An icy tingle snaked down Jake Parker’s spine. Only two innings left, and Coach Michaels always made sure everyone got into the game. Jake was well aware that being on the Santa Necia High freshman baseball team, meant you weren’t good enough for varsity or JV. But even on this team of rejects, Jake was near the bottom of the pile. Pretty much the same spot he held in the social pecking order at school.
He made a quick check of the sparse group of spectators. His mom had just arrived, and she’d taken a seat next to his older brother, Kevin, and Kev’s two buddies Max and Brian—both of whom were focused on texting, probably each other. Kevin was busy sneaking glances back at Lester’s sister, Angie, sitting nearby with her mother. Jake didn’t blame him; Angie Woo was totally hot.
He acknowledged his mom, Jill, with a subtle wave. He knew taking off work to come to his ballgames meant trouble for her with her boss, but she’d never missed a game—not even back in T-ball.
A couple of his bench-mates were checking out the freshman girls sitting on the rickety risers behind home plate. Jake recognized the girls, but he doubted they knew he existed. Lester Woo nudged Jake and tilted his head down the bench toward another scrub who looked like he’d fallen asleep.
Lester was Jake’s best friend and the only other guy on the team as short as he was—both seemed stuck at five foot three. In a few months, Jake would be fifteen. It sucked to be a late bloomer.
Santa Necia’s right fielder chased down a high fly ball. It took some impressive acrobatics to avoid tripping over the chuckholes in the outfield, and Jake would likely be the one dodging those hazards next inning. The freshman team had to play here because the varsity and JV teams got the real baseball field. The right fielder ran down the ball just before it rolled through one of the holes in the outfield fence, which leaned inward in several places. With so many boards missing, the faded green fence looked like a gap-toothed monster about to devour the outfield. The broken-down sign atop the scoreboard in right read “Sa ta Nec Littl eague,” as if it had the hiccups. Jake figured it all would seem freakin’ hilarious to someone who didn’t have to play on this piece-a-shit field.
Jake was fast and a pretty good fielder, but he couldn’t hit for crap. He knew he really needed somebody to work with him on the finer points of batting, but he wasn’t getting any help at all. Michaels was okay as a biology teacher, but he didn’t know dick about coaching baseball. The thing was, Jake just wanted to be good at something. He’d always loved baseball, and he’d figured it would be his best shot. Guess not. He didn’t expect stardom, but he’d settle for not looking like a total dweeb at the plate.
He made another quick survey of the crowd to see if his dad showed up this time. He hadn’t. Again.
Lester followed Jake’s gaze. He sensed Jake needed a diversion. “You ever wish you could like make yourself into anything you want? To, you know, like totally change yourself into a six-foot-tall chick magnet?”
“Sure, who wouldn’t?” Jake puffed out a laugh. “But what’s the point of wishin’ for stuff that’ll never happen?”
“Yeah, I know.” Lester shrugged. “But wouldn’t it be cool if you like had a magic wand or somethin’ and you could just—”
Jake scoffed. “Jeez, what are you? Ten years old?”
“I’m just sayin’ ….”
When he noticed Coach Michaels staring down the bench, Jake pulled down his green Santa Necia baseball cap in an attempt to look like a real ballplayer, it also helped keep his unruly mass of brown shoulder-length hair in check. Time to suck it up. He turned to Lester and affected his best sports announcer voice. “Well, sports fans, it looks like Michaels is about to make a move.”
Lester adjusted his glasses. “We’re down two and runnin’ outta innings. Gettin’ dangerously close to some action, huh?”
Jake grinned. “Ooohhh yeah.”
The first scheduled batter this inning, Petey Barnum, donned a batting helmet and began his elaborate, well-rehearsed warm-up routine. Jake rolled his eyes. By consensus, Barnum was the team’s best player and biggest asshole.
Petey’s father, Big Pete, clutched the wire screen in front of the risers. “All right, slugger, show this pathetic bunch of clowns how it’s done.”
Coach Michaels puffed out a sigh. “Jake! Grab a bat. You’re hitting for Petey.”
Jake sucked in a deep breath and donned a batting helmet. Show time.
“You gotta be kidding, Michaels!” Big Pete bellowed. “What the hell are you thinking?”
Michaels rolled his eyes. “Can it, Pete. You know everybody gets to play on this team. Petey’s had more at bats than anyone this season.”
As he passed Jake, Petey gave him a shoulder. Jake regained his balance, but didn’t react. He was used to Barnum’s lame attempts at bullying.
Petey yelled at Michaels. “This totally blows! Parker hasn’t hit a ball out of the goddamn infield all season!” He flung his batting helmet against the dugout wall.
“Pick up that helmet, Petey,” Michaels snapped. “And watch your mouth.”
“Crap, Parker, why do you even bother to swing?” Petey yelled. “If you’re lucky he’ll walk you. It’s the only freakin’ chance you got, dweeb.”
Michaels rolled his eyes at Big Pete’s belly laugh of support and turned to Jake. “Don’t listen to them, Jake. Just go up there and … and do the best you can, okay?”
Grabbing a bat with a flourish, Jake marched toward the plate.
Michaels pointed to Lester. “Lester, you’re up after Jake. Bat for Kyle.”
Jake wiggled his bat and glared out toward the mound, as if that might strike fear in the heart of the pitcher. It didn’t. Jake swung as hard as he could at the first pitch and missed. He knew the batter’s mantra, “just meet the ball,” but he couldn’t hold back. What he really wanted to do was break the freakin’ ball in half. Same thing happened again, and the pitcher sneered as if Jake were no more than an irritating bug. Jake wanted to wipe the smug look off his face. A line drive to the forehead would do it. Jake managed to make contact with the next pitch, sending a one-hop grounder right back to the pitcher. At least he got the location right. He could feel the creep mocking him as he lobbed the ball to first just in time to get Jake by a step.
Jake grinned as he strode past Lester on his way back to the bench. He tilted his head toward the mound. “Dude, this guy’s got nothin’.”
Lester grinned. “Yeah, I can see that.”
As Jake passed the bleachers, Big Pete yelled out, “Way to go, loser.”
Jake touched the bill of his cap and waved to the crowd, beaming as if he’d just single-handedly led his team to a World Series crown.
Big Pete shook his head at Coach Michaels. “You shoulda stuck to dissecting frogs. Who ever told you that you knew how to coach?”
Big Pete plopped down hard on the weathered riser. As if it, too, had had enough of Barnum, the split plank gave way, sending him to the ground with a thud. Jake felt a rush of pride when his mom stood up and started a round of mock applause. It was the loudest clapping the freshman team had heard all season.