A scene from Amy's first road game since her return to the Reds.
Excerpt, Chapter 5
Busch Stadium, St. Louis
Amy’s cleats clacked loudly in the tunnel that led up into the dugout. She emerged from the shadow of the tunnel and squinted as the sun greeted her full force.
Phil, the equipment manager, was laying out towels along the dugout bench.
“Hey, Phil, do we have shades?”
He reached behind him and grabbed a pair of sunglasses out of a container. “Here.” He tossed them over.
“Sweet.” She admired the dark mirrored lenses, then slid the glasses on and pushed them against her nose.
“Looks like you belong now.” Phil brushed past her to shove batting gloves into their corresponding shelves with the helmets.
She grinned. “I know. I’m a nerd.”
“Nah. You’re a rookie,” he said as he went back to his equipment.
Amy took infield practice before trotting in for her turn in the cage. Nick Sanders hit a long fly ball to left that bounced off the facing of the upper deck. He set his bat aside, took off his helmet, and stripped away his batting gloves.
“Try and beat that, Perry.”
He’d already jogged past her to third base before she could reply.
She hit line drives around the field while attempting to ignore the photographers, huddled as close as possible to avoid a ball striking them.
In the first inning, the leadoff and second place hitters flied out. On her walk to the plate, she ran through what she’d studied about the Cardinals’ pitcher, Bobby Tinders. Likes to come inside and jam right-handed hitters. Throws a slow curve when he gets ahead in the count. Teases you with breaking stuff in the dirt.
She was concentrating so hard that the roar from the sold-out stadium crowd didn’t register until she stood in the batter’s box. The pitcher paced behind the mound while the cheering increased in volume. Amy stepped away from the plate, unsure of what to do. When she’d been with the Reds last September, she’d received some cheers from opponents’ fans, but nothing like this.
“You’d better tip your hat or we’ll be here all night.” The umpire glared at her from behind his mask.
Amy barely raised her batting helmet before settling back into the box.
The first pitch was a high and tight fastball. She shifted out of the way. The next pitch caught the outside corner of the plate for a strike. Tinders threw her another hard fastball that she lined foul by third base.
Behind in the count. Time for the slow curve.
The next pitch dipped toward the outer half of the plate. Amy dropped her bat and lined it between first and second for a solid base hit. The crowd cheered again as she rounded the bag.
Tom Jeffries, the first base coach, put his hand on her shoulder and leaned in to tell her to watch for the quick toss from Tinders for a pickoff attempt. It wasn’t until Jeffries stepped away that she let it sink in she was standing next to Albert Pujols.
He put his foot by the bag in preparation for pick-off throws. “Nice hitting.”
She managed to stutter out her thanks. Get a grip, she thought. You belong here just as much as he does. She strayed off a few feet, but dove back in when Tinders flipped the ball to Pujols. He slammed his glove against her shoulder. Amy stood up and brushed off the dirt while watching for the sign from Pete Servace, the third base coach. She edged a little farther away from the base after getting the sign for the hit-and-run.
As Tinders started his move toward home plate, she took off toward second. She ventured a quick peek to see if Sanders made contact. He lined the ball toward the left field gap. Amy chugged around second and picked up Servace’s signal as she drew closer to third. He gave her the sign to keep on going by frantically pinwheeling his arm. The toe of her cleats barely hit the bag when she rounded it for home. The Reds player in the on-deck circle, Mark Roberts, tossed his bat aside, fell to his knees, and slapped the dirt, motioning to slide.
The Cardinals’ catcher loomed ahead with his body blocking the plate. The ball hadn’t made it into her periphery yet. She slid into the catcher’s shin guard, but on instinct, reached over and swiped the plate behind him before he tagged her shoulder.
“Safe!” the umpire bellowed.
The catcher jumped to his feet and fired the ball to third base, but Sanders slid in ahead of the throw.
Amy stood and limped toward the dugout. She took the congratulatory hand slap from Roberts as she passed him. Murphy smacked her hand when came down the steps. Most of her teammates greeted her with high fives. Only two players, both veterans, ignored her by remaining seated at the end of the dugout.
Chapter 5 is where our two main characters, Angie and Meryl, first meet in their college creative writing class.
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, January 1997
“No, Father, I haven’t returned Stan Alberson’s call. I told you, with my studies, I really don’t have time to date.”
“You surely have time to at least have coffee with him. He’s expecting to hear from you.” Channing McClain’s deep baritone rumbled in her ear.
It was the third week of her sophomore spring semester and the fourth of these annoying phone calls.
Meryl bit back a sigh. If her father was anything, it was persistent. It served him well as the head of McClain Steel, and he didn’t let it stop there. He rarely, if ever, took no for an answer, especially if it involved his daughter and what he felt was in her best interest.
Not this time. Not if she could help it.
“I have to go. My creative writing class meets in forty minutes, and it’s across campus. I’ll talk to you later.”
“We’re not through discussing this.”
She hung up, hurried to her desk, and gathered her books into her backpack.
“Where’s that short story?” Rifling through some papers, she found it between the pages of the school newspaper. She shoved it in with her books. With her scarf wrapped around her neck, she snatched up her knit cap from the bedpost and pulled it over her head before leaving her dorm.
She dodged the icy spots on the sidewalk and attempted to keep her mind off her father and his meddling ways. Maybe this class would help. Her critique of the short story would at least be a distraction.
Meryl slowed her pace. It allowed her time to ponder why she had no interest in calling Stan—or any guy, for that matter. She’d dated in high school, but had gone out only a couple of times since starting at Lehigh. The guys she’d dated were interested in one thing, which she wasn’t willing to give up. So, she endured the tongue probes and briefly endured the fumbled groping. But it never stopped there. Once they pushed her to go further, that ended any future dates.
Her solitude became her father’s obsession. He seemed determined to match her with the perfect future husband. In Stan Alberson’s case, it had everything to do with the fact he was heir to the Alberson Shipping fortune. Meryl wouldn’t have cared if he were the damn Prince of Wales.
She stomped up the steps leading into Drown Hall and to the second floor classroom where the class met twice a week. Meryl unfurled her scarf and pulled off her cap. Running her fingers through her hair, she hoped she didn’t have a serious case of cap head. She took her customary seat in the second row of desks arranged in a semicircle and glanced around, searching out who’d written the story. It was her first critique of this particular author, Angie Cantinnini. Her gaze stopped on the dark-haired woman seated across from her in the front row.
She sure can write. And she sure is cute.
The instructor entered the room before Meryl could analyze that last thought.
Faye Evers missed the sixties by about ten years. She might have been born in that decade, but Meryl was sure she was too young to march in protests or participate in sit-ins. It didn’t mean the woman had given up the whole flower child persona, however. Her brown hair was wild and long, almost to her waist. She wore large hoop earrings and a tie-dyed skirt. Her knit shawl draped over a blouse that looked suspiciously like burlap.
“Okay, everybody, let’s settle down.” Faye perched on the edge of the desk in front of the semicircle. “Let me remind you to take note of what’s offered in the critiques of your stories.” She slid on her reading glasses that hung from a thin gold chain around her neck and scanned her legal pad. “We begin today with Kim Calbers’s story about living in rural West Virginia. Where’s John Franklin?”
A beefy redhead raised his hand.
“We’ll let you give your critique first.”
While John droned on, Meryl stole multiple, and she hoped furtive, glances at Angie. Her hair was short and feathered away from her face. She wore a Lehigh sweatshirt with “Women’s Softball” scrawled across the front, and faded jeans. Her left knee poked through a hole partially covered by thin white denim strips. Slightly disheveled, she seemed at ease with her appearance. She flipped a red pencil on the tablet of paper on her desk, keeping her head down during three more critiques.
“Now, let’s discuss Angie Cantinnini’s story, ‘A Thanksgiving Day Surprise,’ about a young woman coming out to her family on the holiday.”
The pencil flipping stopped, and Angie straightened in her chair.
“Brett Mooreland? Give us your assessment.”
Meryl continued observing Angie while Brett offered up an uncomfortable homophobic response to the story. Angie’s knuckles whitened as they gripped the pencil. Meryl was sure it would snap at any moment. Angie looked alternately from Brett to the eraser tip and back to Brett until he finished his harsh critique.
A cocky grin creased his lips, but the grin faltered, and his predatory expression slid from his face after he caught Meryl’s glare. He had flirted with her during the course, and she’d ignored him.
“Next up is Meryl McClain. What did you think, Meryl?” Meryl thought Faye’s expression was pleading with her for compassion.
Meryl met Angie’s eyes and offered her a reassuring smile before she began her critique.
“First, I think Angie’s writing is phenomenal.” She glanced over again at Angie and noticed that she’d relaxed in her chair. “The story flowed and held my attention. The dialogue was crisp throughout. She did a good job of relaying the tension in the household, to the point where I felt like an intruder at a family dispute. When I finished reading the story, I felt emotionally drained. I sympathized with the main character. I can’t imagine the pain she went through. . ." Meryl stopped, then started again. “I mean, I thought Angie conveyed the main character’s pain very well.”
Meryl gave Angie another slight smile when she finished while Faye went on to the next student’s critique. Thankfully, it too was a positive review.
Faye took her turn commenting on Angie’s work. She reaffirmed everything Meryl had said about the story and added a few more compliments. “Angie, I don’t mean to single you out, but I can see you’re a gifted writer. I hope this is something you’ll pursue after graduation, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Angie ducked her head. “I hope to.”
“Good. Your talent shouldn’t be wasted.”
Angie kept her face averted and renewed her fascination with her pencil.
The second thirty minutes of the class seemed to drag. Faye stood up from her perch and reminded them of next week’s exam. “Remember, I’m a stickler for precise grammar, people,” she said over the shuffling of papers and squeaking of chairs. “If you have any questions before Tuesday, don’t hesitate to call me at my campus office.”
Meryl approached Angie from behind while Angie pushed her English book into her backpack. Meryl spoke as Angie hefted the backpack onto her shoulder.
Angie raised her head. “Uh. . . hi.”
“I admire your work. Faye’s right. I can tell already that you’re the best in the class.”
Angie’s cheeks reddened.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“No, it’s okay. Thank you.”
Meryl glanced at the door and then at Angie. “I’d better take off. I need to get a jump on a term paper that’s due in a couple of weeks. And I know me. If I procrastinate, I’ll..." She stopped. “I’m sure you have a class to get to. I only wanted to tell you I love your writing. I’ll see you next week.”
Meryl waited a half beat longer, but Angie didn’t offer any more to the conversation, so she moved toward the door.
Meryl turned around.
“Would you mind if I walk with you? I thought we could talk about next week’s exam. I don’t know where you live, and I’m not sure you want the company, but—”
Meryl beamed. “I’d love it if you walked with me. My research material for the term paper’s in my dorm room.”
They left Drown Hall, strolling side by side. Angie moved out of the way of a threesome engrossed in their conversation and oblivious to the space they took up on the sidewalk. She stumbled into Meryl.
Meryl grabbed her elbow and held her upright. “Watch where you’re walking,” Meryl shouted after the three, who paid her no attention. “Do you think you own the sidewalk?”
“I can’t believe they didn’t see you.” Meryl frowned at the retreating students. She turned back to Angie. “What’s that funny smile for?”
“Nothing. Thank you for defending me.”
“I thought they were rude,” Meryl said in a soft voice.
“Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it. So, where are you from?"
“Pittsburgh. And you?”
“Not too far from there. Youngstown.”
“That’s not very far at all.”
“Different state, but right up the road. What’s your major?”
Meryl glanced over, saw Angie’s wide smile, and her stomach fluttered. She took a moment to catch her breath. “Journalism. I’m taking the creative writing class to get some practice at writing anything and everything. And yours?”
“I’m majoring in English, with a concentration in creative writing. A lot of students go on to teach, but I’d like to make it as an author.”
“I think you’ll do just fine.”
“I don’t know about that. I’m sure I’ll be doing something entirely different for a while after I graduate.”
“It might take you a couple of years, but there’s no doubt in my mind you’ll make it.”
Angie lowered her head.
“I’ve embarrassed you again,” Meryl said. “I have to stop doing that.”
“I’m not used to the praise, I guess. The only other person who’s read my writing and complimented me on it is my sister.”
“What about your parents?”
Angie’s steps faltered.
“Are you all right?” Meryl asked with concern.
“Yeah,” Angie said in a hushed voice. “My parents and I don’t have the best of relationships.”
Meryl wondered whether Angie’s short story was autobiographical. She slowed to a stop and placed her hand on Angie’s arm. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks. Me, too,” Angie replied.
Meryl’s heart pounded in her ears as she gazed into Angie’s dark brown eyes. God, what’s wrong with me?
Meryl ended the moment by resuming her walk down the sidewalk. Angie fell in beside her. “What would you like to know about me?” Meryl asked.
“What about your family? Do you get along?”
“My family.” Meryl listened to the crunching of their boots in the snow. “Where to begin? I’m an only child. I get along well with my mother. My father. . ."
“If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.”
“No. I do. My father likes to run my life, or at least likes to try. And he’s someone who’s used to hearing ‘yes’ from everyone around him. It starts with his job, but then he thinks that should carry over into his family life.”
“What’s he do?”
“Have you heard of McClain Steel in Pittsburgh?”
“Yes. We studied it in my high school economics class because of the McClain Mill in Youngstown. It was fascinating how Channing McClain kept his company going after the downturn in steel use in the eighties. He shifted into manufacturing stainless steel and titanium without missing a beat.” Angie came to a halt. “Wait. Isn’t your last name McClain?”
“And you’re from Pittsburgh?”
“Your father is. . ."
“Channing McClain. The guy you’re gushing about.”
“Then that means you’re. . .” Angie seemed embarrassed with her reaction. “I’ve never, well, I’ve never. Shit. God, I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
“No. It isn’t. I’m acting like an idiot.”
Meryl stared at her and made a decision. “You know what? I’m cold. Why don’t you come up to my dorm room? I have a microwave. We’ll have some hot chocolate while we talk about next week’s test. How does that sound?”
“I could stand some hot chocolate.”
Meryl felt relief and something else. The feeling had visited her at rare moments in her life. She’d grabbed hold of it when it arose, praying it wouldn’t slip through her fingers. But the feeling always dissolved, leaving her cold and alone. As they drew closer to her dorm, the long-remembered sensation settled on Meryl like a warm blanket.
Excerpt, Chapter 2
With statistics on the Bandits bouncing around in her brain, Lisa drove south to the University of Indianapolis. She parked the car in the lot nearest to the baseball field where she could see the Bandits warming up. With notebook in hand, she walked over to a woman she knew was the coach, because she’d seen her photo online. She had blonde hair that was graying at the temples, a deeply tanned and weathered face, and a voice that anyone within three miles could hear. Lisa wouldn’t have needed to see the picture from the internet. There was no doubt who was in charge.
“Dee, goddamnit, I told you to keep your head down, didn’t I?” The coach, who was all of five-two, strode over to the shortstop fielding grounders from another player. She snatched the shortstop’s glove and yelled, “Suz, smack me some hard ones.” The player obliged, and the coach demonstrated exactly what she wanted. “Like this, Dee. Do you see my fucking head bobbing up? No. I’m following the goddamn ball all the way into my glove.” She handed the glove back to the shortstop. “Work on that for the next fifteen minutes.”
“Yeah?” The coach barked at Lisa waiting nearby.
Intimidation didn’t work on Lisa. She had once interviewed Coach Bob Knight in Bloomington when she worked for the student newspaper there. He had given her some grief for a few minutes. Then she asked him some informed questions about his team’s defense. After that, he became almost polite…almost.
Lisa approached her. “Coach?”
The coach barely acknowledged her, raising her eyebrows slightly as if to ask why Lisa was interrupting her practice.
Lisa stuck out her hand. “My name’s Lisa Collins. I’m writing for the Indianapolis Gazette. I’ve heard about your team and would like to feature one of your players in an article.”
The coach’s expression softened a little. She grabbed Lisa’s hand with a firm grip. “Marge Tompkins. Good to meet you.” The coach gestured at the bleachers to sit and talk. “Let me guess. My first baseman, Amy Perry, right?”
“Yes. I understand the Cincinnati Reds are thinking about sending her down to the fall instructional league and have her come up through their Double-A team as early as next year.”
“It’s about time. She’s been knocking the hell out of the ball for almost seven years now, as long as our team’s been around. She can hit a sharp breaking ball and a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball just as easily. One of our pitchers can pitch in the low eighties, but we had her face a kid from the University of Kansas once. She hit his second pitch over the left field fence. We clocked it at ninety-five. It’s a shame it’s taken this long for men to admit that a woman can be this good at the game of baseball. And you don’t have to be built like a linebacker to play it either.”
Lisa scribbled down notes, at the same time deftly maintaining eye contact with the coach as much as possible.
The coach continued. “But we know hitting that breaking ball is the trick in making it.”
“Absolutely,” Lisa said.
Coach Tompkins stepped down from the bleachers, and Lisa joined her. The coach motioned at one of the players stretching in the grass. “Amy, come over here.”
Amy Perry stood up. Lisa shielded her eyes from the sun to get a better view. She appeared to be about six-feet tall. She was a big woman, but Lisa could tell it was all muscle underneath her maroon Bandits long-sleeved T-shirt and sweat pants. She drew nearer, and Lisa could see she had short, light brown wavy hair. Even closer, Lisa could make out her features. Her face was round with a well-defined nose. There was a cleft in her chin, and she had a dark tan.
Amy stood in front of the two women, and Lisa got a better look at her eyes. They were a pale green, the kind that probably changed in different light. They were bright and sparkling in the autumn sun.
“Amy, this is Lisa Collins,” Coach Tompkins said, gesturing to Lisa. “She’s a reporter with the Indianapolis Gazette and wants to do a feature on you.”
Lisa held out her hand for Amy to grasp.
“Hey,” Amy said in a soft voice.
“Amy hails from a town outside of Lawrence, Kansas,” the coach said. “And believe me, you’ll know once you start talking to her. She’s all country.”
Amy laughed, and her white teeth contrasted against her bronzed skin. Her eyes reflected her amusement. That decided it for Lisa; she wanted to know this woman. Amy’s eyes came alive as they held Lisa’s for a brief second.
“Coach Tompkins is always giving me a rough way to go.” She stared down at the ground while she spoke.
“I’ll leave you two alone. I see that Dee is back to her bad habit of raising her head.” The coach stomped over to the shortstop. Again, Lisa could hear her bellowing, “Goddamnit! What’d I tell you, Dee?”
“Would you mind if we sit over there while I interview you, Amy?” Lisa pointed to the bleachers.
“No, not at all.” They sat down onto the cool metal.
“So, what’s your hometown in Kansas?”
“Lecompton. It’s to the northwest of Lawrence.”
“How long have you been playing baseball?”
“About twelve years.”
Apparently, Amy’s answers wouldn’t be very expansive and wouldn’t allow Lisa to develop an article. She needed to coax her to go beyond that.
“That means you started when you were about fifteen.”
“That puts you in high school. You played fast pitch softball before that?”
Amy nodded again.
Let’s try this. “You tried out for the high school baseball team?” Lisa received yet another head nod. “What was that like?” That’s not a yes/no question, Amy. Let me know how you felt.
Amy’s face brightened. “It was a good experience.”
Lisa feared that was the extent of her answer. But, after a few seconds of contemplation, Amy started opening up.
“At first, the coach fought it. The principal backed him and tried to fight it, too. But I was allowed to go in front of the school board and explain why playing baseball meant so much to me.”
“And why does it mean so much to you?” Lisa wasn’t asking it for the article. She really wanted to know.
“Because I knew if I’d ever want to achieve my dream of playing for a professional men’s team, it’d have to start at the high school level. And I knew the coach at my high school was one of the best in the area. He had a couple of players go on to make it in the minors. When I came in front of the school board, I was able to explain all that.”
“Was that a problem for you? You seem to be shy.”
“Yeah, but it was one of the most important moments of my life. And I knew it. I knew I needed to tell my side of things. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes,” Lisa murmured, captivated by Amy’s words.
They sat there for another twenty minutes or so, while Lisa took notes. That one question about getting on the high school team had helped Amy open up.
“Do you mind if I stick around while you take batting practice and field some?” It was part of Lisa’s job to stay for the practice, but asking Amy’s permission changed the feel of it.
“Good. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.” Lisa offered her hand.
“Thanks. I’ve enjoyed it, too.” Amy shook her hand again. It felt to Lisa like Amy held on a little longer than she had before.
“The article should be in the morning paper, if you’re interested in seeing it.”
“I’ll look for it,” Amy said before jogging over to the diamond.
Wow. Lisa was lost in thought until she saw Jenny, the sports photographer from the paper, crossing the parking lot next to the field. Lisa pointed out Amy.
“Some action shots of her batting and fielding, and Jack will probably want a few casual ones of her standing around with the other players.”
Jenny slung her camera bag high up on her shoulder and made her way over to the diamond.
“Hell of a nice girl, isn’t she?” Coach Tompkins said, approaching Lisa.
“Yes, she is.”
“Hell of a ballplayer, too. Watch.”
A tall, lanky player took the mound and fired a fastball toward the plate. In one smooth motion, Amy, who batted right handed, hit a frozen rope into left field. The next pitch was on the outside corner. She went with it and lined one over the second baseman’s head.
“All parts of the field,” Coach Tompkins said in a confident voice.
The next pitch was a fat, batting practice fastball down the heart of the plate. Amy connected, and the ball arced into the clear blue sky. Lisa cupped her hand over her eyes, following the flight of the ball as it traveled over 300 feet.
“Damn,” she said under her breath.
After about fifteen minutes of hitting, Amy took her position at first and fielded each hot shot, diving to her right and snagging one line drive out of the air. One of the other players came up for their batting practice, and Amy took the throws to first. The shortstop fielded one tricky hop cleanly.
“Finally listening to your old coach, huh, Dee?” Coach Tompkins yelled. Dee fired the ball over to Amy. The throw was a little off, and Amy stretched to stay on the bag. “Way to hang in there, Amy,” the coach shouted. She turned to Lisa. “I think you have your story, don’t you?”
Lisa didn’t answer, but observed Amy make play after play while cutting up with her teammates. It seemed she only reserved her shyness for first-time encounters.
“Thanks, Coach Tompkins.” Lisa flipped her notebook shut and shook her hand again.
“Glad we could talk,” Tompkins said. She headed over to the team. “Time for diving drills, ladies.” They moaned as they formed a line. Another coach handed Tompkins a bat, and she started smacking balls to the right or left of each player. Each woman sacrificed her body with a headfirst dive to retrieve the ball. After Amy made her play, she took her place at the back of the line and began talking with one of the other players.
Yeah, I’d definitely like to know her better.
“I got some pretty good shots. I’ll take these back to the paper now.”
Lisa didn’t answer Jenny right away.
“Sorry. Thanks, Jen.” She watched the team a few more minutes and then walked to her car, wondering about how she felt while she was talking to Amy. It was probably nothing.