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Mickey Labriogla is the best catcher in the league. He's got a cannon for an arm, calls a great game, and blocks the plate like a bulldozer with shin guards. But when a hotshot new pitcher joins the Dulaney Orioles, Mickey wonders if it isn't time to find another position — or maybe another team.
Zoom's the most arrogant player the Orioles have ever seen. But even Coach Labriogla, Mickey's dad, seems in awe of the kid's talent and willing to overlook his insufferable behavior. When Mickey and Zoom find themselves rivals for the attention of the mysterious Abby Elliott, who works the concession stand, any chance the two teammates can get along goes out the window.
As the Orioles head to a seemingly-inevitable showdown in the new "Super-Regional" against Zoom's old team, the powerful Laurel Yankees, the clash between Mickey and Zoom threatens to derail the team's season.
A special thanks, as always, to Stephanie Owens Lurie, associate publisher of Disney • Hyperion, for her invaluable guidance and sublime editing skills. She makes us
look better than we are. Way better.
Copyright © 2015 by Cal Ripken, Jr.
Cover art © 2015 by Robert Papp
Cover design by Tyler Nevins
All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
Mickey Labriogla took the screaming foul tip smack in the middle of his catcher’s mask, the ball ricocheting with such force that it bounced halfway to the pitcher’s mound. The blow rocked him flat on his back as the rest of the Orioles gasped.
Showtime, Mickey thought. Here we go. Make it an instant classic.
Clutching his head with both hands, he climbed slowly to his feet and staggered in circles like a drunk. Finally he collapsed facedown in a dusty heap at the feet of the batter, Katelyn Morris, who regarded him suspiciously.
“Is he…dead?” third baseman Hunter Carlson asked as the Orioles ran over to check on their catcher.
Katelyn poked at Mickey’s shoulder with one of her cleats and snorted.
“I doubt it,” she said. “He’s probably not even hurt. It hit him in the head, didn’t it? We know there’s nothing to hurt in there.”
Suddenly Mickey scrambled to his feet. Raising his hands over his head and bouncing on his toes like a victorious boxer, he flashed a wide grin.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t believe what I’m seeing!” he intoned in a dramatic announcer’s voice. “Michael J. Labriogla just took a vicious foul ball to the face, a shot that would have laid out a water buffalo, never mind any other young ballplayer in the country. But here he is, back on his feet and dancing! Oh, you talk about heart! You talk about courage! No, they don’t come any tougher than this young man!”
“They don’t come any dumber, either,” Katelyn muttered, shaking her head. “Okay, you’ve had your little fun—as pathetic and sophomoric as it was. Can we get on with batting practice now?”
Mickey pulled up his mask and gazed at Katelyn with a hurt expression.
“I hope you don’t talk like that when we’re dating,” he said. “What would the other kids think?”
“Yeah, like that could ever happen,” Katelyn said, rolling her eyes. “Keep dreaming, nerd.”
She dug in at the plate again and called out to the pitcher’s mound, where Coach Labriogla, Mickey’s dad, looked on with amusement. “Coach, could you puh-leeze throw another pitch so I don’t have to listen to any more of this ridiculous blabbering?”
The rest of the Orioles cracked up as Mickey snickered and crouched down for the next pitch.
He was a big, blocky twelve-year-old—he’d shot up two inches and gained fifteen pounds since last season, much of it around his belly, which had left him feeling more than a little self-conscious. But he was a handsome kid, with a thatch of red hair and freckles, and a smile that seemed permanently in place. And on this perfect July morning, with the sun shining brightly and the sky so blue it seemed painted, he was in his usual terrific mood.
There was no place on earth Mickey wanted to be more than where he was right now, behind home plate on a dusty baseball diamond with his teammates.
A lot of kids hated catching. They hated wearing the bulky protective gear on hot summer days. They hated the constant squatting and all the punishment a catcher took from foul tips, wild pitches in the dirt, and the occasional bone-rattling collision at the plate.
Not Mickey. He loved everything about the position. He loved being involved in every pitch and seeing the entire game unfold before him. He loved calling pitches and trying to outthink the hitter in the age-old mental chess game that was every at-bat since the beginning of time.
His dad had told him that back in the day, ballplayers used to refer to the catcher’s mask, chest protector, and shin guards as “the tools of ignorance.”
But Mickey wore the catcher’s gear proudly. He put on each piece with all the solemn ritual of a knight donning a suit of armor for battle. Before each game he would lovingly lay out his equipment on the dugout bench. Sometimes he would even narrate as each item was affixed to his body:
“Step one, as the great catcher prepares to lay his chiseled physique on the line once again for his team, he first secures his shin guards, using a crossover pattern with the straps, and making sure each fits snugly…”
“Really?” Katelyn once snapped at him. “We have to listen to play-by-play of you putting on your stupid gear?”
“Step two,” Mickey had continued, ignoring the O’s right fielder, “he carefully positions the chest protector. After the protective cup, which he dons in private for obvious reasons”—here he shot a knowing glance at Katelyn, the only girl on the team—“and the face mask designed to ensure that his rugged, movie-star good looks aren’t damaged, the chest protector is key.”
“That’s it, I’m going to hurl,” Katelyn said, stomping away to much laughter before she had to listen to Mickey expound on the virtues of his oversize catcher’s mitt and how much he loved it.
Today, even though Mickey was in his usual sunny mood, a palpable air of worry hung over the Orioles as practice continued.
Not only were they only slightly better than a .500 team now, but their best pitcher and Mickey’s lifelong friend, Gabe Vasquez, had hurt his shoulder in last week’s 4–2 win over the Tigers. Rumors were already circulating that Gabe was done for the season. No one had heard anything official from Gabe or his parents, though, which left the Orioles hoping their ace would be back at some point.
Without Gabe, the Orioles would definitely struggle. True, they played solid defense. And the heart of their batting order—shortstop Sammy Noah, Katelyn, center fielder Corey Maduro, and Mickey himself—had as much power as any other lineup in the league.
In fact, the Orioles had so much swagger about their ability to give the ball a ride that they’d sometimes flex their biceps and chant, “MOVE THE FENCES BACK! IT’S TOO EASY!” during games, earning death stares from Coach.
No wonder the rest of the league doesn’t like us, Mickey thought.
The Orioles didn’t mean to be cocky—they were just staying loose and having fun. But Mickey knew it rubbed some of the other teams the wrong way. And it definitely ticked off their coaches—you could tell by the way they shook their heads and muttered.
But the Orioles would need to hit a ton of homers, Mickey knew, if Gabe was lost for the season. He was one of the best pitchers in the league, and also a team leader with a quiet self-confidence that rubbed off on the other Orioles. The O’s number two pitcher, Danny Connolly, while steady, lacked the intimidating fastball and all-around mound presence of Gabe.
No, without Gabe, the Orioles had no shot at the championship, Mickey believed. No shot at all.
There was an added incentive for the O’s to win it all this year: the league champs would play in a new one-game, winner-take-all regional final against the powerful Huntington Yankees. The Yankees were the most famous—infamous was probably a better word—twelve-and-under team in the area, perennial winners of their league title.
Every Oriole had heard tales of the Huntington Yankees. They were reputed to be a bunch of spoiled rich kids, a team of All-Stars handpicked by their coach, Al “Money” Mayhew.
The gruff Mayhew was renowned not only for bending the rules in assembling his dream team each season, but also for using questionable tactics during games. Like having two of his favorites yell put-downs at opposing batters to distract them, and having his batters constantly step out of the batter’s box to disrupt the opposing pitcher’s timing.
“Definitely need you back if we play Huntington, Big Gabe,” Mickey whispered as he eased out of his gear before it was his turn to hit.
Danny was throwing BP now, Mickey’s dad having begged off with a sore arm a few minutes earlier. Mickey watched the last of Danny’s pitches to Corey. Each one seemed to cross the plate belt-high at exactly the same speed. His dad called them “assembly-line fastballs,” each an exact replica of the one before it.
Each practically screaming, “Hit me!”
Danny was one of the most popular players on the Orioles. But seeing the way Corey was swinging from his heels and sending rockets to the deepest parts of the outfield, Mickey was even more convinced it would be a brutal last quarter of the season if the Orioles had to go without Gabe.
As Mickey got loose in the on-deck circle with a few practice swings, something on the adjacent field caught his eye. He looked over to see his dad crouched behind home plate, catching for a tall kid with long brown hair and a cap pulled low over his eyes.
The boy had a smooth relaxed windup with a high leg kick, yet the ball seemed to explode out of his hand. Mickey watched transfixed as the kid threw half a dozen fastballs, each one darting and dancing and smacking into his dad’s mitt with a loud WHUMP!
With each pitch, the kid’s grim expression never changed. All business, Mickey thought. Must be a lot of fun at parties.
“Curve!” the kid barked, and the next pitch spun and broke sharply at the last second, Mickey’s dad scooping it out of the dirt and chortling with glee.
Mickey whistled softly. That’s some filthy stuff, he thought. I don’t know who that kid plays for. But whoever it is, the catcher’s glove hand must sting for days.
By now some of the other Orioles were watching this little drama, too. Corey had stepped out of the batter’s box, his eyes widening with each pitch the kid threw. Danny and Katelyn were also studying the boy, obviously impressed.
A moment later, Mickey’s dad stood, signaling an end to the session, and the kid nodded. As the two of them walked toward the rest of the Orioles, Mickey’s dad grinned widely. The tall boy remained stone-faced.
“Boys and girls,” his dad said to the team, “meet Zach Winslow. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a new pitcher.”
The tall boy spit a shower of sunflower seeds into the air and pounded the pocket of his glove with his fist. He looked intently from one puzzled face to another and smirked.
“Guys, this is your lucky day,” he said. “You just won yourselves the championship.”
Coach got to the bad news quickly, as he usually did.
“I’m afraid Gabe’s season is over,” he said. “His mom left a message on my cell earlier. He has a severe elbow strain. And his doctor said that if he doesn’t rest it, he could do permanent damage.”
The Orioles groaned and looked disconsolately at one another.
“That’s it, we’re doomed!” said Hunter, throwing up his hands. “All life is over. We’ll never win again. Oh, this is bad—real bad! We’re gonna go, like, oh-for-the-rest-of-the-season.”
“Thanks for that vote of confidence,” Danny said drily. “Much appreciated. Great for the ego. I’m feeling much better about myself.”
Katelyn glared at Hunter. Then she hauled off and punched him in the shoulder.
“Man up, nerd!” she barked. “We are not doomed. Any more whining out of you, and I’ll smack you somewhere on that puny little body that’ll hurt a whole lot more.”
The rest of the Orioles snickered. Hunter rubbed his shoulder and stared sullenly at Katelyn but said nothing.
“Are we done with all the drama?” Mickey’s dad said. “Can I continue? Okay, now for the good news. The league knows we desperately need another pitcher—no offense, Danny, we still need you, and you’ll still get a lot of work. But since Zach and his family just moved here, they’re letting us have him as an emergency fill-in.”
Coach’s grin got even wider. He rubbed his hands together gleefully.
“’Course, I don’t think the league knows how good he is,” he went on. “Some of you may have seen him throwing to me just now. I can say without fear of exaggeration that the boy’s got a live arm. A real live arm. Yep, I think we’re going to enjoy having Zach on this team. Right, Zach?”
“Call me Zoom,” the tall boy said.
The Orioles looked at each other.
“Zoom?” Katelyn said. “That’s not a name. That’s, like, a sound.”
“Yeah,” Sammy said. “Wasn’t there a commercial about a car that went zoom-zoom?”
Zoom shrugged. “I don’t watch much TV,” he said. “Too busy working on my game. I’m all about perfecting my craft, being the best pitcher I can be.”
As the rest of the Orioles made gagging sounds, Katelyn said, “Puh-leeze! Tell me you’re kidding with that answer.”
“Nope,” the kid went on. “Anyway, zoom is the sound my fastball makes. And it’s on you so fast, you only hear one zoom before it handcuffs you.”
“Oh…my…God!” Katelyn said, looking at the others. “He’s serious!”
Zoom stared at her. His expression remained blank as he spewed another stream of sunflower seeds into the air.
For several seconds, no one spoke.
“Well,” Mickey’s dad said finally, “I’ll leave you all to get acquainted. I have to call Gabe’s mom back, tell her how sorry we are and how much we’ll miss Gabe. But I’ll let her know we’re going to be okay for the time being.”
As soon as Coach was gone, the Orioles circled around the tall boy.
“So you’re like, what, the best kid pitcher ever?” Katelyn said. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“And you’re guaranteeing we’re going to win the league?” Sammy said. “You—Zach, Zoom, whatever your name is—you’re personally going to save our season? Is that it?”
Hunter bowed in front of Zoom and murmured, “We are not worthy, Lord Zoom, we are not worthy…”
Zoom held up his hands and the hint of a smile appeared for the first time.
“Okay, okay, have your fun,” he said. “But there’s something you should know. And this should make you feel pretty good about our chances the rest of the way. Ready? Okay. I just got back from the Elite Arms Camp.”
The Orioles looked at one another.
“The Elite Farms Camp?” Sammy said, nudging Corey. “How does learning how to milk a cow or feed chickens help you play baseball?”
As the rest of the Orioles cracked up, Zoom shook his head sadly, as if dealing with a particularly dim-witted group of individuals.
“Elite Arms,” he said. “It’s the premier instructional camp for youth pitchers on the East Coast. You gotta be an off-the-charts prospect to attend. It’s strictly by-invitation-only. Everybody’s heard of Elite Arms.”
“Everybody,” Corey said, nodding to the others.
“Absolutely everybody,” Sammy said.
“In China they’ve heard of it,” Corey said. “India, Africa, Australia. All over the world.”
“You know,” said Spencer Dalton, the left fielder, “I think I heard the president talking about the camp during a news conference the other day. In fact, Zoom, I think he did a shout-out to you! No, now that I think about it, I’m positive he did. ‘Major props to the kid who went to Elite Arms’—that’s exactly what he said!”
Zoom’s face turned red as the Orioles dissolved in laughter again. They were on a roll, teasing the new guy unmercifully, to the point where Mickey was starting to feel sorry for him.
Sure, the kid is coming across as a world-class dork, Mickey thought. But maybe he’s really shy and trying a little too hard to impress his new teammates. Or maybe he’s just talking trash because that’s what kids on his previous team did and he thinks it’s expected here, too.
At the same time, Mickey felt horrible for Gabe. Season over? He couldn’t imagine it. Gabe was like him—he lived and breathed baseball all year long. What he could imagine—all too clearly—was Gabe sitting in the doctor’s office, trying to hold back the tears as he heard the news.
Mickey shuddered. What a blow to the poor guy.
Plus the Orioles were losing more than just an awesome pitcher. Gabe was a great teammate, too, the kind of kid who was always encouraging everyone no matter what the score was or how well he himself was doing.
In fact, in the three years they’d played together, not once had Mickey ever heard Gabe talk about his own stats. All he seemed to care about was the Orioles winning.
Oh, yeah, Mickey thought, this new kid—Zoom, Zach, whatever—has big spikes to fill.
As practice went on, though, it was obvious that not only did Zoom Winslow look All-World on the mound, he was a pretty complete player. He showed good range running down fly balls in the outfield. And when it was his turn to hit, he sprayed line drives to all fields and showed decent power.
“The boy can play a little,” Sammy admitted grudgingly, watching Zoom leg out a double on his last at-bat.
“Yeah,” Hunter said, “but it’s only practice. Let’s see what happens in a real live game. Hope I don’t have to start bowing to him again, though. That would majorly suck.”
At the end of practice, Coach spoke briefly to the Orioles about their upcoming game against the Blue Jays and what time to be at the field. Mickey noticed that Zoom kept his head down the whole time, drawing big Zs in the dirt with the handle of his bat and barely paying attention.
When Coach dismissed them, Zoom tossed his bat in his gear bag and headed wordlessly for the parking lot. After a moment, Mickey followed him.
“Hey,” he called out, “I’m Mickey, the catcher for this homely-looking crew. Don’t mind them—they’re just getting to know you. You looked pretty good out there. Should be fun working with you.”
Zoom stopped and studied Mickey.
“Working with me?” he said.
“Yeah, you know,” Mickey said. “Going over the signs, figuring out what pitches to throw, how you like to pitch to different batters…”
Just then a black SUV pulled up. A kind-looking man with glasses and thinning hair was behind the wheel. He rolled down the window and waved at the two boys.
“Hold on a minute, Dad!” Zoom barked. “Jeez!”
He turned back to Mickey and his eyes narrowed.
“Look, big man,” he said, “here’s how we’re going to work together: I pitch; you catch and stay out of the way. End of story.”
With that, he opened the door and climbed into the front passenger seat. The driver smiled at Mickey and waved again as the car rolled away.
Ohhh-kay, Mickey thought as he watched the car disappear. This should be interesting. Very, very interesting.
Gabe rolled up the sleeve of his Orioles T-shirt and demanded that Mickey examine his arm.
“There!” Gabe said. “See anything wrong with it? Anything at all? No, right? No swelling, no black-and-blue, no nothing! It feels fine! But that stupid doctor says I can’t pitch anymore!”
Mickey nodded, trying to appear sympathetic. But soon he returned his gaze to the walls of Gabe’s bedroom and winced.
Gabe and his mom lived in a big old house on the outskirts of town, and Mrs. Vasquez had basically ceded decorating rights to her son’s room the day they moved in. This turned out to be a bad move.
A really bad move.
The result was a crazy, jumbled montage of posters of big-league pitchers like Johnny Cueto, Félix Hernández, and Chris Tillman alongside young kick-butt rock guitarists like Jack White, Alexi Laiho, and Synyster Gates.
Every spare inch of wall and ceiling was covered with posters. Even the windows were plastered with them, lending the room a dark, gloomy air.
Gabe called it his “Gabe-Cave” and said it was his own personal haven of tranquillity and inspiration. But Mickey wondered how anyone could live in the place without having a perpetual migraine from all the wild colors assaulting the eyes.
“I could go out there and pitch today,” Gabe continued, his voice rising, “but the stupid doctor’s got my mom brainwashed. The whole thing is ridiculous!”
He grabbed his glove off the desk and walked over to the full-length mirror on the wall. After studying his reflection for a moment, he went into his windup, pretended to uncork a fastball—and promptly yelped in pain, grabbing his elbow.
“Yeah, you’re fine, all right,” Mickey said. “What’s the matter with that doctor? Where’d he get his medical degree from, anyway? Saying you have something wrong with your arm? What a quack that guy is!”
“Shut up,” Gabe growled. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
He slammed his glove on the floor and plopped morosely on his bed. He put his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling.
“A couple days of ice and rest and I’d be fine,” he muttered. “Instead, I have to miss the whole second half of the season. And the dumb doctor didn’t even X-ray the elbow! Shouldn’t you at least take X-rays before making a diagnosis that ruins a kid’s life forever?”
“Well, at least you’re not overreacting,” Mickey said, grinning. He ducked quickly as Gabe fired a pillow at his head.
It was the day after the Orioles practice and Mickey had stopped by to see if he could cheer up Gabe. His plan wasn’t working out too well so far.
Briefly, Mickey recounted the events of the previous day’s workout, including the surprise announcement that a new kid named Zach Winslow with a real live arm was now the O’s number one pitcher.
Looking at Gabe’s downcast expression, Mickey wasn’t sure what bothered his bud more: the fact that he was done for the year, or the fact that he had been replaced so easily with a hotshot who could blow batters away with an eighty-mile-per-hour heater.
“Oh,” Mickey said, “I should probably tell you this, too. The new guy calls himself Zoom.”
Gabe rolled on his side and cocked an eyebrow. “Zoo?”
“No, Zoom,” Mickey corrected. “Z-o-o-m.”
PRAISE FOR HOTHEAD
". . . just the ticket for readers who've worked their way through Dan Gutman and Matt Christopher but are still a little shy of Matt de la Pe a and Carl Deuker. "—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
PRAISE FOR HOTHEAD
"Written with Ripken's obvious knowledge of the game, Conor's story rings true, with plenty of good baseball action. If Conor's not always in good spirits, the novel is, with likable characters, lively baseball action and the usual dreams of playing in the big leagues-in Conor's case, at Camden Yards. Ripken and Cowherd, like Conor and his Babe Ruth League Orioles, make a winning team. "—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2016
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers