59. First Game

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Anticipation for the Pioneers home opener against the Mason City Renegades had been building up for weeks, fueled by the feud between the Hester Gazette and the Hester Sentinel. The Gazette put out headlines like "Pioneers About to Make History" and "Destiny Awaits Henry Louis." In response, the Sentinel devoted an entire series titled "Henry Louis: The Death of an American Pastime."

Like the Gazette and Sentinel, Hester was divided in every sense of the word. In its people. In its steel mill baseball team. And in its very identity.

And now Henry felt divided too, heart banging against his chest. He was fuming that Sarah had been kissing Edward Benedict. He thought Sarah liked him. He'd liked her too. He'd liked her something fierce. But she had the nerve to come to his baseball game, the first game of the season, and kiss another man when she thought he wasn't looking.

Henry wasn't sure what he'd do after the game. Would he confront Sarah? Or would he avoid her altogether? Henry blew out a breath.

Got to stay focused on the game. Can't afford to choke.

Henry's thoughts remained clouded. Opening ceremony was a blur. All he could remember was Dale slapping him on the shoulder and saying, "Henry! That penguin guy just announced your name."

And thank God Jake had pitched a no-hitter in the top of the first inning. If anyone had hit the ball his way, it might have gone right through his legs.

In the bottom of the first, the Renegade's pitcher, Josh Carter, took the mound. A brown-eyed, brown-haired All-American looking boy, his expression displaying that smug grin that made you want to knock it straight off with a right hook.

Carter whipped three fastballs past Garrett. He operated like a machine, requiring little time to set up for the next pitch.

Jake went down just as easy. Curveball low and inside. Foul tip into the stands. Swing and a miss.

"Strike three!" the umpire hollered.

Finally, Henry came up to bat, willing the dragonflies in his gut to settle as he stepped up to the plate. He tapped the bat against his shoes. Then he wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and dropped into stance. Henry squeezed the neck of the bat. He hoped for a hit. A fair ball. Something to get on base. He just didn't want to fall flat.

Carter reared back and threw a fastball. High and outside. The catcher had to jump up to grab the ball. A clear foul.

"Strike one!" the umpire yelled, punching his fist at the air.

Henry turned and stared at the umpire, a short man with a crooked nose in his mid-forties. "Hey, Ump. What do you mean by strike? That was a ball if I ever saw one."

The umpire shook his head. "You should have your eyes checked, boy. That was a strike."

Henry thought better of arguing. It was a bad call, no doubt. When the Rooks played white teams, their umpires were usually good for one or two blatant-bad calls in a game. Henry hoped this was the only one. He got set and took a few level practice swings. He had to hit this ball.

From the mound, Carter flashed that hotshot grin and set for the pitch. He fired a fastball. Low and outside.

"Strike two!"

Henry straightened up and faced the umpire again.

"That was a strike," the umpire said in a stern teacher's voice.

Henry looked over to the dugout. Coach Taylor grabbed the tip of his hat. A signal. Swing no matter where the pitch is. Henry shook his head and got set again.

Carter threw a wobbler that thudded off the dirt well outside the strike zone. Another foul.

"Strike three!"

Henry saw red. He admonished himself for not swinging. But what that umpire did was downright unfair. Henry made a mental note to stay calm. He was the only colored on the team after all. But he deserved an explanation.

Henry turned to the umpire, and the white fans jeered.

"Excuse me, Sir," Henry said. "I don't see how you could call those strikes."

"I called them strikes, because they were strikes!"

Henry explained how each throw was a foul, his voice level rising with each word.

The umpire's faced turned crimson. "Are you saying I'm a liar?"

"I'm saying they were foul balls!"

"You're testing my patience, boy," the umpire replied. "They weren't foul. They were close enough for you to hit. You should have swung. But you weren't smart enough to do that, so you're out."

Henry felt rage rising in his chest. This was his first time batting for the Pioneers, and it would go down as a strike out. All because a cracker umpire wanted to cheat him out of a fair shot.

Henry stepped back. He raised his bat with both hands. The umpire brought his forearm up in a defensive motion. The crowd let out a collective gasp. In a chopping motion, Henry threw the bat down at the ground. It bounced up into the air and landed back on the dirt before rolling against the tip of the umpire's shoe.

"That's it!" the umpire shouted, striking the air with his fist. "You're out of the game!"

"What?" Henry cried. "That's bullshit!"

"Watch your language," the umpire said. "This is a civil game."

"You're throwing me out for no good reason. How's that civil?"

"You heard me!" the umpire snapped. "I want you off this field. Now! And if you refuse to leave, I'll forfeit the game to the Renegades."

For a heartbeat, Henry wanted to hit the umpire. Instead, he unclenched his fists and backed off. He looked over to the dugout. Coach Taylor waving him over. Dale with his mouth wide. Jake, Rusty, and Garrett laughing it up.

Henry picked up his bat and marched off. The white kranks booed and cheered.

Coach Taylor met him outside the dugout. "It's all right, Henry. Get yourself showered and dressed. Take a walk and give yourself some time to cool off."

"Why didn't you back me up?" Henry said. "You saw it too. Those pitches were all foul."

For a moment, Coach squeezed his lips together. "Henry, let's talk about this later."

Henry couldn't believe it. He could see the other Pioneers whispering, jabbing their fingers in his direction. Worse than that, he could see Sarah. She had moved, looking down at him from one of the aisles in the bleachers. Her eyes wide with concern, because he had caught her kissing Benedict.

Henry stepped down into the dugout and stormed through the back door. Even in the cool air of the hallway, Henry's face blazed with anger and humiliation.

His world had just been torn apart.

Author's Note

Every game will feature a different injustice against Henry, each one worst than the last. I really want each opponent, and the atmosphere of each game, to feel like a unique threat.

That said, this chapter was also about Henry not being able to control his temper. He will need to learn to control that temper and his perspective on pride before his baseball world can change.

For Henry, this won't be an easy road.



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