One Tuesday in June, Coach Grubb decided he would teach the kids to throw sliders, so he looked up the grip while he drove his son to practice. Hold the ball with two fingers and your thumb, Wikipedia said.
When Coach Grubb and his son got to the diamond, the turnout rose to six players. School was out for the year, so the rest of the roster was working summer jobs or joining family members on vacations. That’s what they said, anyway. He heard the grumbling, and the truth was that their parents had probably decided to pull them from the league until Chipper Chip’s Quality Trophies and Screenprinting – AKA The Blue Team – found a volunteer who “knew what the hell he was doing,” someone who could help them get that baseball scholarship in a few years. Junior high was too early to be worrying about that stuff, but even Coach Woodbury had fourth-graders’ parents breathing down his neck about it.
The six kids at practice weren’t all pitchers, but they would be today. Barring a miracle, The Blue Team would have to forfeit on Saturday due to lack of players, but at least they would give up a lot fewer runs than they had in the rest of their games. The kids gathered in a circle, and Coach Grubb walked his phone around to all of them, showing them how they should handle the ball.
“Josh, Tyler, Tim: grab a ball. The rest of you are catchers. I want you to throw ten times each and then switch it up, okay?”
Coach Grubb took his spot in the third-base coach’s box as the players dispersed into their assignments. The first pitch hit the chain-link fence and sent a metallic rattle ringing through the air; the next rolled through the grass. Baseballs bounced off catchers’ knees and sailed over their heads, nearly burning the tips of their hair right off. Coach Grubb occasionally shouted a “good try” or a “you’re getting there” to no one in particular. After Tyler, a seventh-grader who got along well with Coach Grubb’s son, threw several wild pitches, one of which managed to land behind him, he threw up his hands and ran toward third.
“Coach, I think I’m getting the grip, but what about the release point?”
“Just throw it, kid.”
“Just throw it, kid. You got this.”
Tyler nodded and ran back to his catcher. He threw the next pitch so far outside that it was closer to Tim’s catcher than his own. Tyler looked at Tim, and then at Coach Grubb, and they all smiled. Even the catchers seemed to be enjoying the challenge, running around like dogs trying to fetch treats from their owners. When the pitchers and catchers swapped roles, the scene was no different. Baseballs darted over and under each other in all directions, catchers constantly got in and out of the crouch, and six kids’ faces were red with laughter.”Eat your heart out, Tom Emanski,” Coach Grubb thought.
“You were really coming along there with the sliders.” Coach Grubb asked Tyler when the hour-long practice ended. Coach Grubb knew Tyler was far from a master pitcher at this point, but he was a tall lefty, and with some practice and encouragement he’d be able to use his long arm to put some real sweep and velocity on the ball. “Was it fun?”
“Yeah, for sure. But my elbow hurts a little.”
“Have an extra piece of pizza, then. Cheese is good for the tendons.”
“Thanks, coach.” Tyler took another piece from the box on the dugout bench. “My dad’s here. I’ll see you Saturday.”
There was no game on Saturday. The next year, Coach Grubb’s son aged out of the program, so The Blue Team entered the Coach Harris era. Coach Harris made the team run laps around the warning track at the start of practice, and got spit in his mustache whenever he yelled. Tyler quit baseball after the first week and started tennis lessons, where he learned to slide his big, slicing lefty serve into the corner of the ad court.