Jackson hits an absolute bomb to deep center field. The bat makes a PING that could shatter glass. Jackson is one of our best hitters, and that's his best shot of the day. Coach Wainwright has seen enough.
"Next batter!" he shouts.
That's me. My name is Jack Mogens, and I'm a sixth grader at Tall Pines Elementary. I pass Jackson and we bump fists.
"Think you just brought down a satellite," I say.
"Hope my TV still works," he says.
It's Thursday night at Culbreath Field, and Little League practice is in full swing. Jackson grabs his big first baseman's mitt and heads back into the field, and I take my place at the plate.
Coach is ready to go on the mound, but he gives me a little time to get set. You've got to have a routine. All the big leaguers on TV do, so I do, too. First, I sort of dig my front foot in. I bat right-handed, like most kids, so my left foot is out front, and I twist my toes into the dirt a few times. Then I settle my weight onto my back foot. They always say: Sit down on the back leg. So that's what I do.
Next, I take four swings, two fast and two slow. That way, when the pitch comes, I won't be too fast or too slow! At least that's the idea. I'm still kind of working out the kinks.
Coach Wainwright has run out of patience on the mound. As soon as I look up, he lobs one in. He calls them lollipops, batting-practice fastballs. But he's three times the size of the kids who'd normally be pitching to me, so there's still something on them. And by "three times," I don't mean he's seventeen feet tall. I'm talking sheer bulk here. Coach throws left-handed, and he's one hefty lefty.
The pitch is headed my way. I squint down hard, trying to pick up the rotation of the ball so I can see where it's going. It's coming in on me, cutting in toward my body. I hate it when it does that, and OK, maybe I bail out a little. I push my body back out of the way as I push my arms forward. That's a recipe for a weak ground ball, which is exactly what I hit.
The ball dribbles pathetically down the line. Jackson, already back at his usual spot at first base, has to wait on it to arrive.
"Come on, Mogens!" Coach yells from behind his little pitching screen. "That pitch was barely inside. You've got to stay in there. I'm not gonna hit ya!"
I know, I know, I think. I just don't like the ball coming at me like that. I like the outside pitches. It's easier to extend my arms on those.
There's nothing for it now. Jackson tosses the ball back to the mound, and I dig in for the next pitch.
This one is on the outside half, and I scald it into right field. Hitting the ball to right is like gold in Little League. I mean, no offense to anyone, but they always put the worst fielders in right.
"That's the ticket!" yells Coach.
I let the smallest smile slip onto my face and dig in again. I need a few more of these before my turn is up. This is my sixth year of Little League, if you count T-ball, and my second in majors. I want to be the starter in left field. That's a big deal here. Our roster is maxed out for the second straight year, and there's really only one spot up for grabs in the outfield. My defense is there, my arm's OK, so this is what's left. I've got to get the job done with my bat and turn these lollipops around.
Once my turn is up, I head out into the field. This isn't really the time to show off your glove because there are extra fielders out here, waiting their turn at bat. You can't run and show any range without crashing into the next kid. That's OK, though. We'll shag fly balls later. For now, I settle in and wait for anything hit right at me. And I do some thinking, too. What am I going to do with those inside pitches?
Pretty soon, batting practice is over, and we all head in for the next thing. We can see Coach setting up at home plate with a bat in his hand, so we know we're working on sliding again.
"Lawsuit drill," I say to Andy as I catch up with him.
He turns around with a big, doofy smile on his face and says, "Hope no one gets killed."
Andy Rossiter is my best friend on the team. Scratch that: Andy Rossiter is my best friend, period. He has been since second grade. He's got a decent shot at starting at third this season. That's our goal: me starting in left, him at the hot corner. We're not taking no for an answer.
We laugh at "lawsuit drill," but it's kind of a nervous laugh. By the time Assistant Coach Liu starts lining us up at third, no one is even smiling. No one likes the lawsuit drill, or, as Coach Wainwright calls it, "Learning to slide! Why is it so hard for you dumb monkeys?"
The brave kids at the front of the line are pushing through the pile of batting helmets, looking for the ones that fit them. We've been practicing for a few weeks now, so we're starting to recognize the helmets we like from the dings and dents and scuff marks on them. We're also starting to realize how those dings and dents and scuff marks got there.
We're all "Brave" kids, in one way: Our team is the Tall Pines Braves. It's just that some of us are braver than others. One by one, the first group of kids takes off from third, heading for home. Coach is standing by the plate, facing down the line. Right before they get there, he takes a little swing with that aluminum bat of his.
He swings it slow, like he's pushing it through water. And yeah, he could probably pull it back if you weren't going to make it. But Coach gets distracted sometimes, and I've only got one skull. Anyway, that's why we call it the lawsuit drill, even though I'm pretty sure our parents signed away all of our rights as human beings on that permission form. Either way, it's really, really important to slide in time.
Right now, Katie Bowe is going. And I know what you're thinking: You've got a girl on your majors team? Yeah, and she's probably going to be our starting shortstop. She's also one of the first ones down the line and slides a good two feet under Coach's swing. She pops up in a cloud of dirt and ponytail: Safe!
The line's moving now, and there's not one kid who doesn't swallow hard waiting for his turn. Coach hasn't smacked anyone's head back to third yet. Then again, we've been practicing for less than a month. It's my turn. I double-check my helmet and race down the line.
From Plunked by Michael Northrop. Copyright 2012 by Michael Northrop. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic Press.