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T. J. Burns ran out the front door with his baseball glove and a dream. More than anything else in the world, he wanted to be a baseball pitcher. T. J. looped his baseball glove onto the handlebars of his bicycle and pedaled toward the practice field.
He was in a hurry. Today was the first day of baseball practice.
On his way, T. J. saw one of his teammates from the Pirates. "Hi, Nicole!" called T. J., skidding to a stop in front of her house. "Are you going to practice?"
"Sure," said Nicole as she bumped her bike down her front steps. "You going?"
"Yep. I'm going to ask Mr. Upton if I can pitch this year," T. J. said proudly.
"Gee," Nicole said as she and her bike cleared the last step and came to a stop in front of T. J., "aren't you kinda shrimpy to be a pitcher? I mean, aren't most pitchers, um, you know ... bigger ... like Matty or Scott?"
T. J. straightened up on his bicycle seat. "I'm not that small. I'm taller than you," he said, a little too loudly.
"No way!" Nicole answered, lowering her bike to the ground. "Come on, back to back, let's measure."
T. J. swung his leg around his bike seat, knocked down the kickstand, pulled himself to his full height, and walked over to Nicole.
The two friends quickly turned away from each other and scooted backward until they bumped. T. J. placed his left hand flat against his head and moved it slowly across his hair. Much to his disappointment his fingertips hit the back of Nicole's head.
"See, I told you so," Nicole said. "I'm two inches taller than you. Easy."
T. J. didn't feel like talking. He got on his bike, and Nicole got on hers. The two of them pedaled in silence to the practice field.
Eventually, Nicole broke the silence: "At least you get to play second base, T. J. I'd love to play infield."
"I don't want to play second base. I want to be a pitcher," said T. J., who still couldn't believe that Nicole was two inches taller.
Oh, how T. J. wanted to be a pitcher! Earlier that spring, right after the winter snows had melted and long before most kids had started thinking about baseball, T. J. was practicing his windup.
He propped an old mattress against the fence in his backyard and painted a box about the size of a twelve-year-old's strike zone on it. Every day, rain or shine, T. J. would pitch baseballs into the mattress.
Thump. Thump. Thump. The balls would plunk against the mattress. Day after day, T. J. would fire fastballs and dream of standing on the mound.
Some days Bobby Drummer, T. J.'s best friend and the Pirates regular left fielder, would drop by and bring his older brother's catcher's mitt. Bobby would squat down in front of the mattress, give T. J. a target, and call balls and strikes for the would-be Pirates' hurler.
That was a month ago. Now it was the first day of practice. When T. J. and Nicole pulled up to the practice field, they hopped off their bikes and joined the team. T. J. saw Scott, the Pirates tall star pitcher, warming up on the sidelines. Scott's long, loose delivery sent the ball flying in a blur to the dead center of the catcher's mitt. Thwack!
Bobby Drummer ran in from left field when he saw T. J. and Nicole. "Hey," he called. "You guys are late! Come on, let's get going."
T. J. and Nicole jogged out toward Bobby and when they caught up with him, Bobby asked, "Are you gonna ask Mr. Upton if you can pitch?"
"Sure," T. J. said confidently as he glanced at Nicole. "I've been practicing all month."
"Well, go ahead and ask him," Nicole dared. "He's standing right over there."
"I think I will," said T. J. He broke away from Bobby and Nicole and walked over to Mr. Upton.
Mr. Upton was a friendly older man who had coached the Pirates for years. "Hi, T. J.," he said. "How's my second baseman?"
"Fine, Mr. Upton," said T. J., looking up at Mr. Upton and squinting from the sun. "But, um, I was wondering if I could try pitching this year?"
Mr. Upton's smile disappeared. "Gee, T. J.," he said. "I was thinking that Matty or Scott would pitch for us. Scott pitched last year and Matty has the strongest arm in the club. You've got to admit that. And anyway, who would play second base?"
T. J. was ready for that one. "Nicole could play second, Mr. Upton. She played it some last year and did a good job." T. J. pleaded, "Please let me pitch, Mr. Upton. I practiced every day for a month! Just give me a chance."
Mr. Upton's smile returned to his face. "Okay, T. J., why don't you pitch batting practice and show us what you've got?" Turning toward the clump of teammates pulling gloves and balls out of their knapsacks, Mr. Upton said, "C'mon kids! Let's get started. We're going to have some batting practice. Scott, you'll pitch a little later. We're going to give T. J. a chance to show us what he can do."
T. J.'s heart jumped as he ran out to the mound. Bobby trotted by on his way out to his familiar left-field position. "Come on, T. J.!" he called, encouraging his best friend. "Just like we practiced. Smoke it by 'em."
T. J. nodded and toed the rubber just as he had dreamed of doing a thousand times before in his backyard. He looked right into the eye of the batter, Lee Wasserman, one of the the better hitters on the Pirates team. T. J. started his windup and hurled the baseball with all his might.
Whack! Lee smacked the ball over the shortstop's head for a clean single. Bobby hustled his throw back into the infield as Lee teased T. J., "There goes your no-hitter!"
T. J.'s face reddened, then he took a deep breath. He went into his windup and threw the second pitch even harder.
The ball sailed over the surprised center fielder's head.
"There goes your shutout," Lee laughed.
T. J. shook his head and pushed his fist into his glove. This was trickier than throwing balls against a mattress. T. J. wound up again.
Whack! Another hit. T. J. kept pitching and Lee kept hitting.
Finally, Mr. Upton called for another batter. "Come on, Kevin. Step up to the plate. Swing level and don't try to kill it."
Kevin Vincent, the Pirates stocky star shortstop, stepped to the plate. He cocked his bat behind his batting helmet and glared at the pitcher.
T. J. went into his motion and threw his best heater to the plate.
Whack! The ball sailed toward left field. Bobby Drummer scrambled back to the fence but ran out of room. He watched the ball drop far behind the old green fence.
"Meatballs!" Kevin yelled, grinning ear to ear. "My favorite food. Come on, T. J.—put another one of your meatballs on my dinner plate!"
"That's enough of that, Kevin," scolded Mr. Upton from the sidelines. Then the coach looked at T. J. and said, "Try to keep the ball down in the strike zone."
T. J. followed Mr. Upton's advice on the next pitch, but Kevin slashed a hard grounder past Nicole at second base.
T. J. tried everything. Fastballs inside. Fastballs outside. Fastballs up, down, and all around, but nothing seemed to work. Pirate after Pirate paraded to the plate and pounded T. J.'s pitches. Even Paul "Jellybean" Jones cracked a couple deep into the outfield.
After what seemed forever, Mr. Upton called for another pitcher. T. J. trudged off the mound with his head hung low.
"Not bad, T. J.," said Mr. Upton, trying to be nice. "You have a good windup and you get the ball over the plate. Maybe we can use you in relief this year. But I really think we need you at second base."
T. J. nodded but never looked up. All of his practicing and dreaming had come to nothing.
Then Mr. Upton turned to the infield and called: "Nicole, why don't you take center? Matty, you come in and pitch. T. J., you take second."
T. J. scuffed off to second, kicking the dirt every step of the way.
"You did okay, T. J.," Nicole said gently. "You'll get a chance to pitch."
"Yeah, sure," T. J. answered. "Maybe we'll get a fifty-run lead in some game, and I'll get to pitch to the last batter."
Nicole started to trot out to center field, then glanced over her shoulder. "Face it, T. J., kids like us never get to be stars."CHAPTER 2
That night at dinner, T. J. didn't feel like eating. He idly pushed his green beans into the shape of a baseball diamond. He took a spoonful of his mashed potatoes and made a pitcher's mound. Then he sunk a green bean upright into the potatoes and stared at it.
"Stop playing with your food, T. J.," his mom scolded. "Eat your beans."
T. J. scooped the bean off the pitcher's mound.
"How was school today, T. J.?" asked his dad.
"How was practice?"
"Do you want some chicken?"
"Nah, I'm not that hungry."
"Are you feeling all right, Teej?" asked Mrs. Burns.
"Sure," said T. J. "Can I please be excused to do my homework?"
"Homework?" T. J.'s mom asked with a shocked voice. "Feel his forehead, Tom, he must be sick."
"Are you okay, T. J.?" asked Mr. Burns.
"I'm fine. I just have a lot of homework," he said.
Mr. and Mrs. Burns looked at each other. Then Mr. Burns looked at T. J., shrugged, and said, "You're excused."
T. J. ran up to his room and closed the door. He grabbed his glove and baseball off his dresser and flopped on his bed. He flipped the ball up toward the ceiling, caught it, and threw it up again and again and again. His rhythm was broken by a knock at the door.
T. J.'s father poked his head in. "Can I come in?"
"Sure, Dad. I was just about to get to my homework," T. J. mumbled.
Mr. Burns sat down on the edge of T. J.'s bed and asked, "Did everything go all right at practice?"
T. J. could not answer. He could feel his throat tighten and tears coming to his eyes.
"Did Mr. Upton let you pitch today?" his father asked.
Now T. J. was crying. He felt a little silly—twelve years old and crying like a baby. He buried his wet cheeks into the warmth of his father's arms. Mr. Burns patted his son's sandy-brown hair and said softly, "It's all right, Teej. Tell me what happened at practice."
T. J. nodded and found his voice between his tears. "It was terrible, Dad. I couldn't get anybody out. Everybody got hits. Even Jellybean hit the fence with one."
T. J.'s father smiled. "Well, think how happy you made Paul feel."
T. J. stopped crying and, without losing his grip on the ball, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Then he smiled a weak grin. "You should have seen old Jellybean, Dad," he said. "He practically danced around the bases."
T. J. smacked the baseball into his glove really hard. "I'll never get a chance to pitch now," he blurted out.
"Teams need second basemen, too," his father reminded him.
"But I practiced so hard!"
"I know you did and I know you feel rotten. But sometimes we can't get what we want no matter how much we want it or how hard we work to get it."
"Yeah, I know. I know."
Then T. J.'s father came up with an idea. "Say, how about coming down to the park and watching my softball game tonight? I think Bobby is going to be there with his dad."
"You mean it?" asked T. J. "Even though it's a school night?"
"I think we can make an exception to that rule. Mom won't mind and you deserve some reward for all your hard work. Besides, it's a special occasion. It's the opening game of our season."
"Great!" exclaimed T. J. as he scrambled off the bed, happy once again. "What position are you playing this year?"
His father looked at the floor and then back at T. J.
"Pitcher," he answered.CHAPTER 3
Bobby and T. J. sat in the cool darkness of the grandstands. Out on the field under the bright lights, his dad's team, the Screaming Demons, was warming up. Decked out in their spanking new red-and-white uniforms, the players threw softballs back and forth. T. J.'s dad stood on the mound, practicing his pitches. He rocked back, then glided forward with a bowling motion, lofting the ball underhand in a gentle arc. The fat white ball seemed to hang in the air, then started down and settled into the catcher's glove.
"Man, Dad isn't going to get anybody out if he keeps throwing meatballs like that," T. J. said.
"Yeah, the ball looks like a big, white balloon heading to the plate. I wouldn't mind grabbing a bat and taking a few cuts myself," laughed Bobby.
The leadoff batter for the Diamond Jokers stepped to the plate.
Mr. Burns rocked back and gently floated the first pitch to the plate. "Strike!" the umpire called. The batter hadn't even swung at the pitch.
Mr. Burns lobbed the next pitch a little higher.
Crack! The batter lifted a harmless fly ball out to left field. The Screaming Demons left fielder settled under it for the first out.
The next batter smacked a one-hopper to the shortstop, which the shortstop fielded easily and gunned over to first. The third batter, a real power hitter, hit a long fly ball out to center field. Bobby's dad, Dan Drummer, raced back and made a terrific over-the-shoulder catch deep in center field.
T. J. and Bobby exchanged high fives in the stands as the Screaming Demons trotted off the field.
"A one-two-three inning!" T. J. said in amazement. "Your dad made a great catch, Bobby!"
"Where do you think I learned to play outfield?" said Bobby. "Your dad did great too. He's got a no-hitter going."
"He won't throw a no-hitter lobbing the ball to the plate," T. J. pointed out.
"I don't know," Bobby answered. "He must be doing something right. He's getting people out."
Mr. Burns did not throw a no-hitter, but the Screaming Demons won 7-3 in a hard-fought game. T. J.'s dad helped with a single up the middle that drove in two runs. But most of all, Tom Burns pitched. He threw great, high meatballs that no one seemed to be able to hit.
After the game, T. J. and his dad got into the car and started home.
"How did you like the game?" Mr. Burns asked as he playfully rubbed the top of T. J.'s head.
"Great, Dad!" said T. J. "You did a super job pitching. How did you get so many people out just lobbing the ball?"
Mr. Burns laughed. "Heck, I didn't get anybody out. My fielders got them out. That's what they are there for."
"You must have done something right, Dad—the Diamond Jokers only scored three runs!"
"Well, first, I didn't walk anybody. There's no defense for a base on balls. Second, I stayed ahead of the hitters. The batter will swing at a pitch a little outside the strike zone if you have a couple of strikes on him. And finally, I moved the ball around in the strike zone. Put it a little high, a little low, inside, outside, and changed speeds a bit. That keeps the hitter off balance. You know what Warren Spahn said about hitting and pitching, don't you?"
"I don't even know who Warren Spahn is," T. J. answered.
"He was a pitcher back around the 1940s and 50s. One of the best. Won 363 games," Mr. Burns said. "Anyway, he said, 'Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.' You know, breaking the hitter's concentration."
"Yeah," said T. J.
T. J.'s dad smiled and pulled into the Burnses' driveway. He opened his door and said, "Come on, T. J., let's get you to bed. It's a school day tomorrow."
T. J. sat in the dark for a moment and wondered. Maybe, just maybe, there was a way for him to become a pitcher.CHAPTER 4
The next afternoon in school, T. J. glanced at the clock for the twenty-hundredth time: 2:38. Just two minutes to go.
"Remember your permission slips for next week's class trip," Ms. Maggio reminded the class. "And check over your homework essays carefully. I want your best work."
The bell finally rang. T. J. slung his backpack over his shoulder and bolted for the door.
"Not so fast, T. J.," cautioned Ms. Maggio. "Bus kids first."
T. J. waited anxiously at his desk.
"You want to throw the ball around this afternoon, T. J.?" Nicole asked. "We don't have practice."
"Yeah, sure, come over later," T. J. said as the last of the bus kids walked out the door.
"Walkers and bikers may go," announced Ms. Maggio.
"See ya later," yelled T. J. He flew out the door, hopped on his bike, and pedaled furiously toward home. He turned into the driveway, took his hands off the handlebars, and reached above his head. His hands grabbed hold of the low branch of a sturdy maple tree beside his house. T. J.'s bike, now riderless, veered off to the side and fell in a clattering heap. T. J. swung for a moment from the branch and then dropped to the ground.
He went straight to the garage and dragged out his old pitching mattress. After setting the mattress against the back fence, he ran inside the house and grabbed his glove, some baseballs, and a wastebasket. T. J. placed the basket just below the strike zone he had drawn on the mattress.
Still in his school clothes, T. J. paced off 46 feet from the mattress and the basket. He went into his familiar windup. Only this time, he did not fire the ball at the strike zone. Instead, he slowed his arm down and lobbed the ball overhand. The ball plunked high against the mattress and plopped into the basket.
Ball one. Too high. T. J. would have to get the ball down. His second pitch was a little lower, but still too high.
Finally, with his third pitch, the ball floated through the air, hit just below the blue box on the mattress, and settled into the wastebasket for a perfect strike.
For more than an hour, T. J. lobbed the ball against the mattress. Back and forth he walked, collecting the baseballs from in and around the wastebasket. With each pitch, T. J. gained control and confidence.
Excerpted from T.J.'s Secret Pitch by Fred Bowen. Copyright © 1996 Fred Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
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