Patrick Nevins

Champ

Evan Johns Youth Baseball Camps ran for one week at each Little League they visited. Evan gave no more instruction than any of the other half-dozen ex-ballplayers on staff—career minor leaguers who’d never been called up to the Big Show long enough to have a baseball card printed—but he’d played a few seasons in the majors and delivered a crucial pinch hit in a League Championship game, so his was the name and face of the venture. He gave opening remarks and coached hitting and infielding to the Little Leaguers that were dropped off each morning, divided up for drills, served lunch in the nearby pavilions, then sorted into teams for scrimmages. After five days, the kids went home with a baseball autographed by the ex-pros, and the ex-pros moved on to the next Little League.

The Little Leaguers gathering for this camp were still dragging in from the parking lot, some carrying duffels and others with their bats slung on their shoulders and their gloves threaded around the ends like hobo bags. It wasn’t even nine a.m. and the humidity was suffocating. They checked in and put on their Evan Johns Youth Baseball Camps LLC tee shirts.

In the parking lot, a woman in yoga pants and enormous sunglasses ruffled her son’s cap.

“You ready, Champ?”

“I don’t see why I have to miss the tournament for this.”

“Because you need to play sports, not just card games. Now make the best of it.”

She went to kiss him, which sent him flying toward the check-in area.

“I love you,” she called. “Listen to your coaches.”

After checking in, the boy, Nate, sat in right field with the other kids. The coaches stood around talking in grown-up voices. Then Coach Johns gave something like a pep talk. His remarks were brief, rehearsed: Open batting stance. Soft hands.

Nate was in Coach Johns’ infielding group that morning. Coach Johns spoke to his group about fundamentals, modeled some techniques, then set a few kids at each position to take turns fielding grounders. There was the steady rhythm of the ball pinging off Coach Johns’ bat, thumping the infield dirt, then smacking into the first basemen’s glove. Over this, Coach Johns repeated “Soft hands” like a mantra. After a while, he called them in for a water break. The kids pulled bottled water from a cooler and sat behind home plate.

Coach Johns removed his cap and wiped away sweat with his forearm.

“It’s hotter than hell out here. Good thing I got my summer haircut.”

The swearing, the joke about his baldness: It warmed the kids to him. Then he could talk to his groups, find out who were teammates or rivals in the Little League, who were the entitled coaches’ sons.

“What about you?” He nodded toward Nate, who was drawing in the dirt with his finger.

“I don’t know.”

“Got a favorite team?”

“I don’t know.”

“Favorite player?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you sure you’re at the right camp?” Evan forced a laugh as he said this.

One of the boys said, “God, you’re gay,” and the other kids laughed uncomfortably.

“That’s enough,” Evan snapped. He turned his gaze on the boy who’d said it. “You, go run the perimeter of the field. Move it!”

Evan turned back to Nate.

“Sorry, Kid. You were doing a great job at second, by the way.”

It was the end of the third day, and all of the kids had been picked up except Nate. The ex-pros, except for Coach Johns, were standing around the full-size van they travelled in, eager for the last one to be picked up so they could head back to their hotel and dinner. Coach Johns was in the infield, talking on his phone.

After a few minutes, he walked over to the bleachers where Nate was waiting.

“Hey, Nate. Your mom called. Something came up at work and she can’t get you.”

“She’s stuck at the gym? That’s never happened.”

“Well, it happened today.”

“How am I going to get home?”

“That’s the cool part. Get in the van. I’ll take you home.”

Nate followed Coach Johns to the van. None of the other ex-pros said anything when Nate climbed into the front passenger seat and laid his bat and glove on the floor. Coach Johns hopped into the driver’s seat and started the engine.

“So, Nate, do you feel like you’re getting a lot out of the camp? Anything you really want to work on?”

“It’s fine.”

“You’re really improving in the infield.”

“I suck at hitting.”

“You’re putting the ball in play. A little. We’ll get you there, right, Tommy?” Coach Johns smiled in the rearview at one of the ex-pros, who gave no reply.

“But you’re enjoying yourself?” Coach Johns asked, quietly. “Sometimes you look like you’d rather be someplace else.”

“Sort of. My mom made me come.”

“Really?”

“But it’s okay.”

 “‘It’s okay.’ Terrific.”

“Nate, Mr. Johns has asked us to have dinner with him tonight.”

“What?”

It was the close of the fourth day, and Nate had just gotten into his mother’s car.

“He’d like to take us to dinner.”

“When?”

“Tonight.”

“Why?”

“He must like you.”

“But isn’t it weird?”

“Coach Johns is obviously taking an interest in you. Give him a chance.”

“A chance to what?”

“Talk to you. About baseball. Anything.”

Nate and his mother met Coach Johns at Ponderosa. They sat in a booth, Nate next to his mother and Coach Johns across from them. Nate’s mother sent him to the buffet.

“Is this okay?” Evan asked. “I would’ve liked to take you someplace nicer, but things have been tight since the divorce.”

“This is fine.”

“You look nice, Allison.”

“Please. I just threw this on.”

“I think Nate’s terrific.” Evan smiled deprecatingly. “I don’t think he cares much about baseball, but he seems to be a really great kid.”

“Yeah. He’s into video games, stuff like that. The other night he told me he wanted to join a live-action role playing club.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s where they dress up and play Dungeons and Dragons or whatever.”

“Huh.”

“At least they’re running around outside instead of sitting on their butts in some kid’s basement.”

They laughed, not noticing that Nate was returning. He slid into the booth and stuck a chicken wing in his mouth. Their steaks were delivered, and for a few moments they ate quietly.

“So, Nate, your mom tells me you’re into some kind of dress-up game. What’s that like?”

“Mom!”

“Sorry. We were talking.”

“What else did you talk about?”

Allison and Evan looked at each other, unsure how to answer.

“Coach, do you have kids?”

“I was married. But we didn’t have children.”

“My mom never was married, but she had me. That’s funny. Excuse me.”

Nate slid out of the booth and walked toward the restrooms.

On the last day of camp, Nate went through the drills with no more or less enthusiasm than he had the first four days. For the final scrimmage, Nate was placed on Coach Johns’ team and slated to start at second base and bat sixth. It was baldly preferential. They batted first. Two hitters made it on base; the fifth hitter went down swinging for the third out, leaving Nate on deck.

Nate returned to the bench. When the team took the field, he stayed put, his glove in the dirt at his feet.

“Nate,” Coach Johns said. “Why aren’t you out there?”

“I’m not feeling well. I’d like to go home now.”

“Are you sure? You’re going to miss all the end-of-camp fun. There’s going to be ice cream.”

“Will you call my mom?”

Nate had understood the deception since he’d returned from the buffet. He didn’t enjoy his food. He went straight to his room and lay in bed, imagining what he might say to his mother, what she might say back. Imagining, too, what might happen between her and that man. He’d finally fallen asleep in his clothes and been woken up by his mother, standing in his door saying, “You okay, Champ?” as if nothing had happened. As if she hadn’t turned their whole world upside down.

When she arrived at the Little League, she waited until they were out of sight of the kids and the ex-pros and Evan before holding him in her arms.

“I’m sorry, Champ.”


Patrick Nevins is an associate professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College. His writing appears in HAD, Schuylkill Valley Journal Online, and other places. “Champ” is from The Commission of Inquiry: Stories (forthcoming from Cornerstone Press).

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