Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Play Ball

"You been checking out our new assistant coach?" my best friend Nikki says.
My eyes swing toward first base, where Brian Mathews stands in the sun on this warm Sunday afternoon, tanned arms folded across his chest.
"Single. Never been married," Nikki says.
"You already told me."
I'm sitting next to her on the bench in the dugout, pounding my fist into the pocket of my fielder's glove—a glove I haven't used seriously in ten years.
"He's gorgeous," Nikki says.
"I told him you're a widow."
"Do you need me in the outfield or are you trying to fix me up again?"
Nikki smiles. "Both, Chloe."
Since my husband Tom's death of cancer over two years ago, Nikki and her husband Frank, the team's head coach, have tried at least a half dozen times to get me romantically involved. "Step up to the plate and take another swing at life," Nikki always says. "Play ball."
I glance again down the first base line. Tall, muscular, and outrageously handsome with auburn hair, Brian does look like someone special. Nikki has also informed me he's the new head baseball coach at Blackhawk Junior College and teaches in the history department with Frank.
"You're up!" Nikki punches me in the ribs with an elbow.
My heart's in my throat. Even though this is a only a practice game in a slow-pitch league for women over thirty that Nikki's finally talked me into playing, I know I'll make a fool of myself.
Our lead-off hitter walked. The second batter struck out, but the next batter singled the runner to third. I have a chance to bat the two runners in. I let the first two looping pitches go by—then smack the third into right field for a long single and race toward first. I'm wondering if my hit is deep enough to score both runners. It is!  Wow!
After the inning is over, Brian smiles at me, his whole face lighting up, as if he's found something precious—a diamond, maybe. "You really smack the ball for such a slender thing."
"Thanks," I say, a red-hot blush rushing to my face.
Though I bang out a triple in the fourth inning and another single in the seventh, I miss two line drives in the outfield, both of them screaming over my head because I misjudged them. My sloppy fielding allows two runs to score in the seventh inning, and the Wildcats drop the game 6-5 because of me. I feel terrible.
Nikki says, "Wasn't your fault. You played well, Chloe. Come to practice this week? Join our team?"
I hate to disappoint her, but I say, "I don't think so."
"You need to forget about that job once in awhile," she says a little sternly, like she's my mother, hands clamped to her hips. Then her eyes lower, and she looks sheepish, "Sorry. I didn't mean to harp."
I'm an administrator at an assisted living facility. I love the people I'm helping, and I admit since my husband's death my job has become my life. I feel wanted and useful.
In the parking lot, by my car, Brian strolls up to me. A soft twinkle in his brown eyes holds me a moment. "I don't think we've been officially introduced. Brian Mathews. Nikki's told me a lot about you."
"Chloe McGuire," I say, as we shake hands, the warmth in has hand radiating up my arm, my breath catching.
"Anyone ever tell you you've got a great bat? You're a natural?"
I blush again. "Did you see the balls sailing over my head in the outfield?"
"You need a bit of practice. How about if I hit fly balls to you? In no time, you'll be fielding like an all-star."
I shuffle my glove from hand to hand. I picture myself ending up with a sore arm or maybe a sprained ankle. But Brian's voice is warm and friendly. "All right," I say.
We wander over to an empty diamond. I'm dusty and sweaty from playing, my blond ponytail flopping through the back of my ball cap, but I feel comfortable with Brian. I start talking about myself—I never do that. "I was a center fielder in high school," I say, "but I gave up softball in college. Earning my degree became more important."
He tells me he played college baseball, dropped out of school, played in the minor leagues, couldn't make the majors, then went back to college, graduated, earner his masters, and is now working on his Ph.D.
Brian hits pop ups, fly balls, and line drives to me.
After a half hour of hard work, I find myself diving for the ball or spearing it above my head almost as if I were a teenager again, full of enthusiasm and fire, but lacking the endurance I once had.
Finally, I cry, "Time out!" Tired as I am, though, I feel strangely alive.
"I like the aggressive way you're attacking the ball," Brian says, shaking my hand again. "How about we both go home, take showers, dress, and I'll take you out to dinner tonight. We'll talk softball"—he gives me that devastating smile, his brown eyes twinkling—"and about your spot on the team."
My eyes slip away from his. Butterflies flutter and collide in my stomach.
This could be he start of something exciting. I'm certainly feeling wanted. Maybe I can be useful to the team.
Is this what you want, Chloe?
"All right," I say, smiling bravely while punching the pocket in my glove. "Dinner would be great. I think it's time I play ball again."