary, wild fastball, so I didn't even manage to get the bat off my shoulder. Now the count was 3â1.
I swore to myself I would swing at the next pitch if it was anywhere close, just to prove I wasn't totally useless. That was a mistake: Apparently, I am totally useless, because the pitch was a little bit high, and I fouled it off for strike two.
I gave myself a little mental pep talk:
Come on, Willie. You knew it was all going to come down to you. One last pitch. One last chance. Now just get the good wood on it so we can all go get some pizza.
The pitcher growled at meâI mean, he actually
Jeepers. The catcher mumbled, “Bye-bye, little guy!” And then the ball was coming straight over the plate so fast it looked like the pitcher had a cannon hidden up his sleeve. You have to give me some credit: I swung. Just as the ball smacked into the catcher's mitt with bone-crushing force, I sort of waved the bat through the space where the ball had been.
It was all over. The pitcher smirked at me, the catcher clutched his hand in pain, the runners on second and third moved slowly toward the dugout. In the stands, Lizzie was still shouting, “Yay, Willie!” while everybody around her just stared.
I tried not to listen to anything as my team
lined up to shake hands with our opponents. Most people just say “Good game, good game” about fifteen times as they walk past the other team, but believe me, there were some other comments being thrown my way that day. Life didn't get any better back in our dugout. I think the nicest thing anyone said to me was, “Geez, Wimpy, it was three and oh. You had him!”
Yeah, right. Like the pitcher had been practically on his knees at my feet, begging me not to destroy him with my mighty bat. Sure he had.
I got out of there as fast as I could, and got all the way to the stands before noticing that I still had my stupid ultra-safe batting helmet on my head. I whipped it off and spent a few moments trying to find my family in the crowd, but they weren't anywhere in sight. I suppose I wouldn't have wanted to be seen with me, either. Lizzie came up to me and said, “I'm sorry you didn't win, Willie. It looked as though you gave a great swipe at that last ball, though.”
A great swipe,
she said. Honestly. I just looked at her.
“Um, Willie,” she continued, “your mum told
me to tell you that you'll have to ride home with me. Your sister just lost a tooth, and it was bleeding quite a lot, so your parents took her to your house.”
Great. Only my parents would think their kid had to be rushed home because of a lost tooth. The good news was that at least they had missed the end of my horrible final at-bat.
Here came the bad news, straight from the mouth of Lizzie: “Willie, would you like to walk home together? My dad's supposed to drive both of us, but I could tell him to just drive on without us. I wouldn't mind at all.”
Yeah, she wouldn't mind. And my teammates wouldn't mind having another reason to laugh at me. I needed to be alone, though. “Uh, I'm sorry, Lizzie, but I really need some time to think. So I'm just going to walk home alone, okay?”
She looked like I'd just smacked her, but she said, “Sure. I understand. See you tomorrow at school?” In case living on the same block with Lizzie wasn't enough, I was also in her class for the third year straightâand our moms were co-chairs of the PTA Safety Committee, so Lizzie even
wound up at our house sometimes. Lizzie used to follow my old best friend, Tim, around all the time, but since he'd moved, she was always trying to hang out with me.
“Yeah. See you at school,” I mumbled. Lizzie went to tell her father that I wasn't coming, and I started the long Loser Walk home. It's pretty amazing, really. If anything had gone differentlyâif my sister's tooth had stayed in her head for another hour, if Lizzie's dad had insisted on driving me, if good old Tim hadn't moved away, or even if Lizzie had convinced me to let her walk me homeâI would never have met Dodger. Because that walk home changed my life.