Right Off the Bat
People always assumed I was going to be an umpire when I got older, like my dad and his dad. or teach at their umpire school, Behind the Plate. But the thing about umpires is, if they do their job well, they aren’t part of the story at all.
Not that I wanted to be part of the story. I never wanted to be a player. Or one of those statistics-obsessed fans.
I wanted to write about baseball, to report on it, to show how every game is unique, its own unpredictable story.
And now I could finally get started.
It would all begin today.
Three eighth-graders I didn’t know were shoving their way to the back of the bus. I ducked out of their way, sat down near the front, and looked out the window.
Middle school meant a school newspaper! I wasn’t too excited about the other back-to-school stuff, but I’d always known this was when my life as a reporter would begin. I could finally write for a newspaper! I wondered what my first article would be, what headline would be over my first byline: by Casey Snowden.
When the bus reached Zeke’s stop, he found me and practically sat on top of me as the bus lurched forward. I had kind of hoped he might take this opportunity—starting a new school—to make some changes. Like maybe remembering to brush his hair before he left the house. It always looked like a big pile of brown—not straight, not exactly curly, just big. I probably hadn’t remembered to brush mine either—but that’s easier to get away with when you have just plain straight hair.
Without even a quick hello, he started rambling on about some epic episode of That’sPETacular, where a kitten got stuck on a roof, and it was so hilarious, because there was a squirrel or something. It was one of those things that most people would realize wasn’t going to be funny when you tried to tell it, but Zeke wasn’t most people.
“And then at the end they made this announcement—I can’t believe no one thought of it before—but it is so cool, and I am so going to win.”
I was half listening as he rambled on about some new contest, called Your Show Here, where regular people submitted ideas for their own reality TV show. “Is that, like, an idea just made for me or what?” he said.
I couldn’t even imagine where his brain would lead him. Zeke had always been obsessed with reality TV. Or, to be more accurate, somehow being part of reality TV. And he had a kind of overactive and maybe a tiny bit insane imagination. it was entertaining, being his best friend, without a doubt. It was never boring.
When we were nine, he was absolutely convinced that our mailman was really the first host of That’sPETacular, Joey Collins. I’m guessing you’re ahead of me on this one—you probably already figured out that our mailman was not, in fact, Joey Collins. over time, I’d figured out that I shouldn’t believe everything Zeke said. But still, he was fun. And loyal. And we always found the same things funny (we were often the only ones laughing in a movie theater at any given time). Ninety-two percent of the time, I was glad he was my best friend.
We got off the bus, and when the school doors opened, we walked, with what felt like tens of thousands of other kids, inside. I pulled the orientation info out of my backpack—room 219. My homeroom.
As soon as the teacher had taken attendance, she let us go out to our lockers. I found mine, opened it, and hung my backpack up, after getting out the notebook I’d nabbed from the supply room at Behind the Plate last night. I closed the locker door and was about to head back to 219 when I noticed all the other kids were still turning their combination locks, some kicking at the locker or asking the kid next to them to help.
I guess most of them didn’t live on a campus with lockers all over the place. I helped some kid I didn’t know and these two girls, leah and Marley, who were in my class last year. They all acted like I was some kind of genius for knowing how to open a locker.
The whole first day was all about learning to use our lockers and finding our way through the halls and meeting our teachers and writing down the supplies we’d need and blah blah blahing. lunch was cool, I guess—it was good to see my friends again. But we got through the whole day without anyone even saying the word newspaper a single time.
On the afternoon bus, I was thinking about everything I’d missed by not being home today. I wasn’t there when the staff arrived for our annual five-week Umpire academy, and I felt like if this bus didn’t begin moving faster, I was going to jump off and start running.
Umpire academy started tomorrow. It was as close as I came to anything like a family reunion. I never thought much about being an only child, because every september, it felt like I had about a dozen big brothers. A lot of the staff had been working at BTP since before I could remember. Some had regular names—Joe Girardo, Lorenzo Watkins, Hank Lorsan—and some everyone knew by their nicknames—Soupcan, Steamboat, Bobbybo.
During the rest of the year, BTP hosted all sorts of different clinics and classes for umpires to improve their skills, but there was nothing like academy. It was the big one.
I couldn’t wait to see those guys.
The bus was way too hot. And smelly. At the first stop, it took FOREVER for three kids to grab their backpacks and get off the bus, then one kid realized he’d forgotten his jacket—who needed a jacket on a sunny, eighty-degree day?—so he got back on and off again. Everything was like that—slow motion.
Zeke and I jumped up when the bus got near my stop. The driver yelled, “Siddown! No standing till the bus is at a complete stop.” I tripped over Zeke and heard some snickers as we stumbled back to our seats like a pair of sixth-grade clowns.
When we finally got off the bus and rounded the corner, we jogged to the front gate, which was now left open, since academy was in session. We walked down the long driveway, all the brick buildings laid out ahead of us like a small college campus. There weren’t as many cars in the parking lot as there should have been. I didn’t see one with rhode island plates—steamboat must be running late.
We walked past the cafeteria and through the main building until we got to Mrs. G. (her last name had something like eleven syllables, and I wasn’t even sure she could pronounce it), who ran the front office. She kept her dyed-some-unnameable-shade-of-orange hair knotted up on top of her head and often stuck pencils, pens, and I’m not sure what else in there, too. She called all the students Honey, and she called me Baby, and she called Zeke Zeke. Today there was some little girl with her. She was young, maybe eight. Really pale, with long black hair.
“Baby,” Mrs. G. said, “this is my granddaughter, Sylvia.”
“Sly,” the girl said, embarrassed.
“Most people don’t call me Baby,” I said, embarrassed too. “I’m Casey.”
On Mrs. G.’s desk there had always been this picture with the name Sylvia written ...