Nick's Story

by Nick Brady

Chapter 9

On Wednesday I talked to Jack and he said he was going to the game for sure and would pick up Joseph about 6:30 and bring him. Jack said that he would call Joseph's parents and work it out with them.

About an hour later the phone rang and Mom answered it in the kitchen and called for me. "Nicky, telephone!"

"Hello?" I said into the phone.

"Hello, this is Joseph."

"Hello. Did you talk to Jack about the game?"

"Yes and my parents approved. I can go to your baseball game." Joseph sounded excited.

"Great! My whole family will be there too. This is way cool."

"Jack said he would come by for me at 6:30. Will you be with him?"

"Uh, well I don't know. If my Mom and Dad go I might need to ride with them."

"Oh, of course. I understand." Joseph sounded a little disappointed. "Then I will see you at the ball park."

"Sure, I'll see you at the game. It's not like I could sit with you anyway."

"I could bring a folding chair and put it next to first base." Joseph laughed.

"I don't know man, that might be like sitting on the center line of Riverside Drive." and we both laughed.

"Um, I was wondering something." Joseph said. "I asked my parents and they said it would be all right with them if you were to come to our house after the game."

"Sure, I guess my folks would let me. Like for a sandwich or something?"

"Um. actually I was wondering if you might like to stay on for the evening."

"Oh, you mean like spend the night?"

"Yes. If you would like. I mean if it would be permitted."

"Cool!" I said. "I would love to. I'll have to ask. Are you sure it's OK with your folks?"

"Yes, I have their permission. I asked mother about it earlier in the week and when Jack called just now she discussed it with him and then said it would be all right. I guess Jack spoke well of you." Joseph sounded excited again.

"Yeah, Jack is my friend for sure. He is a cool guy isn't he?"

"Indeed he is." Joseph said, then, "For sure." and he laughed.

"This is going to be fun." I replied, "I will ask but I bet it will be OK. If it's not OK I will call you back."

"Oh, wonderful!" Joseph said, "I will be looking forward to seeing you. It will be fun."

"OK then, see you Saturday."

I hung up the phone and yelled, "Mom?"

"What? I'm right here." she said from behind me.

"Sorry. That was Joseph. He wants to know if I can go over to his house after the game and spend the night."

"Well, that's nice of him. But are you sure it is OK with his parents?"

"Yes ma'am. He asked his mom and she talked to Jack and said it was OK."

Mom smiled one of her little half smiles. "So Mrs Anderson checked you out first eh? Smart woman."

"Ah Mom. Can I go?"

"I don't know, they are pretty nice people. Are you sure you are housebroken?"

"Jeez Mom, I know how to act."

"Yes, I know you do. See that you are on your best behavior."

"Then can I go?"

"I suppose so. I'll check with your father. If he thinks you can behave yourself I think we can manage."

I jumped up high enough to touch the kitchen ceiling and let out a war whoop. "All RIGHT!"

Mom kind of rolled her eyes and went back to fixing supper.

On Thursday my baseball team had its last practice before the final game. This was the last week of August and the last week of freedom before school started again. Our championship game was kind of the grand finale. The hardware store which sponsored us was pleased to get the publicity and ordered new shirts for us with our names and numbers on the back and Nelson's Hardware on the front. The shirts were black and the lettering was white. It would make a cool souvenir no matter what.

By Saturday morning I was getting pretty excited. I had been playing Little League baseball with some of these same guys since I was 6 years old. A couple of them went to my school but some of them I only saw during baseball season. We had all been squirts when we started. When we played T-ball any hit that dribbled out past the infield was likely to be a home run. The fielder would run and pick up the ball and overthrow it to first. The first baseman would run for it and overthrow it to second base. One of the fielders would fetch it and either drop it or throw it wildly for third. All the batter had to do was to keep running without falling down and he was likely to have a home run. Those were the good old days.

Now at 13 and 14 we were playing pretty good baseball. Our ball handling was steady and some good coaching had us working together as a team. Our hitting was consistent if not overpowering and we worked more to get on base than to slam one out of the park. We weren't great but we had been good enough with a little luck to make it all the way to the finals and we were pumped.

The game started at 7:00 so I was to be there at 6:00 to check in and warm up. About 5:20 I ran up to Jack's to see if everything was OK with him and Joseph. Jack was ready to go and had already called Joseph to confirm the time.

"I'm going to get to spend the night over at Joseph's after the game." I shouted, "Thanks for putting in a good word for me with his Mom."

Jack winked at me, "I had to cross my fingers behind my back and tell her what a cool guy you are."

"Well I hope you didn't have to make up too much stuff. I'm really looking forward to it."

Jack leaned back against the kitchen counter and looked a little more serious. "Can I give you some advice?"

"Sure" I said.

"Joseph is a really nice person. He is very bright and very talented. I don't think he realizes just how much potential he has. At 14 years old he is playing things that a lot of older more experienced pianists would not attempt. In that way he is a lot older than 14. But in other ways he is very inexperienced and innocent. There are some things you know a lot more about than he does, and I don't just mean baseball.

"Nicky, one of the really neat things about you is your enthusiasm. You pounce on anything that looks new and interesting and throw your heart in it. But Joseph has been kind of sheltered and is a shy kid to boot. I don't know what you and Joseph have in common or where your friendship will take you. All I'm saying Nicky, is to go slow with Joseph. Don't move faster than he is ready for no matter what you are doing. People like Joseph are kind of vulnerable. You know what that means?"

"Not really." I answered.

"It means that Joseph is very sensitive and can get hurt pretty easily. Be careful Nicky. Don't let your enthusiasm get ahead of your common sense. I will tell you one thing I know about Joseph. He will never bullshit with you. If he says something you can bet he means it, so try to be sure you are honest with him."

I looked Jack straight in the eye, "I never met anybody like Joseph before. I wouldn't do anything to hurt him. I never met anybody that is so smart and talented and who makes me feel so good just to be around him. Well, nobody except you Jack." I cast my eyes down and said. "I guess I know what you mean Jack, but I'll go slow, I promise. I really like Joseph."

Jack held his arms out to me and I slipped under them and hugged him real tight. "Thanks Jack. You're the best friend I ever had."

Jack held me close for a few minutes without saying anything. "Yeah I know. But you really need a friend too. And Joseph really needs you. I'm not going anywhere for some time. I will be your friend forever, believe me." Then Jack took my face in his hands and tilted it down and kissed me on top my head.

"Go slow baby. You got lots of time. I will be watching in case you trip up."

Then he turned me around and gently propelled me out into the hallway. "See you at the game Nicky." he said with great affection in his voice.

I clumped down the stairs without looking back. I had a ball game to play.

We drove to the ball park in Dad's Buick, he and Mom in the front, and me and Kevin in the back. I was suited up in the same baseball pants that I wore all season although they seemed to have gotten smaller over the summer, and my new black team shirt with my number and NICK on the back in white letters. I had oiled up my old first baseman's mitt, brushed off my cap, and felt like I was ready to play ball.

When we parked the car Mom hugged me and wished me luck, Dad shook my hand and said to go get `em, and even Kevin punched me on the shoulder and winked at me. I felt like I was getting ready to play in the world series.

I saw my team on the field warming up and ran to join them. We peppered the ball around the field for a few minutes then coach had us gather closer and do stretches. We were all pretty excited about being in the finals. There was none of the usual horsing around and ragging on each other. We were not a bunch of kids playing baseball now, we were a team and we knew we had to pull together tonight.

We did stretches longer than usual and coach told us several times to get loose. I guess he knew we were all a little tense and wanted us to relax. Then he had us to take our field positions and he and one of the dads hit balls to us as fast as they could so we had to hustle. There were maybe 5 or 6 balls in play all the time and we threw them back to the catcher who tossed them on the ground in front of the batters. They picked them up and hit them out to us as fast as they could pick them up. It was kind of fun and coach was joking with us and clapping for us.

About 20 minutes before the game we went to the dugout and gave the field to the other team so they could warm up. Their shirts said Acme Plumbing on the front and on the back were numbers but no names. They were obviously the same shirts they had worn all summer. I rubbed my hand over the front of my new black shirt and tightened up my stomach. It felt good.

We milled around the dugout jabbering at each other and trying to get up for the game. Looking at the other team, they looked awfully big for 14 and under. I said so to coach and he jerked his head at our dugout and replied "look at yourselves". Glancing around I realized he was right. A lot of us were getting bigger. I wasn't the only one whose baseball pants had shrunk over the summer. We were as good as anybody.

We took the field first as the game begun. I looked out in the stands at what was a pretty good crowd for a little league game. Channel 2 had a TV cameraman wandering around and everything. Up behind home plate I could see Mom and Dad and Kevin, and behind them was Jack and Joseph. Mom waved and I know she could tell I was looking at her but I couldn't really wave back. I thought of Joseph and hoped I could play ball half as well as he played his piano, but now was not the time to think about that. Now was the time to play ball.

The game went scoreless for 3 innings then in the top of the 4th, Acme's shortstop nailed one through our infield and got on first. The next batter came up all pumped and hit a long fly ball that was inside the fence but just barely, and our center fielder couldn't get to it in time. By the time he got it back in play they had a guy on Second and Third. The next guy struck out, and the guy after him hit a pop fly out to right field. The next batter took 3 balls then drilled one between me and 2nd base and charged for First. Our right fielder ran up on it and grabbed it on the first bounce. He fumbled it a little and didn't have time to get it home, so threw it to me as the batter rounded First, putting the ball behind him. The runners advanced and the kid on Third was able to score, but our second baseman was standing on the bag. When the batter stopped and tried to make it back to First, I nailed him. The side was retired, but not before Acme scored a run. Now we were down 1 and 0 in the last of the 4th inning.

We were not a team of power hitters under the best of circumstances but we could usually hit well enough to get guys on bases. That is how we made it to the final. But tonight we couldn't hit for shit. Pop-ups and strike outs were all we had. I batted first up and struck out 1, 2, 3. Acme's pitcher had a nasty fast ball. We held them in the 5th inning and when we got to bat were able to put 2 boys on base at First and Third. I came up again with 2 outs against me and took my place at the plate. I was pumped up and felt right somehow. I let the first one go by low and inside – ball.

The second one was a little higher than I like them but the umpire called it a strike. The third was a fast ball waist high and a little outside. I gave it all I had and nailed it good. I dropped the bat and headed for first base, looking at the ball travel well out over left field. Everybody was screaming and for a minute I thought it was going over the fence but it dropped inside and Acme's lanky left fielder jumped high and snagged it just before I got to First. I slowed my sprint and felt all the air go out of my lungs. I glanced up into the stands and saw everybody on their feet, Joseph standing on tip toes with his fists clenched and pressed against the top of his head, his teeth clenched in a grimace. Mom had her hands over her mouth and Dad was frowning. Jack had his head tipped back with his eyebrows raised and I couldn't see Kevin. I only had a glance at them but the image stayed in my mind like a photograph.

I slowed to a walk and then trotted back to our dugout to grab my glove and take the field. I was pissed that we missed the chance to score but kind of knew that I had done the best I could. I felt my eyes get hot with tears but kept my head up. Coach slapped me on the ass as I went by and barked "good hit, way to hustle". A couple of the boys did the same.

Sixth inning Acme rallied and scored 3 runs. They would have scored 2 more but their last batter hit a line drive to Second base with a runner on First. the Second baseman fired it back to me and I tagged the runner on his way back to First for the final out. We were down 4 to 0 now. In the bottom of the 6th inning we put a guy on First who stole Second on the next batter, then our catcher hit a long bouncing ball to far right field that ended up being a double and brought the runner home. I had batted last in the inning before so all I could do was watch as our last batter hit a little blooper to the pitcher for the last out. We were behind 4 to 1 but at least we weren't gonna get skunked.

We were only playing 7 innings so this one was it. The top of the 7th the first pitch to the first batter was a screaming line drive straight at me. I flipped up my glove and it popped in the webbing like a rifle going off. Somebody yelled "great catch!" but it was more of a reflex than a planned move. If I hadn't thrown my glove up it would have ripped my head off. First out. Second batter struck out. Third batter swung twice then popped a grounder to shortstop who pitched it to me for the final out.

Okay, this was it. Bottom of the last inning and we are at bat. I am up third so I know I am going to get a chance. First batter strikes out - damn! Next batter knocks one to left for a single and gets on First. I am up next and am feeling the pressure. I got to do something. First pitch curves inside for a strike. Next one looks good and I swing at it but late and I almost fall down. Breathe, settle down, just get some wood on it. Next pitch is a little outside and I catch it on top. it bounces hard between pitcher and Third base and goes over the shortstop's head. By the time he runs it down I'm on first and the other runner is on Second. I can hear Kevin and some other kids yelling "Rally, rally, rally". Cool. Next batter is our best hitter and I think maybe they will walk him but no, it's a fast ball. Missed. Next pitch inside curve, big swing but missed again. Next pitch is a ball. Damn, let's DO something! Here is another fast ball and he catches it hard driving it out between Center and Right field. It's a double and we run like hell - I slide into Home just ahead of the ball. All right - 4 to 3!

Up comes our catcher to bat. He is a good dependable hitter and has homered 4 or 5 times over the season. We have the tying run on Second. First pitch, ball. Second pitch, strike. Third pitch, easy pop up to the Second baseman. Bang. That's it. Game over. Damn!

I squatted down on my haunches and looked at the dirt in front of the dugout and watched it get all blurry. Acme was going nuts, jumping up and down, and we just started picking up equipment and packing up. Coach stepped into the dugout and called us together. We felt pretty sorry.

"OK you guys. Keep your heads up, you played your hearts out. I couldn't be prouder of you if you had won 50 to nothing. You have hustled all year and you hustled tonight. I just want to thank you for the privilege of being your coach this season. You are a fine team. God bless you." Then he started with the kid next to him and gave him a big hug, then turned to the next boy and did the same until he had hugged every one of us. By the time he was through most of us had hugged each other and there were a lot of wet eyes. It was cool. Coach was right. We were lucky to get to the final and we had done our best. Not much more to say.

After everything was loaded up I picked up my glove and my cap and looked out to the stands. Most everybody was gone but there were Mom and Dad and Kevin, Jack and Joseph, standing just outside the field near the side gate. I looked over and spotted them and they all waved at the same time. Cool. I waved back and smiled in spite of myself.

I walked up to them through a chorus of "good game", You played well", "great job".

Dad clamped his hand on my shoulder and told me he was proud of me. Dad didn't say that kind of thing very often. Mom hugged me, Jack shook my hand and said I showed a lot of class, and Kevin kind of leaned up against me and punched my arm. Wow, what a family. I looked for Joseph and he was standing a little behind Jack with his hands folded in front of him looking at me rather seriously.

I smiled and said to Joseph, "You play piano better than we played baseball."

Joseph looked surprised, "Oh, not at all. You were wonderful," and then laughed at himself. "You really were, you know." And he said it like he meant it.

We talked for a little while then Dad moved towards the parking lot.

Mom asked Joseph, "Are you sure it's all right for Nick to go home with you?" then she said to me, "We forgot to bring you a change of clothes."

Joseph remarked quickly, "Oh that's no problem, he can borrow some things."

"Well, if you're sure" Mom said.

"Hey, I'll be fine. Joseph will keep me straight." I looked over at Jack - he was rolling his eyes and I realized that I had made a pun. "I'll be OK Mom."

Jack said good-bye and ushered Joseph and me to his pickup truck. I looked down at myself and realized that I was covered with dirt from sliding into home plate, and tried to brush myself off.

"I'm a mess," I said.

"Yeah I know," Jack answered, laughing at me.

"What did I say?" I asked.

"Nothing." Jack chuckled.

We slid into Jack's truck and I was wedged in between Jack and Joseph. I felt Joseph against me and told him I was gonna get him dirty, but he said that was all right. I looked over at him with his face so close to mine for the first time tonight. He was wearing khaki pants and a gray knit polo shirt, and he smelled good like he had on some after shave. I kind of sniffed I guess and he smiled at me.

"You smell better than me," I said.

Joseph chuckled, "Maybe. You can shower when we get home."

"Maybe I should strap you to the hood and go through a car wash," Jack laughed.

"Oh, he's not that bad", Joseph said, and I was very aware of his leg pressed tightly against mine.

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