Bonus Story: Fourth of July
“Have you heard about the Fourth of July tournament?” Meric asked Zeke one morning before Tigers practice. Meric, Zeke, Pax, and Zoren had been the first ones to arrive, and while Pax and Zoren had immediately gone out to throw a ball around, Zeke and Meric took their time putting on their gloves and tightening their shoelaces.
“No, what is it?” Zeke asked.
“Well, it’s a nightmare to organize, for one thing,” Meric said, and they both laughed. “But it’s fun. Basically, there are four teams that get to play. Anyone can be a captain, if they get to the sign up sheet fast enough. The teams can have people from any age group, but the rule is that there have to be at least three 9-12 players on each team, ten people on a team.”
Zeke nodded, chewing on his lip.
“It’s basically a huge free-for-all, and we’d have a week before the Fourth to organize and practice.
“So that’s coming up pretty soon, right?”
“Two days from now,” Meric said, nodding. “And you and I still have official practices as two games before the Fourth. Plus we have to work with all the other teams’ schedules and classes…”
I get it,” Zeke said, laughing. “It’s basically impossible. But you’re making a team, right?”
Meric grinned. “We’re making a team. If you’re in.”
“Absolutely,” Zeke said, smiling and shaking Meric’s hand.
“I have a vision for the dream team,” Meric said, moving closer to Zeke as Kaden Smith walked into the dugout. “Show you after practice?”
“Awesome,” Zeke said, and he and Meric went out to the diamond to warm up their arms.
◊ ◊ ◊
After practice, Meric took Zeke back to his cabin, where none of his bunkmates were around. He and Meric sat on the floor, Zeke looking over Meric’s roster.
“Antonio already told me that he’s in,” Meric said, pointing at the list. “Unofficially, of course. And Pax told me that he’s participating in the relays, so he’s out.”
“Oh yeah,” Zeke said. “I heard the guys talking about those. Pax said that Hayes is running with them.”
Meric nodded. “Thought so. Do you think Deven could play for us?”
“He wouldn’t want to play outfield,” Zeke warned.
“I don’t need him in outfield. I need a catcher.”
Zeke grinned. “He’d love to play, then.”
Meric smiled. “Now it gets tough, though. I really want Trevor McCrorey to pitch for us. Antonio promised to try and bring it up, but Trevor’s been here for years and he’s never participated in any of the stuff on the Fourth.”
“Don’t know,” Meric said. “Pitchers are notoriously hard to get, though, since regular league already tires them out. And most of the willing ones were probably snatched months ago.”
“Unofficially,” Zeke said.
“Right,” Meric said, laughing. “Ryan-- Corey Ryan-- is already committed to a team. Nick Hoelzer recruited him.”
“Too bad,” Zeke said, looking at the roster, thinking. “You have a lot of 9-12s on here.”
“They’re just ideas, but I need Casey Newport.”
Zeke laughed. “I mean, he is pretty good. But he’s so tiny that anyone our ages would bowl him over just sliding into a base.”
“I want him to play outfield,” Meric said. “It’s common practice to have the little kids out there.”
“He’d do a good job, too.”
Zeke and Meric continued talking and planning for a while, and in the end, Zeke walked away with a job. Recruit Casey Newport. Meric would take care of the rest.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Where’ve you been?” Israel asked when Zeke got back to his cabin.
“Meric recruited me for the Fourth of July tournament.”
“Oh, I heard people talking about that,” Israel said, nodding.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Zeke said. He gave Israel a quick hug. “I really need to shower. Catch you later?”
“How much later?” Israel asked, cocking his eyebrows.
Zeke smiled. “Unsure? I’m supposed to do some recruiting.”
“All right, I see,” Israel said, smiling. “I’ll just be reading. You know where to find me.”
“I promise I’ll at least see you at dinner, okay?”
“Okay, Mr. Busy.”
Zeke smiled and grabbed his recreation clothes. He jogged to the showers, which were nearly empty, and took a nice, long shower, cheating the system by switching shower heads right after the one he was under turned off. Summer at East Ridge was the best.
When he was clean and dressed, he took his workout clothes back to his cabin, ruffled Israel’s hair, and left to search for Casey Newport.
Zeke checked the laundry room, the blacktop, and the baseball fields, but the kid was nowhere to be found. Just as Zeke was about to give up and look for Deven, he spotted Ben Porter, an eleven who played on Casey’s team. His name had been on Meric’s high priority recruit list, too.
“Hey Ben,” Zeke called, waving him over.
Ben waved back cautiously, so Zeke walked over to him. “Have you heard of the Fourth of July tournament?”
“Of course. I’m not a newbie,” Ben said, chomping on gum and moving it to the other side of his mouth.
“You want to play in it? For me and Meric Wochner.”
Ben smiled. “Really?”
“Yeah, of course. Can you help me find Casey Newport, too?”
Ben nodded excitedly. “I think he’s in his cabin. I’ll show you.”
Zeke followed Ben to the grass, weaving through all the cabins. “Your team has been doing pretty well this summer.”
“Yeah, we’ve been working really hard,” Ben said. “Our new captain makes us practice more.”
“Yeah,” Zeke said. A big problem in the 9-12s, and even some of the lower 13-16 teams, was people not showing up to practice. Ben’s team, the Rangers, had been trash when Zeke had first come to East Ridge, but since they had gotten a new captain and many of the players had been kicked off the team, they were doing much better.
“This one,” Ben said, running up to the door of one of the cabins and knocking.
The door swung open just seconds later. “Hey,” a boy Zeke didn’t recognize said.
“Casey here?” Ben asked.
The boy turned and shouted, “Casey!”
“I’m right here, nimrod,” Casey said from inside the cabin. The other boy moved, and Casey took his place in the doorframe. “Zeke Hallaway?” he asked, his eyes growing wide.
“That’s me,” Zeke said, his ears burning. “Ben and I wanted to know if you’d be interested in playing on our team for the Fourth of July tournament.”
“I’d do anything for you,” Casey said, nodding and grinning, showing off two missing teeth.
“Just keep an eye out for me and Meric so we can get you information, okay?”
“Meric Wochner?” Casey asked, grinning even bigger. “This is the best day ever!”
Zeke smiled, and he and Ben left Casey to tell his cabinmates. “I have to go find my friend, so I’ll catch you later, okay?”
“Okay, see ya,” Ben said, and he took off running back in the direction of the baseball fields.
◊ ◊ ◊
Zeke sat down at the Snickerdudels’ and Tigers’ table in the mess hall right at 5 o’clock, when dinner was supposed to start. Because it was summer, though, the schedule had relaxed a little bit, so no food had been served yet, and only Zeke, Israel, Ember, Kelsey, Wyatt, and Kaden were there.
“Has anyone seen Deven?” Zeke asked after squeezing Israel’s leg under the table.
“He wasn’t in the cabin all day long,” Ember said.
“I think I saw him at the East Diamond after lunch,” Wyatt said.
“Okay, thanks,” Zeke said. “I just need to find him at some point.”
Wyatt nodded with an understanding smile, but didn’t say anything. Zeke nearly sighed, relieved, because he didn’t need Kaden trying to join his and Meric’s team. Zeke liked Kaden, even if he was a little cocky and even if he said edgy things sometimes, but he was one of the weakest players on the Tigers.
“Line’s open,” Kelsey said, and they all got up to get food.
“Did you get your recruiting done?” Israel asked Zeke quietly, glancing at the back of Kaden’s head a few places away from them in line.
Zeke smiled, loving Israel for picking up on so much. “Yeah. I just need to get Deven now. Luckily the other people were pretty easy.”
“Good,” Israel said, touching Zeke’s hand quickly. “I finished my book.”
“Did you like it?”
Israel shrugged. “Wasn’t bad.”
“So, basically, better than any book I’ve ever read.”
Israel laughed. “Someday, Hallaway, I’ll find you a book you love.”
“Good luck with that.”
After they all got food, they headed back to the table and started eating. Pax, Hayes, Winship, Gray, and Amoni joined them shortly after.
“You’re looking at the relay dream team right here,” Amoni said proudly.
“Minus Matt,” Hayes said, and Winship smiled. “I don’t run for fun.”
“I really think we could win,” Pax said, smiling.
“I hope you guys do,” Israel said. “We’ll all be cheering for you, regardless.”
Zeke looked around to make sure no one else was listening. “I’m putting together a baseball dream team with Meric, but don’t tell.”
Gray grinned. “Too bad we stole Pax and Jordan.”
“It’s okay, Meric’s got better people lined up,” Zeke teased, and Pax smacked a fist into his other hand before losing his composure and laughing.
“We’re trying to get Justus Hausmann and Trevor McCrorey,” Zeke said.
“Good luck with that,” Jordan said. “Trevor don’t play for nobody, and Hausmann’s a prick.”
Zeke shrugged. “We’ll see.”
Deven showed up for dinner after Zeke had finished eating, and Kelsey moved so that Deven could sit next to Zeke.
“Hey,” Zeke said.
“Hey,” Deven said, dropping his tray and swinging his leg over the bench.
“How would you feel about playing in the Fourth of July tournament?”
Deven looked at him. “With you?”
Deven smiled and pushed Zeke’s shoulder so that he bumped into Israel. “Get out.”
“Really,” Zeke insisted, smiling. “He asked for you to play catcher specifically.”
“Let’s go,” Deven said, laughing and digging into his food.
“I knew you’d be in.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The next day, Meric found Zeke at breakfast. “Did you get Casey and Deven?”
“And Ben Porter,” Zeke said, smiling.
“Oh, thank God,” Meric said, laughing. “I spent so long trying to get pitchers that I barely got to talk to anyone else.”
“Did you get Hausmann?”
“Yup. And Tommy Arkwright.”
Zeke gave him a high five.
“Bad news, though,” Meric sighed. “Well, actually, good news first. I got Trevor.”
“Nice,” Zeke said, grinning.
“But I talked to literally every other 17-18 and 13-16 pitcher, and they were all taken or they refused to play.” Meric rubbed his eyes. “God, I even bought Tyree a candy bar.”
Zeke stifled a laugh. “So are we just going to go without a second pitcher?”
Meric shook his head. “Can’t. Too many games in one day for one guy.”
“So who’s going to pitch?”
“Oh,” Zeke said. Dayton was only twelve. “I guess he is the best pitcher in his league.”
Meric nodded. “And he’s nearly thirteen. But it’s not exactly ideal.”
“Yeah,” Zeke agreed. “We can just have him pitch when we’re ahead by a few runs or something.”
Meric nodded again. “My thoughts exactly.”
“Is there anything left to do?” Zeke asked. “Besides practicing, of course.”
“Tomorrow morning, when they wake us up, that’s when the sign up sheet goes up. I’m going to try to make myself wake up early, somehow, and sprint there. If I don’t get our names down as captains, all of this work we did will be for nothing.”
“Are there really that many people trying to put together teams?”
“I already know of four other people, not including us, who have been recruiting for their teams. There could be even more.”
“Oh,” Zeke said.
“So should I try to wake up early too, so we have better odds?”
Meric shook his head. “Nah, you just relax. I got this.”
“Well, then best of luck.”
“Thanks. See you at Tigers practice tonight, right?”
◊ ◊ ◊
The next day, after Zeke’s summer class and lunch, he, Meric, and Deven went looking for the rest of their team in hopes of practicing.
“I’m just so relieved that I got there when I did,” Meric said. “Somehow, Peyton Aldridge had already signed up and disappeared when I got there.”
“So you were second?” Deven asked.
“Yeah, but literally right as I finished writing the ‘M’ in my name, Nick Hoelzer and Zeus Evans charged in.”
“Zeus Evans?” Zeke said, laughing.
“Right?” Meric said, and he and Deven laughed. “His name may be up there as a captain, but I heard that Shawn Creed was trying to make a deal with him.”
“I don’t think he’d be a much better captain,” Deven said.
“But at least he can actually pitch,” Zeke said, and they all laughed.
Meric decided that they should split up to look for their team, so Deven went after Justus and Tommy, Meric after Antonio and Trevor, leaving Zeke to find Dayton, Ben, and Casey.
Zeke went to Casey’s cabin and knocked, the door opening almost immediately.
“Are we practicing?” Casey asked, already dressed in his workout clothes and his Rangers hat.
“Yeah,” Zeke said, smiling. “Do you know where Ben and Dayton Schubert are?”
“Dayton has a game soon,” Casey said. “But Ben is probably in his cabin or at the fields to watch the game.”
“Can you take me to his cabin?”
Casey ran off, and Zeke ran after him. A minute later, they knocked on Ben’s door, but no one answered. Casey shrugged at Zeke and led the way to the baseball diamonds, where Zeke spotted Deven, Ben, and Tommy by the West Diamond where the Wildcats and Aces were warming up.
“Guess Dayton won’t be available,” Deven said when he saw Zeke.
“Yeah,” Zeke said. “That’s okay, though. No luck finding Hausmann?”
“He was in his cabin. Said he’d get dressed then be down.”
“Nice,” Zeke said.
They ended up watching the warm ups for a few minutes until the rest of their team showed up.
“So what’s the plan?” Trevor asked Meric when they were all together.
Meric beckoned for Zeke to stand next to him, so Zeke took Justus’s spot. “Does everyone know each other?” Meric asked.
“That’s Trevor McCrorey!” Casey said, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice. “And you’re Tommy Arkwright, and you’re Antonio Cervantes, and you’re Justus Hausmann!”
Meric looked at Zeke, his eyebrows raised, and they laughed.
“And who are you?” Trevor asked Casey, the corner of his mouth twitching up.
“I’m Casey Newport. And this is my teammate, Ben.”
Trevor nodded, then turned to Meric. “I don’t see another pitcher.”
Meric grimaced. “That’s because, uh, he’s out there,” he said, pointing to the Wildcats, who were warming up in front of their dugout.
“You gotta be fu--” Trevor looked down at Casey and Ben. “You gotta be kidding me, Wochner. You said--”
“I’m sorry,” Meric said.
Zeke held his breath. He had never seen Meric shrink away from someone like that. “It was the best we could do, and he’s the best pitcher in his league, so it’s not as bad as it seems.”
Trevor crossed his arms. “I’m not pitching in every inning of every game.”
“You won’t be, I promise,” Meric said.
Justus shifted on his feet, looking back towards the cabins.
“Meric has a plan,” Zeke promised, addressing the whole team. “Dayton will pitch when we’re ahead by a couple runs, and we definitely intend to be ahead from the start.”
“Heck yeah,” Tommy said, grinning.
“They won’t waste our time, Trev,” Antonio promised.
“Come one, guys,” Meric said, pulling his glove out of his waistband. “Let’s get to work.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Practice went very well once Trevor and Justus realized that Meric knew what he was doing. Even though Zeke was co-captain, he knew that Meric was a much better leader, so he let him organize everything and do most of the talking. Zeke worked to lead by example, asking all the right questions, giving good answers when Meric asked a question, and encouraging the team when needed.
At the end of the practice, the team agreed to practice again two days later.
“We have a game that day, though,” Ben said.
“At this time?” Meric asked.
Ben and Casey nodded.
“Then we can do an evening practice.”
“I have practice then,” Justus said.
“Me too,” Deven said.
Meric rubbed his face. “We can do without you guys for one practice.”
Justus and Deven nodded, and the team dispersed. Meric and Zeke picked up the bats and balls off the diamond in silence.
“See you at Tigers practice tonight,” Meric said when they were done. “Rest up, okay?”
“You too,” Zeke said, smiling.
◊ ◊ ◊
At the next Fourth of July practice, Zeke was glad that Justus couldn’t be there. The day before, the Tigers had lost to the Pirates.
It wasn’t the loss that really bothered Zeke, it was the fact that the ump had made a bad call. Zeke had touched third before Justus had tagged him, but the ump had ruled it as an out. Zeke knew that Justus knew it had been a bad call, but after the game, when Zeke had joked about it, Justus had insisted that the ump had been right.
Zeke knew it was dumb to be upset with Justus, but he couldn’t help it. Why couldn’t the guy just be honest? Israel had tried to calm Zeke down the night before, but Zeke had still lost sleep fuming over the incident.
At practice, Meric put Zeke to work helping Casey and Ben practice their fielding while Meric led a different drill with the older guys and Trevor gave Dayton some pitching pointers. Casey and Ben were pretty good, but Zeke pushed them until he could tell that Ben was getting frustrated. He reminded them that they were going to be playing older, better players, so they had to reach a higher standard.
Well, Zeke thought to himself, if many of the older guys playing in the tournament are better than these kids.
When practice was over, Zeke made sure to compliment Ben and Casey on their attention and hard work before he left with Meric and Deven to shower.
“I’m so tired,” Meric admitted as they walked.
“At least we only have one practice to worry about tomorrow,” Zeke said.
“I have a game,” Deven said, sighing. “But we’re playing Tommy, so it’ll be fun.”
“Playing Justus sure wasn’t fun,” Meric said, laughing a little.
“Yeah, Zeke really got the bad end of that one call,” Deven said.
“Tell me about it,” Zeke groaned.
“Hey,” Meric said, looking Zeke in the eye. “It’s just one bad call. Not your fault. They happen.”
Zeke shrugged. “I just wish Justus would have admitted that it was wrong. Even after the game.”
“He probably believes it was right at some level,” Meric said. “Some people can convince themselves that they saw what they wanted to see.”
Zeke nodded. “Still bothers me.”
“Well, you have a couple days to get over it before we have to be teammates with Hausmann again,” Deven said, and Meric nodded in agreement. “For the dream team to work, you and Hausmann have to work together.”
“I know,” Zeke said. “I’ll get over it.”
◊ ◊ ◊
On July third, team names and rosters were due, so Meric asked the team to come up with a name.
“Can we be the ‘Cthulus?’” Ben asked. “It would be so cool.”
“The names are usually joke names,” Meric said.
“So ‘Cthulus’ would actually work pretty well,” Trevor said. Zeke smiled, and some other guys laughed.
“Hey,” Ben said, turning red.
“We should choose a name that sounds totally harmless,” Antonio suggested. “Then, even though people know us as players, subconsciously they’ll be like, ‘That team is no big deal.’”
“Tony the intellectual,” Trevor said, laughing.
“It’s not a bad idea, though,” Deven said, and Zeke and Meric agreed.
“We could be the ‘Unicorns,’” Tommy suggested.
“No, the ‘Fairies,’” Justus said.
“The ‘My Little Ponies,’” Dayton said, laughing.
“I like ‘Fairies,’” Meric said.
Zeke shifted uncomfortably, having heard some guys call Israel a fairy. He had no idea what it meant, but he didn't like it. “How about, uh, the ‘Sugar Plum Fairies?’”
Meric laughed and clapped his hands together. “That’s perfect.”
Everyone nodded and smiled except Ben, who crossed his arms and chomped on his gum. “I still think ‘Cthulus’ is better.”
“Sorry, buddy,” Meric said. “I think we’re gonna go with ‘Sugar Plum Fairies.’”
Ben shrugged and blew a bubble, which Casey reached up and popped with a finger. Ben pushed him and Casey stumbled into Hausmann who caught him and said, “Watch it, little dude.”
“Sorry,” Casey said, turning red.
“Okay, so,” Meric said, “Zeke and I will get you guys the game schedule as soon as possible. We’re going to head up to the activities office right after this to turn in the final roster, and then hopefully we’ll get enough schedules to drop in your mailboxes.”
“Can I come?” Casey asked hopefully.
Zeke shrugged and looked at Meric, who shrugged. “Sure.”
Everyone dispersed except Meric, Zeke, Casey, and Deven.
“You coming with the big kids too?” Zeke teased Deven, who shoved him. “I have nothing else to do,” he said defensively.
Zeke grinned and turned away.
“We’ll have to run to my place to make the list,” Meric said, leading the way to his cabin.
While Casey scampered after Meric and talked his ear off, Deven and Zeke trailed behind.
“Pax said their relay team turned in their roster this morning, and they literally called their team ‘The Dream Team.’” Deven said.
Zeke raised his eyebrows and laughed. “So if they lose, they’re going to look really stupid.”
Deven smiled. “Well, Gray and Amoni insisted. And the relay isn’t like the tournament anyway, it’s just by age group. So if you think about all the guys who are playing in the tournament and the guys who just want a day off, they really are the dream team. You know how fast they are.”
Zeke nodded. “I think we have a really good chance, too.”
“Yeah,” Deven agreed. “I heard Zeus Evans and Shawn Creed’s team ended up with four 9-12 players instead of three. No one else wanted to play for them.”
“I thought Lyon was playing for them.”
“Yeah, but only because a 17 Shawn recruited quit.”
Zeke laughed. “Poor Lyon.”
“For sure. He told me yesterday that it’s a complete and total shit show.”
They arrived at Meric’s cabin, and Meric asked Deven and Casey to wait outside while he and Zeke went inside to write down their final roster and sign it at the bottom. “So official,” Zeke said as he signed his name sloppily.
“Well apparently they had problems in the past of co-captains turning in rosters before they had both agreed, so this year the rules included that we both have to sign before we turn in the roster.”
“Thanks for including me.”
“Hey, you’ve been a big help,” Meric said. “Don’t ask like it was charity or something. I couldn’t have gotten this far without you.”
“Well thanks,” Zeke said, his ears burning. Meric led the way out of the cabin and up to the Visitation Center where, outside the activities office, there was already one roster taped to the wall.
“‘Low Expectations,’” Deven read, laughing.
Meric and Zeke looked at the roster as Casey jumped behind them and complained that he couldn’t see. Zeke and Meric moved to the side and kept reading.
“Still can’t see,” Casey said sheepishly. “I’m short and my eyes aren’t that good.”
Meric sighed, went around behind Casey, and picked him up, holding him as he read the roster. Deven and Zeke nearly died laughing as Meric’s face turned redder and redder.
“Aidan and Scott are really bad,” Casey said about two of the 9-12 players on Low Expectations. Meric sighed and put him down.
“Jeremy’s pretty good, though,” Deven said.
“Not as good as me,” Casey said, puffing up his chest.
“Yeah,” Zeke said, laughing. “You’re pretty good, Casey.”
Meric knocked on the activities director’s door. The activities director answered, plucked the roster from Meric’s hand before he could say anything, handed him the schedules, and shut the door.
“Guess he’s pretty busy?” Meric said, looking at the schedule.
“Guess so,” Zeke said.
◊ ◊ ◊
Zeke and Meric returned to the Visitation Center that evening to see if the other rosters had been put up, and they had. The third and fourth teams were called the Firecrackers and the Hotdogs.
“Hotdogs?” Zeke asked.
“Trevor said they always, always serve hotdogs on the Fourth,” Meric told him.
“No burgers or anything?”
“Probably too expensive.”
“Dang,” Zeke said, sighing. He read the rosters, unable to decide if Nick Hoelzer’s team, Firecrackers, or Low Expectations was going to be the hardest to beat.
“Nick Hoelzer himself honestly isn’t that good,” Meric said. “But he has good pitchers and decent field players, so if he organized them well, it could be a good team.”
“I think they’re probably more of a threat than Low Expectations,” Zeke said. “Sam’s not the best pitcher and Orlando isn’t a great batter, especially when he’s mad, and none of their other players are anything special, except maybe Jeremy Walker.”
“I mean, Haddon Wells isn’t too bad.”
Zeke shrugged. “Guess we’ll just have to see what happens tomorrow.”
◊ ◊ ◊
The Sugar Plum Fairies’ first game was at 8:00 a.m. Zeke woke up before wake-up and stared at the ceiling until 6:30, when wake-up rang over the speakers. His cabin mates woke up in a good mood, since the only things going on today were games, food, and fireworks. While Zeke, Pax, Deven, Amoni, and Gray got dressed and went to get breakfast, Israel, Kelsey, and Ember lay on their sides and talked.
“Our first race is at eight-thirty,” Pax told Zeke and Deven, “so we won’t be able to catch the first part of the game.”
“No biggie,” Zeke assured them. “I hope you guys win.”
“You too,” Amoni and Pax said.
At breakfast, Meric, Tommy, Antonio, Ben, and Casey sat at the Snickerdudels’ table. Jordan Hayes put his tray down just as the Sugar Plum Fairies were leaving for warm ups.
“Good luck,” Zeke told him.
“You too, man. Kill it.”
“Thanks,” Zeke said, following his teammates to throw away his trash and return his tray.
When they got to the East Diamond, Justus and Trevor were waiting in the dugout. “Where’re the socks?” Hausmann asked, yawning.
“I got them,” Meric said, holding up a bag. Since none of the teams in the tournament had real uniforms, each team had to come up with something to set them apart. Zeke, Deven, Antonio, and Meric had pitched in to buy long, pink baseball socks from the store, which the team had agreed to wear with their workout clothes.
“The Firecrackers all got red East Ridge shirts,” Justus said.
“Well we look better since everything is matching except our shoes and hats,” Deven said, pulling on his socks.
Once they were all ready, Meric took them out of the dugout to start warming up. Zeke stole glances at the other team to see how they were working together, and he had to admit that they were looking decent in their warmups.
The Sugar Plum Fairies were fielding first, so when game time came, they huddled up, put their hands in, shouted “Sugar Plum Fairies,” and ran out to their spots. For the tournament, Zeke was playing third base to change it up, but Justus had insisted on playing shortstop, so he jogged out next to Zeke.
“Have a good game, man,” Justus said.
“You too, man,” Zeke said, punching his left hand into his glove.
Deven crouched behind the plate in the catching gear he had borrowed from his teammate. Zeke knew he was nervous, since it was his first time catching in an actual game, so he flipped him a thumbs up. Deven had always done well in practice, so Zeke wasn’t worried.
Nick Hoelzer came up to bat first and Trevor smiled into his glove, which even Zeke knew, from their short time playing together, meant that Trevor was about to throw a fastball. Trevor threw the pitch and Nick swung and missed. After a second strike, Nick managed to hit the ball. He ran to first as Casey snatched the ball in center field and threw it to Meric. It hit his glove a millisecond too late, and Nick was declared safe.
Next up to bat was Jacob Chapman, who Zeke knew to be a weak batter. Trevor struck him out easily, and moved on to Landon Crush, who smashed the first pitch into the outfield. Tommy raced after it, and Zeke tried to keep an eye on him and the runners. Tommy grabbed the ball just as Nick rounded second base. He lobbed it to Zeke, who had no choice but to move off of his base in order to catch it. Zeke lunged back to third base as Nick slid, barely getting him out. With no time to congratulate himself, he threw the ball to Antonio’s outstretched glove on second, and they barely missed getting Landon out as well.
The crowd cheered as Antonio threw the ball back to Trevor, but Zeke pounded his glove, wishing that Tommy could have made a better throw so Zeke could have gotten Nick and Landon out.
The Firecrackers only scored one run before the Sugar Plum Fairies got three outs and ran to their dugout. Meric got there first and gave everyone high fives on their way in. “Remember guys,” he said, smiling, “this is our time to pull ahead so that Dayton can pitch the next inning.”
“Yeah, go Tony!” Casey said, clapping and looking at Antonio, who was up to bat first. Antonio gave Casey a small smile, then went out to the plate.
Braden Sharp came out to the mound, leaving Corey Ryan, Zeke and Meric’s teammate and best pitcher, sitting on the bench. Zeke couldn’t decide if Nick was using some weird strategy or if he truly thought that Sharp was the better pitcher, because Ryan was clearly better.
Cervantes managed to hit a double on the second pitch, after the first pitch was declared a ball. The Firecrackers’ right fielder, an eleven named Caden Hill, could have made the hit a single, but he fumbled the play. Zeke smiled to himself as he watched, deciding that he was definitely going to try to hit towards Caden.
Zeke was sixth of ten in the batting order, and by the time he got to the plate, his team was up 3-1 with just one out. Deven was on third base, so Zeke’s plan of hitting towards Caden in right field was still on. He tapped the plate with his bat then put it up to his shoulder, telling himself that Sharp was either going to walk him or he was going to make a run. All Sharp knew how to throw was a fastball, and Zeke had hit plenty of Sharp fastballs. There was no way in hell he was going to strike out.
The first pitch came, flying over Zeke’s head. The second went to his left. “Come on,” Zeke mumbled, itching to hit something out of the park.
The third pitch came quickly, and Zeke swung through, connecting with the ball, and dropped the bat and pumped his arms and legs towards first base. On the way, he stole a glance at Seth Miller, the center fielder, chasing the ball, which hit the fence.
Zeke rounded first base, then second, making it to third without seeing the ball anywhere close. He headed home where the catcher, Ace Ludwig, stood holding out his glove and shouting. Zeke gave the last steps everything he had, then hit the ground and slid into home plate. As he came up to his knee, he heard the ball smack into Ace’s glove.
Zeke grinned to himself, jogging back to the dugout as the crowd cheered. His teammates all pat him on the back as he walked to the end of the bench to get water and sit down.
“That’s what I’m talking about, Hallaway,” Meric said, nodding at him.
Zeke nodded back, smiling a little, then sat down next to Deven on the bench.
“It is so good to play with you guys,” Deven said. “You don’t even know. Baseball hasn’t been this fun in forever.”
By the time the third out came around, the Sugar Plum Fairies were winning 9-1.
“They must just be plain embarrassed,” Hausmann said, laughing. Zeke, Deven, and Trevor laughed, agreeing.
“Dayton, you’re up, bud,” Meric said, patting him on the back. Dayton stood up and nodded, looking nervous.
“You’re going to do great,” Zeke promised.
“Yeah,” Tommy agreed. “Those guys can’t bat for shit, anyway.”
“Tommy,” Meric scolded, glancing at Ben and Casey.
“It’s not like we haven’t heard it before, Meric,” Ben said, rolling his eyes. “You don’t have to be our mom or something.”
Meric rolled his eyes back. “Then get your ass out to the field. What are you walking for?”
Everyone except Trevor ran out to the field, Zeke smiling to himself.
Dayton ended up walking the first batter, which caused Meric to run over and whisper something to him. Dayton nodded solemnly, took a deep breath, and pitched better after that. Even though he gave up runs that Trevor wouldn’t have, he did a pretty bang up job for a twelve year old, leaving the score at 9-6 when the Tigers went to bat again.
The rest of the game, since it was only five innings, went very quickly, but had similar results. The Sugar Plum Fairies won 19-10, and Dayton pitched the rest of the game. After they high fived the other team, Meric gathered everyone together, a big smile on his face. “First off, let’s all give Dayton a hand.”
The team clapped for him, and Dayton blushed.
“Otherwise, I think we can do better fielding in the next game, don’t you guys?”
The team nodded, and Meric looked at Zeke. “Got anything?”
“Uh,” Zeke said, surprised to be put on the spot. “Since our next game isn’t until one, make sure you take all the time you can to get out of the sun and get off your feet.”
“Don’t underestimate the importance of that,” Meric said, nodding. “Drink lots of water and eat something. If you don’t have food and you’re hungry, come find me.”
“Thanks Meric,” Tommy said.
“Well,” Antonio said, stretching his arms above his head. “See you guys at one.” He and Trevor walked away together.
Zeke and Deven grabbed their stuff from the dugout and headed back to the cabin, where Ember sat at one of the desks, alone.
“Where’s everyone else?” Deven asked.
“Races or something. Not sure,” Ember said. “Did you win?”
Zeke smiled at Deven. “You going to change clothes?”
He shrugged. “No point. But I have granola bars if you want one.”
Zeke went over and took one, then followed Deven’s example of sitting down in the middle of the room to eat.
“Did Israel even come to the game?” Deven asked as he peeled back the wrapper.
“He did,” Zeke said, taking a bite. “I saw him, and everyone else, a couple times, but I think the Dream Team had a race after the game or something.”
“Want to go watch?”
“If it’s not already over, sure.”
Zeke and Deven finished their granola bars easily and took turn gulping water from the bathroom sink before heading in the direction of the trail, where people were making lots of noise.
“There,” Deven said a few seconds after the people had come into their sight. He pointed to the backs of Israel and Kelsey’s heads.
Zeke ran towards Israel stealthily and hugged him from behind, and Deven did the same to Kelsey, laughing the whole time.
“Hey you,” Israel said, grinning and turning to hug Zeke back. “Nice game.”
“Thanks,” Zeke said, smiling. “I’m guessing the Dream Team won their first heat?”
“It was barely even a race, honestly.”
“And they’re running now?”
“Yeah. We got here a little late so we can’t see much, but right now we’re just waiting for Pax to emerge from the woods. If he’s first, and especially if no one is super close, they’ll probably win.”
“I know how races work,” Zeke teased, putting his arm around Israel. He felt like he hadn’t seen him all day.
Cheers erupted to their left, and they craned their necks expectantly. Just barely, Zeke spotted two people coming out of the woods, and he was pretty sure that one of them was Pax. As the runners got closer, Zeke confirmed that it was Pax, but he was behind the other guy. Barely.
Mere feet before the finish line, Pax pulled ahead by a nose and the race was called in his favor. Zeke, Israel, Deven, and Kelsey jumped up and down and cheered, along with many others in the crowd. They pushed through some people to congratulate Pax, who stood a few feet away from the finish line, breathing heavily and shaking out his legs.
“Nice win,” Deven said, patting Pax’s shoulder.
Pax grinned. “Thanks. My legs are burning like crazy, though. I basically just full-on sprinted four hundred meters, and I was so not ready for that.”
“The other team must have been good,” Kelsey said.
Pax shrugged. “Amoni was about even with their first runner, Jordan smoked their second guy and Gray kept the lead on the third guy, but we dropped the baton in the hand-off. That’s why it ended up being so close.”
“Well at least you won,” Israel said. “And your next race isn’t even for a couple hours, right?”
“I think it’s at twelve-thirty,” Pax said. Zeke looked around and spotted Gray, Jordan, and Amoni coming towards them.
“Did you get him, Pax?” Amoni asked hopefully.
“Sure did,” Deven said.
Gray sighed in relief. “I’m so, so sorry. I really thought you had the baton when I let go.”
“It’s okay,” Pax promised. “I promise I won’t drop it next time.”
“Well,” Israel said, smiling. “Why don’t we get you star athletes back inside to rest and recharge?”
“That sounds amazing,” Amoni said, and Israel took Zeke’s hand. Their friends surrounded them and they all walked back to their cabin together.
◊ ◊ ◊
After lunch, at which Zeke inhaled his food, drank a lot of water, and laughed a lot, he headed down to the baseball diamonds with Deven and Meric to warm up. The rest of their friends went to watch the Dream Team’s race before the game, so Deven, Meric, and Zeke relaxed in the shade that the dugout provided, waiting for the rest of the team to show up.
When the whole team was there, about fifteen minutes before game time, they began warming up. The other team, Low Expectations, who had won their first game by a wide margin, stayed in the dugout, laughing and shouting. They only began warming up about five minutes before the game started.
The Sugar Plum Fairies were up to bat first and soon felt the effects of Low Expectations’ better pitchers. In the second half of the first inning, they also realized that they had better batters than the Firecrackers. Even though Casey had been right about Scott and Aidan, who played outfield, being bad, having pitchers like Peyton Aldridge and Sam Baker on the mound made it harder to get the ball to the outfield.
After the first two innings, the score was 2-1 Sugar Plum Fairies. In the third inning, Zeke was up to bat first. He stood at the plate for a long time before a ball came his way, because Peyton liked to take his time on the mound. Just as Zeke was wondering if he would ever throw the ball, Peyton snapped into form and threw the first pitch. Strike one.
Strike two came in the form of a curveball, making Zeke grit his teeth as the catcher, a twelve named Jeremy Walker, threw the ball back to Peyton. When the third pitch came, Zeke swung, hitting a line drive straight into Orlando Hendricks’ glove on first base.
Zeke walked back to the dugout, disappointed, and sat down heavily on the end of the bench. He was sure that he could have hit the curveball if he had played against Peyton before, but he had never been on the plate to face such a good pitcher. He had only been in the crowd.
“Hey, no big deal,” Deven said, seeing Zeke’s face. “That curveball was one of Peyton’s best. Don’t worry, okay?”
Unsurprisingly, Ben struck out after Zeke and came back to the dugout, discouraged. Zeke and Deven gave him a pep talk and forgot about everything else until Trevor’s bat connected with the ball and made all of them look up. Zeke whooped as Trevor rounded first base. He made it to second before Rhett Padilla, playing center field, was able to get the ball into the second baseman’s glove.
Meric walked up to the plate as the second baseman threw the ball back to Peyton. “He’s got this,” Deven said. “I can feel it.”
The whole team was on the edge of the bench as Meric stood ready for the first pitch. Zeke held his breath, but he didn’t have to hold it for long. Meric hit the first pitch, just barely, and it hit the ground just inside the third baseline in the outfield. Scott, the twelve year-old left fielder, was still struggling to grab the ball as Trevor rounded third base.
“Hustle, Scott, hustle!” Sam Baker yelled from the dugout, but it was too late, and Trevor McCrorey left a footprint on home base. Scott finally got a good grip on the ball and turned, trying to figure out where to throw it as Meric teased him, leading off a little from second base, then going back. Scott threw the ball to second, and Meric stayed as the second baseman threw the ball back to Peyton.
“Nice job, Trev,” Antonio said when Trevor got to the dugout. Everyone else joined in congratulating him as he sat down on the bench next to Ben.
Justus Hausmann went up to bat and nearly struck out, just managing to hit the third pitch. He barely got to first before the ball, and Meric played it safe and stayed on second.
“Come on Cervantes, come on,” Zeke whispered to himself as Antonio made his way to the plate.
“No one yell anything, remember?” Trevor said. “Tony’s a lot better when the team isn’t putting pressure on him.”
The dugout stayed silent until Antonio hit the second pitch. Meric had been ready, so he had had a good lead off of second when Antonio’s bat had connected with the ball. He made it to third right before the ball bounced and Kevin Garry jumped for it, his feet leaving second base. He barely managed to snag it as Justus hit the ground to slide into second. Kevin scrambled back to his base, but Justus was declared safe as Meric touched home plate.
Right after that, Dayton struck out, leaving the Sugar Plum Fairies running out to the field with a 4-1 lead. The rest of the game continued similarly, staying pretty close in score and ending 10-8 in favor of Zeke’s team. Neither Dayton nor Ben managed to hit a ball the entire game, and Trevor ended up pitching all five innings because of the close score. Casey, however, had managed to hit a single once and stay on base until being tagged on his way to third base.
“What a game, huh?” Casey said, grinning as the Sugar Plum Fairies grouped up after high fiving the other team.
“Oh, shut up,” Dayton said bitterly.
“Dayton, be nice,” Zeke said. “It was a pretty wild game, especially compared to this morning, and it wasn’t anyone’s best.”
“Good news is that this put us straight into the final,” Meric said, smiling. The team cheered, and Meric glanced at Dayton and Ben. “Don’t take all these strikes too hard, okay? Peyton is a really great pitcher, and you three especially,” he pointed to Dayton, Ben, and Casey, “should be proud that you even swung at some of those.”
“Yeah, you guys rocked it,” Antonio said, slapping Casey on the back.
“I’ll see you guys at seven, okay?” Meric said. “Rest up. There’s a good chance that we’ll be playing these guys again.”
Zeke and Deven got to join Israel, Kelsey, and Ember in watching the Dream Team win their final race. Pax’s legs gave out when Deven jumped on him after the race, and he and Deven lay on the ground laughing for long enough that Jordan, Gray, and Amoni dog piled him. Zeke and his other friends joined, just for laughs, and got up quickly.
“You guys are trying to kill me, I swear,” Pax said when everyone got off of him. He held his arms up, and Deven and Amoni pulled him to his feet.
They all headed to dinner together, Zeke swinging Israel’s hand as they walked. He felt such relief when he sat down at the table that he wondered how he had survived every other hot summer day at East Ridge. Zeke ate his hotdogs, chips, and potato salad slowly, mentally preparing himself for the final game. He was sure that his team could win if everyone showed up well-rested and hydrated, but if they were exhausted, they were going to lose.
Meric came up to Zeke when he was done eating and informed him that they were indeed playing Low Expectations, who had beaten the Firecrackers at their four o’clock game. He had rolled his eyes when he had seen Zeke drinking soda, but Zeke knew that a little sugar wasn’t going to hurt him. Plus, this was the only time they ever got soda at East Ridge unless their parents brought it for them on visitation day.
Zeke found himself feeling a little bad for the Hotdogs, who had lost both of their games by wide margins. Someone had even told Zeke that Shawn Creed, one of their pitchers and captains, hadn’t even bothered to show up to the second game.
The Sugar Plum Fairies were all at the field by 6:30, clearly excited for the final game of the tournament. Meric forced them to hang out in the dugout for ten more minutes before warming up.
Warm ups went well, though it was clear to Zeke that Ben and Tommy were much more tired than they had been at the other games. He made sure to give each of them extra encouragement when he could, hoping it would help them keep pushing.
For this game, Low Expectations was up to bat first. Zeke and Meric hyped up their team before they ran out to their spots on the field, and even though Zeke’s feet hurt a little bit, his blood was pumping and his head was in the game. Trevor’s must have been, too, because he struck out two batters in a row before Haddon Wells hit a pitch and made it to second base. Unfortunately for him, Aidan hit a pop fly right after. Trevor and Justus both ran for it, but Justus was the one who caught it and threw it to Zeke on third to get Haddon out.
“Show offs,” Haddon muttered as he slumped back to his dugout. Zeke laughed to himself quietly as he ran back to his own dugout to get ready to bat.
As the game went on, it became clear that the Sugar Plum Fairies were more rested and more focused than Low Expectations, making Low Expectations’ confidence crumble. The Sugar Plum Fairies took advantage of the situation and beat Low Expectations handily, the crowd cheering as the last out of the game was made and the teams lined up to high five and say “Good game, good game.”
“Excellent game, guys,” Meric said, grinning as the Sugar Plum Fairies huddled up for the last time. “We had a good run.”
“Heck yeah!” Deven yelled, and everyone else cheered, laughing.
“It was a joy to play with you all.”
“Absolutely,” Zeke agreed. “And thanks for pretending I was your captain.”
“Oh, c’mon,” Antonio said. “You did a good job.”
Zeke’s ears burned as others smiled and agreed.
“Hey, well, I just wanted to say that I’m glad I decided to play,” Trevor said. “It ended up being a really good time.”
“Yeah,” everyone else agreed.
“One last ‘Sugar Plum Fairies?’” Meric asked, putting his hand in the middle.
Everyone agreed and put their hands in on top of his.
“Zeke, will you do the honors?”
Zeke smiled and took a deep breath. “One, two, three--”
“Sugar Plum Fairies!” they all shouted, smiling and throwing their hands into the air.
They all dispersed to find their friends in the crowd. Israel ran up and hugged Zeke, who spun him around. Deven joined the hug, and the rest of the Snickerdudels followed suit.
“Two winning teams in one day,” Pax said as they let go of each other. “We must be something special.”
“Nah, ‘special’ is just you, Paxie,” Deven teased. Pax punched him in the arm, and Deven yelped. “Rude.”
The Snickerdudels were all able to shower before ten o’clock, when the fireworks show began. Rumor was that the fireworks weren’t actually for the East Ridge boys, but for the staff and their families, who came together to celebrate in the parking lot, but none of the East Ridge guys really cared. Zeke and his friends claimed a spot on the grass between the cabins and sat down, Zeke snuggling close to Israel and putting his arm around him.
Even though practically every boy in East Ridge surrounded them and many of them were good friends and teammates, at the end of the day, only one of them really mattered to Zeke.