September 5, 1953
Dancer Stonemason drove through Maple Springs headed for Rolla. His left hand rested gentle on the steering wheel, and in his pitching hand he held a baseball – loose and easy – like he was shooting craps. The ball took the edge off the queasy feeling he got on game days. His son, Clayton, sat beside him and made sputtering engine noises as he gripped an imaginary steering wheel, while Dede, Dancer’s wife, stared out the window with other things on her mind.
They cruised down Main Street, past the Tastee-Freeze and Dabney’s Esso Station and the Post Office and the First National Bank of Maple Springs and Crutchfield’s General Store. At the town’s only traffic light, he turned left toward the highway. At the edge of town they passed the colored Baptist Church with its neatly-tended grid of white crosses and gravestones under a gnarled willow. The graveyard reminded him of the cemetery up north, near Festus, where his mother was buried with the rest of the Dancer family. She’d been gone fifteen years now and some days Dancer had trouble remembering what she looked like.
Across from the Baptists, A-1 Auto Parts blanketed the landscape with acres of junked automobiles. His father’s Buick was out there somewhere. Walt Stonemason had been a whisky-runner for Cecil Danforth. He knew every back road and trail in southern Missouri and there wasn’t a revenue agent in the state who could catch him.
At his father’s funeral Cecil told Dancer that Walt was the best damn whiskey runner he ever had. Dancer wanted to ask Cecil if his dad was so damn good how’d he manage to run that Roadmaster smack into a walnut tree with no one chasing him. But Dancer knew better than to ask Cecil those kinds of questions.
They turned north onto Highway 60, and the ’39 Chevy coughed and bucked as he shifted into third. As he cruised north, Dancer’s fingers glided over the smooth cowhide of the baseball as he read the seams and adjusted his grip from fastball, to curveball, to changeup. He had a hand built for pitching – a pancake-sized palm and long, tapered fingers that hid the ball from the batter for that extra heartbeat.
It was the Saturday before Labor Day, and Dancer’s team, the Rolla Rebels, was hosting the Joplin Miners. Rolla was only an hour’s drive from Maple Springs, but Dancer had his family on the road early. This was going to be a special game. Not for his team – the Rebels were in third place going nowhere – but because today would be Clayton’s first baseball game. The first time he’d see his dad pitch. Dancer was eight when his mom got sick. He went to live with Cecil’s brother Clem and his wife Ruthie. They had nine kids so one more didn’t matter much. One day in late May his dad showed up at the schoolhouse and told Dancer they were going up to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play.
The Cardinals’ stadium was packed with more people than Dancer had seen in his whole life. They sat in the upper deck behind home plate. Dizzy Dean pitched for the Cardinals and the crowd cheered madly every time he took the mound. In his last at bat he hit a foul ball that was headed straight for Dancer. He stood and cupped his hands to catch it, but at the last moment the man in front of him leaped up to catch the ball. It splatted against his palms and the man yelped as the baseball rolled into the aisle. The usher retrieved the ball and handed it to Dancer.
Dancer fell asleep on the ride home. He woke up when his father stopped the car in front of Grandpa Dancer’s house. His father told him that his mom had passed, but Dancer already knew.
The hot-towel Missouri heat, which had suffocated them through July and August, had finally retreated to Arkansas. A few wispy clouds hung on the horizon, and the air was light and fresh. Dede’s head lolled backwards, her eyes closed as she let the cool wind from the open window billow her white cotton dress. She only wore that dress to church and on special occasions. It didn’t get much use.
Her short blonde hair, which wrapped around her ears and curled down the nape of her neck, was still damp from her morning shower. As Dancer had attempted to shave, she flung open the shower curtain and wiggled her ass, letting the hot water pelt her breasts. “Soap me, honey. Do my back,” she said.
“You’re getting water on the floor,” Dancer said.
She glanced over her shoulder at him. “If I squint really hard, you look just like Gary Cooper.”
“He’s taller. Close the curtain.”
Water was pooling on the floor. Dancer took the washcloth and soaped her back and her little butt. As he brought his hand up between her legs, she reached around and slipped her hand into his boxer shorts.
“Come on in, the water’s fine,” she said.
Dede knew he couldn’t fool around on game day, but she didn’t care. She could never get enough, and now they had a problem.
Traffic was light, and Dancer had the Chevy cruising along at close to sixty. Beside him, Clayton pressed his foot down on a phantom gas pedal, and his sputtering engine revved into a high-pitched whine. He drove hard, just like his whiskey-running grandfather. He reminded Dancer of his father. The wheat-colored hair, the dirt tan, and the need to race everywhere even when there was no place to go.
Dancer glanced over at Dede. She had a crooked mouth and a gap between her two front teeth that he hadn’t noticed when they first met because of her eyes. Her eyes were big, wild, and crazy-blue. They had met when Dancer was a senior. Even though she was two years younger, she had been the one to make the first move. He’d never been with another girl, but Dede made it easy. She knew too much for a fifteen-year-old.
But now, with her face half-covered by her wind-tossed hair, she appeared so innocent. She didn’t look like she was two months pregnant. Her belly was still flat, and her breasts hadn’t swelled, not like they had when Clayton was on his way.
Maybe the doctor was wrong.
After Clayton was born, Dancer had found an offseason job at the Caterpillar plant – parts inspector – a dollar an hour and boring as hell. He wasn’t cut out for factory work, but they needed the money. When he moved up to the Rolla Rebels, the pay was better, and he thought he’d be done with the factory, but Dede fell in love with the red brick house on the hill east of town. So they bought the house, and then he had a wife, a baby, a house, a mortgage, and another offseason back in the factory inspecting parts. And now with a new baby on the way, he’d have to work overtime just for them to survive.
“Hey Dad, is that the ballpark?” Clayton asked. He pointed at a well-groomed Little League field that was in a clearing surrounded by spruce and poplars.
“No. It’s just over the hill, beyond the fairgrounds.”
Mr. Seymour Crutchfield, the owner of the Rebels, was a merchant. His father had built a general store in downtown Maple Springs fifty years ago, and Seymour had taken the idea of that general store and built stores all over Missouri and Arkansas. When he expanded into Rolla, he bought the Rolla Rebels baseball team because their stadium was sitting on the land he wanted to develop. He built his store, renamed the stadium, and hired his son-in-law, Doc Evans, to manage the team.
Clayton creased the brim of the Cardinals cap Dancer had given him and leaned forward in his seat to get a better look. The hat was several sizes too big, so Dede had bobby-pinned the back so it would stay on.
“Are you going to strike them all out, Dad?”
“Your daddy can’t strike everyone out. He’s not Superman,” Dede said. She winked at Dancer.
Dancer squeezed the ball into Clayton’s small hands. “I’m going to try.”
As they crossed into Phelps County and the outskirts of Rolla, the woods and small lakes that had lined the highway for the last twenty miles gave way to cheap motels, filling stations, and car dealerships. The Phelps County Fairgrounds, with its huge parking lot and grandstand, stretched along the east side of the highway for nearly half a mile. Beyond the fairgrounds and next to the brand new Crutchfield General Store was Crutchfield Stadium, home of the Rolla Rebels.
Dancer pulled the car up to the box office. “They’ll have your tickets here. See you after the game.”
“Not so fast, mister,” Dede said. She leaned across Clayton and kissed Dancer hard on the lips.
“Mom, you’re squishing me,” Clayton said.
As they slid out of the car, Dede leaned back in the window. “Now don’t wear yourself out,” she said. And then she giggled and skipped away with Clayton to pick up their tickets.
Dancer parked close to the centerfield gate where all the players entered the ballpark. In centerfield, Mr. Seymour Crutchfield, looking like an undertaker in his black wool suit and bow-tie, was shouting directions to one of the Negro groundskeepers who was on a ladder applying a patch to the Crutchfield General Store sign that covered twenty yards of the center field wall.
“A little higher, boy. And move it to the right. A little more. That’s it.”
The sign had read, “Over 100 stores in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas.” Now the “100” had been covered up and replaced with a “150.” When Dancer had joined Rolla, the store count had been fifty.
Doc Evans stood beside his father-in-law, puffing on a cigar and looking impatiently at his watch while Crutchfield finished his instructions. When Doc spotted Dancer, he waved him over.
As Dancer approached, Mr. Crutchfield turned to him. “Look at that, Dancer. One hundred fifty stores. Next year there’ll be over two hundred. Y’all be able to shop at Crutchfield’s no matter where you live in Missouri.”
Dancer was surprised Crutchfield knew his name. “That’s really something, Mr. Crutchfield.”
“Yes, it is, son. Yes, it is.” He looked back at the sign again and frowned. “Hey, boy!” he said to the groundskeeper who had started to fold up the ladder. “Could you clean those bird droppings off the corner of the sign? Right there by the ‘C’?” He pointed to the big “C” in Crutchfield, then turned and faced Dancer again. “Wilbur has some things to discuss with you, so I’ll let you two get down to baseball.” He extended his hand. “Good luck, son. It’s been a pleasure.” He shook hands like a preacher, holding on just long enough to make Dancer uncomfortable, and then he walked over to get a closer look at his sign.
Doc Evans stared at his father-in-law walking away and slowly shook his head. “Just stop in my office before you go out for warm-ups. We can talk then.” As he walked off toward right field, still shaking his head, it sounded to Dancer like he muttered, “Bird shit.”
Something was happening. In the three years he had been with the team, Mr. Crutchfield hadn’t said ten words to Dancer. And Doc never wanted to talk to anyone before a game.
The Joplin Miners were taking batting practice and Billy Pardue, the Rebels’ veteran catcher, was on the top step of the dugout studying them. The Rebels were either young hotshots on their way up, or old-timers on their way down. Billy was an old-timer, but he had had his day. Three years in the big leagues. He knew his baseball, and he shared everything with Dancer—even showed him how to throw a tobbacy-spit pitch. When thrown properly, the ball would squirt out of the pitcher’s hand and waggle its way to the plate like a leaf in a windstorm. It was, in Billy’s words, “a fucking unhittable pitch.” But Dancer couldn’t stomach tobacco-chewing, and he figured with his fastball, he didn’t need to cheat. Not too much anyway.
Billy spit his tobacco juice in the direction of Dancer’s feet. “Get your ass out here as soon as you change. We got work to do.”
“Doc wants to see me first.”
Billy grinned. “That ain’t going to take long. Get a move on.”
The locker room was a concrete bunker that even on the hottest days was cool and damp. It smelled of liniment, sweat, mildew, and Doc’s cigars. The only player who had arrived before Dancer was Ron Bilko, who sat on the bench next to the row of banged-up metal lockers that lined the front wall. Bilko was in his underwear, eating a hot dog, and studying a crumpled issue of The Sporting News as if it were a foreclosure notice. Next to him on the bench was a cardboard tray with a half-dozen more hot dogs.
“What’s the problem? Someone take away your homerun title?” Dancer asked as he opened the locker next to Bilko.
Bilko smacked the paper down on the bench. “Goddamn Enos Slaughter.” He grabbed another hot dog.
Enos Slaughter was the right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. The one man standing between Bilko and the major leagues. The last few months a man couldn’t have a conversation with Bilko without Goddamn Enos Slaughter joining them.
“Slaughter’s still playing?” Dancer said, grinning. Dancer and Bilko were the top minor league prospects in the Cardinals organization. At the end of the season, most of the major league clubs brought up their promising young players to give the veterans a rest and check out the prospects. But the Cardinals’ skipper, Eddy Stanky, didn’t want a player if he didn’t have a spot for him. The Cardinals had an all-star outfield led by Stan Musial, Slaughter, and a solid corps of pitchers that never seemed to get injured. There was no place for Dancer or Bilko.
Bilko showed Dancer the stat box for the Cardinals. “Look at that. Slaughter’s batting .294. Thirty-seven goddamn years old. That son of a bitch ain’t ever going to retire.”
Dancer flipped the paper over to the minor league stats. “Siebern’s got twenty-seven homeruns – only three behind you. He could hit that many today.”
Norm Siebern was a power-hitting lefty for the Joplin Miners. Twice this year, Siebern had smashed Dancer’s fastball out of the park.
Bilko picked up another hot dog. “I ain’t worried. Norm Siebern’s not going to hit three homeruns off Dancer Stonemason, because after the second homerun, I expect you to plant your fastball right between his numbers. Give that son of a bitch a decimal point.”
“That’s not a bad idea.”
Bilko winked. “Have a hot dog, Dancer. Put some meat on those bones.” Bilko pushed the tray toward Dancer.
Dancer shook his head and grabbed his uniform that was hanging from the door of his locker. “No thanks.” He was always too nervous to eat before he pitched.
The rest of the team had arrived. Bilko set the hot dog tray on a table in the middle of the locker room floor and yelled, “Any of you yahoos want a dog?” A minute later the tray was empty.
Dancer tugged on the grey pullover jersey with the two rows of decorative buttons running down the front. It was supposed to look like a Confederate officer’s longcoat. He sniffed the armpit. “Shit, these still haven’t been washed.”
Bilko grinned. “Season’s almost over. Crutchfield probably figures he can hold out until we’re done. Save a few bucks. Is Dede coming today?”
“Already here. We brought Clayton. He’s never seen me pitch.”
“You’re a lucky man, Dancer. Got a good woman and a boy who looks up to you. Ain’t nothing better than that.”
“Dede says we’re going to have another one.”
“Holy shit, Dancer!” Bilko jumped up and thumped Dancer on the back. “That’s great. When’s she due?”
“March or April. Probably right in the middle of spring training.” Dancer pulled on his gray Rebel cap. Ever since he’d got that GI-style crewcut last month, his hat didn’t sit right. “Can’t afford another kid right now. Hard to get by on meal money and a hundred bucks a week.”
Bilko put his hand on Dancer’s shoulder. “I hear the Cardinals get ten dollars a day just for meals. When I play for the Cards, I’m going to have a T-bone every night.”
Dancer readjusted his cap and checked himself in Bilko’s mirror. The sun had turned his light brown hair almost blond.
“You making yourself look pretty for old Billy?”
“Doc wants to see me.”
“What’s going on, Bilko?”
Bilko shook his head, but kept grinning. “Maybe he’s tired of you always bitching about the laundry service.”
Doc was in his office, feet propped on his desk, reading the New York Times. Before every game he studied that Yankee paper like it was the Bible or The Sporting News. Doc was from someplace back east. He knew his baseball, but he was skipper because he’d married Mr. Seymour Crutchfield’s daughter, Melissa. He wasn’t really a Doc either, but he wore wire-rim glasses, and his gray hair was always Brylcreemed. What with the glasses, the gray hair, the newspaper-reading, and the rich wife, he seemed a whole lot smarter than the rest of the boys, so they all called him Doc.
Doc had been a pretty fair shortstop before the war. He had an invitation to spring training with the Tigers back in ‘42, but enlisted instead. He was part of the 45th Infantry Division that landed in Sicily in July ‘43. Got his right arm shot to hell just outside Salerno. That was it for his baseball career. There wasn’t much demand for left-handed shortstops.
Doc motioned for Dancer to take a seat and then kept reading the paper as though he’d forgotten about him. Dancer tried not to fidget. Billy would be pissed if he didn’t get out there while the Miners were taking batting practice. Finally, Doc folded up the paper and placed it on his desk.
“I don’t know what this world’s coming to, son.”
“Eisenhower’s a damn fool to settle for a tie in Korea. Truman would have never let that happen.”
“And look at this. Russians just exploded an H-bomb.” He poked his finger at the headline.
“That’s serious business.” He shook his head. “Do you have children, son?”
“Yes, sir. My boy Clayton just turned four, and we got another one on the way.”
Doc took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You aren’t Catholic, are you?”
“No, sir. My mama was a Baptist. Dad wasn’t much of anything. They both passed, sir.”
Doc gave a sympathy nod. “How you going to feed a family of four on what we’re paying you?”
“Well, I was kind of hoping…” Dancer caught himself. Doc wouldn’t think hoping was any kind of plan.
“You’re planning to make it to the big leagues, right? Get that major league paycheck. That boy Mickey Mantle just signed a new contract – seventeen thousand five hundred dollars. That’s a lot of beans.”
“I had a call from Mr. Stanky this morning.” Doc pulled out a cigar and sniffed it up and down. He acted as if the Cardinals manager called him every day. “Haddix has a sore arm. They’re thinking about shutting him down. Cards ain’t going nowhere.”
Doc bit off the end of the cigar. Dancer crept to the edge of his chair. Doc could spend ten minutes farting around with his goddamn cigars.
“So?” Dancer asked, his voice breaking.
“So they might need you for the Labor Day doubleheader Monday.”
Dancer jumped up. “Holy shit! The Cardinals!” His spikes almost slipped out from under him, and he had to grab Doc’s desk to keep from falling.
“Try not to kill yourself before you get there, son.”
Dancer sat back in his seat. “But I’m still pitching today, right? My boy’s out there. He’s counting on me.”
Doc cocked his head to one side. “I can’t send you up to St. Louis with your arm dragging around your ankles. Mr. Stanky would rip me a new asshole.” He puffed harder on the cigar. “Tell you what. You can go three innings. That’ll keep you fresh enough so you can still pitch in two days if Stanky needs you.”
As Dancer ran back through the locker room, he almost collided with Bilko. “Doc like the way you looked?” Bilko asked, grinning.
“You asshole. You knew?”
“Eh, I hear things.” He smiled. “Congratulations, Dancer. Make us hillbillies proud.” He clasped Dancer on the shoulder. “But don’t keep Billy waiting.”
The Joplin Miners were still taking batting practice when Dancer joined Billy in the dugout.
Billy pointed to the umpire out by home plate. “That’s Lester Froehlich. He’s got a low strike zone. Froehlich will give you a pitch down by the ankles, but anything above the waist he’s calling a ball. So keep the goddamn ball low.”
After he finished on Froehlich, Billy ran through the lineup, reminding Dancer where he wanted him to pitch each batter. Dancer wasn’t paying attention – he was far away, trying on his new uniform with those two red Cardinals perched on the baseball bat. The same uniform Dizzy Dean had worn.
Billy backhanded Dancer’s hat off his head.
“Listen, boy. I know you got the call. You earned it, and you’re going to be aces. But right now we got a game to play. You want to stay up in the Bigs, remember this – respect the goddamn game. Play every game like it’s your last.”
“I’ll always respect the game, Billy.”
Billy picked up Dancer’s hat and put it back on his head. “I know you will, kid.”
While they sang the national anthem, Dancer scanned the crowd and found Dede and Clayton in the third row behind first base. He got a warm feeling thinking about Dede’s morning shower. He was half-sorry he’d passed up the opportunity. But tonight they’d have a good time, especially after he gave her the news. The St. Louis Cardinals. Next year he’d make eight grand, maybe more. Next year they could afford all those kids.
As Dancer trotted to the pitcher’s mound, there was an easy buzz to the crowd, as though the fresh-scrubbed families from Maple Springs, the gang from Paddy’s Lounge, the hillbillies from Cabool, and the Klansmen from Mountain View had all set aside their differences and were out to enjoy the last weekend of the summer. The afternoon sky was a great-to-be-alive blue, and the air had a trace of autumn crispness. It was warm enough to work up a sweat, but not so hot Dancer would be worn out after three innings.
Dancer nestled the baseball in his glove as Billy signaled for a fastball. He gripped the ball across the seams, torqued his body so he was almost facing second base, and whip-cracked his right arm toward the plate. The ball exploded into Billy’s glove for a called strike.
Dancer walked off the mound to catch Billy’s return toss. As he headed back to the mound, he rubbed the ball down and stole a glance over to the stands. Clayton waved at him, and Dancer could see him yelling something to his mother.
He struck out the first two batters on six pitches. The third batter was Norm Siebern. Billy made a target wide off the plate and gave him a thumbs up, meaning he wanted the ball high. The pitch was chin-level, and Siebern swung and missed. The next two pitches were even higher, and he missed those too. Nine pitches – three strikeouts.
In the bottom of the first, with two men on, Bilko hit his thirty-first homerun of the year giving Dancer and the Rebels a three run lead.
Dancer cruised through the second and third innings without a ball hit out of the infield. He was in a groove – his fastball overpowering, his curveball buckling the batters’ knees. As he jogged toward the dugout at the end of the third inning, he spotted Clayton jumping up and down on his seat waving his cap. Dancer had thrown only forty pitches. A couple more innings wouldn’t tire him out.
Doc greeted him as he returned to the dugout. “Nice work, son. Bullpen can take it from here.”
“Don’t take me out. I haven’t even broke a sweat. I got plenty left.”
Doc sighed. “What do you think, Billy?”
Billy was taking off his shin guards. Dancer sat down next to him. “Can’t stop with a perfect game going. That’s not respecting the game.”
Billy wrinkled his nose. “You are a long fucking way from a perfect game.”
“Still,” Dancer said.
Billy shrugged and glanced over at Doc. “Not my call, Skip. That’s why you get the captain’s pay.” He went back to unhitching his shin guards.
Doc stood up and pointed his finger at Dancer. “As soon as they get a hit, I’m pulling you out.”
Bilko hit another homerun in the third to give the Rebels a five run lead. When Siebern came up again in the fourth inning, Dancer waved off Billy’s sign for a curveball and Siebern smashed it over the right field fence, inches wide of the foul pole. Billy raced to the mound and told Dancer if he had any fondness for his teeth, he best not shake off any more signs. Dancer didn’t think he was joking about the teeth. Billy called for a curveball, and Siebern popped it up for the third out.
By the fifth inning, his fastball had lost its pop, and there was a hot spot on his index finger that burned whenever he threw the breaking ball. But somehow Dancer kept getting them out. When he took a seat on the bench after the sixth inning, he was all alone. Nobody dared talk to him. Doc just stared at his feet, shaking his head and mumbling. Didn’t even smoke his cigar. Doc couldn’t take him out with a perfect game on the line. And Dancer would still be able to pitch on Monday. He was young and strong. Three days rest was for old men.
As he walked out to the mound for the seventh inning the crowd was eerily quiet, as if they were afraid that cheering might upset the baseball gods. The first two batters in the seventh worked full counts – Froehlich wasn’t calling anything above the belt a strike – but Dancer got them both to fly out.
Norm Siebern was up again.
Billy Pardue called for a curveball, and Siebern hit it over the right field fence, but again, just to the right of the foul pole. There was a collective gasp of relief from the crowd as they settled back into their seats. Billy called for a changeup, and Siebern hit a bullet over the first basemen’s head. Dancer scuffed the mound in disgust, but Froehlich signaled foul. Billy called time.
“You ain’t fooling him, kid. Throw this the way I taught you, and let’s go sit down.” He handed Dancer the ball, a glob of tobacco spit nestled between the seams. Dancer wiped the sweat off his brow and gripped the ball with his fingers between the seams like Billy had shown him. The ball floated toward home, and Siebern smiled as he stepped into the pitch, but as it reached the plate, it dive-bombed into the turf. Siebern missed it by two feet.
In the eighth, the Miners batted as though they had somewhere else they wanted to be. Seven pitches and Dancer was out of the inning. Bilko walked over and sat down next to him on the bench. The first player in the last three innings, other than Billy, to even acknowledge his existence. “No one’s going to think less of you if you stop right now. Shit man, it’s the Cardinals. I’d give my left nut to get that call.”
“This game is mine. I ain’t quitting now.”
Bilko squeezed Dancer’s neck. “That’s all I wanted to hear. Take ’em down, buddy.”
Dancer massaged his arm as he walked to the mound for the ninth inning. It was sore, but it was a good sore. Froehlich stood at home plate, hands on hips, staring at him. Dancer offered a nod, sort of humble-like, as he reached the pitcher’s mound. If Froehlich noticed, he didn’t show it.
First batter, Wagner, had struck out twice on curveballs. Billy called for another curve. Dancer’s pitch missed the plate by five feet. The hot spot on his finger had become a blister, and the blister had popped. Billy called time and walked slowly to the mound.
“I can’t throw my curve,” Dancer said, his voice tight.
Billy laughed and thumped Dancer on the back like he’d just told him a dirty joke. “Don’t look at your hand. Smile. Work the corners – in out, high, low. It’s the bottom of the lineup. Just three more outs. This is the game that counts, Dancer.”
Billy walked back to the plate like he was on a Sunday stroll. Laughing and joking with Froehlich and Wagner about Dancer’s wild pitch. He called for a fast ball inside and Wagner smashed it deep to right, but the wind kept it in the park and Bilko caught it at the wall.
Heinz, the Miners slick fielding shortstop, was the eighth batter. Heinz couldn’t hit his weight, and he didn’t weigh much. Billy signaled fastball and Heinz squared around and bunted the ball to the right of Dancer, toward the shortstop. Dancer dove headlong and speared the ball before it could get by him. He pivoted on his knees and flung the ball sidearm to first base. Heinz was out by a step.
Billy had run down the first base line to back up the play. As he trotted back to home, he glared at the Miners. “You’re down five runs – swing the goddamn bats.”
Dancer rubbed down the baseball and waited as the field announcer introduced the pinch hitter. “Now batting for the pitcher, number thirty-three, former slugger with the Cincinnati Redlegs, Mister Connie Ryan!”
Billy called time and sprinted to the mound. “I’ve played against Ryan. He’s a dead pull hitter. Likes the low ball, so try to keep it up out of his wheelhouse.” He pounded the ball into Dancer’s glove. “This is the game, Dancer.”
Billy gave him a target off the outside corner, and Dancer’s pitch was knee-high, three inches wide of the plate. Ryan took the pitch for a ball. He stepped closer to the plate. Dancer’s next pitch was in the same location, and Ryan drove it out of the park, foul by ten feet. He stood at home plate admiring the flight of the ball. Froehlich threw Dancer a new ball, and Ryan stepped back into the batter’s box. He took a slow, deliberate swing and pointed his bat at Dancer’s head. Ryan didn’t respect him. Dizzy Dean would have never let a batter get away with that.
Dancer nodded at Billy and unleashed a fastball right at Ryan’s chin. He hit the turf like he’d been shot, but as he was going down, the ball hit his bat and bounced harmlessly foul down the first base line.
Billy cackled, “Hey, Connie! I think the kid wants your ugly mug off the plate.”
Ryan dug in, but this time a respectful six inches farther back. Dancer caught the outside corner with a waist-high fast ball, but Froehlich called it a ball.
Two balls, two strikes.
Dancer came back with a change-up, and Ryan started to swing, but at the last moment held up. Froehlich called the pitch high.
Dancer stared in at the plate. Ryan wasn’t smiling anymore. The crowd was so loud he couldn’t hear himself breathe. Billy signaled for a fastball, Doc perched on the top of the dugout steps, unlit cigar clenched in his teeth, Dede stood with her hands in front of her face, and Clayton jumped up and down on his seat waving his cotton candy like it was a flag.
Dancer exhaled through his teeth and threw with everything he had left.
As soon as he released the ball, he knew it was a bad pitch. Right down the middle, but chest high. Billy came half out of his crouch to catch the ball, then pulled it down ever so slightly and held it there. Ryan dropped his bat and headed for first.
“Strike threeee!” Froehlich croaked as he punched the air with his left fist.
The next thing Dancer knew, Billy had him in a bear-hug and all the guys were grabbing him, pounding him on the back. A swarm of teammates carried him toward the first base seats. Dede was in the aisle with Clayton and he lifted them both over the rail. Dancer’s throat ached as he kissed away Dede’s tears. Her tousled hair tickled his face as she wrapped her arms around him. He wanted to tell her how much he loved her and how things were going to get better and better, but he could hardly breathe.
Together they hoisted Clayton on to Dancer’s shoulders. Clayton clung to his dad’s neck with cotton-candy sticky hands as the three of them paraded along the fence from first base to third base while the crowd chanted, “Dancer! Dancer! Dancer!”
The next day, Dancer was on his back porch soaking his hand in ice water when Doc pulled into the driveway in his navy blue Mercury cruiser. Doc smiled, an unnatural look for him, as he walked over to Dancer. “How’s the hand?”
Dancer jumped up from his chair and wiped his hand dry with Dede’s dishtowel. “It’s great. Just soaking out some of the soreness.”
Doc stepped on to the porch. “Let me see.”
Dancer held out his hand. There was a nickel-sized open sore on the pitching side of his index finger. Doc frowned. “You pitched a great game, Dancer. You’re going to remember that game for the rest of your life. Hell. We all are.”
“What about the Cardinals?”
Doc shook his head. “You can’t pitch with your hand like that.”
“I can still throw my fastball.”
“Son, it’s the big leagues. You got a good fastball, but you ain’t no goddamn Bob Feller. Without a curve they’ll kill you. I can’t do that to you.”
Dancer hung his head and stared at his wounded finger. Doc patted him on the shoulder. “I’m telling the Cardinals you can’t pitch on Labor Day. They’ll probably bring up that kid from Columbus.”
“You’ll get your shot. Next year. Take care of that hand.”
It was a perfect game. No one could take that from him. Or from Clayton. No matter what else happened they would always have that game. That moment. And Doc was right. He was young. He’d get another chance.