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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Young Pitcher - Chapter 6. Out On The Field
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The Young Pitcher - Chapter 6. Out On The Field Post by :be_happy Category :Long Stories Author :Zane Grey Date :May 2012 Read :709

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The Young Pitcher - Chapter 6. Out On The Field

CHAPTER VI. OUT ON THE FIELD

When Ken presented himself at the cage on the following Monday it was to find that Arthurs had weeded out all but fifty of the candidates. Every afternoon for a week the coach put these players through batting and sliding practice, then ordered them out to run around the track. On the next Monday only twenty-five players were left, and as the number narrowed down the work grew more strenuous, the rivalry keener, and the tempers of the boys more irascible.

Ken discovered it was work and not by any means pleasant work. He fortified himself by the thought that the pleasure and glory, the real play, was all to come as a reward. Worry Arthurs drove them relentlessly. Nothing suited him; not a player knew how to hold a bat, to stand at the plate, to slide right, or to block a ground ball.

"Don't hit with your left hand on top--unless you're left-handed. Don't grip the end of the bat. There! Hold steady now, step out and into the ball, and swing clean and level. If you're afraid of bein' hit by the ball, get out of here!"

It was plain to Ken that not the least of Arthurs' troubles was the incessant gibing of the students on the platform. There was always a crowd watching the practice, noisy, scornful, abusive. They would never recover from the shock of having that seasoned champion varsity barred out of athletics. Every once in a while one of them would yell out: "Wait, Worry! oh! Worry, wait till the old varsity plays your yanigans!" And every time the coach's face would burn. But he had ceased to talk back to the students. Besides, the athletic directors were always present. They mingled with the candidates and talked baseball to them and talked to Arthurs. Some of them might have played ball once, but they did not talk like it. Their advice and interference served only to make the coach's task harder.

Another Monday found only twenty players in the squad. That day Arthurs tried out catchers, pitchers, and infielders. He had them all throwing, running, fielding, working like Trojans. They would jump at his yell, dive after the ball, fall over it, throw it anywhere but in the right direction, run wild, and fight among themselves. The ever-flowing ridicule from the audience was anything but a stimulus. So much of it coming from the varsity and their adherents kept continually in the minds of the candidates their lack of skill, their unworthiness to represent the great university in such a popular sport as baseball. So that even if there were latent ability in any of the candidates no one but the coach could see it. And often he could not conceal his disgust and hopelessness.

"Battin' practice!" he ordered, sharply. "Two hits and a bunt to-day. Get a start on the bunt and dig for first. Hustle now!"

He placed one player to pitch to the hitters, another to catch, and as soon as the hitters had their turn they took to fielding. Two turns for each at bat left the coach more than dissatisfied.

"You're all afraid of the ball," he yelled. "This ain't no dodgin' game. Duck your nut if the ball's goin' to hit you, but stop lookin' for it. Forget it. Another turn now. I'm goin' to umpire. Let's see if you know the difference between a ball and a strike."

He changed the catcher and, ordering Ken to the pitcher's box, he stepped over behind him. "Peg," he said, speaking low, "you're not tryin' for pitcher, I know, but you've got speed and control and I want you to peg 'em a few. Mind now, easy with your arm. By that I mean hold in, don't whip it. And you peg 'em as near where I say as you can; see?"

As the players, one after another, faced the box, the coach kept saying to Ken: "Drive that fellow away from the plate... give this one a low ball... now straight over the pan. Say, Peg, you've got a nice ball there... put a fast one under this fellow's chin."

"Another turn, now, boys!" he yelled. "I tell you--_stand up to the plate!_" Then he whispered to Ken. "Hit every one of 'em! Peg 'em now, any place."

"Hit them?" asked Ken, amazed.

"That's what I said."

"But--Mr. Arthurs--"

"See here, Peg. Don't talk back to me. Do as I say. We'll peg a little nerve into this bunch. Now I'll go back of the plate and make a bluff."

Arthurs went near to the catcher's position. Then he said: "Now, fellows, Ward's pretty wild and I've told him to speed up a few. Stand right up and step into 'em."

The first batter was Weir. Ken swung easily and let drive. Straight as a string the ball sped for the batter. Like a flash he dropped flat in the dust and the ball just grazed him. It was a narrow escape. Weir jumped up, his face flaring, his hair on end, and he gazed hard at Ken before picking up the bat.

"Batter up!" ordered the coach. "Do you think this's a tea-party?"

Weir managed by quick contortions to get through his time at bat without being hit. Three players following him were not so lucky.

"Didn't I say he was wild?" yelled the coach. "Batter up, now!"

The next was little Raymond. He came forward cautiously, eying Ken with disapproval. Ken could not resist putting on a little more steam, and the wind of the first ball whipped off Raymond's green cap. Raymond looked scared and edged away from the plate, and as the second ball came up he stepped wide with his left foot.

"Step into the ball," said the coach. "Don't pull away. Step in or you'll never hit."

The third ball cracked low down on Raymond's leg.

"Oh!--Oh!--Oh!" he howled, beginning to hop and hobble about the cage.

"Next batter!" called out Arthurs.

And so it went on until the most promising player in the cage came to bat. This was Graves, a light-haired fellow, tall, built like a wedge. He had more confidence than any player in the squad and showed up well in all departments of the game. Moreover, he was talky, aggressive, and more inclined to be heard and felt. He stepped up and swung his bat at Ken.

"You wild freshman! If you hit me!" he cried.

Ken Ward had not fallen in love with any of his rivals for places on the team, but he especially did not like Graves. He did not stop to consider the reason of it at the moment, still he remembered several tricks Graves had played, and he was not altogether sorry for the coach's order. Swinging a little harder, Ken threw straight at Graves.

"_Wham!_" The ball struck him fair on the hip. Limping away from the plate he shook his fist at Ken.

"Batter up!" yelled Arthurs. "A little more speed now, Peg. You see it ain't nothin' to get hit. Why, that's in the game. It don't hurt much. I never cared when I used to get hit. Batter up!"

Ken sent up a very fast ball, on the outside of the plate. The batter swung wide, and the ball, tipping the bat, glanced to one side and struck Arthurs in the stomach with a deep sound.

Arthurs' round face went red; he gurgled and gasped for breath; he was sinking to his knees when the yelling and crowing of the students on the platform straightened him up. He walked about a few minutes, then ordered sliding practice.

The sliding-board was brought out. It was almost four feet wide and twenty long and covered with carpet.

"Run hard, boys, and don't let up just before you slide. Keep your speed and dive. Now at it!"

A line of players formed down the cage. The first one dashed forward and plunged at the board, hitting it with a bang. The carpet was slippery and he slid off and rolled in the dust. The second player leaped forward and, sliding too soon, barely reached the board. One by one the others followed.

"Run fast now!" yelled the coach. "Don't flinch.... Go down hard and slide... light on your hands... keep your heads up... slide!"

This feature of cage-work caused merriment among the onlookers. That sliding-board was a wonderful and treacherous thing. Most players slid off it as swift as a rocket. Arthurs kept them running so fast and so close together that at times one would shoot off the board just as the next would strike it. They sprawled on the ground, rolled over, and rooted in the dust. One skinned his nose on the carpet; another slid the length of the board on his ear. All the time they kept running and sliding, the coach shouted to them, and the audience roared with laughter. But it was no fun for the sliders. Raymond made a beautiful slide, and Graves was good, but all the others were ludicrous.

It was a happy day for Ken, and for all the candidates, when the coach ordered them out on the field. This was early in March. The sun was bright, the frost all out of the ground, and a breath of spring was in the air. How different it was from the cold, gloomy cage! Then the mocking students, although more in evidence than before, were confined to the stands and bleachers, and could not so easily be heard. But the presence of the regular varsity team, practising at the far end of Grant Field, had its effect on the untried players.

The coach divided his players into two nines and had them practise batting first, then fielding, and finally started them in a game, with each candidate playing the position he hoped to make on the varsity.

It was a weird game. The majority of the twenty candidates displayed little knowledge of baseball. School-boys on the commons could have beaten them. They were hooted and hissed by the students, and before half the innings were played the bleachers and stands were empty. That was what old Wayne's students thought of Arthurs' candidates.

In sharp contrast to most of them, Weir, Raymond, and Graves showed they had played the game somewhere. Weir at short-stop covered ground well, but he could not locate first base. Raymond darted here and there quick as a flash, and pounced upon the ball like a huge frog. Nothing got past him, but he juggled the ball. Graves was a finished and beautiful fielder; he was easy, sure, yet fast, and his throw from third to first went true as a line.

Graves's fine work accounted for Ken Ward's poor showing. Both were trying for third base, and when Ken once saw his rival play out on the field he not only lost heart and became confused, but he instinctively acknowledged that Graves was far his superior. After all his hopes and the kind interest of the coach it was a most bitter blow. Ken had never played so poor a game. The ball blurred in his tear-wet eyes and looked double. He did not field a grounder. He muffed foul flies and missed thrown balls. It did not occur to him that almost all of the players around him were in the same boat. He could think of nothing but the dashing away of his hopes. What was the use of trying? But he kept trying, and the harder he tried the worse he played. At the bat he struck out, fouled out, never hit the ball square at all. Graves got two well-placed hits to right field. Then when Ken was in the field Graves would come down the coaching line and talk to him in a voice no one else could hear.

"You've got a swell chance to make this team, you have, _not! Third base is my job, Freshie. Why, you tow-head, you couldn't play marbles. You butter-finger, can't you stop anything? You can't even play sub on this team. Remember, Ward, I said I'd get you for hitting me that day. You hit me with a potato once, too. I'll chase you off this team."

For once Ken's spirit was so crushed and humbled that he could not say a word to his rival. He even felt he deserved it all. When the practice ended, and he was walking off the field with hanging head, trying to bear up under the blow, he met Arthurs.

"Hello! Peg," said the coach, "I'm going your way."

Ken walked along feeling Arthurs' glance upon him, but he was ashamed to raise his head.

"Peg, you were up in the air to-day--way off--you lost your nut."

He spoke kindly and put his hand on Ken's arm. Ken looked up to see that the coach's face was pale and tired, with the characteristic worried look more marked than usual.

"Yes, I was," replied Ken, impulsively. "I can play better than I did to-day--but--Mr. Arthurs, I'm not in Graves's class as a third-baseman. I know it."

Ken said it bravely, though there was a catch in his voice. The coach looked closely at him.

"So you're sayin' a good word for Graves, pluggin' his game."

"I'd love to make the team, but old Wayne must have the best players you can get."

"Peg, I said once you and me were goin' to get along. I said also that college baseball is played with the heart. You lost your heart. So did most of the kids. Well, it ain't no wonder. This's a tryin' time. I'm playin' them against each other, and no fellow knows where he's at. Now, I've seen all along that you weren't a natural infielder. I played you at third to-day to get that idea out of your head. To-morrow I'll try you in the outfield. You ain't no quitter, Peg."

Ken hurried to his room under the stress of a complete revulsion of feeling. His liking for the coach began to grow into something more. It was strange to Ken what power a few words from Arthurs had to renew his will and hope and daring. How different Arthurs was when not on the field. There he was stern and sharp. Ken could not study that night, and he slept poorly. His revival of hope did not dispel his nervous excitement.

He went out into Grant Field next day fighting himself. When in the practice Arthurs assigned him to a right-field position, he had scarcely taken his place when he became conscious of a queer inclination to swallow often, of a numbing tight band round his chest. He could not stand still; his hands trembled; there was a mist before his eyes. His mind was fixed upon himself and upon the other five outfielders trying to make the team. He saw the players in the infield pace their positions restlessly, run without aim when the ball was hit or thrown, collide with each other, let the ball go between their hands and legs, throw wildly, and sometimes stand as if transfixed when they ought to have been in action. But all this was not significant to Ken. He saw everything that happened, but he thought only that he must make a good showing; he must not miss any flies, or let a ball go beyond him. He absolutely must do the right thing. The air of Grant Field was charged with intensity of feeling, and Ken thought it was all his own. His baseball fortune was at stake, and he worked himself in such a frenzy that if a ball had been batted in his direction he might not have seen it at all. Fortunately none came his way.

The first time at bat he struck out ignominiously, poking weakly at the pitcher's out-curves. The second time he popped up a little fly. On the next trial the umpire called him out on strikes. At his last chance Ken was desperate. He knew the coach placed batting before any other department of the game. Almost sick with the torture of the conflicting feelings, Ken went up to the plate and swung blindly. To his amaze he cracked a hard fly to left-centre, far between the fielders. Like a startled deer Ken broke into a run. He turned first base and saw that he might stretch the hit into a three-bagger. He knew he could run, and never had he so exerted himself. Second base sailed under him, and he turned in line for the third. Watching Graves, he saw him run for the base and stand ready to catch the throw-in.

Without slacking his speed in the least Ken leaped into the air headlong for the base. He heard the crack of the ball as it hit Graves's glove. Then with swift scrape on hands and breast he was sliding in the dust. He stopped suddenly as if blocked by a stone wall. Something hard struck him on the head. A blinding light within his brain seemed to explode into glittering slivers. A piercing pain shot through him. Then from darkness and a great distance sounded a voice:

"Ward, I said I'd get you!"

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