* 1 *
Three more," Dad said, stepping off the mound.
"Make 'em count," I told him, wiggling the bat.
We were on one of the eight ball fields that surrounded the grandstand, the small, half-covered stadium that sat in the middle of Boardman Park. Baseball season started next week, and I needed to shake off the winter rust.
"What do you want?" Dad called. He was tall, like me, but heavy. He was wearing jeans and a faded green Pilchuck High School T-shirt. His hair hung over the top of his ears, like it had for as long as I could remember.
"Whatever you got, old-timer," I said, twisting my toe into the dirt, imagining this was the last inning of the biggest game of my life.
"Old-timer?" Dad asked, like he hadn't heard me right.
"That's what I said." I tugged on my ear and pointed to Dad. "Maybe you should adjust that hearing aid."
Dad gripped all three baseballs in his right hand and held them out for me to see. "You know what these are?" he asked.
"Strike one, strike two, and strike three."
I shook my head and smiled. "No way, old man."
He stepped back onto the mound. "First pitch," he said, bending forward to start his windup.
"Just make sure it comes with mustard."
Dad smiled. "Order up." He leaned back, then stepped into a breaking ball that curved to the outside corner as it crossed the plate.
I saw the movement on the ball, but swung too late to catch up.
I slid my hands back down the barrel and pointed at Dad. "Another one," I said.
Same pitch. This time, I swung earlier but got underneath it, fouling it behind me.
"Time," I said, backing away from the plate. I took two practice cuts.
On the mound, Dad wiped his hands on his jeans, then went to work. He planted his left foot, lifted his right leg, and with an extra kick, whipped his third pitch toward me.
Wait for it, I told myself, expecting the ball to break away again. But the ball never broke. It barreled straight down the middle of the strike zone. By the time I saw my mistake, it was too late. I took a hack, but the ball chugged past me. It slammed against the top plank of the backstop, then ricocheted halfway back to the plate.
Down on three pitches. Ouch. I stood at the plate, staring at my shoes. I would have to do better than that when baseball season started. I was on the Pilchuck All-Star team, and I knew from last season that the pitchers threw some serious smoke. It was nothing like the rec league games I had seen my friends Kenny and Fish play in, where the pitches came in nice and easy. I had to be ready. Just yesterday Coach Burke had told me he expected big things from me this season.
Holding the bat in one hand, I picked up the ball and tossed it to Dad.
"Not bad for an old-timer, huh?" he said.
"The sun was in my eyes," I joked as we began gathering up the rest of the baseballs scattered around the infield.
"Face it, Roy," Dad said, patting his stomach. "Your old man's still got it."
"You mean that?" I asked, pointing to his gut.
Dad rubbed his belly. "This?" he asked proudly, pointing to himself. "This is all muscle."
"I didn't know fat was a muscle," I said.
"It was enough to strike you out," Dad said as he put his arm around me. "And believe me, that's not easy."
"Well, don't let it go to your head," I said.
Dad dropped a dozen baseballs into a canvas bag. "I'm serious, Roy. I know how talented you are and how hard you work. I'm proud of you."
Just then, I heard the sound of a car door opening in the small parking lot beside the field. Quickly, I spotted Mom plowing toward us like a one-woman army.
"Incoming," I said to Dad, who had his back to her.
Dad looked up, then muttered something under his breath. "What time is it?" he asked.
"Time for you to say a prayer," I told him.
Mom and Dad had been divorced for five years, but they both still lived in Pilchuck. That meant my sixteen-year-old sister, Sara, and I lived by the schedule. Every other weekend with Dad, the rest of the time with Mom.
That afternoon, I was supposed to be home by five o'clock for dinner and homework--even though it was Friday. It was sundown now, which meant it was at least seven-thirty.
Giving me the stay hand, Dad jogged over to meet Mom. "We're just wrapping it up," he said. "I guess we lost track of time."
"Lost track of time?" Mom repeated. "Mike, you sound like one of the kids."
Mom and Dad were standing face to face on the first baseline like an ump and a manager going nose to nose over a close call. I was hovering near the pitcher's mound.
"Tee," he said. "Relax."
Mom's name was Teresa. I knew she didn't like Dad's nickname for her, but I had heard her call him worse. Things had never gotten super ugly between them, but there had definitely been a lot of shouting.
"We had a deal, Mike. Roy was supposed to be at home an hour and a half ago. He has homework to do."
"It's Friday," said Dad. "He has all weekend."
"Yes, but you and I both know he'll be out here playing baseball all weekend. Then it's Sunday night and nothing's gotten done."
Dad held up his hands. "Okay," he said, waving the white flag, "he's all yours." Then he turned to me and whistled, like I hadn't been able to hear every word of their conversation. "Let's call it a day," he said.
Knowing I had no choice, I made my way over to Mom.
"Hi, sweetie," she said, reaching up to me. Unlike my brown hair, her hair was blond and down to her shoulders.
"I'll be in the car," she told us.
"We'll pick this up later," Dad said after Mom walked away.
Dad shook his head. "Next week."
"What's wrong with tomorrow?"
"I have a . . . an appointment."
"You mean a date."
Dad was quiet for a second. "You're right," he admitted after a moment. "I mean a date."
"With the teacher?" I asked.
"With Camille," said Dad, nodding.
As far as I could tell, Camille had been in the picture for about a month. But Dad was already talking about introducing her to me and Sara.
"If it was me, I'd rather play baseball," I said.
"Next week, Roy. I promise."
I wondered why he couldn't make the date wait instead of me, but I couldn't find the right way to say it. Dad and I were pros at joking around but not so good at talking about feelings. "Make sure you wear a big shirt so your muscles don't hang out."
Dad laughed and gave me a quick hug. We left it with a fist bump. Then I turned and walked across the grass to the car, where Mom was waiting.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Roy Morelli Steps Up to the Plate by Thatcher Heldring. Copyright © 2010 by Thatcher Heldring. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.