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Ch. 16: The First Place Game

Rain prevented the second Herne game, which was to have been played on the Herne grounds. It rained steadily all day Friday and Saturday, to the disappointment of Wayne's varsity. The coach, however, admitted that he was satisfied to see the second contest with Herne go by the board.

"I don't like big games away from home," said Worry. "It's hard on new teams. Besides, we beat Herne to death over here. Mebbe we couldn't do it over there, though I ain't doubtin'. But it's Place we're after, and if we'd had that game at Herne we couldn't have kept Place from gettin' a line on us. So I'm glad it rained."

The two Place games fell during a busy week at Wayne. Wednesday was the beginning of the commencement exercises and only a comparatively few students could make the trip to Place. But the night before the team left, the students, four thousand strong, went to the training-house and filled a half-hour with college songs and cheers.

Next morning Dale and Stevens, heading a small band of Wayne athletes and graduates, met the team at the railroad station and boarded the train with them. Worry and Homans welcomed them, and soon every Wayne player had two or more for company. Either by accident or design, Ken could not tell which, Dale and Stevens singled him out for their especial charge. The football captain filled one seat with his huge bulk and faced Ken, and Dale sat with a hand on Ken's shoulder.

"Peg, we're backing you for all we're worth," said Stevens. "But this is your first big game away from home. It's really the toughest game of the season. Place is a hard nut to crack any time. And her players on their own backyard are scrappers who can take a lot of beating and still win out. Then there's another thing that's no small factor in their strength: They are idolized by the students, and rooting at Place is a science. They have a yell that beats anything you ever heard. It'll paralyze a fellow at a critical stage. But that yell is peculiar in that it rises out of circumstances leading to almost certain victory. That is, Place has to make a strong bid for a close, hard game to work up that yell. So if it comes to-day you be ready for it. Have your ears stuffed with cotton, and don't let that yell blow you up in the air."

Dale was even more earnest than Stevens.

"Peg, Place beat me over here last year, beat me 6-3. They hit me harder than I ever was hit before, I guess. You went down to Washington, Worry said, to look them over. Tell me what you think--how you sized them up."

Dale listened attentively while Ken recited his impressions.

"You've got Prince and MacNeff figured exactly right," replied Dale. "Prince is the football captain, by-the-way. Be careful how you run into second base. If you ever slide into him head first--good-bye! He's a great player, and he can hit any kind of a ball. MacNeff now, just as you said, is weak on a high ball close in, and he kills a low ball. Kills is the word! He hits them a mile. But, Peg, I think you're a little off on Keene, Starke, and Martin, the other Place cracks. They're veterans, hard to pitch to; they make you cut the plate; they are as apt to bunt as hit, and they are fast. They keep a fellow guessing. I think Starke pulls a little on a curve, but the others have no weakness I ever discovered. But, Peg, I expect you to do more with them than I did. My control was never any too good, and you can throw almost as straight as a fellow could shoot a rifle. Then your high fast ball, that one you get with the long swing, it would beat any team. Only I'm wondering, I'm asking--can you use it right along, in the face of such coaching and yelling and hitting as you'll run against to-day? I'm asking deliberately, because I want to give you confidence."

"Why, yes, Dale, I think I can. I'm pretty sure of it. That ball comes easily, only a little longer swing and more snap, and honestly, Dale, I hardly ever think about the plate. I know where it is, and I could shut my eyes and throw strikes."

"Peg, you're a wonder," replied Dale, warmly. "If you can do that--and hang me if I doubt it--you will make Place look like a lot of dubs. We're sure to make a few runs. Homans and Ray will hit Salisbury hard. There's no fence on Place Field, and every ball Reddy hits past a fielder will be a home-run. You can gamble on that. So set a fast clip when you start in, and hang."

Some time later, when Ken had changed seats and was talking to Raymond, he heard Worry say to somebody:

"Well, if Peg don't explode to-day he never will. I almost wish he would. He'd be better for it, afterward."

This surprised Ken, annoyed him, and straightway he became thoughtful. Why this persistent harping on the chance of his getting excited from one cause or another, losing his control and thereby the game? Ken had not felt in the least nervous about the game. He would get so, presently, if his advisers did not stop hinting. Then Worry's wish that he might "explode" was puzzling. A little shade of gloom crept over the bright horizon of Ken's hopes. Almost unconsciously vague doubts of himself fastened upon him. For the first time he found himself looking forward to a baseball game with less eagerness than uncertainty. Stubbornly he fought off the mood.

Place was situated in an old college town famed for its ancient trees and quaint churches and inns. The Wayne varsity, arriving late, put on their uniforms at the St. George, a tavern that seemed never to have been in any way acquainted with a college baseball team. It was very quiet and apparently deserted. For that matter the town itself appeared deserted. The boys dressed hurriedly, in silence, with frowning brows and compressed lips. Worry Arthurs remained down-stairs while they dressed. Homans looked the team over and then said:

"Boys, come on! To-day's our hardest game."

It was only a short walk along the shady street to the outskirts of the town and the athletic field. The huge stands blocked the view from the back and side. Homans led the team under the bleachers, through a narrow walled-in aisle, to the side entrance, and there gave the word for the varsity to run out upon the field. A hearty roar of applause greeted their appearance.

Ken saw a beautiful green field, level as a floor, with a great half-circle of stands and bleachers at one end. One glance was sufficient to make Ken's breathing an effort. He saw a glittering mass, a broad, moving band of color. Everywhere waved Place flags, bright gold and blue. White faces gleamed like daisies on a golden slope. In the bleachers close to the first base massed a shirt-sleeved crowd of students, row on row of them, thousands in number. Ken experienced a little chill as he attached the famous Place yell to that significant placing of rooters. A soft breeze blew across the field, and it carried low laughter and voices of girls, a merry hum, and subdued murmur, and an occasional clear shout. The whole field seemed keenly alive.

From the bench Ken turned curious, eager eyes upon the practising Place men. Never had he regarded players with as sharp an interest, curiosity being mingled with admiration, and confidence with doubt. MacNeff, the captain, at first base, veteran of three years, was a tall, powerful fellow, bold and decisive in action. Prince, Place's star on both gridiron and diamond, played at second base. He was very short, broad and heavy, and looked as if he would have made three of little Raymond. Martin, at short-stop, was of slim, muscular build. Keene and Starke, in centre and left, were big men. Salisbury looked all of six feet, and every inch a pitcher. He also played end on the football varsity. Ken had to indulge in a laugh at the contrast in height and weight of Wayne when compared to Place. The laugh was good for him, because it seemed to loosen something hard and tight within his breast. Besides, Worry saw him laugh and looked pleased, and that pleased Ken.

"Husky lot of stiffs, eh, Peg?" said Worry, reading Ken's thought. "But, say! this ain't no football game. We'll make these heavyweights look like ice-wagons. I never was much on beefy ball-players. Aha! there goes the gong. Place's takin' the field. That suits me.... Peg, listen! The game's on. I've only one word to say to you. Try to keep solid on your feet!"

A short cheer, electrifying in its force, pealed out like a blast.

Then Homans stepped to the plate amid generous hand-clapping. The Place adherents had their favorites, but they always showed a sportsmanlike appreciation of opponents. Salisbury wound up, took an enormous stride, and pitched the ball. He had speed. Homans seldom hit on the first pitch, and this was a strike. But he rapped the next like a bullet at Griffith, the third-baseman. Griffith blocked the ball, and, quickly reaching it, he used a snap underhand throw to first, catching Homans by a narrow margin. It was a fine play and the crowd let out another blast.

Raymond, coming up, began his old trick of trying to work the pitcher for a base. He was small and he crouched down until a wag in the bleachers yelled that this was no kindergarten game. Raymond was exceedingly hard to pitch to. He was always edging over the plate, trying to get hit. If anybody touched him in practice he would roar like a mad bull, but in a game he would cheerfully have stopped cannon-balls. He got in front of Salisbury's third pitch, and, dropping his bat, started for first base. The umpire called him back. Thereupon Raymond fouled balls and went through contortions at the plate till he was out on strikes.

When Reddy Ray took his position at bat audible remarks passed like a wave through the audience. Then a long, hearty cheer greeted the great sprinter. When roar once again subsided into waiting suspense a strong-lunged Wayne rooter yelled, "Watch him run!"

The outfielders edged out deeper and deeper. MacNeff called low to Salisbury: "Don't let this fellow walk! Keep them high and make him hit!" It was evident that Place had gotten a line on one Wayne player.

Salisbury delivered the ball and Reddy whirled with his level swing. There was a sharp crack.

Up started the crowd with sudden explosive: "Oh!"

Straight as a bee-line the ball sped to Keene in deep centre, and Reddy was out.

Wayne players went running out and Place players came trotting in. Ken, however, at Worry's order, walked slowly and leisurely to the pitcher's box. He received an ovation from the audience that completely surprised him and which stirred him to warm gratefulness. Then, receiving the ball, he drew one quick breath, and faced the stern issue of the day.

As always, he had his pitching plan clearly defined in mind, and no little part of it was cool deliberation, study of the batter to the point of irritating him, and then boldness of action. He had learned that he was not afraid to put the ball over the plate, and the knowledge had made him bold, and boldness increased his effectiveness.

For Keene, first batter up, Ken pitched his fast ball with all his power. Like a glancing streak it shot over. A low whistling ran through the bleachers. For the second pitch Ken took the same long motion, ending in the sudden swing, but this time he threw a slow, wide, tantalizing curve that floated and waved and circled around across the plate. It also was a strike. Keene had not offered to hit either. In those two balls, perfectly controlled, Ken deliberately showed the Place team the wide extremes of his pitching game.

"Keene, he don't waste any. Hit!" ordered MacNeff from the bench. The next ball, a high curve, Keene hit on the fly to Homans.

The flaxen-haired Prince trotted up with little, short steps. Ken did not need the wild outburst from the crowd to appreciate this sturdy hero of many gridiron and diamond battles. He was so enormously wide, almost as wide as he was long, that he would have been funny to Ken but for the reputation that went with the great shoulders and stumpy legs.

"Ward, give me a good one," said Prince, in a low, pleasant voice. He handled his heavy bat as if it had been light as a yardstick.

It was with more boldness than intention of gratifying Prince that Ken complied, using the same kind of ball he had tried first on Keene. Prince missed it. The next, a low curve, he cracked hard to the left of Raymond. The second-baseman darted over, fielded the ball cleanly, and threw Prince out.

Then the long, rangy MacNeff, home-run hitter for Place, faced Ken. His position at bat bothered Ken, for he stood almost on the plate. Remembering MacNeff's weakness, Ken lost no time putting a swift in-shoot under his chin. The Place captain lunged round at it, grunting with his swing. If he had hit the ball it would have been with the handle of his bat. So Ken, knowing his control, and sure that he could pitch high shoots all day over the incomer of the plate, had no more fear of the Place slugger. And it took only three more pitches to strike him out.

From that on the game see-sawed inning by inning, Ken outpitching Salisbury, but neither team scored. At intervals cheers marked the good plays of both teams, and time and again the work of the pitchers earned applause. The crowd seemed to be holding back, and while they waited for the unexpected the short, sharp innings slipped by.

Trace for Wayne led off in the seventh with a safe fly over short. Ken, attempting to sacrifice, rolled a little bunt down the third-base line and beat the throw. With no one out and the head of the batting list up, the Wayne players awoke to possibilities. The same fiery intensity that had characterized their play all season now manifested itself. They were all on their feet, and Weir and McCord on the coaching lines were yelling hoarsely at Salisbury, tearing up the grass with their spikes, dashing to and fro, shouting advice to the runners.

"Here's where we score! Oh! you pitcher! We're due to trim you now! Steady, boys, play it safe, play it safe!--don't let them double you!"

Up by the bench Homans was selecting a bat.

"Worry, I'd better dump one," he whispered.

"That's the trick," replied the coach. "Advance them at any cost. There's Reddy to follow."

The reliable Salisbury rolled the ball in his hands, feinted to throw to the bases, and showed his steadiness under fire. He put one square over for Homans and followed it upon the run. Homans made a perfect bunt, but instead of going along either base line, it went straight into the pitcher's hands. Salisbury whirled and threw to Prince, who covered the bag, and forced Trace. One out and still two runners on bases. The crowd uttered a yell and then quickly quieted down. Raymond bent low over the plate and watched Salisbury's slightest move. He bunted the first ball, and it went foul over the third-base line. He twisted the second toward first base, and it, too, rolled foul. And still he bent low as if to bunt again. The infield slowly edged in closer. But Raymond straightened up on Salisbury's next pitch and lined the ball out. Prince leaped into the air and caught the ball in his gloved hand. Homans dove back into first base; likewise Ken into second, just making it in the nick of time, for Martin was on the run to complete a possible double play. A shout at once hoarse and shrill went up, and heavy clattering thunder rolled along the floor of the bleachers. Two out and still two men on bases.

If there was a calm person on Place Field at that moment it was Reddy Ray, but his eyes glinted like sparks as he glanced at the coach.

"Worry, I'll lace one this time," he said, and strode for the plate.

Weir and McCord were shrieking: "Oh, look who's up! Oh-h! Oh-h! Play it safe, boys!"

"Watch him run!"

That came from the same deep-chested individual who had before hinted of the sprinter's fleetness, and this time the Wayne players recognized the voice of Murray. How hopeful and thrilling the suggestion was, coming from him!

The Place infield trotted to deep short-field; the outfielders moved out and swung around far to the right. Salisbury settled down in the box and appeared to put on extra effort as he delivered the ball. It was wide. The next also went off the outside of the plate. It looked as if Salisbury meant to pass Reddy to first. Then those on the bench saw a glance and a nod pass between Reddy Ray and Coach Arthurs. Again Salisbury pitched somewhat to the outside of the plate, but this time Reddy stepped forward and swung.

Crack!

Swift as an arrow and close to the ground the ball shot to left field. Starke leaped frantically to head it off, and as it took a wicked bound he dove forward head first, hands outstretched, and knocked it down. But the ball rolled a few yards, and Starke had to recover from his magnificent effort.

No one on the field saw Ward and Homans running for the plate. All eyes were on the gray, flitting shadow of a sprinter. One voice only, and that was Murray's, boomed out in the silence. When Reddy turned second base Starke reached the ball and threw for third. It was a beautiful race between ball and runner for the bag. As Reddy stretched into the air in a long slide the ball struck and shot off the ground with a glancing bound. They reached the base at the same time. But Griffith, trying to block the runner, went spinning down, and the ball rolled toward the bleachers. Reddy was up and racing plateward so quickly that it seemed he had not been momentarily checked. The few Wayne rooters went wild.

"Three runs!" yelled the delirious coaches. Weir was so overcome that he did not know it was his turn at bat. When called in he hurried to the plate and drove a line fly to centre that Keene caught only after a hard run.

Ken Ward rose from the bench to go out on the diamond. The voices of his comrades sounded far away, as voices in a dream.

"Three to the good now, Ward! It's yours!" said Captain Homans.

"Only nine more batters! Peg, keep your feet leaded!" called Reddy Ray.

"It's the seventh, and Place hasn't made a safe hit! Oh, Ken!" came from Raymond.

So all the boys vented their hope and trust in their pitcher.

There was a mist before Ken's eyes that he could not rub away. The field blurred at times. For five innings after the first he had fought some unaccountable thing. He had kept his speed, his control, his memory of batters, and he had pitched magnificently. But something had hovered over him, and had grown more tangible as the game progressed. There was a shadow always before his sight.

In the last of the seventh, with Keene at bat, Ken faced the plate with a strange unsteadiness and a shrinking for which he hated himself. What was wrong with him? Had he been taken suddenly ill? Anger came to his rescue, and he flung himself into his pitching with fierce ardor. He quivered with a savage hope when Keene swung ineffectually at the high in-shoot. He pitched another and another, and struck out the batter. But now it meant little to see him slam down his bat in a rage. For Ken had a foreboding that he could not do it again. When Prince came up Ken found he was having difficulty in keeping the ball where he wanted it. Prince batted a hot grounder to Blake, who fumbled. MacNeff had three balls and one strike called upon him before he hit hard over second base. But Raymond pounced upon the ball like a tiger, dashed over the bag and threw to first, getting both runners.

"Wull, Ken, make them hit to me," growled Raymond.

Ken sat down upon the bench far from the coach. He shunned Worry in that moment. The warm praise of his fellow-players was meaningless to him. Something was terribly wrong. He knew he shrank from going into the box again, yet dared not admit it to himself. He tried to think clearly, and found his mind in a whirl. When the Wayne batters went out in one, two, three order, and it was time for Ken to pitch again, he felt ice form in his veins.

"Only six more hitters!" called Reddy's warning voice. It meant cheer and praise from Reddy, but to Ken it seemed a knell.

"Am I weakening?" muttered Ken. "Am I going up in the air? What is wrong with me?"

He was nervous now and could not stand still and he felt himself trembling. The ball was wet from the sweat in his hands; his hair hung damp over his brow and he continually blew it out of his eyes. With all his spirit he crushed back the almost overwhelming desire to hurry, hurry, hurry. Once more, in a kind of passion, he fought off the dreaded unknown weakness.

With two balls pitched to Starke he realized that he had lost control of his curve. He was not frightened for the loss of his curve, but he went stiff with fear that he might lose control of his fast ball, his best and last resort. Grimly he swung and let drive. Starke lined the ball to left. The crowd lifted itself with a solid roar, and when Homans caught the hit near the foul flag, subsided with a long groan. Ken set his teeth. He knew he was not right, but did any one else know it? He was getting magnificent support and luck was still with him.

"Over the pan, Peg! Don't waste one!" floated from Reddy, warningly.

Then Ken felt sure that Reddy had seen or divined his panic. How soon would the Place players find it out? With his throat swelling and his mouth dry and his whole body in a ferment Ken pitched to Martin. The short-stop hit to Weir, who made a superb stop and throw. Two out!

From all about Ken on the diamond came the low encouraging calls of his comrades. Horton, a burly left-hander, stepped forward, swinging a wagon-tongue. Ken could no longer steady himself and he pitched hurriedly. One ball, two balls, one strike, three balls--how the big looming Horton stood waiting over the plate! Almost in despair Ken threw again, and Horton smote the ball with a solid rap. It was a low bounder. Raymond pitched forward full length toward first base and the ball struck in his glove with a crack, and stuck there. Raymond got up and tossed it to McCord. A thunder of applause greeted this star play of the game.

The relief was so great that Ken fairly tottered as he went in to the bench. Worry did not look at him. He scarcely heard what the boys said; he felt them patting him on the back. Then to his amaze, and slowly mounting certainty of disaster, the side was out, and it was again his turn to pitch.

"Only three more, Peg! The tail end of the batting list. Hang on!" said Reddy, as he trotted out.

Ken's old speed and control momentarily came back to him. Yet he felt he pitched rather by instinct than intent. He struck Griffith out.

"Only two more, Peg!" called Reddy.

The great audience sat in depressed, straining silence. Long since the few Wayne rooters had lost their vocal powers.

Conroy hit a high fly to McCord.

"Oh, Peg, only one more!" came the thrilling cry. No other Wayne player could speak a word then.

With Salisbury up, Ken had a momentary flash of his old spirit and he sent a straight ball over the plate, meaning it to be hit. Salisbury did hit it, and safely, through short. The long silent, long waiting crowd opened up with yells and stamping feet.

A horrible, cold, deadly sickness seized upon Ken as he faced the fleet, sure-hitting Keene. He lost his speed, he lost his control. Before he knew what had happened he had given Keene a base on balls. Two on bases and two out!

The Place players began to leap and fling up their arms and scream. When out of their midst Prince ran to the plate a piercing, ear-splitting sound pealed up from the stands. As in a haze Ken saw the long lines of white-sleeved students become violently agitated and move up and down to strange, crashing yells.

Then Ken Ward knew. That was the famed Place cheer for victory at the last stand. It was the trumpet-call of Ken's ordeal. His mind was as full of flashes of thought as there were streaks and blurs before his eyes. He understood Worry now. He knew now what was wrong with him, what had been coming all through that terrible game. The whole line of stands and bleachers wavered before him, and the bright colors blended in one mottled band.

Still it was in him to fight to the last gasp. The pain in his breast, and the nausea in his stomach, and the whirling fury in his mind did not make him give up, though they robbed him of strength. The balls he threw to Prince were wide of the plate and had nothing of his old speed. Prince, also, took his base on balls.

Bases full and two out!

MacNeff, the captain, fronted the plate, and shook his big bat at Ken. Of all the Place hitters Ken feared him the least. He had struck MacNeff out twice, and deep down in his heart stirred a last desperate rally. He had only to keep the ball high and in close to win this game. Oh! for the control that had been his pride!

The field and stands seemed to swim round Ken and all he saw with his half-blinded eyes was the white plate, the batter, and Dean and the umpire. Then he took his swing and delivered the ball.

It went true. MacNeff missed it.

Ken pitched again. The umpire held up one finger of each hand. One ball and one strike. Two more rapid pitches, one high and one wide. Two strikes and two balls.

Ken felt his head bursting and there were glints of red before his eyes. He bit his tongue to keep it from lolling out. He was almost done. That ceaseless, infernal din had benumbed his being. With a wrenching of his shoulder Ken flung up another ball. MacNeff leaned over it, then let it go by.

Three and two!

It was torture for Ken. He had the game in his hands, yet could not grasp it. He braced himself for the pitch and gave it all he had left in him.

"Too low!" he moaned. MacNeff killed low balls.

The big captain leaped forward with a terrific swing and hit the ball. It lined over short, then began to rise, shot over Homans, and soared far beyond, to drop and roll and roll.

Through darkening sight Ken Ward saw runner after runner score, and saw Homans pick up the ball as MacNeff crossed the plate with the winning run. In Ken's ears seemed a sound of the end of the world.

He thought himself the centre of a flying wheel. It was the boys crowding around him. He saw their lips move but caught no words. Then choking and tottering, upheld by Reddy Ray's strong arm, the young pitcher walked off the field.


Zane Grey