84. Surprises

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In the dugout, Henry finished tying his cleats, heart racing under his jersey.

Practice was about to start and the team was in for a big surprise.

Grabbing his glove from the bench, Henry joined the other players who were starting to gather around Coach Taylor outside the dugout.

Henry gave Dale a discreet nod. Earlier, he had confided in him about Big Willy trying out for the Pioneers. Henry wasn't too sure how Dale would feel about having another colored player on the team. But his concern was lifted by Dale's response. "If he can help the Pioneers win, he's alright in my book."

"Afternoon, boys!" Coach Taylor said. "You all hang onto your ball caps. We've got quite a practice planned for you today."

"We?" Jake said with a quizzical look.

Coach pointed over to the stands. Frank Bell was sitting in the bleachers, sporting a charcoal gray suit and a fedora hat. He gave a wry smile and waved a scorecard at the players.

"Mr. Bell is here to watch today's practice, and he's planned a few surprises for you."

A few surprises?

Henry felt a pang of concern. What other surprises did Mr. Bell conjure up? And what if they spoiled Big Willy's chance to make the team? A flurry of possibilities swirled in his head. None of them seemed any good.

Coach Taylor swept a hand toward the dugout. "Surprise number one! We have a new player trying out for the team today."

A grin broke out across Henry's face as Big Willy emerged from the dugout into the bright afternoon sun. He couldn't wait for the other player's reactions.

"Bloody Hell," Rusty Ryan said.

Jake's face contorted. "Coach, is this a joke? Why do we need another one of them on our team?"

From Coach Taylor's reaction, Henry knew he'd heard what Jake had said, but he didn't acknowledge it.

Big Willy trotted over to the group and settled behind Henry. He cast an innocent look at Sam Porter, the right fielder. Sam's eyes grew wide, and he shifted over. Willy squeezed into the circle, and dipped his chin in appreciation.

"Whoa!" Dale said, looking up at Willy, and then at Coach. "You sure he's a baseball player?"

Coach ignored that too and continued. "Surprise number two! We're going to have an actual game today. Mr. Bell made arrangements with a local team to play us. This team is ranked number one in their league. They've taken time out of their busy schedule to be here. You boys will need to be at the top of your game to have any chance of keeping up with them. They are our guests, and I'm expecting you all to treat them that way."

Players began to emerge from the visitor dugout.

Henry blinked his eyes in disbelief. The Pioneers were going to play the Lawrenceville Panthers ... the black Lawrenceville Panthers.

There was a rustling amongst the Pioneers, whispers of concern. Henry supposed the players felt uncomfortable playing an all-black team ... and an unfamiliar team, no less.

But not unfamiliar to Henry!

Excitement stirred in Henry's thoughts. As a Rook, he'd played the Panthers at least a dozen times. He had memorized the opposing players' tendencies, including those of Bobby Eaton, who had just stepped onto the pitcher's mound to warm up.

Three Panthers took up positions on the bases as the rest hustled to the outfield. Then they started hurling balls around like stones from slings, and Henry realized one thing: The Panthers meant business.

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