By Kevin Cowherd
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Robbie Hammond is the hardest throwing pitcher in the Babe Ruth League. But what good is all that heat when he can't seem to find the plate? With Robbie struggling, the Orioles are suffering through a nightmare season, still looking for their first win. Robbie's teammates are whispering that the only reason he's even pitching is that he's the coach's kid. They've even given him a new nickname: Ball Four.
Books by Cal Ripken, Jr.
with Kevin Cowherd
Robbie Hammond stared in at the batter and tried to look intimidating. I need to work on my game face, he thought. Hitters don’t dig in against a pitcher with a good game face. Mine is lame. When I try to scowl, I look like a kid who needs to find a bathroom in a hurry.
He vowed to practice in front of the mirror when he got home, if his little sister wasn’t around to watch. It was hard to concentrate with Ashley cackling and shouting, “Mom, you gotta see this!”
Robbie got the sign from his catcher, Joey Zinno, and nodded. He went into his windup, kicked, and fired. The pitch was low and outside, but the Tigers batter swung anyway and missed for strike one.
“Yes!” Joey shouted, pointing at Robbie before whipping the ball back. “Now you’re dealing!”
Robbie exhaled slowly. Maybe that last pitch wasn’t a thing of beauty, he thought. It didn’t exactly split the plate. But it was the best one he’d thrown all day, which wasn’t saying much, seeing as how the Orioles were getting their butts kicked—again.
He glanced at the scoreboard behind the center field fence: Tigers 5, Orioles 0. And it was only the fourth inning, meaning there was still plenty of time for further disaster. Gazing at the stands, Robbie saw that the Orioles’ cheering section wasn’t exactly riveted by the action on the field, either. Two dads were talking on their cell phones. Another was pecking away at his laptop. One mom had her head buried in a book.
Even a couple of dogs tied to the fence looked bored. That’s how bad we are, Robbie thought. We even make pets yawn.
Still, as he wiped the perspiration from his brow, Robbie permitted himself a thin smile. At least he hadn’t given in to the batter. He’d gone after him, challenged him with his best pitch. He hadn’t walked him, the way he had with four other batters so far.
Then he heard it.
“BEND YOUR KNEES! FOLLOW THROUGH!”
There it was again. The same voice he’d been hearing since the season started two weeks ago—an annoying foghorn that conveyed more than a hint of impatience. If the voice had belonged to a kid, Robbie would’ve wanted to gag him and shove him into a closet.
The problem was, the voice belonged to his dad.
Robbie glanced over at the Orioles dugout. Ray Hammond was perched on the top step in his usual pose: shoulders hunched, hands jammed into the pockets of his blue Windbreaker, rocking back and forth on his heels. A thick man with a buzz cut under his O’s cap, he chomped furiously on a wad of gum the size of a golf ball.
Watching him, Robbie was glad his dad hadn’t discovered the joys of chewing sunflower seeds. The man would be spraying them like machine-gun fire about now.
“CONCENTRATE! PUT THIS GUY AWAY!”
Robbie sighed. Give it a rest, Dad, he thought. Let me at least enjoy this rare moment of triumph before I uncork one that sails over the backstop this time.
But his dad wasn’t about to stop yapping, Robbie knew.
No, as the new coach of the Orioles, his dad was a nervous wreck. Outwardly, Ray Hammond could fool you. As a Baltimore cop, he projected an air of calmness and authority. And why not? In his sixteen-year career, he’d been decorated numerous times for coolness and bravery in the line of duty.
Just a few months ago, he had answered a call about a domestic dispute and stood in a kitchen, across from a distraught man waving a knife. It took over an hour, but eventually Robbie’s dad talked the guy into putting down the knife and surrendering. For that, Sgt. Hammond was awarded the Bronze Star, one of the police department’s highest honors.
No, there wasn’t much that seemed to rattle Ray Hammond—until he took over the Orioles. Here he was less certain of himself, Robbie knew, still finding his way as a rookie coach. And it didn’t help that his kid, supposedly the best pitcher on the team, couldn’t find the strike zone with a GPS. Or that the Orioles weren’t hitting, either, and kept discovering new and innovative ways to lose.
Maybe the rest of the Orioles couldn’t tell, but Robbie knew his dad was stressing in his new role. And one way Coach Hammond dealt with the stress was to bark nonstop advice to his players, in a voice you could hear in Canada.
Coach Motormouth, some of the kids called him when they thought Robbie couldn’t hear them. But Robbie heard everything—everything his dad said, and everything his teammates said, too. Which was part of the problem.
“JUST RELAX OUT THERE!”
Oh, that’s helpful, Robbie thought. Telling a pitcher who’s wild and down 5–0 to relax. A little late for that, isn’t it?
Besides, if you yelled at someone to relax, didn’t it have the opposite effect?
Wouldn’t it be better to use a soothing voice—your indoor voice—to calm your rattled pitcher?
No wonder baseball wasn’t nearly as much fun this season. Even though he was short for his age, with stubby arms and legs that he feared made him look like SpongeBob, Robbie had always been the best pitcher at every level he played. “You got a live arm, son,” his coaches had always said.
At the prestigious Brooks Robinson Camp last summer, he had mowed down one batter after another in the intra-squad games. Brooks Robinson himself, the great Hall of Fame third baseman, had watched from the sidelines and said to one of the coaches, “The boy sure has some giddyup on that fastball.”
But that was then.
That was before it happened. The thing with Stevie Altman.
Oh, Robbie still had plenty of—what was it again?—“giddyup” on his pitches. He still threw harder than anyone else in the league. But lately, more often than not, he had no idea where the ball was going when it left his hand.
And now that the Orioles had lost their first six games of the season, his dad was barking at him a lot. Which didn’t seem to happen to any of the other Orioles, Robbie noticed.
Now the Tigers batter dug in again. But this time he was crowding the plate, hunched over the inside corner as he waved his bat menacingly in the air.
Seeing this, Robbie froze. Shouldn’t the kid step back a little? Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do? Shouldn’t he tuck that elbow in so he doesn’t—?
“Time!” a voice behind him yelled. Willie Pitts, the Orioles’ speedy second baseman, trotted to the mound. He was joined by Connor Sullivan, the big shortstop, and Jordy Marsh, the first baseman.
None of them seemed happy.
Great, Robbie thought. More teammates thrilled with my performance.
“Dude,” Willie said sternly, “you’re thinking too much.”
Robbie nodded sheepishly. “Yeah,” he said. “I tend to do that.”
“Don’t!” Connor said. “Just throw the ball over the plate.”
“Yeah, try that,” Willie said. “By the way, the plate is that white thing up there. In between the batter’s boxes.”
“The thing the ump keeps dusting off,” Jordy added helpfully.
With that, the three looked at one another, rolled their eyes, and trotted back to their positions.
“Thanks,” Robbie murmured. “I feel much better now.”
Actually, what he felt was a familiar tightening in his stomach, something that seemed to happen a lot lately when he pitched.
Okay, no thinking, he told himself. Just throw it.
Robbie got the sign from Joey again, wound up, and fired a fastball. It skipped in the dirt. Ball one. The next pitch, another fastball, was high. Ball two. Robbie could see that the kid at the plate wasn’t going to help, either.
No, the kid was no dummy. He had learned his lesson. He wasn’t swinging at any more junk out of the strike zone. Instead he stood there like a statue, bat on his shoulder, as Robbie skipped two more pitches in the dirt and the umpire cried, “Ball four!”
With a smirk, the kid tossed his bat aside and trotted down to first base.
The rest of the inning seemed to take forever.
Robbie walked the next batter on five pitches. He walked the batter after that on six pitches. Bases loaded. He was so nervous now, he was almost nauseated.
Oh, God, he thought, please don’t let me hurl, too. I’m embarrassed enough without spewing in front of all these people.
But for the first time all game, the Orioles caught a break.
The next Tigers batter, a hulking kid named Ramon who Robbie recognized from gym class, swung at an outside pitch and looped a weak flare over second base. Willie and Yancy Arroyo, the Orioles center fielder, both gave chase. For an instant, the ball looked like trouble. But Yancy called off Willie and made a running one-handed catch at the last second for the third out.
Robbie was never happier to get off the mound. Mike Cutko was scheduled to pitch the last two innings for the Orioles, which was fine with Robbie. He was done for the day—in more ways than one.
Oh, he was so-o-o done.
As he neared the dugout, his dad gave him a high five and said, “Way to get out of that jam.” But Robbie knew his dad was just trying to be encouraging. Or maybe he felt guilty about riding his kid so hard.
Whatever, Robbie thought, the drive home should be fun. He pictured his dad with one meaty hand draped over the steering wheel, quiet and unsmiling, worried about whether he was doing a crappy job coaching the Orioles, and wondering why his kid was struggling so much with his control.
Taking a long swig from his water bottle, Robbie was struck by another thought: I wonder if it’s too late to go out for lacrosse?
Robbie was slumped on the couch watching TV when he felt something bounce off the top of his head—Boink! Boink! He pretended to ignore it. Casually he reached for the remote.
Boink! Boink! There it was again. Robbie sighed. She won’t go away, he thought. She never goes away. I know exactly what she wants, too.
Boink! Boink! He whipped his head around. Sure enough, there was his mom, smiling and holding out a Ping-Pong ball and two paddles as if they were weapons for a duel.
“You want to get schooled again?” she said. “Huh? Because I’ll beat you like a rented mule.”
Despite his lousy mood, Robbie couldn’t help grinning. He had to give her credit: his mom was the best trash-talker in the whole world—better than any kid Robbie knew. Better than most pro athletes, for that matter.
Other kids’ moms were friendly and talkative, sure. But there was no one like Mary Hammond. “Loud and proud,” was how his dad described her. And she was wickedly funny when she trash-talked, too. Whenever Robbie’s friends came over, she’d challenge them to one-on-one basketball in the driveway, or Wii games, or Monopoly—anything you could compete in. Most of the time his friends would be laughing so hard at her nonstop chatter that they could barely concentrate.
“You try being married to a cop and being Little Miss Demure,” his mom once said of her personality. “Doesn’t work. You’d get squashed like a bug.”
His mom was no bug. She’d been a terrific athlete at the University of Maryland, a star second baseman on the softball team, and one of the best diggers the volleyball team had ever had. Robbie had seen old grainy video of her laying out for ground balls and throwing herself around the polished volleyball court, and he wondered how she hadn’t landed in the emergency room after every game.
She brought the same hard-charging mentality to everything she did in life, including her business: Catering by Mary (“Affordable Elegance for All Occasions”). Robbie feared that his mom’s in-your-face attitude may have been what led his twin sister to go to boarding school this year. Though he would never admit it publicly, he missed having Jackie around the house—if only to divert some of his mom’s attention.
“What’s the matter?” she said, tossing Robbie a paddle. “Afraid to play me?” She flapped her arms as if they were wings. “Chicken? Bawwk! Bawwk! Bawwk! Bawwk!”
Robbie shook his head and laughed. “Okay, that does it,” he said, clicking off the TV. “Your beat-down will be extra severe this time.”
“Oooooh, now he’s mad!” his mom said, rumpling his hair playfully. “I’m so sc-a-a-a-red!”
Seconds later they were bounding downstairs to the family room and the dark green Ping-Pong table, gleaming under the harsh fluorescent lighting.
“How was your game last night?” his mom asked as she straightened the net. “Sorry I missed it. Work is nuts. We’ve got three weddings this weekend. Did the Orioles finally win?”
Robbie groaned inwardly. For the past twenty-four hours he’d been doing everything he could to forget the game. Forget the final score: Tigers 6, Orioles 2. Forget the fact he couldn’t hit the ocean—never mind the strike zone—with his pitches. Forget the growing feeling that he was letting down the team, and letting down his dad.
No, he didn’t feel like getting into all that now.
“You wanna play, or you wanna talk?” he said, tossing the ball to his mom. “Your serve. Age before beauty.”
She narrowed her eyes and pretended to be outraged. “Oh, now it’s on!” she said. “You’re going down.”
But instead, Robbie quickly jumped out to a 10–5 lead. He was a strong all-around player with a good backhand—good enough to win his age-group championship at summer camp. But his mom was amazing at hitting the angles. And she had a tricky spin serve that made the ball shoot wildly off your paddle if you didn’t adjust for it.
Plus, Robbie thought, she has that not-so-secret weapon: her mouth.
“You can’t hold this lead!” his mom said as they volleyed furiously. “You’ll crack like a three-minute egg!”
This time Robbie said nothing. His dad was right: the only way to beat his mom when she started trash-talking was to tune her out. “Pretend it’s like static on the car radio,” his dad always said. “Just ignore it.”
But as the game went on, that was easier said than done. When he was leading 19–15, Robbie sailed two returns long and smacked his thigh in frustration.
“Aacckk!” his mom said, bugging out her eyes and wrapping both hands around her throat. “Is someone starting to choke? Someone need the Heimlich maneuver?”
But on the next point, she was the one who attempted a slam and sent it long. Robbie was at match point: 20–17. He looked at his mom. He could see the perspiration on her forehead. She was breathing hard too.
Again, he knew what was coming.
“Time-out!” she said, as if on cue. She put down her paddle and made a big show of elaborately fixing her ponytail.
“That’s so lame, Mom,” Robbie said, shaking his head.
“What?” she said innocently. “I’m not allowed to fix my hair?”
“Why don’t you put some fresh lipstick on, too?” Robbie said. “Anyway, it won’t work. You’re just delaying the inevitable.”
When she was finally ready, Robbie served. The two volleyed back and forth cautiously for a few seconds, each looking for an opening to attack. Finally, his mom slammed what looked to be a sure backhand winner on an impossible angle mid-table.
Except…somehow Robbie got to it.
He lunged to his right and hit an amazing forehand that struck the top of the net. For an instant, the ball seemed to hover in the air. Then it dinked over for the winning point.
“NO-O-O-O!” his mother wailed, collapsing to the floor and laying facedown on the carpet.
Robbie shrugged and tossed his paddle on the table. “My work here is done,” he said. He swiped a hand across his forehead. “Look at that. Didn’t even work up a sweat.”
“Oh, you’re a cruel kid!” his mom said. She got to her feet and pretended to stagger over to the small refrigerator in the corner. She pulled out two water bottles and handed one to Robbie.
“This will haunt me forever,” she said, plopping down on the sofa and running the cool bottle across her forehead. “I might never live it down.”
Robbie sat and put an arm around her shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t tell anyone. Except Dad. And Jackie. And Ashley. And all my friends in school. And everyone on the Orioles.”
His mom smiled wearily and blew a stray hair out of her face. “Speaking of the Orioles,” she said, “tell me about the game.”
Robbie frowned and pulled his arm away. “Didn’t Dad already tell you about it?”
She turned to look at him. “Maybe I want to hear from the player’s perspective.”
“It was okay,” he said with a shrug.
“That’s it? ‘Okay’?” his mom said. “Can we have a few details? Like maybe the score? And how my favorite son pitched?”
Robbie took a gulp of water. “Tigers beat us six–two,” he said quietly. “Your favorite son gave up a lot of walks. Again.”
“Yuck!” his mom said.
Robbie nodded. “I didn’t even want to pitch. Not the way I’ve been going. But Dad says I have the best arm in the whole league.”
“Not to mention lightning-fast reflexes,” she said, gesturing toward the Ping-Pong table. “You just have to hang in there till your confidence comes back.”
“You sound just like Dad.”
“Who do you think coaches him?” his mom asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Seriously, he’s right.” She patted Robbie’s hand. “You’ll be back. You were always a great pitcher.”
“Thanks for the use of the past tense,” Robbie said morosely.
“Oh, you know what I mean,” his mom said. She leaned over and kissed his forehead. For a moment, they sat in silence, sipping their water.
Finally his mom cleared her throat and said softly: “Do you still think about it? You know, what happened with Stevie?”
Robbie closed his eyes and felt a shiver go through him.
Do I still think about it?
Only every time I pick up a baseball.
He remembered it like it was yesterday: last summer’s all-star game, Eddie Murray Field manicured and shimmering like a green oasis in the afternoon sunshine, the bleachers filled, Robbie Hammond on the mound for the South team, throwing serious heat.
He had mowed down the first two North batters with six straight fastballs, drawing low murmurs of approval from the crowd. The third batter managed a weak grounder to second and tossed his helmet in disgust. But that was just for show. Robbie could tell the kid was just grateful to make any kind of contact at all against a pitcher throwing seventy-plus miles per hour.
In the second inning, the North’s cleanup hitter, a tall kid with dark hair and thick, muscular shoulders, strolled to the plate. Right away Robbie could tell there was something different about him.
The kid was chewing a big wad of bubble gum and seemed perfectly relaxed. There was no fear in his eyes. At the sight of him, the North parents and siblings all seemed to perk up, as if they were about to witness something special.
Maybe it was Robbie’s imagination, but he seemed to remember the PA announcer giving the kid’s introduction a little extra zing, too:
“NOW BATTING FOR THE NORTH ALL-STARS, NUM-BAH 12, STEE-VEE ALT-MANNNNN!”
The kid had stepped into the batter’s box like he owned it. He took his time digging in, holding his right hand up and signaling the ump that he wasn’t ready yet, the same way Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees always did.
Once he was set, he took three unhurried practice swings. Then he cocked his bat and looked serenely at Robbie as if to say: Okay, it’s showtime. Let’s see what you got.
Robbie was astounded. Will you look at this big jerk? he thought. Who does he think he is?
Instantly Robbie made a silent vow: This kid’s going down. On three pitches. Just like the others.
But his first pitch to the kid, a nasty fastball, just missed inside for ball one. The kid made no attempt to swing. Instead he seemed to study the pitch with mild curiosity. Then he nodded to himself, stepped out of the batter’s box, and took a few more easy swings.
Robbie’s second pitch was even nastier, a missile that split the middle of the plate and smacked into the catcher’s mitt with a loud thwack!
Again the kid stepped out and took a practice swing. And this time he calmly blew a huge bubble, as if he’d seen plenty of fastballs and those last two were no big deal.
Now Robbie could feel his irritation rising and the adrenaline pumping through him. The kid was playing games with him! Mocking him! Showing him up!
What is the deal with this guy? Robbie thought, gritting his teeth.
He went into a full windup, kicked high, and fired as hard as he could. Looking back on it now, it was probably the hardest pitch he had ever thrown in his life. But as soon as it left his hand, he knew something was terribly wrong.
Instead of heading for the outside part of the plate, the ball was tailing inside. Way inside. It kept tailing and tailing, as if in slow motion. In the next instant it plunked Stevie Altman square on the batting helmet, right above the left earflap. It sounded like a gunshot.
- On Sale
- Mar 5, 2013
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers