"What was that announcement?" Jean asked as she hurried toward her second period class.
"Something about baseball," said her friend. "I really wasn't listening."
By lunchtime she had figured out that the school's baseball team had lost a couple of pitchers over the weekend. She sat with a senior she knew and learned the whole story, or at least a version of it.
"Mike told me," the girl said, spooning up cafeteria spaghetti, "that Chas has a broken arm from a bike accident and Phil, who was second string y'know, got hit right in the face during game, and he's in the hospital. Concussion maybe."
"Geeze, so who's pitching?"
The girl shrugged, and Jean changed tables and found out that the third string pitcher couldn't throw strikes on Saturday and one of the outfielders did the last two innings, and they lost twenty-something to two with the mercy rule ending the game.
"So, as you might have heard this morning, they're looking for pitchers. Why don't you try out?" The guy smiled at her.
Jean made a face at him and finished her Oreos. "OK, wise guy," she said, "why not. I can pitch."
"Ha ha," he crowed, "what are you, third string on the softball team?"
"Yeah, so they don't need me. Right? And the baseball team does, wise guy."
He smirked and shook head, but Jean did think about it. She had always liked baseball and had played since she was six or seven, dozens of sandlot games.
She coasted through the rest of the school day, still thinking about baseball off and on, until her last-period PE class when she played softball. The girls took turns pitching. At the end of class, she approached her teacher and asked about trying out for the boys' team.
"Don't know if it's legal, might be. You serious?"
"Sure. All they've got left is Artie, and I'm better than he is."
The teacher nodded, smiled and said, "Good luck."
So Jean, still in her gym clothes, walked over to the baseball field, expecting a crowd of would-be pitchers. Charlie and Jim, the two catchers, and the coach, Mr. Miller, were the only ones there. The boys were playing catch and the coach was sitting, legs crossed, chewing on a blade of grass.
Jean sat down beside him and stuck out her hand. "I'm Jean Jones. I'm a freshman. You looking for pitchers?"
He squinted at her and nodded.
"I can pitch. I'm on the softball team."
He nodded again and sniffed. "Can't use ya, sorry, need a guy."
"Bet you don't. This is the only baseball team. Title IX you know? It's like that girl that was kicking for Central last year. They had a field hockey team, I think, a team for girls so she got to play football."
"Maybe. Shoot why not? Nobody else here. I'll give you a try. Get out there. Jim, get a bat; Charlie put your mask on."
There was a canvas bag of baseballs behind the mound. Jean picked up one and the catcher trotted out. "You throw a curve, anything else?" he asked.
"Nope," Jean said, "just straight. It might rise a little. This is fifteen feet more than I'm used to." She bobbled the ball in her right hand, feeling the stitches, noting that it was a good bit smaller but about the same weight.
He nodded and smiled at her and then trotted back, crouched and pulled down his mask. The other catcher stepped into the batter's box wearing a helmet and swinging a metal bat.
Jean held the ball and her old glove out before her, swung her arm, took a long step and Jim swung and missed her first pitch. Charlie laughed and said something to him and threw the ball back. She was surprised that using a smaller ball did not seem to matter. In fact it was easier to get a good grip across the seams, but she did have to throw much harder at sixty feet and her follow-though ended up over her head.
The girl got set again, took a deep breath, a long step and whipped her arm around. Jim watched it and Charlie snapped it back. "Looked good," he said.
"Wait," cried the coach. "That ain't no way to pitch." He walked out to the mound. "This ain't softball, girl. You don't have to show 'em the ball like that. Just get set at your belt, step out there and crank it." He smiled at her. "Keep your right foot on the rubber, other foot can start anywhere I guess, even behind it if you want. Wherever." He sniffed. "You're kind'a long-legged ain'cha?"
Jean nodded and pitched, leaping off the rubber and concentrating on her follow-through, snapping her wrist as she let go. She ended up square, facing the batter after grunting with effort. It felt good, and she smiled, remembering how she had been taught about fielding her position.
"That's better. Now push with your right toe and swing your left leg out there, off to the right, try to get your throwing arm a little higher, out to the side. Swing it wide."
Jean nodded and threw a side-arm pitch. Jim jumped out of the way but the ball crossed the plate.
The coach smiled. "That's called a crossfire. Plant your front foot pointing right at the plate."
She nodded as the coach stood behind her.
"Now, lookee," he said, "if you've got a man on first, you're gonna have to come set and hold him."
"Right, he can take a lead, can't he, try to steal second. Don't have that problem in softball."
The coach nodded. "So at least look at him so he knows you're paying attention. And you can either step off and, if you want, throw to first. But you can't fake it if you're on the rubber."
She nodded. "Balk, right?"
"Right. When you start to pitch, you have to pitch."
"But coach," she said, "I can turn and face him can't I?" She put her glove on her right hand and held the ball in her left.
"Wait, wait, no you can't. Not unless you throw left handed."
She smiled. "I can do that. Works in softball."
"Really?" He wrinkled her forehead. "OK, throw some left-handed. Let me see it." He scratched his head and stepped back, folding his arms and shaking his head.
Jean threw and Jim swung and fouled off a rising pitch that was in on his hands.
"Looked like a curve," Charlie said as he retrieved the ball and threw it back.
"Does that sometimes," Jean said with a smile. "Not my fault. This is farther than I'm used to." She looked down at her grip. "It's probably how I hold it left-handed." She thought about it and frowned. "I turn my hand over from this side so it spins different, the other way."
"Hot damn," said the coach. "Let's get you a uniform; no, you've got one, right? You come to practice tomorrow, and I'll find out if I can keep you. Charlie give Jim the mask and grab a bat."
Jean struck the catcher out on three pitches and then he hit the next one back to her on two bounces. She switched back to right handed and struck him out again. He cussed and then popped up on the next pitch.
"That's enough," said the coach. "You own some baseball shoes? That old glove all you got?"
She nodded. "It was my grandpa's, Stan Musial model, fits on either hand. I play in sneakers."
The catchers headed for home, talking to each other and doing a lot of head shaking, and the coach found a team hat and gave it to Jean. "You miss your bus?" he asked.
"I walk," she told him.
He filled out a small form and gave it to her. "Get some decent shoes with toe plates on both, spikes. School'll pay for them. Bring this back signed."
So on Tuesday afternoon when the team started practice, there were twelve guys and a new player, one with a ponytail sticking out of the back of her cap and new shoes on her feet, low-cut ones with hard plastic cleats and toe guards. Jean heard some grumbling as she played catch with Artie, the team's only other pitcher.
"Can't you throw overhand?" he asked her.
She smiled. "Like a girl. Our elbows are different." She tossed him one side-armed. "That's the best I can do."
That day Jean learned to cover first on balls hit to her left and to back up the catcher on hits to the outfield, and she got ten pitches to hit after she bunted a couple. At the end of practice everybody ran a long lap all the way around the field. Then the coach waved her over.
"Still haven't heard if you're legal," he said. "But the season's almost over. One more game and then the playoffs. Artie will start. OK?"
She nodded. "I Googled it and there were a lot of girls, a thousand and some, that played on boys' team last year. A girl down in Georgia was their first-string pitcher."
'That's good, but I don't know what our rules say. Anyhow, you swung the bat pretty good."
She smiled and said, "Thanks. I like to bunt."
On Wednesday she pitched batting practice, switching from right to left to match the batters. That led to some talk and some joking.
"She's amphibious," one guy said loudly.
"Naw, she's a girl," said his buddy. "She ain't queer."
"It's ambidextrous," said Jean, trying not to smile.
The Thursday game against Central started right on time with Artie on the mound. After five batters he had given up three walks, two hits and two runs. The bases were loaded. Jean started tossing the ball with Jim along the sideline. The next batter cleared the bases with a double right up the middle that made Artie duck. It was 5-0 and the coach walked slowly to the mound. Artie gave him the ball, and he waved at Jean. She trotted in, smiled at him and took the ball.
"No more runs," he said.
"Yes, sir," she told him, trying to look serious. "No more runs."
She tossed a couple of warm up pitches, and the other team's coach ran up to the umpire, waving his arms.
"Wait a minute; wait a minute," the man yelled, pointing at her. "She's girl. They can't use a girl. This is boys' baseball."
The umpire pulled his well-worn rulebook out of his pocket and handed it to the coach. "Find me a rule," he said.
"No, no," he yelled. "It's a county rule. She can't play baseball. They've got a softball team."
"You want to protest?" asked the ump.
"Damn right. I protest; we've playing under protest." He stomped his feet and kicked the dirt.
The umpire took a small notebook from his shirt pocket, wrote something and stuffed it and his tiny pencil away and yelled, "Play ball!"
Jean struck out the first batter on three pitches. The second hitter bounced one back to her, and she caught the runner heading for third and then the batter was out at second trying to stretch his hit. The team ran off the field, and Jean sat beside the coach.
"What was that all about, that yelling?" she asked.
"They are protesting you. So now we'll get the word for sure."
"You mean I might be illegal or something?"
He nodded. "Don't think about it. Just pitch."
In the next inning, the second batter was left handed, and Jean switched her glove to the other hand, put her left foot on the rubber and threw a pitch with her left hand for a strike.
"Time, time," yelled the Central coach. "She can't do that!"