In the first inning, Ginny sets the RockHounds down in order—a hot grounder to third, an easy fly to right, and a strikeout looking—while Amelia is still taking her time getting to the bleachers. Her attention has been caught by a souvenir stand, such as it is, across the way from some overpriced hot dogs and tasteless beer.
She's caught them at somewhat of a lull. Most of the people who were already running late to get to the stadium are just as impatient to rush into their seats. A few others stuck in line for food reluctantly decide to wait it out and show up in time for the second inning, but almost nobody thinks the souvenirs are that urgent that they can't wait for a bathroom break in the fifth. Still, Amelia watches as a couple families pass by. One young girl looks at the caps on display and cautiously sizes them up as if studying the various shades of blue, critiquing the fonts used for the initialisms or merely unimpressed by the Missions' unofficial mascot du jour. Her father smiles down at her, encouragingly, but she slowly backs away, edging farther from the other side of the desk where the clerk is strongly dissuading her younger brothers from practicing with the miniature bats. It is too early in the day to start counting down how long until the Missions can take a lead and win it in eight-and-a-half, Amelia knows, but the forced patience on his face says it all.
The next little girl to come by mumbles her request so indistinctly that the clerk, composure then regained (this one's siblings are older and eying the helmet-sized ice cream portions), has to ask her to repeat it, and it's her mother who explains that she wants a scorecard. No, not the glossy program for Meeting the Missions!, just a piece of paper for tracking the plays.
The clerk, on his game after all, delivers from the cabinet below the cash register, and throws in a Missions pencil to boot. The family makes their way out to the cheap seats on the lawn.
There's something to be said, Amelia concedes, for t-shirts sporting absurd jalapeno mascots. They're all there to sell a product, and their audience—well, their audience's kids anyway, and that's almost as good—don't have a bad word to say about cute peppers. (They might not like eating peppers, granted, but what's new.)
Still, part of her imagines being able to anthropomorphize the “Missions” into something with more agency than long-empty churches. They are a team on a mission, after all. A bigger mission than winning the Texas League, if Amelia has her way about it. Forge Ginny into a major leaguer, into the celebrity she is capable of becoming, and what will anything else they accomplish here matter?
The RockHounds' cleanup hitter draws a walk to lead off the second inning, but after a foul pop to the catcher, he's erased on a sharply-hit double play ball to second. Evelyn listens to the play-by-play from the radio stream, then turns the volume down, listening to the shrieks coming from the next room over. She pokes her head from the kitchen into the living room. “Boys?”
“Whaaat?” asks Marcus, freezing and holding his pose; he has been zooming a toy car that had been Blip's up the wall, and it careens there, as if it ran out of gas while attempting a vertical maneuver.
“Are you giving Ava a chance to play?”
“Yes, Mom,” says Gabriel, glaring across the room where the middle reliever's daughter is running her dump truck back and forth across the floor as if she's going to dig furrows into it.
“Okay. Remember you can turn on the TV if there's something she wants to watch—cartoons or something,” Evelyn adds after seeing the glimmer of hope in Marcus' eyes.
She hadn't been quite sure what to make of the southpaw, Jesse Lundgren. After getting a couple cups of coffee with the parent club in San Diego, he had never proven quite talented enough to earn a closer's job but still resisted the gravitational pull that threatened to suck him further down the minor leagues, and managed to extend his career for a while. By then with a family to provide for and an uncertain future outside the game, Lundgren had watched his wife put down roots in Texas, finding a job as a paralegal—no small comfort on his minor-league salary, but it did make babysitting somewhat impractical.
Evelyn, faced with the same dilemma, had gotten a job as a teacher's aide. True, she wasn't as passionate about it as some of the other special-education lifers, but the convenience of matching Gabriel and Marcus' schedule better was hard to beat. It was work, she told herself. Not everyone could be so lucky to have a job they loved.
And in the summer, well, some of the Mission Moms take turns watching each other's kids. Evelyn had hoped that the women themselves might hit it off as well as their children seemed to, but Cristina is always fretting about the most petty concerns. It seems obvious that the new manager is not playing favorites, and his worst behaviors are flagrant crimes against fashion; that the umpires are not out to get them; that the stadium prices are an outrage but it's not really anything the players can do anything about, and Evelyn learns to keep the small talk brief.
The voice of an infomercial advertising only four brief payments of $19.95 comes booming in from the living room. Evelyn attempts to have them turn on ESPN before being reassured that, no, Ava thinks it's hilarious to watch a machine that both slices and dices, and settles for having Gabriel conduct his next demolition derby away from the picture frames.
Two fly balls to the outfield—one that the left fielder barely needs to move to grasp, the other that Blip snags on a backwards run—start off the third for the RockHounds. The leadoff hitter almost gets aboard on another difficult bouncer to third base, and is tearing up the basepath by the time the bang-bang throw catches him at first.
Eliot stares with wide eyes, not at the first baseman's reach, impressive though it was, but at the runner's speed and ensuing basepath condition. The front office staff has just sent him a text.
We have a problem. Kelsey Rivers has the walking pneumonia and can't make it.
Who's Kelsey Rivers, he texts back angrily, the intern whose job it should be to deal with this mess? Amelia has told him that the she really owed the front office really one for singlehandedly “helping” with their promotion last month, by which she meant almost ruining it at the last minute with Ginny-related suggestions, which was why he's been “volunteered” to fill in when the usual suspects don't show.
Well, probably her too. But no, she was today's racer.
So? he sends back.
So we need another kid.
Which is why Eliot is pacing through the bleachers, wishing he had a box of cotton candy. Maybe then people would be pleased to see him for once.
All right, he tells himself, this can't be that difficult. Everyone likes being in the spotlight, right? “Excuse me,” he asks a boy in a backwards cap, Griffey-style. “Would you like to race a taco?”
“What?” asks the boy.
“In the seventh inning. We have this, uh, race-around-the-bases. With the, you know, taco mascot.”
“Oookay?” he says excitedly.
“The seventh inning?” his dad echoes.
He glances over at another little boy, this one's cap facing forward and shading a face that's turning a little green. “Not sure we'll make it that long.”
Eliot's heard of people who come out to the ballpark as if to beat traffic home, but not the kind that come to beat back nausea. “Right. Sorry, good luck.”
“No worries, the same to you.”
He tries a girl next time; her siblings look healthy enough, although maybe about to assault each other with the souvenir bats. “Would you like to race a taco in the seventh inning?”
“You mean, see how fast I can eat it?” she asks. “I don't like tacos.”
“No, I mean, running. Along the bases.”
“Oh. Huh. Maybe?” she says.
“No fair, no fair!” pouts one of her brothers, and the second chimes in with a “nofairnofairnofair.” Eliot isn't really sure whether that's referring to his arbitrary decision, the liner that Blip has just hit foul down the first-base line, or whether he's just yelling for the sake of yelling, but his already-frazzled parents glance over suspiciously, and Eliot decides to take evasive action before anyone comes at him with one of those little bats.
Question? he texts a few minutes later, having lit on an only child in the back row.
Do you think the taco could race a wheelchair?
I think it probably could. Given enough advance warning. We just can't have it screw up and win by mistake (against anyone).
As long as IT doesn't get the walking pneumonia, because I'm definitely not being forced into that thing.
The boy's eyes are guarded, no doubt tired of cheap pity. Eliot decides to play it safe. “Congratulations!” he says, “we've done a random drawing, and your seat is the lucky winner! Would you like to participate in a promotion today?”
“Yeah?” he asks, curious.
“There's one rule,” his mother rushes in.
“What?” he snaps.
“Julian isn't quite 21 yet, so no beer,” and they all laugh.
Eliot decides that he really needs to wrangle a new job title out of this.
The first batter in the fourth goes down swinging, and the second is retired on the next pitch on a grounder to the mound. It should be a one-two-three inning, but the second baseman misplays an easy ground ball to let the third batter reach on an error. Still, no harm done, and a foul to left gets San Antonio out of the inning.
Will is only half-listening. Under other circumstances, if he was giving the game his full attention, he'd be pleased with the outcome, but right now he's listening on his phone to remind himself that he has nothing better to do than follow Ginny's life, even from halfway across the country. He tells himself it's motivation of sorts—someday he'll have a meaningful enough job, a meaningful enough life, that the game and all the continual reminders of how his baby sister keeps outshining him won't be a punishment.
He shuts the phone's broadcast off and casts about the bar for anyone half-recognizable, but it's a woman who catches his eye first and waves him over. Seeing him scramble to match name and face, she rushes to fill in, “Kim! And I think my boss interviewed you?”
“Oh right, right,” he says. “Yeah, great to see you again!”
“You'll be fine. Trust me! Jason doesn't bring anybody in for a talk unless he's sure he wants them on board. You got this.”
Will really isn't the mood to extend trust to anyone in particular, much less to Kim and her fidgeting grin, but he forces a smile. “Thanks.”
“So, why don't you tell me about yourself?”
“Um, because I already got through the interview?”
Kim laughs. “Fair. Don't suppose I can get you a drink?”
Will knows plenty of his friends would have called her good-looking, tall legs and bounding curls, but at a glance she's just not his type and he feels bad at the prospect of leading her on. He settles on a line that, to hear her tell it, Ginny falls back on every so often. “We are about to be co-workers, right? It'd be weird.” At her slightly guilty expression he quickly adds “Unless that's, like, what you do around here. Office canteen, getting drinks for everyone. Jason never explained.”
“Of course not,” says Kim. “He'd assume that was a waste of time.” And then she's off on some buzzword-laden summary of just exactly what it is they do, with a far more glamorous recapitulation of widget-stamping and gadget-toting than Will had received the previous day. She doesn't really notice when his eyes glaze over and he begins to regret not having taken her up on the offer of a drink, if only to keep the conversation slightly more engaging, but he lets her speak, if only to have someone notice him for himself. And so he isn't listening to hear the bottom-half rally—a walk, a hit batter, a single up the middle—that gives the Missions a one-run lead.
It's the fifth inning when Blip stops speaking to Ginny.
She'd worked quickly through the top half, with an unassisted grounder to first, a fly to right on the next pitch, and then a swinging strikeout. Then she'd returned to find a strangely empty segment of bench waiting for her.
Blip can pass it off as just waiting for his turn to hit. He starts the inning on-deck, slowly watching the motions of the RockHounds' tiring starter. The leadoff hitter draws a walk, and Blip follows, trying to gauge the timing of the changeup. He seemed to tip off when it was coming—there—
No luck, Blip pulls it for an easy first out, then takes his place at the far end of the bench, pretending that the stale supply of sunflower seeds are the most nourishing things in the stadium. They're playing by American League rules against the RockHounds, so the designated hitter, Klug, gets to hit after Blip. Ginny can't even take a turn at bat as a relief from her imposed isolation.
She'll be fine, Blip tells himself, she's used to not having friends around to talk to. This isn't really comforting.
He stands up and cranes his neck to get a look down at the bullpen. Of course, no one is warming up. But he wants to know if they're paying more attention than usual. You never can tell with bullpen dudes, whether it's Lundgren going on about something cute his kid did or Wexler appraising the virtues of the northwest Arkansas spectators or Quigley flipping his lid about how the government was censoring the truth about aliens. The only two who talk about baseball besides Ginny are Martinez, who insists against all available evidence that he really can throw a knuckleball, and Lancaster, who truly understands the value of ritual, possibly even more than Blip himself. Lancaster's idea of a playoff beard starts around the All-Star break, and sure enough, Blip can just about see one figure staring out towards the field in nervous anticipation.
Klug draws another walk, and the RockHounds' manager comes out to discuss things with the pitcher. This is good, Blip thinks, or would be in a normal game—more time for Ginny, for any starter, to rest between innings, is the goal. Is that what matters now? Maybe it would be better to go back out there and keep the momentum going. A one-run lead is taut enough to keep Ginny on edge, give her no room for error...
Before Blip can decide how to root, as if his will has any direction on the course of events—why shouldn't it? He's Blip Sanders after all—a double play gets Midland out of the inning.
If this game continues apace, Blip decides, he and Lancaster are going to have to teach Ginny about the power of a lucky shirt, like it or not. Evelyn will probably kill him for it, but sacrifices have to be made.
In the sixth inning, Ginny takes the mound alone.
The stands are still full, of course. Little girls in San Antonio don't necessarily show up to the minor league stadium to witness big-time history, but she still feels their gaze prickling down on her. Amelia would be proud, she thinks, already she's conditioned to feel the weight of the crowd. This is the vise of superstition, to be ignored by your teammates as what passes for cameras in double-A zoom in.
Pascual, the catcher, is in some respects having a more incendiary night than Ginny. He's been in charge of the pitches, and has two hits already. Plus, despite the tension in the dugout, the rest of the Missions still talk to him.
He remains in control for the first hitter, a stocky left-hander who chokes up somewhat and barely makes contact, hitting a slow roller down the first-base line. It might have gone foul, but full of energy, Pascual grabs it himself on the second hop and drills it to first for the out. One away, and Ginny grips the rosin bag.
Pascual calls for the fastball on the next batter, and Ginny shakes him off. She's not tired, really, but it's mostly her screwball that's been getting them this far, and why mess with what works? The batter takes advantage of the delays, fouling off pitch after pitch and forcing them to cycle through a barrage of signs, working the count full and then finally lifting a high fly ball to center. It's all Ginny can do to turn and watch.
But it's too high for its own good, and Blip has time to sprint to his left to make the catch. Ginny gives a small smile of acknowledgment; no matter the outcome, he'll tease her and demand credit after the game, and she'll be only too glad to oblige, but she can't let the moment get to her yet. Instead, she settles for deferring to Pascual's calls again, and they lead to an easy groundout to second.
Maybe he'll go through the motions of discussing the possible pinch-hitters with her, she thinks. It's still a one-run game, and eventually the RockHounds will have to try something to get their offense moving. But as soon as they get back to the dugout he hustles down to the far end, as if seeking out advice from the other batters on how best to position the donuts on his bat.
She knows she should take the silent treatment as a badge of honor. But she knows the other pitchers who got consigned to the far end of the bench, trod around lightly for fear of disturbing the peace, weren't excluded the rest of the day—after the game, win, lose, or unremarkable no-decision, they'd get to change in the locker room, another one of the guys.
Ginny feels strange eyes on her in the top of the seventh, but tries not to think anything of it. It could just be the enormous taco that's just finished extending a losing streak as old as Ginny herself. It's probably that.
The first batter takes a ball high and away. She challenges him with a screwball in, and he lifts it to short left, in no-man's-land; it drops in for a clean hit, and the crowd applauds in appreciation. But they remain seated—there will be time for rising and cheering later. Watching Julian versus the taco was enough grandeur for the day.
When she was a junior in high school she had thrown a no-hitter. It had rained that morning at the other team's field, and they weren't sure whether they would get the game in, but by the time the afternoon came around it was considered playable enough to attempt. There were plenty of errors on both sides—even the Mustangs' first run was unearned. So for a while Ginny didn't pay attention to what was going on, just kept ploughing through.
It was the other coach who kept scribbling down at his scorecard with building frustration; if there was any awe, he did not show it. Nor, Ginny's father was grateful, was there any bitter emasculation in the home team's struggles. Impatience, yes, as they swung early and for the fences, tried to recapture the lead before the sun set or the rain returned, but not anger.
The shortstop settled under the final out, and Bill could tell that the newspapers were going to have a field day. Ginny was by far the best thing to ever happen to the Main Mustang and its sportswriting staff, but the metropolitan papers could bask in the reflected glory, too. And it would be good for Ginny to make history through the game, not for standing out, but for rising above her peers.
Still, better not to let it go to her head too much. “We ain't done nothin' yet,” he grinned, as the Mustangs piled off the field.
Now in San Antonio, she takes a minute to catch her breath. Behind her, Martinez and his knuckleball aspirations are warming in the bullpen. Pascual sprints out to the mound. “You all right?”
“I'm good,” she says. Now he talks to her, but all he can do is stall—while she'd love it if he had some great secret on how to pick the runner off, she's got too many pent-up nerves to trust her throw to first.
“All right,” he says, and they're back at it.
And she doesn't hear anyone else, yet, no one talking her down or downplaying her accomplishments so far. As she grudgingly goes with the fastball, as she jams the next batter, as she gets out of the inning, as the manager pats her on the back but tells her to let Martinez start the eighth, the world is silent except for the PA guy whose job it is to overhype everything. There isn't a “we,” she knows. No matter how many game-saving catches Blip makes, it's her job to do everything on her own.
But it doesn't mean that Bill isn't somewhere, watching.