1 A NEW TEAM
“. . . Kirby Puckett at the plate. . . . The pitch is on its way . . . and he hits it high and deep! That ball is going . . . going . . .”
Tiki Barber followed the flight of the ball he’d hit as it arced its way high over Amherst Street. His identical twin, Ronde, who had been backpedaling, turned around and broke into a run, trying to catch up to the long fly.
“And that ball is . . . Aw, man, come on!”
Tiki winced and shook his head as Ronde somehow came down with the ball, did a smooth somersault, and came up flashing it in his mitt.
“Rickey Henderson’s got your ball right here!” Ronde shouted. “Take that, Kirby Puckett!”
The twins were out early this morning. The school bus wasn’t due for another ten minutes, it was mid-April, and the sun shone down on the streets of
Roanoke, Virginia, making it seem warmer than it really was.
Baseball season had started the week before, and the twins were already getting into following their favorite team. True, that team played in Minnesota, nowhere near Roanoke, Virginia, but Tiki and Ronde couldn’t resist a team called the Twins!
Ronde lobbed the ball back in. “Hit me another one, ‘Kirby’, my man,” he said. “And this time put a little muscle into it!”
Tiki laughed, knowing Ronde was just sweating him. “You asked for it. See if you can run this one down, ‘Rickey’!”
Ronde was still getting back to his spot near the manhole cover. “Hey! Wait till I’m ready, yo!”
Tiki would have gone ahead and hit one anyway, but a car came down the street, forcing him to wait until it had passed.
Most of the year the twins were preoccupied with football, not baseball. But since they’d finished their last football season at Hidden Valley—and the basketball season too, for that matter—baseball was the only game left in town from now until graduation.
By September their high school football careers would begin, and all thoughts of any other sport would vanish from their heads. But for now there was baseball—and tryouts for the team were this afternoon!
Tiki threw the ball up into the air, took a violent swing at it—and missed completely.
“Come on, ‘Kirby’!” Ronde hooted. “If you want to get a candy bar named after you, like Reggie and the Babe, you’ve got to hit the ball!”
Tiki swung even harder this time. The ball went high and to the right. Ronde raced after it but had to pull back before hitting the front wall of the nearest house. The ball bounced off the porch roof with a loud thunk, and Ronde caught it before it hit the ground. “Yer out!” he cried happily, then took off running as the front door opened.
“Hey, you kids!” yelled the man who emerged. “Go play somewhere else! Get out of here before you break a window!”
“Sorry. Sorry,” Tiki and Ronde both said. They were sorry too—but not as sorry as they’d been the day before, when each of them had broken a window with a badly placed fly ball. Repaying the neighbors would mean the boys would have to kiss most of their savings good-bye.
Still, that was the price of playing ball when there was no playground or park nearby. What were they supposed to do—stay home and watch TV all weekend?
Ronde came up to Tiki and handed him the ball, then took off his glove and stuffed it into his book bag. Tiki put the ball in his book bag, and the two of them sat there on the curb by the corner, waiting for the school bus to come by.
“You can hit pretty well,” Ronde told him. “The problem is, you never know where it’s going to go.”
“So what?” Tiki shot back. “On a baseball field it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s fair.”
“You think you can hit it out of the park at school?”
“I know I can,” Tiki said. “Look how far I hit that second-to-last one just now.”
“Yeah, but that was you playing fungo. What about with real pitching?”
Tiki shrugged. “How should I know? We’ve never played organized baseball. Never. Neither one of us. Not Little League, not in school, never.”
“I know,” Ronde said. “It’s hard to get enough kids together to play a pickup game. Not like with football or basketball. You get four guys, you can play those sports.”
“We had no real basketball experience either,” Tiki said. “Still, even though we weren’t the big stars on that team, we made a pretty big difference.”
“I’m sure they’re glad we joined the team,” Ronde agreed. “I know I am.”
The basketball team, which had been a complete mess before they’d joined it midseason, had finished up well, with a winning record, though not well enough to make the play-offs. It was the first team either of them had ever played on that hadn’t made the play-offs, and it was a weird feeling for them. It made them both want
to finish off their junior high school years on a high note.
“I think Coach Raines might have a pretty good team this year,” Ronde said. “Especially if we’re on it.”
“Hey, we do have some baseball skills,” Tiki went on. “It’s not like we stink at it or anything.”
“And we’ve watched plenty of games on TV,” Ronde said. “So we know the rules and the strategies and stuff.”
The twins fell into a long silence. Ronde broke it by saying, “You know, I’m a little scared about this tryout, actually.”
Tiki gave a little laugh. “Me too,” he said. “I think I can play, you know, but I have no proof. It’s just in my head.”
“Well, not totally,” Ronde pointed out. “We’re both pretty good at football.”
“Yeah,” Tiki agreed. “But who knows how today is going to work out?”
They’d decided to try out only last Friday. Before that they’d been figuring on keeping their jobs at Mr. Lanzberg’s department store. But their mom had said, if they wanted to quit so they could play on the baseball team, it was okay. She was doing better at work now, she told them, and had gotten a raise at each of her jobs.
“The worst would be if one of us makes the team and the other doesn’t,” Ronde said.
“That would be bad,” Tiki said, nodding.
“If you don’t make it, I’m not gonna be on the team either.”
“Why? I wouldn’t be mad if you did. Not that it would ever happen. But if I made it and you didn’t . . .”
“Don’t even go there, yo,” Ronde said. “That is not happening. I am not worrying about that one bit.”
Tiki gave him a playful shove. “Quit flossin’,” he said. “You know I’m better than you.”
“Only at the plate. In the field I rule.”
“You rule? You rule? Give me a break!”
Their playful back-and-forth was interrupted by the arrival of the school bus. They got on board and took their usual seats next to each other.
• • •
It was about a fifteen-minute ride, so Tiki settled in, putting his book bag on the floor between his feet and high-fiving the kids from the other stops as they filed past him on the way to their seats.
As the bus got rolling, Tiki sat back in his seat, his smile fading from his face. Ronde’s words had troubled him. Even though Tiki had kept his doubts to himself, he too had been thinking about the prospect of them not making the team—or even worse, one twin making it and the other getting left off the squad.
Tiki remembered back in seventh grade, when they’d first tried out for the football team. They’d been nervous then, too, but not in the same way. After all, they’d had experience in Peewee Football League and already knew that they were good at the game.
As for the basketball team, that had been different too. It wasn’t like they’d had to try out. They’d been asked to fill in midseason, when other players had left the team. It had been kind of a no-lose proposition: if they’d failed, well, no one would have blamed them. After all, they hadn’t trained with the team. They’d been thrown into the fire, so to speak. On the other hand, if they’d played well, everyone would have been pleasantly surprised. Which was exactly how it had turned out.
By now everyone at Hidden Valley knew that the Barbers were the best athletes in their class—and probably in the whole school. Once people heard they were trying out, they would surely expect the twins to make the team. If that didn’t happen—or if they made it and then stunk up the joint—it would be worse than embarrassing, Tiki thought. It would be downright humiliating!
The bus pulled to another stop, and their old friend Jason Rossini got on. Jason had been their quarterback in peewee league. He’d tried out for the football team back in seventh grade too—and when the coaches had listed him as third-string quarterback, he’d gotten insulted and quit.
Since then he’d emerged as a track star in the half mile. Sure enough, he was wearing his track jacket, the HV letters displayed prominently on the chest.
“Dudes!” he said, swinging himself into the seat across from them. “How goes it?”
“Good,” Ronde said. “We’re going out for the baseball team today.”
“For real?” Jason shook his head and laughed. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why?” Tiki asked. “Why wouldn’t we?”
“Cause baseball is for . . . Ah, never mind.”
“No, say what you were going to say,” Ronde told him. “Go on.”
“Well, I was just saying, because, you know, why bother with a sport with nine guys on a side? Any one of them could mess up a game for you and turn a win into a loss. With track it’s all about you. You win, you win. You lose, well, tough luck and do better next time. Think about it. With baseball, even if you win, the whole team gets the credit. In track, well . . . you get the picture. But, hey, suit yourselves. Who am I to tell you what to do?”
“Wait, wait,” Tiki said. “Are you saying that when you were little, you sat in front of the TV and wished you could run the mile like what’s-his-name?”
“Who?” Jason said.
“See, you can’t even name the guy!” Tiki went on. “No, man, it was baseball you were watching. And football, and basketball. Those are the sports we dreamed about! Ronde and I, we’re just going after our dreams.”
Jason sighed and turned his palms upward. “Like I said, it’s your call,” he said. “But with the speed you two have got, it’s a shame. You could tear it up in track,
probably win a bunch of races. Get all the glory you deserve. . . .”
“Jase, it’s not about the glory,” Ronde said, shaking his head.
“Oh, no? Really? It’s not?” Jason shot back. “Who are you kidding, dude?”
“No, you’re the one who doesn’t get it. It’s about the team!” Tiki said. “Working together, standing or falling together!”
“He’s right,” Ronde agreed.
“Whatever. Forget I even said anything,” Jason said, waving off the whole conversation. “Let me tell you, though, I was fourth in the state last year in the half mile, and I’m going to do even better this year. Maybe you don’t think much of that, but I feel really good about it. And there’ll be no teammates to screw me up with their mistakes. Just me against everyone else, plain and simple. It could be you guys too. You’d kill in the sprints, like I said.”
Tiki was about to respond when Jason put a hand up to stop him. “I know. I know what you’re going to say. Don’t even bother; I get it. But if by some chance either of you doesn’t make the baseball team—or if you do make it and live to regret it—remember there’s always a spot for you on the track team. In fact, Coach Arkin said last year, ‘Those Barber kids could run the hundred for me tomorrow.’ ”
Tiki squinted. “He actually said that?”
“Well . . . something like that. Something good about the two of you. I forget the exact words. Anyway, here we are.”
The bus pulled to a stop in front of the school, and they all filed out. “Later,” Jason said, waving good-bye and going up the steps to the front door of the building.
Tiki and Ronde watched him go. “Man,” said Ronde. “He is a piece of work, isn’t he?”
Tiki laughed. “Yeah. You’ve gotta say, though—he did do what he said he was going to do. He became a track star.”
“Yeah. . . . Well, you ready?”
As they hitched up their book bags and headed for the door, Tiki kept hearing Jason’s words in his head. That small, nagging seed of doubt kept growing inside him all day during his classes. Again and again he wondered if he and Ronde were doing the right thing by trying out for baseball.