Saturday, June 20th.
High school baseball state playoffs.
Mom and I had spent the night in a hotel with the boys closer to the game, even though it wasn’t supposed to start until 7:00 p.m. I woke up a little after 9:00 to an empty hotel room. After slipping into a pair of jeans and tying my hair into a ponytail, I caught the elevator down to the lobby. Mom was sitting at a corner table, typing away on her laptop.
“You better hurry if you want to eat. They stop serving breakfast at 9:30,” she said without looking up.
Obediently, I got my food and sat down across from her. “Where’s Lawrie and Laney?” I asked groggily between mouthfuls.
“They’re at the pool. They’ve been up since about 7:00.”
“Aw. The little boys are nervous,” I teased.
Truth be told, I was nervous. This championship game was everything these boys had been working toward for four years, and as seniors, it was their last chance. I didn’t want to have to deal with two crushed spirits.
Once I’d finished eating, I strolled through the hotel, casually exploring. I found the pool behind the elevators and, sure enough, there was Lawrie and Laney, the whole pool to themselves. I watched them from outside the double glass doors for a second before going in. They were spread out about ten feet; Lawrie was leaning back on the steps and Lane had his back to me, resting his chin on the wall. They were both oddly silent.
“Good morning,” I said, pushing open the door. Both heads swiveled to look at me and I got two tight smiles. I pulled up my pants and sat between them, letting my legs float in the water. “Nervous?” I asked.
They both nodded.
We sat there silently for a few minutes and I could feel the tense excitement radiating off of them.
Finally, Lane pushed himself off the wall, the resulting splash resonating in the quiet room. “I’m going insane,” he half yelled. “And I don’t even play!”
“You’re going insane? I’m about to throw up,” Lawrie countered. “Let’s do something. I’ve got to quit thinking about the game. I’m making myself sick.”
“Do what, though?”
Suddenly, they were both smiling wildly, their eyes on me.
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” I said, scrambling up as Lane swam toward me. But I was too late. Lawrie had climbed out of the pool and was grabbing me from behind, propelling me forwards. I fought desperately, but before I could do anything, another set of hands joined Lawrie’s.
As I hit the water, jeans and all, I flashed back to that very first lake party at Ben McKnight’s that had begun this same way. The night that seemed to mark the start of my life for the past two months. The start of baseball season. The start of summer. The start of my (fleeting) relationship with Bear. The beginning of the end of my life as a comfortable, naïve child and the mark of my transformation into a young woman. As I struggled to the surface, only one thought ran through my mind.
I wasn’t ready.
But I didn’t have a choice.
All too soon, the day had stretched to night and I joined Renee in the parking lot of a minor league baseball stadium. Our team was getting off the bus they’d ridden over from the field they’d used to practice. The parking lot was packed; every other car was painted and bumper stickers and car flags for both teams sported mascots and school colors. I had never been to a high school baseball state championship before, and the level of support blew me away.
As the boys filed off the bus, one by one, I tried not to watch their scarily focused faces.
“I’m not used to this,” Renee whispered. “I don’t like it.”
I didn’t either. I missed the carefree days back in April, when the boys had oozed confidence through their pre-game laughter.
Coach Wright led the team into the locker room, and Renee and I found our way to the field. As I stepped out of the tunnel and into the stadium, my already racing pulse skyrocketed. I searched through the crowd, desperately trying to find some normality. My eyes finally landed on Mom and Dad, then Marybeth and Annabelle. I saw my friend Cady, and Ehren Engel’s dad, and Mr. Beck, my history teacher. It seemed like everyone I’d ever known had shown up (including Elizabeth Frederick and Peter Sharp, who I spotted making out about three rows behind first base).
“This is insane,” Renee muttered.
Pretty soon, though, we forgot about the hugeness of the game as we went through the routine of getting ready.
I turned to find Lane jogging up to me, all decked out in his uniform.
“You seen Paul?” he asked, searching the crowds above me.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Paul Addy, Lane’s step-dad, was the one person I couldn’t remember being in the stands. “Laney, no. I’m sure he’s here though.”
Lane played with his baseball cap. “I know it’s far away, but, damn, you think he’d make the drive for the state championship.”
“He’s probably just stuck in traffic or something, Laney.” I felt so bad for him.
“Yeah. Thanks, anyways.”
“Good luck,” I called after him.
He turned. “With what? Warming the bench?” he laughed.
The game started at 7:02 p.m. (with no Mr. Addy). Much to the crowd’s enjoyment, Matt Summers set the tone with three perfect pitches and struck the first batter out. Our luck continued through the second inning, which ended with a run by Cody Valentine for a score of 2-0. (Gavin Slater had scored early in the first inning.)
Matt pitched another perfect inning and the teams switched sides. Andy Rucka was first up to bat. He hit the ball to left field and ran to first base. Two more singles (one of which was Lawrie!) and the bases were loaded.
“This is Jake Coffey up to bat,” the announcer broadcast as Jake nervously kicked the plate.
Strike, ball, ball, strike, strike.
“Out!” the umpire called and Jake threw down the bat. The wrong half of the crowd erupted in cheers.
“And next is Gavin Slater up to the plate.”
An almost duplicate of Jake, Gavin slumped away five pitches later.
With two outs, our hopes were on Ehren Engel. It was the ultimate pressure situation: bases were loaded (Andy on third, Taylor Austin on second and Lawrie on first), Kyle Grissom (on crutches) was screaming from the dugout, Lawrie was yelling from first base, the crowd was going wild. The first pitch curved a little too close, and Ehren jumped back.
The second was a fastball, and this time, in typical Ehren Engel fashion, the bat made contact and sent the ball deep into center field. As the fielder scrambled for the ball, all four of our boys took off running. Andy made it home and, as Ehren neared second base, the fielder considered his options. He chucked the ball towards home and the catcher jumped up and caught it, coming down just as Taylor Austin crossed the plate. The boys fell to the ground and the umpire blew his whistle.
Taylor jumped up, his nose bleeding furiously, but an otherwise triumphant grin on his face.
The medic guided Taylor into the dugout and Lane leaped up to offer his seat. Our next batter struck out and the teams switched sides again.
Two more innings passed, and the score became 5-2. After the fifth inning, Jake Coffey took over pitching for Matt. The boys were feeling good (except for Taylor, whose nose was still bleeding profusely); they had a solid lead and the game was winding down. Jake struck the first batter out and the second hit the ball straight into the shortstop’s mitt.
“Out!” the umpire screeched, and from the mound, Jake grinned ecstatically.
His next pitch was a fastball, and the batter swung way too late. Then came a perfect curveball, and the bat connected for a weak foul.
I’ll never know what the third pitch was.
As soon as the ball left Jake’s fingers, he doubled over, screaming and clutching his elbow. The batter bunted and made it to second, but all eyes were on Jake as the medic and Coach Levy rushed out.
“Shit,” Coach Wright muttered under his breath. “And Taylor was our relief pitcher. I’ve never coached a team with this many injuries.”
The implication of what he’d said hit me. Our two pitchers were out (Matt had already pitched five innings and Jake was now hurt) and our backup pitcher had a never-ending flow of blood pouring out of his nose. I looked at Renee and she looked back at me, her wide eyes mirroring mine.
We both turned to Lane, the only pitcher left. He was sitting alone on the bench (The rest of the team was pressed against the fence, watching the spectacle on the mound.), pale and panic stricken. As they helped Jake off the field, Coach Wright ushered Matt over to where Lane was sitting. Renee and I moved closer, oh so curious.
“You up for this, Keaton?” Coach Wright asked.
Lane looked like he was about to pass out. “I’ve never pitched in a game before,” he choked out. His eyes were focused on the crowds.
“Look, Coach, I can go back in. It’s the last game of the season; I don’t need to save my arm,” Matt reasoned.
Suddenly Lawrie was there. “Laney, you got this. You can do this. Two innings, Lane. Two innings.”
It seemed like the whole place was dead quiet as we waited. Slowly, Lane gave a tiny nod and stood up shakily. We all stood there, a little stunned, until Lawrie slapped Lane on the back and then the whole team offered up nervous encouragement. Lawrie and Laney walked quickly to their positions, and the game was back on. Lane stood on the mound a long time, staring out at the crowd, at Coach Wright, at Jake writhing on the bench, at Matt screaming from the dugout, at me, at Renee, at Lawrie on third, before he finally lifted his arm and let a beautiful fastball fly from his fingertips.
I’m not going to lie and say Laney pitched a perfect inning and a half. He threw plenty of balls and walked two players. But he only gave up one run, and when the final out of the game was called, he whooped like the best of them and, suddenly, Bear and Andy were under him and he was on top of the world and he chucked his cap into the air and the whole team tackled them and they all fell to the dirt, smiling and screaming and feeling invincible. It was a contagious emotion.
Andy managed to disentangle himself from the team and jogged over to us. “I’m sorry,” he yelled over the roar of the crowd. “I love you, Renee. I love you.” And he took her in his arms and she let him kiss her and then he was spinning her around and around and they were laughing and kissing like a movie.
From the field, Lawrie looked over at me and raised his arms triumphantly and I realized again just how much I loved him and he was grinning and laughing and everybody was laughing so I laughed, too, and my laughing mixed with my crying and it felt good and I felt good.