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Corey Maduro should be thrilled about the Orioles going to the big Grand Slam Tournament. But whenever he thinks about playing, he feels sick. For one thing, he's in a monster hitting slump, which shows no signs of ending. Then there's Katelyn Moss, who thinks she deserves Corey's center field job and tries to outdo him at everything.
But Corey's biggest problem is his dad, who turns into a howling, wild-eyed maniac at his son's games. Joe Maduro ridicules the other team, gets in shouting matches with parents, and screams at the umps when calls don't go the Orioles' way. It's so embarrassing Corey wants to crawl into a hole-except Katelyn would probably dig a better hole and make him feel worse.
Squeeze Play is the fourth book in the bestselling Cal Ripkin's All-Stars series.
Also by Cal Ripken, Jr.
with Kevin Cowherd
Corey Maduro drifted to his left, tapped his glove with his fist, and waited for the high, lazy fly ball to descend from the sky.
“I got it!” he yelled, windmilling his arms big-league style.
This was a part of the game he loved: tracking a ball off the crack of the bat, determining its speed and trajectory, calculating the angle to take to make the catch. Not that you had to be a geometry whiz to track this one. This one was coming right at him.
Suddenly he heard footsteps. Someone was churning through the outfield grass in his direction. And closing in fast.
This can’t be good, he thought, reaching up for the ball, now a foot over his head.
At that moment, a figure darted in front of him. He saw the flash of another glove, then heard the sound of the ball landing in it with a soft whump!
Annoyed, he looked down. It was Katelyn Morris, the Orioles right fielder.
Gee, Corey thought, what a surprise.
Katelyn whipped the ball out of her glove in a smooth motion, took a crow hop, and fired it into Justin Pryor, the second baseman. She blew on the tip of her right index finger, like it was a smoking gun, and pretended to jam it into an imaginary holster.
After shaking the long, blond hair under her cap, she turned to Corey and smiled sweetly. “See that throw?” she said. “Does this kid have an arm on her or what? I mean, that was just a rocket right there. You gotta admit that.”
Corey gritted his teeth. Be cool, he told himself.
“Uh, normally when a player yells ‘I got it,’ that’s the signal for everyone else to back off,” he said. “Especially if the player yelling is the center fielder. Who is, technically, the boss of the outfield.”
“Oh, did you call for it?” Katelyn asked innocently. “Guess I didn’t hear. You got such a late break on the ball, I thought you needed help.”
“A late break?!” Corey could feel his face getting hot. “I didn’t have to move five feet!”
“Well, you seemed sort of paralyzed,” Katelyn said. “You had that dumb look on your face. Like you didn’t know what to do.”
Corey stared at her with his mouth open.
“Did you ever see that commercial,” she continued, “where the kid knocks over the big TV when his parents aren’t home? And it cracks and sparks? And he freaks out and runs in circles around the house? You looked kind of like that kid.”
Corey was about to reply when a loud voice cut the air: “Guys!”
It was Coach Mike Labriogla. He stood at home plate with a bat on his shoulder and a ball in his hand, glaring at his two outfielders.
“I’m sure you two are having a fascinating conversation,” he continued. “And I’m sure there’s an excellent reason why two of my players failed to communicate on a simple fly ball and nearly steamrolled each other. But maybe you could wrap it up so we can get back to practice.”
Katelyn looked at Corey and shook her head. “Nice work, nerd,” she hissed under her breath. “Now you got Coach mad.”
“I got Coach mad?” Corey said. “I’m not the one who—”
But Katelyn wasn’t listening. She turned and trotted back to right field.
As Coach began hitting ground balls to the infield, Corey tried to regain his concentration. But it wasn’t easy. This latest brush with Hurricane Katelyn had left him as dazed and confused as all the other times.
For weeks now, she had seemed on a mission to make him look bad. Corey was a solid fielder, but on the rare occasions when he misplayed a ball in a game, Katelyn would throw her hands in the air and shoot him dirty looks from right field.
When he didn’t get a hit—unfortunately, that was happening more and more, lately—she made a big show of shaking her head and muttering, “Gotta do better than that” as he trudged back to the dugout.
Oh, Katelyn was trying to show him up, all right. The only thing he couldn’t figure out was why.
It wasn’t as if he’d been mean to her or anything. Unlike some of the other Orioles, who didn’t like a girl playing on their team and didn’t try to hide it, Corey had welcomed Katelyn from the very first practice.
He knew she was a good player, for one thing. She covered a lot of ground in the outfield—okay, maybe too much at times—and had a strong, accurate throwing arm. And she was a solid hitter. Best of all, she seemed to love the game as much as he did. All that was good enough for Corey.
If you could play the game and loved baseball, he wanted you on his team. It was that simple. But Katelyn didn’t seem quite as thrilled to have Corey as a teammate.
In the beginning, Corey was sure Coach would see what Katelyn was up to and tell her to knock it off. He waited for Coach to remind her that the Orioles were a team and teammates support each other; they don’t criticize each other when someone makes a mistake. But Coach never had that little talk with Katelyn.
Now Corey was beginning to think that, somehow, Coach was clueless about what Katelyn was doing. Coach didn’t seem oblivious about anything else. But there wasn’t any other explanation at this point.
When it was time to hit, Corey jogged in to the dugout, pulled his bat from his equipment bag, and took a few warm-up swings. His best friend, shortstop Sammy Noah, sidled up to him.
“I see your good buddy Katelyn is up to her old tricks,” he said. “That was ridiculous, dude. You had that ball all the way.”
Corey smiled weakly. “Oh, she loves me,” he said. “You can tell.”
“Is that what it is?” Sammy said. “She has a funny way of showing it.”
“Look on the bright side,” Corey said. “At least she didn’t spit sunflower seeds on my spikes this time.”
“Or knock the ball out of your glove, like that other time,” Sammy said.
“Or trip me on the bases, like she almost did when we played the Yankees,” Corey said.
“Or make faces, like when you popped up that bunt against the Red Sox,” Sammy said.
“See?” Corey said. “She’s into me!”
“How could I have missed it?” Sammy said.
The two laughed and bumped fists. They had been best buds for years and shared the same off-kilter sense of humor. Sammy was one of the Orioles who had welcomed Katelyn initially, too. But after he’d seen how she was treating Corey, his dislike for her started growing daily.
Corey stepped into the batter’s box and went through his usual routine. He dug in with his back foot, tapped the far corner of the plate to make sure he could reach an outside pitch, and settled in with his left foot. He made sure his weight was evenly balanced. But he still felt uncomfortable at the plate, as he had for a couple of weeks now.
Just then Coach stepped off the pitching rubber and announced, “Soon as batting practice is over, let’s talk about the big tournament coming up.”
Ugh. Corey felt his stomach tighten again.
The big Grand Slam Tournament was all the Orioles had talked about for weeks. They’d be traveling to a gleaming new youth-baseball complex in the town of Sea Isle, North Carolina. A colorful brochure had been sent home with each player, and the Orioles had been busily checking out the Grand Slam Web site since the beginning of the season.
What a place it was: there were no fewer than seven spectacular-looking fields, each set in a replica of a famous big-league ballpark, such as Camden Yards in Baltimore, Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Yankee Stadium in New York.
There were lights for night games, tons of batting cages and practice fields—everything a baseball-loving kid could wish for.
They’d be staying in a big hotel just a long fly ball from the Atlantic Ocean, with an amusement park and Gusher World, the biggest water park in the country, almost right next door.
No wonder the Orioles were so excited. Corey had tried to pretend he was excited, too. But the truth was, he’d been dreading this trip for a while now.
Reason number one: He was in a hitting slump, maybe the worst of his Babe Ruth League career. And the thought of stringing together another dismal week of 0-for-4s at the plate wasn’t exactly appealing—even in the picture-postcard setting of Sea Isle.
Reason number two: Having to put up with Katelyn right now was hard enough. Having to put up with her on the road 24/7 would be a nightmare.
And reason number three was—
“LET’S GO, ORIOLES!” a voice boomed, interrupting his reverie. “C’MON, COREY! GET THIS TEAM GOING! SHOW SOME LIFE! YOU GUYS LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF DEADHEADS OUT THERE!”
The Orioles glanced at the bleachers, where a big man with thick glasses clambered up to the top step.
Corey sighed and looked down.
Reason number three had just arrived.
Corey braced for the usual adventure on the ride home. It began almost immediately. Joe Maduro peered uncertainly out the windshield at the gathering dusk and shifted the big SUV into drive. He stomped on the gas and they lurched out of the parking lot, cutting off a minivan.
The other driver slammed on the brakes and honked the horn.
“Headlights!” Corey yelled.
“Right,” his dad said, clicking them on. “Sorry.”
Part of the problem, Corey realized, was that his dad’s vision had gone downhill in recent years. But the other problem was that he was simply a bad driver. A really, really bad driver. The world’s worst, according to Uncle Bobby, Joe Maduro’s brother.
“Blind and totally clueless behind the wheel!” Uncle Bobby would cackle at family gatherings as Corey’s dad shrugged sheepishly. “What a combination! And they actually let him have a license!”
Corey tugged his seat belt tighter. He would have felt better in a full body harness, fire-retardant suit, and crash helmet, just like the NASCAR drivers had.
Except how would that look, a twelve-year-old getting into all that gear just to ride home from practice with his dad?
“You guys looked absolutely lifeless out there,” Joe Maduro began as they bounced out to the main highway.
Corey looked out the window and sighed. “Dad,” he said, “it’s only practice.”
Immediately he wished he could take it back.
“Only practice?” his dad said.
Corey closed his eyes. Here it comes, he thought. He’ll start with Allen Iverson.…
“Only practice,” his dad repeated. “Who are you, Allen Iverson?”
This, Corey knew, was a reference to the former NBA superstar who had famously delivered a rant ridiculing the importance of practice when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers years ago.
Corey’s dad had found it on YouTube and made him watch it again and again. Each time, Joe Maduro had snorted with disgust when it was over and said, “Can you believe that guy? What, he’s so good he doesn’t have to work at it?”
“What do I always tell you about practice?” Corey’s dad continued now. “Huh? What do I always say?”
“Here come the Six P’s,” Corey whispered to himself. The traffic was heavy now. His eyes widened with alarm as the SUV drifted to the shoulder of the road.
“The Six P’s, right?” his dad said. “Proper Practice Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. How many times have we gone over that?”
Only about a hundred, Corey thought. Not that anyone’s counting.
Suddenly a shower of gravel sprayed the side of their car. Corey’s dad swore softly. He tugged the steering wheel hard to the left and they careened back onto the highway.
“Uh, Dad?” Corey said, heart beating faster now. “Can we keep it on the road?”
“Why don’t you let me drive, big guy,” his dad said. “You worry about your team, okay? The way you Orioles look, it’s like you don’t even care!”
Why should I worry about the team? Corey thought. You worry about it enough for both of us.
He looked out the window again and watched as the familiar landscape whizzed by: the Welkin Farms tree nursery, the Ed Ross Chevrolet dealership, Rosie’s Diner, with its huge neon sign proclaiming HOME OF THE WORLD’S BEST FRIES!
Corey loved his dad, loved him with all his heart. But lately it seemed as if all Joe Maduro wanted to talk about was the Orioles. He was supercritical of everything Corey did on the baseball field, too, harping on every little mistake. Now his dad was even showing up to watch the team practice.
None of the other dads seemed so wrapped up in the Orioles, not even Mr. Noah, who was proud of the fact that he’d never missed one of Sammy’s games, dating back to T-ball.
Corey’s dad had always been his biggest fan, and Corey appreciated that. But these days Joe Maduro was always questioning the umpires whenever a call went against the Orioles. Not only that, he also heckled the other teams and got into arguments with the other players’ parents.
It was embarrassing. And it was getting worse and worse. Everyone on the Orioles was beginning to notice.
“The team’s going to be fine, Dad,” Corey said finally. “Coach said we looked sharp during infield and outfield. And everyone was killing it in batting practice.”
“Good,” his dad said, smiling for the first time since he’d arrived at practice.
Corey left out the details about Katelyn robbing him of a fly ball and Coach barking at the two of them, figuring this would only get his dad riled up again and lead to another rant about practice habits. Which wouldn’t be good, seeing as how they were already drifting into another lane.
It was Sammy who had first dubbed these drives “Death Rides.” When Corey’s mom was alive, she would sit up front with his dad, and Corey and Sammy would sit in the back and giggle whenever his mother gasped, grabbed the dashboard, and cried, “Joe! Slow down! It’s a red light!”
But that was years ago. Now that his mom was gone and he was big enough to sit up front, watching his dad weave all over the road wasn’t funny anymore.
At times—like now—it could be downright terrifying.
“Are you fired up about the tournament?” his dad asked. “You guys are playing some pretty good teams. That team from Virginia? The Norfolk Red Sox? They’re supposed to have great pitching.”
Corey groaned inwardly. No! Could it be? Was his dad actually scouting the other teams in the tournament?
This, Corey thought, was the whole problem with the Internet. Anyone could get information about anything at any time. For an instant, he fantasized about taking his dad’s laptop when he wasn’t home and tossing it in the nearest Dumpster. Or climbing onto the roof of their house and sailing it Frisbee-style until it crashed on the sidewalk below.
“I figure it’s about a six-hour ride to Sea Isle,” his dad said, draping a beefy hand over the steering wheel. “Coach talked about carpooling. Tell him I volunteer to drive. See if Sammy and his dad want to come with us. It’ll be fun. We’ll all have plenty of time to talk about the team.”
Corey looked out the window again. He tried to imagine six hours trapped in a car while his dad droned on and on about the tournament, and about the Orioles and how crappy they practiced, and how they were going to get their butts beaten so badly. No, there weren’t enough pit stops for burgers and ice cream cones to make that bearable.
A flash of light caused him to swing his eyes back to the road. A big eighteen-wheeler was emerging from the service road on their right. But his dad wasn’t slowing down. Corey gasped and grabbed the dashboard.
“Dad!” he shouted. “That truck is—”
His dad stomped on the brakes and veered into the far left lane. Somewhere behind them, tires squealed.
Corey closed his eyes. Why am I stressing about the tournament? he thought. We’ll probably never make it there alive.
The Orioles’ going-away party was held at Coach’s rambling farmhouse, which sat next to a small pond that shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. A large banner hung from the porch railing. Painted in orange and black letters, it said: GOOD LUCK, ORIOLES! HAVE A GREAT TOURNAMENT!
Mr. Noah dropped off Sammy and Corey at two o’clock. Mickey Labriogla, Coach’s son, greeted them at the door, chomping on the biggest hamburger either of them had ever seen.
“How do you even get that thing in your mouth?” Corey asked.
“It looks like a cannonball between two buns,” Sammy said.
“Made it myself,” Mickey said, grinning. “Mushed three burgers into one. Dad fired it up on the grill.”
“The kid’s a genius!” Sammy said. “Wish I had thought of that.”
Mickey was the Orioles catcher, a thickly built boy with a smile that seemed permanently on display. But as good-natured as Mickey was, the Orioles knew he was all business on a baseball diamond.
No one in the league was better at blocking pitches in the dirt and leaping for errant fastballs over the batter’s head. No catcher had a better arm and none blocked the plate as ferociously as Mickey did, either. Corey had seen countless base runners slide into Mickey’s shin guards trying to score, only to be stopped dead in their tracks. It was like sliding into a brick chimney with legs.
“Here’s today’s program, sports fans,” Mickey said, ushering them inside and wiping ketchup from his mouth with his sleeve. “Burgers and hot dogs are cooking out back. A couple of the guys are shooting baskets. And we’ll get a Wiffle ball game going as soon as everyone gets here.
“If I were you,” he continued, patting his ample belly, “I’d go for the food first. But that’s just me.”
“You? Go for the food?” Sammy said, nudging Corey. “That’s hard to believe.”
Mickey glared at him in mock outrage.
“Now look what you did, Sammy!” Corey said. “You hurt his feelings!”
“Hey, it’s not like I’ve been piggin’ out!” Mickey said. “Ask my dad. This is only my first burger!”
“Or third,” Sammy said. “Depending on how you do the math.”
“I’m counting it as one,” Mickey said, the grin returning. “My house, my rules.”
They followed Mickey out into the backyard, where Coach presided over a hot grill, plumes of smoke circling his head. He wore an orange Orioles T-shirt, black sweatpants, and a big, floppy chef’s hat. He waved to them with a big spatula in one hand.
“Don’t ask me to make what he’s eating,” Coach growled, pointing the spatula at Mickey, who popped the last of his burger in his mouth. “The boy could wipe out the entire ground-beef aisle at Sam’s Club.”
“A small price to pay for the privilege of coaching the best catcher in the league!” Mickey said. He flexed his biceps and danced about wildly, which cracked up everyone, even Coach.
Soon the rest of the team arrived and the yard was a sea of noise as the Orioles talked excitedly about the upcoming tournament and their week in North Carolina.
After lunch, most of them played two-on-two basketball, switching teams every six points so everyone got in. Corey was having such a good time he almost forgot he was the only Oriole not looking forward to the tournament.
But when they stopped playing and plopped down in the cool grass to rest, a strange feeling came over him.
There was something different about this cookout, he thought, something that made it even more fun than the others they’d had. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on…
Then it hit him: Katelyn wasn’t there.
Yes, that was it. No one had called him nerd, or pointed out his lack of table manners, or complained about how much ketchup he’d slathered on his burger. And when they had played hoops, no one had elbowed him in the ribs as he went up for a rebound, or hooted when he missed a jump shot.
He glanced around the Labrioglas’ backyard again, thinking he might have missed Katelyn with all the Orioles running around. But no, there was no sign of her.
“Where’s Wonder Girl?” he asked Sammy.
“She’s not here?” Sammy said, scanning the crowd. “Hmm, you’re right. Now, why is that?” He scrambled to his feet. “As the great Harry Potter said, ‘We must investigate! Follow me, Ron Weasley!’”
They found Coach still hard at work over the grill. Beads of perspiration dotted his red face as he fired up the last half-dozen burgers for anyone still hungry.
“Coach,” Sammy said casually, “where’s our star right fielder?”
“Couldn’t make it,” Coach said, fanning smoke from his eyes. “Apparently she’s not feeling well.”
Corey and Sammy looked at each other, then quickly lowered their eyes, trying not to smile.
“Gee, that’s too bad,” Sammy said at last.
Coach nodded gravely. “Her mom says Katelyn’s pretty sick,” he added. “Could be the flu. She might miss the whole tournament, poor kid.”
“Oh,” Corey said, hoping he sounded sincere. “That would be…terrible.”
- On Sale
- Mar 4, 2014
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers