The sun is bearing down on the hitter, Jenny Ryan. Her father runs a software company downtown, doing well, too. Out on the mound, the A’s coach, Al Gurwitz, a loan officer for Chase, is getting set to soft toss the baseball overhand. This is what they do between t-ball and letting the kids pitch themselves. Jenny is on Angela’s team. Angela is my daughter. She’s nine. And she and Jenny are the two girls on the A’s. The league divvied them up, so each team had two girls. This is the age when the boys start to show some signs of athleticism and pull away from the girls in their skill at throwing, fielding and driving the ball hard with the bat. So, you just have to root harder for the girls to hold their own. They need a shot of confidence in these situations.
Runners on first and third. It’s the bottom of the second. There’s no score yet. We have two down, and Jenny up. You can see her squint into the sun. The wind is kicking up dust and sending it swirling across the mound toward the plate. I can imagine how it sounds in that big green oversized protective helmet; like she’s in another world, a world filled with only one thing, the sound of the wind rushing through her helmet. Angela’s on deck. This is a big spot for the girls. I know the boys are watching closely. Joey D, best hitter on the team, claps his hands in the dugout, “‘Mon, Jenny. You can do it. Be a hitter.” Mrs. Bronson, Brian’s mom, is coaching first and her husband, a computer salesman, works for Glen Ryan now, is coaching third; ready to wave in that first run.
There’re all sorts of kids and their moms and little brothers and sisters in the bleachers in back of third. Dads’re playing catch with their sons on the Red Sox and Orioles. Their game follows this one. I cup my hands and shout, “Come on, Jen. Just make contact.” My wife, Mia, in the home team dugout, looks up at me. We decided it would be good if she took part in coaching the team, and I brought snacks and encouragement to the games. “Don’t make her nervous, David,” she says to me over her shoulder.
Brian Bronson’s crouched, ready to spring off third base at the crack of the bat. Willy Ramos, Celia’s son, Celia being a very hot young single Hispanic mom, Willy’s standing at first, eyes intent on the batter’s box. Al Gurwitz puts the ball in his glove and goes into a little windup. He delivers a meatball to Jenny – slow and fat, right down the middle. Jenny swings and it dribbles out to the mound, hits a pebble, and skips past the charging third baseman. Brian runs home. Willy to second. Jenny, beaming, at first. One run in and Angela’s up. Wild cheering from the bleachers.
The De Lacey’s little one starts wailing because her older brother, Earl, knocks her peanuts out of her hand, and now they’re all scattered on the dirt and cement below the bleachers. The umpire, Mr. Stankoski, third grade teacher at Warren Elementary, calls time and dusts off the plate. Angela’s up and God she looks like she’s shaking. She senses the excitement of the moment and translates it into tremendous self-consciousness. The other day she told me Jenny’s twelve year old sister felt her chest get hard and a little round on top and she never wanted that to happen to her. She checks every day.
There’s a little boy in the stands I hadn’t noticed before and I don’t know whose he is. Maybe a new kid. Lots of families move in and out of town at this time of year. Funny, he looks a lot like Angela. And the reason that I notice him now is that he started cheering, whistling and clapping as soon as Angela stepped into the batter’s box. Maybe a little crush at school? She never tells me these things. So he just keeps it up, “You can do it, Anj. There’s no one like you,” he yells in that little kid’s reed pipe voice. Funny, too, he’s dressed in clothes that I haven’t seen on kids around here. Maybe he is from out of town on a visit.
Al goes into the wind up. Runners on first and second, Jenny and Willy. Notice that Celia is wearing a halter top and a pair of khaki short shorts. Lord, she looks good! She’s cheering her Willy on. “Okay, mi’jito. You can score on the next hit.” Then Angela swings about half a second after the ball passes her, and it’s like everyone has just seen that she will be very lucky to make contact. She has no idea about timing, and the bat might as well be a redwood log for all the control she has over it. The arc of her swing is uneven and loopy and so slow. When she swings, her eyes look to heaven. No idea of where the ball is. Oh, well, she’s a good kid, but no baseball player. I can see Mia in the dugout, biting her nails and looking down at the ground. She won’t make eye contact with me. She’s too nervous.
“Just takes one, Angela,” I shout, but I don’t believe it. Joey D says, “Give it a ride, Anj.” I think he likes having the girls on the team. Angela thinks he’s sweet on Jenny. She does have crystal blue eyes and blond pigtails. What’s not to love about her? Angela’s real pretty, but not a California blond. She’s brown haired and brown eyed with olive skin. She’s darker than me. Joan Baezy dark like her mom, Mia, who’s part Irish, part Mexican. Me, I’m Armenian-Italian. Typical California mix. We’re all mutts out here.
Gurwitz stops for a second as if thinking how to make the next pitch hittable for Angela. Then he winds up and throws it even softer, even more directly down the heart of the plate. Angela swings and the ball spins off the top of her bat over her head, and slowly drops to earth at the feet of Merry Katz, the Rangers’ catcher. If her twin brother, Isaac, had been the catcher, he’d have caught the ball and Angela might be out now, but she’s still alive. Down to her last strike.
“I know you can hit, Angela. I just know it.” I think it must be Joey, but it doesn’t sound like him. It’s that new kid. He’s got his legs crossed, his arms crossed, and all the fingers on his hands crossed, and he’s so focused on Angela I can feel his energy from here. Wow! This must be some puppy love, I think. Gurwitz throws a third meatball. Angela misses it so badly I can’t look at her. And the crowd lets out a sigh, “Sssssssh,” and it’s silent except for the wind sweeping dust to home plate.
The Rangers score three times in the top of third. Their coach, Ramon Da Fonseca, is a soccer player, but he’s got those kids swinging the bats. Ramon Jr. hit a shot over Pee Wee Corey’s head in left field. The ball rolled to the fence after landing in the little puddle in deep left where the leaky sprinkler keeps the ground wet. Pee Wee picked it up and cocked his arm to throw back to the infield, but the ball slipped out of his hand. Eddie Cox’s kid, Argy, scored ahead of Jenna Cunningham, her freckles and her red ponytail. Ramon Jr. got an inside the park “home run” although we all know it should’ve been a double and a two base error, E7. I’m glad Angela’s the DH for this part of the game. Jenny’s in right. She would’ve done at least as well as Pee Wee did. 3 to 1, and that’s the way it stays for two more innings.
Angela leads off the bottom of the fifth. The first pitch slips out of Gurwitz’s hand and brushes the inside of her jersey. She swings and misses and then everyone laughs. It did look funny, the ball brushing against her and then her swinging. I turn back to look for her supporter, the little kid I don’t know. But he isn’t there. Maybe went for a hotdog or something. Mattie Lucas has set up the grill and ice chest in the old lawn shed that is our snack bar. Still, it does bring in money for the league. Mostly kids buying with their parents’ change. Angela strikes out again. Three pitches. Three swings. No contact. O for 2.
Top of the sixth, we only go six here with the eight to tens. The games last long enough as it is.
Angela’s in the field. Switched with Jenny, who’s now DH. 3 to 1 it stands. The Rangers have their best batters up. Ramon Sr.’s still lobbing them into his kids. First up is Mary Smith. Funny little girl, undersized, but she’s got a lot of spunk. She’s just as good as anyone on the Rangers except for Ramon Jr. Mary hits a one hopper to second, and though it seems like it takes him all day, Willy throws to Brian, and we’ve got one down. Next up is Argy. He scored one of their runs in the third. Argy’s a pudgy kid, but you can see the strength under the baby fat. He gets his body into one and it’s going right at Angela. In back of me I hear, “You’ve got it Angie. Run! Run hard, Sis.” I quick do a double take because I thought I heard him say “Sis.” It makes me shiver inside. Our first child, a male, came too early. We had too many debts and weren’t certain if we’d stay together. So, we, she, Mia decided on an abortion. I still carry that inside me. I think she’s better with it. I look around and he’s not there. It had to be that kid, but I can’t wait for him to return. This is all going on as the ball travels to right where my Angela is doing her best to get it. Argy is chugging toward second as the ball sails over Angie’s head. She runs to it, her hair flying and I think I see tears on her face, but for alL the noise, cheering and exhortation, I can’t think straight. She throws with all her might and it winds up going over the chain link fence, out of the field of play, and Argy is awarded third.
Ramon Jr. is up. He swings at the first pitch and pops it into short right field. I can tell everyone thinks Angela will overrun it or stick out her glove and miss it. Willy is running out from his position at second base. The last instant he grabs it, extending his little wiry body its full length and for a split second lies out flat in space. Then he flops to the ground, the ball in his mitt. Argy is slow, so Buddy Smith held him at third. Willy gets up and runs the ball in to the coach at the mound. Two out and no run in. Whew! But Angela’s in tears. She must be thinking everyone saw that it was her play and that she had to be rescued by Willy Ramos’ super effort.
“It’s okay, Angie. Don’t worry, Sis. Shake it off.” And I know it’s that kid again. I want to go sit near him, but the bleachers are full and the next batter is up. Aaron Simmons, the only black kid on the Rangers, and one of the few in our white middle class little league, is the batter. Aaron is known more for his collection of baseball cards and LA Dodgers memorabilia than for his athletic prowess. His dad sells cards and stuff for a living. Does pretty well, too, but he’s always out of town. On the second pitch, Aaron swings with a great uppercut and the ball hovers in the afternoon blue sky near the pitcher’s mound. Ramon Sr. steps aside and Joey D., our shortstop and team hero, runs under it, squeezes his glove. We’re out of a jam, but we’re down to our last licks in the bottom of the sixth, two runs to catch up, three to win.
Now that kid has his fingers stuck through the twenty foot high fence that protects the crowd from foul balls behind home plate. He’s dark. I can see that. And for the life of me, I can’t get it out of my head that he looks like Angela. He is staring so hard at what’s going on that I think he’s a little scary, maybe emotionally unbalanced. Joey D is first up. He swings at Gurwitz’s first pitch and the ball just keeps climbing and going, climbing and going. It’s over the fence, a homerun. Lots of happy A’s moms and dads. 3 to 2 and no one out. Brian Bronson and Willy Ramos both ground out to the first baseman. Now we have one out left. Jenny is up. She looks like she’s got some confidence from her hit in the second inning. The boy behind the fence is shouting, “Okay, just get on. Angie will take it from there.” Jenny hits another dribbler towards third. This time she hits it so slow that she beats it out. Two out, one on, one down. Angela is up. The crowd is as loud as it gets at Dodger Stadium. You’d think it was the last game of the World Series for all the noise and commotion. The boy is positively rattling the fence with his energy, and screaming “C’mon Angela. C’mon Sis. You can do it.”
Angela steps into the batter’s box. She is shaking all over and crying. She knows she’s going to fail. Mia has her head in her hands in the dugout. She’s supposed to be calm and supportive in this type of situation. Some assistant coach. I’m hoarse with bellowing, “Go Angela, go!” over and over.
And by God she hits the ball, eyes closed, first pitch, sheer luck and all desire. It goes on a line shot into right center field. Jenny runs. Angela is frozen for a minute in the batter’s box. She can’t believe it. Shouts of “Get going, girl!” The boy screams, “Run, Sis!” Jenny is heading to third, but Angela is still hesitant, then she runs. Around the bases, I look for my Angela, yet the person out there is different somehow. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Angela is running a lot like a boy. I look quickly behind the plate. He’s not there. Then Jenny heads for the plate and I hear the thump of her sneaker on the rubber homeplate. 3 to 3. Angela is running faster than I’ve ever seen her run, and I hear “Slide” in that reed pipe voice from somewhere between third and home. Down goes Angela, helmet flying off. The Ranger’s catcher is Isaac Katz, not Merry, and he’s blocking the plate. Hear comes the ball. Angela slides away from the plate and hooks her left arm back, rolling her body over to brush the base. “Safe!” shouts the umpire. In the carnival that follows, I lose track of the boy. Mia and I run out to embrace our girl, whose smile fills the whole diamond.
We are so happy that night. We take Angela and Jenny to Bee Bop Burger, then drop them both off at Jenny’s for the night. The girls often trade weekend sleepovers, and the Ryans are as loose as we are about it. It works out well. Mia and I head home. At the turn to our driveway, I feel myself stirring. I look at Mia and the both of us run out of the car into the bedroom without locking things up. A few months before the next little league season, Tony is born. He loves his sister a lot and from what I can see when I roll the ball to him on the floor, he’s gonna be a good one.