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Authors: Robert Lipsyte

Center Field

BOOK: Center Field
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Robert Lipsyte
Center Field

For my newest teammates,
Alfred and Sylvia

Contents

One

Mike backed up at the ping of the ball against…

Two

The Ridgedale team began to trot in to high-five the…

Three

The house was quiet. The cat met him at the…

Four

Mike loved the Ranger Runs, especially on a damp, chilly…

Five

The ankle buzzed with pain as he walked to homeroom…

Six

Mike stared out the window. Gray, rainy day. Fits my…

Seven

Out in the hall Zack Berger was being comforted by the…

Eight

The cat was not happy to see him. Her eyes…

Nine

When he rode up Saturday morning, Zack was waiting behind…

Ten

“I know Zack Berger,” said Lori. “He's very intense.”

Eleven

Coach Cody pulled him out of his last class of…

 

Twelve

The sun came out for the opening game.

Thirteen

Craig Wiebusch was sharp in the top of the first. Three…

Fourteen

Coach Cody and Oscar didn't show up for Thursday's practice.

Fifteen

Zack and Kat were already inside the basement room, unhooking…

Sixteen

“Why'd you invite her?” Lori's little pout was the closest…

Seventeen

He was hungover at church. But the songs soothed him…

Eighteen

Coach Cody yanked Mike off the cafeteria line and steered…

Nineteen

Tuesday's game against Glen Hills was a laugher. Everybody hit. Oscar…

Twenty

Coach Cody beckoned him out of jock study hall on…

Twenty-One

Kat drove the van toward the city, swiftly, confidently, one…

Twenty-Two

They walked for a long time, through Tribeca and Chinatown…

Twenty-Three

Mom and Dad had come home late from the new…

Twenty-Four

He scrambled up yelling, looking for a rock to throw.

Twenty-Five

Before the game Coach Sherman said that Coach Cody was…

Twenty-Six

It was almost midnight when he heard the Lexus roll…

Twenty-Seven

Oscar showed up for breakfast.

Twenty-Eight

Tori was breathless at lunch on Thursday. The Cyber Club…

Twenty-Nine

He had heard so much about Craig's parties that he…

 

Thirty

He woke at noon with a weight on his chest.

Thirty-One

The little apartment attached to the back of the house…

Thirty-Two

In the dream Dad was shaking him awake Sunday morning,…

Thirty-Three

Late Sunday night fielding messages from the Buddsite would have…

Thirty-Four

Lunch started out easier than he expected. Lori forgave him…

Thirty-Five

Get into the zone. Prepare for Billy. He was deep…

Thirty-Six

Billy Budd sent a limo.

Thirty-Seven

He felt sad. He watched the late afternoon sun sparkle…

Thirty-Eight

Coach Cody ambushed him. He strode out of his office…

Thirty-Nine

Zack was scared. “I'm on probation. Part of the deal…

Forty

The principal, Dr. Howard, made him wait a half hour in…

Forty-One

Mom made her special barbecue chicken for the first time…

Forty-Two

He felt big and strong and loose in the halls.

Forty-Three

He felt the springy green grass and soft earth under…

 

PART ONE

“I try as hard in spring training as in the World Series. You have to practice to win.”

—IMs to a Young Baller
by Billy Budd

Mike backed up at the
ping
of the ball against the metal bat, sensing a long, high fly. He felt a flush of joy. He was exactly where he wanted to be, in the center of the universe, racing a baseball, sure he was going to win.

The ball was rising. He turned and ran to the edge of the outfield grass, tracking it over his left shoulder. He judged the arc, decided it had reached the top. He stopped and focused on the ball as it fell against the bright blue sky. It briefly lost shape against a scrap of cloud, reappeared. Gotcha, he thought.

But it rose again on a puff of wind. He took a breath and sprinted for the outfield fence. He heard his spikes crunch on the running track. He'd slam into the fence if he didn't pull up.

Go for it, he thought. Coach is watching.

He heard his best friend, Ryan, huffing over from right
field yelling, “Fence!”

Thanks anyway.

Mike kicked out his right leg and hit the metal fence with the sole of his right shoe. He'd practiced this. His spikes hung on the web of wires long enough for him to boost himself straight up. He lost sight of the ball as he stretched his left arm, then heard the slap of leather, felt that good little sting. Got it. He squeezed the ball in his glove as his spikes scraped free and he slammed into the fence face-first. Then he fell back to earth. Never got that part right.

Ryan reached his left arm under him to break the fall. He still hit the ground hard. The bad right ankle yelped but Mike made no sound.

“Numbnuts,” said Ryan, standing over him. He held out his hand. “Save it for real games.”

Mike took his hand and pulled himself up. “Gotta practice to win.”

“Gotta practice to break your ass.”

“That, too.” They laughed. Mike flipped the ball to Ryan, who spun and fired it home on one bounce. The catcher tossed it to the pitcher. Mike looked for Coach Cody. Didn't see him. Had Coach missed my catch?

The ankle sent tiny electric shocks up to Mike's shin as he trotted back to center field. Don't limp, he reminded himself. Don't give Coach any reason not to start you in
center field on opening day. You've been waiting for this all your life.

He pushed past the pain to concentrate. Have to anticipate the ball quicker, especially if the ankle slows me down, he thought. Got to ice the ankle when I get home. He'd hurt it toward the end of football season but just wrapped it tight and kept going. The football coach didn't consider you hurt until a bone came through your skin.

Mike wondered if Coach Cody had noticed him hobbling on the football field. The baseball coach came to all the football games even though he didn't like his baseball starters to play any other sport. I wasn't one of his regular starters then, thought Mike. That's going to change. Can't wait until Coach announces the opening-day lineup next week. Nobody at Ridgedale High plays center field better than I do.

Except for the ankle, he felt good, loose and strong. The team was shaping up. Ridgedale had won half its preseason games, a pretty good record considering that Coach kept shuffling the lineup and switching pitchers to get a look at everybody. But Mike had started every game in center field. This is going to be my season, he thought.

He imagined a day in June, three months from now, springy green grass and soft earth under his spikes, the sun cooking the hairs on the back of his neck, when a deep fly
would settle into his glove for the final out of the championship game.

Ridgedale wins!

Mike Semak awarded most valuable player trophy!

Billy Budd always said that visualizing success was the first step to achieving it. Billy should know. Starting center fielder for the world championship Yankees, last year's most valuable player in the World Series.

“Mine!” yelled Eric Nola in left field. He was dancing under a high fly.

Mike circled to back up Eric, a big senior with a live bat but a dead glove. He was slow, too. Mike could cover the shaky outfielder, and Coach knew it. Without Mike in center, Eric couldn't stay in the lineup.

Eric caught the easy fly. He juggled it, but held on, grinning with relief.

“Way to go, Eric,” yelled Mike. It's more important to encourage guys when they do good than criticize them when they mess up. He'd read that in Billy Budd's book, too.

Concentrate now. Watch the batter's stance, the pitch, the swing, the sound off the bat. Follow the rock through the air right into your glove.

He checked where everybody was playing and moved forward a few steps. With his speed, he could afford to play shallow enough to catch bloopers and shut down grounders
that got through the infield. He glanced at his friends, big Ryan in right and lanky, redheaded Andy at first base. Ryan would probably start, too. He was a long ball hitter and a solid fielder with a powerful arm. Be tougher for Andy, who was a streaky hitter and only a fair fielder. There was a hustling sophomore behind him on the depth chart who'd been having a good preseason. And sometimes Mike thought Andy didn't care as much about the game as he and Ryan did. Andy hated to run and lift with them, and he'd rather watch Fox News than ESPN, argue politics instead of talk ball.

Mike zoned into the next two batters. The scrimmage against Old Tappan was winding down. Both coaches were using it as more of a teaching exercise than a game since the teams weren't in the same conference. They would never meet this season in a real game.

With two outs, the Old Tappan batter punched a grounder to second and little Hector Ortiz gobbled it up and fired to Andy, who caught it to end the game. But the team captain, Todd Ganz, screamed at Andy from shortstop. Andy had apparently almost missed stepping on the bag. He held up his mitt to Todd so you could imagine the raised finger inside. Got to talk to Andy about his attitude, Mike thought.

The Ridgedale team began to trot in to high-five the Old Tappan players, but Coach Cody appeared and waved them back. Right behind him was a tall, skinny guy in street clothes. Black pants, red-striped sport shirt. No cap. Hair on his face. From a distance he looked older than a high school kid.

He dug in at the plate in black dress shoes. He had wide shoulders and a big, open stance, like Billy Budd's. Coach Cody yelled at the pitcher, “See what this batter's got.”

Craig Wiebusch, the number 1 starter, turned to grin at the rest of the team as if to say, Meat's gonna beg for mercy when he sees what I got.

The kid waggled his bat like Billy until the pitcher pumped, then he cocked it and froze. He slashed the first pitch down the left field line. DeVon Morris, the third baseman, could only wave at it. Eric lurched after it. Coach Cody clapped twice.

The kid let the second pitch go. It was an inch outside.
Good eye, thought Mike.

He lined the third pitch, a change of pace, over second toward Mike. Ball had speed on it. It was starting to rise, and if Mike hadn't been playing shallow it would have gone over his head. He jumped, caught it. Heavy ball. The kid had power.

He looped the fourth pitch, a curveball, over Andy's head into short right field. Ryan made a nice run, but didn't get close. Kid has great bat control, Mike thought. He can hit to every field. Who is he? This is a tryout. Wonder what position he plays.

Craig looked around, scowling. He hated being hit so easily, shown up in front of the team. Who wouldn't, Mike thought, but it was kind of funny seeing Craig sweat. Craig liked to make other guys sweat.

Craig took his time, as if this were a tight spot in a game, then wound up slowly and fired a fastball at the kid's head. The kid leaned away from it but his heel caught and he fell backward on his butt. Everybody was grinning except the kid and Coach Cody.

The kid got up slowly and dug right back in. Didn't dust his pants or rub his butt, just looked at Craig with no expression. Mike felt a chill. He knew what was going to happen next because he knew what he would try to do.

The kid drilled the next pitch right back at Craig, who barely got his glove up in time to protect his face. The force
of the drive spun him around. The ball bounced off his glove as Craig dropped to one knee. Coach Cody was laughing this time. He slapped the kid on the shoulder and steered him off the field.

An assistant coach blew a whistle. They trotted in.

Andy was waiting at first base for Mike and Ryan. “Kid can hit.”

“Who is he?” said Mike.

“Illegal. Snuck over the border to play here.” Andy side-kicked Ryan and jumped away from the counter-kick. “I keep telling you these guys take jobs away from Americans.”

“You nutjob,” said Ryan. They box-slapped until Mike pushed them apart.

“C'mon, Coach hates that,” said Mike.

“You're a kiss-ass coach's pet, Semak,” said Andy. “That was a dumb catch.”

“He's just trying to make us look bad,” said Ryan.

“Easy to make you look bad,” said Andy. He dodged Ryan's soft jab. They all laughed. They'd played together since farm league.

“Where's that kid play?” said Mike.

“Looks like an outfielder,” said Andy. “Cody's gonna register him now.”

“How do you know?” said Mike.

Andy shrugged. “Happening all over the country. Next
year we'll have to speak
Español
to play.”

“No comprendo,”
said Mike. But he felt a scratch of fear in his gut. What if the kid's a center fielder? He followed his friends to the locker room.

Craig was standing with Todd and Eric. He was still angry. Mike and Ryan avoided catching his eye, but Andy couldn't resist. “It's a brand-new ball game, Craig. Call it…
béisbol
.”

Craig cursed him.

“Better learn to say that in Spanish,” said Andy. “Or it's
no más
.”

Craig lunged at him but Todd grabbed him and Mike steered Andy away. “What's wrong with you? Got a death wish?” Craig was a team leader, not someone to mess with.

“Truth hurts,” said Andy. He looked pleased with himself. He'd rather shoot his mouth off than start on the varsity, Mike thought.

His ankle throbbed. Better ice it right now. But he didn't want anyone seeing him icing it. Can't let anybody think he didn't have two good wheels. He stalled until the coaches had all left, then took a long shower to kill more time. Most kids didn't take showers if they were going home.

By the time he got out, even the trainers and managers were on their way out. He wrapped a towel around his waist and took a cold pack out of the trainers' refrigerator.

He wrapped the pack around his right ankle and stretched out on a trainer's table with a
Sports Illustrated
he found in a pile of magazines. It was the preseason issue with a photo spread on Billy Budd. He'd already studied it at home. He'd been following Billy Budd for eight years, since Billy was twenty and he was nine, each of them a rookie center fielder for the Yankees. Mike was on his first Little League farm team, the Yankees, when Billy was brought up from the minors to the Big Club. They both had rocky starts and then, almost together at midseason, they began pounding the ball. Now Billy was a five-time All-Star with two World Series rings and Mike was on his way to starting in center field for the defending conference champions.

Unless my ankle collapses or this new kid already has the job.

He pushed the thought out of his head. Billy always said you had to stay positive or you'll positively lose. Mike concentrated on the photos of Billy and his latest girlfriend, some model. They looked perfect together.

His cell phone beeped. It was a text message from Coach Cody. It was going to rain tomorrow morning, so he was calling a special Ranger Run. Hope the ankle can take it. No way I can wimp out. Don't think about it now. He stared at a picture of Billy and his girlfriend he had stared at before. They were both modeling underwear, standing in the middle of the vast green lawn outside Billy's Florida mansion. He
had a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, too. Billy Budd had it all. And he was nice, friendly, easygoing. Confident. Standing there wearing only boxer briefs, he looked as sure of himself as he did wearing Yankee pinstripes.

“Whose panties are you trying to look through, his or hers?”

He dropped the magazine and jerked up from the table. A black cap hovered above him, the bill pulled down over a girlish face with a sneery grin. The voice was high, with a sharp edge to it.

It took him a moment to realize it
was
a girl. She was tall. She was wearing a varsity track jacket.

He tightened the towel. All he could think of to say was “This is the boys' locker room.”

“You think?”

When she pulled off her cap and a landslide of coppery-brown hair fell to her shoulders, he recognized her. Katherine Herold. Last year, at the Varsity Banquet, they had been called to the stage together to receive the Sophomore Athlete Awards. She was on the track team. He'd seen her compete once. She ran the mile as if it were a sprint, flat out. She was the same way in class when she got into an argument, usually something political with Andy. She sounded and looked like the female cops and assistant DAs on the crime shows. He avoided her. She was one of those people who could pull you out of your zone.

She hobbled away.

He felt he had to say something. “What happened?”

“The whirlpool's broken in the women's locker room. As usual.”

“Your leg.”

“Knee.” She didn't look at him.

“I'm almost done,” said Mike.

“Take your time,” she said. “You don't bother me.”

You
don't bother
me
. He watched her out of the corner of an eye as she stepped out of flip-flops, stripped down to her T-shirt and running shorts, and unstrapped her knee brace. She turned on the whirlpool machine and climbed onto the ledge. She lowered a leg into the foaming water. She had a nice bod, muscular yet curvy. He looked away when she shot him a glance.

He lay back on the trainer's table. The hum of the machine lulled him. He lost track of time. He drifted to the edge of sleep, then came back. He was hungry. After a while he unwrapped the ice, slipped off the table, and limped back to the lockers.

“You should stay off that ankle,” she said.

He didn't turn around. “You think?”

BOOK: Center Field
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