Author’s Note: Someone asked me if this story was in the same universe as my previous tale Just For Fun and the answer is no, but it definitely has the same type of vibe – Ezra kicking back and having fun with the rest of the team and learning a bit about himself in the process.
My thanks to the ladies who provided such interesting and encouraging comments while this story was a WIP, you helped more than you realize! Special thanks to Judy for the beta-read.
Moved To Blackraptor November 2009
"C’mon, Ezra! It'll be fun."
"Fun? JD, I barely know how the game is played. I'm sure any effort I put forth on your team's behalf would only prove a liability to the overall outcome."
Buck clarified, "He's afraid he'll mess things up and we'll lose because of him."
JD's confused expression cleared and renewed enthusiasm took over. "Oh, hey, don't worry about that. All of us sucked when we first started, except for Chris and Josiah."
Nathan laughed. "Most of us still do. It's a ten game season and we're lucky to win two or three a year."
A frown creased Ezra's features. "Then why do you play?"
Giving him a light slap on the chest, Buck said, "Because it's like the kid told you. It's a lot of fun."
"Fresh air, exercise, a chance to hang out with each other in a non-working environment," Nathan coaxed. "You should give it a try.
Buck added, “We're down a man since Moseley from Team Eight transferred out, so it'd be no problem finding you a position."
"And what position would that be?"
"We need a center fielder," JD jumped in. Then he laughed. "Actually, we needed one even before we lost Rafe. He couldn't hold on to a ball if his mitt was covered in super glue!"
Buck chuckled. "Sad but true, and even when he managed to retrieve the ball he was still lucky to get it to the short-stop. Son of a bitch threw like a little girl."
Ezra finally smiled. "Well, I expect I could do a bit better than that." Seeing the gleam that instantly filled JD's bright hazel eyes, he hastily added, "If I were to play."
Standing to wash out his coffee cup, Nathan asked, "Ezra, what do you have to lose? You'll be spending time with friends, getting a little exercise and hopefully having some fun."
"Sweat and dirt will wash off but good memories last forever," JD coaxed. Seeing the face Ezra made at his comment, the young man grinned. "And did I mention that we go out for beer and pizza after every game, win or lose?"
Ezra snorted softly. "Oh, well, why didn't you say so?"
Rising from his seat, Buck clapped him on the shoulder. "Just give it some thought. First practice is this afternoon, at the park three blocks from here. Bring along jeans and sneakers to change into if you're
coming. We've got plenty of balls, bats and gloves you can use."
"I'll think about it."
Satisfied with that answer, the other three men left the break-room. Ezra studied his coffee for a moment, then drained the last of it and placed the empty cup into the sink behind him. He had slightly exaggerated his lack of knowledge on the game but not his lack of proficiency as a player. Team sports had never been his forte and he hadn't played baseball since he was in junior high school, but he had to admit that the idea of playing on his friends’ team did hold a strange appeal.
He nodded, mind made up. Even if he "sucked", to quote JD, it would be worth a try.
Ezra went home at noon and rummaged through his wardrobe. He had running shoes, which would work just as well on a baseball diamond, but generally the only time he wore jeans was for certain undercover personas – making them the property of the ATF and thus unavailable for his immediate recreational needs – or for riding his horse on weekends. He had taken to leaving the latter garments at Chris’s ranch in the small trunk that sat at the foot of ‘his’ bed.
“Surely I must have another pair somewhere,” he said aloud, looking around to make sure he had searched everywhere. Dresser drawers? No. Closet? No. Laundry hamper? No.
“Damn,” he muttered, plopping down on the bed. Three strikes and he hadn’t even reached the playing field yet.
This morning Ezra had been unsure whether he wanted to do this thing, but now that it looked as if he would be unable to play he found that he was disappointed. He could simply go to a clothing store and buy new jeans but that seemed to go against the very nature of a just-for-fun, out-with-the-boys, beer-and-pizza sort of event.
Glancing at his watch, Ezra cursed as he realized that nearly forty of his designated sixty lunchtime minutes had already passed. Struck with an idea, he pulled out his cell and speed dialed Vin Tanner. When the call was answered, he plunged straight in. “Vin, it’s Ezra. Please excuse me if this sounds peculiar, but do you happen to have an extra pair of jeans I might borrow?”
He paused to let Vin inquire how soon he needed them.
“This afternoon, if possible. Buck and JD invited me to join y’all in trying out baseball practice and I can’t seem to find anything appropriate to wear.”
He released his breath in a relieved but silent sigh when his friend merely welcomed him aboard and agreed that he could borrow the spare set that Vin kept in his gym locker.
A few minutes later, armed with a small duffle bag containing socks, sneakers, a T-shirt and his father’s old baseball glove, Ezra was ready to go back to the office.
He had debated momentarily on the glove, but the fact was that he had always wanted to use it. Daniel Standish had been a baseball enthusiast of the highest order and that fact had been enough to convince his only son to ignore his usual dislike of loud, dirty, sweat-inducing activities and try out for the local Little League team. He had been too small to wear the large outfielder’s mitt back then, but Ezra was pleasantly surprised to find it a perfect fit now.
He had only played the game for a few short months as a boy. He and his mother had moved at the end of that school year and afterward had never seemed to stay in one place long enough to allow him to participate in seasonal activities like sports. Not until he was 17, by which time Ezra had mentally filed baseball away as a child’s game, no longer worthy of his participation.
He smiled ruefully at that remembrance, acknowledging that he had turned into quite a little snob by his late teens, fully embracing his mother’s dictum that anyone who did something just for fun was wasting their valuable time, and that he was meant for greater things.
Well, life had certainly knocked him down a peg or two since then, but Ezra wondered just where along the line his attitude had changed to the point that he was now filled with a fluttering of nervous and, yes, childish, excitement over the idea of running around a field playing ball with a group of other grown men.
"Ezra, you’ll be fine. Nobody's expecting Joe DiMaggio out there."
Ezra tore his gaze from the empty baseball diamond, realizing from Vin’s comment that he was allowing his nervousness to show. Flashing a wan smile, he quipped, "Just Mickey Mantle, I suppose."
Vin laughed, impressed that Ezra had not only understood his reference to one of baseball's most famous center fielders, but had possessed enough knowledge to reply in kind. “Today’s only our first practice, so nobody expects to be very good. Gotta get the kinks worked out first.”
Taking a deep breath, the southerner let it out in a whoosh. “All right, then. What do you suggest I do first?”
“Josiah’s our team captain, not to mention our best player, so why don’t we leave that up to him.” Giving him a friendly slap on the shoulder, Vin led the way to where Chris, Nathan and Josiah were conversing. “Eh, Josiah! Ezra’s wonderin’ what he should do to get started.”
The older man looked Ezra up and down, considering. “I’d start with a few stretches and maybe a few laps around the bases, just to get your muscles warmed up. When you’re ready I’ll bat a few fly balls out to center and we’ll see how that goes.”
“And what if it doesn’t go?”
Chris smirked. “Then we shuffle the cards.”
“Buck used to be our pitcher,” he explained, “but he had trouble getting the ball over the plate without damn near taking the batter’s head off, and Nathan is probably the worst third baseman in the history of the game.”
Nathan nodded ruefully, not at all offended by the assessment.
“Last season we had them switch positions and things got a lot better,” Josiah added. “I usually play either right field or first base. Vin's our catcher, but he also plays outfield in a pinch and the guys from Team 8 are both decent all around ball players, so we move them around to wherever’s needed. If you don’t like center field or feel that you won’t be able to do the job, just speak up and we’ll find another spot for you.”
Seeing his worried look, Nathan gave him a punch to the bicep that had Ezra scowling and reflexively rubbing the offended arm. The medic chuckled. “Don’t look so grim, Ezra. We're out here to have fun, remember?"
He forced himself to relax a bit. "My apologies. I keep losing sight of that fact.” Curious, he asked Chris, “What positions do you and JD play?"
"I like second base and JD usually plays short-stop. He’s a much better batter than fielder, but he does all right.”
“Chris and I have both been playing for years, so we became sort of a default coaching team,” Josiah told him. “If we’d known you were interested, we’d have given you more than half a day’s notice before asking you to play. I’m sorry about that. We somehow just assumed you didn’t like the sport because you never watch it.”
He waved off the apology. “I do watch, on occasion, just not usually in company. I prefer to be free to flip the channel now and then if the game becomes less than scintillating.”
The other men chuckled. At Chris’s home, where they usually gathered to watch sports, changing channels during the game was strictly forbidden.
“However,” Ezra continued. “In this instance, leaving in the middle is not an option. For all I know you may not wish me to play at all once you’ve had a chance to test my admittedly meager skills. It’s only fair that you see what you’re getting before committing to making me a part of your team.”
He cast an envious glance at the outfits they were wearing, white baseball shirts with red sleeves and numbers, and matching red baseball caps. He didn’t know why he should want such garish clothing for his own, but he couldn’t stop the longing that welled up when he compared their cheerfully bright and unified appearance with his plain black ATF t-shirt.
“Don’t worry about that,” Vin said, grinning. “The fact that you’re here means that you’re already invited, if you want to play. The only way we’d kick you off the team now is if it turns out you’re so clumsy you’re liable to hurt yourself out there.”
“Hey, you made it!”
They turned to see Buck and JD jogging toward them from the parking lot. Buck tossed a plastic bagged bundle Ezra’s way, which he managed to catch in spite of his surprise.
“Good reflexes,” Buck commented. “You took off from work so quick I didn’t have a chance to ask what number you wanted. Hope it fits okay.”
Curious, Ezra tore open the package. His eyes widened when he saw a cap and jersey exactly like all the others wore. “How . . .?”
JD smiled. “We ordered about a dozen extra last year, not knowing who might be playing in the future. There’s no name on it, of course, but we can take care of that later. Try it on for size. If it doesn’t fit, I got a couple more in the car.”
Ezra took a quick glance around to make sure no outsiders were watching, then stripped off his t-shirt and replaced it with the jersey. The cotton felt soft and light as it settled against his skin. “A bit long,” he commented, noting that the rounded shirt-tail fell halfway down his jean clad thighs, “but otherwise it feels very comfortable.”
“Looks a little too loose,” Josiah noticed, “but I think if you just wash and dry it on hot, it should shrink to be about perfect.”
Rather proud of his new appearance, Ezra mimed a batter’s position and hit an imaginary line drive. Then he grimaced, pressing a hand against the waistband of his borrowed pants. “A size smaller on the shirt and a size larger, I think, on the jeans.”
Vin chuckled and slapped him hard on his tightly constrained posterior, drawing forth an indignant yelp. “Get you off your backside and runnin’ around with us regular and just maybe them jeans’ll get so they fit.”
Though naturally stockier than Vin, Ezra was in no way, shape or form, fat, and they all knew it, but the barb drew a round of hearty laughter.
Happy to be treated like a real part of the team, even if that extended to a little bit of friendly hazing, Ezra returned the favor and flipped them all off. “I believe I’d better go do those stretches,” he said with exaggerated dignity, turning on his heel and walking away from the group as casually as his too-tight jeans would let him.
“Breathe, Ezra, just breathe,” he murmured, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he waited with anxious anticipation for Josiah to send the first ball his way.
Chris Larabee, Rafael Martinez from Team 8, and JD Dunne had taken up the positions at right field, left field and short-stop, respectively, ready to retrieve any errant baseballs. Rafael checked their positions and called out to Josiah, “Ready!”
Josiah waved a hand and then tossed a ball into the air and swung his bat, sending the projectile rocketing high into the air toward center field. Ezra automatically measured its position as it began to lose altitude and jogged back several paces to meet it. He lifted his gloved hand high and then cursed when the ball bounced off the tip of the mitt and rolled away.
“Not bad!” Josiah called out. “Good anticipation getting under the ball. Let’s try another one.”
Twice more a ball was batted out to center and both times Ezra just missed the catch, making contact without actually getting it into the glove. Shoulders slumping, he picked up the lost balls and lobbed them to JD, who passed them back to Josiah.
“Don’t feel discouraged, amigo,” Rafael shouted, earning himself a surprised look from Ezra. “You’re already doing better than Moseley.”
Doubtfully, he asked, “In what respect?”
Rafael grinned. “Well, for starters, the ball hasn’t hit you in the head!”
Chris laughed. “Damn, I forgot about that. Rafe had a knot the size of a softball on his head after his first game! Rafael’s right, Ezra, just loosen up a little and don’t hold your glove so tight. I think that’s why you’re missing the catch.”
“What do you mean?” He held up his glove, mutely requesting a demonstration.
Signaling Josiah to wait for a moment, Chris jogged over to Ezra and pulled his own glove off. Holding up his now-bare hand he positioned his fingers and thumb close together. “I think you’re doing this inside your glove,” he said, “and the pocket can’t get open all the way, so the ball hasn’t got anyplace to go.”
Positioning his glove up as if he were about to attempt a catch, Ezra tried to picture the ball falling and remember what he had done. “I believe you may be right,” he said in surprise, realizing that he had clenched his hand as if about to make a fist, only prevented from doing so by the stiffness of the leather encasing his fingers.
Chris held his hand wide. “Just think of your hand as a big target, nice and wide-open, just begging that ball to hit it. I promise that when you make contact your fingers will close around it. It’s instinct.”
Ezra nodded. “I’ll try.”
“Good man,” he said, putting his glove back on and patting his new teammate on the back with it. With his free hand, Chris gave Josiah a thumbs-up and moved back over to his spot in right field.
“Ready?” Josiah shouted. Ezra nodded. “Okay, here it comes.”
He sent another ball into the air, but instead of sailing toward Ezra it veered left and then lost momentum halfway out to Rafael, dropping like a stone just a few feet from the second base line.
JD trotted over and picked it up, laughing as he tossed it back. “Think you lost something!”
“Shit,” Josiah said, shaking his head in self-directed exasperation. “Sorry, guys!”
Unexpectedly, Ezra felt much better for seeing the team’s ‘best player’ make a mistake. He crouched forward, shimmying in place as he rested the heels of his hands upon his thighs. “Ready when you are, Mr. Sanchez!”
Josiah grinned. “Try this one on for size!” He threw the ball high, hitting it with a resounding crack toward center field.
“Run, Ezra! He’s going for a homer!” Buck shouted from the third base line where he, Vin, Nathan and Team 8’s other player John Nichols, were watching the practice.
Judging that he had a few seconds, Ezra turned and sprinted toward the parking lot, keeping his head tilted sideways to watch the progress of the ball. As it descended, he turned, reached out with his fingers stretched wide and clenched his hand shut as he felt the ball make contact.
The unexpected force of the impact combined with his off-center posture knocked Ezra literally on his ass and sent him tumbling head over heels before he finally came up on his knees, a grin on his face and the ball still clutched tightly in the pocket of his father’s baseball glove.
All eight of the other men erupted in clapping, whistling, shouting and disbelieving laughter.
“All right, Ez!” JD shouted. “That was awesome! See if you can get the ball back to me from there!”
Ezra climbed rather unsteadily to his feet, gave himself a two step running start and flung the baseball as hard as he could. The ball took a wild flight right over JD’s head, landing harmlessly in the middle of the diamond and rolling toward the pitcher’s mound.
“Oops,” Ezra said sheepishly. He shook his hands out, realizing that he was shaking with adrenaline after his unexpectedly successful catch.
JD just laughed and called back. “Good throw!”
“I agree,” Chris said, surprising Ezra. “We get you enough experience to have some control and you could be downright dangerous.”
A bemused expression came over Ezra’s face. “I assume you mean that in a good way?”
Chris just grinned.
After another fifteen minutes fielding fly balls and watching the other men do the same from their respective positions, Ezra began to feel that he might be getting the hang of things. He did not make every catch, but did no worse than Rafael. Chris had a much better percentage in that regard than either of them, and even he missed once in a while.
“Good job,” Josiah shouted at last, waving them back infield. As they joined the other men, he told them. “I think it’s time we got some batting practice going.”
As Nathan headed for the mound, John Nichols and Buck Wilmington moved out to field the balls and JD took the first turn in the batter’s box. Seeing Vin standing to one side by himself, Ezra approached him. “Mr. Tanner, I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
Concern narrowed Vin’s wide blue eyes. “Something the matter? You didn’t hurt yourself divin’ after that long ball, did you?”
“Myself, no,” he admitted, turning his left leg sideways to show off a long ragged tear down the inside seam of his borrowed pants. “But I’m afraid your jeans didn’t fare quite so well. It appears that they couldn’t take the additional pressure of a hard landing.”
Vin whistled at the damage. “Dang, you really busted ‘em good. Couple more inches and everybody on the field would’a seen them blue silk undies.”
Ezra looked down and immediately straightened his leg again as he realized that the edge of his underwear was indeed visible above his fully exposed inner thigh. “I’m terribly sorry, Vin. I’ll replace them with a new pair as soon as I have the opportunity.”
The other man chuckled. “Don’t sweat it. Them jeans were just about worn through anyway. Reckon you just shot ‘em and put ‘em out of their misery. We’ll head back over to the office after practice and you can put your own stuff back on again. Wouldn’t want you flashin’ all the ladies out at Mama Rose’s tonight.” His chuckle grew to a full-borne laugh. “Though, come to think of it, Mama Rose probably wouldn’t mind if you did!”
Ezra joined the laughter, relieved that Vin was not upset over the loss of his property. “Be that as it may, I’d prefer to make myself presentable before we adjourn to our evening meal.” He glanced at home plate, where JD had just hit a long drive and was crowing happily over the feat. “For now, I suppose I’d better pay attention to the here and now.”
For the next half hour, Ezra watched his teammates hit the ball, attempting to absorb their methods. Some were clearly better than others but everyone managed to make contact with the ball at least a couple of times.
“You ready to try, Ezra?” Josiah asked, startling him out of his concentrated observation of Chris Larabee’s batting prowess.
He nodded mutely.
“Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you,” Nathan promised, selecting a new ball from a sack next to the mound. “You bat right or left?”
It was a fair question. Being naturally ambidextrous, there was a chance Ezra might be a switch-hitter. “I used to bat from the left,” he replied. “It felt more comfortable to me.”
“That’s what matters,” Josiah said, handing him a bat and then backing off a few feet to watch with the others.
Ezra assumed the position, setting himself up on the balls of his feet and digging his toes in just a bit. He held the bat aloft over his left shoulder and concentrated. When Nathan released the pitch, he swung wildly and then huffed in disappointment, realizing that he’d been nowhere near the ball.
“You don’t have to swing if the pitch isn’t where you need it to be,” Nathan advised. “Just wait for it. I’ll put this one right over the plate, nice and slow.”
Nathan was as good as his word, but Ezra discovered that any skill he might have once possessed at measuring the position of the ball relative to the plate had vanished with the passing years. This time he swung too late.
Knowing that in a real game, he would have long since been struck out, Ezra grimly swung another half dozen times without ever once making contact. When he finally did hit the ball on the ninth pitch, it popped straight up and he was forced to scuttle sideways to avoid being hit by the falling object.
The other men were all full of advice and encouragement but Ezra was frustrated with his inability to do what had looked like such a simple thing.
“Don’t worry about it,” Buck told him as he came up to take his own practice. “You did great out in the field and this’ll come. If you want, me and JD are going out to the batting cages on Saturday afternoon and you’re more than welcome to come along. We can set the machine to pitch real slow until you figure it out.”
“What makes you think I will?” he asked glumly.
Buck grinned. “Cause I’ve seen you shoot, throw a punch and now catch a baseball. There ain’t nothing wrong with your hand-eye coordination.” He twirled the long wooden bat in his hands like an oversized baton. “You just need to figure out how to make contact when your arm’s suddenly two feet longer than usual. That takes practice, just like anything else.”
Ezra returned the smile. “I suppose it is ridiculous to beat myself up for not being perfect at something I haven’t done in almost twenty years.”
“Downright stupid,” Buck agreed cheerfully, slapping him on the back so hard that he staggered. “For now, why don’t you just have a seat and think about what kind of pizza you want tonight.”
Surprised, he asked, “Aren’t I supposed to take a turn retrieving balls from the field?” That was what everyone else had done, trading off with each new batter.
Josiah heard the question and laughed. “Normally, I’d say yes, but you’re already going to be sore in places you didn’t know you had come tomorrow. I think Buck’s right. You’d better take five.”
Flexing his shoulders, Ezra realized that he was already feeling a few twinges. “Perhaps that might be a good idea, after all.”
“We’ll be done in a few minutes anyway,” JD told him. “John’s the last batter after Buck. We’ll go back to work and hit the showers, then it’s on to pizza and beer!”
Ezra smiled at his young colleague’s enthusiasm. “I’m looking forward to it.”
The basement of the Federal building had its own fully equipped gymnasium, complete with locker rooms each equipped with a double row of showers. There were ten showerheads per side, giving everyone plenty of room to get cleaned up. Laughter, boasting and plenty of happy cursing echoed off the tiled walls as the players compared their practice stats relative to last season while scrubbing away the sweat and grime of the day.
Buck’s rueful, “Damn, Ez,” had Ezra turning partway around to look at him, dashing shampoo away from his eyes in order to do so.
“Something troubling you, Mr. Wilmington?”
“Not me,” he said, “but you aren’t gonna be good for shit tomorrow once all those pretty new bruises are in full bloom.”
Startled, Ezra craned his neck trying to see over his own shoulder. He could just make out a long red scrape, which thankfully had not broken the skin, trailing down his right shoulder and as he lifted his arm up to get a better look, he felt the muscles over his ribcage issue a protest.
“You look like you sat on a black and blue paint palette,” Buck told him helpfully.
Nathan also gave him an assessing look. “Don’t worry, Ezra. That tumble you took didn’t do you any favors but I think you’ll live to see your first game.”
“Oh, joy,” he replied blandly. “Now, if you gentlemen are through checkin’ out my ass, I’d like to finish washing up and go get something to eat.”
Buck cheerfully flipped him off while Nathan just laughed and went back to his own shower.
Ezra finished washing and exited the long stall, wrapping a towel around his waist and grabbing another to dry his hair as he ducked into the lavatory and took a quick peek at his posterior in the mirror over the sink. “Damn,” he said with feeling. It seemed his friends had not been joking. His skin, warm and pink from the hot water, was mottling in an array of unnatural shades in the area where he had landed after catching the ball.
Someone pounded on the bathroom door and he automatically twitched the towel back into more modest coverage before saying, “Yes?”
JD’s voice rang out. “Me, Buck and Vin are about to head over to the pizza place. You need a ride?”
“No, thank you,” he called back. “Josiah already offered when I was helping him put away the baseball equipment.”
“Kay, see you there!”
By the time Josiah’s worn Suburban rolled into the parking lot at Mama Rose’s Pizza Heaven, all the spaces appeared to be taken.
“I wouldn’t have expected the place to be so popular on a Thursday evening,” Ezra commented in surprise as they slowly toured the lot.
Josiah grinned. “This place is big with the local college crowd, but Mama Rose always keeps the big table in the back free for us on practice and game nights.”
“Kind of her,” Ezra said blandly, slightly miffed that he’d never been invited along if this was such a frequent hang-out. He’d been with the team less than a year, but still . . .
Reading the expression on his face like an open book, Josiah’s smile widened. “Don’t feel bad. This place is Team 8’s regular watering hole, like Inez’s Saloon is to us.”
Ezra instantly felt better. “Why a pizza place?”
Amusement danced in Josiah’s blue-gray eyes. “The owner gives ‘em a discount.”
Feeling an answering smile tug at his cheeks, Ezra played along. “Some special favors going on behind the scenes that we should pretend our ignorance of?”
Josiah chuckled, nearly giving them both whiplash as he veered suddenly into a newly opened parking space. Ignoring Ezra’s dirty look, he switched off the engine. “Nothing like that,” he said, picking up the conversation again. “John’s mother is the owner.”
“Ah, well that explains-“ Ezra stopped, eyes widening. “Wait, Mama Rose is Rose Nichols? Not the Rose Nichols, widow of Big Jack Nichols, from Kansas City?”
“Racketeer, gun-runner and father of the biggest pack of cut-throats this side of the Mississippi,” Josiah confirmed. “John and his brother David were sort of the white-sheep of the family, the only two with no interest in continuing the family business. After David was killed in a drive-by shooting, Rose called an end to it all, packed up her belongings and moved to Denver. John was enrolled in the academy at that time and when he graduated, he came out here to live and work.”
“And play in an amateur baseball league,” Ezra commented, blowing out a low whistle. “I had no idea were in such august company.”
“Don’t let it worry you,” Josiah said with a laugh. “John’s a good guy and Mama Rose has found her true calling as a pizza maven. Wait’ll you taste one.”
He placed his fingertips to his lips and gave a dramatic air-kiss that had Ezra laughing.
“I can hardly wait. There’s Mr. Larabee over by the door. Shall we join him?”
“Got the exercise out of the way, I suppose fresh air was too much to ask for!” Josiah boomed, as they headed toward the restaurant, knowing full well that his voice was carrying clearly to Chris, who was just stubbing out a cigarette.
Chris smiled. “Fuck off. You guys hungry? Vin and the boys had the first family-size polished off already by the time the rest of us got here. We’ve got a couple more on order, though. Should be ready any minute now.”
“In that case, we’d better hurry!” Josiah said, draping an arm around the shoulders of each of his companions to usher them through the door.
Ezra followed as his friends expertly wove through the obstacles of crowded tables and moving bodies, heading for the back of the restaurant. The place was large and well lit, but somehow conveyed the cozy atmosphere of an old-time pizzeria. The other six members of the baseball team were seated at a table near the kitchen, laughing and talking to a middle-aged woman with gray hair and a broad smiling face, who was wearing a plain black dress covered by a flowered apron.
“Mama Rose,” Josiah greeted, not shy about dropping a kiss on her round cheek before plopping down on the bench seat next to Buck. “How’s the pizza tonight?”
“The best you’ve ever had,” she replied confidently, her strong Irish brogue surprising Ezra. He was further surprised when she reached up and pinched Chris Larabee on the cheek, the action drawing a fond grin rather than the expected glare. She shook her finger at him. “You been out practicin’ that filthy habit of yours, I suppose. Why don’t you give it up?”
He laughed. “I’ve tried, believe me, but the stress of the company I keep just keeps crushing all my good intentions.”
The woman scolded him, "And I suppose travelling across the Atlantic, raising eight boys and starting up my own restaurant at an age when most people are retiring hasn’t caused me a moment of worry at all! Do you see me sticking a noxious plant in my face and setting fire to it when things get tough?"
Chris just grinned. "No, ma'am, but I never claimed to be that strong. Don't you know men are the weaker sex?"
She laughed. "Aye, you got me there!" Turning to Ezra, she planted a fist on her generous hip. “And you must be the new boy my son and his friends invited to play this afternoon. Ezra, is it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, trying not to laugh at the way her words suddenly made him feel about eight years old. “It was a pleasure to be included, and I've been looking forward to trying out your fine establishment. My friends tell me the cuisine here is beyond compare.”
Her eyebrows rose and her smile increased. “Eyes as green as an Irish hillside and a silver tongue to boot. Oh, you must be near as dangerous as this one,” she slapped a grinning Buck Wilmington on the chest, “when you’ve got your eye on a young lady.”
He smiled back, allowing his dimples to pop into view and making his eyes wide and guileless. “And how do you know I don't prefer older ladies?”
Mama Rose let go a hearty laugh. “Oh, I’m going to like you, and no doubt about it! What’ll you have to drink, son?”
Glancing around the table he saw a couple of pitchers of beer and soda, plus a bottle of water in front of Nathan and a pint of Guinness in front of John. “I believe I’ll stick with soda this evening,” he decided. “I’ve always preferred it with pizza.”
Seemingly conjured by his words, two smiling teenage waiters emerged from the kitchen with a couple of huge piping hot pizza pies, which they set down at either end of the crowded table.
“Make yourself comfortable and I’ll bring you boys out a fresh round of drinks,” Mama Rose advised, smiling at Ezra and startling a completely undignified squeak out of him when her hand stole down and gave his butt a solid pinch as she walked past.
Rubbing the offended cheek with a bemused expression upon his face, Ezra carefully sat down. The other men guffawed at his reaction.
“You’re one of Mama’s boys now, amigo,” Rafael told him, grinning hugely and shaking his hand. "I nearly choked on a breadstick when she did that to me."
John sighed, obviously a little embarrassed by his mother’s action but with a rueful expression that suggested he’d seen it many times before. “She must really like you. She doesn’t usually do that on the first meeting.”
Helping himself to a slice of the meat and veggie combo pizza that sat nearest him, Ezra picked off the olives and peppers, automatically passing them across to Nathan as he cast a suspicious glare around the table at his grinning work-mates.
“Interesting that Mrs. Nichols chose to greet me in such a manner so early in our acquaintance. Tell me, did one of you gentlemen happen to share with her the fact that my gluteus maximus is in a particularly tender condition tonight?” Watching Buck, JD and Vin suddenly become deeply interested in their pizza, he heaved an exasperated sigh. “That’s what I thought.”
Ezra took a bite and blinked in surprise. The pizza was delicious, every bit as good as his friends had claimed. Mama Rose might have a nefarious past and be a bit unorthodox in her personal interactions, but the woman certainly knew her way around a kitchen!
If there was one good thing about an after work sporting event and social gathering, Ezra decided as he yawned and opened one eye to squint at the alarm clock, it was the soundness of sleep one achieved afterward.
Eighteen minutes to go. Good . . . he was far too comfortable to get up immediately. Smiling, he snuggled back into the deep soft pillow and warm blankets.
Most nights, Ezra tended to toss and turn awhile and then briefly wake at least two times before settling into the depths of true slumber. This time he had barely made contact with the mattress before he was asleep and an amazing eight hours had passed without his ever being aware.
Finally, the alarm sounded its irritating staccato beep, drawing a sigh that quickly transformed into a gasp as Ezra reached out to shut the noise off and was treated to powerful twinges of protest from his left arm, shoulder and back.
“Aw, hell,” he grumbled as he rolled over onto his back and felt even more spasms twitching through his night-stiffened muscles. Moving carefully, Ezra swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, a different sort of ache making itself felt in his posterior as the majority of his weight came to rest upon it.
An ungraceful lurch and grunt of effort brought him to his feet and he paused, cataloguing the assorted sore spots. Lord, how could he possibly be this beat up by a simple baseball practice? It wasn’t as if he sat around and did nothing most of the time, even if that was what he allowed other people to think. In truth, he jogged, did calisthenics and martial arts and swam laps for exercise on a regular basis.
Ezra grunted, pressing both hands to his lower back in an attempt to stretch it out. Obviously, running around like a headless chicken with one’s arms stretched out to catch a flying object abused the muscles in a whole different manner than other exercises could account for. Or, he thought, slowly bending over to touch the floor and feeling the protest of his shoulders, maybe it had been the batting practice that had done him in. All that uncontrolled swinging undoubtedly had an adverse effect.
Wanting nothing more than to forget his professional obligations and allow his aching body to collapse back onto the mattress for the rest of the day, Ezra instead walked into the bathroom and took care of his morning ablutions. Then, exchanging his pajama pants for sweats and a plain white t-shirt, he laced up his now-dusty athletic shoes and headed out for a run.
For the first half mile, Ezra hobbled and creaked along like a broken-down old man, but as his muscles loosened the familiar routine became therapeutic. By the end of a mile, Ezra was running smoothly and he could feel his body all but sigh in relief as the hot pump of blood filled each sinew, warming and relaxing the abused muscles. The exercise did nothing for his bruises, unfortunately, but he was able to ignore them as long as no pressure was being exerted.
Another mile and Ezra turned around, dashing a rivulet of sweat off his nose. On a good day he might run five, or even ten miles before he was ready to go inside but right now a hot shower sounded like just what the doctor ordered.
“Oh, yeah, right there.” He groaned as the almost too hot water rocketing from the showerhead struck a knot between his shoulder-blades and worked it out for him. “God, that feels wonderful.”
Ezra laughed as his brain registered the words he was muttering, suddenly glad that no one was around to hear him. They’d have thought for sure that something more than a simple shower was taking place!
Still chuckling to himself, Ezra shut off the shower and grabbed a towel, pleased to note that his muscles and joints did not protest the action with nearly the same vehemence as they had an hour earlier.
A few minutes later, Ezra grimaced as he examined his body in the full-length mirror that hung inside the closet door. Nathan and Buck had been right. The faint discolorations of last night were nothing compared to the spectacular pattern currently decorating his hindquarters. The scrape on his shoulder had turned a charming shade of pink edged in purplish blue but most of the color was confined to his right hip and buttock where gray, green and yellow bruises fanned out grotesquely in every direction, giving the bizarre impression that he had smeared camouflage makeup on his derriere. More dots of color appeared on his knees and elbows.
“If this is what a single practice has done to me, what on earth am I going to look like after an actual baseball game?” he groaned. Turning away from the image, he selected a pair of soft cotton boxers, a silk dress shirt and a suit of the finest material he owned. The suit wasn’t one of his favorites, his mother had given it to him and he did not care for the color, but it was extremely comfortable and today he felt sure that he would appreciate comfort more than style.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” Ezra called out, as he entered the office brandishing a large white box with a gourmet bakery label printed on its top. “I come bearing breakfast.”
The other men all dropped whatever they were doing and followed him into the break-room. Ezra did not often spring for goodies, but when he did they were invariably worth the wait.
Watching them swarm over the box of crullers, cinnamon rolls, Danishes and sugar twists, Ezra smirked. Josiah was wincing every time he reached more than a foot past his own body, Nathan repeatedly grimaced as he turned this way and that fetching paper plates and napkins for everyone, Buck’s face scrunched up in a comical fashion as he bent over to pick up a dropped bit of food, and Chris repeatedly massaged his right shoulder as he waited for a turn at the pastry box. Vin and JD appeared to be the only members of the team who were unaffected.
“By the looks of things, I’m not the only person feeling yesterday’s practice,” Ezra commented, darting a hand past Vin to snag himself a particularly toothsome looking doughnut. He smiled when the other man scowled at him, clearly having had his eye on the same item.
Buck chuckled as he watched the two of them. “Not by a long shot. I thought I was gonna need a winch to haul my ass out of bed this morning. Slept good, though.”
“As did I,” Ezra agreed, “and a brief morning workout eased the stiffness considerably.”
“More energy then I could muster,” Josiah said, shaking his head ruefully. “I was lucky to get as far as the shower. Don’t worry, though, Ezra. The first day is always like that. Couple more times on the diamond and you won’t even remember the aches and pains of today.”
Stuffing a huge cruller into his mouth, JD garbled, “How’s your butt?”
Ezra shot him a hard glare, which the younger man completely ignored, waiting patiently for his reply. “Bruised,” Ezra gave in, “but recovering.”
“Cool. You still up for batting practice tomorrow?”
He had forgotten about that. His shoulders seemed to cramp up at the very suggestion.
Correctly reading the look on Ezra’s face, Chris pointed out, “You won’t get better unless you practice.”
“I know,” he sighed. “It’s just rather humiliating to imagine myself slugging away at the pitches of a machine and faring no better than I did against Nathan.”
“You will,” Nathan said with a certainty that surprised Ezra. “I’m not a bad pitcher but I can’t get the ball in the same spot at the same speed over and over, whereas you can set the pitching machine to do just that if you want it to. Sooner or later you’ll get the feel of it and start making contact.”
Vin nodded his agreement. “That’s what I did when I first started. Once you get that down you can set it for fast balls, slow balls, right, left, curve, whatever you want.”
Deciding that didn’t sound too bad, Ezra nodded to JD. “I’ll join you tomorrow, then, presuming that you’re doing this event some time in the afternoon.”
Buck laughed. “Don’t worry, Ezra, we all know that ‘morning’ is a four-letter word to you. We’ll pick you up around two o’clock.”
He smiled. “In that case, I believe I’m ready to go and get some work done.”
Setting his doughnut and the paper cup of coffee he’d brought in with him down on the edge of his desk, Ezra switched on the computer and sat down, wincing as he landed a bit too hard. He sighed and reached for a file. No doubt about it, this was going to be a long day.
Ezra was relieved to see that the batting cages were not terribly crowded. He had actually suffered nightmares that the place would be stuffed to capacity with jeering spectators, all pointing and laughing at his continued ineptitude.
“New jeans?” JD asked, watching Ezra take his place in the cage and hitch the slightly stiff denim up an inch to allow for a more comfortable range of motion.
He nodded. “Purchased this morning, along with a replacement pair for the ones Mr. Tanner loaned me last week. He claimed a replacement was unnecessary but I felt obligated to make restitution for the loss.”
“I would have too,” JD agreed. Following him into the batting cage, he examined Ezra’s stance. “Don’t hold yourself so stiff. You’ve got to swing the bat like it’s a part of you, just a single smooth motion. You can’t do that if your knees and elbows are locked.”
Ezra allowed the younger man to push and tug at his body, remembering that Chris had told him that JD was a good hitter.
Eyeing him critically, JD shook his head. “Relax, Ezra! Here, stand up straight and do this.”
Ezra could not help but smile as JD held both arms out to the side and shook himself all over, the motion reminiscent of a wet dog coming in out of the rain. Feeling utterly ridiculous, he did his best to emulate it. His body was still a little sore today but he had to admit that the action felt good.
“Better,” JD said. Taking the bat from Ezra’s hand, he demonstrated the correct pose, shifting his weight back and forth from one leg to the other and twirling his wrists to move the bat in a loose circle over his right shoulder. “You don’t have to get fancy, I’m just trying to show how your joints are supposed to be,” he explained, handing the bat back to Ezra.
Straightening his spine, Ezra crouched a bit and lifted the bat over his left shoulder, flexing his elbows out and back and bending his knees.
JD beamed. “Now, you’re getting it! Move your right foot back a little so your weight is on the left side and you’re able to pivot as you swing. Just like you told me to do with the clubs that time you and Josiah took me out to play golf.”
Ezra could feel himself relax a little more at the reminder that he had once similarly instructed JD, and that his young friend had indeed shown improvement before the day was out.
“Looking good,” Buck commented, tucking his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans as he returned from renting their playing space. “Take a few practice swings and give me some idea where to set the pitching machine.”
Tension instantly seized Ezra’s muscles again at the reminder that the others would be assessing his performance and possibly watching him make a fool out of himself.
“Relax,” JD said again, giving him an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
Ezra closed his eyes and pulled in a slow deep breath, and then another. His opponent was an inanimate, non-judgmental machine; he reminded himself, opening his eyes and taking a swing with the bat. He concentrated on keeping his back straight and his body loose, imagining that this was a martial arts exercise in which action and reaction were both essential components. The illusion helped and he found himself much more comfortable as he took a second and third swing.
“Okay,” Buck said, setting the machine to start pitching. “Here goes.”
The first ball came flying out of the funnel with the speed of a bullet and Ezra hurled himself out of the way, not even considering taking a swing as the projectile hurtled past him and struck hard against the back wall of the cage. Eyes wide, he turned to Buck. “What the hell happened to slow and steady?”
Buck grinned, looking sheepish but at the same time highly amused. “Forgot to reset the speed,” he confessed. “At least you know your reflexes are in good shape!”
“Ha Ha,” Ezra replied mockingly. “What do you say we begin with the lowest speed for now and worry about my reflexes later?”
“Sure, Ez,” Buck chuckled, flipping the switch down. “Wish I’d had a camera to catch the look on your face when that ball came shooting out, though.”
Ezra retook his stance, relieved to see the next ball come out at the speed of a nice easy toss. He swung the bat and managed to make contact, but the impact was low on the bat, causing the ball to drop quickly and roll rather than flying out toward the back of the cage.
“Not a bad bunt, if that’s what you’d meant to do,” Buck said, “but I don’t think it was. Try standing back a little so you’re not crowding the plate.”
“And don’t lunge at it,” JD added. “Let the ball come to you.”
Ezra blew out a breath. Let the ball come to him, right. The machine lobbed another slow pitch and this time he just watched it, trying to gauge its position relative to himself. Resuming his stance, he waited for the next pitch and swung a bit harder when it came.
Buck and JD exploded in cheers as the ball and bat made perfect contact, sending the baseball sailing toward the back of the cage. Ezra grinned, thrilled.
“Great job, pard,” Buck said. “Now see if you can do it again.”
The machine pitched, Ezra swung, and the ball once more lofted gracefully skyward. After another half dozen successful hits, Buck moved back to the controls.
“You’ve got the slow ball down pretty good,” he said. “Let’s see if you can hit something with a little more hair on it.”
The ball came out much faster this time, not at the blinding speed of that first pitch, but aimed in the same spot and Ezra was able to react quickly enough to hit it. He was far less successful when Buck changed the machine to a random setting, forcing him to adapt to changes in speed, style and position with every new pitch.
After the forth missed attempt in a row, Ezra waved for Buck to turn off the machine. Shoulders slumping, he walked out of the cage and sat down on the observation bench, resting his chin on the knob of his baseball bat. “That went well,” he scoffed.
“That went great,” JD countered, nudging him. “You were hitting the ball at least 40% of the time on the random setting. You’re really getting this.”
Tilting his head to look at JD and assess his sincerity, Ezra hopefully asked, “You think so?”
“Kid’s right,” Buck agreed. “40% is better than I did the first time out here, and a hell of a lot better than you could do Thursday!”
He nodded. That much was certainly true.
Buck punched him in the shoulder. “So quit being such a damn perfectionist all the time! It is possible to enjoy yourself without doing everything exactly right, y’know.”
JD smiled. “Even big-leaguers don’t hit the ball every time.”
“Just do your best, support your team win or lose, and above all, have fun,” Ezra said quietly, the wistfulness in his voice and eyes drawing curious looks from his two friends. He shrugged one shoulder. “My father said that to me before my first Little League game. He knew I wasn’t very good and that I’d probably be lucky to see more than a few minutes of playing time all season, but he was happy to go to the games and offer moral support. I think he was proud of me just for trying.”
The other two men’s eyes met over their friend’s bowed head, exchanging a look of surprise. Ezra had never spoken of his father before. “I’m sure he was,” Buck said, then ventured, “Your dad like baseball?”
Ezra smiled, straightening up as though strengthened by the memory. “He loved it. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on his lap and listening while he explained what was happening on the television screen as we watched baseball games together. I don’t think he ever missed one all season.”
“Your mom must’ve loved that,” JD said with a laugh. “Maude doesn’t strike me as a sports fan.”
“She isn’t, but she didn’t seem to object.” He stood, replacing his bat in the rack and turning to avoid seeing their faces as he explained, “Daddy developed pancreatic cancer when I was eleven years old. That’s really the reason I tried out for the baseball team, so that he could see me play before it was too late. I had some crazy notion that if I could do well enough, and make him happy enough, then God wouldn’t allow him to die.”
Buck’s voice was sympathetic as he asked, “What happened?”
“He passed away five months later,” Ezra said with a sigh, “and I never played baseball again until this week.”
JD came to stand next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Geez, I’m sorry, Ezra. If I’d known the game would bring up bad memories for you, I never would have pushed you into playing.”
Surprised, Ezra turned around, realizing that his story had been misunderstood. “No, JD, I’m grateful to you for the opportunity. Doing this makes me feel as if I’m reestablishing a bond with my father, as well as forming a new one with you and the rest of the team.” He glanced at Buck, including him in the explanation. “I didn’t tell you about him as some sort of rebuke, I told you because I wanted you to understand how much this means to me, and why I’ve been, perhaps, taking it all a bit too seriously.”
Buck flashed a warm smile. “I’m glad you told us. And I wouldn’t worry. I’ll bet your dad is up there in heaven’s cheering section right now watching us play, probably sharin’ a hot dog with my ma and pointing out his boy to JD’s mom and all the rest of our families.”
It was such an odd notion, and yet such an easy one to visualize, that Ezra found himself laughing. “I believe you may be right. Now, why don’t you take a turn at the plate and give your mother something to cheer about?”
Grabbing a bat, Buck grinned and winked at the wispy white clouds overhead. “You got it.”
Tucking the shirttail of his red and white jersey into his jeans and pulling the matching red cap in place over his brow, Ezra grinned. He was about to play in his first official baseball game with the team and could not deny that he was excited about it. A bit nervous, but even in his often overly-critical self estimation he had made a lot of progress over the last several practices. He still wasn’t the best player on the team, but he had made great strides since that first day and felt that he would at least be able to hold his own.
The rest of the guys had evidently also improved a great deal from their previous seasons. Ezra had felt a warm glow of pride yesterday when Josiah had joked that he must have infected everyone with his own competitive spirit and drive, they were doing so well.
Their first opponent, a group of loan officers who wittily called themselves the Sharks, would be in for a surprise today. They had beaten the ATF team in a shut-out the year before, a fact that still clearly rankled Ezra’s teammates.
In honor of their sponsor, Mama Rose’s Pizza Heaven, the ATF agents had named themselves the Angels. The word had been ironed on to the front of each cap in a design created by Josiah, who had added a set of pointed horns atop the ‘A’, balancing a small lopsided halo upon their tips, and a forked tail to the curve of the ‘S’. Mama Rose had clucked her tongue when she saw it, but the twinkle in her eyes had given away her approval.
Ezra twisted to see the back of his shirt in the mirror that hung at one end of the locker room. He was proud of the bold red ‘05’ and the name ‘Standish’ that now adorned the surface. He had been a bit dubious initially of having his identity emblazoned upon his shoulders for the world to see, but had quickly realized that the lowlifes he dealt with while undercover were extremely unlikely to turn up at an amateur baseball game. Even if they did, the odds of anyone accidentally recognizing him in such a venue were astronomically low.
Ezra looked up to see Vin and Nathan grinning at him, each dressed in his own copy of the Angels uniform. Vin wore the number 23 and Nathan, number 34. Ezra wasn’t sure of the reason behind Vin’s choice but Nathan had confessed that he had adopted the number of pitching great, Nolan Ryan, in the hopes that it might bring him some luck when he had first taken up the position of pitcher for the ATF team.
“I believe that I am,” Ezra replied. “Yourselves?”
“Rearin’ to go,” Vin said, the sparkle in his eyes supporting his claim. “Martinez and Nichols already headed over with the supplies and I’ve got a feelin’ that today is our lucky day. Can’t wait ‘til that bastard sees what we got for him this year.”
Nathan’s fierce grin startled Ezra, and he was even more surprised when the typically even tempered medic vehemently agreed, “We’ll give that runty little son of a bitch a game he won’t forget all season long!”
Ezra frowned. “Who is this person we’re talking about?”
“Dickie O’Shea,” Vin spat. “Toad-faced little varmint’s the CEO of his company and the captain of the Sharks. Crookeder than a dog’s hind leg and all the rest of the players he recruited for that team are just like him. Bunch of cheatin’ bastards, every one of ‘em.”
“Worst thing is, they’re good! Good enough that they don’t need to pull that crap to win,” Nathan added, disgust twisting his expression. “I wouldn’t even mind losing to them every season if they were willing to play on skill alone, but they cheat at every opportunity, just ‘cause they can. Spiked cleats, spitballs, throwing at the runners instead of the basemen . . . you name it, they’ve tried it. Anything as long as it’s dirty.”
“So I guess we can add bad sportsmanship to the list of their shortcomings,” Ezra said dryly. “Why haven’t they been banned from the league? Isn’t there any sort of rule against such goings on?”
Nathan scratched his head and grimaced. “There’ve been plenty of complaints, but Dickie and his boys always seem to come out smellin’ like roses. You ask me, he’s paying somebody off.”
“A sad but distinct possibility,” Ezra agreed. Casting an accusing glare around the locker room at the other members of his team, he said, “May I ask why no one has bothered to inform me of the actions of these miscreants before now?”
Buck looked a bit embarrassed as he admitted, “We didn’t want to scare you off just as you were getting the hang of things. Most of the teams are real fine folks. Couple of bad apples here and there, but most are in it for the fun, like we are.”
“We’ll do fine, don’t worry,” Josiah assured him. “We’re all in this together, Ezra. No matter what happens today, we’ll just do our best and not let the actions of a few misguided souls spoil the enjoyment.”
Ezra nodded. “I understand, although if they’re as bad as you say, I believe I’d rather enjoy the opportunity to prove that a dirty player is not necessarily a victorious one.”
“That’s the spirit,” Chris approved. “We should warn you before you go up to bat, though, that their pitcher’s the worst of the bunch.”
Buck snorted in clear disgust. “That’s for damn sure. Scrawny little fella named Powderman. He don’t look strong enough to throw away a Kleenex, but the wiry little bastard’s got a fastball that’d make you think he was hurling dynamite at you. We been trying to prove for three years that he’s greasin’ the ball somehow but we can never seem to catch him in the act.”
“Then how do you know he isn’t simply a superior athlete?”
Vin shrugged. “Just a feeling. Like Nathan said, they don’t need to cheat, but all of ‘em like to.”
Ezra drew a deep breath. “Well, I suddenly feel a great deal less optimistic about this afternoon’s performance, but I will do my best to help bring victory to the Angels and take these cheating vermin down in a style they will not soon forget.”
“All right!” JD said, joining the conversation as he came around a row of lockers pulling on his hat. “That’s what we want to hear! You got your dad’s special glove all ready, Ezra?”
Hesitantly, Ezra reached inside his still open locker and pulled out the precious memento. At JD and Buck’s prompting, he had shared the connection between his beloved father and his renewed desire to play baseball with the rest of the team. They had proven so understanding and supportive of the revelation that he had decided to reveal the origins of his glove as well.
Placing it over his left hand, Ezra grinned, suddenly excited again. “After you, gentlemen. Let’s prove to these Sharks that they’ve chosen to swim in dangerous waters!”
A rallying shout of agreement echoed through the locker room as the team prepared to face their enemy.
Ezra parked in a space a fair distance away from the playing field, not wanting to take the risk of any stray baseballs damaging his Lexus, and glanced in surprise at his passenger who had suddenly erupted in a delighted chortle. “Something amusing, Mr. Tanner?”
Eyes dancing, Vin pointed to a red pickup truck a few spots over. “I think the Sharks just hit a patch of bad luck!”
Following his gaze to the innocuous looking vehicle, Ezra frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“You remember Nettie Wells, right?”
Ezra nodded. He had only made the feisty, no-nonsense lady’s acquaintance one time, but had found her completely unforgettable. “Indeed, I do.”
“Well, that’s her truck,” Vin told him. “Nettie’s a huge baseball fan and a licensed umpire with the city Park and Rec association. Since we ain’t playing the Fillies, I reckon the only reason Nettie would be here is if she’s our Ump.”
“And the Sharks are far less likely to get away with any unsportsmanlike shenanigans in her presence,” Ezra filled in, making the connection. Then his brow creased in puzzlement. “What do the Phillies have to do with anything? Is she missing a game on television to be here today?”
Vin laughed. “I ain’t talking about the pro baseball team. A bunch of gals from the local farming and ranching community got together last year and made up a team. They call themselves the Fillies. Kinda cute, huh?”
“Quite charming,” he agreed. “I have no objection, of course, but I wasn’t aware that the league our team plays in was co-ed.”
“Nobody told you?” Vin said in surprise.
Ezra sighed, the tone more than a little exasperated. “I’m beginning to believe there must be a wealth of information about this endeavor that no one has chosen to volunteer.”
Vin shook his head, a self-deprecating smile twisting his lips. “Sorry, Ez. Guess we forget sometimes that you’re still pretty new to all this. Most of the time it feels like you been a part of us all along, and we just keep expectin’ you to know stuff ‘cause we do. Forget you haven’t been here for most of it!”
Struggling to keep the warm surge of happiness he’d felt at Vin’s words from showing on his face, Ezra waved the apology away. “I understand. So, why does Mrs. Wells attend Fillies games if she’s not officiating for them?”
“Her niece Casey’s the first baseman. Somebody’d be sure to start squawkin’ if she called their games, but everybody else is fair game.”
Still surprised but also intrigued, Ezra asked him, “And will we be expected to play against these ladies at some point?”
Vin thought for a moment. “Yeah, I think we got ‘em three games out. Have to check with Chris, he got the final schedule just yesterday. They’re real good, so don’t be thinkin’ for a minute that we’ll have to go easy on ‘em just because they’re gals. They beat us good the last time.” His grin widened. “That was Buck’s favorite game of the year. He came away with phone numbers for half the team.”
Ezra snorted. “Why am I not surprised?”
Per a pre-game coin toss, the Angels were batting first. Ezra was scheduled to be the fourth batter and he watched anxiously from the side for his teammates to take their turn. Speaking to John, who was due up just after he was, he said, “Buck was right. Their pitcher looks as if he’d blow off the mound if a brisk wind came up.”
Nichols chuckled. “I know. He doesn’t look like much but he’s struck out more batters than anyone else in the league, so don’t let appearances fool you.”
Ezra nodded thoughtfully, his teammate’s wording unconsciously calming him and recalling to his mind the need to watch for signs of cheating. Instead of observing Nathan, who was up to bat first, he kept his eyes fixed upon the small bespectacled pitcher. Powderman went through all sorts of ritual movements before releasing the ball – bouncing from foot to foot as if dancing to some music that nobody else could hear, testing the direction of the wind with a damp fingertip, shifting his position on the mound two or three times, winding up in an equally elaborate display, checking the bases even though there were no runners on board yet, and finally grinding the ball against the palm of his mitt before rearing back and letting it fly.
And fly it did. The ball hurtled toward Nathan like a rocket, coming so close to hitting him that the man leapt back a step in wide-eyed alarm. Powderman flashed him an insincere smile of apology.
Ezra was interested to note that Mrs. Wells’ eyes narrowed suspiciously at the performance, though the only words she spoke were to call, “Ball one.”
Two balls and two strikes later, Nathan made contact on another slightly out of control fastball. Instead of jumping away from it, he met the ball with a hard push, the unexpected bunt catching the Sharks off-guard as the ball bounced lazily toward third base.
“Run, Nathan!” Ezra found himself shouting along with the rest of his team.
Jackson hustled along the base-path, easily beating the ball to first base with a one-legged slide that kicked a huge cloud of dust right into the face of first-baseman Lucas James. “Gee, sorry about that, Luke,” Nathan said with a grin of apology every bit as sincere as the one Powderman had flashed him.
Ezra whistled and clapped along with the others, delighted with Nathan’s performance. JD was up next and he took his place at the plate with a determined frown. After three weeks’ worth of practices, Ezra knew that his young colleague was indeed a good batter and he cheered him on as he darted his gaze back and forth from mound to plate. Powderman went through his bizarre ritual dance again and Ezra could see JD begin to fidget and tense his grip on the bat as he grew increasingly impatient for the ball to be thrown.
When the pitch was finally delivered, it came in the form of a leisurely curveball that caught JD completely off-guard. After all the preparation, he had clearly been expecting a fastball and could not react to the change in time to counteract it. He swung and missed. Twice more, they played out the ritual. Powderman would gyrate and procrastinate until JD looked ready to jump out of his skin, causing the young man to react without thinking and swing blindly.
“Strike Three!” Nettie barked as the ball whizzed past JD’s head for a third time without any contact.
“Damn it!” JD swore in a soft but vehement tone, tapping his bat against the hard plastic batting helmet he wore in pure frustration.
From second base, a portly mustached man called out, “Better luck next time, Boy-o!” and burst into a loud guffaw at JD’s expense.
“That, I take it, is O’Shea,” Ezra guessed wryly.
“Yeah, it is,” Vin agreed. “Bastard.”
As JD exchanged the helmet for his cap, passing the former off to Chris Larabee, he sat down on the bench with a gusty sigh. “Dang it, why can’t I ever hit off that guy!”
“Because he’s reading you better than you’re reading him,” Ezra said bluntly, drawing looks of surprise and irritation from his teammates. Holding up his hands, he continued, “Please don’t take that to mean that I approve of his behavior. My point, JD, is that you were growing steadily more frustrated with our opponent’s ridiculous performance and he knew it. The longer he delayed in throwing the ball, the tenser and less ready you were to handle what came at you.”
“He threw me out of my zone,” JD said in a tone of revelation. “I was so worried about when he was going to throw, that I lost track of what he was doing!”
Ezra nodded. “Precisely. Next time, try to concentrate on something else. I don’t care if it’s improving your stance or pondering your baseball card collection; just don’t give him the edge over you by losing your self-control.”
A sudden crack diverted their attention and they looked back at the field just in time to see Larabee’s swing send the ball soaring toward right field.
“Miss it . . . miss it . . . miss it!” JD chanted, jumping to his feet and watching as the outfielder, a tall ugly man by the name of Spikes, backpedalled under the ball.
A gasp of anticipation was quickly followed by a groan of disappointment as the man jumped up and caught the ball just before it could go over the line that had been designated as the ‘out of the park’ homerun boundary.
“You want to get one past me; you’re going to need to do better than that, Larabee!” Spikes bellowed as he threw the ball back to the short-stop.
Chris shot him a fierce glare and a universal hand gesture as he stomped back off the field.
“You’re up, Ezra,” Josiah called. He clapped his hands as Ezra jogged past him to select a bat. “Come on, son, you can do it!”
The other guys also clapped and shouted, showing their support. Ezra almost wished they wouldn’t. The high expectations they seemed to have for him were making him feel nervous. Just the same, he jammed a batting helmet over his head and dug in, raising the bat over his left shoulder and trying not to tense up as he remembered all the advice his teammates had given him. He took a couple of practice swings and then settled his stance with a nod to the pitcher.
As he had with JD, Powderman began his theatrics once again, testing to see if the Angels’ new player was easily distracted. When Ezra merely took the opportunity to draw a few much-needed calming breaths and center himself, the pitcher scowled and threw a curveball that flew so far out that the Sharks catcher had to leap sideways to grab it.
“Ball,” Nettie called calmly, a hint of amusement in her voice that made Ezra suspect that she had enjoyed seeing the man disconcerted.
The second pitch, a fastball, came within a hair’s breadth of striking Ezra in the face and it was only his quick reflexes that saved him from a broken jaw.
“Ball,” Nettie repeated, standing up straight and raising her face-mask as she shot a hard look at the pitcher and said, “If I see you throwing at just one more batter, Mr. Powderman, I will eject you from this game!”
The pitcher lowered his head in what could have been a nod, but Ezra noticed that he was checking over his shoulder to look at O’Shea. The portly man scowled darkly and gave him a sharp nod. Clearly an order of some kind, and one that the pitcher didn’t look too happy with.
Bracing himself for whatever was to come Ezra crouched back into his batting position and waited. Powderman hurled the ball forward in a sudden snap that had Ezra’s whole body tensing with the need to leap out of the way as the ball seemed to again speed toward him with blinding swiftness. Gritting his teeth, he held his ground.
Feeling strangely as if he were moving in slow motion, Ezra stepped back a pace and swung as hard as he could. The impact of the ball striking his bat reverberated up his arms like a shock-wave, but then he gasped as he watched the ball zoom out over the field, easily eluding the grasping catch of Gage Lawless, the center fielder, and flying over the home-run zone.
“Move, Ezra!” Chris laughed, clapping his hands in appreciation. “You still have to clear the bases for the hit to count!”
Grinning so big he felt as if he might never be able to stop, Ezra tossed his bat aside and jogged to first, second, third, and then landed back on home plate with a jubilant hop. The rest of the team greeted him with whoops and slaps to his back, butt and shoulders. A large hand, one he was almost sure belonged to Buck, nipped off his batting helmet and ruffled his hair.
Nathan shook his hand so hard the arm felt in danger of leaving its socket, and Ezra remembered that the other man had been on base ahead of him. “We scored two?” he questioned, and then laughed. His voice sounded as disbelieving as he felt. “I hit a home run!”
Josiah grabbed both base runners in a quick hug. “You sure did! No matter what happens now, we are not going down in another shut-out to the Sharks!”
Shooing them aside with a huge grin, John Nichols reminded them, “Hey, this inning isn’t over yet! What do you say I try and make it three to nothing?”
Fired up now, the other men shouted support and cheered John on as he took his place at the plate.
As it turned out, Nichols was not able to score. He made it to first base with a grounder to center but Powderman had evidently decided that caution was warranted and pitched with enough control to strike out first Vin and then Rafael.
Hooting and cat-calling, the Sharks took their turn but had a quick and unsatisfying at-bat as Nathan Jackson held his own against them, striking out Gage Lawless and left-fielder Del Spivak, and using slow careful pitches to goad the Sharks’ catcher and only female player, Maddie Stokes, into a frustrated pop fly that JD caught easily from his position at short stop.
Eyebrows raised and grins formed on the faces of the entire Angels team as the petite woman threw down her bat and treated them all to a colorful diatribe that would have had sailors blushing, and earned the Sharks their second warning of the day from Nettie Wells.
Unlike professional baseball, the local amateur league played games of only seven innings, and the next five went by scoreless on either side, though Chris, JD and John all managed to get on base at one time or another. Ezra’s luck at the plate had seemingly run out and he had been unable to get another hit off of the wily little Sharks pitcher.
“One more inning to go,” JD commented as he and Ezra took their places on the bench to watch Vin Tanner take his next turn and await their own. “Won’t it be cool if we can keep the Sharks from scoring? Let them see what it feels like to be shut out for a change!”
Ezra smirked. “I would imagine the sting to be even greater, knowing they’d been beaten honestly in spite of all their efforts to cheat.”
He shook his head, thinking of all the near-misses and ‘accidental’ contact between the Angels runners and the Sharks basemen. His left hand was killing him where he’d slid into second base in the fourth inning, only to have it none too gently stepped on by the sharp cleat of Dickie O’Shea. It had given him considerable satisfaction to have used that same hand to catch the man’s next hit when it flew into center field.
Watching him flex and clench the injured appendage, Josiah gave Ezra a pat on the shoulder. “You doing all right?” Ezra smiled and nodded. “Good. You’ve played great out there today. It’s hard to believe this is only your first game.”
Ezra’s intended response was cut off and the Angels rose to their feet as Tanner suddenly made contact, sending the baseball soaring into left field where it was touched, but not caught, by Spivak. The man cursed and dove to retrieve the ball, rocketing it back to Morgan Coltrane at short-stop, who tossed the ball to O’Shea a split second too late as Tanner made it to second.
“Safe!” yelled Nettie, the sharp look she shot at the second-baseman just daring him to disagree with her decision. It was obvious that he wanted to do just that, but O’Shea backed off with a tip of his cap in the umpire’s direction, scowling but silent.
Rafael Martinez was up next and the challenge was fierce in his eyes as he stared down Powderman. The small man smirked and checked the bases, wound up, and threw a stunning fastball that caught Rafael flat-footed.
A ball and another strike went by, then another blazing fastball was thrown, but this time Rafael managed to nick the edge with his bat and make it safely to first base before his opponents could field the shallow hit.
Vin advanced to third, shouting back, “How you like them apples, Dickie?”
O’Shea ignored him, merely firing an angry look at his pitcher.
Powderman grimaced and set himself firmly as he watched Buck Wilmington advance to the plate, a grin on his face as he crouched down and swirled the bat over his shoulder, seeming to dare the little man to do his worst.
The pitcher wound up and then promptly stopped again, clutching his shoulder with a howl of pain too pathetically over-the-top to be real.
“Time!” Nettie called. “What’s the problem, Mr. Powderman?”
“My shoulder,” he whined. “I think I threw it out on that last pitch.”
Nathan did not like the Sharks, but he was too compassionate and too much of a professional not to offer, “You need me to take a look? I’m a licensed EMT.”
All of the loan officers seemed to freeze for an instant, clearly not having expected the offer, and Ezra nearly laughed out loud when he saw Powderman shoot a none-too-subtle frantic look back at Dickie.
The team captain reluctantly nodded. “Aye, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have it looked at.”
“You have five minutes,” Nettie said, “after which, play will resume. In the event that Mr. Powderman is unable to continue, you’ll either need to find a substitute pitcher or forfeit the game.”
Dickie again tipped his cap, then he, Powderman and Nathan Jackson retreated to the Sharks’ bench to examine the injury.
“What do you think?” Josiah asked Chris quietly. “Is it a trick?”
“Not sure what they hope to gain if it is. Maybe just trying to kill our momentum now that we got two men on, with Vin in scoring position.” He shrugged. “That was a hell of a fastball he shot Martinez. Maybe he really did throw his arm out.”
Ezra made a rude noise, gaining both of their attention. “If that man has a dislocated shoulder, I’m the Queen of England.”
They each snorted a laugh. “Forgot about that trick shoulder of yours,” Chris said. “I guess you’d know what a dislocation looks like better than any of us.”
“The man was stalling, I’m certain of it. Probably wanted a few minutes to confer with O’Shea.” He chuckled. “I’d venture to say that Mr. Jackson’s charitable impulse derailed that plan, but they could not refuse his offer without making it entirely obvious what they were about.”
Just then, Jackson and O’Shea left the Sharks bench and headed for Nettie. “It’s not a dislocation, but he seems to be in some pain,” Nathan said. “Probably shouldn’t play any more today.”
Looking at the other man, Nettie raised an eyebrow. “Well? Do you have another pitcher or do you forfeit?”
O’Shea looked like he’d bit a lemon as he said, “We’ll not forfeit to the likes of these!” Turning he bellowed over his shoulder, “Thompson! Take the mound!”
Unlike the ATF team, who had only nine players and thus had to play both ways every inning, the Sharks team consisted of thirteen players, three of whom had taken at-bats without doing any fielding at all. Therefore, this new pitcher would be fresh and rested where the Angels were beginning to show signs of fatigue.
Ezra shook his head, suspecting that O’Shea’s seeming irritation was entirely feigned and that this had been his plan all along. His eyes widened when he got a look at the new pitcher. A tall black man with wild hair and wilder eyes, Achilles Thompson took the mound like he was preparing for a battle, feet planted squarely, hands twitching in readiness, large eyes glaring viciously at every man on the field.
“Oh, shit,” JD said quietly.
“My sentiments exactly,” Ezra replied. Glancing at Josiah, he asked, “Do you think Mr. Wilmington can stand up to this behemoth?”
Josiah shook his head, clearly not certain, but Chris made them all feel better as he confidently stated, “He can take him.” Then louder, “C’mon, Buck! Cut this son of a bitch down to size!”
The cocky grin made an instant comeback as Buck once again took his stance.
Thompson did not bother with the elaborate wind-up of his teammate. He simply reared back and flung the ball with all his strength. The motion made Ezra’s mind flash to King Kong swatting at airplanes above the Empire State building, but what the pitch lacked in finesse it more than made up for in raw power, flying toward Buck like a freight train.
Wilmington swung too late, and Maddie Stokes cursed audibly as the ball smacked into her glove, taking her hand out to shake some feeling back into it as she tossed the baseball back toward the mound.
Achilles scowled even more darkly, barely waiting for Buck to get reset before he was throwing again. It appeared that the man had only a single pitch in his arsenal but it proved to be an effective one as Buck once again swung and missed, earning himself Strike Two.
“You can beat this Neanderthal, Mr. Wilmington!” Ezra shouted. “He’s just another pitching machine!”
Buck heard the shout and gave Ezra a thumbs-up, positioning his body a bit more loosely than before as he once again resumed his stance.
A third time Achilles flung the hard driving pitch, but this time Buck was ready for him. His bat swung in a graceful arc, body turning for a complete follow-through as he clobbered the baseball hard and true, sending it sailing beautifully over the head of the clearly irritated Bob Spikes.
“Gonna have to do better than that, Spikes!” Chris bellowed cheerfully as first Vin, then Rafael and finally Buck rounded the bases and touched home.
Ezra was grinning widely enough to hurt as he enthusiastically shook Buck’s hand. Buck slapped him hard on the back. “Thanks, Ez. You were right. Bastard throws just like the fastball setting on a pitching machine. Straight, strong and with no imagination to speak of.”
“I can take no credit, Buck,” he replied happily. “I was only offering encouragement. It was your own skill that carried the day.”
Buck laughed. “Well, whatever it was, I’ll take it! Hey, bet you five bucks Josiah gets a home run!”
As he watched Josiah approaching the plate with an easy confident stride, Ezra smiled and shook his head. “No bet. I think Mr. Sanchez has Thompson’s number.”
They watched eagerly as Josiah readied himself. Like Ezra, the big man was a left-handed batter and for a moment, the pitcher’s constant scowl grew even more pronounced. Clearly he was not sure how to adjust to the difference in positioning. Then he shrugged and simply hurled the ball as he had done before.
The ball was too close and Josiah let it go, nodding as Nettie called, “Ball One!”
The second pitch, though seemingly exact to those watching, was more to Josiah’s liking. He swung hard and drove it back the way it had come, nearly knocking the surprised Achilles Thompson right off the mound. As the Sharks shortstop, Coltrane, snatched up the ball and flung it to Lucas James, Josiah easily made it to first.
Nathan was not as comfortable with a fastball pitch as the previous two batters, and went down swinging after four pitches. JD, who had fared much better against Powderman once he had calmed down and refused to let the man’s weird rituals affect his concentration any longer, was also at a loss to deal with the pure brute force of Thompson.
When Chris came up to bat, the glare in his eyes all but dared the angry looking pitcher to try something.
Thompson merely grunted at the look. As he stared down the new batter, all concentration on him, Josiah suddenly did what nobody had been expecting and left his base, charging full-bore toward second as Dickie O’Shea frantically called out for the ball to stop him.
Achilles spun to look, but what he had in strength he lacked in speed, and Josiah stole second base easily, grinning widely at the disgruntled Sharks while his own team whooped and whistled and clapped in support of the surprise play.
Fiercely delighted with his teammate, Chris dug in and waited. When the pitch came, he slammed into it with everything he had and the baseball took off like a rocket toward third. The third baseman, Eli Joe Holland, lunged forward, managing to knock the ball off its trajectory and into the dirt.
Larabee made it safely to first base ahead of the ball and the Angels all cheered as Josiah charged third base, their happiness turning to horror as the big man’s feet suddenly went out from under him and Josiah landed hard on his back, crying out in pain.
“Time!” Nettie barked, removing her mask and running out to third base, as did all of Josiah’s teammates.
He lay flat on the ground, groaning. Nathan pushed his way to Josiah’s side and checked him over. “What happened?”
“Slipped on something,” Josiah grated out through gritted teeth.
Nettie tapped the toe of her shoe on the dirt dusted rubber base, grimacing when it slid slickly across the surface. Eyes blazing, she pointed a scolding finger toward an unrepentantly smiling Eli Joe and demanded, “Explain!”
Chomping firmly on the wad of chewing tobacco he’d been working the entire game, Holland spat a long stream of brown liquid into the dirt. “Reckon he’s just clumsy.”
“You’re out of the game!” she barked, angered by the flippant response. When the man simply smirked and shrugged, turning on his heel and sauntering back to the Sharks bench to the guffaws of his teammates, Nettie glared over the field at them and added, “In fact, this entire team seems determined to get itself thrown out. What do you say to that, Mr. O’Shea?”
“You can’t do that!” he protested hotly, shooting a warning look at his team that made their laughter instantly die. “I’m sorry that Sanchez is hurt but you don’t have the right to hold my whole team to blame for one mistake!”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously and it was clear that Nettie was about to prove exactly what she did have the right to do, when Josiah, who had sat up with help from Nathan, put his hand out and said, “Wait, please!”
“Sanchez?” the umpire said, bending far enough forward so that the injured man could look at her without straining upward.
“Don’t call a forfeit,” he pleaded. Casting a black look at the Sharks, he said, “I want us to beat them legitimately.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “You able to play?”
“If you’ll allow one of my teammates to pinch-run for me, I think so,” he said, grimacing as he slowly climbed to his feet.
Before she could ask, JD raised his hand. “I’ll do it!”
Nettie nodded. “All right, then. Play ball!”
Nathan and Buck helped Josiah limp back to the Angels bench, while Chris retook his base and Ezra moved to take up a bat. Unfortunately, Ezra was so distracted by his worry over Josiah’s injury that he forgot everything he was supposed to be doing and stood as stiffly as a robot, swinging automatically and futilely at every pitch that came his way.
“Strike Three,” Nettie called, forgetting her role of umpire for a moment as she reached forward to pat the dejected looking southerner on the shoulder and give him a little push back toward his friends. “You’re out, son.”
Ezra sighed deeply, feeling that he had let his side down with that dismal at-bat, and trotted back to check on Josiah.
“It’s okay, Ezra,” the big man said, reading his thoughts easily. “You can’t get ‘em every time.”
“How are you?” he asked, ignoring the attempt at comfort.
Josiah grimaced. “Sore as hell, but I’ll live. Nathan here isn’t even going to force me to go to the hospital.”
Ezra smiled, relaxing a little. “Well, that’s certainly good news.”
“There’s no way I’m going to be able to guard first-base, though,” Josiah admitted with a sigh. “Damn, I wish we had an extra player.”
Ezra nodded. “I believe our priority before the next game needs to be procuring the services of at least one more person for our team. For now, may I suggest that you take my place in the field and allow me to guard first base?”
“I doubt I’ll be catching anything that doesn’t land right in my lap,” he said ruefully, “but what about you? You’ve never played First. You sure you can handle it?”
Ezra’s anger at the Sharks’ casual disregard for the injury they had caused had been tempered into cold determination by his own terrible performance at the plate. He nodded. “Quite sure.” He looked at Nathan. “If you can keep them from getting any loft on the ball, I promise you that I can keep them from crossing that base.”
Nathan studied him a moment, then grinned. “I believe you.” He held out a hand, which Ezra shook firmly, sealing the deal.
Ten minutes, eleven pitches and two first-base tag outs later, the Angels had handed the Sharks the first scoreless defeat of their amateur baseball career.
Ezra shouted and laughed and cavorted about as wildly as any of his teammates as they celebrated their victory, feeling the sweet rush of success overwhelm his normal reserve. Holding up his battered baseball glove, he gave it an exuberant kiss that had his friends laughing, lifting it towards the sky with a huge grin on his face.
Somewhere above, he just knew that Daniel Standish was smiling back at him.
The atmosphere at Mama Rose’s was jubilant, word of the Angels’ victory having spread to the other patrons courtesy of their beaming hostess.
Rose herself was delighted by their win, declaring that the team’s pizza was on the house this evening in honor of their fine performance. Ezra, having accepted by now that her son’s teammates were all considered surrogate sons by Rose Nichols, was still hit by a feeling of astonishment when he was greeted with an enthusiastic kiss by the ebullient woman.
“Son, you did your team proud today,” Rose declared, beaming her apple cheeked smile at him. “My Johnny was right when he said they’d found ‘em a good one.”
Ezra blushed hotly, bringing amused grins to the faces of his teammates. “Thank you, Mrs. Nichols. I was only following the fine example they set me.”
She looked pleased by his answer, but her next comment was cut off with an exclamation of dismay when she noticed his left hand, now thickly bound by a hand splint and an Ace bandage. “You poor lamb!” she exclaimed, pressing him to take a seat on the bench with the rest of his friends. “What have you done to yourself?”
“O’Shea stomped on his hand in the fourth inning, Ma,” John volunteered with a scowl. A note of pride filled his voice as he added, “Ezra didn’t quit, though. Still managed to field a few pop flies and guard first base after Josiah was injured later in the game.”
JD cut in, “Took his turn at bat, too, in spite of having been hurt.”
Trying to deflect the admiration he could see shining at him from every face, Ezra scoffed, “Much good that did anyone. The rest of the game I might as well have been using the bat to swat mosquitoes. It was Mr. Wilmington who eventually increased our score.”
“Ah, but you got us started,” Buck pointed out, shoving a plastic plate his way and nudging the pizza a little closer. “You proved that the curse was broken.”
Ezra paused. “Curse?”
Nods and sounds of agreement filled the group. “You probably didn’t know it,” Rafael told him, “but this is the first time we’ve ever beaten the Sharks. They won six of their last ten games by shut-out and never lost a game all last season. That homerun and RBI of yours convinced the rest of us that it could be done.”
“You did good today, Ezra,” Chris told him firmly, then bit into a slice of deep-dish pizza, savoring the bite as if it were a solid symbol of victory.
Rose gently lifted Ezra’s injured hand, concerned gaze boring into it as if she could see right through the bandages. “Was it broken, then, love?”
“No, ma’am. Nathan examined it for me after the game and came to the conclusion that the muscles in my hand had been strained. He iced it for a while, then advised immobilization and rest for the appendage.” Looking at Chris, he reported, “Mr. Sanchez is in a similar state with his back, and won’t be joining us this evening. Nathan took him home for rest and treatment but I’m afraid he won’t be reporting for work tomorrow.”
Chris sighed and then nodded. “I’ll give him a call later on and let him know he’s cleared from duty for a couple of days. How about you? You all right to work tomorrow?”
Glancing at the barely exposed tips of his fingers, Ezra said, “If one of you gentlemen would be kind enough to assist me with any typing that may be required, I should be able to manage the rest.”
JD grinned and raised his hand. “Pinch runner, remember?”
Ezra laughed. “Thank you, JD. In that case, I shall report for duty as usual.”
Plopping a hearty slice of pizza in front of Ezra, Vin winked. “Be seein’ you around noon, then?”
Everyone laughed and Mama Rose left the celebration with a parting pat on Ezra’s shoulder.
Nathan frowned as he arrived at the park to set up for the team’s second game on Sunday morning, only to find Ezra already present and pacing up and down the first base line. As Nathan watched, his friend repeatedly removed and repositioned his cap as if it just didn’t fit right. He was also scowling and swiping at his clothing as his pacing kicked up little puffs of dust all around him, muttering silently to himself and every so often squinting suspiciously out toward the parking lot.
The other players hadn’t arrived yet, so there was no one else to observe this agitated performance. Nathan suspected that the only reason he was being treated to the show was that he hadn’t been noticed yet. He decided to test this theory, calling out, “Hey, Ezra! What are you doing out here so early?”
His guess was confirmed when the other man nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Oh, M-Mr. Jackson,” Ezra stuttered, his motion changing to a casual stroll and his face taking on an expression of calm sociability as he gathered himself and replied, “I simply felt like rising early and getting a jump start on this fine day. How are you?”
Nathan raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Doing better than you are, by the look of it. What was with all that muttering and fidgeting just now?”
Realizing that he had been caught, Ezra grimaced. “You saw that?”
“It was a little hard to miss. What’s up?”
Ezra peered around the empty field as if he expected snipers to pop out of the bushes and start shooting at him. “When you were in the parking lot, did you happen to catch sight of a silver BMW 650i convertible?
Nathan was feeling a bit fidgety himself as Ezra’s continued nervousness began to affect him. “No, I came around the back way and parked on the street. I didn’t see anybody, though.”
The shorter man’s shoulders sagged in relief. “Neither did I. Thank goodness.”
“What’s this all about?”
Ezra straightened up, looking as if he were bracing himself to offer exceptionally distressing news, his behavior causing Nathan to tense. “My mother showed up on my doorstep last night with enough luggage to supply an army. I’m afraid she’ll be in town indefinitely.”
Not understanding, Nathan asked, “Is she in some kind of trouble?”
“No, but I think I am. Mother has been hounding me for details about my life recently and I’m afraid that my refusal to enlighten her has only made her more determined to find out what I’ve been doing with my spare hours.” He then admitted, “That’s why I’m here so early. I snuck out before she woke up this morning.”
Nathan fought hard against the urge to laugh but finally lost the battle, giggling and guffawing until he was afraid he might have burst something.
Indignant, Ezra placed both hands on his hips and glared which only made Nathan laugh harder. “I fail to see what you find so amusing.”
“God, Ezra,” Nathan gasped, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. “I though you were going to say that somebody had put a hit out on one of you or something! You really mean to stand here and tell me that you hauled your lazy ass out of bed an hour early just so you could sneak past your mama and go play ball with the other kids?”
Ezra continued to look insulted as the EMT again broke down but finally he had to smile, albeit a bit sheepishly. “I haven’t told her about any of this.”
“Yeah, well I got that part!” Nathan wheezed. “What I don’t understand is why.”
Ezra walked over to the players’ bench and sat down, picking up his baseball glove and fiddling with one of the fastenings. “I don’t know. I suppose I was feeling a bit paranoid. She just kept interrogating me and all I could think of was the many times during my childhood when she refused to let me try out for group activities because I had, in her eyes, other more important things to do with my time.” He shrugged. “I was never sure if it was because she knew we’d be on the move again soon and didn’t want me to get attached, or if she just found it painful to be reminded of the last time I had been part of a team, just before we lost Daddy.”
Nathan came and sat down beside him, sobered by the reminder of Ezra’s painful experience. “So, you figured she’d try to stop you again?”
“She couldn’t, even if she wanted to, could she?”
Recognizing a rhetorical question when he heard one, Nathan gripped his friend’s shoulder. “Sometimes I think we all forget that we’re grown up when our folks are around. When my dad was out visiting a few months ago I felt guilty every time I came home late, as if I still had a curfew and was going to get grounded for it.”
Ezra shook his head. “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”
Nathan grinned. “Yeah, but I guess there’s not much we can do. Say, maybe you should invite Maude out for the game today. Let her see you play, prove to her that you fit in and are having fun with the rest of us and maybe she’d relax and have a good time too.”
“I doubt that,” Ezra replied ruefully, “but I suppose it wouldn’t hurt anything. Perhaps she might even approve of our new co-ed membership.”
“Sure, and I’ll bet the girls would be only too happy to have another lady around to cheer them on.”
At this, Ezra laughed. “More likely she would use the opportunity to negatively compare my batting and fielding prowess to theirs, especially given what an unexpectedly good player Mrs. Travis turned out to be at her first practice last week.”
Changing the subject, Nathan asked, “How’s the hand today?”
Ezra made a fist and then flexed his fingers wide. “Right as rain, thank you. I should be able to play today without any difficulty.”
He and Josiah had both sat out the last practice on Nathan’s recommendation, giving their injuries a chance to heal fully while at the same time giving the Angels’ two newest players – Inez Recillos, receptionist to Director Orin Travis by day and the part-owner of the team’s favorite bar by night, and Mary Travis, Team 5’s tactician and research specialist – a chance to play.
“Glad to hear it,” Nathan said, examining the hand for a moment and then giving a nod of approval. Going back to his original subject, he asked, “You going to call Maude?”
For a moment, Nathan was sure that Ezra was going to come up with some excuse not to do it, but finally he sighed and dug his cellular phone out of his sports bag. “I hope you know that if I’m interrupting her beauty sleep, she’ll never let me hear the end of it,” he groused, then cut the complaint off with a light and cheerful-sounding, “Mother! I hope I didn’t wake you. How would you feel about watching a baseball game?”
Nathan chuckled, imagining the reply at the other end of the phone as he watched Ezra flinch and wince, squirm and shift as he tried to explain that the game would involve an amateur team of which he was a fully participating member.
Finally, Ezra disconnected the call, staring at the phone in his hand as though he’d never seen it before.
Nathan nudged him. “So, what’d she say?”
Eyes wide with something that looked like a mixture of excitement and panic, Ezra looked at him and in a faint sounding voice, replied, “She’d love to.”
JD was jubilant when he saw Ezra’s mother approaching the spectator stands, charging over to greet her as eagerly as a puppy. Ezra, by contrast, looked like he was about to face a firing squad when JD pulled his mother over to the Angels’ bench, saying, “Geez, Mrs. Standish, it’s sure nice of you to come out here to see us play! Ezra didn’t even tell us you were coming.”
Maude, dressed in the closest she ever came to casual style in pressed white slacks and a crimson silk blouse, removed her elegant sunglasses and smiled. “I’m afraid he didn’t have a chance, darlin’. I arrived last night and my son presented his intriguing offer only this morning.”
“I wasn’t certain this was the sort of entertainment you had in mind when you expressed a desire for rest and relaxation, Mother,” Ezra apologized, removing his cap and giving her a peck on one carefully made up cheek, “but you said you wanted to know what I’d been up to, so here we are.”
Lovely blue eyes surveyed the empty playing field, seeming to catalogue every speck of dirt on its well worn surface. “Not at all the sort of pastime I would have imagined you indulging in, Ezra.”
Ezra winced and resisted only by sheerest willpower the urge to straighten and dust his uniform shirt. “Mother, I’m sure you remember my colleagues.” He pointed out each man as he identified them. “Chris, Buck, Vin, Nathan, Josiah, and of course JD already reintroduced himself.”
“Gentlemen,” she said with a polite smile.
“Delighted to have you with us, Maude,” Josiah said, taking her hand in his. “With such a beautiful good luck charm on our side, there’s no way we can lose.”
Her smile grew more sincere, happy with the compliment. “Josiah,” she acknowledged with a nod. Gently disengaging her hand, she stroked the lapel of her red blouse, looking over the team with amused eyes. “I see my choice of attire was most fortunate today. It wouldn’t have done at all for the mother of your own center fielder to be wearin’ the colors of your opponent.”
Ezra looked at her with surprise. “How did you know I was playing center field?”
“A little bird told me.”
Accusing green eyes settled immediately on Josiah, who grinned and shrugged. “She asked.”
“Well, really, sugar,” Maude scolded. “It isn’t as if you were being particularly forthcoming. Besides which, your daddy had you watching baseball games when you were still in diapers. I’d hardly expect to see you wearin’ his favorite fielder’s glove and playing some other position.”
As Ezra gaped, his mother moved to the other side of Chris and held out her hand to Rafael. “Forgive my son’s appalling lack of manners in failing to introduce us. Maude Standish.”
Grinning widely, Rafael shook her hand. “Rafael Martinez, senora.”
John bounced up. “John Nichols, ma’am. Pleased to meet you.”
Before he could be accused of any further rudeness, Ezra hurried to introduce the ladies, who were just arriving. “Mother, I’d like you to meet Inez Recillos and Mary Travis, the two newest members of our merry band.”
“A co-ed team, how delightful,” she said brightly. “If I were a few years younger, I might be tempted to join you myself.”
Mary and Inez both grinned and shook hands with her.
Seeing that Ezra looked about to burst a blood vessel when Chris and Josiah both joked that they would be happy to let Maude try out, Nathan offered the woman his arm. “Mrs. Standish, the game’s about to start. May I show you to a good seat in the bleachers?”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Jackson,” she agreed. Casting a pointed look over her shoulder at Ezra, she added, “So nice to see that my son’s friends are setting him a good example.”
Ezra plunked down on the players’ bench, moaning as soon as she was out of earshot, “This is going to be a disaster.”
“Cheer up, Ez,” Vin advised, tugging the brim of Ezra’s hat down over his eyes. “She came all the way out here to see you, didn’t she? Showed up wearin’ our team colors and took enough of an interest to find out what position you played before the game started. I think she’s really tryin’ to be supportive here.”
“Least you can do is give her a good show,” Chris told him.
Glancing over his shoulder, Ezra watched his mother place a small flat cushion on the wooden bench seat and settle herself, pulling on her sunglasses and patting her neat blonde chignon into place. She looked so out of place next to the other spectators in their shorts and t-shirts and sneakers, like a diamond thrown in with a bag of charcoal.
As the game progressed, he continued to watch her. Maude was observing the game with every evidence of interest, even clapping politely when Chris got a hit and made it to first base. She sat up straighter and clapped just a little harder when Ezra stood up to take his turn at bat.
He smiled and gave her a little wave, unable to help himself. It might be that his mother had come out of a sense of curiosity or with the desire to prove that he did not fit into this setting any more than she did, but she had come. In his innermost heart, the Little Leaguer whose mother had never attended one of his games was jumping up and down with excitement over her presence.
Knowing that he had to quit wool-gathering if he wanted to avoid disgracing himself before his mother, Ezra put on his batting helmet and took a deep breath, positioning his body exactly the way JD had coached him and giving the opposing pitcher his full attention.
The pitcher was a woman, a tall sturdy brunette with a very controlled style. Ezra let the first two pitches go past without swinging, knowing they were out of his range, and Nettie dutifully called a ball on each one. He took a chance on the next one and swung but the ball went foul, earning him a strike. The next throw was a very soft pitch and Ezra managed to bunt it, a skill Nathan had been teaching him, sending the ball on a slow bouncing journey back toward the mound.
Ezra stumbled a couple of steps in surprise when he heard his mother’s voice ring out from the stands, “Run, darlin’!” He narrowly managed to make it to first base ahead of the tag, sending Chris Larabee to second.
Inez was struck out at the plate and Josiah then lofted a long hit into right field which was caught by the other team. Nathan had earned the team their first Out with his own at-bat, so this ended the side, sending the Angels into the field while their opponents, the Falcons, took a turn at bat.
From the safety of center field, Ezra went back to watching his mother. She was barely bothering to watch the latter half of the inning, checking and touching up her makeup in a small compact mirror. She did look up when a Falcons batter made contact with the baseball, but quickly lost interest again when it popped up and landed neatly in Buck Wilmington’s glove.
No one else on the opposing team did anything to make Ezra’s life in the outfield more interesting and within five minutes he was back on the bench, waiting his next turn.
By the end of five innings, the Angels had scored two and the Falcons, four. Ezra had earned himself a cheer from the crowd when he made a diving catch in the fifth inning that ended the Falcons chances at point number 5, and had been on base three times without ever getting the chance to cross home plate.
“Why don’t you sit this one out and go talk to her?” Chris advised with a smile as he watched Ezra once again distractedly observing his mother. “We can put Buck in the outfield and let Mary play third base for awhile. You can come back in for the 7th.”
Ezra looked around at his teammates, groaning to find them all watching him with amused and understanding grins on their faces.
“Go on, Ezra,” Mary said, giving him a smile and a little push. “I’ve got it covered.”
He tipped his cap to her. “I make it a policy never to argue with a lady.”
“Unless he’s related to her,” Buck quipped.
Ezra flashed him a sour smile and walked around the low fence that separated the players from the audience, climbing up a couple of rows and sitting next to his mother. He was happy to note that she appeared pleased to see him. “Mother, are you enjoying yourself?”
“Mmm,” she said noncommittally, then proceeded to embarrass him in classic maternal fashion by licking her thumb and rubbing at a smudge on his cheek.
“Mother!” he yelped, gaining himself a few chuckles from surrounding spectators.
Maude smiled unrepentantly. “So sorry. I just couldn’t stand seeing at that ugly streak of dirt marring your beautiful face.”
Her smile only widened when he scowled and turned away from her to give his full attention to the game.
After a few minutes, Ezra jumped to his feet, whooping with excitement as Vin Tanner hit a home run over the left field border, his hit driving in both Mary and John ahead of him and giving the Angels the lead. “All right, Vin!” he crowed, clapping hard and giving off a piercing whistle as Tanner rounded the bases. Eyes shining, he resumed his seat and turned to Maude. “Did you see that, Mother?”
“I saw it, darlin’.”
Catching a strange note in her voice, he cocked his head. “Is something wrong?”
Surprising him, Maude reached out and clasped his hand. “You really love this, don’t you?”
Ezra could detect no sarcasm or disdain in her voice, only a hint of wistfulness that he did not know what to make of. “I’m discovering that I do,” he admitted. “I seem to become more enchanted by it with every passing week.”
“So much like your dear father,” she said, her gaze unusually tender as she looked at him. “You don’t have his face or his coloring, those came straight from your grandfather, but when I see you standing up there with that bat lifted just-so over your shoulder, or watching the others with that look of eager concentration on your face, I would swear that I was watching Daniel.”
“Do you miss him?” The question was one that Ezra had never quite dared to ask before and he held his breath, waiting for her open expression to vanish and shut him out again.
But Maude only smiled. “Every day, baby boy, every single day.” She lifted her hand to brush back a lock of hair disarranged by the cap he’d been wearing. “But days like this make me feel almost as if he’s still here with us.”
Ezra leaned over and kissed her, not the barely-there air kiss he had given her when she first showed up, but a tender press against her soft cheek. They smiled at each other for a moment, and then Ezra stood. “I’d better go back down and rejoin the others.”
Instantly, Maude was once again the picture of composure. Dismissing him with a wave of her neatly manicured crimson nails she said, “Of course, dear, run along.”
The final inning did not go in the Angels’ favor. Ezra managed to hit a double and drive JD in ahead of him, but the Falcons rebounded with a three-run homer that won them the game.
Amidst the vows to get them next time and good natured congratulations to the Falcons players, Ezra chanced a look toward the stands. His mother had disappeared, but he felt only mildly disappointed. She had been here and she had stayed for almost the entire game, for no reason other than to support her son.
That fact alone made this game a victory.
“Hey, Ezra, you need a ride over to Mama Rose’s?” Buck offered as he finished piling the last of the baseball equipment into the back of his truck. Nathan had brought it to the field today, and Buck would do so next time. The assorted team members took turns with the equipment so nobody got stuck with the set-up and clean-up chores every game.
Ezra smiled. “I believe I'm going to pass on the celebration this time. I’d like to clean up and relax a bit before doing whatever activity my mother has, no doubt, planned for us this evening.”
“Sure. Tell Maude we said thanks for coming today.”
“I shall. Express my regrets to Mrs. Nichols.”
Buck grinned. “No problem. I think she’ll understand a boy wanting to spend time with his ma.”
Ezra laughed. “I’m sure you’re right. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
As he drove home, Ezra pondered again on his mother’s attendance at today’s game. She had been most persistent with her inquiries into his life lately, and after Josiah’s little confession that she had asked him about the team, Ezra suspected that she must have already known exactly what he was doing before she showed up at his home last night.
When he arrived, Ezra saw that Maude’s silver BMW was already parked in the driveway. He was a bit surprised, having assumed that she would spend the afternoon involved in her own pursuits after devoting the morning to his.
“Mother, I’m home,” he called lightly as he crossed the threshold.
She emerged from the area of the kitchen carrying a small tray of crackers, cheese and fresh grapes in her hands. “Ezra,” she greeted, looking slightly surprised. “I thought you were supposed to be attending some sort of pizza party after today’s exhibition. Or do they not have such events when you lose?”
A bit miffed to realize that she had stayed long enough to see them lose the game but not long enough to say goodbye, he replied, “Every game, win or lose, I simply chose not to participate. Too much beer and pizza does not flatter one’s physique.”
Cool blue eyes swept critically up and down his form. Then she nodded. “Appearance is everything.”
Coated in a layer of dust and a sheen of dried perspiration from his efforts today, Ezra ignored the silent order she was giving him to march straight in and take a shower, even though that would normally be exactly what he would do after a game. This time, just to be contrary, he moved to the sofa and plopped down, lifting his dusty sneakers up and propping them on the coffee table next to the iced drink his mother had set there.
He ignored the scolding look Maude sent him, picking up a magazine that she had set on the couch and pretending to leaf through it. This was his home, damn it, and he would do whatever he liked in it. Never mind that he would have blown a gasket if any of his friends had done the exact same thing. That wasn’t the point.
“Ezra,” Maude said firmly as she moved around the table and resumed her seat, posture ramrod straight in contrast with her son’s deliberate slouch. “Kindly remove your feet from the vicinity of my aperitif.”
Deciding that he had proved his point, Ezra sat up properly and dropped them to the floor. “Certainly, Mother. My apologies.”
He glanced around the orderly living room, searching for a topic of conversation. He had always had this problem when his mother was around. They had spent so much time apart while he was growing up that now, unless he had some activity or diversion at hand, he found it difficult to talk with her.
“Did you have a good time at the game today?” He winced. Damn, he had already asked her that question earlier.
Maude did not seem to mind. “It was most enjoyable,” she offered. “There’s nothing quite like watching a dozen handsome, strapping young men in tight jeans to pass the time.”
“Mother!” Her eyes twinkled at his scandalized tone and Ezra huffed a laugh, realizing that he’d fallen straight into her tease. “Very funny.”
She laughed. “You’d think so if you could see your face, darlin’.”
Picking up her hand, Ezra placed a kiss on the back and did not immediately relinquish his grip. To his surprise, his mother did not seem discontented by this.
“I’m glad you finally confessed what you’ve been doing,” she said.
“Josiah had already told you.”
She merely smiled at the guess. “A mother worries, you know.”
Ezra stopped himself by sheer force of will from snorting. This woman’s ‘worry’ over him had once allowed her to continue a European vacation for a week after learning that he had been hit by a car and broken three bones. Still, that had been a long time ago.
“I thought you would disapprove,” he admitted. “Team activities, particularly those that involve running around getting dirty and sweaty, have never been something you encouraged.”
She had no answer to that. Instead she ignored it, smiling brightly as she announced. “I brought you something. I’ve been meaning to send it to you, but it keeps slipping my mind. Discovering your new pass-time gave me a good excuse to deliver it in person and pay a visit to my sweet little baby boy.”
“You brought me a present?” he said blankly, trying to ignore the spark of nervousness he felt at her wording. Calling him her sweet baby was nearly always a prelude to her making some outrageous and inconvenient request. “Why?”
Maude gave him a little slap on the arm as she rose from the sofa. “It’s a mother’s prerogative.”
She disappeared down the hallway toward the guest bedroom and Ezra scooted out to the edge of the sofa cushion, trying to see what she was doing. A minute crept by, then two. Realizing that he was chewing his lip and picking at his cuticles, Ezra forced himself to be still. What could she possibly have brought him?
“Here we are!” she trilled, returning with a small metal lockbox in her hands. “Your Aunt Melanie found this when she was cleaning out some of Grandma Katherine’s old trunks last fall and sent it to me.”
Ezra blinked in surprise. Grandma Katherine had been his father’s mother, but she had passed away nearly five years ago. “Aunt Melanie . . . was she the woman who had that horrid little dog with the incontinence problem and the habit of biting anyone who got too close?”
Maude rolled her eyes. “Yes. Can you believe that creature is still alive? It must be well over 20 years old now.”
“Proving the saying that only the good die young,” he replied sourly. His left ankle sent him a twinge of phantom pain in memory of the loathsome little creature appropriately named Puddles. He had not seen Aunt Melanie or Puddles since he was 13 years old. “I hated staying in that house. It always smelled like cabbage.”
Nose wrinkling in agreement, Maude told him, “Regardless of the conditions, she was happy to take you in for awhile when I needed to work. She doted on your father when he was a boy, and was resultantly very fond of you.”
Ezra nodded. He remembered now. Aunt Melanie was not actually a relative, but rather his late grandmother’s best friend. His father had grown up calling her ‘aunt’ so he had always done the same thing. “She was nice,” he recalled. “A bit senile, but certainly kind.”
“Most of Daniel’s things were sent back to Katherine after he died,” Maude continued, fingers lightly stroking the top of the metal box. “I had no place to keep them and no desire to be constantly reminded of all I had lost. Not for a great many years afterward.”
“I know,” he said quietly, shocked that she was willingly speaking of his father even now. He had long suspected that he was one of those reminders that his mother had not been able to bear. That was why she had constantly passed him off to relatives and boarding schools.
Maude took his hand again. “Things are different now, Ezra. The contents of this box reminded me that beyond the pain of his death lay all the wonderful memories of your father’s life with us.” She lifted a hand to touch his cheek. “Both of us. That’s why I wanted you to have this. It’s why I came.”
Ezra did not know what to say. Looking straight into her eyes, he realized with a feeling of amazement that she was being sincere. She really had come here just for this.
Swallowing down a million comments and questions that could not seem to gel into a single coherent word, he accepted the box and opened the small latch. The hinge was a bit rusty and gave off an unpleasant squeal as the lid was opened.
“Pictures!” he said, delighted. He had never had a single photo of his father in all the years since the man had died. A few of his paternal relatives had displayed them and Ezra had always wished that he could ask for one, but he had never worked up the nerve to admit that he had nothing of his father’s except that old baseball glove.
The first photo showed a smiling young couple dressed in tux and gown, surrounded by happy relatives.
“Your wedding,” he murmured, studying the picture. It was hard to believe that the innocent looking young bride in the photo and the world-wise woman sitting next to him were the same person. The groom looked equally young. He was missing the wire framed glasses and neatly trimmed beard that Ezra remembered but the blue eyes and reddish blond hair were the same, as was the crooked smile that seemed to invite the entire world to join in on a private joke. “How old were you? You both look like teenagers.”
“We were,” she said, smiling at his surprise. “Didn’t you know that? I was eighteen and he was nineteen. We were high school sweethearts. Danny was a year ahead of me, but my parents wouldn’t let us marry until I graduated.”
Putting aside the picture, Ezra picked up the next one and grinned. It was Daniel again, a bit younger than in the wedding photo, staring with determination at the camera as he posed in his baseball uniform with a bat lofted high over his left shoulder. “I didn’t remember him being left-handed.”
“He was ambidextrous, dear, like you are.”
Feeling inordinately pleased with that information, Ezra reluctantly set aside the picture and moved on. The next photo made his breath catch. The child in the blue baseball cap and jersey, posing for his official team photo, was himself and the pose he had struck was like enough to the previous picture as to suggest he had done it on purpose to emulate his father.
Correctly interpreting his expression, Maude smiled. “Now you see what I was talking about.”
“Yes,” he breathed, swallowing as he looked at the newest picture. Someone had snapped a shot of the Standish family all together. Daniel stood with his arm around Maude, Ezra held in front of him by a hand across his chest. The couple was smiling but the boy looked impatient, like he had better things to do than pose for a picture. Ezra remembered that day. It had been a 4th of July picnic and he had been wanting to go set off firecrackers with some other boys but had been caught and forced to stand still for this little family moment. “It was the last one,” he whispered, blinking back tears.
As he struggled to keep his composure, remembering that his father had gone in to the hospital for the very last time exactly three months after this picture was taken, Maude did something that he could not remember her ever doing in all the years since. She wrapped both arms around his shoulders and held him close.
A couple of minutes later, feeling as if the moment had been both too long and much too short, Ezra pulled away with a deep breath, composing himself. Neither mother nor son spoke of what had just occurred but there was an unusual sense of ease between them as they continued their perusal of the box. Only a few more photos resided within, a couple of childhood pictures of Ezra and a simple snapshot of Daniel mugging for the camera. Ezra loved that last picture because his father looked exactly the way he remembered him best, healthy and robust and full of life and laughter, as he had been before illness had stolen his vitality from him.
“Mother, I don’t know what to say,” Ezra confessed as he closed the box and reluctantly set it aside. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, son.” She bent forward and kissed him on the cheek. Then she gave him a little shove and said briskly, “Now, go in and clean yourself up. You aren’t fit to be seen in proper company, and I expect a gentleman to escort me to dinner tonight.”
He smiled, glad that she wasn’t going to force him to talk more. Sometimes it really was beneficial to have a relationship that was not built on a foundation of open communication. “I believe I’d like to take a short nap after I shower,” he told her. “I didn’t sleep particularly well last night.”
Maude took a delicate nibble of one of her cheese and cracker hors douvres. “That happens when a boy is determined to sneak out under his mother’s nose at the crack of dawn, dear.”
Startled, Ezra laughed. “You’re an amazing woman, Mother. Have I ever told you that?”
She merely smiled and took another bite.
Maude stayed for one more week and rather than try to work extra hours to avoid her, as he had been prone to doing in the past, Ezra requested and received a few days off to spend with her. They talked and laughed and, to Ezra’s astonishment, spent time doing activities together with no apparent ulterior motive on Maude’s part to interfere. His mother had even attended a second baseball game – a victory against a team of teachers calling themselves the Centennials – and it was first time in years that Ezra could remember feeling so at ease with her. Best of all, he was certain that she had enjoyed the visit as much as he had.
The smile on Ezra’s face changed to a startled expression as he walked into the office on Monday morning only to be immediately pounced on by JD Dunne.
“Ezra, have you heard? What do you think? Isn’t it great?” Without waiting for an answer, JD went on, “Wow, who would have thought we’d finally get this kind of luck! And not just us, really, more like everybody in the league! Man, I still can’t believe Josiah actually planted one right on Nettie’s lips when she told us. I never knew he had that kind of guts! Wasn’t that a great look on her face, though? Looked like she didn’t know whether to smack him or kiss him back!”
He giggled at the memory and Ezra frowned, trying to decide what JD could possibly be going on about as he made his way past the eager young man and set his briefcase down upon his desk. Coming up empty, he told him, “Son, I have no idea what you’re babbling about. You want to try that again, a little slower?”
JD looked surprised, but then he grinned even wider. “Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s really cool, though!”
Before he could elaborate, Josiah entered the office and Ezra asked him, “What’s this I hear about you kissing the wizened crone? Trying to turn her into a princess or something?”
Josiah laughed. “I see JD has been filling you in.”
“Not entirely. I still have no idea of the cause for this miraculous event.”
“Miracle’s right,” Vin cut in. “After 5 years of those cheatin’ bastards slipping past every obstacle that got in their way, Nettie finally nailed ‘em.”
A glimmer of understanding began to penetrate. “Wait a minute, you aren’t talking about the Sharks?”
“They sure are,” Chris jumped in, his often serious face beaming with satisfaction. “Casey called to invite us out to lunch at Nettie’s place after you and your mother left yesterday. Apparently Nettie officiated the Sharks game on Sunday and caught on to how Powderman has been greasing his pitches.”
“A sponge or other receptacle filled with oil tucked into the palm of his baseball glove?”
Everyone stopped, staring.
“How did you know that?” Buck demanded.
A smug smile tilted Ezra’s lips. “While observing the action during our own game against these malefactors, I could not help but notice the way Mr. Powderman would finish his absurd on-the-mound shenanigans by grinding the ball into his glove just before throwing the pitch. I didn’t connect the reason until after the game was at an end, but I believe I may have mentioned the possibility to our honorable umpire.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Nathan said. “Figures you’d be able to spot a sneaky move that none of the rest of us could.”
Suspecting he was being insulted, Ezra’s head lifted in a haughty manner. “Having seen that Mrs. Wells was unimpressed with the Sharks’ attitude and unsportsmanlike conduct, I felt it might be beneficial to enlighten her to the possibility.”
“And you were right,” Josiah told him. “She invited two of the league committee to attend the game yesterday and the first time she caught Powderman slicking up the ball, she stopped play and confiscated the glove. Once the committee members examined it, there wasn’t much arguing the Sharks could do.”
“Not that Dickie didn’t try,” Nathan snorted. “Nettie says he was acting shocked and disgusted enough to be going for an Oscar, claiming he’d had no idea and blaming the whole thing on Powderman.”
Chris laughed. “Apparently, that was enough to make his pet worm turn right over. Before the day was out, everyone on that team was accusing each other. Nettie got word yesterday that the whole group had been suspended for the remainder of the season.”
“Prob’ly for good, depending on how things go,” Vin added with a grin. “For now, everybody who was scheduled to play against the Sharks gets a by-week and an automatic forfeiture win on their record.”
Ezra frowned. “That will certainly alter the statistics a bit. Oh well, I suppose we can still take pleasure in the fact that we were the only team who managed to defeat them legitimately.”
JD laughed. “Casey was kind of upset. She wanted a shot at Maddie Stokes.”
“They know one another?”
To his surprise, the young man blushed. “Yeah, well, you see Maddie and I kind of went out for awhile. Casey thought we should date other people, but when I went out with Maddie, she got mad. Tried to get even by going out with John Nichols’ brother, Peter, when he was out here visiting but that turned out to be a big mess, so me and Casey decided to call it even.”
Ezra shook his head. “I take it that Miss Wells has not forgiven and forgotten when it comes to Miss Stokes.”
JD just grinned and shrugged. “She gets a little territorial sometimes. She knows Maddie because of her sister, too. Kate Stokes is one of the Fillies but she’s a heck of a lot nicer than Maddie.”
Amused by the wealth of knowledge he had just obtained in JD’s usual breakneck recitation, Ezra turned to Buck. “Are we still scheduled to play the ladies this coming Sunday?”
“Yep,” he said with a dreamy smile. “I can’t wait. Here tell they’ve got three new team members this year.”
Chris snorted loudly. “And hopefully the other girls have already warned ‘em about you.” Gesturing to Ezra, he said, “Come into my office when you get settled and we’ll go over the latest caseload. Got a few new facts on that alcohol smuggling ring that you need to know about.”
“I shall be there directly,” he promised, switching on his computer and gathering his files together. He smiled as conversations continued to buzz along behind him, topics both work-related and not. It was good to be back.
As he looked over the rival team on Sunday afternoon, Ezra was surprised to realize that he had already met several of the Fillies. He had expected Casey Wells, of course, but he also recognized Nathan’s girlfriend Rain Willows, Chris’s slightly-more-than friend Lydia Michelson, and three of Buck’s periodic paramours, Terri Greer, Blossom Conroy, and Hilda Groening.
“Well, well, it seems that Mr. Wilmington was not the only member of your team to take a few phone numbers home last year,” he teased. He saw Hilda giving him an enthusiastic wave as she recognized him and grinned at her, returning the gesture with considerably more restraint. “Any other love connections I should be aware of?”
“Not anymore,” JD told him, ignoring the warning scowl Vin shot his way. “Vin dated their 2nd baseman last year, a woman by the name of Charlotte Richmond, but she went back to her husband. Quit the team afterward, for some reason.”
Ezra resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Only JD would think it strange that a woman would chose not to continue an activity in which she’d begun and ended an illicit love affair with a member of another team.
“She quit ‘cause she’s havin’ a baby, JD,” Vin said quietly, looking a bit wistful but genuinely pleased for his former lover. Seeing Ezra’s dubious expression, his own became a trifle exasperated. “No, Ez, it ain’t mine. Me and Charlotte broke up nigh on a year ago after she decided to end the legal separation and give her jackass husband another chance. Guess he’s really tryin’ this time and they’re expecting the little one some time in September.”
“They stayed friends,” JD added needlessly.
This time Ezra did roll his eyes. “I didn’t think Mr. Tanner had suddenly developed psychic powers of divination.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, anyways,” JD continued, not bothered a bit by the withering comment, “Rafael is engaged to the short stop, Maria Vargas, and John used to date the right fielder. I forget her name, but she got a job offer some place back east last Thanksgiving and they broke up.”
Chris laughed as he watched his center fielder’s face. “He’s not kidding, Ezra. The Fillies and Angels just seem to have some kind of special chemistry. Far as I know, not one of them dates any of the guys on the other teams.”
Buck’s eyes twinkled. “Better watch out, Ez, you just might come out of the game with a girlfriend of your own!”
“I wouldn’t mind,” he teased back. “They’re all lovely, though I never imagined I’d be able to claim that I was dating a baseball player.”
Seeing an opportunity for some matchmaking, Buck slid closer on the bench and put a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “Well, then let me enlighten you about the possibilities. The blonde over there talking to Casey is Kate Stokes.”
He nodded. “JD was telling me about her. Her sister plays catcher for the Sharks, I understand.”
“That’s right. They both used to work for O’Shea’s company but Kate left after some kind of dust-up with her supervisor, Spivak. She’s never come right out and said it but I think he was sexually harassing her.”
Buck’s blue eyes were cold as he spoke the words. He loved to flirt and his success rate with the ladies was unmatched, but he also knew when to back off and had never crossed the line when a woman appeared uninterested.
“See that pretty little thing down at the end?” Buck continued, shaking off the momentary fit of hostility. “She’s the new 2nd baseman. Name’s Li-Pong McNamara.”
Ezra raised a brow. “Interesting name.”
“She’s adopted. State removed her from an abusive uncle when she was 13 and fostered her with a family that later made it legal,” Buck explained. Pointing behind them to the stands, he said, “That big red-headed fella with the green and gold pennant is her dad and the pretty little blonde sitting next to him is her mama. They came all the way from Colorado Springs just to watch their baby play today.”
Nathan’s brow scrunched. “Buck, how the hell did you find all that out so quick? You’ve known the girl for less than 5 minutes!”
Josiah clapped his best friend on the back. “Never question a Divine gift, brother.” Giving the smug looking Buck a wink, he added, “Just be glad he isn’t gay.”
“Hey!” Buck protested while everyone else broke up laughing.
Getting down to business, Josiah pulled out the day’s roster and announced, “I’d like to sit out the first few innings today, if nobody minds.”
“Your back acting up again?” Nathan asked, a note of worry in his voice.
He nodded. “Just hasn’t come back from that injury a few weeks ago the way it should have. I have an appointment with a therapist my doctor recommended after work tomorrow, and even though my back doesn’t feel too bad today, I’d rather not risk it until I get the official thumbs-up.”
“You do what you need to,” Chris approved, his tone firm. “We’ll manage without you today.”
Josiah looked at Ezra. “Think you can play first base again? You did a great job there before.”
“I would be honored to act in your stead”
“And I will be happy to play Center,” Inez offered, surprising the team captain.
Looking a bit dubious, Josiah asked, “You sure you can handle it?”
Her glare dared him to say that she wasn’t strong enough to throw from that far out. “If you have not noticed, senor, all of the opposing team members are women. If they can do it, I can do it.”
“She’s got a good arm,” Vin agreed. “Reckon she’ll be just fine out there.”
Chris nodded. “Okay by me. Mary, you okay taking turns with Nathan as pitcher? I saw you two at practice last week and you were doing a good job.”
She smiled, clearly pleased that he had noticed. A glance at Nathan showed that he was willing, so she nodded. “I’d be glad to.”
“Good. Nathan, you take this inning, Mary can get the next one.”
Nathan grinned and tugged at the brim of his cap.
Just then the umpire, a man named Bryce, took his position behind home plate and pulled his mask on. “Batter up!” he called out.
Vin picked up his catcher’s mask. “Sounds like my cue!”
The others also trotted out to take their fielding positions. The Angels were ready to play.
Ezra quickly discovered that Vin had not been exaggerating when he had said that there was no need to go easy on the Fillies. They were quite clearly in the game to win it, taking advantage of every hit and fielding with no mercy.
Rain had pitched a perfect no-hitter first inning against the Angels, and while the Angels had managed to keep the score at zero through three and a half innings, it was not for lack of trying on the part of the girls.
A low wolf-whistle greeted Ezra as he took his place at the plate at the start of the 4th inning. Surprised he glanced down at the catcher, thinking he must have been hearing things. Lydia cast an approving once-over on the seat of his tight fitting blue jeans, and winked at him. “Guess this must be why you’re always wearing a suit when I come by to see Chris. What’s the matter, Reb? He afraid I might try to grab me a little bit of that action?”
She made a pinching gesture with her baseball glove and gave him a wicked grin. Flustered, he swung wildly at the first pitch, then grimaced when he heard Lydia chuckle at the strike call, realizing that he had allowed her to goad him.
“I may just have to ask Chris how he feels about a three-some,” the woman crooned. “Find out if your aim’s any better where it really counts.”
Remembering the grimace on JD’s face when he had seen who the Fillies’ catcher was going to be, Ezra realized that this must be Lydia’s method of psyching out all of her male opponents. He shook his head, doing his best to ignore the ongoing and increasingly lewd remarks behind him.
As the next pitch came his way, he smiled. A low flung curve had become his very favorite pitch and he swung with all his might.
“Aw, shit!” Lydia exclaimed, jumping to her feet as Ezra made contact.
Hilda and Terri both ran for the back perimeter as the ball careened overhead straight between right and center, but it was hopeless. It kept going straight back into the parking lot, where it thankfully managed to avoid denting anyone’s car.
“Home Run!” Bryce barked, as if anyone could have any doubt.
Inez whooped for joy and jogged around the base path from 1st, followed by a happily beaming Ezra Standish. When he reached home plate again, Inez flung her arms around his neck and gave him a hearty kiss on the lips.
Blushing to nearly the same shade as his baseball cap, Ezra took a seat on the bench, where he was backslapped by the men and given a second kiss, on the cheek this time, by Mary.
“This makes your second R.B.I. homerun of the season, Ezra,” Josiah reminded him as Rafael took his turn up at the plate. “Keep it up and you just might win this year’s team MVP award.”
Intrigued, he said, “There’s an award?
Vin laughed. “Don’t get your hopes up; it ain’t a cash prize or anything.” He held up his hands, index fingers spread about six inches apart. “It’s an itty bitty trophy ‘bout this big, but it’ll have the name engraved on it.”
“Who won last year?”
“I did,” Nathan said, surprising him.
"Really? I was under the impression that you hadn't been a particularly good player last year. Or at least that's what you implied when you first talked me into this endeavor."
Grinning at Buck, Nathan replied, “Most valuable doesn't necessarily mean best. Y'see, it's just that everybody was so grateful not to have Buck on the mound aimin’ to kill every batter that I got the award by default.”
The guys razzed and shoved at Jackson, denying the teasing self-deprecation.
They were distracted as Rafael hit a double and cheered as he was batted in by Mary, who followed with another double but was unable to cross the plate as the rest of the Angels side was struck out.
Ezra fidgeted in place, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he waited for something to happen. So far, the Fillies had managed to recoup one point when Blossom Conroy had hit a clean homerun but Mary Travis had retaliated by striking out both Kate and Casey. Ezra had grown a trifle bored just watching the ball go back and forth between Mary and Vin, but his attention perked up when Li-Pong took the plate. The Fillies second baseman had tagged him out in the 2nd inning and scored a base hit off Nathan in the 3rd. She was one to watch.
The petite woman in the yellow jersey and green cap intrigued Ezra for another reason. She had flashed him a smile upon taking her base the last time and Ezra had felt his stomach give a nervous little flutter in response, exactly the way it had done in his teen years whenever a pretty girl smiled at him. Apparently playing a child’s game turned back the clock in other ways, as well!
Ezra tensed when Li-Pong clipped the ball with the very tip of her bat, sending it bouncing toward third base. Dropping the bat, she charged toward first. Keeping one foot on the bag, Ezra held his glove up in anticipation of Buck’s throw. He saw the ball coming towards him and in his periphery he could see Li-Pong running faster. She leapt forward, intending to slide, but misjudged the distance and tackled Ezra just as he caught the ball.
Ears ringing with the force of the hit, Ezra dimly heard the umpire shout, “Out!” It took him a second to realize that he was lying flat on his back, ball in his glove and one foot still somehow touching the base, while the rest of his body lay pinned underneath a hundred and ten pounds of giggling Chinese-American baseball player.
“I’m so sorry!” she apologized, giggling even harder at his startled expression.
The fluttering feeling was back, stronger than before, and this time Ezra could also feel his ears turning red as a big dopey grin spread across his face. “Seein’s how I’ve just tagged you out on the baseball diamond,” he blurted, “Would you consider allowin' me to also take you out for dinner tonight?”
The giggling stopped, a beautifully surprised expression taking its place. “Are you asking me on a date?”
He smiled, a little surprised himself. “Why, yes, I believe I am.”
Li-Pong gave him a shy smile. “I’d like that very much.”
They were interrupted as their teammates ran up to disentangle the two players and help them to their feet, anxiously asking whether they were both all right.
“Fine,” Ezra said, waving off their concern. “The impact just knocked the wind out of us a bit.”
“We’re okay,” Li-Pong agreed. Dusting off her jeans, she grinned at Ezra. “Talk to me after the game so we can decide when and where?”
He nodded and they smiled at each other, then Li Pong jogged back to join her team.
The next batter struck out quickly, ending the inning. As Ezra returned to his team’s bench, he was immediately pounced on by Buck.
“You old dog, was that what I think it was?” Buck demanded, punching him playfully in the arm. “I thought I was just kidding!”
Ezra grinned, feeling a little embarrassed but also extremely pleased with himself. “What’s the matter, Buck? Did you think you were the only man on this team capable of capturing the attention of a lovely female?”
JD jabbed him in the ribs, a delighted grin on his face. “Hey, Ezra, at least nobody can say the ladies don’t fall for your lines!”
Groans came from everywhere at the pun, Buck pulling JD’s cap down over his eyes.
“A homerun, an RBI, two kisses and a tag-out that resulted in a date,” Chris catalogued, ticking the points off on his fingers. He laughed. “And the game’s not even over yet! What the hell’s got into you today, Standish?”
Ezra shrugged, unable to stop grinning. “Is it too late to claim beginner’s luck?”
Laughter filled the bench.
Vin gave him an admiring look. “I can’t believe you had the guts to hit on Li-Pong with her daddy sitting right out there watchin’.”
The smile vanished and Ezra’s eyes went wide. “Oh, Lord.”
His teammates laughed even harder.
Fortunately for Ezra, when Li-Pong introduced him to her parents after the game, Josh and Linda McNamara turned out to share a good sense of humor. Both of them thought that Ezra’s quick action in asking for a date while their daughter had him pinned to the ground was hilarious and they were quite happy to release Li-Pong from her planned dinner with them.
“I wouldn’t dream of disrupting a family gathering,” Ezra protested. “Certainly not after you drove 100 miles just to spend the day with your daughter! She and I can go out another night.”
“Smart, handsome and considerate, to boot,” Linda mused as she grinned slyly at her daughter. “I don’t blame you for misjudging that slide, honey!”
Ezra grinned, then laughed as Josh tweaked his daughter’s long black ponytail as if she were a little girl and teased, “You know, sweetie, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you miss a slide like that before. You sure it was an accident?”
“Oh, Daddy, stop!” she protested, blushing but, as Ezra was interested to note, not actually denying it.
Returning to his original point, Josh turned back to Ezra and insisted, “You kids go out and have fun tonight. We’ll still be around to have breakfast with Li tomorrow morning.”
Ezra hesitated, his firmly entrenched good manners telling him that he should insist that they keep their original plans, or at least invite the other couple along to dinner, while his more self-interested side firmly ordered the other side to keep its mouth shut.
Luckily, Li-Pong did not have the same problem. She merely smiled and gave her parents each a kiss on the cheek, saying, “You guys are the best. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night, hon,” her mother said, including Ezra in her smiling order to, “Have a good time.”
Li-Pong’s father simply gave them a friendly wave and turned to escort his wife to their car.
“Did you not ride in with them?” Ezra asked curiously, as he and Li-Pong retrieved their possessions and began their own leisurely stroll toward the parking lot. He still felt a bit shocked that the meeting with her parents had gone so well.
She shook her head. “I have a studio apartment, not much room, so they’re staying at a hotel down the road from me. I had to be here early for practice so they drove in on their own.”
Surprised, he said, “A studio apartment, really? JD said that all of the Fillies were from the local farming and ranching community. I hadn’t realized that such accommodations existed in that area of town.”
Li-Pong laughed. “Me, a farmer? I don’t know a backhoe from a tractor! I'm only part of the team because my best friend told me they needed a 2nd baseman. Hilda and I used to play softball in college.”
“I must admit that I’m rather relieved. My experience in such things is restricted to assisting Mr. Larabee in tending his horses on occasion. If you had been inclined to talk shop, as it were, I would have been at a complete loss. So, if you’re not agriculturally inclined, what do you do?”
She smiled. “I’m a high school music teacher. That’s how I met Hilda, she and I were both taking music courses at the U of Denver and got to be friends. She has the most beautiful singing voice, have you ever heard her?”
“I’ve not had the pleasure,” he said. “I have an interest in music, myself, though purely on an amateur level.”
“Vocal or instrumental?” she asked eagerly.
Ezra suddenly heard Buck Wilmington’s voice in his head, teasing that they should go somewhere and make beautiful music together, but firmly squashed it. “Both, actually. I sing a bit and play piano, guitar and clarinet.”
“Not really. My singing is usually restricted to accompanying the car radio, and I haven’t played the clarinet since my mother allowed me to discontinue my lessons at the age of 15.” He grinned. “Though I’m sure that if you had been my teacher, I would have happily continued on.”
Li-Pong blushed a bit at the sincere admiration in his eyes. “So, what do you do for the ATF? Or are you like me, just playing on behalf of a friend who works there?”
For a moment, Ezra considered prevaricating. He rarely talked about his job to anyone outside of Team 7, but he realized that she was merely curious about him, as he was about her. “I do work for the Bureau, a combination of surveillance, research and undercover contact with criminal suspects.”
“That sounds like a very exciting life. It must take a lot of courage to face those kinds of people.”
He laughed. “No more than what you have, commanding the attention of more than a hundred hormonal teenagers each day.”
As he had hoped, Li-Pong laughed along with him. They reached her car, and she asked, “So, where should we go tonight?”
Ezra ran the pad of his thumb over his lower lip as he considered the question. “Have you ever been to Charlie Brown’s?”
“The bar and grill over on Grant? I love that place! The in-house pianist is wonderful.”
He nodded. “As is the food. Both multi-ethnic and delicious. What do you say we each go home and clean up a bit, and I will pick you up at 7PM?”
“Perfect,” she agreed, retrieving a pad and pen and writing down her address and phone number.
Ezra was pleased when this obviously self-sufficient woman then accepted his offered hand and allowed him to help her into the car.
“I’ll see you in a few hours, Ezra,” she promised, reestablishing her light grip on his right hand after closing the car door and rolling down the window.
“I can’t wait.” He realized as he said the words that they were absolutely true and that Li-Pong appeared as reluctant to say goodbye as he was himself. He could not remember the last time there had been such an instantaneous connection with a woman. Licking his lips nervously, Ezra wondered if it would appear too overconfident if he were to try and kiss her goodbye. After all, they’d only known each other for a couple of hours.
Li-Pong gave him a shy smile, making that same nervous flutter fill his stomach. “You can kiss me,” she said softly, “if you want to.”
He hesitated for a moment, then bent forward to rest his arms on the driver’s door and press his lips to hers. The kiss was soft and light at first, but quickly grew passionate as they each instinctively leaned in for more.
“Wow,” Ezra said with a slightly breathless laugh as they finally broke apart, for once at a loss for words.
Li-Pong giggled. “I feel like a teenager making out with a boy behind the bleachers.”
He chuckled. “Well, technically speaking, we’re in front of the bleachers, but I know exactly what you mean.” Dropping another quick peck on her lips, he stood and backed up a few steps. “I’ll see you soon.”
It was the last week of June and the Angels had just completed their final game of the season. They had played 10 games and won six of them, which was cause for major celebration as they gathered at Mama Rose’s Pizza Heaven for one last get-together. The restaurant had been closed for the evening, a large sign posted outside declaring that it had been rented for a private party.
Josiah Sanchez stood and raised his beer glass. “Here’s to the Falcons, this year’s All-League champion. To the Fillies, our perfect match both on and off the baseball diamond.” Since the majority of the team was currently dating Fillies players, the women had been invited to join them today. They all raised their glasses and smiled in acknowledgement of the recognition. “And to us, the Angels, who have had a better season than any in our previous team history.”
Whoops and clapping greeted his words, causing the grinning team captain to pause, waiting for the din to die down.
“Which brings me to our annual award for Most Valuable Player,” Josiah continued, producing the small gold loving cup but keeping it turned so that no one could see whose name was engraved on the front. “By nearly unanimous decision, and I say nearly because unlike most of our past seasons, this year’s recipient did not vote for himself.”
Hearty laughter broke out when Josiah raised his eyebrow and took a probing look at each of his teammates.
“So, by nearly unanimous decision," he said again, "I hereby present the Angels MVP award to . . . Ezra Standish!”
The applause was deafening. Ezra simply sat, stunned and not knowing how to react.
“Speech!” Rafael hooted through cupped hands, and the chant was immediately taken up by Vin, JD, Buck and most of the girls. “Speech!”
Li-Pong squeezed Ezra’s hand. “You deserve it,” she whispered, having come to know him well enough in the six weeks they had been a couple to realize that he was disconcerted by their enthusiastic support.
Ezra rose slowly to his feet. For a moment, he simply held the little trophy in his hands, running a fingertip over the neatly engraved lettering reading, ‘Ezra Standish – Angels MVP’, then he looked around the room at all of his happily smiling friends. “Thank you for this honor,” he said softly. “I’m not quite sure that I deserve it, particularly since I missed three consecutive games due to professional obligations.”
“All three of which, we lost,” John pointed out, cheekily adding, “Do the math.”
Ezra laughed. “Well, be that as it may, I cannot honestly claim to be the most proficient member of our company, nor even the most enthusiastic player. That title would have to belong to Mr. Dunne.”
“But you put the heart and fighting spirit into us all,” JD quickly argued.
"He's right," Nathan said. “You gave us a competitive edge that we’ve never had before. You didn’t start out a great player, but you practiced and kept practicing until you got better.”
Buck chimed in, “You supported your fellow players, win or lose, with confidence and heart. And even when you couldn’t be with us in body, we always felt that you were with us in spirit. This season wouldn’t have been the same without you.”
Feeling choked up, Ezra swallowed and looked down at his feet. His gaze fell upon the duffle bag he had placed under the table and suddenly he smiled, knowing just what he wanted to say. Bending down, he pulled out a large padded envelope, holding it in his hands as he began to speak.
“When I was first approached about joining this team, I didn’t want to do it. I was afraid that I would humiliate myself and bring disgrace upon you all, because I hadn’t played baseball since I was a young boy and I reluctantly confess that I wasn’t particularly good at it even then."
There were several chuckles and nods of commiseration as he made this comment.
Ezra smiled and continued. "Nathan, JD and Buck convinced me that I would be in good company and so, had nothing to lose by trying. When I went home that day, I dug out my father's old baseball glove and let it bring back the memories of how much he used to enjoy watching me play. He used to say that it didn’t matter how well a person played, so long as he did his best and had fun trying. So, as when I was 11 years old, I joined the team, played the game and gave it my very best effort.”
Buck interrupted, “And did you have fun?”
A smile bloomed slowly over Ezra’s face, giving him the look of the child he had once been. “I certainly did.”
“Then your dad would be a happy man,” Chris told him, the certainty in his tone leaving no room for doubt. He held out his hand, squeezing tightly when Ezra sat down and reached forward to shake it. “You did him proud.”
Seeing that Ezra looked to be done, Vin cut in, “Hey, now, wait just a minute! You gonna show us what’s in that package?”
“Of course,” Ezra said quietly, pulling out a black marble plaque on which the matching photographs of his Little League picture and his father’s high school picture had been mounted side by side under a protective glass plate. “I thought y'all might enjoy seeing this.”
“Oh, man,” JD said in awe as the plaque was passed to him. “This is so cool. You look just like him. I mean, not like in the face exactly, but you do.”
Josiah nodded. “He’s right. This is a wonderful photograph, Ezra.”
“My mother gave those to me when she was here,” he revealed, unsurprised to see expressions of understanding and renewed respect on the faces of JD, Josiah, Buck, Vin, Nathan and Chris. Rafael, John, and the women did not understand just how rare and precious this gift really was, but Ezra’s own teammates knew exactly.
As Ezra gratefully resumed possession of the photo, tucking it and the little trophy safely away, he listened to the laughter and conversation buzz around him and sighed happily. This little adventure had brought with it rewards far greater than anything he had ever expected. Camaraderie and fun, brand new friends and a deeper bond with the old ones, a renewed connection with both of his parents and a new relationship that he was beginning to feel sure held a bright future.
He could hardly wait until next season.