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SUMMARY: Two boys growing up together in an idyllic beachfront community share a passion for baseball. One excels at the game and plays it with reckless abandon; the other, less talented, studies the game and those who play it, hoping someday to share what he learns with others. Best friends since childhood, the two have seen how baseball can bring them closer together. Now, having just graduated from high school, it’s about to show them a crueler side of the game. Baseball is about to separate them even though neither wants that to happen. You can find a longer synopsis of the entire story here. Please note that italics are typically used to indicate what a character is thinking or saying to himself.
WARNING: This story is a work of adult fiction and intended for mature audiences only. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Unless otherwise indicated by context, all of the characters, leagues, stadiums, teams and clubs portrayed or mentioned in this story are fictional, not depictions of real people, leagues, stadiums, teams and clubs. Please note that the story may describe, depict or otherwise include graphic portrayals of relationships between men and/or adolescent boys that are homosexual in nature. If you do not like or approve of such discussions or it is illegal for you to read such material, consider yourself warned. If you continue to read this story, you are asserting that you are fully capable of understanding and legally consenting to reading a work of adult fiction.
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NOTES: Please check these notes every week. If there is something I want to alert you to as I post each chapter, this is where I will I do so. Here’s still another reminder that I need at least a first name and a valid e-mail address (which will not be published) to post any comments you make. I’ve also included a bunch of links in this and the previous chapter that might be helpful to those of you who know little about baseball and want to learn more. Having said that, you really don’t need to know a lot about baseball to follow the story because I’ve tried to focus it on the human relationships more than the game.
SUMMER BOYS, SUMMER DREAMS
With the game over, I turned and headed toward the dugout exit that led back to the locker room. After a game like that, I was looking forward to getting out of the stadium as quickly as possible.
“Where are you going?” Coach Gilmore said, looking at me as I approached the exit.
Gilmore was the bench coach, the guy who took over after Grady was banished from the dugout.
“Um, well, I was headed down to the locker room,” I said.
“The hell you are,” he replied. “Every night is fan appreciation night here at Lloyd H. Fisher Stadium. The kids get to run the bases after the game; and while they’re doing that, their parents get to talk to the players and collect any autographs they want. That means everyone on this team, including you, spends the next fifteen to thirty minutes out on the field greeting fans and signing autographs. It’s the way we do things around here.”
“You can see the rest of your teammates already lining up along the right field line starting at home plate. Since you’re the newest member of the team, that means you’ll be all the way down by the right field fence. Like the man said a long time ago: all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
No one had mentioned any of this to me; and while I didn’t have a problem with it, it seemed kind of odd to be asking me to join in.
“Sure,” I replied. “I’m glad to do it. But this is my first game with the team and I didn’t even play. No one knows me from a hole in the head. I’m sure the team mascot has more fans than me.”
“That’s true,” Coach Gilmore replied, “he does; and he probably will have for a long time to come, but it doesn’t really matter. Except for Mark, most of the fans asking for autographs don’t know who any of the players on this team are. They ask for autographs not because they think you’re important. They ask because they want to impress their sons and daughters by showing them they can get an autograph from a player; and we’re happy to accommodate them that way.”
“So get that fanny of yours out on the field. Like I said, you can go to the end of the line because you’re the newest on the team. No one will probably waste the time or energy to walk down that far. Mostly the fans will be looking to get autographs from the starters up near home plate. If they ask at all, they’ll only ask for yours once the starters leave; and we’ll expect you to stay out there longer than the starters because you didn’t play and you’re new.”
“Sure,” I replied.
I scrambled out of the dugout and followed a couple of the guys who were headed for the area where the autographs were being signed. Like I had been directed, I walked all the way to the end of the line down by the right field fence and just stood there looking like an idiot, which was kind of the way I felt as well.
I had never really signed autographs back in Rehoboth Beach, at least not until word got around that I was going to enter the draft. After that a few of the younger boys had asked for an autograph, mostly just in case I actually made it to the major leagues someday. But it wasn’t anything organized like this. It wasn’t anything personal.
I don’t think they especially wanted my autograph when they asked or thought I was going to go all the way to the top. They just asked in case that happened and I was happy enough to sign. I mean, I had been a kid once. I knew what it was like for someone to pay attention to me.
So I just stood there and waited; and then I waited and waited some more. Up near home plate there were a couple of guys that seemed to draw most of the attention, especially Mark, and they were being pretty good about the whole thing. They just stood there as one item after another was handed to them for a signature.
Within ten minutes most of the crowd had drifted away. Bored, I started wandering back and forth toward the right field fence, touching it each time I got there. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. No one had wandered down anywhere near me up until then.
I was just approaching that fence for the fifth or sixth time when I heard the voice behind me.
“Hey you, number 34, are you anyone important?”
I looked down at my jersey and sure enough, there it was, the number 34.
I had never been one of those guys who absolutely, positively, had to have a particular number. Some dudes were even willing to pay other guys to get the number they wanted. Me? I just took whatever number they gave me. There didn’t seem to be any real difference between them so I wasn’t even aware of my number until then.
“Are you deaf or something, dude?” the voice piped up. “I asked whether you were anyone important.”
I turned around and there he was, standing there staring at me; a young kid, maybe twelve or thirteen. He was wearing cutoffs that were cut much shorter than boys usually wore them and one of those short-sleeved t-shirts that exposed his abdomen as well. He had freckles on his face, not enough to drive you crazy but enough to accent his smile; and he had alert hazel eyes that seemed to hold your attention.
He was actually pretty cute.
“Um, well, not really,” I said; “anyone important I mean. This is my first day with the team and I didn’t play tonight so I’m pretty certain I’m no one important.”
The kid looked over at me and smiled.
“Well, then, what position do you play and are you any good at it?”
By now it was clear he wasn’t exactly the shy or bashful type, but I was glad anyone at all was talking to me at that point so I tried to answer as best I could.
“I play shortstop,” I said. “And as for being good, I don’t know. I guess that’s for you and others to say.”
“Jeez, dude, you don’t really make much of a case for yourself, do you?” the kid replied. “You aren’t anyone important. You don’t know how good you are. But, hey, I guess I have to like you anyway because I play shortstop as well. What’s your name?”
“Ethan,” I responded. “Ethan Williams. What’s yours?”
“Zachary,” he replied, bowing in an exaggerated manner. “Zachary Taylor at your service dude.”
The name had a vaguely familiar ring from my American history class.
“Wasn’t Zachary Taylor a general or something?” I asked, looking at him.
“No! Really?” he replied smirking at me. “You think?”
“Here I am twelve, almost thirteen years old, and I’ve had the name Zachary Taylor all my life. You think maybe someone has asked me that question once or twice before, dude? I mean, do I look that clueless that I need an American history lesson every freaking time I meet someone new like you?”
He was mocking me now, smirking at me, as if I was the densest person he had ever met in his life.
“Um, well, sorry,” I responded. “I can see how that might get annoying after a while.”
“Bingo,” he replied. “But, hey, I’ll cut you a break because I’m a nice guy.”
“Do they call you Zach for short?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“My father calls me Zach because he knows it annoys the shit out of me,” he said. “But you can call me Zachary. That’s what I prefer.”
“Okay,” I responded, defensively again. “Zachary it is. What brings you here tonight, Zachary?”
He just gave me a long, withering, stare; and right about then I was feeling I must be the stupidest person in the world, in addition to being the most insignificant.
“Jeez, dude, you really are dense, aren’t you? Why else would I be here? I’m looking for an autograph.”
“From me?” I asked, surprised.
If looks could have killed, I would have been dead right about then.
“No, Ethan; I’m looking for the President’s autograph and must have mistaken you for him,” he replied, sarcastically.
“For crying out loud, dude, I don’t see anyone else within fifty feet of us. So, duh, yeah, I’m looking for your autograph, Ethan.”
“Now I just need to figure out what you can sign it on,” he added.
He opened a bag he was carrying and peered into it.
“I had a game myself earlier tonight,” he said. “Unlike you guys, we’re good. We won. But I follow this pitiful team nonetheless and wanted to see this game so I showered quickly and put all of my stuff in this bag.”
“How about this?” he said, pulling something out of the bag and holding it up for me. “Can you sign this?”
I remember being stunned just looking at it.
“Um, is that what I think it is?” I replied.
“Yeah, it is,” he said, smirking at me. “That’s my jockstrap.”
“And look here, I even have a pen for you,” he said, plucking one out of the bag.
“Here you go,” he added, holding the jockstrap and pen out toward me.
This kid is a little wiseass, I said to myself, but definitely cute; unfortunately, much too cute for his own good.
He was just standing there smiling at me and it was hard to be mad at him because he had a terrific smile. Rather than trying to lecture him about appropriate behavior, I figured I would play along.
“Um, well, I don’t think a jockstrap would work all that well,” I replied, taking it from him and holding it up to the lights.
“I think my autograph would disappear the next time your Mom washes it.”
Then I tossed it back to him. He fielded it flawlessly.
“You think I’d put something like this in the wash, dude?” he replied, pretending to be shocked. “Hell, man, I don’t need to wear this thing. I mean, it’s not like my dick is ten inches long or something. It’s mostly a status symbol with the other guys. I mean, for crying out loud, did you ask your Mom to wash your very first jock?”
I remember thinking back to when I was younger and he was right. I didn’t really need a jock at his age either, but I bought one so I would look like older athletes did and to try to impress myself.
“This jock’s never been washed,” he continued, holding it up to his nose and sniffing the thing.
It made me laugh.
“You are too much, Zachary,” I replied. “But the point is you probably sweat when you wear it and that would probably cause my autograph to blur even if you’re hiding it from your Mom like I did when I was your age.”
“I don’t have a Mom,” he said. “She died giving birth to me.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized, wondering if I was ever going to get anything right with this kid.
“I’m sure you must miss her. I miss my Dad. He died in a war before I was even born. So I guess that’s something else we share in common; besides both of us being shortstops, I mean.”
“Does your Mom hate you?” he asked.
“No, of course not,” I replied. “She loves me a lot, just like I love her.”
“Well there you go,” he said. “That’s a big difference between us right there. My Dad hates me and the feeling is mutual.”
By now the smile had disappeared from his face, replaced with something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, a hardness or coldness that hadn’t been there before.
I didn’t know what to say and found myself shifting my body from side to side, nervously.
“Oh, jeez, be like that, Ethan,” the kid added, finally breaking the silence. “Be picky about what you sign.”
Suddenly he was smiling again as he shoved the jock back into the bag and pawed around inside it with his hand.
“How about one of my balls?” he asked, pulling a baseball out of the bag and holding it up.
“Would you autograph my balls?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, reaching out for the ball. “I’d be happy too.”
“Good,” he replied, pulling the ball away and then leering at me.
“Now all we need to do is find someplace private so I can pull down my pants and let you do it. That’s going to be fun I think.”
In spite of my best effort, I burst out laughing. By now the kid had me in stitches and I remember being amused at the performance he was putting on. It was even better than Grady’s that evening.
“Um, well, I’ll autograph one of your baseballs, Zachary,” I replied. “Those are the only balls I’ll be autographing tonight.
“Shit,” he responded, pretending to pout. “You’re no fun at all, Ethan.”
“But, okay, here,” he said, handing the ball and the pen to me.
“And be sure to personalize it nicely,” he added. “None of this impersonal shit most of the guys write. I mean, if you don’t personalize it nicely, I probably won’t even remember who you are because the only thing you’ve told me so far is you’re no one important and not very good. So if I don’t remember who you are I’ll probably end up throwing the thing away.”
I was gripping the ball tightly and holding the pen in my hand.
“Do you have a suggestion?” I asked, nervously.
Why the hell does this kid make me so nervous? It’s like he’s in charge and I’m the kid asking for his autograph.
“Oh, I dunno,” he replied. “Keep it simple and modest. How about something like: “To Zachary Taylor, not just the best shortstop in Shoreham but the one with the cutest ass. Love, Ethan.”
I’m not sure how, but somehow I managed to choke back still another laugh.
“Um, well, that’s a lot of words for such a small ball,” I said, grinning at him. “Besides, how do I know you’re the best shortstop in Shoreham; or the one with the cutest ass for that matter?”
I remember thinking I shouldn’t have mentioned his ass.
“Hmm,” he replied, using his fingers to rub his chin. “Good questions.”
“You know what? I’m beginning to like you, Ethan.”
“You’ll have to take my word about me being the best shortstop, at least for now; as for my ass, you’re welcome to inspect it for yourself anytime you want,” he added, winking at me. “That should be proof enough.”
In spite of my better judgment, I was enjoying the banter by now so I tried to give as good as I was getting.
“Um, well, I’d take you up on that offer, but I don’t really fancy spending the rest of my life in jail.”
“That’s too bad,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I would have been worth it, but you can just autograph it however you want.”
So that’s what I did, eventually handing it back to him.
He looked at it for longer than I thought he would and then looked back over at me.
“That’s pretty good,” he said. “In fact, it’s probably the best autograph I’ve ever gotten. Thanks.”
“Thanks a lot,” he added, and for the first time that evening I sensed he was being entirely serious.
“You’re welcome,” I replied.
He turned around and started to walk away.
“Hey, can I ask something?” I said.
“Sure,” he said, spinning around and facing me once again. “Anything you want.”
“Why did you pick on me tonight?”
“Because you’re cute,” he said, waggling his ass. “And because Brady told me I should get your autograph; that you were a pretty cool dude.”
“Brady? Brady Foster? How do you know Brady?” I asked.
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he replied; and with that he was off running toward home plate.
I remember shaking my head.
By then I could see everyone else had disappeared from the field so I walked down the right field line toward the dugout. Coach Gilmore was down there by himself, waiting for me as I approached. I may have been the last one leaving the field, but somehow the time I had spent with Zachary seemed to have made the whole thing pass quickly.
“I thought I was going to have to come down there and rescue you for a minute,” Coach said, smiling at me. “I see you met Zachary.”
“I did,” I replied.
“Did he tell you he was gay and try to flirt with you?”
“He didn’t tell me he was gay, but he definitely flirted with me; at least I think he did.”
“What’s up with that?” I added.
“He does that with all the new players,” Coach replied. “Most guys get pissed off with him about it so he knows to stay away from them after that. The ones that don’t, and apparently you’re one of them, he tries to become friends with.”
“I see,” I responded. “Is he really gay?”
“Who knows?” the coach said, shrugging his shoulders. “He says he is, but he’s only twelve years old so I wonder about that. Sometimes I think he just says it for the shock value.”
“Why would he want to shock anyone?” I asked.
“Why else? To get attention,” he responded. “Twelve year old boys like attention.”
I remember thinking he was right about that.
“And maybe to annoy his father as well,” Coach continued. “It’s kind of a sad story actually. His mother died in childbirth. He was raised, if you can call it that, by his father, who’s a real son of a bitch. He and his father never got along, especially once the kid started insisting he was gay. I’m surprised the dad hasn’t killed him, to be honest. The two of them are always fighting, always screaming and shouting at one another.”
“Sometimes the dad comes by here, usually drunk as a skunk, because he knows the kid flirts with the players and that makes him angry. It’s pretty bad when the two of them start getting into it. We’ve told the dad he’s not welcome here anymore.”
“I see,” I said. “He seems like a nice enough kid, though, really very funny actually.”
“Oh, he is,” Coach Gilmore said. “I like him myself. He plays ball for his Little League team, but he doesn’t seem to have very many friends. You know how kids are at that age. There’s no way they’re going to be friends with someone who claims he’s gay. He loves baseball though; loves it with a passion. Most nights he ends up sneaking into our games without paying and we let him do that. If nothing else, it keeps him out of trouble and away from his father.”
“The problem is he’s seen how the teenage girls in hot pants and tight fitting blouses flirt with the guys and the kind of reaction that gets. So he does the same thing. But this is baseball after all; nobody gay plays baseball. I’ve actually had to step between him and some of the guys the first time he flirts with them. That’s why I stayed and watched while the two of you talked. I’m glad I didn’t have to step in.”
“Nothing he said bothered me,” I replied. “It got my attention though. It sounds like the kid is lonely and could use a friend.”
“He could. But don’t even think about going there, Ethan. If that kid ever accused you of molesting him, it would be a disaster for you. That morals clause in the contract you signed is honored in the breach mostly. Baseball doesn’t care if the guys flirt with those teenage girls. They don’t even mind if they get it on with them as long as they don’t get caught.”
“But get caught? Baseball will go after you like a bat out of hell if you get caught with your pants down with a minor. Get caught with a twelve year old boy? I can guarantee you’ll be out of baseball in a flash; and your ass most likely will be in jail as well.”
“I understand what you’re saying, Coach,” I replied. “But it seems like a pretty sad world when you can’t try to be nice to a kid like that who just needs a friend.”
“Understood,” he replied. “But that’s the way things are these days, Ethan. For now, I expect Grady and Brady are probably waiting for you down in the locker room. Grady’s probably still holding court with the local reporters, telling them his side of the story about that blown call. But I know you’re going to be staying with him and his wife tonight, maybe longer, so you best get down there.”
I remember thinking about it later that evening back at Grady’s place. I recall how hard it had been when I was fourteen and didn’t have anyone I could talk to about being gay. When that older boy had tossed me Mr. Bare Ass, it had been like a lifeline for me. He knew I was gay and he was telling me it was okay to be gay and I had never forgotten the kindness he had shown just by doing something like that.
Yeah, sure, Coach Gilmore had a point. It seemed like America was crazy when it came to sex, glorifying it at one moment and then ready to brand you with a scarlet letter the next if you messed up somehow. You had to be careful, no doubt about it; but I wasn’t about to give up on the kid either. I doubted I would be able to help very much; but if he needed a friend, I wanted to try to be there for him if I could.
When I finally got to the locker room, I changed out of my uniform quickly. I didn’t even bother showering because I hadn’t played at all and had already showered twice earlier that day. As the room slowly cleared out, I waited there patiently while Grady finished talking to a couple of the local reporters who were getting his take on the game for their stories the next day.
When he was finally done, he signaled for me to join him. I picked up my suitcase and followed him to the car in the parking lot. Like Grady, the car was old, but it seemed to run perfectly fine. Brady was already inside, waiting patiently.
You would have thought Coach had lost his very best friend in the world the way he responded on the drive back to his house that evening. I could see he was gripping the wheel real tight because the knuckles on his hands were white as a ghost. I tried to encourage him to talk about it by offering one or two of my own observations about the game. But he wasn’t in the mood to talk so I quickly abandoned the effort.
Later on I would figure it out. Coach was one of those people who hated losing with a passion, certainly more so than some of the players on the Heat. They seemed resigned to losing and had adjusted their expectations downward. But even now, at 69, Grady refused to do that. He hated losing more than anything else in the world; and the more I observed the man, the more I realized it affected how he looked at his players.
A player could have all the talent in the world, but if he was willing to live with losing Coach would never respect him. By contrast, a less talented player who played with passion and hated losing as much as he did was the kind of player he loved to coach.
Grady liked to say that good coaching could compensate for a lot of failings in a ballplayer. It’s hard to know whether he was right about that, but he believed it passionately and I remember admiring the man because he believed it and tried to share what he knew with his players.
We lost the next night as well and then the night after that, running our losing streak to eight games. By the time we lost that third game of the series our relief staff was decimated and Grady was in a snit. At one point during the game he walked over to me.
“Do you pitch, son?” he asked.
“Well, um, not really, sir,” I responded. “I mean, not really Coach; at least not since I was in Little League.”
“That’s good enough, son,” he replied. “I don’t have anyone left to throw in there tonight so you best get yourself ready. You may be pitching next inning.”
I couldn’t believe it. I mean, it was crazy, totally crazy, and I heard a couple of the guys snickering behind us.
“Go on, Ethan,” I heard Dylan say. “Get that little ass of yours down to the bullpen with the rest of the losers out there.”
Hearing that from Dylan was annoying enough, but the truth was I honestly didn’t know whether Coach was serious or not; whether I should head down to the bullpen and begin warming up or just stay seated where I was.
“Or maybe I’ll use you instead, Dylan,” Coach interjected, turning his attention to my least favorite teammate.
“All that hot air that comes out of your mouth would probably provide some good lift for the ball and confuse the hell out of their batters.”
I didn’t pitch that night. Like the previous two evenings, I didn’t get into the game at all and it was another somber drive back to the house as Coach struggled to figure out what he could do to break our losing streak. The truth is there wasn’t a lot he could do. By then it was becoming apparent to me we weren’t a very good team.
I remember being depressed when we got back to his place that evening. It was only three days, but by then it seemed like an eternity to me. I hadn’t really made any close friends on the team although both Mark and D.W. had been friendly enough. But the attitudes of most of the guys toward me ranged from indifference to downright hostility.
I was living with a 69 year old man, his equally aged wife, and their special needs son; and while they were nice people, I felt like I was imposing. On top of that, the team I was playing for wasn’t very good and Coach had apparently decided I wasn’t even good enough to play for a team that was lousy. All of this made me wonder whether this was what playing professional baseball was all about.
It began to occur to me that perhaps the Heat was not be the best team in the world to showcase my talents, whatever talents I had.