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Brendan, the best player on a losing baseball team, learns a lesson from a Chicago Cubs all-star about the true value of the game.
Crack! As soon as Cubs center fielder Brendan Fanning heard the bat smack the ball, he was off, chasing a high fly ball soaring toward right center field. Brendan's mind was racing as fast as his feet. Runner on second, nobody out, he thought. The runner will be trying to tag up.
"I got it. I got it," Brendan called out, keeping his eye on the falling ball. Brendan, a lefty, got under the ball, reached up with his gloved right hand, and snagged it out of the air.
The runner at second tagged up and bolted for third base. But Brendan's throw to Josh Cohen, the Cubs third baseman, was right on target. The ball sailed low and hard, skipping once on the infield dirt toward Josh's glove. The runner slid into third base in a cloud of dust and dirt. Leaning over the bag, the umpire spread his arms wide. "Safe!" he shouted.
"What?" Brendan yelped from the outfield. As the base runner brushed himself off at third base, Brendan saw Josh lean over to pick up the baseball lying in the infield dirt.
Brendan's shoulders slumped and he slammed an angry fist into his glove. My throw was perfect, Brendan thought as he trudged back to center field, and Josh blew it.
Four hits and three runs later, the Cubs jogged slowly off the field. Brendan glanced back at the scoreboard.
"Boy, it's gonna be a long season," Brendan muttered to himself.
Mr. DeCastro, the Cubs coach, shouted encouragement to his team. "Come on, kids! Two more innings. We can get 'em back. Top of the order. Michael, Tasha, Brendan. Look those pitches over. We need base runners. Let's get a rally going!"
The inning started badly. Michael Mitchell grounded out to shortstop and Tasha Jackson hit a pop fly that fell right into the center fielder's glove. Brendan stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning in a 9–0 game.
Brendan dug his left foot into the back of the left-handed batter's box. He tapped the outside and inside edges of the plate with the end of the bat. Holding the bat loosely in his strong hands, Brendan cocked the bat above his shoulder and stared out at the Reds pitcher. He was ready to hit.
The Reds pitcher fired a fastball toward the inside half of the plate. Brendan uncoiled his strong, smooth swing and lashed the first pitch down the right-field line. He sprinted to first base, thinking about extra bases with every stride. Rounding first base and halfway to second, Brendan looked over his shoulder to see the Reds outfielder still fumbling with the ball. Brendan set his sights on third base and turned on his speed. Fifteen feet from the bag, Brendan hurled himself headlong into third base. Brendan stretched out his hands and grabbed the bag a second before the third baseman slammed his glove into Brendan's back.
Safe! A triple.
Brendan called time out and brushed the dirt from the front of his Cubs uniform.
"Nice hit," congratulated Kyle McCleery, the Cubs third-base coach. "I didn't think you were going to make it."
"No sweat," Brendan replied. "Now let's see if someone can get me home."
But Brendan never got any farther than third base. Cubs pitcher Marcus Cooper sent a high pop fly to the Reds shortstop. Brendan jogged in and touched home plate as the ball settled into the shortstop's glove to end the inning. The score was still 9–0.
Brendan grabbed his glove off the bench and started to run out to center field when Mr. DeCastro stopped him.
"I'm going to give Amy a chance to play center field for an inning, Brendan," the Cubs coach said. "You take the rest of the game off." As Brendan turned toward the bench with his head hanging low, Mr. DeCastro patted him on the back and said, "Nice hit. We're going to need a lot of hits like those from our star player this year."
Brendan took a seat at the end of the bench, stretched out his legs, and watched the rest of the game. He knew it was hopeless. The Reds added two more runs in the top of the sixth while the Cubs went down in order to end the game.
Mr. DeCastro tried to take the sting out of the 11–0 loss. "Tough game, kids. We'll get 'em next time. There are still a lot of games left this season."
Brendan and Josh gathered their equipment from the Cubs bench.
"You heading home?" Josh asked. He and Brendan lived on the same street.
"Yeah," Brendan nodded. The two friends trudged up a long hill leading away from the baseball field.
"Sorry about that throw in the fifth inning," Josh said, breaking the silence. "It was right in my glove. No way I should have missed it."
'That's okay," Brendan lied and kept walking.
"Man, 11–0!" Brendan finally blurted out as the boys neared their street. "Looks like we're never gonna make the playoffs."
"We can still do it," Josh said bravely. "Remember what Mr. DeCastro said, 'There are still a lot of games left this season.'"
Brendan laughed. "That's what worries me," he said, turning for home.CHAPTER 2
Brendan heard the music the moment he stepped inside. The sounds of a piano danced on the warm spring air. Brendan followed the music to the sun-filled back room of the Fannings' large, rambling house.
There, Brendan's father, Tom Fanning, sat at the piano with his back to the door. Next to him, leaning over a big wooden bass fiddle, was the familiar figure of Leon"Skeeter" Wells.
Brendan stood silently in the doorway and listened. His father and Skeeter played together like longtime musical teammates, weaving the sounds of the piano and bass into a mysterious, magical mix. Without thinking, Brendan began to move his foot up and down to the beat.
As the last notes echoed from the bass, Skeeter lifted his eyes up to Brendan as if he were coming out of a trance.
"Hey, little man," he chuckled, his broad face breaking into a smile. "How did the Cubs do today?"
"We lost again, Mr. Wells."
Brendan's father turned on the piano bench and asked, "What was the score?"
"11–0," Brendan muttered, almost embarrassed.
"11–0," Skeeter repeated, waving his hand in front of his nose. "Man, you guys stink as bad as the real Cubs."
Brendan knew Skeeter was joking, but somehow he did not feel like laughing.
"Don't worry," Brendan's dad said. "There are plenty of games left in the season."
Brendan sighed. "That's what the coach said, but I don't think we can win enough of them to make the playoffs."
"Make the playoffs!" Skeeter laughed. "Any team named the Cubs is going to have a tough time making the playoffs. The real Cubs don't usually make the playoffs."
"Boy, I'd like to make it just once," Brendan wished out loud.
"Maybe this will be your year," his dad said softly.
Brendan wanted to change the subject. "You're not a Cubs fan, Mr. Wells. How come?"
Skeeter shook his head. "They're North Side. I'm from the South Side of Chicago. I'm a White Sox fan all the way. I don't go switching around my teams. The 'Pale Hose,' they're my team."
"My Uncle Jack is a big, big Cubs fan," Brendan said.
"Hey, that reminds me," Brendan's dad said. "You should e-mail Uncle Jack and tell him about the game. You promised Mom you would."
"Where is Mom?"
"She's at the hospital delivering a baby. Mrs. Wacker is having her fourth. Now get going, and write Uncle Jack while you're still thinking about it."
"Okay," Brendan said, turning to leave. "See you later, Mr. Wells."
"See you around, little man," Skeeter replied.
Brendan raced up the stairs and into an office cluttered with his mother's medical books and his father's musical instruments. Still in his dirt-stained Cubs uniform, Brendan sat down at the family computer and logged on.
Dear Uncle Jack—
We lost again today. We got creamed 11–0 by the Reds. I got a triple with a headfirst slide and everything, but nobody else did anything. I don't want to brag or anything, but I am the only really good player on the team.
We've played all the teams once and we're tied for last place. Here are the standings:
White Sox 3–2
The best four teams make the playoffs for the town championship. I've been playing for four years, and I've never even made the playoffs once! It doesn't look good for this year. Oh well ...
Mom and Dad are fine. School kind of stinks. Hope you come for a visit soon.
Brendan looked over the letter and moved the computer cursor to "Send." With a click the letter soared into cyberspace.
Brendan shut down the computer and walked down the hall to his bedroom. Slumped on the edge of his bed he thought, Man, 11 to zip! He pulled his Cubs shirt slowly over his head and tossed it on the floor.CHAPTER 3
A few days later, Brendan and Josh sat in the sunshine on the steps in front of Josh's house.
"You want to get our gloves and play catch?" Brendan asked Josh.
"Nah," Josh answered, shaking his head. "I'm kind of tired of baseball."
"What? We're not going to get any better if we don't practice," Brendan said, a little too loudly.
"We practice plenty with the team," Josh replied. "Hey, I got it," Josh said, his face brightening. "How about going to the park and tossing the Frisbee around? It's kinda like catching fly balls."
"No, it's not. It's kinda like catching a Frisbee. We should be practicing catching baseballs," Brendan complained.
"Come on," Josh pleaded. "It'll be fun."
Brendan took a deep breath and gave in. "Oh, all right," he said. "It beats sitting around here."
Before long, the two friends were at the park in the open space behind the baseball field. The Reds were practicing on the baseball diamond. The sights and sounds of the Reds practice made Brendan wish that he were playing baseball. But soon Brendan was running with easy, graceful strides, chasing the Frisbee that sailed and swooped on the cool spring breeze.
"Here's a long one," Josh called, pulling his arm back and letting a high throw go.
Brendan gave full chase, sprinting back toward the fence and reaching out for the flying disk. But the Frisbee tipped off the edge of his fingertips and drifted over the outfield fence and onto the baseball field. Brendan stood at the fence and called out to a Reds player.
"Hey, Ryan. How about a little help?" he called, pointing to the Frisbee lying on the grass.
Ryan Martinez, star outfielder for the Reds, reached down and flipped the Frisbee over the fence to Brendan.
"Thanks. Hey Ryan, how did you guys make out against the Yankees the other night?"
"We won 7–3."
"Good." Brendan smiled. "That helps us. We gotta beat them to make the playoffs."
"Playoffs?" Ryan laughed. "You guys will never make the playoffs. Especially tossing a Frisbee around."
"We're just fooling around," Brendan said, a little embarrassed.
Just then, a fly ball came soaring out to center field. Ryan moved easily to his left and caught the ball with the cool assurance of an all-star.
"Come on, Brendan!" Josh called from across the field. "Are you still playing?"
Ryan threw the ball back into the infield and then said over his shoulder with a laugh, "Yeah, Brendan, why don't you go back to playing Frisbee? Maybe you guys will make the Frisbee playoffs."
Brendan gripped the Frisbee tightly with his fingers and sent a low hard shot back to Josh.
"Hey, take it easy," Josh called out. "That one almost took my hand off."
Brendan started walking away quickly from the baseball field. "Let's get out of here," he said to Josh. "I'm sick of playing Frisbee,"
As the sun set and a cool breeze kicked up, the two friends headed home. Ryan Martinez's laugh seemed to follow Brendan all the way back to his door.
Brendan's mother was on the phone when he walked into the kitchen. Brendan opened the refrigerator and grabbed a cool drink and plopped down on a chair at the kitchen table.
Brendan's mother hung up the phone and looked at him.
"I'm going to have to go to the hospital tonight. Looks like Ms. Fox-Murphy is going to have her baby," she told him as she checked her watch.
"You mean Amy's mom?"
His mother nodded.
"Why can't she have her baby during the day? Your patients are always having babies at night," Brendan complained.
"I'm sorry, Brendan, I know my schedule has been pretty crazy lately," she said. "But I got Daniel to come over until Dad gets home."
"Daniel! Great," said Brendan. "But where is Dad?"
"He and Mr. Wells are playing a concert at the college. He should be home by 11:00." Brendan's mom started dialing the phone. "Oh," she said, "I almost forgot. Uncle Jack sent you an e-mail today. I printed it out for you and left it on the dining room table."
Brendan ran to the dining room and found the letter. He sat down and read it quickly.
Sorry to hear about your latest loss. Sounds like you Cubs are running into some tough luck—just like the real Cubs. Don't let the losses get you down. You've always got to be thinking: "Let's play two." (I'll explain later.)
Your mom tells me you don't have a game next weekend. I'll be coming for a visit and I've got a surprise that I'm sure will cheer you up. It will be good to see you guys.
Till then, good luck in your next game. Go Cubs!
Brendan put the letter on the dining room table and looked out the window. What kind of surprise is Uncle Jack planning? he wondered.CHAPTER 4
Let's go, Cubs!" Brendan shouted through the chain-link fence of the Cubs dugout.
He glanced out at the board in center field.
We'd better rally soon, Brendan thought as he sat on the bench and watched Josh walk up to the plate.
"Come on, Josh, start us off, buddy!" he shouted.
Josh dug in at the plate and stared out at the Marlins pitcher.
A fastball whistled in. Josh never moved the bat off his shoulder.
Josh stepped out of the batter's box and took a deep breath.
"Come on, Josh! Be a hitter. Be a hitter!"
The Marlins hurler wound up and threw another fastball. Again, Josh watched it zip by.
Josh stepped out of the box and took a practice swing. Then he settled into his stance.
"Come on, Josh. Only takes one!"
The Marlins pitcher reached back and fired hard. Josh's bat flashed across the plate but came up empty.
Brendan sat back on the Cubs bench, looked down at the dirt, and kicked away a stone.
"Come on, Amy!" he shouted through cupped hands to the next Cubs batter. "Get us started."
Josh slammed his bat down and slumped beside Brendan on the Cubs bench
"Man, I can't buy a hit," he grumbled, sounding beaten. "I gotta be 0 for my last 10 at bats."
"Don't worry, Brendan said, trying to be helpful. "You'll get another chance. We're gonna start hitting his guy."
Brendan's prediction did not come true. The Cubs could only manage an infield hit squeezed between two more strikeouts. The Cubs took the field in the top of the sixth and final inning still trailing, 4–1.
"Come on, Lucas. We gotta hold 'em," Brendan called from center field. "Throw strikes!"
The Cubs pitcher, Lucas Druskin, was in hot water right away. The leadoff Marlin batter cracked a single right up the middle that Brendan scooped up and hustled back into second base.
Runner on first. No outs.
Josh picked off a hard smash at third for the first out of the inning, but another single put Marlin runners at first and second bases with one out.
Brendan paced nervously around the outfield as the next Marlin hitter took his practice swings and then stepped into the batter's box. Lucas can't give up any more hits this inning, Brendan thought, sneaking another peek at the scoreboard. If the Marlins score again, it will all be over.
"Bear down, Lucas," Brendan pleaded from center field. "Fire hard! No batter, no batter!"
But the Cubs right-hander was tired, and the next pitch floated over the fat part of the plate.
The Marlins batter scorched a sinking line drive to right center field. Brendan sprinted full speed to his left, keeping low to the ground. At the last instant he leaped, straining his arm and stretching his glove out in front of him, desperately trying to catch the fast-flying ball. As he skidded across the outfield grass on his stomach, Brendan felt the ball wedge into the pocket of his glove, just inches above the ground.
Tumbling over, his hat flying, Brendan scrambled to his feet. He checked his glove and found the ball still safely inside. He held the ball up in his left hand to show the umpire.
"Out!" roared the umpire, punching a fist into the air.
Excerpted from Playoff Dreams by Fred Bowen. Copyright © 1997 Fred Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
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Posted July 22, 2006