Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Outfielder

The field had seen a lot of action. Some battles had been hard fought and others had been minor skirmishes. Either way the end result was the same - one side walked away victorious while the other felt the bitter sting of defeat.
Jimmie Lee was not a stranger to the battle ground that lay before him in the shape of a baseball diamond. With the call of the final strike, it was his team, JL Meats, that he hoped the score board would find victorious. There was more at stake this afternoon than winning a trophy. It was personal.

This was JL Meat’s first shot at the Little League Championship against Ernie’s Tire and Lube, the reigning champions for the past two years. Today, he wanted to be the one to take that title away from Ernie. With the first pitch of the season this moment of reckoning for Jimmie Lee had been building.

The only dark cloud on the horizon was finding a replacement pitcher. He stood in the dugout staring at the roster, as if a name would miraculously appear in front of him. Jimmie Lee looked out at his son, Luke, with his pitching arm in a cast. His team mates surrounded him, each inspecting the cast and listening to Luke account of falling from the oak tree in their front yard.

Jimmie Lee had tried to not let his disappointment show in the emergency room the previous night. The mounting fear of losing the biggest game of the season made it hard to keep his disappointment in check. “How many times have I told him not to climb that tree? Now, what am I supposed to do tomorrow with no pitcher?” Jimmie Lee swore under his breath. “The day before the championship game and he goes and breaks his arm.”

His wife, Marcie, had spoken in her usual soft drawl “Jimmie Lee, calm down. There’s a lot to be thankful for. It could’a been more serious than a broken arm.” She placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder. The whole summer had revolved around baseball. She understood the importance of the next day’s game. Her only words of comfort sounded bland even to her. “Things will work out for the best. If not, there’s always next season.”

Ernie’s voice brought Jimmie Lee back to his present dilemma. “Looks like you got yourself a problem. Why don’t you go on and face it. Big Ernie’s Tire and Lube is going to take home the trophy again for the third year in a row.”
Jimmie Lee looked down at the man. Food stains from bygone meals dotted the front of the strained fabric. It was obvious he suffered from the “dunlap disease,” where his belly done lapped over his belt. “Ernie don’t go counting chickens before they hatch. Just ‘cause I’m down my pitcher don’t mean that trophy’s goin’ home with you.”

“You might as well let that Edwards boy pitch. ‘Cause you ain’t got much to choose from.” Ernie slapped Jimmie Lee on his shoulder before walking away.
Jimmie Lee watched Charlie throwing pitches to Eli. He thought back to the day of little league try-outs when Suzie showed up with her son. Jimmie Lee was still upset with the league for putting the kid on his team. He’d been excited when he received his roster for the season. His nephew, Eli, had been assigned to him. He was a natural as a catcher. Eli knew how to read a field and call a pitch. The infield would be strong with Tommy Hendrickson playing first base. Danny Messer was good at short stop. The Thompson twins completed the infield on second and third base. Joey Screven, Hank Lester and Marty Little would play outfield. The last name on the list was Charlie Edwards. For a moment Jimmie Lee thought someone was playing a practical joke on him. After a short phone call to his old high school classmate, Booger, it was clear it wasn’t a joke.

How was he going to play a ten year old deaf boy? He didn’t even know sign language to communicate with the kid. His team was complete. Jimmie Lee’s intentions at that point were to let Charlie participate in the practice games. Maybe he’d put the boy in right field a few innings if things were going good. That way no one could create a fuss about the kid keeping the bench warm. The last thing Jimmie Lee wanted was getting tangled up with Suzie over her son not playing ball.

“Uncle Jimmie Lee, who you gonna let pitch?” Eli’s voice echoed the question that plagued his Uncle. Charlie stood quietly beside Eli.

Jimmie Lee stared out at the field where his team was practicing. He looked at each boy with scrutiny before sighing. “Probably Tommy.”

“Man, we gonna loose for sure. Tommy can’t hit the broad side of the barn.” Eli whined. “You gotta let Charlie pitch. He’s good.”

“That’s stupid Eli.” Luke interjected.

“It’s not stupid. What’s stupid is getting a broken arm before our game.” Eli glared at his cousin. “What’s wrong with Charlie pitching?”

“’Cause. He’s deaf and dumb. That’s why. Isn’t it so Dad. It’s like you said. Charlie has no business trying to play baseball with us.”

Jimmie Lee looked around hoping no one had heard his son’s comments. “Son, why don’t you and Eli go bring in the team?” Jimmie Lee looked over at the other team’s dugout. All he could see was Ernie’s gold tooth smiling back at him. His dugout was alive with excited conversations of anxious boys dressed in navy blue jerseys and white pants.

In contrast, the face of each boy on his team reflected the loss of Luke. Hushed whispers of who was going to pitch hummed among the players. Jimmie Lee turned to his team, putting on his best game face. “Okay boys huddle up.” The group came together, forming a circle around Jimmie Lee. “Tommy you are going to pitch for us.”

“But Tommy don’t know the pitches like Charlie,” Eli stated.

Jimmie Lee’s patience was running low with his nephew’s insistence. “Look Eli, my mind’s made up. Tommy’s pitching.”

“Coach, don’t mean no disrespect but I ain’t no pitcher. Anyway, who’s gonna take my place on first?”

“Marty, you’re playing first base. Will someone point Charlie to right field?” Jimmie Lee watched Eli tap Charlie on the shoulder and point to right field. Each boy dressed in red jerseys and gray pants passed by him with cautious apprehension. It was bad enough having to use Tommy as the pitcher. To add insult to injury he now had to play the deaf kid.

Charlie kicked at the small mound of grass in frustration. He hated being stuck in the outfield. At school he always pitched for his team. Charlie watched Tommy throw the first pitch for the game. It was wild going over the batter’s head almost hitting the screen protecting the press box.

Tommy caught Eli’s return throw. He stood on the pitcher’s mound staring at the batter, into the crowded stands, then at the dugout of Ernie’s Tire and Lube, and finally back to Eli. He wasn’t a pitcher. The signals Eli kept giving were lost on him.

“Come on Tommy! Throw the ball.” A voice yelled from the crowd.

Charlie continued to keep his stance while studying Tommy’s movements. He felt sorry for his friend. Tommy reared back, hurling another pitch at home plate, barely missing the batter. A second light on the score board under “balls” came to life. Another pitch was thrown, again too high, causing a third light on the score board to show his failed attempt of getting a strike. Tommy continued to throw one bomb after another with each batter until the bases were full.

The fourth batter gave Ernie’s Tire and Lube their first run without having the first hit. The bases were still loaded as the next batter took his stance over home plate. Jimmie Lee hung his head. He knew he had to find another alternative to Tommy pitching.

“Hey Tommy!” The third baseman yelled.

Tommy quickly threw the ball to third base, capturing the runner between home and third. In a gutsy move the runner gave it his all, making his move to home. Unfortunately, the ball beat him landing into Eli’s waiting glove. The first out of the game had been made.

A sense of small victory rippled through the players on the field. But it was short lived for Tommy his next opponent was waiting at home plate. He wished for some miracle that would make this inning over. With the ball in hand Tommy reared back giving it his all. The sound of wood cracking exploded. The white orb soared high into the blue summer sky, making its trek toward right field. No one paid attention to the runners on first, second, and third in their advancement. All eyes on the field, in the bleachers, and from both dugouts watched the right fielder. Charlie stood still not moving.
Jimmie Lee could not believe the kid wasn’t making any attempt to catch the fly ball. The ball seemed to hang in the air before gravity’s hand pulled it toward the ground. At that moment Charlie moved. With precision he opened his glove, allowing the ball to disappear into the palm of his hand. Without hesitation, Charlie launched the ball from deep right field to home plate.
Eli caught the ball just as the second runner began to slide for home. Time hung in the air like the dirt particles created by the dust cloud at home plate, obscuring both runner and catcher.

Booger’s deep voice broke the spell with one single word, “OUT!”

Jimmie Lee stood frozen in amazement of what he’d witness. He clicked the distance in his head. That had to have been a three hundred yard throw. They trailed behind in runs, but with Charlie’s help, the inning was over. For the first time, J. L. Meat’s dugout was alive. Teammates patted Charlie on the back giving, him the thumbs up sign.

Luke sat in the far corner of the dugout scowling at all the attention his teammates were bestowing on Charlie. ‘So, what,’ he thought. Everyone was making such a huge fuss over a fly ball being caught. He refused to join in the excitement of Charlie’s actions.

Eli tapped Charlie on the shoulder and imitated a pitch. Grunted sounds and a huge smile was his reply. With a ball and glove in hand, Charlie followed Eli to the practice area.

Jimmie Lee watched the two boys take their positions in the warm up area. Charlie wound a pitch, letting it sail through the air and land in Eli’s glove. With little effort he’d thrown a beautiful slider. There was no doubt the kid had a good arm.

Tommy entered the dugout after being called out at second base. Jimmie Lee patted Tommy on the back. “Good job son. Why don’t you go and throw some pitches with Eli instead of Charlie.”

“Yes, Coach.” Tommy shuffled his feet through the dirt floor of the dugout. Jimmie Lee turned his attention back to the game. Even though the Thompson twins put two runs on the board, J.L. Meats still trailed when their turn came to take the field.

Eli stopped at the opening of the dugout. “Why don’t you let Charlie pitch? That throw he made from outfield was awesome. You know he can do it. I saw you watching us.”

Jimmie Lee continued to stare out at the ball field. Not sure who he was trying to convince more, responded, “Tommy’s doing fine.”

Eli didn’t understand his Uncle. Charlie didn’t need to hear to understand the game. He loved it just as much as any of the other boys did. They’d spent time talking about their favorite teams and players. Charlie knew the RBI’s of all of the players for the Braves. If Uncle Jimmie would just get past Charlie being deaf, he’d see what a great player Charlie was.
Eli took his spot behind home plate, preparing for the next pitch from Tommy. True to form, it was wild and unpredictable. Eli jumped up, running to catch the ball. How much longer was his uncle going to let this continue? Again there was another wild pitch followed by two more. The batter walked to first base. Eli looked over at the dugout at his uncle, in quiet desperation wishing he’d change his mind about Charlie.
Charlie and the rest of the team watched Jimmie Lee walk out of the dugout making a “T” with his hands. Eli joined him on the mound with Tommy. Jimmie Lee held his hand out as Tommy put the game ball in it. “Sorry Coach. I just ain’t no pitcher.”
Jimmie Lee patted the boy on the back. “That’s okay son. At least you tried.”
“Uncle Jimmie Lee, I told you Tommy can’t pitch no ball. Charlie can do it. He’s a good pitcher.”
“Eli, I don’t know about that.”
“You gotta trust me. Give him a chance,” Eli pleaded.
Jimmie Lee looked out at the right field. So many concerns came to his mind. The infield game moved faster than outfield. There was the need to be able to hear what was going on during plays.
“The guys’ll take care of him,” Eli remained strong in his campaign for Charlie.
“Eli’s right Coach. All of us, we’ll take care of Charlie. You gotta let him pitch. He’s our only chance at winning.” Tommy said, trying to reassure Jimmie Lee.
Booger walked up to the mound. “Jimmie Lee, we need to get this game going.”
“Booger, give me a minute to think, okay?”
“You’ve got one minute.” Booger felt for his long time friend and the dilemma Jimmie Lee faced. Secretly, he had hoped that JL Meats would take the trophy this year. Now, it did not look like there was any hope.
Jimmie Lee looked out at right field. He looked back at his son sitting on the bench. He thought about Luke’s words from earlier. How narrow minded and mean spirited they had sounded coming from his son’s mouth. Jimmie Lee knew he had no one else but himself to thank for his son’s attitude. How many times had Luke heard him complaining about having Charlie on the team? Against his better judgment, he waved for Charlie to come to the pitcher’s mound.
Charlie ran as fast as his legs would carry him. He stopped in front of coach. Jimmie Lee reached his hand out with the game ball. Charlie beamed with understanding as he took the ball.
“Jimmie Lee, you can’t do this. He can’t hear.” One of the parents’ shouted.
Jimmie Lee, ignoring the comment, spoke to Tommy: “Take your position. Tell Marty to go to right field.”
“Come on dad! Not the deaf kid. We might as well forfeit the game.” Luke’s comments drew stares. “What ya’ll looking at. You know he can’t hear.
Shouldn’t be playing anyway.” Luke kicked at the ground before sitting on the bench. He turned his head refusing to look at the ballfield.

Jimmie Lee looked into the crowded stands. His eyes met Suzie’s, Charlie’s mother. A mixture of pride, astonishment, and hurt filled her brown eyes. Damn woman could speak volumes without opening her mouth. Jimmie Lee walked over to the dugout. “Luke! That’s enough.”

Luke was surprised by his dad’s reaction. He hated the way his teammates had been nice to Charlie during the season. Eli was constantly going on about how great Charlie could throw. Tommy had even given Charlie his signed Tom Glavin card. Luke had offered Tommy two of his best cards for that one. Charlie was always there at practice and pizza parties. Luke hated the sounds Charlie made when he was excited. It was embarrassing being seen in public with Charlie. The stares people gave when they saw Charlie speaking in sign. Now, Luke had to sit back and watch Charlie play his position.

Another shout came from the crowd. “Looks like Ernie’s Tire and Lube just won the championship.”

Booger’s deep voice announced, “Play ball!”

Jimmie Lee was too nervous to sit. He could see the championship going to Ernie. Maybe his wife was right there was always next season. Maybe next season Suzie would not show up with her son. If she did, he’d protest having the kid on his team two years in a row. It would be someone else’s turn to babysit Charlie. He watched the young boy standing on the mound.

With the toe of his shoe, Charlie drew a line in the dirt. He pawed at the ground with his cleat. For a brief moment he looked to the stands, seeing his mom. She gave the sign for I love you. Charlie quickly shook his head. He looked at the runner on first and then to the runner on second. He knew both of them would try to steal on him. Bending half over Charlie pulled the bib of his hat down. He stared at Eli watching the sign for the pitch. In his right hand behind his back, he held the ball. Charlie looked at the batter who stood too close to home plate.

In one swift movement, Charlie threw to third base just as the runner on second made his attempt to steal. The direction of Eli’s eyes had alerted Charlie. The ball was caught making the out. Charlie did not need to look at the score board two down, one to go.

Jimmie Lee found himself cheering, pumping his fist in the air. Without thought he yelled, “Way to go Charlie!”

“Dad, he can’t hear you. Look, he isn’t paying you any attention.”

Jimmie Lee tried to hide his embarrassment at how foolish he must have looked to everyone. He crossed his arms in front of him and looked down briefly at his shoes. How did Charlie know the runner was about to steal base? Eli had not given him any sign. Jimmie Lee looked back up, intrigued by what was taking place in front of him.

Charlie turned his attention back to the batter standing at home plate. He did not miss Eli’s surprised look. He’d also seen Coach’s reaction. Charlie smiling looked down at the ground. He kicked the dirt around and spit, just like he’d seen the big guys on TV do so many times. He bent in half again, shaking his head in agreement to Eli’s signal.

With the ball in his hand, he cupped it in his glove. The batter was crowding home plate. Charlie wound the pitch and let the ball sail through the air. It crossed home plate, making the batter step back before landing in Eli’s waiting glove. Booger immediately gave the sign and called the pitch, “Strike one.”

Not a soul was speaking as everyone watched. Jimmie Lee stood rooted in his spot, watching in quiet amazement. He glanced over at the visitor’s dugout. Ernie’s gold tooth was hidden by a grim expression. No longer was there activity inside that dugout. Each player stood side by side watching the battle between pitcher and batter.

For a brief moment, neither batter nor pitcher looked away from each other. Charlie bent forward, waiting for Eli to call the pitch. He shook his head no. Again Eli gave the sign for a fast pitch. Charlie shook his head no before standing straight. He lifted his ball cap off his head running his hand through the sweat on his hair. As he placed the cap back he ran two fingers slowly across the bill of the cap. Eli understood the message and gave the sign. Charlie shook his head yes.

Charlie wound the pitch launching his best curve ball toward home plate. The batter swung, anticipating making contact with the ball, only to find blank air. Eli returned the pitch back to Charlie. One more strike and it would be his team’s turn at bat.

The standoff began again between pitcher and batter. Eli gave the sign for the pitch. Charlie shook his head yes. He wound the pitch, letting it sail through the summer air. The batter swung, making connection with the ball. Before anyone could move the ball traveled straight toward the pitcher’s mound. A collective sound of sucking air could be heard throughout the stands.
Everyone was sure Charlie was going to be hit by the ball. Jimmie Lee did not realize that he was holding his breath. This was exactly what he had been afraid of by putting Charlie in as pitcher. Things happened fast and players got hurt. Had he sacrificed Charlie for the sake of a trophy? To have bragging rights for a year over someone that always got under his skin?

To everyone’s amazement, Charlie caught the ball, throwing it to first in time for Tommy to tag the runner. No one paid attention to the third light on the score board, indicating the end of the inning.

Jimmie Lee let out a yell of excitement, clapping wildly. The whole team grouped around Charlie with the exclusion of Luke. Several of the boys gave Charlie high fives and thumb up signs. The stands once hushed with baited breath erupted in applause.

Jimmie Lee looked over at Ernie’s dugout. He was shocked and surprised at the sight of everyone on their feet clapping. Jimmie Lee smiled big for the first time. His smile quickly faded at the sight of Luke sitting in the corner glaring at Charlie.

As a father, Jimmie Lee knew he had failed his son by the examples set during the season. Walking over to him, Jimmie Lee said, “Luke, son, you need to go out there and join in congratulating a team mate for a job well done.”

“Why dad ‘cause he threw good pitches? Would you be willing to congratulate him if he didn’t do as well as he did? We still haven’t won.”

Luke’s question made Jimmie Lee pause for a second. “Son, there is more to this game than winning. It is learning to work together as a team, accepting each person for who they are, and what they can bring to the game. What if you went to Charlie’s school and they treated you the way we have him this summer. Would it be fair for the sake of a trophy?”

Luke stared at the ground. “No, sir.”

“Son, part of being a man is knowing when to admit you are wrong. I was wrong about what I said about Charlie.” Jimmie Lee placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Let’s go out and congratulate him for a good inning.”

The crowd of boys around Charlie thinned with the approach of Jimmie Lee and Luke. Charlie’s figure emerged from the center. Jimmie Lee stopped in front of Charlie. He looked down in the boy’s face as it beamed with pride. In his best efforts, Jimmie Lee tried to convey his thoughts in animated movements.

Charlie touched Jimmie Lee’s arm and signed “okay” and “thank you.” He then looked over at Luke who emerged from the back of the crowd. Holding out the game ball, he offered it to Luke.

Luke shook his head ‘no’. He pointed at Charlie and then at the pitcher’s mound before giving an imaginary pitch followed by a thumb up sign. Charlie smiled, returning the sign.

Jimmie Lee looked at the summer sky, then to the stands of clapping spectators, the team on the field, and finally to the field itself. This field had seen its share of battles. Regardless of whether those that walked away at the end in victory or defeat, one thing remained constant, each person walked away changed.


About Tori Bailey:
A native Georgian, Tori Bailey grew up in the southern town of Washington where she developed a love of books, horses and a fascination with flying. She is a graduate from Brenau College with a degree in Business Administration. Ms. Bailey released her first novel, Coming Home, in the fall of 2010. She is currently working on the second book of the Coming Home trilogy, Ethel’s Song. When not writing, Tori enjoys cooking, gardening, and spoiling her three cats.