“Bench Warmer,” Friend, May 1993, 35
The game was going great until Brian, the shortstop, sprained a finger while fielding a line drive.
“José, you’re in.” Coach yelled as he raced out onto the field.
José grabbed his glove and jumped off the bench. I’ve never played shortstop, he thought. I hope I do OK.
The next batter hit a hot grounder to José’s right. As he reached for the ball, it took a squirrelly hop up in the air. He made a stab at it but only managed to keep the ball in the infield. “Sorry, guys,” he yelled to his teammates as the runners pulled up at first and second.
“Good stop,” Matthew called from the pitcher’s mound.
José shrugged. “That should have been the last out,” he mumbled. “Brian would have made it easy.”
The next batter struck out, and the game was over. The Asteroids had won 3–2.
“Way to go, team,” Coach praised them in the dugout. “Only one game left in the season. We may not be number one, but this is the best year we’ve ever had. I’m really proud of you guys.”
Everyone whooped and whistled and high-fived each other.
Coach continued, “I’m handing out the ballots for you to vote on player awards. Remember, these are secret ballots. The awards will be given out next Saturday night at the banquet. And I hope you’ll all be back to play next year.”
He doesn’t mean me, José thought. Who needs a bench warmer! He glanced down at the voting form. Most improved player. Easy. James. He was the best first baseman in the whole league.
Best athlete. Cinch. Matthew, the pitcher. Not only was he the fastest runner on the team, he had an arm that rivaled the best professional pitcher’s.
Most valuable player. It had to be Brian, the shortstop. He was an awesome all-around player. He could field, run, and smack a homer over the center field fence.
On the way out, Coach stopped him. “José,” he said, “Mitchell has a dentist’s appointment next Saturday. Would you fill in at catcher?”
José shrugged. “Sure, Coach.”
“I knew that I could count on you.” Coach squeezed his shoulder.
José kicked his bat up over his shoulder. Don’t count on much, he thought. I’m not the greatest catcher in the world, either. I bet I’ve filled in at every position on the field, but I’m not great at any of them. That’s why I’ve never had a permanent position—besides bench warmer.
The Asteroids won their final game in a squeaker. José overthrew second base once, allowing a steal, and he dropped a few pitches. Otherwise, he played a good game. Not great, just good enough.
“Way to go, José!” Matthew said, high-fiving him at the plate. “See you tonight at the banquet.”
“The banquet?” He had tried to forget it. He’d probably be the only guy there who didn’t win an award of some sort. “Uh, I don’t think I can make it. Mom and Dad won’t be home tonight, and I don’t have a ride.”
Matthew’s eyes grew wide. “Are you kidding? You’re not coming?”
“Sorry. I’d like to. I want to see you win Best Athlete and all—”
“Hey, Coach,” Matthew yelled at the departing coach, cutting José off. “I’ll see you around, José.” He punched him in the arm and sprinted off.
That evening, while José was lying on his bed, tossing his baseball in the air, his big sister pounded on the door. “Hey, little bro—you have company.”
“Company?” He rolled off the bed and opened the door. “Coach! What are you doing here?”
“Come on, José. If you don’t hustle, we’re going to be late for the banquet. Matthew told me that you needed a ride.”
José gulped. I shouldn’t have told Matthew I needed a ride, he thought. He pulled on his baseball cap and hurried out.
Soon the boys were all stuffed with the good banquet food. Even so, they were on the edges of their chairs, eagerly awaiting the announcement of the awards. Before long, only the three trophy awards were left.
José looked around the room. Sure enough, almost everyone else on the team had received at least a certificate.
“Most improved player,” Coach announced from the lectern up front, “James Carelli.”
Everyone in the room applauded. José slapped James’s palm as the tall first baseman went to accept his trophy. José was glad he’d come, after all, to see his friends win their awards.
“Best athlete, Matthew Beckman.” The team cheered again. José whistled through his fingers as Matthew sprinted for the front.
“And now for our most valuable player.” Coach bent down and lifted the trophy over his head. Everyone oohed and aahed.
“This special award goes to the person who made the biggest contribution to our team. A player who could always be counted on to perform his best, especially in a pinch. As a coach, I don’t know what I would have done without him this season. We might have had to forfeit games if he hadn’t always been there. Except for the winner’s own vote, it was unanimous. Most valuable player for the Asteroids is José Valdez.”
The room went wild. All the players rushed over to slap José on the back.
He was so stunned that he couldn’t get out of his seat.
“C’mon, José,” Matthew said. “Stop warming the bench and go get your trophy.” Everyone laughed. Then the whole team escorted him up to the front.
MVP. José traced the engraved letters on the trophy that lay beside his pillow that night. He smiled, remembering Coach’s words on the way home: “José, I sure hope you’ll be our bench warmer again next year. We need you!”
José hugged the trophy close. In the dark he whispered his answer: “You can count on me, Coach.”