Schwartz didn't notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he noticed only what everyone else did - that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry's every move.
This was the second Sunday in August, just before Schwartz's sophomore year at Westish College, that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin. He'd spent the summer in Chicago, his hometown, and his Legion team had just beaten a bunch of farmboys from South Dakota in the semifinals of a no-name tournament. The few dozen people in the stands clapped mildly as the last out was made. Schwartz, who'd been weak with heat cramps all day, tossed his catcher's mask aside and hazarded a few unsteady steps toward the dugout. Dizzy, he gave up and sank down to the dirt, let his huge aching back relax against the chain-link fence. It was technically evening, but the sun still beat down wickedly. He'd caught five games since Friday night, roasting like a beetle in his black catcher's gear.
His teammates slung their gloves into the dugout and headed for the concession stand. The championship game would begin in half an hour. Schwartz hated being the weak one, the one on the verge of passing out, but it couldn't be helped. He'd been pushing himself hard all summer - lifting weights every morning, ten-hour shifts at the foundry, baseball every night. And then this hellish weather. He should have skipped the tournament - varsity football practice at Westish, an infinitely more important endeavor, started tomorrow at dawn, suicide sprints in shorts and pads. He should be napping right now, preserving his knees, but his teammates had begged him to stick around. Now he was stuck at this ramshackle ballpark between a junkyard and an adult bookstore on the interstate outside Peoria. If he were smart he'd skip the championship game, drive the five hours north to campus, check himself into Student Health for an IV and a little sleep. The thought of Westish soothed him. He closed his eyes and tried to summon his strength.
When he opened his eyes the South Dakota shortstop was jogging back onto the field. As the kid crossed the pitcher's mound he peeled off his uniform jersey and tossed it aside. He wore a sleeveless white undershirt, had an impossibly concave chest and a fierce farmer's burn. His arms were as big around as Schwartz's thumbs. He'd swapped his green Legion cap for a faded red St. Louis Cardinals one. Shaggy dust-blond curls poked out beneath. He looked fourteen, fifteen at most, though the tournament minimum was seventeen.
During the game, Schwartz had figured the kid was too small to hit high heat, so he'd called for one fastball after another, up and in. Before the last, he'd told the kid what was coming and added, "Since you can't hit it anyway." The kid swung and missed, gritted his teeth, turned to make the long walk back to the dugout. Just then Schwartz said - ever so softly, so that it would seem to come from inside the kid's own skull - "[expletive]." The kid paused, his scrawny shoulders tensed like a cat's, but he didn't turn around. Nobody ever did.
Now when the kid reached the worked-over dust that marked the shortstop's spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn't have had. He'd played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.
Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
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