Getting Wound Up

By: Jennifer Bernard

Then again, he reminded himself, it wasn’t a competition. The only thing that mattered was his turn on the mound. Of all the pitches he’d delivered in his life, these would be the only ones that mattered.

After the fielding and catching drills came batting practice. Again, only a certain number were called to stay for that; the rest went home. Eli felt the tension rise, especially among the pitchers. Their turn was coming. Finally, halfway through batting practice, a scout came over and told them how their bullpen sessions would work.

“We’ll take you one by one, in order of your number, so pay attention to when you’re up. Miss your number, you’re out. Make sure you’re nice and loose, ’cause you get about fifteen pitches once you’re on the mound. Get a catcher to help you warm up, or catch for each other, whatever works. When you’re on the mound, pitch what the scout calls for. He’s looking for certain things, so don’t get cute. Just do what he says. You got ten minutes before we call the first guy.” He wheeled away, clipboard in hand.

Hell. They didn’t even get to call their own pitches. That sucked for Eli, because while he had a strong fastball and a decent curve, his knuckleball really set him apart. Would he even get to throw it?

Trying not to be discouraged, Eli caught the eye of one of the catchers, who nodded back. They set up on the sidelines and played a little catch, nice and easy. Eli didn’t watch the other pitchers, instead focusing on the ball, the glove, his shoulder, his mechanics, letting his body get warm and loose. The only time he got distracted was when he caught a glimpse of the scout with the radar gun taking a water break.

And talking to Caitlyn, who had moved down to the front row.

In her jeans and pink top, a baseball cap holding back her ponytail, she looked cute as a kitten, and he wasn’t the only one who noticed. The scout seemed to be showing her how the radar gun worked while she smiled admiringly.

Only Caitlyn, thought Eli. Only Caitlyn could waltz into a baseball tryout and have a scout eating out of her hand. She hadn’t even brought any of her candy—it was her sheer sweetness and charm that did it.

Well, screw the knuckleball. He could make it without that one pitch. He’d have to pitch his heart out, that was all.

When they called number 52, he was ready, although his heart felt as if it might take a swan dive right into the dirt. He strolled onto the mound, using the short walk to calm his breathing. He settled into place, kicking the dirt the way he liked it. The catcher threw him the ball, and he looked to the side, to the scout. Beyond him, he saw Caitlyn perched on the very edge of the bench, looking extremely nervous. Her hands were gripped together, her gaze fixed on him, her body taut.

She was nervous. For him. The sweetness of that thought made a sense of calm settle over him. Calm and protectiveness. All he wanted to do now was make Caitlyn feel better. To do that…well, he had the power right there in his hands. A baseball.

He could do anything with that baseball. Write his own future. Change his world. Make Caitlyn happy.

The scout gave the sign for a fastball. Done. Eli went into his windup and reared back, putting every bit of his tension and desire and power into that pitch.

Wham. It hit the glove perfectly, even causing the catcher to flinch a tiny bit.

Two more fastballs, then some breaking balls, then more fastballs. A changeup. Eli threw on command, whatever the scout called, giving it his all. He lost count of the pitches—it didn’t matter anyway. They all had to be his best. And they were. The only question was, would his best be good enough?

The head scout conferred with the other scout, the one with the radar gun. From the expression on his face, Eli guessed that he hadn’t set any records with his speed. No big surprise there. His fastball was strong but not exactly world-class. His stomach sank. There it went, his dream, floating away like infield dust in a wind gust.

But the radar gun scout was now saying something else, something that made the head scout cock his head. He turned to Eli.

“Number fifty-two, you get one more pitch. You got anything we haven’t seen yet?”

For a moment Eli didn’t understand. Then it sank in. They were asking him for a pitch selection.

“Knuckleball,” he croaked, almost afraid to say the word aloud. “I got a pretty good knuckleball.”

“All right. Let’s see it.”

Be a good one, Eli prayed as he settled the ball between his thumb and the first joints of his index and middle finger. He loved this pitch, because it did whatever the hell it wanted, moved up and down, all over the place, completely unpredictable.

Kind of like life, in his experience. One minute you were in college, the next your father had a stroke. One minute you were on the way to baseball stardom, the next you were ringing up a case of flat-head screws. Life was a freaking knuckleball, and the more you accepted that, the better off you’d be.

Even now, his knuckleball might decide to desert him. You just never knew.

But it didn’t. Instead, it danced and fluttered its way to the plate with its usual crazy randomness, then dropped into the pitcher’s glove smack in the lower third of the strike zone. Confounding and unhittable.

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