Chapter One CURVEBALL
I can’t believe it. My dream is finally coming true!
Derek Jeter sat in the back of his family’s old station wagon, thinking those words, not saying them out loud, as he watched his dad get behind the wheel and fish out his car keys.
Instead Derek said, “Thanks for doing this, Dad. I know how busy you are, but I’m reeeeally happy you’re coaching our team.” Finally, he wanted to add, but stopped himself.
“I’m as excited as you are, Derek,” Charles Jeter said, smiling as he glanced at his son in the rearview mirror. “It’s the first time I’ve ever coached a team.”
“Really?” Derek was shocked, although he probably shouldn’t have been. Mr. Jeter had been a college player
until he’d injured his knee, but since then had been working, studying for advanced degrees, and raising a family. Still, Mr. Jeter had been Derek’s unofficial coach practically since Derek was in diapers. It seemed weird that his dad had never coached a baseball team until now.
“Wow! We get to be your first team,” Derek said proudly.
“I just hope you’ll be as happy about it when the season’s over as you are right now. You might not be, if we wind up in last place.”
Was he joking? Derek wondered. Probably. His dad always kept a straight face, so it was sometimes hard to tell what was a joke and what wasn’t. But would Derek still be happy if their team wound up in last place?
That was not going to happen, he reassured himself. Never in a million years. His dad was the best coach in the world! Or at least the best Derek could ever imagine. Who else could have taught him so well, and cared so much, and believed in him so totally? His dad knew everything there was to know about baseball, Derek was sure of that.
Suddenly he remembered something. “Hey, Dad, don’t forget to pick up Vijay at his house!”
Vijay had been Derek’s best friend since the Patel family had arrived in Kalamazoo and moved into Mount Royal Townhouses, just a stone’s throw from the Jeter family’s townhouse in the same development. The Patels were from India, and they were the first Indian-American family Derek or any of the other local kids had known.
Derek had been Vijay’s first friend in town, and they’d been best friends ever since. And now they were on the same team—for the third year in a row!
Derek’s other best friend, Dave Hennum, was on the team too. In fact, the entire universe seemed to be aligning to produce the one thing Derek had never experienced in his baseball life—a championship team.
Vijay was already out in front of his house, waving both hands. His mitt was on his left hand, but that didn’t stop Vijay. He was the king of excitement, as always.
“I can’t believe it!” he said breathlessly as he plunked himself down in the seat beside Derek. “Slap me five. We’re going all the way this time!”
Derek gave him five, but he wished Vijay wouldn’t always make big predictions like that, at least not out loud. Derek thought it was bad luck to act like you’d already won something when you hadn’t even stepped onto the field yet. In fact, neither he nor Vijay even knew who most of their teammates were!
But that was about to change. Every year at this time Derek practically held his breath as he waited to see who was on his team. But this year he was especially excited, so he could hardly blame Vijay for bursting at the seams.
In the back of the station wagon were two big duffel bags full of baseball equipment—everything the Indians would need, including balls, bats, helmets, and catcher’s equipment. There were also maroon-and-gray Indians
uniforms, socks, and hats in two big plastic garbage bags.
Vijay always saw the bright side of things. It was one of the main reasons Derek liked him so much.
“You boys ready to get to work?” Mr. Jeter asked them. “While it may be all fun for you, it’s not all games with me and Mr. Bradway. We’re going to put you through your paces. Got to be in shape if we’re going to compete.”
“You mean you are going to make us exercise?” Vijay asked. “Don’t worry. We are already in shape from gym class!”
Mr. Jeter laughed. “We’ll see. Coach Bradway and I were both in the army, remember? We may just put you kids through boot camp, so watch out.”
They all laughed. Derek could tell that his dad was just as excited as the two boys. This was the day he would meet his first-ever team, the kids he would be responsible for all season long. It was a big job, and Derek could see that his dad, while joking around, was still taking his task very seriously.
They parked by their assigned field at Westwood Little League. The boys helped tote the equipment bags over to the home bench and lined up the bats and helmets along the fence.
“Why don’t you two go toss it around for a few minutes? We’re still early,” said Mr. Jeter, taking out his notepad and pen. “Ah, good. Here comes Mr. Bradway.”
The big Mercedes pulled up behind the Jeter station
wagon, and out scrambled Dave. Derek’s mom had already dubbed the boys the Three Musketeers. Dave ran over to Derek and Vijay and got right into their game of catch.
Mr. Bradway—or “just Chase,” as he instructed everyone to call him—was the Hennum family’s driver, and Dave’s caretaker while his parents were away on business, which was often. He got out and joined Mr. Jeter. Together they looked over their rules, schedules, and roster sheets. Practice wasn’t scheduled to begin for another fifteen minutes.
Dave was as excited as everyone else. “We’re riding a winner this season, guys. I can feel it.”
“There is no doubt,” Vijay agreed. “We are coming in first place for sure!”
“Hey, now. Let’s not get overconfident,” Derek warned. “We still have to play the games, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Dave said. “But come on, Derek. Admit it. You feel it too.”
It was true. Derek did have the strong feeling that they were going to be something special.
“I mean,” Dave added, “it can’t be for nothing that we all got on the same team again, and that your dad and Chase are coaching.”
“It’s too good to be true!” Vijay exulted.
That’s just it, Derek couldn’t help feeling. As psyched as he was, it did somehow feel too good to be true. He was only ten, but Derek already knew that life didn’t
usually hand out gobs of ice cream without at least a small helping of spinach on the side.
The thing that made him particularly nervous was that his dad had refused to show him the roster sheet when it had arrived in the mail the day before. “League rules,” he’d said when Derek had begged to see who else was on the team. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
But his dad knew now, Derek thought. And that was driving him crazy.
“Hey, look. It’s Harry and Josh!” Dave said, pointing. “Here they come.”
“Do you think—” Vijay began hopefully. “Harry and Josh are ace players. If they are on the team, it will be fantastic!”
But they didn’t stop at field number four. They waved, said “Hi,” and kept on going, all the way over to field number two.
Rats, thought Derek. That would have been so cool. . . .
Cubby Katz jogged by and waved hello, but he wasn’t on the Indians either. The speediest kid in town wound up on field number three.
“Hey! Heads up!” Dave yelled. He was in the act of throwing the ball to Derek, who had stopped paying attention in the middle of their game of catch.
Derek turned his attention back to Dave and Vijay so that he wouldn’t get conked on the head. A few minutes later, when he turned to take another peek at the bench, there
were a few kids gathered around his dad and Chase.
Derek recognized one of them. Jonathan Hogue was in his class at Saint Augustine’s school, along with Dave and Vijay. Jonathan waved and smiled, and Derek was glad to see him. He was a nice kid, although Derek wasn’t sure what kind of athlete he was. If he’d played in Little League before this, Derek had never run into him.
There were three other kids surrounding Chase, who was checking them in, then sending them over to Mr. Jeter for uniforms. “Hey!” Derek said. “If we want to get our favorite numbers, we’d better get over there!”
He sure hoped his dad had saved number 13 for him. It had been Charles Jeter’s old number at college and had always been Derek’s favorite for that reason.
“Did you save it for me?” he asked his dad.
“Wait your turn, Derek,” Mr. Jeter said. “Go check in with Coach Bradway.”
Derek was a little surprised that his dad was making him get in line like all the other kids who had just shown up. But he kind of understood. His dad liked to do things by the book, according to the rules—like not showing Derek the roster in advance.
“Hey, there’s my main man!” Chase said, high-fiving Derek and checking him in. “You ready?”
“Always,” Derek replied with a grin and a nod.
“Ha! That’s the spirit. Okay, go get your new suit.”
Derek got in line behind three other kids. He’d seen
them around in school, but he remembered only one from past seasons, a kid named Eddie Falk, who struck out a lot.
Looking around, Derek didn’t see anybody from his mental wish list of teammates. One or two looked like they might be good athletes. But still Derek felt vaguely disappointed, and a little worried that the “sure thing” Vijay and Dave were imagining was starting to look a little shaky.
“There you go, Derek,” said his dad, handing him uniform number 7.
“But—” Derek started.
“I know, I know,” said his dad. “Thirteen is an extra large. Are you sure you still want it?”
Derek knew he was a size medium, if not small. He shook his head, disappointed again.
“Hey, number seven is Mickey Mantle’s number!” Mr. Jeter pointed out. “The Mick! One of the all-time great Yankees.”
That was true, Derek had to admit. There were a lot worse numbers.
“Besides, it’s lucky. Lucky seven! Tell you what, Son. Whether you make your own luck, or you need a little luck, seven is your number.” He gave Derek a smile and a wink, and Derek couldn’t help smiling back as he took his uniform and hat.
“Okay, Indians!” Mr. Jeter said loudly, clapping his hands. “Let’s gather round, shall we?” He introduced himself and Chase and said they were co-coaches. “Just call us both ‘Coach,’?” he instructed the team. “One of us will
be sure to answer. Now let me have Coach Bradway read the roll call. Coach?”
“Patel. . . . Jonathan Hogue. . . .”
He went on reading names. When all were accounted for, Chase said, “There are still three more names. Anybody know where Miles Kaufman is?”
Derek knew Miles. He’d been on last year’s team and had improved as the season had gone on, but he was no all-star. Nice kid, though.
“Here!” a kid yelled, running up to join the rest of them. He was carrying a baseball mitt like he’d never held one before.
There was an audible gasp from at least three other kids besides Derek. But as for Derek himself, all he heard was the sound of a loud, terrible gong in his head. The Gong of Doom.
GARY PARNELL? Derek’s biggest nemesis in school? The kid who beat him on nearly every test in every subject, and always, always rubbed it in? The kid who absolutely,
positively hated sports, calling them a waste of a good brain and valuable time?
That Gary Parnell?
No. It couldn’t be. There had to be another, some kid Derek had never met but who wasn’t—
That voice. It could only be . . .
“Are you Gary Parnell?” Chase asked.
“That’s me. Unfortunately.”
Derek turned around slowly . . . and there was his worst nightmare, being handed an Indians uniform and hat.
“Derek Jeter! As I live and breathe,” said Gary. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Derek stared. Gary looked as miserable as Derek felt.
“Why?” Derek whispered. “Why are you here? What are you, of all people, doing on a baseball field? I thought you hated baseball even more than you hate all other sports!”
“I do!” Gary confirmed. “I did, I do, and I always will. I’m just here to make your life intolerable.”
“You’re totally succeeding,” Derek whispered, frowning.
“Seriously,” Gary said with a sigh, “my mom is making me do it.”
“She’s punishing me.”
“For what? For getting only a ninety-nine on your last test?”
Gary smirked. “Feeble, Jeter. No. She insists I’m out of
shape and that I need to be more active. Yecch. All this ‘active and healthy’ stuff makes me want to puke.” He stared at the uniform in his hands. “And they don’t really expect me to dress up in this, do they? There is no way. Sor-ry.”
This was a disaster of the highest proportions. Derek could feel the panic rising in his throat. He needed to scream—but of course that wasn’t going to happen. He was just going to have to somehow overcome this . . . this catastrophe.
“Your mother is right,” Derek managed to say. “You do need to get in shape. I mean, your brain might be in shape, but—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Gary dismissed him. “I’ll show her—and the rest of you too, while I’m at it. I’m going to use this unfortunate period of forced torture to prove once and for all that sports are a complete waste of time and belong in the dustbin of history.”
Derek wanted to scream. He wanted to take an eraser and wipe this day clean so that he could start it all over and make it turn out differently.
But he couldn’t do any of that. There was his dad, right over there. There was Chase. There were his friends. There were all these other kids who were going to be his teammates.
Derek knew he would have to accept this unacceptable, horrible mistake. But how in the world were he and the Indians supposed to even contend for a championship with Gary Parnell on the team?