Two boys sat in the bleachers that day to watch our game; two boys who were not the little brothers of any of us Sandpipers. The bleachers were too quiet. Joey, Amy’s little brother, was a noisemaker. We were the Big Leagues to that kid, and when Kari and Ann’s little brothers were in the bleachers too, it was bedlam. We Sandpipers liked the ruckus. I did anyway. Joey tossed out funny sayings when I pitched like, Cross‘em up, as if he believed I, a Little League slow-pitch softball pitcher, could break out with a spitball, curveball, breaker, or slider.
And always, he added to his cheer, Teen—not Teeny, not Number 9, not Spaghetti Arm. Cross ‘em up, Teen! Like, in addition to being this girl he thought of as an ace pitcher, I could have been his big sister too. If I had to have a stepbrother one day when Mom and Dad’s rotten divorce mess was over, I wanted him to be like Joey.
Someone like Joey—a person that already existed—would be all right. I wasn’t keen on the idea of half-siblings though. Mom and Dad having sex sixteen years ago to make Lacey and eleven years ago to make me was one thing, but—
Coach Miller called a timeout.
He and Coach Muldoon met me on the mound. Amy joined us.
I wasn’t pitching badly, but I wasn’t throwing any strikes either.
“Something distracting you, Spaghetti Arm?” Coach Miller said.
“If you need to step off the rubber and clear your head, no problem,” Coach Muldoon added. “If you need to sit out an inning or two, we’ve got backup.”
“I’m not tired,” I said.
“Sure,” Coach Miller said. “But the girls in the outfield are.”
I turned to look at Ann in left field. She was standing with her gloved hand on her hip, swinging her throwing arm left and right. Kendra, in center field, was doing cartwheels.
Coach Miller patted my back, then Amy’s.
“Let’s close ‘em down, girls,” he said.
“Just do your jobs,” Coach Muldoon said.
As soon as they walked off the mound, Amy said, “Which one’s messing with you?”
I thought she was talking about the coaches.
“I mean which boy. Lightbulb Head or Toothpick Sam?”
I looked to the bleachers furtively, from under my cap. Towheaded Rob Perkins and skinny Sam Calhoun were the too-cool, famous Little League players, killing time watching us before the start of their game.
“Actually,” I said, “the real Toothpick Sam was black. He was the first black man to pitch a no-hitter. He did it leaving three bases loaded.”
“How’s that possible?”
“Figure it out,” I said.
“Well, it’s too late today for a no-hitter, and we do have three girls on, one out, so why don’t you channel Big League Toothpick Sam and send these bitches to the dugout? Do that and if we get two hits next inning, we win. We win, Number 9.”
Amy went back to her position behind home plate. She held up two fingers, like a peace sign. I struck out the next two batters, leaving three Seagulls stranded.
~ ~ ~
Coach Miller liked to tell us how important it was that everyone in Little League played fair, including the coaches. For his part, he’d said, he mixed up the lineup from game to game.
“I don’t play favorites,” he’d told us.
Of course Amy battled him. “Placing the strongest hitters early in the lineup isn’t playing favorites, it’s playing to win,” she said.
“There are multiple ways to win,” Coach Miller said.
“That’s right,” Coach Muldoon chimed in. “And that’s a life lesson right there!”
“Changing the lineup,” Coach Miller said, “keeps the opposing pitcher off balance. She never knows what to expect.”
“How long do you think it takes for a pitcher in this league to figure out ‘strong’ versus ‘weak’?” Amy said.
“Girls your age have minds like sieves,” he said.
Coach Muldoon shook her head, but she didn’t tell Coach Miller he was wrong about girls’ minds.
Before every “Play ball!” the coaches and Amy would argue about the batting order, and I’d wonder why, if Coach Muldoon was always carrying on about Title IX and her great Arizona State softball team from the Seventies, she hadn’t socked Coach Miller in the jaw for basically calling girls empty headed.
~ ~ ~
I was a solid hitter. In the bottom of the final inning, we were one run down and I was first at bat. Danielle, Coach Miller’s daughter, followed. She was the worst hitter. She was followed by Amy, our heavy hitter, with Ann—mediocre—up next.
Coach Miller knew in that game, that inning, it was crucial he come up with a plan. It was late-July, we’d been playing for three weeks, and we hadn’t won a game yet.
His plan was this: “Hit to get on base, girls.”
Amy rolled her eyes. She never hit to get on any base short of third.
Coach Muldoon added: “Lose the emotion. Nothing is more at stake in this game than in any other. Lose the emotion, girls!”
The emotion? We were the losingest team. We had bubble gum blowing contests and hoped we wouldn’t have our periods in our white pants.
I stepped into the batter’s box, wiggled my rear, and found my grip.
I bent my knees, found my footing, and faced the pitcher. Coach Miller yelled, “Get that back elbow up, Spaghetti Arm,” and I raised it just in time before the pitcher threw. I shifted my weight and made contact. I hit a gapper between right and centerfield and made it to first base.
“Way to hustle!” the Sandpipers cheered.
Danielle came to the plate. She had no rituals, no preparatory wiggles or shakes, no stance to speak of. As always, she was there mainly in body, her sad defeated spirit tagging along.
“Choose your pitch, D!” I shouted from first, my legs trembling.
Danielle’s bat sometimes made contact with the ball, but her hits were always fielded faster than she could leg it. I didn’t know if she had ever gotten to first base in the prior season, but I knew she hadn’t made it there yet in this one. I knew, in fact, that her secret nickname was Triple Crown Upside Down. Danielle had the lowest batting average, no home runs, and no RBIs. Amy was counting.
Now, with a count of three balls and no strikes, we were all going wild—for Danielle. She was going to get to first, and that was enough. And then she swung on the fourth pitch.
Danielle had swung. She had really swung with all her heart.
The ball was heading deep into left field and I stood there shocked. The Seagulls’ leftfielder caught the ball, but she was so far into the corner, I thought, “I can make second.” Danielle was out, and Coach Miller was screaming at me to move it! I did. I moved and made it.
Poor Danielle though. Coach Miller—her own father—was reading her the riot act as she walked toward him.
“Three balls, Dani,” he was shouting, “All you had to do was stand there. For God’s sake, why’d you go fishing when all you had to do was stand there? You know what four balls means, right? It means you walk, you get on base, and Spaghetti Arm advances to second.”
Danielle reached her father, pointed at me, and cried, “Teeny is on second!”
“You,” Coach said. He shook his head. “We could have had two runners on base. YOU could have been the winning run. No. Never mind. You couldn’t have.”
Amy was on deck. She slowed down, adjusting her batting helmet and socks, waiting Coach’s tirade out. Then she came to the plate. I knew she wanted to hit both of us home. Victory was so close she could taste it. Just do it, I thought. Just win this game right here and now so Danielle can go home and shake off her shame. So we can all go home and hope for our minds to be sieves just this once, so we can forget watching Coach Miller turn into the World’s Meanest Dad.
Then I thought of the mother Danielle had to go home to—the one who designed the world’s fanciest slumber party, but asked us all to swallow our toothpaste instead of spitting it out in the sink.
I gave Amy our “hold up” sign, bent forward at the waist, lowered my head, and pretended to brush a spot of nonexistent dirt off my pants. For some girls, I realized right then, they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
Amy had a batter’s box ritual, of course. She would tap the far corner of home plate with the bat once, lower the brim of her hat, and tug at her ump-side ear. She repeated this routine several times, until I raised my head from second base and gave her the “ready” sign. Normally, we used these signs for pitching and catching, but “hold up” and “ready” were useful anytime anywhere.
Amy raised her bat and set her stance. She gripped the bat once, and only once, always.
Coach shouted to me, “Play it safe, Spaghetti Arm. Look to me for the signal!”
Amy and I had one other secret sign, the one that had nothing to do with pitching or catching—the one that meant ignore everything anybody else says. She stepped out of the batter’s box and threw me that sign.
She stepped back in.
Amy bunted the ball between the mound and first base on the first pitch. She ran her heart out and overslid first, even after she knew she’d be out. Coach Muldoon jumped for joy, despite the out—“Great slide!”—then saw Amy was hurt. She had jammed her wrist.
In the meantime, I had advanced to third. While Coach Muldoon was walking Amy to the bench, I overheard her saying, “Where was that fist we talked about, Aims? You of all people know about protecting your hand.”
And Coach Miller, standing next to me at third, he was saying, “I told you to play it safe, Spaghetti. You didn’t pay attention to my signal. You didn’t play it safe!”
The Seagulls coach was telling his infield to move in. The Seagulls catcher was shouting, “Two outs! Play’s at home or first.”
“Why didn’t you look to me, Spaghetti?” Coach was asking.
Ann took her position at the plate and I shouted louder than I ever had, with an emotion I didn’t know lived in me, “Pummel it, Annie! Kill it! Bring me home!”
~ ~ ~
From that game on, Lightbulb Head and Toothpick Sam would come early to the fields and watch us play, and from that game on, nightly I prayed: Dear God, don’t let those boys talk to me or Amy.
It was my first official prayer and superstition: One word from either of the famously cool Little League boys would break our winning streak.
They never spoke to us.
I also prayed we would never again hear Coach Miller speak to his daughter the way he had at that game, and we didn’t. Of course, for the rest of the 1980 season, Danielle only got to first base if she got there on balls. The same was true in 1981. Danielle Miller never tried to make contact with all her heart again.
~ ~ ~
Christine Fadden lives in the Pacific Northwest, but her heart is forever with the Philadelphia Phillies. “Throwing Signs” is an excerpt from her not yet published novel, Outta Here! Other excerpts appear in Hobart, More Than Sports Talk, Germ Magazine, and The American Literary Review. A chapter, “Little League Girls,” won the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival Fiction Prize in 2014 and appears in Louisiana Literature. Fadden is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She can pitch.