Left Field Pitcher

More than anything else, Avery wanted to be a pitcher. But every summer he ended up being assigned to left field.

“This year’s going to be different,” he told his parents and his little sister, Soo. “No more left field for me. This time I’m going to make pitcher.”

“Good luck,” said his parents. Soo just wrinkled her nose and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Avery tugged his baseball cap down over his eyes and went outside to practice pitching. He bent a coat hanger into a square and suspended it with a wire from the cross-bar on Soo’s swing set. Hour after hour, day after day, Avery hurled a baseball at the coat-hanger square. By the time team tryouts came along, he could throw a ball through the hole seven times out of ten without touching the hanger. I’ll make pitcher for sure, Avery thought.

But when Coach Owens posted the practice roster, Avery was in left field again.

“Hi, Avery,” said Coach Owens. “Ready for a great season?”

Avery nodded, but he felt miserable. It isn’t going to be a great season, he thought, if I don’t even get a chance to pitch. The coach knows I’ve been practicing.

“All right, team,” Coach Owens said, “let’s get started.” The players took their positions, and the coach batted the ball to each of them in turn.

Avery watched the pitcher, a redheaded boy named Ken. He’s good, Avery thought grimly. Too good.

The ball flew out to left field, and Avery caught it neatly, tossing it to the short-stop, who relayed it to home plate. Maybe Ken will get chicken pox or something, Avery hoped. Then I’ll get my chance.

But Ken didn’t get chicken pox. He showed up for practice every day. Even though Avery could throw the baseball through the coat-hanger square nine times out of ten now, on the day of the season opener he was still out in left field.

“Wouldn’t you know it!” Coach Owens muttered, nodding toward the Visitor’s dugout. “That’s the team that beat us in the championship last year.”

“Don’t worry, coach,” said Ken cheerfully.

Easy for you to say, Avery thought, giving his cap a tug; you’re a pitcher.

“Let’s go, team,” Coach Owens said.

Avery walked slowly out to left field, looking toward the bleachers. His parents and Soo sat in the middle row with drinks and popcorn. Avery didn’t want to give Soo something to tease him about, but he didn’t have much chance to. Ken pitched two perfect innings, setting the Visitors down, one, two, three. Avery drew circles in the left field dirt with the toe of his shoe.

In the bottom of the second inning Avery’s team scored three runs.

“Keep pitching strikes, Ken,” Coach Owens said.

But in the top of the third, Ken walked two batters and then gave up a home run, so the score was three to three. Avery could hear the spectators calling for a new pitcher. He felt bad for Ken, but sort of good too. Maybe the coach would let him pitch now.

“Just settle down and relax, Ken,” Coach Owens said in the dugout when the half inning was over. “It’s only nerves. I want you to stay in as pitcher.”

Avery dragged himself back out to left field. Ken was going to blow the whole game.

But Ken quickly got back into his rhythm. In the fourth inning he was perfect again. In the sixth, Avery’s team went ahead four to three with a one-run homer.

“One more inning,” Coach Owens said. “Do your best, everybody.”

We’re ahead, Avery thought, trotting out to left field. If we keep them from scoring this inning, we win!

The first batter came to the plate. Ken struck him out, but walked the next one. The third batter hit a sacrifice bunt, and the runner went to second.

Avery frowned. We only need one more out, but a single could score the runner and tie the game.

The next batter swung the bat like he meant business. Ken pitched a strike, then a ball. His third pitch was hit with a smaack—hard and fast and straight at Avery!

If I catch it, the game’s over, and we win! Avery thought, going back, back, back. But the ball sailed over his head and hit the ground just inside the fence. Avery scooped it up and whirled around. The batter stood at first, but the runner from second was speeding around third. There wasn’t time to throw to the shortstop for the relay that they had practiced so often. Avery had to throw it all the way home himself—if he could.

Avery imagined a square hole in the catcher’s glove, then hurled the ball at it as hard and straight as he could. The sliding runner reached for the bag with his toe, but not before the catcher caught the ball and tagged him out. Everyone in the bleachers and on the field held their breath.

“You’re out!” yelled the umpire.

The crowd went wild. Ken ran out and grabbed Avery. “You did it! We won!”

Avery looked toward the bleachers. His parents were on their feet, cheering. And Soo was dancing on the bleacher seat, waving at him and screaming proudly, “That’s my brother out there, my big brother, the left field pitcher!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Lori Anderson