A season of daring great.., p.1
A Season of Daring Greatly,
For my father,
for so many reasons
About the Author
About the Publisher
She was going to annihilate him.
Or maybe, okay, just make him—nervous. All she really wanted was for him to swing and miss; she didn’t necessarily have to turn him into a permanent emotional cripple.
And she bloody well didn’t want to throw the curve. Why waste the good hook, if she didn’t need it? A little heat in the guy’s eyes, and he’d be so sure he could rip it, that she would be able to enjoy a pleasant breeze.
Which would be refreshing, on a warm spring afternoon.
Now, Leonard wanted her to waste one low and outside—but he was only a sophomore and he lacked the Instinct of Death. So, she shook him off—and knew he was going to ask for the curve again, which he did.
When she didn’t respond at all, he finally—took him long enough—put down the sign for the fastball.
She touched the bill of her cap, then took a deep breath.
Her enemy was so eager that she could almost feel how hard he was gripping the bat, ready to take her out of the yard—but, frankly, the batter didn’t interest her much. He was an impediment. A minor distraction. A vague annoyance.
Right at eye level. Deceptively tasty. He wouldn’t be able to resist hacking at it.
She came to her set position, rotated the baseball a few times inside her glove—it felt lovely—and then let her fingers automatically find the four-seam grip she could form in her sleep—and sometimes did.
Leg drive. Release point. Downhill.
She wound up, and felt her arm slot in just the right sweet spot as she let the ball fly—a good, hard, rising fastball, her right leg coming down with a nice, smooth follow-through on the dirt, her left leg landing a second later, so that she was already poised to field a comebacker, when he swung—and missed. Violently.
She saw the umpire’s arm come up to signal the third strike, and although Leonard had to elevate anxiously out of his crouch to snag the ball, it landed in his glove with quite a satisfying smack.
Oh, yeah. She was bad. Game over.
Her teammates were all congratulating her, although she couldn’t really hear anything, because her head was still buzzing, but they were happy, and there were a lot of high fives and claps on the back.
Leonard came out to the mound and stuck the ball in her glove, and she nodded.
“You called a good game,” she said. “Thanks.”
He grinned sheepishly, because they both knew she had called her own game, every step of the way—but, no one would ever say that she wasn’t magnanimous in victory.
“That last one had some serious heat,” he said. “The herd was pretty loud about it.”
The herd. The flock. The clan—all otherwise known as the group of major league scouts, a number of whom showed up more often than not when she was scheduled to pitch, along with college coaches, and a few agents, usually. There were almost certainly a bunch of reporters, too, since there always were, and she’d heard cameras clicking constantly during the game. A much bigger crowd than usual today, since it was her last high school start, and the draft was coming up, and—well, anyway, she had made a point of not looking in the stands, because it was better not to know—although she had caught her mother reading a book at one point, sitting at the top of the metal bleachers directly behind home plate.
They lined up to shake hands with the other team, and again, she couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying, although she smiled and nodded and pretended to make sincere eye contact. Adrenaline was freakin’ noisy. But, she couldn’t help stiffening when she passed the guy who had bunted—some punk infielder—for the one damn hit of the game.
“Sorry about that,” he muttered.
“It was well-placed,” Jill said, evenly.
Although it had been a totally bush-league move on his part.
If, in fact, well-placed.
The beefy first baseman she had just struck out—he’d fanned three times, actually—gave her a perfunctory hand slap and scowled at her. “You get asked on many dates?”
“Of course not,” Jill said. “I’m tall.”
That made him smile a little—although one of the guys behind him mumbled, “Dyke,” and a couple of the others laughed. She didn’t even bother responding, since she heard some version of that every time she played, and it was both tedious and predictable. She shook hands and exchanged hellos with the other team’s coaches—who were both polite, at least, if not effusive—and was very relieved when the fake bonhomie was over, and she could go into the dugout and take a couple of minutes to try and come down from the intensity of the last seven innings.
Her cooler was at the far end of the bench in the old wooden dugout, and she started unbuttoning her uniform shirt—which felt quite heavy and damp—as she worked her way down the splintery steps.
The ice packs she had brought were nice and cold, and she assembled her shoulder and elbow wrap, and then strapped it over her compression shirt.
“Anything hurt?” her head coach, Mr. Portman, asked, from behind her.
She shook her head, adjusting the straps again, since—of course—the damn thing had been designed to fit a guy.
“You had a live one today,” he said.
She nodded. Good, loud pops in Leonard’s glove, and there had been more than a dozen pitches he couldn’t handle at all, including several curves. A shutout—which should have been a no-hitter, eighteen Ks, two errors, three passed balls on strikeouts, and a walk—except that the ump had blown the ball three call, which had definitely been a strike.
Well, all right, whatever. It didn’t matter.
She always kept a couple of frozen washcloths in the cooler, too, and she pressed one to her face, taking a few deep breaths.
Okay. Okay. Decent game. Not her best, but solid.
“You back yet?” Mr. Portman asked.
She shook her head, focusing on the cold cloth.
“Well, let me know when you are, so I can tell you what a great game you just pitched,” he said. Mr. Portman was a nice guy, who was a history teacher who coached baseball, rather than, say, the other way around. A very good history teacher, as it happened.
She nodded, then sponged off her face with the cold cloth, and draped her Mariners jersey over her shoulders, buttoning the top button, so that it hung sort of like a dashing red-and-white baseball cape. Which was maybe a little theatrical, but a lot better than wandering around in front of cameras in a very tight, sweaty compression shirt.
Then, she took another deep breath, let it out, and shook her head to try and release the last residue of the “Kill them all!
“How many photographers?” she asked.
“At least a dozen, maybe more,” Mr. Portman said.
All right, then. Jill checked her hair, able to feel that the chignon was still reasonably well in place. She’d never been a big fan of the perky ponytail-stuck-through-the-back-of-the-cap look, and her friend Lauren had come up with what she described as an “if Audrey Hepburn were a serious jock” look, which she had been using during games since tenth grade. They had had to experiment—Jill didn’t have any innate gifts whatsoever when it came to things like hair and makeup—but, it had turned out that a low chignon served the purpose of resting neatly below her hat and, more to the point, kept her hair the hell out of her eyes when she was trying to play.
And an added benefit was that her grandmother no longer sighed as deeply when she appeared in her baseball uniform, but would take a small, brave breath and say, “Well, you’ve brought a touch of elegance to it, at least.”
Most of the team was packing up their gear bags and looking very cheerful, since they had just won their fourth game in a row.
Bobby, their undertalented, but always hustling, sophomore second baseman put a bottle of Gatorade in her hand and she drank half of it in about four seconds.
“Thanks,” she said, and finished off the rest in a few long gulps. “That was a great double play in the third.”
Bobby grinned and exchanged high fives with Antonio, their more talented, but quite tiny, shortstop.
Her infielders had turned two double plays, and seconds after the putz who bunted had taken his lead, she’d picked him off. She’d also lost three outs on the dropped third strikes, too.
But, still. That damn bunt. She should have anticipated it—and she should have gotten off the mound about twice as fast. Or maybe just figured out that the kid was going to do it in the first place, before it happened.
She could probably talk a couple of her teammates, or maybe their assistant coach, Ray, into sticking around, and hitting her bunts for a while—but, it would either look like false hustle, or as though she was a gung-ho jackass. The latter was, possibly, not too far from the truth.
Ray, who had graduated from their high school about six years earlier and now worked as a line cook in his parents’ seafood restaurant, when he wasn’t coaching or umpiring in various baseball and softball leagues, was loading a huge duffel bag of equipment just a few feet away.
“Could we possibly do bunt drills tomorrow?” she asked.
He laughed. “Gary”—who was the head coach—“and I were taking bets on how long it would be before you brought that up.”
Well, okay. Now she maybe felt a little embarrassed. “Who won?” she asked.
He looked at his watch. “Me, by about a minute and a half.”
With luck, money was involved, because she’d heard that the coaches didn’t get paid very well, especially considering how much work was involved.
“And yeah,” he said, “we can do drills.”
She’d avoided the crowd outside the field long enough—she needed to go out there and smile and chat, making sure to stay on the right side of the line between confidence and arrogance. It was tempting to ask one of the freshmen to carry her gear for her. Obnoxious, maybe, but tempting. Hell, when she had been a freshman, the seniors had her lugging around everything in sight, even after she made All-State.
And, after all, it was a well-established tradition for the best player on the team to have minions. It was just the natural order of things.
She took some lip gloss out of the side pocket of her gear bag, and put it on as quickly and discreetly as possible. Her mother and grandmother had turned out to be right—she looked better in photos, when she put in at least a tiny bit of effort. Smiling was an effective tool, also.
“What a girly girl,” Malik, one of their other pitchers, said, sounding very cheerful.
Not discreet enough, apparently.
“Getting ready for your fans?” he asked.
Well—yeah, pretty much. “Yes, Mr. DeMille, I certainly am,” she said.
Malik laughed, uncertainly.
Same response she got for most of her jokes. Which either meant that she was hilarious and just woefully unappreciated—or that the jokes in question weren’t very damn funny.
Such was life.
She tucked the lip gloss into the back pocket of her uniform, and then picked up her gear bag—she always brought two of her own wooden bats to every game, among other things—and the cooler.
“You want me to haul that for you?” Sprout—his real name was James, but he was short as hell, and rarely got off the bench, except to pinch-run—asked. The other two freshmen were already carrying their slugging senior outfielder’s duffel and backpack, and an unwieldy bag of catcher’s equipment.
Okay, he had suggested it of his own volition, so now, she could generously say no.
“Thanks, but I’m all set,” she said.
Mr. Portman looked up from the scorebook, where he seemed to be updating various team statistics. “Give her a hand, Sprout,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there waiting for her.”
True enough. She smiled at Sprout. “Thanks. I really appreciate it, James.”
He gave her a huge grin back—probably because she was pretty sure she was one of the only people he knew who always called him James.
Okay, then. She’d had a very intense coach in Little League who was always screaming things like “Leave it all out on the field!” while a bunch of nine-year-olds, including her, looked back at him in confusion and would drop their gloves and caps on the ground, for lack of a better idea. But, she still liked that particular expression—not because she needed to be reminded to hustle, but so she could remember to keep whatever happened in a given game inside the white lines, and not spend the next hour—day—week—brooding about it. She either played well, or she didn’t. No big deal. She just had to make sure that once she stepped through the gate, and was officially off the diamond, the game was over.
Onward, and upward.
She followed Sprout through the opening in the chain-link fence, where there were a startling number of people hanging around. A large crowd, even.
What freakin’ bunt?
All things being equal, baseball was the easy part. Throw the ball, catch the ball, throw it again. Hit the ball sometimes. Run occasionally. Try to create—well, maybe not order, so much as a reasonable flow—out of the chaos and unpredictability of any given game.
And, sometimes, she liked to try and remember to have fun while she was doing it.
When she had first started playing, especially back in Little League, the only people who showed up at games were a few parents and siblings. Maybe, once in a while, someone walking a dog would pause behind the backstop, watch half an inning, and then amble away. She would hear a lot of “Oh, isn’t that cute, a little girl pitching” remarks, which were harmless enough, and even faintly amusing. The most intense insult she ever got in those days would be along the lines of “Why is that lefty with the ponytail playing shortstop?” And then, she would gun a runner out at first, and the person would usually say to his or her companion, “Oh. That’s why.”
When she was twelve, she was already five-eight—and throwing the ball almost seventy miles an hour. So, she was invited to play on a 14U team, which did some traveling around southern New England, but was fairly low-key, as travel teams went. Either way, coaches were, uneasily, starting to notice her.
Her parents had never been crazy about the idea of her playing fall ball, or going to showcases, or working out constantly at the local baseball training facility, because they thought that it crossed the line into obsession, cost far too much money—and, also, that she would run the risk of maybe having her arm fall off.
Well, okay, mostly her mother. Her father had be
Had been. Which sucked, on so many levels.
She missed him profoundly, and even four years later, most of the time, it still felt like it had happened an hour ago.
Anyway, it was funny, because her teammates’ parents were usually strongly encouraging, or even pushing, them to play nonstop, while her parents—okay, yes, primarily her mother—had always been more likely to suggest that she stay inside and read a book, or go to the movies, and just generally not become a one-dimensional person.
Which sort of backfired, because by the time she got to high school, in addition to baseball, she was playing basketball and tennis, and going skiing, and working out on her own, and running several miles a day and so forth. She always got books about baseball for her birthday and on Christmas, she read every online article she could find, and she studied dozens of the wildly different training theories about increasing strength and agility and stamina. Her mother would say things like, “My God, she is an unrepentant jock,” with an anxious where-did-we-go-wrong look. “Yeah,” Jill would say, “but, a multifaceted one.”
Although, in her own defense, she did like to go to the movies. A lot.
She was a junior when, during a spring practice on a very cold day, her fastball hit ninety for the first time. After that, an unending stream of college coaches, professional scouts, reporters, self-described “advisors” who were usually sports agents, and ordinary baseball fans started cluttering the stands, and lining up along the fences at every single one of her games. She got so many college recruiting, travel team, and other baseball-related calls that her mother had had to change their unlisted phone number more than once, her email inbox was constantly overflowing, and texts and uninvited voice mails always littered what her brother Theo called “The Celebrity Cell Phone,” as opposed to her private one. Sometimes, particularly aggressive agents, scouts, or coaches would appear at their front door, leave notes in their mailbox, or park near the house, waiting for a chance to waylay and wheedle her. Total strangers would come up to her—even on the beach, or at Starbucks or wherever—to share pitching advice, and tips, and explain why almost everything she was doing was wrong, and how she could be even better, if she would just do whatever it was that they thought would be more effective.