Six weeks later, the Harpooners strode across the tarmac at the tiny Green Bay airport, wind whipping their faces, WAD-emblazoned bags slung over their shoulders. Everyone but Henry nodded to the beat of his headphones’ music. It was a clear, cold day, the temperature in the twenties, but they were dressed for their destination, no jackets or sweaters allowed. The plane’s propellers pureed the air. Dry week-old snow swept across the runway in windblown sine curves. Henry threw back his shoulders and walked as tall as his five-nine frame would allow, just like every road-tripping athlete he’d ever seen on TV. They were headed to Florida to play baseball, all expenses paid.
They were staying at a Motel 4 an hour inland from the Clearwater Municipal Baseball Complex. The older guys slept two to a bed; the freshpersons slept on cots. Henry was assigned to Schwartz and Arsch’s room. He lay awake the whole first night, listening to Meat’s plane-engine snoring and the tortured cries of the springs as the two sophomores, five hundred pounds between them, battled in their sleep for control of the supposedly queen-size bed. Henry closed his eyes, wrapped the smoky vinyl drapes around his head, and counted the minutes until their first real outdoor practice.
The next morning, a Saturday, they loaded onto the bus and drove to the complex—eight plush and lovely diamonds laid out in adjacent circles of four diamonds each. The dew twinkled in the buttery Florida sunlight. Henry, as he jogged out to short for infield drills, spun and launched into a backflip, staggering only slightly on the landing.
“Damn, Skrim!” yelled Starblind from center field. “Where’d that come from?”
Henry didn’t know. He tried to remember the footwork he’d used, but the moment had passed. Sometimes your body just did what it wanted to.
“You should try out for gymnastics,” Tennant said. “You’re about the right size.”
During batting practice, Henry scaled the left-field fence and stood in the parking lot to shag the amazing moonshots that Two Thirty Toover kept hitting. “Welcome back, Jim,” Coach Cox cheered, as ball after ball soared easily over the wall. “We missed you.”
Mild-eyed Jim Toover had just returned from a Mormon mission to Argentina. Jim was six-six and had a long, powerful swing. They called him Two Thirty because that was when the Harpooners took batting practice before home games. Now Henry was standing thirty feet beyond the fence, and the balls were raining down as if dropped from the clouds. Fans hustled out to the parking lot to move their cars. The teams on adjacent diamonds abandoned their drills to watch.
“But we wouldn’t call him Two Thirty,” Schwartz told Henry, “if he did it during games.”
“What does he do during games?”
That afternoon, the Harpooners played the Lions of Vermont State. DON’T CROSS THE STATE LIONS, read one long-traveled mother’s sign. Henry sat in the dugout between Owen and Rick O’Shea. Starblind had already been penciled into the starting lineup, as the center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Owen took a battery-powered reading light from his bag, clipped it to the brim of his cap, and opened a book called The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Henry and Rick would have found themselves doing shuttle drills and scrubbing helmets if they’d even thought about reading during a game, but Coach Cox had already stopped punishing Owen for his sins. Owen posed a conundrum where discipline was concerned, because he didn’t seem to care whether he played or not, and when screamed at he would listen and nod with interest, as if gathering data for a paper about apoplexy. He jogged during sprints, walked during jogs, napped in the outfield. Before long Coach Cox stopped screaming. In fact, Owen became his favorite player, the only one he didn’t have to worry about. When practice was filled with miscues, as it usually was, he would whisper mordant remarks to Owen from the corner of his mouth. Owen didn’t want anything from Coach Cox—not a starting job, or a better spot in the batting order, or even any advice—and so Coach Cox could afford to treat him as an equal. Much the same way, perhaps, that a priest appreciates his lone agnostic parishioner, the one who doesn’t want to be saved but keeps showing up for the stained glass and the singing. “There’s so much standing around,” Owen said when Henry asked him what he liked about the game. “And pockets in the uniforms.”
By the sixth inning against Vermont State, Henry could barely restrain his restlessness. “Kindly desist,” Owen said as Henry’s knees jittered and twitched. “I’m trying to read.”
“Sorry.” Henry stopped, but as soon as he turned his attention back to the game his knees started up again. He flipped a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth and precision-spat the splintered shells into a little pool of Gatorade on the floor. He turned his hat backward. He spun a baseball in his right hand and flipped it to his left. “Doesn’t this drive you nuts?” he asked Rick.
“Yes,” Rick said. “Cut it out.”
“No, not me. Sitting on the bench.”
Rick tested the bench with both palms, as if it were a floor-sample mattress. “Seems okay to me.”
“Aren’t you dying to be out there?”
Rick shrugged. “Two Thirty’s only a junior, and Coach Cox loves him. If he does half of what he’s capable of, I’ll be spending the next two years right here.” He looked at Henry. “You, on the other hand, have Tennant worked into quite a lather.”
“I do not,” Henry said.
“Yeah, sure. You didn’t hear him blabbing at Meccini last night while I was lying in my cot, pretending to be asleep.”
“What’d he say?”
Rick looked both ways to make sure no one else was listening, then segued into his Tennant impression. “Bleeping Schwartz. Can’t stand the fact that I’m the captain of this bleeping team. So what does he do? Digs up that little piece of bleep who catches every bleeping thing you hit at him, that’s what. Then trains the little bleep night and day, and proselytizes Coach Cox all bleeping winter about what a fantastic bleeping player he is. Why? So the little bleep can steal my bleeping job, and Schwartz, who’s only a bleeping sophomore, for bleep’s sake, can declare himself the bleeping king of the team.”
Owen looked up from his book. “Tennant said proselytize?”
Rick nodded. “And bleeping.”
“Well, he has reason to fear. Henry’s performance has been outstanding.”
“Come on,” Henry protested. “Tennant’s way better than me.”
“Lev can hit,” Owen said. “But his defense is slipshod. He lacks the Skrimshander panache.”
“I didn’t realize Tennant disliked Schwartzy so much,” said Henry, by which he meant, I didn’t realize Tennant disliked me so much. No one had ever called him a little bleep before. He’d noticed that Lev treated him coldly during drills, but he’d chalked this up to simple indifference.
“What, you live under a rock?” Rick said. “Those two can’t stand each other. I wouldn’t be surprised to see things come to a head pretty soon.”
“Verily,” Owen agreed.
The game was tied in the ninth, Tennant on first base, when Two Thirty stepped to the plate. He screwed his back foot into the dirt, lifted his bat high above his head. Already today he’d hit a single and a double. Maybe Argentina had done him some good.
“Jim Toover!” Owen cheered. “You are skilled! We exhort you!”
Ball one. Ball two.
“How could anyone miss that strike zone?” Rick asked.
Henry looked toward third base to see if Coach Cox would put the take sign on. “Letting him swing away,” he reported.
“Really?” Rick said. “That sounds like a bad i—,” but his words were interrupted by an earsplitting ping of ball against aluminum bat. The ball became a speck in the pale-blue sky and carried deep, deep into the parking lot. Henry thought he heard a windshield shatter, but he wasn’t sure. They rushed from the dugout to greet Jim at home plate.
Rick shook his head in astonishment. “Now I’ll never get off the bench.”
“Indeed!” Owen gave Two Thirty a celebratory smack on the ass with his Omar Khayyám. “Indeed!”
With that win the Harpooners, for the first time in anyone’s memory, including Coach Cox’s, were undefeated. They celebrated at the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in the strip mall near their motel. Then, over the next three days, they lost their next five games. Tennant was booting every grounder that came his way. Two Thirty struck out repeatedly. As the losses mounted, Coach Cox stood in the third-base coaching box with crossed arms, digging a moat in the dirt with the toe of his cleat and filling it with a steady stream of tobacco juice, as if to protect himself from so much ineptitude. The mood in the dugout turned from optimistic, to determined, to gloomy, to gloomy with a venomous edge. On the bench during their seventh game, Rick hid his phone in his glove and surreptitiously scrolled through the Facebook photos that their classmates had posted that day from West Palm, Miami, Daytona, Panama City Beach—album after album of bikinied girls, blue ocean, brightly colored drinks. “So close,” he moaned, shaking his head. “But so, so far away.”
“Owen,” Henry said excitedly, “I think Coach wants you to hit for Meccini.”
Owen closed The Voyage of the Beagle, on which he had recently embarked. “Really?”
“Runners on first and second,” Rick said. “I bet he wants you to bunt.”
“What’s the bunt sign?”
“Two tugs on the left earlobe,” Henry told him. “But first he has to give the indicator, which is squeeze the belt. But if he goes to his cap with either hand or says your first name, that’s the wipe-off, and then you have to wait and see whether—”
“Forget it,” Owen said. “I’ll just bunt.” He grabbed a bat, ambled to home plate, nodded politely at Coach Cox’s gesticulations, and pushed a perfect bunt past the pitcher. The shortstop’s throw nipped him by a quarter step, and Owen trotted back to the dugout to receive congratulations from his teammates. This was Henry’s favorite baseball custom: when a player hit a home run, his teammates were at liberty to ignore him, but when he sacrificed himself to move a runner, he received a long line of high fives. “Sweet bunt,” Henry said as he and Owen bumped fists.
“Thanks.” Owen picked up his book. “That pitcher’s not bad-looking.”
Throughout the week the Harpooners slept, ate, traveled, practiced, and played as a unit. If they weren’t at the fields or their crappy fleabag motel, they were tethered to their decrepit rented bus. The most inconsequential decisions, like whether to eat dinner at Cracker Barrel or Ye Olde Buffet, took hours. “I love it when I have to take a dump,” Rick said. “It’s the only time I get to be alone.”
As the losing continued, the constant togetherness grew tougher to take. On the too-lengthy trips between the diamond and their motel, the juniors and seniors sat in the back of the bus with Tennant, the sophomores and freshpersons up front with Schwartz. Only Jim Toover stretched his endless limbs across the empty seats of no-man’s-land; being six-six and Mormon lifted him above the fray.
Meanwhile Tennant’s defense was growing worse with each passing day. His face hardened into a haggard, pinched expression, and he radiated a black energy whenever Henry came near. Between games Coach Cox would confer with Tennant quietly, a hand on his shoulder, while Tennant nodded and looked at his shoes. “He’s pressing,” Rick said after Tennant bobbled a toss at second, botching a sure double play. “Look at his face.”
Owen cleared his throat, pressed a hand to his chest. “For at his back he always hears / Henry’s footsteps hurrying near.”
On Thursday night, Henry and Schwartz reclined in stiff plastic-weave chairs by the scum-topped, unswimmable pool of the Motel 4. As the earth cooled, Henry’s senses expanded to take in what they normally missed: the scutter of roaches and geckos over the tile, the flit of moths against the blue security lights, a whiff of distant water on the breeze. Schwartz paged through a phonebook-sized LSAT prep guide, though he wouldn’t be taking the LSAT for eighteen months. “You know, it’s only my first year,” Henry said. “I can wait.”
“Maybe you can.” Schwartz didn’t look up. “But the rest of us can’t. We’re one and seven. We need you out there.”
“Maybe if somebody told Lev he didn’t have anything to worry about, he’d relax and play better.”
“What do you think Coach Cox is saying during their little powwows? He spends half his time stroking Tennant’s ego, telling him he’s the man. But Lev’s not stupid. He knows you’re the better player.”
“But I’m not, really. Tennant’s just playing tight.”
“He’s playing tight because he’s a crappy shortstop. He did this last year too. Makes errors and mopes about it. His attitude’s abysmal. It has nothing to do with you, Skrimmer. Almost nothing, anyway.”
“I hope not.”
“It has nothing to do with hope either.” Schwartz slapped his LSAT book shut. “It has to do with Coach Cox. I respect Coach a lot, but he’s too loyal to guys just because they’ve been here for a while. Why be loyal to a bunch of losers? I’m sick of losing. This is America. Winners win. Losers get booted. You should be in there, and Rick should be in there, and the Buddha should probably be in there too. If only to get you ready.”
“Tennant’s a senior,” Henry said uncertainly. “I can wait till next year.”
“Wait till tomorrow,” Schwartz said. “That’s all I ask.”
The next afternoon, they played Vermont State, the team against which they’d scored their only victory. The Harpooners led 4 to 1 with an inning to play. But the first Lion batter of the ninth stroked a routine grounder to short, and Tennant couldn’t get the ball out of his glove. It was just one play, but it seemed to remind the Harpooners that they were losers and destined to lose. Four batters later the game was over. As his teammates filed grimly to the locker room, Henry lingered in the dugout, picking up scraps of trash and gazing at the infield, which looked especially green and regal in the afternoon sun.
When he reached the locker room, Schwartz had Tennant in a headlock. A steady stream of blood dripped from his nose into Tennant’s hair. “Try that again!” he roared as he rammed the crown of Tennant’s head into the metal lockers. “Try it one more time!”
“Get him off me!” Tennant pleaded, his voice muffled by Schwartz’s meaty forearm. “Get this crazy bastard off me!”
“You crazy bastard!” Owen cheered. “Get off him!”
No one moved to intervene, and the scene hung in an almost peaceful stasis, Schwartz slowly banging Tennant’s head against the lockers, until Coach Cox charged in from the coaches’ room, his unbuttoned jersey flapping around his white briefs. He and Arsch pried Tennant from Schwartz’s grasp.
Henry braced for a tirade from Coach Cox. But Coach Cox didn’t scream at all. “Schwartz, go wash your face,” he said, his tone that of a weary parent at the end of an exasperating day. Schwartz walked toward the bathroom, head held high, not bothering to check the flow of blood down over his lips and chin. He returned with a wad of toilet paper protruding from one nostril and held his hand out to Tennant. Tennant studied it for a moment before shaking it firmly.
“You two take the night off.” Coach Cox cast his gaze around the room. “You loose, Arsch?”
“Like a goose, Coach.”
“Henry, you loose?”
Henry heard the story from Rick and Owen during warm-ups: While Henry picked up paper cups from the dugout floor, Schwartz walked past Tennant’s locker and whispered something under his breath. Tennant whirled and threw a wild punch that connected with Schwartzy’s nose. His head snapped back and blood poured down. “Schwartzy looked pissed for about half a second, while his head was still bouncing around,” said Rick. “But then he sort of smiled, like getting socked by Tennant was exactly what he wanted.”
“I think it is what he wanted,” Owen said.
Rick nodded. “Even when he was banging Lev’s dome against the lockers, you could tell he wasn’t trying to hurt him. Strictly pro forma.”
“He orchestrated the whole episode to get you in the game,” Owen told Henry. “He even took a punch in the nose for you. You should feel flattered.”
It seemed far-fetched to Henry. Then again, Schwartz had promised he’d be in the lineup, and here he was, in the lineup. Two hours later, as he jogged out onto the diamond under the lights, he felt giddy and light-headed. He bounced on the balls of his feet, windmilled his arms, dropped into a squat to slap the ground. Starblind collected a fresh ball from the ump, went into the night’s first windup. “Adam Adam Adam,” Henry chanted. He danced a step to the left and back to the right, kicked up each knee, pounded his fist into Zero, leaped, and landed in his crouch.
Ball low. Starblind called time and motioned to him. Henry sprinted to the mound.
“Are we at a dance party?” Starblind asked. “I’m trying to pitch over here.”
“Sorry sorry sorry,” Henry said. “Sorry.”
Starblind looked at him, spat into the grass. “Are you hyperventilating?”
“Not really,” Henry said. “Maybe a little.”
But when the game’s second batter lofted a blooper down the left-field line, Henry turned his back to the infield and took off, unable to see the ball but guessing its landing point based on how it had come off the bat. Nobody else was going to get there; it was up to him. He stretched out his glove as he bellyflopped on the grass, lifted his eyes just in time to see the ball drop in. Even the opposing fans cheered.
Putting Henry at shortstop—it was like taking a painting that had been shoved in a closet and hanging it in the ideal spot. You instantly forgot what the room had looked like before. By the fourth inning he was directing the other fielders, waving them left or right, correcting their tactical miscues. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond. The Harpooners made only one error, by far their fewest of the trip. Most of their tiny, grating mistakes disappeared. They lost by a run, but Coach Cox was grinning after the game.
The next day, their last in Florida, Henry started at shortstop and Tennant moved to third. Instead of bitter or angry, Tennant seemed relieved. When Henry struck out, as he did too often—his hitting was nowhere near as good as his defense—Tennant cuffed him on the helmet and told him to hang in there. They won the game, and though a 2 and 9 Florida trip wasn’t great, an odd kind of optimism was creeping in.
After his freshperson year ended, Henry stayed at Westish to train with Schwartz. They met at five thirty every morning. When Henry could run up and down all the stairs in the football stadium without stopping, Schwartz bought him a weighted vest. When he could run five seven-minute miles, Schwartz made him do it on the sand. When he could do it on the sand, Schwartz made him do it with lake water lapping at his knees. Medicine balls, blocking sleds, yoga, bicycles, ropes, tree branches, steel trash cans, plyometrics—no implements or ideas were too mundane or exotic. At seven thirty, the sun still low over the lake, Henry showered and headed to the dining hall to wash breakfast dishes for the summer-school kids. After his shift he walked to Westish Field, where Schwartz set up the pitching machine and the video camera. Henry hit ball after ball until he could hardly lift his arms. Then they went to the VAC to lift weights. In the evenings they played on a summer team in Appleton.
Henry had never felt so happy. Freshperson year had been one thing, an adventure, an exhilaration, all in all a success, but it had also been exhausting, a constant struggle and adjustment and tumult. Now he was locked in. Every day that summer had the same framework, the alarm at the same time, meals and workouts and shifts and SuperBoost at the same times, over and over, and it was that sameness, that repetition, that gave life meaning. He savored the tiny variations, the incremental improvements—tuna fish on his salad instead of turkey; two extra reps on the bench press. Every move he made had purpose. While they worked out, Schwartz would recite lines from his favorite philosophers, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus—they were Schwartz’s personal Aparicios—and Henry felt that he understood. Every day is a war. Yes, yes it was. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Done: there was only one of those. He was becoming a baseball player.
By the time his sophomore season began Henry had gained twelve pounds. He was still one of the smaller guys on the team, but the bat felt different in his hands, lighter and more lively. He batted .348 and was named the first-team Upper Midwestern Small Colleges Athletic Conference shortstop. In thirty-one games he didn’t make a single error. He was still shy in class and around campus—he never went to the bars and rarely to parties; there was too much work to do—but among his teammates he flourished. He loved those guys and felt good in their midst, and now that he was undisputedly the best player on the team, he became something of a leader. He wasn’t loud like Schwartz, but everyone listened when he spoke. The Harpooners finished .500 for the first time in a decade.
That summer, inspirited by success, he worked even harder. Instead of five thirty, he got up at five. Instead of five meals a day, he ate six. His mind felt clear and pure. The ball rocketed off his bat. He was coming to understand certain parts of The Art of Fielding in a new way, from the inside out, as if the great Aparicio were less an oracle than an equal.
He acquired a protégé too—Izzy Avila, a player Schwartz had recruited from his old neighborhood in South Chicago. Schwartz loved Westish, and he both loved and hated where he came from, and he wanted to help guys get from one to the other. Izzy was a perfect candidate, a gifted athlete and decent student who nonetheless needed the help. His two older brothers had also been gifted athletes—now one lived with their mom and the other was in prison. “He’s a little raw,” Schwartz said. “He can ride the bench this year, learn some things. Then play second next year after Ajay graduates. Then when you’re gone, he’s the new shortstop.”
Izzy feared and respected Schwartz, but he worshipped Henry. When they took their daily ground balls, he tried to copy Henry’s every move. When Henry talked about the subtleties of infield positioning, Izzy, unlike the other Harpooners, understood. When he didn’t understand, he studied until he did. They worked relays, rundowns, bunts, feints, pickoffs, double plays. Henry bought him a copy of The Art of Fielding for his birthday.
But Izzy wasn’t ready, mentally or physically, for Henry’s toughest workouts. Henry trained speed with Starblind, the fastest guy on the team. He trained strength with Schwartz, the strongest. When those guys went home, he went to yoga class with Owen. Then he trained some more. He fielded grounders in his mind until he fell asleep. He got up at five and did it again.
By the start of his junior season, he’d become something Westish College had never seen: a prospect. He hit a home run in the second game of the Florida trip, another in the fourth game, a third in the sixth. By then the scouts were loitering in their Ray-Bans behind the backstop. Fans showed up too, local baseball lovers who’d heard about the must-see kid with the magic glove. By week’s end the team was 10 and 2, Henry was hitting .519, and he’d moved within a single game of tying Aparicio Rodriguez’s NCAA record for most consecutive errorless games. The flight back to Wisconsin was one long celebration.