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Chip sees the morale of his baseball team threatened by the arrogant behavior of first baseman and heavy hitter Ben Green.
CHIP HILTON'S spirits were as high and light as the fleecy white clouds floating in the blue spring sky as he strode along the tulip-lined campus sidewalk. Over the tops of the budding elm and maple trees, State's baseball grandstand came into view, and his heart leaped. It wouldn't be long now! The opening game of the State University baseball season was only two days away, the first of a two-day series with State's bitter conference rival, A & M. Since Chip was captain of the team and the number-one pitcher, Coach Henry Rockwell was almost sure to start him in the first game on Friday.
"Hey, Chip, slow down! Wait for me," Soapy Smith pleaded, stretching his stocky legs in a determined effort to keep up with his roommate's brisk pace. "We're way early for practice. Besides, you'll need some of that energy Friday. I figure the Rock will make you do some throwing this afternoon too. You know him."
"I know him," Chip said calmly, slowing his pace, "and I hope he does just that."
Soapy peered up at Chip in surprise. "This is Wednesday," he said pointedly, "but the Rock's going to start you Friday for sure. You should take it easy."
"Not this afternoon."
"What's so special about this particular afternoon?" Soapy asked.
"Everything. I've got to find out something."
Soapy's head shot sideways, and he eyed Chip knowingly. "Ben Green! Right?"
"That's what I thought. Is your arm all right?"
Chip studied his battery mate's worried expression for a moment and then grinned. "Never better," he said lightly.
"Then, this," Soapy said, speeding up his steps, "I can't wait to see. But remember," he warned, "not even Ben Green is worth a sore arm. If something happens to that pitching arm of yours, the season is shot."
"Not to worry, Soapy. Nothing will happen," Chip said reassuringly.
"What we need are some first-rate pitchers," Soapy observed seriously. "Even one more would be a big help. Someone sure better turn up before Saturday."
"Dean could do it."
"Sure, if he didn't fall into one of his wild throwing episodes. Dugan and Sparks were all right for high school, but they're just not good enough for Division 1 college ball."
"Everything will work out all right," Chip said slowly. He meant to express confidence, but deep inside he knew it was wishful thinking. Soapy was right. The Saturday pitcher was a question mark at the moment. Something had to be done about State's pitching situation. Eliminating himself, there were only three possible starters. So far, not one of the three had shown himself to be Division 1 caliber.
It didn't seem possible that a team could have so many fine catchers, infielders, and outfielders and only two or three reliable pitchers. Coach Henry Rockwell had tried to make pitchers out of some of the extra players, but not one had shown enough ability or determination. Every other position on the team was staffed with veterans, but that wasn't the half of it. The talented newcomers were challenging the veteran players for starting positions. Chip figured that was good pressure because it kept everybody hustling, but it didn't solve the pitching problem. In truth, the pressure actually contributed to the team's difficulties. The chief obstacle to State University's quest for the conference title and a chance to repeat as national champions was team morale. The team spirit that had been the Statesmen's biggest asset the previous year was gone with last season's championship. Nothing remained except bitterness and tension, and, as far as Chip could see, just one person was the source of all the trouble.
Matching strides, the two lifelong friends continued on toward Alumni Field. Chip could already smell the freshly mown grass of the outfield. As they neared the players' entrance, the crack of a bat meeting the ball and the shouts of players rang out invitingly. With Soapy right on his heels, Chip eagerly quickened his pace and hurried through the gate and down the steps under the grandstand to the State University locker room.
They found the room deserted except for Murph Kelly, State's veteran trainer. "You're late," he announced sourly.
"Sorry, Murph," Chip apologized, hustling over to his locker.
"We had late classes; it's a lab day for both of us," Soapy explained.
"Do you fellows need anything?" the old trainer asked swiftly. "If not, you'd better step on it. It's an important practice game this afternoon. Coach is gonna try to find some ballplayers so he can decide on a starting lineup."
"Find some players?" Soapy echoed. "Are you kidding? He's got more players than the Yankees!"
"I said ballplayers," Kelly growled. "I mean kids who appreciate team play and don't try to smack the ball out of the park every time they get hold of a bat. By the way, you're both on team A."
He paused for a moment and then continued pointedly, "In the dugout! Dugan is pitching and Engle is catching for your side, and Dean is working for team B with Nickels doing the receiving."
Picking up his trainer's kit, Murph headed for the field.
Chip and Soapy finished dressing and clattered into the hall and up the runway to the hometeam dugout. Every player in sight was busy. Coach Rockwell was hitting grounders to the infielders, alternating between veterans and new candidates, and Bill Malone, State University's new assistant baseball coach, was fungoing long, high flies to the outfielders.
Chip tossed his glove on the grass in front of the dugout and started his laps. Coach Henry Rockwell believed a pitcher was only as good as his legs and made his pitchers run and run and run some more.
"Hey!" Soapy complained. "You don't have to sprint all the way. This is baseball, not track and field!"
Chip laughed and slowed down until the redhead caught up. "Hey, Soapy, I was just thinking about this baseball story I read. Years ago, some minor-league manager would stop the team bus every fifty miles and make his players pile off the bus and jog a mile down the road before the bus would pick them up again. That's how he kept his players in shape."
Soapy grunted, "Real funny! Whatever you do, don't you ever tell Rockwell that story!"
Both laughed even harder, and then Chip picked up the pace again. His thoughts drifted back to his boyhood, and he remembered the work ethic his father had instilled in him: If an athlete is going to get anything worthwhile out of a workout, he has to put something into it each and every day.
Finishing a hard sprint, they got their gloves and began to play catch at the warm-up plate. Warming up was always important to Chip. No matter how long it took him to loosen up, he never threw carelessly. Instead, he worked on control and tried to put every pitch in the strike zone. Soapy had been Chip's battery mate ever since they were in high school at Valley Falls, and the freckle-faced redhead knew just what to expect.
Coach Henry "The Rock" Rockwell blasted his whistle, and the B team players hustled in for batting practice. Chip kept throwing until the players began to hit. Then he pulled on his warm-up jacket and signaled Soapy that he was ready. Side by side, they walked past the bat rack and leaned against the fence. There they watched the B team batters take their swings, analyzing, as always, the batting strengths and weaknesses of each player.
The player at bat was Ellis "Belter" Burke. Belter was a returning letterman, and Chip knew all about his likes and dislikes. He was a switch-hitter and could hit equally well from either side of the plate.
Now, facing Terrell "Flash" Sparks's right-hand throws, he was batting lefty. Burke looked over the first pitch and then hit three of the little pitcher's serves squarely against the left-field fence.
Then the veteran outfielder moved to the first-base side of the plate and powdered Sparks's first throw, sending the ball high over the right-field fence.
"He just absolutely ruins the ball," Soapy said in admiration.
"That isn't all," Chip added. "He can lay it down too."
Chip had scarcely finished speaking when Burke bunted a high fastball, sending a slow roller down the third-base path. It was a tough pitch to bunt, and it confirmed Chip's high opinion of the powerful outfielder. Burke dropped his bat and sped down the first-base line, sprinting all the way to the bag.
"Picture play," Soapy exclaimed loud enough for everyone to hear. "S-w-w-e-eet play, Belter!"
Chip nodded, but he wasn't thinking about Burke. He was sizing up the burly hitter with the mouth full of bubble gum who was strutting to the plate. Ben Green stood six-five and weighed 225 pounds. Green had the knack of getting all of his weight into his batting swing. He tried to kill every pitch, attempting to knock the ball over the fence every time he took a swing.
Now, before entering the batter's box, he went through an elaborate warm-up ritual. Holding three bats, he whirled them over his head several times, tossed two of them away, hitched up his pants, stooped to fill his hands with dirt, and then yanked at the brim of his red and blue State batting helmet. Then he stepped up to the third-base side of the plate and got set.
Sparks took his stretch, but before he could throw, Green stepped back out of the box and turned toward Chip. Shifting the bulging lump of bubble gum from one side of his mouth to the other, he lifted his bat and pointed it over third base. "Just for you, I'm gonna park this one over the left-field fence, captain," he called arrogantly.
Chip made no reply. Green had looked in his direction, but the big hitter's eyes had been focused over Chip's head, on a man sitting in the grandstand. A few student fans were sitting under the big shelter, but Chip and every ballplayer on the field had noted the well-dressed stranger. The man was old enough to be a player's grandfather proudly watching his grandson out on the diamond, but his tanned face, keen eyes, and big-boned body spelled baseball, major-league ball. Chip thought the man was Stu Gardner, a veteran scout with the New York organization.
Gardner had talked to him when Chip was in high school about being drafted to play in the Yankees farm system and about what to consider in signing a major-league contract. Chip remembered that the Yankees scout had differed greatly from many of the men who had contacted him. Gardner had advised him to finish college before making a decision.
Chip had liked the man so much that he promised to talk to Gardner about signing with the Yankees as soon as he got his degree. He had received several letters from the scout, but this was the first time he had seen him since his high school days.
Most of the big-league scouts were like Gardner. But the "bird dogs," the small-time talent chasers, were different. They made rash promises and tried all sorts of tricks to. ingratiate themselves into a young player's good graces.
One or two had even offered bonus money to Mary Hilton, Chip's widowed mother, at the family home in Valley Falls, After the death of his father in an industrial accident at the Valley Falls Pottery, things had been tough for Chip and his mom. But Mary Hilton's position with the phone company had kept things together. Then, as now, Mary Hilton had wanted her son to have a good education more than anything in the world, and despite the fact that the bonus money would have greatly eased their financial stress, she and Chip had given all of the big-league scouts and sports agents the same answer. Only after Chip had earned his college degree would they decide whether he should try professional baseball.
"Hometown show-off! A real poser!" Soapy growled, bringing Chip's thoughts back to Ben Green. "What's with the pointing to the fence? What's he trying to do, make like Babe Ruth?"
"He hits a long ball," Chip said quietly.
"Sure!" Soapy retorted. "When and if he hits it."
"He hit twenty home runs last summer."
"Sure! But how many times did he strike out?" Without waiting for a reply, Soapy added sarcastically, "Huh! Town ball. A dinky local summer league."
Sparks's first throw to Green came in around his knees, and the big batter passed it up. The next pitch was far outside. Green started his swing and reached for the ball. But before his wrists broke, he pulled the bat back. "Come on, Sparks," he called angrily, stepping out of the box, "what are you trying to do, act like a pitcher?"
"He crowds the plate," Soapy observed.
"A straight pull hitter," Chip added.
Green glanced quickly toward each dugout before planting his feet in the front of the batter's box. Swinging his bat in a circle around his head, he twisted his spikes firmly into the clay. He pounded the plate with his war club. Then, with a darting glance over his shoulder toward the man in the grandstand, he poised his bat, buried his chin in his left shoulder, and focused his eyes intently on the pitcher. Sparks waited until Green was set and then dealt a fastball around the batter's knees. Green put everything he had into a vicious swing, but his bat cut under the ball and he fouled it back against the screen.
"Wrong direction, Ben," someone called.
"Try hitting backward," another added.
"Put some of that bubble gum on the bat," another cried.
Green disregarded the barbs and remained in the batter's box. But he did flap his elbows and pull the bat through in several vicious cuts while he waited for Sparks to throw.
The pitch came in high and fast, and Green took a full cut. There was a sharp crack and the ball took off for the left-field fence. Chip followed the flight of the ball with his eyes for a moment but knew it was in there, a homer all the way.
A group of young middle school boys had been roaming beyond the heavy steel fence, waiting hopefully for homerun clouts. They saw this one coming and took off in a headlong dash before the ball cleared the barrier. Chip chuckled. The State University Athletic Department wasn't going to get that ball back.
The force of his swing pivoted Green clear around, and he nearly fell to the ground. The bat saved him. He jabbed it in the ground. Chewing away on his bubble gum, he grinned once more in Chip's direction. "Far enough for ya, captain?" he cried.
Chip nodded. "A home run in any ballpark."
"Good!" Green hollered. "Now I'll drop one over the right-field fence."
"Oh, brother, give me a break," Soapy managed. Some of the A team players greeted Green's announcement with hoots and jeers, but Chip noted that the power hitters were quiet. Too quiet! As much as he disliked Green's attitude, Chip had to concede that the bombastic clouter had leadership qualities. Several of the veteran long-ball hitters had been following Green's example and concentrating on home runs.
"Attaboy, slugger!" Darrin Nickels yelled from the B team dugout.
"Way to call your shots, Ben. You're the man," newcomer Ricky "Rusty" Gates chortled.
Some of the players who had defended team play now struck back. They had been special targets for the first baseman's sarcastic barbs, and this was their opportunity to get even.
"Hold the trademark up, Green!"
"Watch the water bucket!"
"Just a hometown slugger, that's what he is!"
"No, that's Babe Ruth the Second!"
"Yeah, Ben. Point your bat at the fence!"
Ben Green took the ribbing in stride. "All you guys are just jealous," he retorted, grinning cockily. "Just sit back and watch the master at work."
The big hitter continued to return the taunts and catcalls with good-humored jibes, but Chip remembered the workouts when there had been no one in the stands and felt sure Stu Gardner's presence had a lot to do with Green's joviality. With the famous scout in the stands, it appeared Ben could take criticism as well as dish it out.
University was Green's hometown, and he had starred for the high school team. The previous summer he had batted in the cleanup spot for the local town team. Now he was a candidate for State University's first-base job and was trying to beat out Biggie Cohen, one of Chip's hometown friends. Today the Rock was playing Green at first base on the B team. Like Biggie, he would be hitting in the cleanup slot in the batting order.
Eyeing Green, Chip began to massage the shoulder of his throwing arm. He might not have an opportunity to pitch to Ben Green today, but if Coach Rockwell did call on him, he was going all out. His arm was warm and loose, and he had brought it along carefully during the past month. Now he was ready! He was ready for A & M on Friday and more than ready-anytime-for the hometown hero.
Excerpted from Home Run Feud by Clair Bee Copyright © 2002 by Randall K. and Cynthia Bee Farley
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.