The sun beat down on the red clay field, rising to shimmer in waves off the cracked earth. The sparse outfield grass was dry and brittle under Danny's battered tennis shoes. Scooping up the last ball, he hurried for the dugout. The five-gallon bucket bumped awkwardly against the outside of his leg making him stumble. Hearing the laughter, embarrassment added to the flush of his freckled face. Keeping his eyes downcast, he set the ball bucket near the fence and grabbed up the rake. He flinched as a cold stream of electric-blue sports drink hit the side of his head. Swiping at the juice with his shoulder, he turned back to the ball diamond. A hand on the rake stopped him in his tracks.
"Since you're not tired and thirsty, you can rake until your ride gets here."
All chatter and laughter ceased. Wide eyes turned his way. Danny was afraid to breathe. He peeked at his tormentor out of the corner of his eye. Hector's tanned cheeks bore twin spots of humiliated color as he stared up at the coach. Taking the rake from his trembling hand, the coach held it out to Hector.
The twelve year MLB veteran didn't have to raise his voice. Power and authority radiated from the stout catcher. Grabbing the rake, Hector slunk out of the dugout in shame. Danny flinched as the coach's hand cupped the back of his neck.
"Get a drink and cool off."
"Ye—yes, sir," Danny stuttered, and fled.
"They're just kids, Jace. He was having a little fun," the head coach muttered under his breath.
"You asked me to help out and give the kids the benefit of Major League experience. In my experience that type of immature behavior uncorrected now, leads to nothing but trouble down the line."
"You're such a hard ass," the younger man said with a chuckle.
"It's your team, your call," the grizzled major leaguer acknowledged with a shrug and left the dugout.
Heading for the water pump, Jace tried to shrug off his younger brother's criticism. It was more than the sixteen year age difference that separated them. Their personalities were night and day. Josh was all about fun. Nothing was serious. He jumped from one sales job to the next, depending on his easy charm and MLB brother to open doors. As much as he mocked Jace's workaholic ways, he wasn't above using the connection when it suited him.
Spotting the redheaded boy sitting against the fence in the shade, he wondered what the kid's story was. The way he'd stood at the fence, fingers laced through the links, watching every move during practice showed a love of the sport. Pumping the old-fashioned well handle until water flowed, he quickly cupped his hands to douse his head and swipe the sweat and grime from his face. As awkward as it was, the icy water felt great.
Reaching blindly for the handle again, his calloused paw covered a small hand. The freckled kid smiled shyly.
"I—I'll pump it for you."
When he was cooled off and thirst quenched, Jace stepped back and shook his head. Water droplets flew from his stark flattop. Wiping his face with his shirttail, he smiled at the kid and nodded his head at the pump in invitation.
"Your turn," he said with a wink. Once his new friend had cooled down, Jace lead him back to the shade, both of them sitting down against the fence. "I'm Jace. What's your name, kid?"
"Danny," the boy said, accepting Jace's handshake with a wide grin.
"You look like a ball player to me, Danny. What position do you play?"
"Catcher, or sometimes third base."
"When I was in little league I played third base and catcher," Jace said offering a fist bump. "Why aren't you playing this year?"
"My mom doesn't have the money this year." Danny shrugged.
The kid shrugged again. "I get money for helping the coach clean up and sometimes if there aren't enough players he lets me practice with them."
"That's pretty cool," Jace said, his estimation of the kid rising even higher. "You live close by?"
Studying the run down motel across the street, Jace weighed his options. "Is your mom home?"
"She cleans the rooms during the day."
Jace winced as his mind immediately questioned what the woman did at night. It was an unfair judgment. Looking at the kid, she was obviously trying. "If you could get a sort of scholarship to play little league, would you want to give it a shot?"
"Yeah!" Danny said, hazel eyes flaring wide in excitement. His smile faded a little and he scratched his head uncertainly. "Can I still help the coach clean up afterwards?"
Jace nodded. The couple of bucks were obviously important to the kid. He had a sick feeling the money went straight to his mother. "Sure. Let's go see if we can find your mom. We'll need her permission. Let me grab a signup sheet."
Danny trailed after him to the dugout, a shy half smile on his freckled face.
"You only get two today. You didn't rake," Josh said, handing Danny a couple crinkled bills.
Jace shot him a look of disgust.
"What? You're the one always preaching about hard work and earning your money. What kind of example would I be setting if I gave him the whole five dollars?" he asked with a taunting grin. "What're you doing anyway?"
Jace pulled out the permission slip from the clipboard. "I'm trying to sign you a new player."
"The kid's parents don't have the money."
"He got a scholarship."
Josh rolled his eyes in understanding. "You're such a do-gooder."
Jace ignored him. "Come on, kiddo. Let's go find your mom."
Spotting the maid's cart, Danny raced ahead. Jace stepped into the open doorway just in time to watch the freckled boy hit the motel bed and bounce into his mother's outstretched arms.
"You're all wet!" she said, spinning around with a laugh. With their foreheads pressed together the family resemblance was unmistakable. She froze when she saw Jace at the door. Kissing her son, she put him down, nudging him slightly behind her. "Can I help you?"
"I'm Jace Van Horne. I wanted to talk to you about little league."
He watched her shoulders slump a little. Tucking an unruly strand of her auburn hair behind her ear, she stroked her son's neck with the other hand as she spoke.
"I'm sorry. I told the other man that I just don't have the ninety-five dollars to sign Danny up. He said it was okay if my son watched and helped out after. I'm sorry if there was some sort of misunderstanding. "
"There was no misunderstanding. If you will give Danny permission to play, there is money available to pay the fee."
"I got a scholarship, Mom!"
Jace couldn't hold back a smile at the boy's enthusiasm and neither could his mother. Running her fingers through his wet hair, she spiked it up. There were questions in her green eyes when she looked back at Jace.
"Are you sure about this?"
"Absolutely; it won't cost you a dime."
She nibbled her bottom lip.
Obviously feeling her indecision, Danny stared up at her. "I still get to help after," he said, the pleading obvious in his tone. His face fell a little as he reluctantly added, "I only got two dollars today because I didn't rake."
"I'll give you the other three, bud. It was my fault you didn't get to rake. We could really use him on the team, Mrs ...?"
"It's Miss ... and Owens."
"Don't worry about it. Kyra works," she said gesturing to her name tag and gracing him with his first smile. "Danny would love to play."
A boyish grin split Jace's rugged face. A brief brush of her fingers as he handed over the consent form sent a jolt through him. Kyra blushed and hastily turned away to rest the paper on the nightstand to sign.
The boy's whoop of joy shattered the awkward moment. He danced around his mother in wild delight. She shook her head at his antics, but her smile spoke of pure love.
Clearing his throat, Jace nodded. "Thank you, Miss Owens."
"Thank you, Mr. Van Horne, and please see that the money Danny earns for helping the coaches goes back into the scholarship fund to help out other boys."
Jace opened his mouth to clarify the point, but the look in Kyra's eyes said she knew very well where the money was coming from, and it wasn't up for discussion. He settled for a nod of understanding and rustled Danny's hair. "I'll see you tomorrow, bud."
Watching the other boys straggle into the dugout, Danny swirled his water, the frozen core thumping rhythmically against the plastic. Condensation beaded thick on the outside of the cheap plastic and he rubbed it against his sweaty forehead. The coach stepped in, looking the team over. Danny leaned forward from his spot at the end of the bench, holding his breath in hope. His teammates slumped in their seats, swigging lifelessly at sports drinks long hot from the July sun. Sweat stains circled their armpits and ran down their backs. Red clay dust stained their once bright uniform pants and stuck to damp skin.
"Hector, Pat's beat. I need you to move to catcher this inning, and we'll pull Tyler in from center to play short stop and put Danny in the outfield."
"Awww, Coach, it's too hot to play catcher," Hector said, sliding lower on the bench.
"With a one run lead we need solid defense behind the plate. One passed ball and the game's over."
"The gear smells like Fatty Patty. He sweats like a pig. I'm not putting it on."
Danny bit his bottom lip. Leaning forward, he teetered on the edge of the bench. He glanced up at Jace standing in the doorway and the major leaguer gave him a little nod. Swallowing hard, he stuttered, "I—I'll c—catch."
"No offense, Freckles, but we need experience at this point in the game."
Danny's face flushed at the head coach's nickname for him. His teammates giggled. He could feel Jace's stare boring into him.
"I—I played catcher for two years on my old team and I've been practicing with Jace," he said softly.
The coach turned to his brother. "You've been working with Freckles?"
"He's better than Hector," Jace said with a simple nod.
"He's not better than me!"
The coach waved Hector back to his seat and motioned Danny forward. "If there's one thing Jace knows it's catching. Get the gear on kid."
Trembling, Danny let Jace help him put on the heavy catcher's equipment. He could feel the nasty looks from Hector burning into his back. The plastic and padding felt like armor. His confidence built with each piece. Jace cupped the back of his head, staring intently through the mask into Danny's eyes. He didn't say a word. He didn't have to. At the umpire's call, Danny lead his team onto the field.
Jace squatted outside the dugout as Danny took his place behind the plate. He felt more nervous than the kid. Danny was cool and calm on the outside as he warmed the pitcher up. Catching Kyra's eye, Jace gave her a thumbs up and a little wink. Conspicuous in her maid's uniform among the other little league parents, she beamed, snapping pictures with her phone.
Only little leaguers could make three outs last an eternity. When Danny finally applied the tag for the win after a run down on the third base line, the team gang piled him in excitement. A wide grin split Jace's face when the little redheaded boy was lifted from the heap by an exuberant Hector. In the end it was all about the love of the game.
WC ~ 1998
© Mara McBain 03/2012