Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Ringer - Part Two

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Choir director Shane Reed, coach of the church softball team, the “Miracles,” was facing a problem. He’d brought on a new player, Audra Park, a pretty young single mother on whom he had a secret crush. But not everyone on the team was such a fan of Audra as Shane.

Not that Audra wasn’t good. She had been an all-star softball player in high school. But since joining the Miracles she’d gotten into the habit of barking out advice to the other players on the team. Her advice was always correct but not always appreciated. And she had usurped Del Winslow’s accustomed position at first base.

Furthermore, the two teenage girls on the Miracles, Katie and Tabitha, had gotten angry at Audra for stealing the attention of Steve and Blake, two boys from another team. The girls had fallen in love with them at first sight, but Steve and Blake were distracted when they learned Audra’s brother worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. To make matters worse, the hussy had promised to get them game tickets. Katie and Tabitha quit the Miracles in protest.

Which left Shane with a hole in center field, a hole he needed to fill with a woman according to the co-ed league’s rules.

He found the solution in the church’s young associate pastor, Michelle Tellum. Not that Michelle was exactly eager to add another activity to her busy schedule. But Shane pointed out that the team was a good opportunity for church fellowship and that if he couldn’t recruit another woman they would have to disband. The appeal to Michelle’s pastoral commitment worked.

Shane arrived at the next practice happy to have solved his problem. His spirit faltered, however, when he saw Thad Wheeling playing catch with Audra’s six-year-old son Tyler. Audra was looking at Thad appreciatively and even touched his arm briefly when it was time to take the field. A pang of jealousy shot through Shane.

Shane didn’t know whether Thad was interested in Audra but he did know that Thad was younger than him, very handsome and very witty. He also knew Thad was single. And if Thad did have romantic designs on Audra then Shane thought it was a little underhanded of him to use Tyler to get to her.

On the other hand there was that old saying: all’s fair in love and war.

So after practice while everyone was packing up, Shane trotted over to Tyler. “Want to play some catch,” he asked.

“Nah,” Tyler said, not looking up from his comic book.

“Aw, c’mon,” Shane exhorted pulling the boy gently down out of the bleachers.

They tossed the ball back and forth, Shane shouting encouragement to the bored six-year-old. After a bit Shane glanced around to see if Audra was noticing how good he was with her son.

Audra was not noticing. She was busy talking to Thad by the drinking fountain. Thad said something that made her laugh and when she laughed her ponytail bounced fetchingly.

In his distracted state, Shane threw the ball back to Tyler a little harder than he’d intended. The boy missed the catch and the ball hit him in the face. Tyler wailed in pain.

Audra came running. Shane was devastated and apologetic. Fortunately Tyler had only suffered a bloody nose. Audra assured Shane that Tyler would be fine, but thought she better get him home.

As Shane watched them drive off, Thad slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it. Kids get bloody noses all the time.”

Shane fought down his true feelings long enough to thank Thad for his kind words.

Sure enough, by the time the team gathered for the game that weekend Tyler and Audra seemed to have forgotten all about the incident. But Shane noticed that Tyler ran over to greet Thad when he arrived. The kid had not shown similar excitement toward Shane.

The game itself was a nail biter thanks to Audra’s seven RBI’s. Going into the final inning the Miracles were down by only one and batting last. The first batter was Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell who hit a double to put the tying run on second.

Michelle was up next. After watching a ball and a strike, Michelle made a solid hit, sending the ball bouncing down the third base line. She dropped the bat and started to run.

However her first step landed squarely on the bat. Her ankle rolled and she fell to the ground with a cry. The third baseman snagged the ball and tossed it to first, giving the Miracles one out. But even worse Michelle couldn’t put any weight on her right foot without horrible pain.

Audra came up to the plate. The opposing pitcher intended to walk her but Audra wasn’t about to allow that. She stepped forward as the third ball sailed wide and took a swing. The ball flew out to left field and bounced up to the fence. Audra took off, rounded the bases, and scored a two-run in-the-park home run. The Miracles had won.

Their celebration was muted, however, due to the concern over Michelle’s injury. Shane examined her ankle in the dugout. It had become both the size and color of a cantaloupe. Thad and Shane carried Michelle to Shane’s car so he could take her to the emergency room. There would be no post game pizza party that evening.

Thad, Del and Pastor O’Donnell sat on the bleachers after the excitement rehydrating with sports drinks. “Looks like we’re going to need Katie or Tabitha back,” Del said.

“I don’t think that’s likely as long as Audra’s on the team,” O’Donnell replied. “They think she kept those boys from asking them out last game. I’m afraid it’s either Audra or them.”

“Audra’s really good,” Thad pointed out. “If it wasn’t for her no way would we have won this game.”

“Yeah, but it was more fun before,” Del said.

“You’re just annoyed that Shane gave her your position,” O’Donnell replied.

“Well I did play first base in college,” Del grumbled.

“It doesn’t matter,” Thad said. “I don’t think Shane will cut Audra anyway. I’m pretty sure he has a crush on her.”

“Maybe we need a new coach,” Del suggested. “Someone more objective.”

“Who would even want to do it,” O’Donnell asked. “You?”

“Maybe I would,” Del replied.

And where was Audra during this conversation? Stretching on the grass behind the bleachers. She heard every word.

Audra’s emotions were confused. On the one hand her feelings were hurt, of course. Whose wouldn’t be? But on the other hand she felt a flutter of delight to learn that Shane might have a crush on her. Because she also happened to have a crush on him. In fact she had talked to Thad mainly to make Shane jealous not quite realizing how effective the ploy had been. And though she was enjoying playing softball again, she didn’t want to cause problems for Shane or the team. So she made a decision.

She would quit.

Audra found Katie and Tabitha after church the following Sunday. “Listen,” Audra said, “I want to quit the Miracles but without Michelle and me they won’t have enough women. Do you think you two would consider rejoining?”

The girls were not displeased to hear that Audra was leaving the team but still reluctant to return themselves. Truth was, neither one of them was really that into softball.

“Tell you what,” Audra said. “You know how I promised those boys Steve and Blake that I’d get them tickets to a Penguins’ game next season?”

“Yeah,” Katie said evenly.

“If you rejoin the Miracles, I’ll get you two tickets as well.”

“We don’t like hockey,” Tabitha protested.

“I’ll get you tickets with Steve and Blake,” Audra clarified.

“Actually, hockey’s not so bad,” Katie said.

Next Audra found Shane and broke the news that she was quitting.

“No,” Shane cried. “We have a game this afternoon!”

“I’m sorry, but Tyler gets bored and a baby sitter is too expensive. However I have good news. Katie and Tabitha said they want to come back.”

“I guess that is good news,” Shane mumbled.

“By the way, do you like Ferris wheels?” Audra asked.

“What?” Shane said. “Um, sure, I guess so.”

“Because Tyler loves them and they make me queasy. We’re going to the amusement park on Saturday. Maybe you’d like to come along and ride the Ferris wheel with Tyler?”

“Sure,” Shane said, beaming.

That afternoon the Miracles took the field without Audra in the line up. They lost the game but had a great time doing it. And the next Saturday Shane enjoyed a day with Audra and Tyler at the amusement park. However neither Audra nor Shane managed to work up the nerve to kiss the other one.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Ringer - Part One

Hear the story read by the author.

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Choir director Shane Reed is the coach and second baseman of the church softball team, the “Miracles.” And this season Shane was delighted to have a new player: Audra Park.

Audra, a single mother of a six year-old boy named Tyler, had only joined the church a few months earlier. She was a sweet, quiet young woman with lovely delicate features and long black hair. And Shane had a crush on her.

But every time he tried to ask her out he froze up. And the more time passed, the harder it got. So when one day after church Shane asked Audra if she was interested in joining the Miracles he had actually intended to invite her out to dinner but just chickened out at the last minute.

When Audra responded positively to his impromptu softball invitation Shane was thrilled. In addition to spending time with her on the field they’d be going out for pizza after every game. Yes, the rest of the team would be there too, but it was a start.

“What position is she going to play?” Thad Wheeling, the team’s shortstop, asked Shane as they watched Audra stretch before the first practice. Thad guessed Audra weighed about a hundred pounds. She didn’t look like much of an athlete.

“I was thinking left field,” Shane replied, a dreamy smile on his face.

“Do you think her arm’s strong enough to throw all the way to the infield?”

“I don’t know,” Shane shrugged. “But she can’t be much worse than Tabitha.”

Tabitha was the teenage girl that had played left field the previous season. She was center fielder Katie O’Donnell’s best friend. Shane figured Katie and Tabitha could alternate innings at center.

This did not go over so well with the two teenage girls. They wanted to play together, not take turns riding the bench by themselves. But Shane made a big speech about the team being bigger than any one player. When that failed, he offered to pay their share of the post game pizza. They grudgingly agreed to this arrangement.

Shane started practice by hitting fly balls to the team. Thad stood beside him to catch the returning throws and feed them back to Shane. The first ball Shane hit toward Audra sailed long. Audra loped backwards, made the catch, spun, and fired the ball to Thad. It hit Thad’s glove with a resounding smack. He grunted in pain.

“Guess her arm’s okay,” Shane whispered.

It turned out a lot more than Audra’s arm was okay. In his excitement at the prospect of spending time with her, Shane never asked whether Audra had any experience. If he had, she would have told him about being an all-star second baseman on her state champion high school team.

Audra’s expertise became even more apparent as the Miracles started to scrimmage. When Katie fielded a deep fly ball and made a two bounce throw to first, Audra shouted, “Katie, you should use me as a cutoff man on those long throws.”

Later when Katie threw to first with a runner going to second, Audra called out, “play’s at second, Katie!”

Katie was getting annoyed at Audra’s coaching, but over on first base sixty-two year-old Del Winslow smiled with satisfaction. Finally someone who knew something about the game was helping out. Del liked Shane but felt the kid was a little too nice for a coach.

Then Audra yelled, “Del, you need to play farther left when nobody’s on base.”

During a break in practice Thad pulled Shane aside. “Audra’s awesome,” Thad enthused. “She’s wasted out there. You should move her to the infield.”

Shane agreed, so he told Del he was switching Audra to first and moving Del out to left field. “But I played first base in college,” Del protested.

Del’s college experience was three decades before Audra’s high school experience but Shane didn’t mention that. Instead he just said, “I’m experimenting a little.”

“Audra used to play second,” Del pointed out. “Maybe YOU should switch positions with her.”

“Look, I’m the coach and I really need you to work with me on this,” Shane pleaded.

Del scowled as he considered Shane’s earnestness. Finally he said, “I heard you offer to pay for Tabitha and Katie’s post game pizza.”

“I’d be happy to pay your share too if that’s an issue,” Shane said quickly. Del nodded and headed for the outfield, grumbling under his breath.

As practice continued and Audra grew more and more comfortable shouting instructions to the other players, Shane began to wonder if maybe she was kind of usurping his roll as coach. But his concerns were trumped by the fact that she looked really cute in a baseball cap. And after all, they were just playing for the fun of it.

The Miracles first game of the season was against the Cherubs, a team from a small Catholic church on the other side of town. The Cherubs had two teenage boys playing shortstop and second base. When Katie and Tabitha saw them take the field, the two girls fell in love at first sight.

As Katie stepped up to the plate for her first at-bat, she was more determined to get on base than she’d ever been before. She wanted to get a closer look at the guy she was already imagining in a tuxedo at their wedding.

“Katie, get the bat off your shoulder!” Audra yelled. Katie’s face reddened. She left the bat just where it was to teach the meddling Audra a lesson. Katie proceeded to strike out in three pitches. But at least she made her point.

“You can’t get the bat around fast enough if you rest it on your shoulder,” Audra explained as Katie slumped back into the dugout. Katie clenched her teeth so she wouldn’t violate the league’s no-swearing policy.

The Miracles kept it close but ended up losing by two runs. Apparently Katie’s poor hitting had not dented her appeal with the boys because they struck up a conversation with her and Tabitha after the game. Their names were Steve and Blake and they accepted the girls’ invitation to join the Miracles for the post-game pizza party.

As they were walking into the restaurant, Blake noticed that Audra’s son Tyler was wearing a Pittsburgh Penguin’s hockey jersey. “You a Pens fan, little man?” he asked.

Tyler shyly hid behind Audra’s legs. “My brother works in public relations for the team,” Audra told the boys.

“Really?” Steve asked, his eyes shining with excitement. It turned out Steve and Blake were both huge hockey fans.

“Yeah,” Audra said. “If you’re in Pittsburgh during the season some time I can hook you up with tickets.”

The boys were speechless.

For the next hour Katie and Tabitha sat fuming in a booth while Steve and Blake peppered Audra with questions about her brother’s job.

As Shane totaled up the cost of the meal and his four shares it occurred to him that it would have been cheaper if he’d just had the nerve to ask Audra out instead of bribing the girls and Del to make room for her on the team. But his pizza parlor expenses were about to lessen.

The following Sunday Katie and Tabitha informed him they were quitting the Miracles. “Free pizza just isn’t worth it,” Katie said.

With the next game two days away, Shane suddenly found himself a player short.

To be continued...