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Cody shielded his eyes with his right hand, his cinnamon-colored hair peeking out from under his ball cap, as he tracked the tiny sphere arcing against the midday Colorado sky. When it reached its zenith, he lost it for a moment. But then, as it dropped back toward earth, his eyes found it again. He slid to his right and waited. He risked a glance at Blake, who was staring at him in bewilderment.
He's wondering why I'm not moving under the ball, mitt up to catch it, Cody thought, laughing to himself. The ball was picking up speed now, looking as if it would thud on the grass to Cody's left. He stood, arms dangling at his sides, as the ball hurtled past his head.
Then, just as the ball was level with his hip, Cody crouched and stabbed his outfielder's mitt to the left-and snagged it only a foot from the ground.
"Had you worried, didn't I?" he said, chuckling.
Blake shook his head. "Nah, Code, I just thought you lost the ball in the sun."
Cody flipped the ball from his glove to his right hand. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he whipped a hard grounder to his youth pastor Blake. Blake dropped to his knees and scooped the ball into a well-worn softball mitt, his "church-league special," as he called it. Then he stood, rocked back, and fired a fastball that zoomed toward Cody's face.
Cody yawned. The ball bulleted toward him, less than ten feet from his nose now. He waited as long as he could and then snapped his glove hand up to his face, as if to swat a horsefly. The ball hit his glove with a deep smack.
"Yeow!" he yelled, letting the mitt slide off his hand, which he shook and flexed, curling and uncurling his fingers. "You had some mustard on that one, B!"
Blake flexed his right bicep. "Yeah, pretty good hose for a guy who plays only church-league softball, huh?"
Cody nodded. "Not bad. But watch this!" He went into an elaborate stretch. His eyes bored into Blake. He shook off two signals from an imaginary catcher, then planted his left foot and brought his arm forward like a bullwhip.
He tried to reign in a smile when he heard the pop of the ball in Blake's mitt less than two seconds later.
"You know," Blake said as he bounced a bumpy grounder toward Cody, "biblical legend has it that some angels did this with the stone used to seal Jesus' tomb-after the Resurrection."
Cody cocked his head. "You're kidding, right? Angels played baseball? The only baseball-playing angels I've heard of are the ones in Anaheim."
Blake nodded. "Well, some people believe different. I know it sounds far-fetched, but think about it. That huge stone weighed about two thousand pounds-as much as your dad's car. It would have taken a bunch of guys with levers to move it into a groove in the bedrock of the tomb.
"Then it was sealed with wax, and that signified that a burial was final. Whoever was inside the tomb wasn't going anywhere."
Cody squinted against the sun as he sidearmed the ball toward Blake. "B," he said, "do you believe that legend, or whatever it is?"
Blake grinned and pitched the ball back to Cody. "You know, I kinda do. I mean, think about it. Jesus came to life-after two days inside a dark tomb. Maybe he pushed that huge stone out of the way himself, or maybe the angels did it. In either case, those angels had to be amped. And what better way to celebrate than toss around the very stone that was supposed to be massive enough to seal their Lord's eternal fate?"
"You have a point." Cody fired the ball again. "Do you think the angels could throw a banana curveball like that one?"
Blake caught the toss. He hesitated for a moment, then plucked the ball from his mitt, tossing it up and down in his right hand as if it were an egg that was too hot to handle. "I'm sure they could," he said, "but I have a feeling they didn't. Think about it. Your Lord and Master has just defeated death itself, and you're standing there at ground zero, toying with the boulder that was supposed to imprison him forever. Nah, I think in that case, you gotta throw the high, hard cheese. Like this!"
With that, Blake ripped a fastball that nearly tore the mitt off Cody's hand. "Nice grab, dude," he said. "I'd say you're ready for baseball season."
Cody removed his faded Red Sox cap and dabbed sweat from his forehead with his T-shirt sleeve. "I hope so," he said. "I just hope we don't have to play any team called the Angels!"
* * *
Coach Lathrop was a small wiry man with the hairiest arms Cody had ever seen. With his pushed-in nose and stiff, military-style buzz cut, he seemed more like a wrestling coach than a baseball coach, but this was his second summer at the helm of the Rockies, the US Baseball League team for the city of Grant, after three years with a USBL team up in Boulder, Colorado. Before that, he had coached high school ball back in Indiana or Illinois; Cody couldn't remember which.
"Okay," Coach Lathrop was saying to the thirteen eighth- and ninth-graders-to-be half-circled around him, "it's good to see so many familiar faces back this year. And I'm guessing most of you have met our newest Rockie, right?"
Cody nodded at AJ Murphy, who had transferred to Grant Middle School early in the spring. Murphy had made a name for himself in PE class, always getting extra-base hits in softball games. Sure, the PE games were slow-pitch, and anybody could get wood on a softball, which was as big as a grapefruit. Still, Murphy had a sturdy build and a smooth swing, and Cody couldn't wait to see how far he could hit a baseball-if he could hit a baseball.
"Murphy," Coach Lathrop was saying now, "I know you played ball on a tournament team up in Denver last summer. What's your position?"
Murphy smacked his fist into his glove and smashed a clod of dirt under his toe. "Mostly third base, Coach," he said, his face expressionless. "Some center field, too. But I'll play wherever you need me."
Murphy glanced nervously at Cody, who gave him a reassuring nod. During PE class, the two of them had talked about baseball, and Cody revealed that he was thinking about playing third. But as baseball season drew closer, he determined he would play center field, his position since T-ball. After a long year of football, basketball, and track, he had no desire to field screaming line drives or have base runners charging toward him.
"Turns out," Coach Lathrop said, "we may need someone to play the hot corner. Our third baseman from last year, Matt Slaven, has taken to tennis this summer." By the way Coach Lathrop said tennis, Cody could tell he wasn't a fan of the game.
The man says tennis the way I say algebra, he thought.
Coach Lathrop went on about how he had never won a game in a post-season tournament in all his years of coaching baseball. He concluded his speech by vowing, "This year that's going to change."
Then he told the team to take four laps around the field before drills began.
Cody settled in next to Murphy as they trotted around the diamond across from Grant Memorial Park. "Welcome to the team," he said. "We really need a new third baseman."
Murphy looked over at him. "Thanks. I'm glad you decided to move to the outfield. I wouldn't want to play out there-not fast enough. So, you think the coach is right about the postseason? We have a chance to do something this summer?"
"Maybe. It's a tough league, especially the team from Lincoln. They're a free-swinging, base-stealing bunch. And they've got this pitcher, Madison, who I hear is throwing in the mid-seventies already. He threw a two-hitter against us last year. It was brutal. It was like trying to hit an aspirin speeding over the plate. When I face him this year, I think I'll just close my eyes, pray, and swing."
Murphy whistled grimly through his teeth. "I hear ya. That guy sounds like he's got serious gas. I hope he's got at least some control, though. I'd hate to get hit with a seventy-five-mile-an-hour heater. That would do some damage. Last year our pitcher, this big dude named Miller, he hit a guy in the face and broke his orbital bone. And Miller can't throw in the seventies, not by a long shot."
Cody shook his head. "Well, they call Madison 'Madman', because control isn't exactly his strong suit. But maybe it will be better this season."
"I hope so. Man, mid-seventies-that's flat out scary. The batting cages I practice in have pitching machines that go up to seventy. When I crank 'em up that high, it's all I can do not to run away when those blazers start coming at me."
After laps, the Rockies paired off to play catch and loosen up their arms. As he watched some of his teammates send throws into the dirt-or sailing over their partners' heads-Cody was glad he had spent so much time practicing with Blake and going on morning runs with Drew Phelps, Grant Middle School's distance-running legend. He hadn't lost any fitness since school ended. His right arm felt loose and strong. And after a long sports season, it was good to be in baseball mode again. The game was more relaxed. The crowds were smaller, and there wasn't the pressure of representing your school.
Since Cody had run with Murphy, he felt it would be okay to partner up with Pork Chop to work on throwing.
Let somebody else babysit the new guy for a while, he reasoned. Besides, there's something strange about Murphy. He never smiles. I get this weird vibe off him.
Pork Chop obviously hadn't thrown a baseball in a while. His tosses were all over the place. But that wouldn't matter. Chop played first base, so he wouldn't be asked to gun down too many base runners. His main job on defense was to snare ground balls or hard liners up the right field line, and make himself a big and sure target for putouts at first. And at five eleven and two hundred pounds, he was quite a target.
Cody studied his friend. Sweat was already trickling down the coffee-and-cream skin of his forehead. Chop still carried extra weight in his stomach, as if he were hiding a throw pillow under his T-shirt. But his shoulders and biceps already seemed larger and more defined than they were when school ended. The work on the family farm and the weight lifting sessions with his big brother, Doug, who was headed to the University of Colorado on a football scholarship, were paying off.
Now, Cody thought, as he watched an errant throw sail three feet over his head, if only Chop could get all that strength under control!
"Chop," he said, laughing, "any chance you'll actually throw a ball to me? This isn't keep-away, you know. Not fetch either."
"I meant to throw that one high," Pork Chop said. "Wanted to see if your vertical has improved any. But it looks like you still have no hops."
"Yeah, right. Yao Ming couldn't have caught that one."
* * *
It didn't take long for the Rockies to round into a strong team. During the last practice before the season opener, Cody marveled as he watched Pork Chop stretch to backhand a screamer of a line drive, off the bat of Terry Alston, who had been Grant Middle School's best all-around athlete. "Chop's like a vacuum at first," he whispered to himself. "He snarfs up anything that comes near him."
Later in the practice, Alston produced a "web gem" of his own-in an effort, no doubt, to upstage his arch rival, Pork Chop. With Coach Lathrop hitting fly balls to the outfield, Alston sprinted from the warning track, straw-colored hair flying, to shallow right field, then dove on his stomach and slid to snare the fly, capturing it in the top of his webbing. A few of the Rockies hooted in approval. "Alston's got himself an ice-cream-cone catch," hollered Murphy. Pork Chop turned to Alston and raised his mitt to his forehead in salute.
Excerpted from Stealing Home by Todd Hafer Copyright © 2004 by Todd Hafer. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 7, 2010
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