The zombie apocalypse begins on the day Rabi, Miguel, and Joe are practicing baseball near their town's local meatpacking plant and nearly get knocked out by a really big stink. Little do they know the plant's toxic cattle feed is turning cows into flesh-craving monsters! The boys decide to launch a stealth investigation into the plant's dangerous practices, unknowingly discovering a greedy corporation's plot to look the other way as tainted meat is sold to thousands all over the country. With no grownups left they can trust, Rabi and his friends will have to grab their bats to protect themselves (and a few of their enemies) if they want to stay alive...and maybe even save the world.
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Zombie Baseball Beatdown
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Paolo Bacigalupi
All rights reserved.
Don't let anyone tell you it builds character or any of that junk; it sucks. It sucks that someone else is beating you. It sucks that you've worked so hard and it's going to mean nothing. It sucks that you can't hit the ball the way you want and can't field the grounder the way you imagined—a thousand things about losing suck.
But it sucks worse when you're stuck in the dugout on a 102-degree day in the humidity, and the heat index is 120, and sweat is pouring off you, and your team is losing—not because you suck at baseball, but because your baseball coach, Mr. Cocoran, sucks at coaching.
Mr. Cocoran won't listen to you when you tell him he's got the batting order wrong. He likes big hits and loves guys who hack at the ball and swing for the fences and all that junk, and he doesn't understand about getting runners on base. He doesn't know squat about baseball.
But you know the thing about losing that sucks even worse than that?
Knowing you're the one who's going to get blamed.
When you're finally up at bat, with Miguel on third and Sammy on first, and you're down by two in the bottom of the sixth, and you're the last and final hope of the Delbe Diamondbacks—you're the one everyone is going to remember.
Maybe I could hit a single on my good days (and if the pitcher was off his game), but basically, for me, the ball just moves too darn fast.
My dad says I swing with my heart.
Well, he said that after I struck out once and spun myself all the way around and all the other kids were so busy laughing at me—even my own team—that nobody minded so much that we'd lost another game.
After that game, my dad came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Don't worry about it, Rabi; you swung with your heart. You were all in. We can work on your swing. As soon as I'm back from the rigs, we'll work on it."
Of course, baseball season was going to be over by then, so my swing wasn't going to improve in time to save me from more humiliation. Dad works oil and gas rigs—ten weeks on, two weeks off—so I was on my own.
There was no way I should have been batting cleanup, I can tell you that, but there I was, sitting on the bench, watching the lineup come down to me, like a slow-moving train wreck.
Miguel was sitting next to me, chewing gum. "What're the odds?" he asked.
I shrugged. "I don't know."
"Come on, Rabi." Joe, who was sitting on my other side, poked me in the ribs. "Do that trick you do. With the numbers."
A couple of the older guys, Travis Thompson and Sammy Riggoni, both looked over. Beefy dudes with mean piggy eyes who liked to hassle anyone who was littler than them. I didn't want their attention at all. I looked away.
"Nah," I said. "There's not enough numbers to do it. I need more stats. You can't do stats with Little League. You need a lot of numbers before you can predict anything."
"Come on," Miguel said. "You know you can."
I looked out at the bases, frowning. I studied the batters in our lineup, eyed the Eamons Eagles defense, their catcher and fielders and pitcher. And then I started setting stats. It was a trick I used. I could set stats over the different players' heads in my mind, a little like health bars in World of Warcraft, and then I could figure out probable outcomes.
Numbers. Stats. I have a cousin in Boston who calls it my inner Asian math nerd.
But whatever it is, I'm good at it. The Eagles pitcher was still going strong, even after pitching most of the game. We hadn't worn him down much. I'd read up on his stats and seen how he normally did after pitching four innings. I'd been counting how many times he'd actually had to pitch against all our batters, and I knew he wasn't tired. Not a bit.
He'd just struck out Billy Freudenberg on three straight pitches. And now Shawn Carney, at the plate, had two balls and two strikes on him. But Shawn barely hit .225, even against a weak pitcher. Against the Eamons guy, he was more like .075. Shawn was always hacking at random pitches. When he hit, he hit with power, but the Eamons pitcher was smart enough to bait him into swinging at a mean little curveball.
Shawn was dead meat.
Then there'd be Miguel. Miguel was hitting .525 on the season, steady all the time, dangerous. And the Eamons pitcher was afraid of him. Miguel could get himself on base, for sure. He was a slugger and he hit for extra bases more often than not. After that, Sammy would be up—.305, but not with as much power as Miguel. Then there'd be me. It all added up to ...
"You need a double or better," I said. "And Sammy needs the same for us to tie."
Miguel cracked his gum. "And if we do, that means you got to ..."
"I got to do anything except strike out. Anything at all."
"What are the odds?"
I laughed. "If you two nail it? Twenty to one, against. If you don't?" I shrugged. "No shot."
"Don't sell yourself short," Miguel said. "You can get on, no problem."
"Numbers don't lie. It wouldn't be a problem if they moved me ahead of you two. I do better when there's no one on base, and no pressure. If Mr. Cocoran would just concentrate on getting players on base, concentrate on getting more walks instead of big hits, we'd already be winning right now. And this wouldn't matter at all. We'd probably be up two at this point. Game over, Delbe wins."
Miguel nodded out at Shawn, who was getting ready for his next pitch. "What if Shawn gets a hit?"
I looked over at the redheaded boy. "He won't. Not with two strikes on him. He always chokes once he gets two strikes."
"Shut up, Rabi. You're on a team."
That was Mr. Cocoran, our king of a coach. Funny-looking guy with a big nose and a face that was red like a tandoori chicken. He was always irritated. Mostly at me. "You don't rip your own teammates," Mr. Cocoran said. "Especially with your batting average."
Sammy Riggoni snickered. "Yeah, Rabi, have you even hit a ball this season?"
I think somewhere in the Little League rule book, there's something about being a good sport, and everyone playing hard, and winning clean, and working together as a team. I'm pretty sure it's there, somewhere.
For Mr. Cocoran, that meant telling the good players they were amazing, and pretending the crummy players didn't exist. I mean, sure, I'm a terrible hitter. But so is Shawn. I'm not being mean; the kid's got a serious hole in his swing. When the count's 2–2, he always chokes. It doesn't do any good to stand around clapping and cheering and saying he can do it, after you've spent the entire season ignoring the problem.
My dad says there's no point pretending reality doesn't exist; otherwise, you can't fix anything. Mr. Cocoran should have paid attention to Shawn and helped him get better. Instead, he spent his time helping Sammy, because Sammy was a "natural."
That was how Cocoran rolled, and now, under Cocoran's glare, I shut up. I didn't want to argue with him, and I sure didn't want to get in a fight with Sammy. Besides, two seconds later, the numbers lined up, just like I expected, and made my point for me. Shawn hacked at a crummy pitch and popped the ball straight up, and the catcher snagged it nice and easy. Two outs.
Cocoran glared at me even harder.
It's got to be annoying when a middle school kid knows more about baseball than you.
Miguel was up. He went out into the sun, and just like the numbers predicted, he got a hit. He roped a double, which wasn't as good as we needed. Then Sammy singled, which moved Miguel to third. If Sammy had tripled, then we would've had a chance ... but no.
It was down to me, walking out to home plate.
It should have been Miguel standing where I was now. The guy who hits a double on his bad day. If Cocoran had changed the batting order, Miguel could have driven runs in all day long. Instead he liked to get Miguel out there early, and tried to get him to steal bases.
Cocoran was standing at the entrance to the dugout, sweating and shouting for me to make it happen. I stood over the plate. The pitcher was looking at me, smirking. He had runners on first and third, which might have worried him, except he was facing me, a batter he'd struck out every time. He knew that I was the end of the inning—and the game.
Miguel was nodding encouragingly, willing me to bring him home. Sammy was just staring at me. I could tell he hated that he had to depend on a shrimp like me to do something right for once. Too bad for him that I'm a strategizer, not a slugger. I think. I don't do.
The sun pounded down. The stands got quiet.
And then my mom started clapping.
Everyone swung around to look at her.
There she was, up in the stands, calling, "Rabindranath! Ra-bin-dra-nath! Ra-bin-dra-nath!" This crazy Indian lady in a bright yellow sari, with night-black hair in a bun and a red bindi in the middle of her brown forehead, was cheering for me. She didn't care that everyone was looking at her, or that she was embarrassing me. She was all in, supporting her son.
I wanted to die.
I looked down at the plate, then up at the pitcher. He was grinning at me. He knew he had me now. And that made me mad, him thinking he could just whup me that way.
So what if I had a name no one could pronounce? So what if I had a mom who wore saris? I was going to take his pitch and knock the cover off the ball. I was going to teach them all not to laugh at me.
I looked at the pitcher, and I pointed, just pointed toward left field, letting him know where I was going to put the ball, staring him down, letting him know that I owned him.
Rabindranath Chatterjee-Jones was going to knock the ball out of the park.
Around me, everyone went quiet. Even my mom.
I was ready. I touched the plate. Wound up the bat.
The pitch came in high.
I let it go.
"Strike one!" the umpire shouted.
Excerpted from Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi. Copyright © 2013 Paolo Bacigalupi. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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