Making the Team

by Monica M.

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Josiah and Buck strode through the library, their attention focused on Nathan who sat with his head already buried in a book even this early in the morning. While they were still several tables away, Buck could not contain himself any longer and called out, “Hey, Nate! Come on, it’s time!”

Nathan’s head jerked up in surprise, but as Buck’s words sunk in a wide smile crept across his face as he shut his books and gathered them up in his arms. Throwing a quick glance at his wristwatch, he frowned suddenly. “Wait, we’ve got plenty of time. Tryouts aren’t for another 30 minutes or so.”

Buck laughed out loud, receiving several harsh stares and shushing sounds from other early morning studiers. Turning around he smiled congenially at everyone and shrugged. He was far too excited about the promise of the morning to be worried about bothering anyone. They would get over it. “We know that. But Josiah here says that Chris was riled up this morning thinking that Ezra was gonna back out of the tryout for some reason. And since he and his dad talked Coach Hamilton into even letting Ezra try out, Chris is determined to make sure that he does.”

“I know Chris hasn’t been part of Ezra’s training so he hasn’t seen how hard he’s been working, but I still have to wonder why he thinks he won’t even try out,” Josiah stated with bemusement.

Buck turned around and grinned widely at the senior, his eyes saying all that needed to be said.

The senior sighed. “Why would you do that, Buck?”

Clasping the older boy on the shoulders, Buck laughed, “Because this is Ezra we are talking about and no one ever knows what’s going on in that boy’s head. So he might have just been working hard all week to make us all think he wants to make the team, but really he’s just conning us all.” Before either Josiah or Nathan could protest that Ezra would never get as sweaty and dirty as he had all week just to pull off a con that had no monetary gain, Buck continued, “Besides we’ve kept Chris and Ezra apart all week long so I figure we’re all due for some fireworks between them. It’s been too quiet.”

“Explosives are more like it and you just let the fuse,” Josiah heaved a sigh, saddened by that the fact that for once Ezra was going into a battle not of his own making, which was something of a rarity considering the number of fronts the younger boy seemed to be constantly battling on. He excelled at it, though, managing to keep track of each skirmish he instigated whether it was a prank for laughs or a ploy for money. Josiah doubted that Ezra would be hindered by Chris’ surprise attack, if anything he believed it would inspire the southerner. And that was what truly saddened the older teen. He believed that becoming part of the baseball team would be good for Ezra and he hated to see that being jeopardized by Buck’s prank. But there was nothing that could be done about it now except deal with the fallout.

“So where is Ezra now?” Nate asked in a transparent attempt to shift the subject a bit.

“With any luck,” Buck smugly grinned, “he’s running into Chris right about now. Come on, if we hurry we still might be able to catch the show!”

+ + + + + + +

Chris strode down the hallway and made a snap turn into the open door of Ezra and Vin’s room. His green eyes quickly scanned the room and fell on the lone occupant “Where is he?” he demanded.

Having just returned from his own search for the missing southerner, Vin was not in the frame of mind to deal with Chris’s mood. “Well he ain’t in here.”

Chris exhaled slowly through his nose. “I can see that,” he bit out. “Do you know where he might happen to be?”

The Texan tilted his head to the side. “Well he might be right behind you,” he stated, lips curving into a smile.

Chris whirled around and did indeed find Ezra standing behind him, mimicking his posture and trademark glare. The senior gave him a slight shove so that the younger boy stepped back into the hallway, giving Chris room to step around him. Ezra merely laughed as he regained his balance and faced Chris, waiting for his reaction. The older boy ignored the expectant look and said, “Alright, come on. You’re not getting out of this.”

A half smile crept up Ezra’s face as he slyly shook his head in mock dismay. “I’m wounded, Christopher. Deeply and horribly wounded.”

Chris quickly interrupted what he knew would be a lengthy discourse on the depth and magnitude of the anguish he caused Ezra by his lack of trust in him. “Well be glad it ain’t a mortal wound.” He paused briefly. “Yet!” Then not giving Ezra an opportunity to retort, Chris grabbed his arm and starting hauling him down the hallway toward the stairwell. Vin, trying to contain his laughter as he poked his head out the doorway, called out, “I’ll get the others and we’ll all see y’all over at the field.”

Chris threw a wave over his shoulder at Vin as the only sign that he heard the younger boy. Ezra, meanwhile, finally managed to pull himself free of the older teen’s grip and sighed, “Oh how lovely, an audience.”

The senior smirked at him as he followed the southerner closely down the stairs. “Your own fault. You’re the one who makes everything into a show.” Chris could tell by the movement of his head that Ezra was once again mimicking him. The only thing that stopped him from slapping the back of the chestnut haired head was the thought that it might throw him off balance and make him fall down the stairs. And the last thing Chris wanted to do was provide any kind of excuse for the sophomore to get out of his tryout.

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After a trip to his room to make sure that Ezra had not left any equipment he might need, Vin found the others already coming up the stairs to get him. “Where’s J.D.?” he asked.

Buck laughed. “The kid said he was gonna get us the best seats in the bleachers. He doesn’t want to miss a thing. The most important question is, where’s Ezra?”

Vin ducked his head as he laughed. “Chris already came and collected him.”

“Damn! I shoulda known that that ol’ boy would make sure he got that sneak over there!” Buck cursed. “And I missed it.”

“You didn’t miss much,” Vin stated as they began hustling down the stairs. “Well except for Ezra’s pretty good imitation of Chris.”

“Ah, I’ve seen Ez’s glare. He doesn’t have the same kind of wattage Chris does,” Buck shrugged it off, but then added, “Besides, I bet we’ll be seeing plenty more of them from both of them before the day is over.”

+ + + + + + +

Coach Hamilton walked down the length of the dugout receiving a nod of greeting from his assistant coach, Garner. But the smaller man’s eyes shifted immediately back out toward the bleachers. Curious to see what held his attention Hamilton followed his gaze and was surprised to see five boys sitting out in the bleachers. “What are they doing out there?”

“My guess…watching.”

Knowing that his sarcasm would be lost on the other coach, Hamilton simply rolled his eyes. “I can see that. I just didn’t think our personal tryout for Standish would earn this much attention.”

Garner’s eyes slid sideways at his boss. “Those seven are thick as thieves or have you already forgotten about the ‘Magnificent Seven’?”

“Seven?” Hamilton recounted the boys on the bleachers and started to say that Garner needed to get his vision checked when he saw the two other boys walking across the field toward the dugout. The coach immediately recognized Chris Larabee even though the young man was dressed head to toe in black instead of his familiar Regents Lions baseball uniform. There was no mistaking his purposeful stride since Hamilton saw it every time the pitcher walked off and on the pitcher’s mound during games.

Right now Chris was practically pulling along a smaller teen who was struggling to keep up with Chris’ longer strides especially since he was lugging a full equipment bag over one shoulder. Hamilton took the opportunity to size up his potential player. Like all the teachers at Regents he knew of Ezra Standish having heard and seen enough of the teen along with the other six who were known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ ever since they thwarted the terrorist attack on the school. What he had heard about the southerner made Hamilton worry about an attitude problem. But he had coached teenagers for a long time and had dealt with his fair share of attitude problems and knew that if the talent was there, the attitude could be adjusted. So he always reserved judgment until he saw the player in person and was able to appraise his ability then.

So far he was not overly impressed with Standish. The boy was moving clumsily, practically tripping over his own feet and the equipment bag kept falling off his shoulder. He looked to be a little smaller than average height for his age but had a good build for an infielder. And Hamilton was looking for a backup shortstop for his Varsity team. That’s why it was him, and not Coach Gaetti of the Junior Varsity team, giving Standish this tryout. If he did not like him, he would let Gaetti know if the kid was worth his time or not.

Hamilton might have written Standish off before the sophomore even made it to the dugout if it had not of been for the way he tripped Larabee. The move was so smooth that anyone not scrutinizing the teenager carefully would have thought it was a complete accident that Larabee ended up with his face planted into the infield grass. But Hamilton saw the sly way Standish let the equipment bag fall off his shoulder one more time throwing him off balance enough that he stumbled into Chris. The pitcher would have recovered from that but Ezra deftly slipped a foot into the path of Chris’ feet and brought the older teen down. The tell to Hamilton was the fact that Standish did not fall as well. Instead he picked the bag back up on his shoulder and continued walking with a slight cockiness to his gait that had not been there before.

Ignoring the loud gasps interspersed with bellows of laughter from the boys in the bleachers, Hamilton stated, “He did that on purpose.”

Garner nodded toward a furious Larabee who was sputtering as he pushed himself to his feet. “He’s got a death wish.”

“He’s got guts.” Hamilton watched as Ezra almost imperceptibly increased his pace so that he would be in the dugout before Chris could catch up to him. “And brains. I like that in a player.”

“I like a player who can play,” Garner insisted quietly so as not to be overheard by Ezra as he walked into the dugout.

Hamilton pointed at himself and mouthed the words ‘head coach’ then pointed at Garner and mouthed ‘assistant coach.” The smaller man rolled his eyes but made no other comment as he turned with the head coach to greet the teenager.

Ezra dropped the equipment bag to the dugout floor and gave the two coaches his widest grin. Enthusiasm oozed from every pore of the sophomore. “Thank you so very much for giving me this opportunity, Coach Hamilton, Coach Garner. I really can’t tell you…”

The coaches did not get to hear what the teen could not tell them as Chris walked into the dugout. The senior was livid but caught the warning look from his coach and managed to restrain himself to just knocking shoulders with Ezra sending him off balance.

“Coach Garner, why don’t you take Standish here out on the field and get him warmed up. Then we’ll get in some fielding practice and see how he does.”

The other coach nodded. “Grab your gear, Standish. Let’s go.”

Following Garner out of the dugout Ezra smiled to himself. Things were going very well so far. He only wished that the others were not out there watching. They would know if he were holding back or purposefully throwing off his game. Glancing over his shoulder, the southerner caught another glare from Chris and decided that he would just tell the others that he had not slept well, which Vin would validate, and Chris’ intimidation just really threw him off. Yes, he was sure he could spin all that in his favor. Maybe he would even earn the sympathy from the other boys while making Chris into the bad guy.

He ran through a few stretches and a bit of easy toss with Garner before Hamilton walked out toward home plate with a bucket of balls and a bat. Chris, looking none too pleased, remained seated on the bench in the dugout his arms folded across his chest.

“Alright, Standish, get over to your position and let’s see what you got,” the coach yelled at him.

Pulling the Houston Astros baseball cap that he had borrowed from Vin down tight against his head, Ezra trotted over to stand between second and third base. From the bleachers the boys yelled in unison, “Go get ‘em, Ezra!”

Guilt washed over the southerner as he heard their unbridled enthusiasm and confidence in him. He knew they would be disappointed by his failure and again wavered on his decision to not make the team. As he warred with himself on what he should, Ezra did not pay close attention to what Couch Hamilton was doing. His attention directed inward, the southerner stood loosely out on the field, his feet shoulder width apart, his knees slightly bent, and his gloved hand up. It was simply the natural position for him out there on the baseball field. It was only the sharp ping of the aluminum bat hitting the baseball that the coach had tossed up into the air that brought Ezra’s focus back to where he was at the moment. Having been distracted the teenager reacted instinctively as the baseball sped just to the left of where he stood.

Tracking the speeding baseball, the southerner took a cross step with his right foot while diving down with his upper body, his gloved right hand outstretched for the catch. Once the ball smacked into the leather glove he used his momentum to pivot on his now planted right foot so that as he straightened back up he was in the perfect position to throw the ball over to Coach Garner who now stood at first base.

A smattering of applause came from the bleachers as Hamilton gave a slight, impressed nod over toward Ezra. But the sophomore’s eyes drifted back toward the dugout where Chris now stood, a look of amazement in his eyes. Realizing he was being watched the blond sat back down but not before muttering something that Ezra lip read as either a dismissive, “Fluke” or a vehement curse.

“Not bad, Standish,” Hamilton called out. “I was just trying to get your attention, didn’t think you were gonna snag it. So let’s see what else you’ve got.” Ezra cursed inwardly. That had not been a part of his plans at all. He put on his best surprised and innocent look as he shrugged back at the coach.

Hamilton proceeded to hit a volley of balls in Ezra’s direction. The coach mixed in line drives, pop ups and grounders to watch how the sophomore responded to them all. Though he made several of the plays, he never again showed the fluidity of movement that he had shown on the first catch. It was as if he were holding back and Hamilton could not understand why. He had talked with Clint Larabee and learned that the boy had been an All-star when he played Little League. The cop had explained that Ezra stopped playing baseball after the death of his father but that he felt he needed to get back into the sport. The coach had been surprised by a visit from Dean Parker who had not been so subtle in suggesting that he put Ezra on the team so that the young man could learn the value of teamwork and discipline.

Coach Hamilton started to put everything together. Obviously the authority figures in Standish’s life were tying to get the teen to fall into line and he was trying to rebel against them by not doing well on his tryout. And Hamilton could actually sympathize. No one liked being forced into doing something they did not want to do. The thing was that as hard as he was trying to hide it, Standish wanted to do this, wanted to play ball. Hamilton had been a coach for too long not to see the signs so he decided to take a gamble.

He hit one more slow grounder out to the sophomore and hid a smile as the teenager refused to charge the ball letting it slowly roll out to him. “Larabee!” Hamilton yelled at his pitcher still sitting in the dugout.

As Chris trotted over to join him at home plate Coach Hamilton saw a brief, but bright flash of concern cover the southerner’s face. Standish started to walk back in, but Hamilton motioned for him to stay out. “Go pick up all those balls you missed!” he ordered.

“What do you think?” Hamilton asked. “If you were me, would you put Standish on the team?”

Larabee answered quickly, “No.”

“Why not?” the coach challenged.

Chris glanced out to where Ezra was sluggishly picking up the baseballs that littered the field. The senior paused, trying to pick his words carefully. He did not want Hamilton to know that he just did not want Standish on the team because he did not want to deal with him. “Look at him, Coach, he doesn’t have any motivation.”

Hamilton watched as Ezra spent several minutes, much to the amusement of his friends in the bleachers, picking up one ball only to drop two others in the process. The southerner continued those antics making his task never ending. “But he’s a good ball player.”

”I didn’t see that. He was lazy and sloppy out there.”

To Chris’ surprise Hamilton agreed, “You’re right. But I think all that was for show. He’s got talent. I can see it. But like you say he’s lacking in the motivation department.”

“So you’re not gonna put him on the team?” Chris couldn’t hide the pleased look on his face.

“I didn’t say that. You see, son, if you ever want to be a good leader you need to learn how to motivate people. You’re not always going to be able to choose who you work with. So you’ve got to find what will motivate them and use it to your advantage.”

“So what are you saying?” Chris asked warily.

“I haven’t made up my mind about Standish yet. I want to see how he bats first. In fact, I want to see how he bats against you.”

“You want me to pitch to Ezra?” Chris’ amazement was short lived as it was quickly replaced with anticipation.

“That’s right. Pitch to him not throw at him,” Hamilton stated to quash any notion that Larabee might have of hitting the sophomore with a pitch.

“Don’t take all the fun out of it,” Chris joked with his coach.

“Go get your gear,” the older man responded gruffly. “And take Garner with you so he can catch as you warm up. I’ll keep Standish busy with more fielding practice until you’re ready.”

The senior nodded before jogging out to Garner at first base to relay Hamilton’s request. The assistant coach raised his eyes back towards the dugout for confirmation and after receiving it followed Chris to the locker room where they could gather the equipment they would need.

Over in the bleachers J.D. voiced the question that they were all thinking. “Where do you think Chris is going?”

None of them answered the question though a couple of them had a suspicion that they knew and they did not think it bode well for Ezra.

“I’d rather know why Ez ain’t playing the way we know he can,” Buck stated. Like the others he had been dismayed to see the sophomore miss play after play that he had made easily while they were training.

Unknowingly Vin responded just the way his roommate hoped he would. “I don’t think he slept at all last night.”

“He was worried about making the team?” Josiah asked.

”I guess. Can’t imagine anything else keeping Ezra from sleeping.”

“But it don’t even look like he’s trying!” Buck pointed out with frustration.

“Maybe we worked him too hard all this week and now he doesn’t have anything left,” Nathan offered as an explanation.

Josiah nodded his head accepting the possibility but Vin remained skeptical. He did not tell the others about Ezra going missing when he came back from his morning run. He had not had a chance to ask his roommate where he had gone during that time, but Vin suspected that he had slipped off somewhere to do some thinking. And the Texan really thought that Ezra was over-thinking the whole thing and really hoped that he was not about to ruin his chances for no good reason.

“Come on, Ezra!” Buck stood up and yelled. “Show ‘em what you can really do!” The other boys all added in their shouts of encouragement.

Out on the field Ezra only half-heartedly acknowledged the others shouts with a weak wave and grin. He did not dare meet any of their eyes even over the distance of the baseball diamond. He told himself it was because he did not want to see their belief in him shining in their eyes. But deep down he knew he could not meet their eyes because he knew he was letting them down.

But he did not allow himself to dwell on that for too long. His thoughts kept turning back to the short discussion that Coach Hamilton had with Chris at home plate. He needed to know where Chris had gone with Coach Garner and why the senior had thrown a look over at Ezra that seemed to say you’re gonna regret this.

“Alright, Standish!” Hamilton ordered, “Get back in position. Let’s try more pop-ups and see if you can at least catch a couple of them.”

Ezra sighed heavily as he returned to his shortstop position. He had hoped that the coach would move on to batting practice so that he could get this tryout over with. That way he could deal with the fallout from his not making the team and then move on. It was almost as if Hamilton were purposefully prolonging his agony. But the southerner was determined to see his plan through regardless of what the coach threw at him.

It was about thirty minutes later that Hamilton finally called Ezra in for batting practice. The sophomore jogged over to his equipment bag and tossed his glove inside before removing his batting helmet, batting gloves, and bat. As he stood up his eyes drifted back over to the bleachers and what he first saw there made him freeze. There was a sixth person sitting with the others and when Ezra’s eyes first fell on him all he saw was the Atlanta Braves hat that sat on his head. The teenager could not stop the leap that his heart made in believing, if only for an instant, that it was his father who sat there. His first coherent thought was that when he had asked for a sign he had not expected such a clear one. But as he took a step toward the bleachers he immediately realized his mistake. His eyes had focused completely on the baseball cap and so had looked over the sheriff’s uniform that the man was wearing. It was Clint Larabee who had now joined his friends on the bleachers.

What Ezra could not understand was why the man was wearing the Braves baseball cap. Then he remembered that back when Clint had first taken the boys on a fishing trip Ezra had told him that they were his favorite team. Still he had to wonder what had made the cop actually wear the cap. Was it just the man’s own idea of a good way to show support or was this the true sign that he had asked for from his father? All of the emotions that he thought he had control of suddenly overwhelmed him. But he managed to take a deep breath and calm himself.

His poker face was back in place only to be lost seconds later as Chris emerged from the bullpen and strode over to the pitching mound. This second shock in quick succession was too much for him as his jaw dropped open and his eyes widened. “What is he doing?” he asked Coach Hamilton accusingly.

The coach grinned and rubbed his right shoulder. “My arm’s a little sore so I asked Larabee to do some batting practice pitching.”

Ezra wanted to protest further but could see the amusement in the older man’s face and knew that Hamilton was enjoying his discomfort. Instead he donned his batting helmet, took his time putting on his batting gloves, shouldered his bat and walked over to home plate. The southerner ignored Coach Garner who squatted behind the plate in full catcher gear. He took a few practice swings from the right side of the plate and dug into the dirt until he was comfortable in his stance. The entire time he refused to even look in Chris’ direction.

“Oh now this is getting good!” Like the others Buck now stood on his feet as they watched Chris and Ezra face off on the baseball diamond. The only difference was that the junior was enjoying it while the others were watching with deep concern.

“I’ll admit,” Clint whispered as he leaned close to Vin’s ear, “that I don’t know all that much about baseball. But if Ezra’s a switch hitter wouldn’t he stand a better chance against Chris if he batted from the left?”

Vin did not take his eyes off the southerner in the batter’s box as he nodded. “Maybe he just feels more comfortable on the right. He didn’t do a lot of batting from the left.”

Clint accepted that answer but had to wonder what Coach Hamilton was thinking by pitting those two against each other.

“Alright, Standish,” the coach said as he, dressed with a chest protector and a catcher’s mask, stepped behind Garner, “let’s see what you’ve got. Play ball!”

Up on the pitcher’s mound Chris forgot for a moment that it was Ezra standing in front of him. Instead he got lost, as he always did, into the game. Up here there was nothing but him, the baseball, and the strike zone that was his target. That changed though, when the southerner kept his bat shouldered, not even trying to get a hit off his first couple of pitches.

Anger flooded Chris, but here on the pitcher’s mound he could focus that fury into his pitching. The senior remembered Hamilton’s words about motivation and how sometimes you had to find the right thing to motivate people. Well he was about to see if he could find what motivated Ezra.

For his part Ezra was not sure what he was doing as he stood in the batter’s box and kept his bat on his shoulder. He was still thinking about how Clint was out there wearing a Braves cap when he was not supposed to even be here at all. What bothered him most was the fact that even after realizing that it was just Clint out there, Ezra still wanted to make him proud, wanted to impress him. Maybe that was why he was just standing there. Because if he tried even a little bit, he just might do his best to make the team. And he would be making the team for Clint.

As he stood there trying to sort through the tumult of emotions that assaulted him, Ezra barely registered the pitches that Chris threw. He did not even hear the loud thwack of the ball hitting Garner’s mitt or Hamilton calling them strikes. But on the fourth or fifth pitch, the sophomore became all too aware of the baseball as it came speeding toward his head. He dove out of the path of the ball dropping into the dirt as Garner stood to catch the ball that was well out of the strike zone.

“Larabee!” Hamilton warned as he watched Ezra slowly get up. Chris shook off his coach and kept his intense green gaze locked on the sophomore.

As he got to his feet, Ezra met and held Chris’ gaze, his own green eyes burning just as intently. He forgot everything else now. Everything except that he was a batter facing a hard throwing pitcher. Still keeping his eyes locked on Chris, he brushed off the dirt before moving to the left side of the plate. He dug in again and took a few more practice swings from this side.

Out on the mound, Chris grinned behind his glove. He had gotten Ezra’s attention and now the southerner was going to play ball. He wasn’t sure what the younger teen had been up to earlier, but he knew that his mind was not on baseball.

Ezra swung hard at the next pitch but his timing was off. He took a moment to twist his foot into the dirt of the batter’s box to get better footing. He connected with the next pitch but just barely as he popped it up into foul territory.

“Give him something to hit!” Hamilton ordered.

“Don’t do me any favors!” Ezra called after angrily.

“Doesn’t matter anyway! I’m gonna throw these next few straight down the strike zone and I know you still won’t be able to hit ‘em.”

Chris was right with the first pitch as Ezra was so angry that he swung blindly. But seeing the blond senior laugh at his inept swing forced him to take a calming breath. He let the next pitch go by, watching it and timing it carefully. He connected solidly with the next pitch and sent the ball flying back over Chris’ head and into fair territory in the outfield.

“Not bad, Standish,” Hamilton stated. “Not bad at all.” But Ezra did not even hear him. Instead he exulted in the look of disbelief that briefly crossed Chris’ face. “But if you get another hit,” the coach continued after insuring that he had the sophomore’s attention, “I want to see you run to first.”

Ezra nodded and again dug into the batter’s box. He had a feeling that Chris was not going to serve up any more pitches to hit. Instead the senior was going to make him work for a hit just like he did every opponent he faced when on the mound. But that was all right with the southerner. He could be just as, if not more, competitive as Chris.

After several pitches it became evident to Coach Hamilton that his pitcher was doing his best to make sure that Standish could not get another hit. Larabee was showing more speed on his fastball than he had shown last year and was mixing in an off-speed pitch and curveball that the sophomore was just not ready for yet. Hamilton actually thought that if Chris could stay in this kind of form throughout the season that they just might have a chance for the division title this year. And if it took Standish to motivate Larabee to pitch this way than Hamilton would not have a problem putting him on his team.

The coach called time and walked halfway out to the pitcher’s mound. Turning sideways so that he could include both pitcher and batter in his line of sight he said, “Alright, boys, you’ve both made your point. Larabee, you got to knock the rookie into the dirt. And, Standish, you managed to get a solid hit off of the ace’s fastball. Good for both of you. But now I need to see some batting practice. So, Larabee, save the good stuff for your first game and just throw it in so he can hit it. And, Standish, no more slacking off from you. Don’t think I don’t know that you didn’t give me one hundred percent out on the field. That just means that the next couple of practices you’re gonna give me a hundred and fifty percent!”

It registered with Chris first because it was the last thing that he wanted to happen. “Wait! Coach, are you saying that you’re putting him on the team?”

Hamilton grinned, most pleased with himself. “Yep, that’s what I’m saying. Now throw him some pitches that he can hit so I can get a good idea on what I’m gonna have to work with him on.”

He walked back behind Garner, leaving Ezra and Chris to again lock green eyes. A warning glint touched the senior’s but smugness filled the sophomore’s. Even though he had spent the morning wracked with misgivings about making the team Ezra could not deny that he was extremely happy to learn that he had made it. Now that it was a certainty it felt right and he could no longer deny that. He grinned at Chris making the blond shake his head to hide the flicker of a smile that touched one corner of his lips. For one minute even the senior was caught up in the genuine joy that that was shining from the southerner. But he quickly grew somber once more.

“Get in the box, Ezra, so I can feed you some easy pitches!”

He had gone through too much this day to let Chris ruin his mood now. Besides there would be a whole baseball season that would give him ample opportunity to harass the senior. His dimples flashed at the thought as he readied himself for the next pitch.

After Ezra got a few more hits off Chris and ran the bases a bit, Hamilton finally called a halt to the tryout. The coach confirmed that the sophomore made the team by telling him to meet with him Monday after his classes so that they could go through the paperwork and such. Ezra thanked both coaches far more sincerely than he had at the beginning of the tryouts.

After gathering his equipment and helping to clean up the field, Ezra was surprised to see that Chris had hung around in the dugout instead of going over to join their friends and his dad. The senior answered his unasked question, “I figured you’d want to tell them yourself and they’d just keep pestering me until I told them something.”

“Thank you.” Their eyes met again with a grudging understanding.

Ezra shouldered his equipment bag and grinned as he made his way over to his anxiously waiting friends. It did not even bother him that as soon as he got close enough to them they read him like a book. Vin’s eagle eyes saw it first as his grin gave way to a whoop of celebration. The others soon followed suit as they rushed him from the bleachers, stealing the cap he wore and tousling his hair and pounding him on the back. And he did not mind at all. But he did have a reputation to keep so he pushed at their hands and swung his bag around to keep them at bay.

“I knew you could do it!” Buck laughed getting in one last, hearty backslap before Clint stepped up and shooed them away from Ezra.

The cop regarded the teenager for a moment before smiling widely. “I knew you could do it, too,” he stated in a low, but proud, voice. In a rare show of awkwardness Ezra dropped his gaze, hiding his own dimpled smile.

Vin started to put the Astros cap back on Ezra’s head but Clint stopped him. He took the Braves cap off his own head and mashed it down on Ezra with a laugh. “I was hoping to give that to you for luck before your tryout. But I see Vin loaned you some of his luck.”

Ezra nodded. “I was wondering why you were wearing that.”

“Since I was late I decided that I’d wear it for luck instead.”

The southerner was grateful that there was such a mundane reason for Clint to be wearing the cap. Still he knew he could not dismiss the sign that the cop remembered that the Braves were his favorite team. It was enough for him to be satisfied that things had played out as they should and that he was meant to make the baseball team.

“Well I’ve got to get back to work. I had to pull a few strings to get here. But I think we should celebrate a little later over at Beatrice’s house.”

As the other boys expressed how much they liked that idea, Buck turned a confused look on Clint. “Does my mom know about that?”

“Come to think of it…no she doesn’t. You better call her and let her know.” Clint’s grin was positively triumphant. It was a small thing and not at all the end of the retribution he planned for Beatrice for getting him involved in these things. But for now the irritation this would cause her made him happy. “Oh and you better tell her that she’ll have to come by and pick up Ezra so he can get off campus. I’ve got to work late and we can’t have the man of honor miss his own celebration.”

Shaking his head Buck laughed. “She’s gonna kill you!”

“Nah. She owes me and she knows it,” Clint countered.

Before he walked away the cop clapped Ezra on the shoulder one last time. Then he motioned for his son to follow him back over to his cruiser. “I wanted to thank you,” Clint stated as soon as they were out of earshot.

“I didn’t do anything. When Coach asked me if I’d put Ezra on the team I told him no.”

“Oh I know you didn’t want him on the team and I can understand that. I was saying thank you for not beaning him with the baseball when you had the chance.”

“It wasn’t for lack of trying,” Chris joked.

“If you had wanted to hurt him, I know you could have easily. I know it’s not gonna be easy having him on the team. But I wanted you to know that I appreciated that you gave him a chance.”

Unable to meet the other’s eyes they stood in silence for a moment. Finally Clint said, “Well I better get back.”

“See ya tonight, Dad.” With those words Chris looked his father in the eyes meaningfully.

“See ya tonight,” Clint echoed before getting into the cruiser. He felt even happier now than he did when he realized Ezra had made the team. He and Chris were still not able to verbalize how they felt, but he had caught his son’s look and knew that things were okay between them. He had never had a chance all week to talk to Chris about what he thought about his helping Ezra make the team. He knew his son was still unsure about what to make of the situation but that he would deal with it. And that was all that Clint could ask for.

+ + + + + + +

Beatrice Wilmington yelled through her front door, “Give me one good reason why I should let you in, Clint Larabee!”

His answering laughter was muffled through the thick wood of the door before he yelled back, “Well I was gonna take the boys back to school tonight, but if you want them to stay over, I can leave.”

Before he could even turn around the front door was whipped open. “Well then come right in,” Beatrice sang sweetly.

Clint brushed past her. “You know you didn’t have anything better to do tonight.”

“It’s Saturday night, I always have something better to do than host seven teenagers,” she responded with a toss of her hair.

“You were the one who wanted him to make the team. How could I leave you out of the celebration?” He responded with a sly grin. The grin widened as she for once did not have an immediate retort. Instead she spun on her heel and started down the hallway leaving him behind.

“I hope that if there’s any pizza even left, that it’s all cold,” she managed to huff as he followed her.

“Oh yeah, ‘cause I’ve never had cold pizza in my life.” His sarcasm was equally mixed with his laughter.

She stopped suddenly and turned to face him, her blue eyes warm and filled with sincerity. “Thank you, Clint, for making this happen. I think it means more to Ezra than we’ll ever realize. I’ve already noticed that he seems more at ease with the others than he usually is. I think this made him feel more a part of ‘their’ team somehow.”

“Well he needs to be part of something other than trouble,” he answered.

“That’s true of all males,” she countered.

“And you wouldn’t have us any other way,” he taunted. “You like the bad boys.”

She smiled unapologetically. “I do indeed.”

“You know, you need something to keep you out of trouble!”

“Something or someone?” she challenged.

Choosing a tactical retreat Clint walked into the kitchen. Beatrice would have followed him in to continue their sparring but she saw Ezra was refreshing his drink and decided to give him and Clint a moment. So she went into the game room to see what the other boys were up to.

“Cli..” Ezra shook his head slightly as he caught himself being too familiar with the cop. “Mr…” He heaved a sigh at his second mistake and finally greeted, “Officer Larabee.”

“You were right the first time, Ezra. All the other boys call me Clint.”

“It just does not seem proper,” the teenager responded shifting his gaze to the glass in his hand.

Clint shrugged knowing that the southerner was trying to hide the fact that he was uncomfortable being overly familiar with him. He knew it was hard for Ezra to let people close and the cop could appreciate that. He and Chris were the same way. Clint felt his blood go cold as he realized that it meant that there were similarities between Ezra and him and his son. It was not something he would ever admit out loud.

“I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done to help me make the team.” His voice was low and his eyes remained averted.

“You did all the hard work, Ezra. I just nudged you in the right direction. But in the end it was all up to you. And you did the right thing.”

Pale green eyes shot up and met Clint’s. Ezra wondered if the cop somehow knew how close he had come to throwing away his chance at the tryout. Seeing nothing but conviction in the older man’s eyes, the sophomore decided that even if Clint knew he would not share that knowledge with anyone else.

Dimples flashed devilishly. “I promise not to make a habit of that.”

“Oh now that’s one promise that I know you’ll keep.” Clint laughed and tousled Ezra’s hair roughly. “Now come on, let’s go see what your cohorts in crime have gotten up to.”

Ezra followed Clint into the game room that was filled with the laughter and high spirits of his friends. It was a reminder to the southerner that while he had made the Varsity baseball team, this was the ‘team’ he cared the most about. He could no longer deny to himself that these six were his friends. They had done everything they could to help him succeed despite his own attempts to sabotage himself. For the first time Ezra realized that was why friendships like the ones he shared with these six were so important. They made you be more than you ever could on your own. He laughed to himself as he realized that the old cliché was true; there was no ‘I’ in team. The southern sophomore thought smugly, There may be no I in team but there should always be one rebel in every group.


Continues in Pickoff Moves