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FICTION

Casey on the Mound
For Ila Borders
By Marshall J. Cook

 

She has had the dream for as long as she can remember.

She is standing on the mound, fingering the baseball in her left hand, her arm dangling, her long, slender fingers jiggling the ball until it falls into its grip. The crowd is on its feet, screaming for her. The batter waits, his hands and body still, the bat cocked behind his head, his eyes on her, wary, unafraid.

She holds the game in her hand, time suspended until she swings into her windup, right leg rising, shoulders rolling, hips pivoting, left arm flashing up and straight over the top, right leg kicking the air, long ponytail whipping her back. The ball jumps from her hand as if being pulled by some invisible force toward the catcher's waiting glove.

Her voice says, This is what you were made for.

She sits in the stands, watching her father pitch on a Sunday afternoon under the unrelenting Texas sun, knowing the other men respect him for what he can do. It isn't as if she forms the words. She simply hears them: I want to do that, too.

She can't remember when her daddy first put a baseball in her hand. She has seen a picture her mother took of the two of them playing when Casey is barely walking-about size. She is squatting down a few feet from him, and he is getting ready to roll a ball to her. It is a regulation hardball. Casey wears a little baseball cap.

When she is in high school, a reporter from Amarillo writes that her father pushed her into baseball, but that isn't right. It has always been her idea. She can't remember not wanting to be a pitcher.

He signs her up for T-ball when she's seven. They hit the ball off a rubber stand. The coach plays her at third base, even though she's a lefty. Lots of kids hit the ball that way, and she's the only one who can throw the ball accurately all the way from third to first. She would have played anywhere.

That same year, her daddy takes her to her first professional baseball game, the Amarillo Drillers versus the Liberty, Kansas, Mavericks. Something stirs in her when she sees the players in their startling white uniforms with dark blue piping and numerals, and she knows this is what she must do with her life.

Her daddy never says she shouldn't try, and he never tries to spare her from what trying will cost her.

A girl has never played Little League baseball in Venus, Texas. She tries to sign up when she turns ten, but the league president refuses to let her play. Her daddy dries her tears and tells her to be patient, just as she must be patient and wait until her bones are done growing before she can throw a curveball.

The next year, she convinces her best friend, Heather Peterson, to sign up with her. Heather's a fat girl with pigtails and glasses, not at all athletic looking, but she has boundless enthusiasm and confidence, and she and Casey think like one person when Heather catches her.

This time, her father finds a coach willing to give them both a chance, but other parents raise such a fuss after the first day of tryouts, the coach backs down. Again Casey's father tells her to be patient. Then he and Heather's father, who is an attorney, take the league to court. By the time they win their appeal in circuit court, the season's over.

The next year, when Casey and Heather show up for tryouts, it seems half the town has turned out to watch. Casey is already over five feet tall, thin and lithe and long-legged like a colt, and her daddy says she throws harder than any boy her age.

She and Heather line up with about fourteen or fifteen boys along the third base line, and the coach tells them to run out to the position they want to play. Casey reaches the pitching mound first, but it gets crowded in a hurry, with seven of the boys trying to stand on the same little hump of Texas dirt. Heather's the only one who walks over to home plate.

The coach laughs, takes up an old catcher's mitt, and tells them to show him what they've got. Casey is muscled to the back of the line, where she watches the boys take their throws. Most of them are so wild, the coach doesn't even make a move to try to catch the ball. Heather retrieves the balls that get past him, waiting for her turn to catch.

Casey's daddy has told her what to do. Screen everything out. Focus on the catcher's mitt. Take a deep breath, and let it out slow before you wind up.

There isn't really a pitcher's mound, just a slight rise in the dirt. She digs herself a toe hole and looks in.

"I'll bet she throws like a girl," someone, a man's voice, yells from the bleachers, and others laugh. She makes up her mind right then and there that by the time she gets done, "throws like a girl" will be a compliment.

"What are you waiting for?" the coach hollers out.

"I'm waiting for you to give me a target."

Someone hoots right out loud.

"Just throw the ball, hot shot," the coach says.

Her hand is sweaty, and she releases the ball too early. The ball sails ten feet over the coach's head and hits the backstop with a sharp plink.

Everyone is quiet. The coach rises from his crouch, scratches his head, and turns to watch Heather retrieve the ball. Casey stands on the mound, thinking through her mechanics.

"Try again," the coach says, lobbing the ball back to her.

"Heather's my catcher," she says.

The coach stares at her. He then turns to Heather and hands her the glove and mask. She settles in behind the plate.

"Okay, Casey," she hollers. "Little game of pitch and catch. You and me, now, Case."

She holds up the mitt, low and away on a right-handed batter. This time Casey gets on top of the pitch, and the ball pops the mitt. The coach stands a few feet away, watching, thick arms folded over his chest.

Heather whips the ball back. Casey is ready to throw again as soon as she catches it. Heather puts the mitt up, and Casey pops it again. Heather moves the target up and down, in and out, and Casey keeps putting the ball where she calls for it.

"Okay," the coach says. "That's good for now."

The local newspaper, The Venus Pentagram, runs an editorial about Casey and Heather under the headline "The Erosion of Traditional American Values."

Casey is the starting pitcher Opening Day, but the coach starts Timmy Wiggens at catcher and keeps Heather on the bench.

Casey's first start is almost her last. She walks the first batter she faces, and he takes second when her next pitch sails a foot outside. The parents in the stands clap and holler and fan themselves with whatever is handy. Her daddy sits quietly behind home plate, where he can see how she's throwing.

"Just a game of catch," Heather hollers from the bench.

Casey strikes out the second batter with three pitches right down the middle. The batter just stands and looks at them, the bat welded to his shoulder.

"Struck out by a girl!" his teammates yell at him as he walks back to the bench.

"You're going to catch it when you get home," a red-faced man, perhaps the boy's father, screams from the stands.

The next batter steps in, a big kid, right-hander, with a runner on second, one out. Walking him would set up the double play, and the batter on deck is left-handed. Casey will pitch him carefully, not giving him anything good to hit. She decides to start him off up and in.

Tim Wiggens just holds the glove in front of his chest for each pitch. She takes her stretch, looking back at the runner on second base, and throws one too high and too tight. The ball hits the batter's helmet with a dull thud and caroms down the first base line. The batter crumples as if shot.

He should have been able to get out of the way, her voice tells her. He just froze.

A woman is coming down out of the stands. She is screaming. Casey reaches the batter first and sees right away that he's only stunned.

"You're okay," she tells him.

He glares up at her and tries to spit, but his mouth is too dry.

Things settle down. The woman returns to the stands, the players to their benches. The batter she has hit trots down to first base, and Casey faces the clean-up hitter. But she feels sick to her stomach, afraid she'll throw up in front of everybody.

She drops the ball and starts running, angling between home and first. The first baseman squints at her, shading his eyes against the sun. She runs across the empty field to the road, where she flops down at the curb.

She doesn't hear her daddy come up but senses him standing behind her. A pickup truck rattles by. She looks at the little chunk of old Route 66 between her shoes. They're the kind with rubber cleats. You don't get steel cleats until you're thirteen.

He sits next to her, his knees sticking way up. She waits for him to talk. When he doesn't, she risks a look.

"I don't think I want to pitch any more," she says.

"Nobody ever said you had to," he says.

"I mean it."

"I know you do, Case."

"Can I go home now?"

"Do you know how many batters Sandy Koufax hit in his career?"

"No. How many?"

"I have no idea. I was hoping you'd know."

She laughs, and then laughs again because she's so surprised he could make her laugh the first time.

"I'll bet it was a lot," he says. "Don't you think?"

"Yeah. He was real wild when he started out."

Her daddy chews a blade of grass, his gaze on the abandoned gas station across the street. "Did you mean to hit that boy?"

"No!"

He says nothing. After awhile she says, "Maybe I should go back now."

He gives her a long look. "Want me to come with you?"

She shakes her head. "I'd better go by myself," she says. "You should be getting back to the store anyway."

He nods. "I'll go back to the store then."

They stand. He puts a hand on her shoulder. "Who the hell can lick us?" he asks.

"Nobody."

"That's how I had it figured, too."

Heather is standing a few feet behind them. She and Casey walk together back to the field, where the game has continued without them.

The coach won't let her pitch again. He puts her at first base. She's tall, she's left-handed, and she doesn't flinch when she has to dig a low throw out of the dirt.

He bats her seventh next game. She comes up with runners at the corners and two outs. Don't leave those ducks on the pond, her daddy always says about men on base.

The pitcher, a heavy, mean-looking kid, smiles at her, as if to say, "Here's my third out." He goes into his windup and throws the ball at her head. She hits the ground before she even thinks, the ball winging to the backstop. She bounces up and waves for the runner from third to score, but he just stands on the base, watching her.

"Wake up out there," she yells at him. Then she looks at the pitcher, who grins at her. "Two shots for a quarter,' she says.

"That's enough of that," the umpire growls.

"Not yet it ain't."

She digs herself a toe hole, her hand in the air to make sure the ump doesn't let the pitcher throw at her while she isn't looking. She steps out and looks over at her daddy, who sits in the top row of the sagging bleachers down the first base line. She thinks he nods to her but can't be sure. She climbs back in, takes her practice cuts, and waits. When the pitcher throws, she swings from the heels, feeling the impact of bat on ball. The ball explodes into right field, skips by the fielder, and hits the canvas fence.

She races around the bases and hits home plate standing up, her daddy's whistle splitting the air like a siren.

Heather gets to her first, and the rest of her teammates quickly mob her—home runs being rare at this level—and practically carry her back to the bench.

The coach sits with his head down, his hands between his legs. "Nice hit,' he says without looking up.

When they call Casey up to the major leagues, she insists they take Heather, too.

"I'm a pitcher," she tells them, "and Heather is my catcher."

Soon the whole region knows about Casey and Heather, and many men and women are outraged. When the coach of the Venus High Longhorns refuses to let them try out for the team, he has the support of the weekly Pentagram, the school board, and the county council.

"You've got two choices," Casey's daddy tells them. "You can fight, or you can find someplace else to play."

"I won't play where they don't want me," Casey says.

She and Heather get up at 4:30 every morning to take the bus to Amarillo to attend Amarillo Christian, where they're allowed to try out for the team. Casey makes the starting rotation her freshmen year and quickly becomes the ace of the staff. Because she's that good, she can insist that Heather catch her, and they become the first females ever to play in the West Texas Christian League.

Casey goes 18–2 her junior year at Amarillo, leading her team to its first-ever appearance in the State Christian High School Championship Series. Her senior year she is 22–0, including a 3–0 shutout in the championship game over Wichita Falls.

She also leads the league each season in times being hit by a pitch and in being taunted by bench jockeys.

After she wins the championship, there's no place left for her to pitch.

She works in her father's grocery, volunteers at the library, and throws with Heather long into the west Texas twilight. She reads Baseball America every week, scours the minor league standings and statistics, and one March afternoon comes across a story about a team in a small independent league up north.

As she's pitching to Heather that evening, a thought swims through her mind, and she knows what she will do. She clamps her glove under her right arm, turns and faces the vast empty stretch of west Texas plains that somewhere beyond the horizon turn into New Mexico. Her long, thin fingers work the ball absently. The ball is scuffed and has three broken stitches. She isn't feeling the ball in her hands. She isn't aware that she's watching a plume of dust snaking up from the road her daddy still calls "America's Highway." She has turned in on the thought.

"You gonna pitch or what?" Heather yells at her back.

When Casey doesn't respond, Heather comes up out of her crouch, takes off her mask, drops it in the dust at her feet, and walks out to the mound. Heather is still stocky but solid, not fat. Casey is still coltish, 5'9" and 135 pounds, whip tough. They stand side by side, their backs to the barn backstop. Casey takes off her cap and mops the sweat from her forehead with both forearms. She watches the dust snake approach, the old Dodge pickup visible now ahead of the plume, the engine whining in third gear, then grinding into second to slow as it noses through the gate and starts up the long, narrow driveway.

"Your daddy drives that thing like he's mad at it," Heather says.

When Casey still doesn't respond, she says, "Get your jacket on that arm if you're done throwing."

"Okay."

"I guess I'll get on home."

"My daddy'll ride you."

"That's okay. I can walk."

"Sit down a minute. I got something to tell you."

Heather sits next to Casey on the stoop.

Casey takes a deep breath. "I've decided," she says. She knows this isn't exactly accurate. Something got decided in her, but she doesn't know how to say that.

"What?"

Casey pulls her cap low and picks at the spikes of her left shoe. "I'm gonna try out for a professional team," she says.

"Where?" Heather asks immediately.

"Wisconsin. Upper Midwest League."

"Wisconsin!"

"It's short season, independent."

"It snows in Wisconsin."

"Not in the summer."

Heather sits motionless, hands dangling between her knees, sweat still pouring off her broad face. "They got girls playing in this Upper Midwest League, do they?" she asks.

"We'll be the first two."

"We?"

"You're coming with me."

"Don't, Cassandra. That's not even funny."

"You're my catcher."

Heather looks down at the stain her sweat has made in the hard-packed dirt. A drop of sweat hits the ground and is immediately absorbed.

"You know how to catch me. I trust you."

Heather turns on Casey, her face twisted with something Casey has never seen there before. "They put up with me because you were the best pitcher on the team. That worked at Christian, but it ain't going to work in a pro league."

"Why not? What's so special about a pro league?"

"You wouldn't be the best pitcher on the team, Case. You'd be lucky to make the team. If they even gave you a tryout. Let's get realistic here."

Casey feels the heat flush the back of her neck and spill out onto her cheeks.

"If I was realistic, I never would have gone out for the boys' team in the first place, would I? If I was realistic, I never would have put up with guys, my own teammates, telling me if I had real tits I'd never be able to throw the ball. Would I?"

"Why did you put up with it? And don't go pulling out any women's lib crap. You aren't doing this for the sisterhood."

"What am I doing it for? As long as you got me all figured out."

"You're doing it for you!"

The two stare at each other for a long moment. Heather stands.

"I'm doing it because I want to play baseball," Casey says. "Real baseball."

"I know it."

"Why don't you wait on Daddy. He'll give you a ride."

"I'll walk." She is already starting down the gentle slope.

"See you tomorrow," Casey says after her.

Heather stops and looks back, shielding her eyes from the sun. "I ain't good enough to go with you," she says slowly, "and we both know it. But you're gonna make it, and I'm gonna be your number one fan. Well, number two, after your daddy."

Heather turns, waving her right hand over her head, and walks away. Casey watches her grow smaller as she strides resolutely down the long curving drive to the county road.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2005 issue.

—EFQ

MARSHALL J. COOK is the author of two baseball novels (Off Season and The Year of the Buffalo) and twenty-two other published books. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He grew up in southern California rooting for the Hollywood Stars and then the transplanted Dodgers, and still believes Sandy Koufax is the greatest pitcher who ever toed the mound.

© 2005 Marshall J. Cook

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