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Ch. 7: Annihilation

That incident put Ken out of the practice for three days. He had a bruise over his ear as large as a small apple. Ken did not mind the pain nor the players' remarks that he had a swelled head anyway, but he remembered with slow-gathering wrath Graves's words: "I said I'd get you!"

He remembered also Graves's reply to a question put by the coach. "I was only tagging him. I didn't mean to hurt him." That rankled inside Ken. He kept his counsel, however, even evading a sharp query put by Arthurs, and as much as it was possible he avoided the third-baseman.

Hard practice was the order of every day, and most of it was batting. The coach kept at the candidates everlastingly, and always his cry was: "Toe the plate, left foot a little forward, step into the ball and swing!" At the bat Ken made favorable progress because the coach was always there behind him with encouraging words; in the field, however, he made a mess of it, and grew steadily worse.

The directors of the Athletic Association had called upon the old varsity to go out and coach the new aspirants for college fame. The varsity had refused. Even the players of preceding years, what few were in or near the city, had declined to help develop Wayne's stripling team. But some of the older graduates, among them several of the athletic directors, appeared on the field. When Arthurs saw them he threw up his hands in rage and despair. That afternoon Ken had three well-meaning but old-fashioned ball-players coach him in the outfield. He had them one at a time, which was all that saved him from utter distraction. One told him to judge a fly by the sound when the ball was hit. Another told him to play in close, and when the ball was batted to turn and run with it. The third said he must play deep and sprint in for the fly. Then each had different ideas as to how batters should be judged, about throwing to bases, about backing up the other fielders. Ken's bewilderment grew greater and greater. He had never heard of things they advocated, and he began to think he did not know anything about the game. And what made his condition of mind border on imbecility was a hurried whisper from Arthurs between innings: "Peg, don't pay the slightest attention to 'em fat-head grad. coaches."

Practice days succeeding that were worse nightmares to Ken Ward than the days he had spent in constant fear of the sophomores. It was a terribly feverish time of batting balls, chasing balls, and of having dinned into his ears thousands of orders, rules of play, talks on college spirit in athletics--all of which conflicted so that it was meaningless to him. During this dark time one ray of light was the fact that Arthurs never spoke a sharp word to him. Ken felt vaguely that he was whirling in some kind of a college athletic chaos, out of which he would presently emerge.

Toward the close of March the weather grew warm, the practice field dried up, and baseball should have been a joy to Ken. But it was not. At times he had a shameful wish to quit the field for good, but he had not the courage to tell the coach. The twenty-fifth, the day scheduled for the game with the disgraced varsity team, loomed closer and closer. Its approach was a fearful thing for Ken. Every day he cast furtive glances down the field to where the varsity held practice. Ken had nothing to say; he was as glum as most of the other candidates, but he had heard gossip in the lecture-rooms, in the halls, on the street, everywhere, and it concerned this game. What would the old varsity do to Arthurs' new team? Curiosity ran as high as the feeling toward the athletic directors. Resentment flowed from every source. Ken somehow got the impression that he was blamable for being a member of the coach's green squad. So Ken Ward fluctuated between two fears, one as bad as the other--that he would not be selected to play, and the other that he would be selected. It made no difference. He would be miserable if not chosen, and if he was--how on earth would he be able to keep his knees from wobbling? Then the awful day dawned.

Coach Arthurs met all his candidates at the cage. He came late, he explained, because he wanted to keep them off the field until time for practice. To-day he appeared more grave than worried, and where the boys expected a severe lecture, he simply said: "I'll play as many of you as I can. Do your best, that's all. Don't mind what these old players say. They were kids once, though they seem to have forgotten it. Try to learn from them."

It was the first time the candidates had been taken upon the regular diamond of Grant Field. Ken had peeped in there once to be impressed by the beautiful level playground, and especially the magnificent turreted grand-stand and the great sweeping stretches of bleachers. Then they had been empty; now, with four thousand noisy students and thousands of other spectators besides, they stunned him. He had never imagined a crowd coming to see the game.

Perhaps Arthurs had not expected it either, for Ken heard him mutter grimly to himself. He ordered practice at once, and called off the names of those he had chosen to start the game. As one in a trance Ken Ward found himself trotting out to right field.

A long-rolling murmur that was half laugh, half taunt, rose from the stands. Then it quickly subsided. From his position Ken looked for the players of the old varsity, but they had not yet come upon the field. Of the few balls batted to Ken in practice he muffed only one, and he was just beginning to feel that he might acquit himself creditably when the coach called the team in. Arthurs had hardly given his new players time enough to warm up, but likewise they had not had time to make any fumbles.

All at once a hoarse roar rose from the stands, then a thundering clatter of thousands of feet as the students greeted the appearance of the old varsity. It was applause that had in it all the feeling of the undergraduates for the championship team, many of whom they considered had been unjustly barred by the directors. Love, loyalty, sympathy, resentment--all pealed up to the skies in that acclaim. It rolled out over the heads of Arthurs' shrinking boys as they huddled together on the bench.

Ken Ward, for one, was flushing and thrilling. In that moment he lost his gloom. He watched the varsity come trotting across the field, a doughty band of baseball warriors. Each wore a sweater with the huge white "W" shining like a star. Many of those players had worn that honored varsity letter for three years. It did seem a shame to bar them from this season's team. Ken found himself thinking of the matter from their point of view, and his sympathy was theirs.

More than that, he gloried in the look of them, in the trained, springy strides, in the lithe, erect forms, in the assurance in every move. Every detail of that practice photographed itself upon Ken Ward's memory, and he knew he would never forget.

There was Dale, veteran player, captain and pitcher of the nine, hero of victories over Place and Herne. There was Hogan, catcher for three seasons, a muscular fellow, famed for his snap-throw to the bases and his fiendish chasing of foul flies. There was Hickle, the great first-baseman, whom the professional leagues were trying to get. What a reach he had; how easily he scooped in the ball; low, high, wide, it made no difference to him. There was Canton at second, Hollis at short, Burns at third, who had been picked for the last year's All-American College Team. Then there was Dreer, brightest star of all, the fleet, hard-hitting centre-fielder. This player particularly fascinated Ken. It was a beautiful sight to see him run. The ground seemed to fly behind him. When the ball was hit high he wheeled with his back to the diamond and raced out, suddenly to turn with unerring judgment--and the ball dropped into his hands. On low line hits he showed his fleetness, for he was like a gleam of light in his forward dash; and, however the ball presented, shoulder high, low by his knees, or on a short bound, he caught it. Ken Ward saw with despairing admiration what it meant to be a great outfielder.

Then Arthurs called "Play ball!" giving the old varsity the field.

With a violent start Ken Ward came out of his rhapsody. He saw a white ball tossed on the diamond. Dale received it from one of the fielders and took his position in the pitcher's box. The uniform set off his powerful form; there was something surly and grimly determined in his face. He glanced about to his players, as if from long habit, and called out gruffly: "Get in the game, fellows! No runs for this scrub outfit!" Then, with long-practised swing, he delivered the ball. It travelled plateward swift as the flight of a white swallow. The umpire called it a strike on Weir; the same on the next pitch; the third was wide. Weir missed the fourth and was out. Raymond followed on the batting list. To-day, as he slowly stepped toward the plate, seemingly smaller and glummer than ever, it was plain he was afraid. The bleachers howled at the little green cap sticking over his ear. Raymond did not swing at the ball; he sort of reached out his bat at the first three pitches, stepping back from the plate each time. The yell that greeted his weak attempt seemed to shrivel him up. Also it had its effect on the youngsters huddling around Arthurs. Graves went up and hit a feeble grounder to Dale and was thrown out at first.

Ken knew the half-inning was over; he saw the varsity players throw aside their gloves and trot in. But either he could not rise or he was glued to the bench. Then Arthurs pulled him up, saying, "Watch sharp, Peg, these fellows are right-field hitters!" At the words all Ken's blood turned to ice. He ran out into the field fighting the coldest, most sickening sensation he ever had in his life. The ice in his veins all went to the pit of his stomach and there formed into a heavy lump. Other times when he had been frightened flitted through his mind. It had been bad when he fought with Greaser, and worse when he ran with the outlaws in pursuit, and the forest fire was appalling. But Ken felt he would gladly have changed places at that moment. He dreaded the mocking bleachers.

Of the candidates chosen to play against the varsity Ken knew McCord at first, Raymond at second, Weir at short, Graves at third. He did not know even the names of the others. All of them, except Graves, appeared too young to play in that game.

Dreer was first up for the varsity, and Ken shivered all over when the lithe centre-fielder stepped to the left side of the plate. Ken went out deeper, for he knew most hard-hitting left-handers hit to right field. But Dreer bunted the first ball teasingly down the third-base line. Fleet as a deer, he was across the bag before the infielder reached the ball. Hollis was next up. On the first pitch, as Dreer got a fast start for second, Hollis bunted down the first-base line. Pitcher and baseman ran for the bunt; Hollis was safe, and the sprinting Dreer went to third without even drawing a throw. A long pealing yell rolled over the bleachers. Dale sent coaches to the coaching lines. Hickle, big and formidable, hurried to the plate, swinging a long bat. He swung it as if he intended to knock the ball out of the field. When the pitcher lifted his arm Dreer dashed for home-base, and seemed beating the ball. But Hickle deftly dumped it down the line and broke for first while Dreer scored. This bunt was not fielded at all. How the bleachers roared! Then followed bunts in rapid succession, dashes for first, and slides into the bag. The pitcher interfered with the third-baseman, and the first-baseman ran up the line, and the pitcher failed to cover the bag, and the catcher fell all over the ball. Every varsity man bunted, but in just the place where it was not expected. They raced around the bases. They made long runs from first to third. They were like flashes of light, slippery as eels. The bewildered infielders knew they were being played with. The taunting "boo-hoos" and screams of delight from the bleachers were as demoralizing as the illusively daring runners. Closer and closer the infielders edged in until they were right on top of the batters. Then Dale and his men began to bunt little infield flies over the heads of their opponents. The merry audience cheered wildly. But Graves and Raymond ran back and caught three of these little pop flies, thus retiring the side. The old varsity had made six runs on nothing but deliberate bunts and daring dashes around the bases.

Ken hurried in to the bench and heard some one call out, "Ward up!"

He had forgotten he would have to bat. Stepping to the plate was like facing a cannon. One of the players yelled: "Here he is, Dale! Here's the potato-pegger! Knock his block off!"

The cry was taken up by other players. "Peg him, Dale! Peg him, Dale!" And then the bleachers got it. Ken's dry tongue seemed pasted to the roof of his mouth. This Dale in baseball clothes with the lowering frown was not like the Dale Ken had known. Suddenly he swung his arm. Ken's quick eye caught the dark, shooting gleam of the ball. Involuntarily he ducked. "Strike," called the umpire. Then Dale had not tried to hit him. Ken stepped up again. The pitcher whirled slowly this time, turning with long, easy motion, and threw underhand. The ball sailed, floated, soared. Long before it reached Ken it had fooled him completely. He chopped at it vainly. The next ball pitched came up swifter, but just before it crossed the plate it seemed to stop, as if pulled back by a string, and then dropped down. Ken fell to his knees trying to hit it.

The next batter's attempts were not as awkward as Ken's, still they were as futile. As Ken sat wearily down upon the bench he happened to get next to coach Arthurs. He expected some sharp words from the coach, he thought he deserved anything, but they were not forthcoming. The coach put his hand on Ken's knee. When the third batter fouled to Hickle, and Ken got up to go out to the field, he summoned courage to look at Arthurs. Something in his face told Ken what an ordeal this was. He divined that it was vastly more than business with Worry Arthurs.

"Peg, watch out this time," whispered the coach. "They'll line 'em at you this inning--like bullets. Now try hard, won't you? Just try!"

Ken knew from Arthurs' look more than his words that trying was all that was left for the youngsters. The varsity had come out early in the spring, and they had practised to get into condition to annihilate this new team practically chosen by the athletic directors. And they had set out to make the game a farce. But Arthurs meant that all the victory was not in winning the game. It was left for his boys to try in the face of certain defeat, to try with all their hearts, to try with unquenchable spirit. It was the spirit that counted, not the result. The old varsity had received a bitter blow; they were aggressive and relentless. The students and supporters of old Wayne, idolizing the great team, always bearing in mind the hot rivalry with Place and Herne, were unforgiving and intolerant of an undeveloped varsity. Perhaps neither could be much blamed. But it was for the new players to show what it meant to them. The greater the prospect of defeat, the greater the indifference or hostility shown them, the more splendid their opportunity. For it was theirs to try for old Wayne, to try, to fight, and never to give up.

Ken caught fire with the flame of that spirit.

"Boys, come on!" he cried, in his piercing tenor. "They can't beat us trying!"

As he ran out into the field members of the varsity spoke to him. "You green-backed freshman! Shut up! You scrub!"

"I'm not a varsity has-been!" retorted Ken, hurrying out to his position.

The first man up, a left-hander, rapped a hard twisting liner to right field. Ken ran toward deep centre with all his might. The ball kept twisting and curving. It struck squarely in Ken's hands and bounced out and rolled far. When he recovered it the runner was on third base. Before Ken got back to his position the second batter hit hard through the infield toward right. The ball came skipping like a fiendish rabbit. Ken gritted his teeth and went down on his knees, to get the bounding ball full in his breast. But he stopped it, scrambled for it, and made the throw in. Dale likewise hit in his direction, a slow low fly, difficult to judge. Ken over-ran it, and the hit gave Dale two bases. Ken realized that the varsity was now executing Worry Arthurs' famous right-field hitting. The sudden knowledge seemed to give Ken the blind-staggers. The field was in a haze; the players blurred in his sight. He heard the crack of the ball and saw Raymond dash over and plunge down. Then the ball seemed to streak out of the grass toward him, and, as he bent over, it missed his hands and cracked on his shin. Again he fumbled wildly for it and made the throw in. The pain roused his rage. He bit his lips and called to himself: "I'll stop them if it kills me!"

Dreer lined the ball over his head for a home-run. Hollis made a bid for a three-bagger, but Ken, by another hard sprint, knocked the ball down. Hickle then batted up a tremendously high fly. It went far beyond Ken and he ran and ran. It looked like a small pin-point of black up in the sky. Then he tried to judge it, to get under it. The white sky suddenly glazed over and the ball wavered this way and that. Ken lost it in the sun, found it again, and kept on running. Would it never come down? He had not reached it, he had run beyond it. In an agony he lunged out, and the ball fell into his hands and jumped out.

Then followed a fusillade of hits, all between second base and first, and all vicious-bounding grounders. To and fro Ken ran, managing somehow to get some portion of his anatomy in front of the ball. It had become a demon to him now and he hated it. His tongue was hanging out, his breast was bursting, his hands were numb, yet he held before him the one idea to keep fiercely trying.

He lost count of the runs after eleven had been scored. He saw McCord and Raymond trying to stem the torrent of right-field hits, but those they knocked down gave him no time to recover. He blocked the grass-cutters with his knees or his body and pounced upon the ball and got it away from him as quickly as possible. Would this rapid fire of uncertain-bounding balls never stop? Ken was in a kind of frenzy. If he only had time to catch his breath!

Then Dreer was at bat again. He fouled the first two balls over the grand-stand. Some one threw out a brand-new ball. Farther and farther Ken edged into deep right. He knew what was coming. "Let him--hit it!" he panted. "I'll try to get it! This day settles me. I'm no outfielder. But I'll try!"

The tired pitcher threw the ball and Dreer seemed to swing and bound at once with the ringing crack. The hit was one of his famous drives close to the right-field foul-line.

Ken was off with all the speed left in him. He strained every nerve and was going fast when he passed the foul-flag. The bleachers loomed up indistinct in his sight. But he thought only of meeting the ball. The hit was a savage liner, curving away from him. Cinders under his flying feet were a warning that he did not heed. He was on the track. He leaped into the air, left hand outstretched, and felt the ball strike in his glove.

Then all was dark in a stunning, blinding crash--

Zane Grey