We were too young and too trusting to refuse the challenge. One man was the Chief of Police and the other the mayor, and they promised to umpire the game. Plus, well, we loved to play baseball and this surprise game would be our last as a team. So we let them take us to a gravel-strewn infield with an outfield of sparse, clumpy grass. Across the streets that formed a square around the field were the mayor's office, the jail, an elementary school, a barber shop, a Baptist Church, a mechanic's shop, and six or so other stores and houses, South Lebanon's entire downtown. The place felt claustrophobic because it was really a softball field.
And its looks implied contradictions. The lack of a grandstand, fence, adequate backstop, and ordinary upkeep didn't fit the ball field's central location in the community. Though they'd gone out of their way to invite us to play here, the field's looks suggested a lack of not only finances but also enough respect for the game and its participants to provide decent playing conditions. Our drivers left our sides at once, but our old rivals, who'd set up this game, Harold Witte and Don Smith, came over and thanked us, but they also immediately hurried back to their teammates who were, I noticed, not from Harold's and Don's team in Mason. They were older, strong looking adults. We were high schoolers.
We stretched and threw as usual, during which Tom MacRoberts said, "Think we can get out of here alive if we win?"
I laughed, but was nervous. Absent were our coaches (one working, one on vacation), so we were under no adult supervision. Also, to get nine players we'd had to pick up two 13-year-old kids. They looked scared and broke our symmetry in their Levis and tee shirts. The rest of us were in our uniforms. The other team was more ragtag, though, entirely in street shirts and pants, four without ball caps, even Harold and Don. But all of them wore spikes.
By the time the game started, the buildings had emptied and the unmarked first and third base-paths were lined with people smoking cigarettes. "Look who's here," a woman yelled. "Ain't they special?"
The obvious hostility toward us was, I thought, because the South Lebanon people hailed mostly from Kentucky and West Virginia and thought of us Lebanonians, only eight miles away north, as pampered Buckeyes. We called them hillbillies or briars. This game could be the Battle of Bull Run all over again.
When the Chief hollered, "Play ball!" we took our first bat, and to the cheers of the crowd Harold put us down on two pop-ups and a strike out. When we took the field, Tom threw his warm-ups, then motioned me to the mound. "We can't let them touch the ball. It goes on the ground and God knows how it'll hop. You got me?"
"Nothing fancy. A bullet down the pipe or something so far out they can't touch it."
"These bastards think they got us buffaloed, but they're wrong." Tom's hate-to-lose attitude stiffened my spine.
After that, I was too busy catching to worry. Since he wanted mostly fast balls, I signaled with my fingers only a few times for his in-shoot, drop ball and curve. We kept those way off the plate, but many batters swung wildly at them anyway because they were slower. All of his pitches were so tough, the Reds had invited him to spring training in Florida to try out next year. I concentrated mostly on indicating the location for each pitch, and Tom delivered his heat with control, exactly where I asked for it. He was so good, if a batter fouled off a pitch, people cheered. Otherwise the ball thumped in my mitt, the batter cursed, and the Chief yelled, "You're out!"
Harold was almost as good, but his and Don's problem had always been nearly as good but not quite. That's why they were so anxious to beat us. We'd whipped their Mason team for the league championship two years in a row, the last time just a week ago. Fred Collett our first baseman hit a home run, Tom set down Harold, Don and another guy on three strikeouts, nine straight pitches, and that was it, the end of the five-inning game as the Chief and the Mayor had promised. Some fans yelled for nine, but they really didn't complain. The Chief and the Mayor ruled the roost around there. The people walked off, and when we looked around, we saw that our umpires had left too. Changing out of our spikes, we were absolutely alone.
One of our young subs whined, "How we going to get home?"
I said, "We'll have to hitchhike."
Tom said, "Come on. Let's get out of here before they come back with guns."
We nine clustered behind Tom, who led us to the road that ran to our hometown. All the way I was thinking that we'd never get a ride. Our dirt and our numbers would scare off cars. However, two cars pulled over and picked us all up before we wagged a thumb. The drivers had watched the game and known about the plan to abandon us.
The driver of my car eventually said, "Couldn't let you all get stranded. We won some money off you. This ride's our thanks."
The men returned us to Runyon Field, our home field, where the Chief and the Mayor had picked us up. Those two officials had called a fair game as far as I was concerned, and though we complained, none of us remembered they actually said anything about driving us back. Therefore, they seemed honest in their own way. Tom said to blame ourselves. We should've pinned down the transportation arrangements beforehand.
Me? I didn't dwell on the question. I was just happy to make it back home.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.