The Closer


By Cal Ripken Jr.

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The final book in the out-of-the-park series by legendary short-stop and a veteran sportswriter Cal Ripkin.

Danny Connolly is a back-up pitcher with the Dulaney Orioles. He knows what that means: not good enough to start. When he does get into games, he hasn't exactly been the shut-down reliever the team needs. To make matters worse, he's playing in the shadow of his older brother, Joey, a lights-out high school lefty with a 90-mph fastball who's attracting lots of attention from college recruiters and major league scouts. It's bad enough that Danny's parents seem to fawn over Joey and barely talk about what Danny does in his games. But now, as his big brother's mound exploits draw more and more attention, Danny's starting to get the why-aren't-you-as-good-as-Joey comments from the Orioles, too. The pressure to live up to Joey's success is stifling.

Lonely and frustrated, Danny embarks on a secret project designed to make his family and teammates sit up and take notice. Aided by a mysterious stranger with an uncanny knowledge of the aerodynamics of a thrown baseball, he attempts to learn a new pitch. A pitch no one has ever seen before. The clock is ticking on Danny as the O's try to repeat as league champions. But if his audacious plan works and he can master the magical fluttering pitch known as "The Terminator," he'll soon be the talk of the league — and the dependable closer the Orioles desperately need.


Also by Cal Ripken, Jr.

with Kevin Cowherd


Super Slugger

Wild Pitch

Squeeze Play

Out at Home

As soon as the pitch left his hand, Danny Connolly thought, Uh-oh.

The ball had come off his sweat-slicked fingers all wrong. Now it was floating gently to the plate, a weak waist-high fastball destined to be launched into orbit—possibly all the way to the International Space Station—by the glowering Red Sox batter.

Maybe the kid won’t swing, Danny thought. Maybe he’ll be so shocked at how lame the pitch is that he’ll just burst out laughing.

But that was wishful thinking.

No, the boy’s eyes were lighting up already, like it was a bacon-and-cheese-stuffed pizza sailing toward him. His hips were starting to turn. His shoulders were uncoiling. His bat was moving forward.

Danny winced. This was not going to be good.

What followed was a loud PING! that sounded like a coin dropped on a dinner plate. By the time he whipped his head around, the ball was arching over the left-field fence for a three-run homer, and the kid was doing a slow trot around the bases—slow enough to wave to his mother, his sisters and brothers, his grandparents, and every other person in the stands.

Bet he even waves to his dog, Danny thought, kicking at the dirt in disgust.

He looked at the scoreboard and sighed. Red Sox 4, Orioles 1. So much for following Coach’s instructions.

“Just hold ’em this inning and we’ll find a way to win,” Coach had said, handing Danny the ball, clapping him on the back, and flashing a smile that was meant to be reassuring.

Danny stole a quick glance at the Orioles dugout. No, Coach wasn’t smiling anymore. Instead, he looked as if someone had just rear-ended his car.

Even before the umpire fished another ball from his pocket, Sammy Noah, the Orioles shortstop, called time and jogged to the mound. He was followed by Ethan Novitsky, the rangy first baseman.

Neither of them looked happy.

“What…was that?” Sammy said.

Danny hung his head.

“I know, I know….” he said. “My bad. Ugly pitch.”

Seriously ugly,” Ethan said. “My little brother throws harder than that.”

Danny managed a weak smile.

“Can you get your little brother on your phone?” Danny asked. “We may need him, the way this is going.”

The two boys just stared at him.

“What?” Danny said. “Not the time for jokes?”

“Uh, probably not,” Sammy said. “Instead of working on your lines, work on getting this next guy out, okay?”

He looked at Ethan and the two rolled their eyes before heading back to their positions.

As he bent down and grabbed the resin bag, it occurred to Danny that sometimes jokes were the only thing that kept his spirits up in games like this.

The truth was, he was having a crappy season so far as the Orioles backup pitcher. Oh, he knew what backup meant, of course. Backup meant not good enough to start. Backup meant we’ll get you in there when we can, kid. Now zip it and grab some bench.

And with hard-throwing Zach “Zoom” Winslow on the team, a tall right-hander who could touch 80 mph on the radar gun, Danny knew the O’s had a marquee starter who was one of the top pitchers in the league. Not to mention way better than Danny.

Which he could live with—at least for now.

The problem was, when he did get into games, Danny hadn’t exactly been a shutdown reliever either.

That’s what Danny wanted to be: the closer. When he went with his family to Camden Yards to watch the big-league Orioles play, he loved seeing the bullpen doors swing open in the ninth inning of a tight game and Zach Britton, their closer, come strutting out to the mound.

With the crowd on its feet and cheering madly, the closer would chomp furiously on his gum, glare at the batters, and blow them away one-two-three to preserve the win.

The closer came in to put out the fire—everyone knew that. But in his last five or six outings, Danny had been hit hard. And when he wasn’t hit hard, he’d given up way too many walks.

He sure hadn’t been putting out any fires. In fact, his teammates were starting to call him “Gas Can” Connolly for his habit of taking the mound and making the fire worse.

Great, Danny thought. A horrible new nickname to haunt me for the rest of the season.

Things were going so badly that, warming up in his backyard earlier in the afternoon, he’d even sailed a pitch over the bounce-back net and shattered a window in his next-door neighbor’s house.

Cranky old Mr. Spinelli hadn’t been home at the time, which was a lucky break. And Danny had slipped a note under the man’s front door, taking responsibility for the accident. But he knew the gloomy geezer would go thermonuclear once he spotted all that broken glass.

Oh, well, he thought. I’ll worry about that later.

He took a deep breath and tried to refocus on the Red Sox. Two outs. One more and at least they’d be out of the inning.

As the next batter dug in, Danny peered in for the sign from Mickey Labriogla, the O’s catcher. Mickey put down three fingers: changeup.

Danny couldn’t believe his eyes. A changeup? What was the plan here—to just give the game away?

To bore the other team to death?

Here he’d just thrown possibly the slowest pitch ever recorded in the history of youth baseball, and the batter had crushed it. And now his catcher was calling for another off-speed pitch? Another meatball that might end up in yet another galaxy far, far away?

Why don’t we just throw underhand from now on?

Then he caught himself. Maybe Mickey knew something about the batter that Danny didn’t. Maybe Mickey knew the kid was so geeked to swing for the fences that he might screw himself into the ground with some slow junk.

In any event, Danny wasn’t about to shake off his catcher, who also happened to be the best catcher in the league and Coach’s son. He nodded, took a deep breath, and went into his windup.

One changeup coming up.


This time the batter lashed a towering drive into the gap in right center. Danny’s heart sank as he watched center fielder Corey Maduro and right fielder Katelyn Morris turn and race after it.

But at the last moment, it was Katelyn who ran it down, making a lunging over-the-shoulder catch before tumbling to the ground and raising her glove high to show she had the ball.

As the Orioles fans in the stands cheered wildly, Danny breathed a sigh of relief and headed for the dugout.

“Saved your butt—again,” Katelyn hissed as the Orioles hustled off the field. “You totally owe me, nerd.”

Good ol’ Katelyn, Danny thought, shaking his head.

Encouraging as ever. Always ready to pick you up when you’re feeling down.

Danny took a seat on the bench, and Mickey plopped down beside him. The big catcher’s bushy red hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat. He grabbed a towel and began wiping his face.

“I wonder if I might make a suggestion,” he began.

“If it’s ‘Why don’t you give up pitching and take up the tuba,’ I’m way ahead of you,” Danny said dejectedly. “And I’m not even sure I could lift a tuba, let alone play it.”

Mickey grinned and shook his head.

“No, my suggestion is this: next time I call for a changeup in that situation, you call time, okay? Then walk to the plate and smack me upside the head.”

Danny looked up and saw that Mickey’s eyes were twinkling. This was the great thing about the O’s catcher: win or lose, he was always in a great mood. Which was why he was one of Danny’s best friends.

No one loved the game more than Mickey did. And this, Danny knew, was Mickey’s way of trying to make him feel better. The big guy was taking some of the blame for the near-disastrous consequences of that last pitch.

Danny couldn’t help but grin, too.

“Deal,” he said, and the two bumped fists.

“Good,” Mickey said. “One more thing: you throw nothing but fastballs next inning, okay? No matter how many fat little fingers I put down. Just throw hard and don’t worry about it.”

But the sixth inning was almost as rocky for Danny as the previous one. He struggled with his control from the outset. He walked the first two batters before giving up a ground-rule double, the ball skipping over the fence and nearly hitting an old man in a straw hat and sunglasses who was watching from the shade of a tree.

A comebacker to the mound and a nice catch by first baseman Ethan Novitsky in foul territory kept the Red Sox runner at second base before Danny struck out the leadoff batter to end the inning. But the damage was done. And when the Orioles failed to rally in their half of the inning, Danny found himself feeling even worse.

Final score: Red Sox 6, Orioles 1.

It was their second loss in a row, and third in the last five games. As he listened to Coach’s postgame remarks—it was the usual stuff about keeping their heads up and working hard and blah, blah, blah—Danny realized with a jolt that his lousy pitching had played a major role in all three of the team’s losses.

The thought nearly made him sick to his stomach.

Mickey, Katelyn, and some of the others were going for ice cream, but Danny couldn’t bring himself to join them and fake being in a good mood. Instead, he gathered up his gear, trudged out to the parking lot, and plunked himself down on the curb to wait for his mom.

At dusk, her SUV finally pulled in. When she rolled up next to him and powered down the window, he could see she was beaming.

Here it comes, he thought.

“Joey was awesome this afternoon!” his mom said.

Of course he was, Danny thought. Joey’s always awesome.

“They beat the other team—the Titans, I think it was—five–nothing,” she went on. “Your brother threw a three-hitter.”

Hmm, Danny thought. Only a three-hitter? Must have the flu or something.

“The other team didn’t have a prayer,” his mom said. “Oh, Joey didn’t have his best game. But he still struck out nine.”

Danny cocked an eyebrow. Under double-digits in K’s, too? Get that kid to the emergency room!

He threw his gear in the backseat and climbed in. Pulling on his seat belt, he counted down silently: three, two, one. As if on cue, his mom launched into a play-by-play of Joey’s Metro League game as they pulled out onto the highway and headed home.

“Joey seemed a little nervous in the first inning, maybe because of all the scouts….” she began.

This had become her routine since Joey’s terrific junior season in high school had ended two months earlier, after he’d posted a glittering 8–0 record and college recruiters and pro scouts began appearing at his games.

Now that he was playing summer ball and lighting up the league for the Mid-Atlantic Marauders, his games often fell on the same night as Danny’s. But both his mom and dad had been spending the bulk of their time at Joey’s games, swept up in the excitement of their older son’s exploits. And when Joey’s games were over, it was usually his mom who was dispatched to pick up Danny.

On these nights, with her younger son trapped in the front seat beside her, she’d invariably launch into what Danny called “The All About Joey Hour.”

“Your dad said there were at least four scouts there,” she continued. “Plus there were two other guys with clipboards along the right-field fence….”

Danny shook his head softly. Clipboards? They didn’t even have iPads? What kind of loser organizations did they work for?

“Anyway, Joey’s fastball was all over the place at first,” his mom droned on. “But then he started to settle down. And by the second inning he was really locked in….”

Danny stared straight ahead at the traffic on I-83. As usual, he quickly tuned his mom out. He’d been listening to this stuff for weeks and considered it a uniquely painful form of torture, given how badly he himself was pitching.

It was not until they were on York Road, only a few miles from home, that his mom glanced over and realized her younger son had yet to say a word.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, sweetie,” she said, shaking her head. “Didn’t even ask about your game. How awful of me! Tell me how the Orioles did.”

Danny looked out the window. The truth was, he loved seeing how happy his mom was after Joey threw a good game, how proud she seemed. He never wanted to spoil these moments. After all, he was as proud and happy for his brother as anyone else.

“We lost to the Red Sox,” he said finally. “But it’s okay. Coach said we played well. He didn’t kill anybody in his little talk after the game.”

His mother nodded and smiled. “And how did my favorite Oriole do? Get to pitch?”

Danny stared out at the darkness again. What was the point of getting into all that now? Why tell her that her younger son—good ol’ Gas Can himself—had come on in relief of Zoom and turned a smoldering trash-can fire into a towering inferno?

“I pitched a couple of innings,” he said with a shrug. “Did okay, I guess.”

Yes, it was a white lie. But he didn’t want to watch his mom’s face cloud over with concern, as it always did when she heard he hadn’t pitched well. The way she looked at him—you’d think he’d just been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

She reached over and patted him on the arm.

“I’m sure you did just fine,” she said. Then, after a pause: “Now, in the fourth inning, Joey had to face the middle of their batting order….”

Danny sighed. Up ahead, he could see the streetlamps winking on as they turned into his neighborhood.

But “The All About Joey Hour” was still going strong.

And as usual, there were no commercial interruptions.

Danny was lying across his bed, fingers dancing over the controller as he merrily wiped out the security robots of the evil Alistair Smythe, Spider-Man’s archenemy.

After all, what was the point of being bitten by a genetically altered spider and given the awesome power of a million arachnids if you couldn’t dish out payback to the bad guys?

Suddenly something hit his ear. He looked down to see a wet washcloth.

He turned to see his brother standing in the doorway smiling broadly. Joey was naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist.

“Mom! Dad! There’s a sicko-pervert in my room!” Danny yelled, turning back to the video game. “Somebody call 911!”

Joey took a few steps and launched himself into the air with a loud “AAAIIEEEYAH!” He landed with a thud on Danny’s back. The two went crashing to the floor as Joey laughed hysterically.

Quickly Joey pounced on his brother. He took hold of Danny’s wrists, crossed Danny’s arms, and pulled them back and around Danny’s neck.

“Oh, he gets him in the Japanese Stranglehold!” Joey said, imitating the frenzied tone of a pro wrestling announcer. “The pain must be unbearable! Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t see how this match can continue much longer!”

“Doesn’t…hurt…at…all,” Danny wheezed.

Then Joey put him in a headlock, squeezing around both ears.

“Now look!” he continued in announcer mode. “The wily veteran hits his opponent with the Brain Buster! Blood flow to the cerebral cortex stops in ten seconds! In twenty seconds, paralysis and even death can occur! For the love of God, somebody please stop the match!”

Somehow, with his face mashed into the carpet, Danny managed to croak, “Still…doesn’t…hurt.”

Only when Joey pulled him up by the hair, crooked an arm under his neck, and shouted, “No! Not the dreaded Sleeper Hold!” did Danny gasp, “Okay, okay…I…surrender!”

Joey shot to his feet and thrust his hands in the air. “Still the undisputed one-hundred-and-seventy-five-pound champion of the World Wrestling Federation!” he cried, dancing around the room. “The crowd is going wild! Listen to the chants of this sellout crowd: ‘JO-EY! JO-EY!’”

“No, they’re chanting ‘WEIRD-O! WEIRD-O!’” Danny said, scowling and massaging his neck. “Why do I have to go through this every time you’re a little bored?”

“Gotta work on my wrestling moves, bro,” Joey said, flopping on the other bed. “And you’re fresh meat.”

He shot to his feet and flexed his biceps. Then, kissing each one lovingly, he pointed at Danny and shouted, “You can run, fool, but you can’t hide!”

As usual, Danny couldn’t help cracking up at his brother’s antics.

This was how it always went. The truth was that Danny loved horsing around with Joey, even though these sessions generally ended with Danny being planted headfirst in the clothes hamper or tossed unceremoniously in the closet like an old duffel bag.

Despite the gap in their ages—Joey was a rising senior at Stevenson High while Danny was going into eighth grade at York Middle—the two brothers had always been close. Whenever he was home, Joey always made a point of stopping by Danny’s room at the end of the day to talk or joke around, even if it was just for a minute or two.

“Heard you were All-World in Metro League again today,” Danny said, retrieving the controller from the floor.

Joey shrugged. “I was okay. The Titans don’t have too many sticks in that lineup. Don’t let anybody tell you I was great, ’cause I wasn’t.”

“I don’t know,” Danny said. “‘The All About Joey Hour’ had you mowing them down like Clayton Kershaw.”

Joey grinned knowingly. “Mom gets a little carried away, doesn’t she? Want some advice? Start wearing headphones on the ride home. Then you won’t have to listen to that stuff.”

That was another thing Danny admired about his brother: Joey never took himself too seriously. Even though everyone in town—including his two starstruck parents—seemed to be buzzing about the seemingly boundless future he had as a major league prospect, Joey didn’t let it affect him. He was as modest and unassuming now as he had been two years ago, when he’d struggled as an inconsistent starter with an ugly delivery and big-time control problems on the Stevenson jayvee team.

“How ’bout you?” Joey said, sitting down again. “Did you light it up for the O’s tonight?”

Danny snorted and shook his head.

“Not really,” he said. “The truth is, I sucked. I mean, really, really sucked. If I was on a baseball card, that’s what they’d put underneath my photo: ‘Danny Connolly, right-hander. Five feet seven, one hundred and fifty pounds. Lifetime stats: Don’t bother. He sucks.’”

Joey’s eyes widened. “Whoa! What’s going on here? Someone get hit hard tonight?”

“More like for the past three weeks,” Danny said mournfully.

“Gotta stay positive, little bro,” said Joey. “It’s the only way to be in this—”

Danny cut him off. “You want positive? Okay, how’s this: I positively suck. I don’t know where my fastball’s going. My curve is nonexistent. And every time I throw a changeup, they hit it so far you need a passport to retrieve it.”

“Great line,” Joey said. “Except you stole it from SportsCenter.

Danny nodded. “Guilty as charged. See? Not only don’t I have a future in baseball—I don’t have one as a sports anchor, either.”

He turned back to the video game and pretended to concentrate. But he could feel Joey’s eyes boring into the back of his head. And since Joey was being quiet, that meant he was thinking.

Danny knew exactly what he was thinking, too.

“Anything I can do to help?” Joey said finally.

Danny shook his head softly. Good ol’ Joey. Always the first to look after his little brother; the first to worry about him when things went wrong.

Whenever Danny had a problem with any of the kids in the neighborhood, Joey would come to the rescue, defusing the situation before Danny started running his mouth and possibly got his butt beat.

It was the same at York Middle. Like when Danny had had an issue with Mr. Ferguson, his math teacher. Joey, who’d had Mr. F previously, made it a point to drop by the classroom after school. With his breezy manner and disarming smile, Joey had regaled Mr. F with stories about what a good kid and dedicated student Danny was—even though both brothers knew that last part wasn’t exactly true. More like a load of bull, actually. But it had worked.

“Only way you could help,” Danny said mournfully now, “would be to take the mound for me on Friday, when we play the Indians. Only I’m pretty sure the Indians would get suspicious when you tried squeezing into one of our uniforms. It’d be like Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk. You’d be shredding those sleeves.”



    "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. "

    ". . . 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

On Sale
Mar 7, 2017
Page Count
208 pages

Cal Ripken Jr.

About the Author

Cal Ripken, Jr. was a shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles for his entire career (1981-2001). Nicknamed "The Iron Man" for his relentless work ethic and reliability on the field, Ripken is most remembered for playing a record 2,632 straight games over 17 seasons. He was a 19-time All-Star and is considered to be one of the best shortstops professional baseball has ever seen. In 2007 he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Since his retirement, Ripken has worked as President and CEO of Ripken Baseball, Inc. to nurture the love of baseball in young children from a grassroots level. His Cal Ripkin Baseball Division is a division of the Babe Ruth League and welcomes players ages 4-12. Cal currently lives in Maryland with his wife and two children.

Kevin Cowherd has been a writer for the Baltimore Sun since 1987, is nationally syndicated by the Los Angeles Times – Washington Post news service, and is the author of Last Call at the 7-Eleven, a book of selected writings published by Bancroft Press. In 1990 he was honored by the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors for excellence in feature writing. He currently writes a sports column and blog for the Baltimore Sun. He is also a humorist, and an experienced Little League coach. He lives with his wife and three children near Baltimore.

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