Die Like an EagleChapter 1
“No fair! I wasn’t ready!”
I glanced over at the field to see what was going on. My husband, Michael, in his role as assistant coach of the Caerphilly Eagles, was putting one of his players through batting practice. Probably seven-year-old Mason. They all looked alike with their baseball hats or batting helmets pulled low over their faces, but Mason was a good friend of Josh and Jamie, our twins, and I was pretty sure I recognized the voice.
“Mason, I asked if you were ready before I threw it,” Michael said. “You said you were ready.”
“But I wasn’t really ready,” Mason said. “Not ready ready. I was getting ready to be ready.”
“In the game, you have to be ready when the umpire says ‘Play ball,’” Michael said. “Are you ready now?”
Mason nodded, and hunched his body fiercely as if to indicate his complete readiness to slam the ball.
Michael tossed another ball gently across the base. Mason swung mightily and caught the ball with the end of his bat, sending it gently dribbling into foul territory.
“Foul ball!” Michael called. “Better!”
“Good contact!” I shouted.
Several of the half-dozen fathers sitting with me on the bleachers glanced over in apparent surprise. Didn’t they realize how important it was to encourage the kids when they achieved a breakthrough, like actually fouling the ball instead of striking out swinging or, worse, looking?
Evidently not. The cluster of fathers fixed their gaze back on the outfield, where Chuck Davis, the head coach, was drilling the rest of the team on throwing and catching. If I tried, I could probably have figured out which father belonged to which kid, by watching who winced when one of the kids missed a particularly easy catch. Or made a more-than-usually-bad throw.
I observed the action in the outfield for a few moments, noting that Josh and Jamie were definitely above average in the throwing and catching department. Not surprising, since Michael loved baseball and had been playing catch with the boys since they were two or three.
“Wish Waterston would go out there and work on their form,” one of the fathers muttered. “Let Davis handle the batting practice.”
“Davis can’t get the damned ball across the plate,” another father muttered back.
“Well, yeah,” the first father said.
“Damn,” another father exclaimed, as Chuck himself missed a pretty easy catch. “Has that man ever played baseball?”
“I doubt it,” another said, shaking his head.
I was losing patience with this particular collection of fathers. This was the third time I’d been to practice, and every time the same bunch were sitting there, glowering at the field while Michael and Chuck wrangled the dozen unruly little Eagles. If they had time to sit there in the bleachers, kibbitzing, why not help out?
And speaking of helping out …
I glanced down at my list and dialed another number. After four rings I got an answering machine. I was getting a lot of those today. Had I picked a busy time to call? Or were all the mothers of our players using their caller ID to dodge me?
“Hi,” I said, after the beep. “This is Meg Langslow, the Team Mom for the Eagles. I’m still looking for some volunteers to help run the Snack Shack tomorrow on Opening Day. If you can help out, please let me know.” I added my cell number and my e-mail address and hung up.
I glanced over at the posse of fathers. All of them had already either given me an excuse why neither they nor their wives could do Snack Shack duty tomorrow or said that they’d have to talk to their wives before committing.
“I give up.” I shoved the list back into my purse and dialed one of my speed-dial numbers.
“Meg, dear,” Mother said. “How is the boys’ practice going?”
“Practice is going fine,” I said. “My efforts to recruit volunteers, not so fine. I know we have at least a dozen family members coming to see tomorrow’s first game. Do you think you could recruit a couple of them to help out in the Snack Shack?”
“Of course, dear,” Mother said. “Nine to eleven, right? Leave it to me.”
I hung up feeling very relieved, and pulled out the five-by-eight-inch three-ring binder that held my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe, as I called my giant to-do list. I flipped to the task section and pondered for a moment, my pen hovering over the item “Recruit Snack Shack volunteers.” Technically, it was merely delegated, not done. But I’d delegated it to Mother. Her ability to draft people for volunteer work was legendary. And she’d be pulling from our family members, not the feckless parents of the boys’ teammates. So I crossed the item out and added a new item for this evening: “Call Mother to see who she recruited for the Snack Shack.”
I snapped the notebook closed, shoved it into my purse, and looked back at the field, feeling significantly less stressed. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to appreciate the day. The sun was warm, the sky was blue and cloudless—perfect baseball weather.
One of the fathers was standing up, staring at the outfield, fists clenched. Out in the field, Chuck appeared to be comforting a player who’d been hit in the eye with a ball. Michael was loping out to help.
“He should be fine,” one of the other fathers said. The standing father nodded slightly, but his face was tense.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” I said. “At this age, none of the kids can throw that hard. But your son would probably feel better if you went out to be with him.”
“I can’t,” the standing father said.
“I’m sure Chuck and Michael wouldn’t mind,” I said. “For that matter, I doubt if they’d mind if any of you wanted to help out with practices. The kids have a lot to learn, and it’s hard for two coaches to do it all.”
“We can’t,” another father said. The others all shook their heads, and their faces wore looks of shock and horror.
“Especially not with him standing right there,” another added. He pointed to center field, where a pudgy man in a too-tight brown t-shirt, a blue windbreaker, and a Yankees baseball cap was leaning over the fence, watching the action on the field.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Biff,” one said.
“Who’s Biff?” I asked. Until lately, the only Biff I knew was a character in Death of a Salesman—Michael’s Introduction to Acting students were always doing scenes from it.
“Biff Brown,” one of them said. “The head of the league.”
“And coach of one of the other coach-pitch teams,” another said. “The Caerphilly Stoats.”
“And he also coaches the Caerphilly Yankees at the majors level,” the first one said. “You know, the eleven- to twelve-year-olds.”
Out on the field, Michael had picked up the crying player and was carrying him in our direction. The kid’s father began scrambling down from the bleachers.
“There’s a Summerball rule that no one but official team staff can be on the field,” another father said.
“During games,” I said. The men began shaking their heads, which annoyed me, because I was pretty sure I was right. At Michael’s request, I’d read the official Summerball Youth Baseball League rule book cover to cover, to make sure we weren’t blindsided by any differences between that and the Little League rules he’d grown up with. In fact, I’d read the rules multiple times, along with the Little League rules and the official Major League Baseball rules—they’d been helping me cope with a bad stretch of insomnia.
“Local rule,” one of the fathers explained.
“No one mentioned that there were special local rules,” I said. “Where can I get a copy?”
“Oh, none of them are actually written down anywhere,” one of the fathers said. “Biff just sends them out whenever he decides he needs them.”
Michael had reached the gate that separated the field from the bleachers and was holding the injured player while his waiting dad examined the affected eye. I grabbed my tote bag and hurried to meet them.
“I’ve got my first aid kit if it’s needed,” I said.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” the dad said.
“I think he’ll be all right,” Michael said. “Getting hit by a baseball’s pretty painful, but it goes away fast. Right, Chase?”
The kid nodded. He was still sniffling a little, but looked as if he was feeling better. Michael set him on his feet beside his father.
“If he feels well enough to keep on practicing, that’s great,” Michael said. “And if he doesn’t, just be sure to have him here by eight thirty tomorrow morning so we can do a little warm-up before the game.”
“Okay,” the father said.
“I’m fine,” Chase said. “Can I go back to practice?”
Michael and Chase’s father peered at his eye for a little while longer, and Michael performed the league-mandated tests to make sure Chase wasn’t showing signs of concussion. They finally gave in to the boy’s assurances that he was fine and wanted to practice. The fathers and I watched with approval as Michael and Chase walked back to the outfield together. Michael, at six foot four, dwarfed Chase, even though he was leaning down to demonstrate some fine point in the use of a baseball glove. Perhaps the trick of holding it so missed balls hit the chest rather than the face. It was a cute scene, so I pulled out my phone and took a few photos.
Then I turned back to the posse of fathers.
“Okay, let me get this straight,” I said. “This Biff person makes up rules as he goes along and just expects people to follow them.”
“That’s the way he was when he ran the local Little League,” one of the fathers said. “I don’t expect him to do it any differently now that he’s running Summerball.”
“He’s the reason we’re in Summerball instead of Little League,” another father said. “Biff used to run the local Little League, but last year we all got fed up and formed a Summerball league.”
“And the Little League just imploded because almost no one tried out,” another said. “Just Biff’s kids and his cronies’ kids. For the fall season, pretty much everyone else came over to Summerball. Lemuel Shiffley ran the league, and everything was great. Then Lem got sick.”
I nodded. Lem’s nephew, Caerphilly Mayor Randall Shiffley, was both a good friend and my current boss, so I knew all about Lem’s recent cancer diagnosis and his still very uncertain prognosis.
“We were trying to give Lem some time to figure out if he wanted to go on with running the league,” a father said. “We figured maybe one of us could fill in for him till he got better, but we didn’t want to push it if he wasn’t ready to delegate. And suddenly Summerball National informs us that Biff is our new league president.”
“The jerk got the job on the strength of his years of experience running the local Little League,” another said. “Talk about irony.”
“We thought you and Michael must be cronies of his,” another father said. “But I guess you’re just newcomers, like poor Chuck.”
They all laughed, and shook their heads.
“Looks as if Michael and I should be talking to you guys,” I said. “To help us stay out of trouble.”
“You have no idea,” one said. “By the way, I’m Evan Thornton. My son’s Zack. Number twelve.”
“Luis Espinoza,” said another. “Mine’s Manny; number nine.”
The other fathers introduced themselves in the same fashion with both their names and their kids’ names and uniform numbers.
“Meg Langslow—Waterston,” I added. “I go by my maiden name professionally, so if I absentmindedly don’t answer one of the kids who calls me Mrs. Waterston, just yell ‘Meg!’”
ghed at that. They probably thought I was kidding. There were still times when I’d hear someone calling for Mrs. Waterston and look around to see where Michael’s mother was.
“Maybe we should go back to the bleachers and pretend to be just watching the practice,” Evan said. “We don’t want Biff to think we’re plotting anything.”
We all arranged ourselves in the bleachers again—though now, instead of the fathers sitting at the far left and me at the far right, we were all in a clump in the middle.
“I have to say,” Luis said. “Even though we thought he must be one of Biff’s cronies, we had come to appreciate Michael. At least he has some skill at the game.”
“Yeah,” said another—Vince Wong, if memory served. “I don’t think poor Chuck’s ever played an inning of baseball in his life.”
“All of us volunteered to be coaches,” Evan explained. “But all of us have been blackballed because of past clashes with Biff.”
“When our older sons were playing,” Luis added. “Are Josh and Jamie your oldest?”
“And only,” I said.
“That explains it,” Luis said. “You haven’t had any prior experience with Biff.”
“That’s good,” another father said. “If he doesn’t hate her, or Michael or Chuck, he won’t try to mess with the team as much.”
“Mess with the team?” I echoed.
“You’ll see,” Vince said.
“If you’ve met him, you probably think we’re crazy,” Luis added. “He can be very friendly. Talks a good game.”
“And it’s all talk,” Vince said.
“He promises improvements to the field, but every year there’s less grass and the bumps and ruts get worse,” Luis went on. “Eventually, he says, we will use the profits from food sales to build real bathrooms and a new Snack Shack with running water, and still all we have is that miserable porta-potty.” He pointed to the object in question, painted in a color of brown that was unfortunately all too reminiscent of its intended purpose. “Apparently it takes all the profits the Snack Shack earns to keep the field in its current miserable state.”
“He must not be managing the money very well,” I said. “Has anyone ever taken a look at the books?”
“No, and asking to is what got several of us blackballed,” Vince said. “Don’t even think of it.”
“So Biff’s teams will continue to win all the playoffs,” Evan said. “And he’ll coach the All-Star teams, which will always include his kids. And we’ll all do our best to make sure that Biff’s antics don’t spoil our kids’ enjoyment of the game.”
“If I didn’t love baseball so much, I’d try to steer Henry to soccer,” Vince said. “Here we thought we’d gotten away from Biff.”
“If anything bad ever happens to him, I hope we all have alibis,” Luis said.
“We should be so lucky,” Evan sighed. “No, I’m afraid we’re all in for six more years of him.”
“Only five,” Luis said. “His youngest is eight. Almost nine.”
“You never know,” I said. “Maybe he’ll move away. Get transferred or something.”
“Unlikely,” Luis said. “He’s his own boss. Owns a local construction company.”
“A local construction company?” I echoed. I had a bad feeling about this. “Wait a minute—Biff Brown? Does he own Brown Construction Company?”
“That’s him,” Evan said.
I winced. Biff Brown might not hate me yet. But only because he didn’t yet know who I was.