Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.
Toby’s bat hit Ivan’s ball at about the same instant that Ivan went down. A peculiar sound came out of the impact. It reminded me of two sounds, that of a pistol shot and that of a short scream from a screech owl, mixed together. I looked for the ball after the sound, knowing that contact was made. But instead of the ball I saw something oblong spinning through the air, directly toward Ivan. Before I could even think about what I saw, Ivan lay face down in the dirt, motionless.
For the next few minutes our team huddled around the body of Ivan Ricker. Rev. Whitlock knelt down next to him, stroking his forehead and calling on Jesus to let Ivan stay with us here on earth for just a little while longer.
“Is he alive?” I asked.
“Yes, he’s alive,” said the Reverend. “He’s breathing all right. He’s just knocked out cold.”
Jesus must have seen fit to let Ivan live. But we all figured the breathing could stop any instant and we’d be left without Ivan Ricker, our town’s star athlete, and without a pitcher to finish this game with.
The batter, Toby, stood at the plate. Part of his bat, now in two pieces, was still in his hands. The other half, the top part, was in the hands of Peach Wiggins who stood next to Rev. Whitlock. That part was the one that broke off of the other and flew into the head of Ivan Ricker. The ball lay about ten feet behind the plate. When contact was made between it and the bat, the ball went foul and skidded lamely to a halt while half of the bat went airborne. Ivan stopped its flight when he turned his face in response to it and took the blow in his left temple.
Peach took his turn holding Ivan’s head in his lap. I looked over at the Deer Lake crowd. Some of them were laughing and pointing at us. Others were watching with serious expressions. I was sure that every last one of them, regardless of their reactions to Ivan’s injury, hated him for what he had been doing to their illustrious high school baseball players. Then I heard someone from the crowd call for the game to continue. Several others picked up on the idea, and pretty soon the democracy of mob rule manifested itself in the shouts of the Deer Lakers demanding that Ivan be pulled off the field and someone else be handed the ball.
“How about letting a student pitch now?” someone yelled. “Yeah, let’s see what you got besides ringers in Stillwater” someone else put in. “Let’s get on with the game.” The Deer Lakers, suddenly, were in a hurry.
Peach looked around at his team. “I suppose they’re right. We’ll have to have someone replace Ivan.” He examined several of us, looking us up and down and wondering who could possibly be the least poor excuse for a replacement.
“Come on, Mr. Wiggins,” Whitey said. “None of these kids are up to it. Those guys’ll knock the stuffin’s out of the ball.”
“That may be, Whitey, but we’ve got to finish this game.” Peach looked around again, for the second or third time. We all felt foolish, standing there like cattle ready for slaughter. One of us had to be selected to lead the others to death. I slid over behind Willy Perkins, the chubbiest player on our team, and tried to disappear.
“George Belt,” Peach said. I didn’t answer. “George, come out from behind Willy.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and reappeared.
“George, you’re going to pitch the rest of this game.”
My heart started thumping hard in my chest. I could feel it pound against my ribs and throb all the way up in my neck.
“But Mr. Wiggins,” I said, “I can’t pitch.”
“Yeah,” Whitey said, “he can’t pitch.”
“Yes, he can pitch,” said Peach. “All he has to do is throw the ball to you, Whitey. Just stand up here on this pile of dirt, George, and throw the ball to Whitey, over there.” Peach pointed toward the plate.
I looked that way and saw Toby standing there, still holding the broken bat and wondering what was going to happen next. I felt a sudden powerful surge of compassion for Toby, because I knew he and I were one of a kind. We were both trapped in a game from which there was no escape and which, at this moment, was the very most important event in the histories of Stillwater and Deer Lake.
And here I was trading my fifteenth birthday for a baseball game against a bunch of kids that I didn’t even know, and who probably all hated my friends and me for what Ivan and his pal Whitey had done to them. Now it looked as though I were going to become the focus of the hatred spewing forth from the Deer Lake crowd.
But then a miracle happened. Ivan puked, all over the lap of Peach Wiggins. Then Ivan squinted up into the sunlight, shook his head, and slowly stood up. His legs were wobbly and Peach, Whitey and the Reverend held on and kept him from falling over. Most of us looked at Peach’s pants, dripping with chunks of whatever Ivan had for lunch. I felt sick to my stomach and looked away. Ivan held on to the men and put his hand to his head and rubbed the huge knot on the side of it.
“What happened?” he said.
“That little shit’s bat – excuse me Reverend – broke and hit you in the head,” Whitey explained.
“You’ve been out about five minutes,” Peach said. “You’ll have to leave the game, Ivan.”
“Leave the game? I will not leave the game.”
“But you can’t possibly go on after being knocked out like this,” Reverend Whitlock said.
“Why not? I can stand up.” Ivan pushed the three men away and stood for a moment, swaying slightly but not falling over. He spit out bits of something and wiped his sleeve across his mouth. He was covered with dust. His chin was bleeding from its impact with the ground.
“Come on!” someone from the sideline yelled. “Get a new pitcher in there!”
“They can kiss my ass,” said Ivan. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Ivan, watch your language please.” Peach had said that to Ivan so many times over the years that he didn’t even think about it anymore. Peach was the brother-in-law of Luty Wiggins, Ivan’s foster mother.
“Well, they can kiss my ass. I’m not leaving this game until we’ve won it and they can all go home with their tails between their legs.” Ivan’s juices were starting to flow again and he looked stronger by the second.
“Does that mean I don’t have to pitch?” I asked.
“I guess it means you don’t have to pitch, George,” said Peach.
I sighed in relief. All the others sighed too. We knew our troubles were over, and that the game would soon be over so that we could get back to our normal Saturday afternoon recreation. At least that’s what we thought.
The rest of the team members returned to their positions. Peach talked to Ivan another minute or two, and Whitey stuck around to discuss strategy with Ivan. I stayed close by, acting as if what they said might have a direct bearing on my personal role in the game.
“That foul ball was strike two,” Whitey explained to Ivan. “One more strike and we’re out of the inning. Do you think your fast ball will be the same after you got knocked out?”
“Should be,” Ivan said. He caught the ball that Reverend Whitlock tossed to him from behind the plate. Ivan rubbed the ball and examined it. “Look at this ball,” he said, and gave it to Whitey.
“Jesus Christ,” Whitey said. “Looks like somebody took a bite out of it.”
I leaned over and looked at the ball. It should have been thrown into a trashcan.
“Maybe I won’t have to throw fast stuff,” Ivan said. “I’ll put my knuckles on it and let the wind have it. With this chunk missing it ought to do some amazing things.”
Ivan and Whitey chuckled, and I walked back to third base. There were still shouts coming out of the Deer Lake section, mainly insults to Reverend Whitlock and Ivan. Toby had found a different bat, and Peach had given Ivan’s half of the old one to the Deer Lake coach, Bill Pooder. Pooder was the father of Toby the batter. He was also the Deer Lake town marshal.
Still covered with dust, Ivan toyed with Toby for a few moments. He milled about in front of the mound and scratched into the dirt with his toe. The Deer Lake crowd yelled now more for Toby than against Ivan, although after Ivan finally climbed the mound someone called “bastard” again. Ivan glanced over once or twice to see if he could see who was doing it, but then managed to focus on the task at hand. Ivan, determined not to give up another hit to this young batter, summoned up as much concentration as he could muster and glared at Toby. Toby returned his glare with one of his own. I admired the guts of the young man, even if he was showing a bit of foolishness.