This is the eight round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these submissions, it’s the letter “H”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “H” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Gary Broxson
(3,950 words – approx. reading time: about 15 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Grampa, Granny said for us to come and bug you for a while,” Trinity said, standing at the half-open door of Frank Cannon’s den.
“Oh, she did, did she?” Frank turned from his laptop, looked down, nudged his glasses up higher on the ridge of his nose, smiled and said, “Come on in you little scamps.”
Trinity and her younger brother Tony slowly opened the door as if entering a cathedral for the first time. This room had always been off-limits for the duo; Granny had called it Grampa’s retirement roost. Their eyes lit up as they scanned the walls completely covered with sports memorabilia, banners, framed photos, signed certificates, and exotic maps. There were two towering bookcases with hardback and paperback novels crammed shoulder to shoulder; tiered shelves that supported knickknacks and treasures alike; and a sprawling pinewood desk that overlooked a lake where green-crested ducks dipped and dived in untroubled waters.
“Where’s your flat-screen TV, Grampa?” Tony asked from behind his sister.
Smiling, Frank stood up and gestured like Vanna White toward the beige-framed window. “This is where I get my Netflix, kids.”
“Looks more like a dumb documentary, Grampa,” Trinity said, turning her attention to the bric-a-brac on her grandfather’s shelves.
“Can we go out and throw the ball, Grampa?” Tony asked, still looking at the lawn and lake below.
“Uhhh, maybe later, guys. Looks like some clouds rolling in. I can feel a storm coming in my knees.” He sat back down with an obvious twinge of pain.
“What’s this?” Trinity asked, holding a small medallion that read Nobel Prize in Literature.
“Oh, nothing you would like, but I’m sure there’s something in here that might interest you.”
“Then we can play ball in here.” Frank swiveled his chair just in time to catch a baseball lobbed to him by little Tony.
Frank held the ball up to his face like a gypsy reading a crystal ball, one that repainted the past and foretold the future. “Ahh, now this is something priceless,” he whispered with awe.
“It’s just a dumb baseball,” Trinity observed.
“Look more closely,” Frank said. The children nudged in cheek-to-cheek to better see the ball. It was old, scuffed, and tattooed with faded ink signatures and scribbled citations.
“I’ve got an idea,” Frank said. “Since we can’t go out and play ball and there are no sports to watch this weekend, I’ll tell you kids a story about the greatest baseball game ever played.”
“Uuuhg, that’s dumb,” Trinity groaned, her eyes rolling as she deflated onto the floor.
“Yah!” Tony clapped and plopped down by his sister.
“It was the summer of ’77,” Frank began, still holding the ball like a Fabergé egg. “I played little league baseball on a team called the Hedgehogs. I know, it’s a silly name, but it was named after our sponsor. His name was Coach George to us, but his real name was Jorge, he was Hispanic. Coach George had a small business called Hedgehog Lawn and Garden and that was his way to promote it and a way to play catch with his son.
“We had a scrappy team that year and had somehow made it to the playoffs. I was scheduled to pitch the big game that Saturday night against the Hammerheads; they had been the reigning league champs for years. Seeing as how it was such an important game, I somehow got it into my head that I needed to strengthen my arm before taking the mound. Here’s what your knucklehead grampa did. Since we still had chores to do that morning, I cut our whole yard with my dad’s old Briggs and Stratton push-mower, but I did it with only one arm, my pitching arm. That’s back when no-pain, no-gain was the way to fame. I figured if it didn’t kill me, it would make me stronger.”
“That was dumb,” Trinity advised.
“It was,” Frank replied, shaking his head. “By the time we got to the park and started warming up, I could feel a sore shoulder coming on. I told the catcher about my new workout strategy. Vader was her name… see, that’s her signature right there.” He passed the ball for review by the pair. “She also expressed to me just how dumb I really was.”
“Why did you call her Vader, Grampa?” Tony asked.
“Good question, Tony Tiger. Like you, almost all of us had nicknames back then. But we called her Vader because she would make those raspy breathing sounds when she put on her catcher’s mask. Say things like, the force will be strong with us tonight…. But you’ll hear more about her later.
“Anyway, it was a real close game and I was pitching pretty good at first. But by the fourth inning my arm felt like a dishrag and the Hammerheads were filling the bases. Vader must have told Coach George about my new landscaping exercise and he called a time out. Coach came out to the mound and rolled up my sleeve. He scooped out a huge wad of chewing tobacco from inside his bulging cheek and mashed it onto my pitching shoulder. He rolled my sleeve back down over the lump and made a one-finger circular gesture to the umpire. Play ball!”
“Ooooh,” Trinity recoiled, “that’s nasty.”
“That it was darling, but it worked. I struck out the next two batters and got out of the inning with only one run scored. That one tied us up, one to one. Our left-fielder, Jimmy “Long legs” Larson, had scored for us in the second inning on a passed ball. A cheap run, but it was keeping us in the game.
“Then it was our turn at bat. One of the Wraucox twins was pitching for the Hammerheads; either Sean or Shawn. No one could tell them apart. Both these boys were monsters and could throw BBs. Danny ‘Hoover’ Adams poked a seeing-eye grounder through the left side for a base hit.”
“Hoover?” Trinity asked.
“Yep. Danny was our shortstop and he could suck up those ground balls like a Hoover vacuum cleaner.”
Frank pointed to splotch of ink on the baseball. There it was, proof that there had been such a silly nickname.
“That nickname sucks,” Trinity said. “Literally.”
Frank cut his eyes at her like, we’ve got kids in the room, and continued.
“Hump-hmmm,” Frank cleared his throat. “Then the Wraucox boy tried to fool Tubby McFarland with a curve ball, but it hung up and Tubby rattled the fence. That fence was 210 feet from home plate. Tubby covered just 209 feet. They say baseball is a game of ifs and inches. But that put Hoover on third and Tubby on for a double. Wraucox was shaken up and walked the next batter; the bases were loaded. That’s when their coach called a time out.
“The Hammerhead’s coach was the Wraucox twin’s dad. He brought the entire team over to the dugout and they huddled up more like a football team. Yellow jerseys all crowded around. When they broke it up, there was something different but we couldn’t quite make it out. But whatever he did or said, it worked. That Wraucox pitcher came out throwing smoke. He struck out the next two batters.
“Then it was Vader’s bat. She stared him down, and he glared back. Two outs with bases loaded. She could hit, for sure, and she stepped up ready to swing. Wraucox brushed her back with some chin music, then went to work on the outside corner. He threw that big curve ball. This time it broke perfectly. Vader got caught on her heels and we were out of the inning. Our chance to put a pin in it was gone.
“Vader was trying to not to cry when she came back to the dugout. She whacked the Gatorade cooler with her bat. We all just grabbed our gear and ran back onto the field, not really knowing what to do with a crying girl.”
“You hug them,” Tony said, putting an arm around his big sister. Trinity pushed it off.
“Maybe you’re right, son. But we weren’t very good at that sort of thing back then.”
“So, all tied up in the fifth inning,” Frank continued. “We only played six innings in little league ball. It was a real pressure cooker and the crowd was on the edge of the bleachers. But my arm was killing me. Even with that chaw of tobacco leaking down to my elbow. Fortunately, baseball is about teamwork. Teddy “Springs” Mantooth saved a sure hit by making a circus catch at second base. And I was able to get the next Hammerhead to pop up to third. Then one of the Wraucox twins stepped in. Vader called for a time out and met me halfway between home and the rubber.”
Trinity giggled, but Tony couldn’t take his eyes off his grandfather as he relived his glory days.
‘“That’s not him, Vader whispered to me.
“Him, who? I asked.
“That’s not the right Wraucox twin. They must have switched up on us when they huddled up. He’s not supposed to be hitting fourth in the line-up and he’s not supposed to be pitching. The rules state that a pitcher has to wait 72 hours between games. This is the twin that pitched Thursday night against the Jayhawks.
“How do you know? I asked her. They both look exactly alike.
“True, she said. But they smell different. A girl notices these things. Especially when I’m sitting three behind them in the batter’s box. This one splashes on a half-gallon of High Karate, the other one just smells like cheese.
“That would explain how he came back from that time-out, bringing the heat. He was fresh, I told her.
“And he probably didn’t mow his whole yard with one arm, Vader finished, slapping me on my rump with her catcher’s mitt.”
“Why didn’t you go tell the coach guy?” Tony asked. “Mommy always says to go tell an adult when somebody is cheating.”
“Well, our coach was a great guy, but he didn’t speak much English, hardly any. His favorite word was ‘Hustle’. He said it all the time. Probably got it from hearing so much about Pete Rose in those days. They called him Charlie Hustle because he gave everything 110 percent. That was way before he started betting on his own team, but that’s another story. Anyway, it was just easier to let it go, suck it up, and play ball.
“Those shenanigans didn’t change anything. We were still tied up, my arm was a wet noodle, and their cleanup hitter was at bat. I dug deep and threw him my best slider. It caught the corner and I got the call. So, I tried the same pitch again—mistake. This time he was waiting on it. He punched it to deep right where Kenny “Squirt” Kavendar resided.”
Changing briefly to instructor, Frank said, “In those days, we put the worst players in right field; there was less chance of anyone actually hitting one out there. This was Squirt’s first ball all night. It was drilled right at him and it bounced off his leg and into the corner of the park. While he buckled, the center fielder, Whistlebritches Ramirez, streaked all the way across the field to retrieve the ball. By that time, Wraucox was rounding second and heading for third. Whistlebritches had a strong arm and he threw a rope to home where Vader stood guard. She caught it on one bounce and waited.
“Wraucox never slowed down when he hit third, he was charging like a bull towards home plate… and Vader. She braced herself and lowered her mitt for the tag. Wraucox plowed into her hard, cleats up high, and there was a cloud of dust and chalk. When it cleared, Vader was on her back. One of her shin guards had broken off and there was a gash just below her knee. As she lay there, she raised her mitt. The ball, this ball, was still in it. The umpire jerked his thumb up and yelled, Yer out!” Frank mimicked the out signal for the kids. “The crowd went crazy.”
“Awesome!” Tony breathed.
“Wait a minute, Grampa. You can’t just skip right on past Whistle-somebody. What’s that all about?” Trinity asked.
“Ahh, yes. Whistlebritches Ramirez. He was the Coach George’s son. He was a little fella, but he was fast as lightning. He ran so fast you could hear his britches rubbing together, making a whistling sound.”
“Riiiight,” Trinity said, rolling her eyes again, but smiling this time.
“Was Vader alright?” Trinity asked.
“When we got into the dugout, Coach George tried to put a wad of tobacco on the cut. Vader waved him off and grabbed the first-aid kit that hung on the wall. We got it cleaned out and wrapped up; she was fine. The adrenaline alone from that great play had her feeling no pain.
“While Vader was working on her leg, I told her that my arm was shot-out. I couldn’t go another inning.
“I know, she said. You’re throwing like a girl. We both laughed but then she looked serious. She said for me not to worry, that she might have a plan. Just be ready for anything. She called Whistlebritches over and started whispering in his ear. I must admit, I was a little jealous.
“That inning we fell apart at the plate. Whichever Wraucox kid was pitching now, he had our numbers. Three up, three down, but we all went down swinging. As the last batter fell, I saw Whistlebritches and his dad, Coach George, going at it. They were speaking Spanish fast and frenetic. Their hands were talking even faster. Then they stopped and Coach George turned to the umpire and made a ‘T’ with his hands signaling a timeout. He came back into the dugout where the whole team was waiting to take the field. He looked at Vader, then he looked at me, then he said, ‘cambiar!’
“Coach George turned his eyes upward, made the sign of the cross, then walked out onto the field by himself. He made straight for the umpire and started screaming something in Spanish that no one could understand.
“While this was going on, Vader yelled at everyone to stand in front of her and face the field. Then she started unbuttoning her jersey. The Squirt tried to catch a peek but Longlegs grabbed his head and spun it back away from the scene.
“Of course I didn’t know what was going on so I asked her what she was doing. Take your shirt off, Cannon, was all I got from her.
“Cambiar, Whistlebritches told us. It means ‘Switch’.
“Then I got it. Vader wanted me to switch uniforms with her. She would pitch and I would catch. Technically she wasn’t eligible to pitch that night, because she had pitched the previous Thursday game, but that wasn’t stopping the Wraucox twins, so we got started.
“While Coach George was kicking dirt onto the umpire’s shoes, we were cambiar-ing, I guess. But there was a problem. You see, Vader was a blossoming young lady…”
“She had boobies! Girls have boobies,” Tony exclaimed, happy to become part of the story. “Like Trin-i-ty,” he said, making it musical.
“That’s right, Tony. Moving on, while the Hedgehogs blocked her from sight, Vader handed me a roll of Ace bandage she had taken from the first-aid kit. Wrap me up, she said. But no peeking.
“I did as I was told and got her bound up tight. Then she quickly put my jersey on and tucked it in. It said Cannon on the back. I put hers on and pulled the chest protector on over everything. I fully opened my eyes when I heard a snip. Vader had a black pony tail in one hand and a pair of scissors from the kit in the other. It’ll grow back, she said. Now, let’s get out there and win this thing. Hustle.
“Wait, I told her. I traded my black Rawlings glove for her mitt and then I took off my glasses and punched out the lenses with my thumbs. I said, You’ll need these to pull this off. She put them on and tugged the bill of her cap down as far as she could. As we took the field, Coach George ran completely out of righteous anger and smiled at the bewildered umpire he had been screaming at. He returned to the dugout as though he had won the argument.
“What can I say, it worked. Vader got out there and crushed those guys. She struck out two and got the third Hammerhead to pop up a can of corn. That got us to the bottom of the sixth. We were home team so we had the last bat. If we could score, we would win. If we got stopped again, there would be extra innings and we were all out of tricks.
“That’s when Coach George called me up. Cannon, he said in that Spanish accent of his. Get hit. That’s the same thing he told every batter. I had put a Hedgehog jacket on over my borrowed Jersey and was ready to go. I hustled to the on-deck circle, grabbed my favorite Louisville Slugger and slid on a weighted donut. I tried a practice swing and my shoulder cramped up. It burned like fire.
“I knew that the Wraucox twins respected my bat; I had hit a couple dingers during the regular season and the infield was playing back. They couldn’t know that I was as blind as a bat without my glasses and that my shoulder was shot. So I decided to ride that bluff. I whacked my cleats with the bat, I crowded the plate, I stared Wraucox down and then I felt the jet-stream blow by. Strike! The second pitch. Strike Two. My big-bad-hitter bluff wasn’t working. Just as the third pitch arrived, I leveled my bat and dropped a perfect bunt down the first base line. I ran like a rabbit, making it to first before they realized what I had done. Nobody bunts with two strikes.
“As I’ve said, baseball is a team effort. Tubby got a hit, moving us around the pads. But baseball is a game of give and get. Wraucox sat down a couple Hedgehogs, swinging at the breeze. Then Danny ‘Hoover’ Adams tinked a dribbler to third. It should have been lights out, but it was a bad throw. Hoover was safe and the bases were loaded with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. Kenny “Squirt” Kavendar stepped into the batter’s box.” Frank, ever the storyteller, announced this with a sense of doom.
“Now the Squirt was as bad a batter as he was a fielder. He had struck out every time he had batted this game. He was what every other team called an easy out. But Squirt had at least one fan. His dad came to every game and cheered him on from the bleachers as Squirt tried, tried again, and failed. I can still hear his dad up there in the cheap seats, yelling for his boy to get a hit.
“Coach George stepped out of the dugout and called for a short time out. The umpire was probably afraid not to grant him one after the antics from before. Coach looked at Squirt, looked at the dugout where he had at least two pinch hitters, then out at the shouting man in the bleachers, and finally back at Squirt. Get hit! he said to Squirt and turned back to the dugout.
“The first two strikes went right by Squirt. He didn’t even get a chance to get the bat off his shoulder. We were all screaming advice to Squirt from the dugout. The crowd was screaming encouragement from the home side and really ugly unrepeatable stuff from the visitor’s bleachers. Coach George coned his mouth and called again, Get hit!
“The Wraucox boy stared down the pipe. He shook off a curveball from the catcher and nodded at the fastball signal. Squirt choked up on the bat, then took a really deep breath. He closed his eyes and leaned in. Closer, closer, closer. Wraucox wound up and let it rip. The baseball traveled that 43 feet just under Carter’s new speed limit; it clobbered Squirt right in the head. You could hear his bell ring for miles. Squirt flew back, and landed face down. There was a collective groan from the dugout and the stands. We were all sure he was dead. That’s when Squirt jumped up, as wobbly as a new colt, smiled, dusted himself off, and started jogging to first base. He flipped the bat in front of the Hammerhead’s dugout like big leaguers do when they go yard. The place went wild. Mr. Kavendar almost fell from the top row of bleachers.
“I touched home plate and the crowd roared even louder. Game over. We had won the championship in the greatest game ever played.” Frank thumbed the small dent in the ball that had collided with the edge of Kenny’s helmet. This was his Squirt’s signature, he thought.
“Are you still reliving that old game again?” a woman’s voice asked from just outside the door.
“Graaan-ny!” the children cried. Tony added, “Grampa’s a hero!”
“Oh, don’t I know it. I’ve had to live with this hero for 35 years now. It’s not easy playing second banana. Why don’t you kids go on down to the kitchen. I’ve got some fresh baked cookies and cold milk waiting for you.”
The children squealed and rambled out of Grampa’s den, down the stairs.
Frank sat there, smiling, still caught up in the haze of his glory daze. “Did you tell them how you got to second base with me?” Granny Cannon purred. “How I liked wearing your last name so much I decided to keep it?”
Frank looked at her and grinned. “I did, but I didn’t. They don’t know the whole story. I guess it’s not all mine to tell.”
“Toss me that glove, lover,” Elizabeth winked at Frank.
Frank took an ancient black Rawlings glove down from the tier of treasures and tossed it to his wife. “Nice catch,” he said, as she effortlessly plucked it from the air and slipped it on.
Elizabeth put the glove up to her face and cupped it. “How’s this,” she asked her husband. “Children, I am your grandmother.”
Frank laughed out loud as Elizabeth, once known as Vader, now known as Granny, went downstairs to tell the rest of the story.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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