Mark and Rob arrived at the bus stop early the next morning, both eager to discuss the coming week. Though the thrill of the previous days' events still lingered, Mark was filled with excited anticipation of the baseball tryouts, which were to begin that day.
"So Mark, you going out for pitcher, first base, or outfield?" asked Rob.
"Well, I don't want to knock you off your spot in the rotation, so I'll probably try for outfield," he responded.
"Oh, come on, you should at least try first base. You're a really good infielder. Besides, after all that fencing your arm is probably still a bit tender. You don't want to pull anything throwing the ball 400 feet to home plate."
"It's not even 300, and besides, Robinson has been the first baseman for two years. You know the coach won't kick him off, especially for someone who hasn't played in four years."
"He's not that good, really. You can field much better, and you hit about the same. Besides, the last time you played outfield, it was against 12-year-olds who couldn't hit more than 200 feet. These guys are older and bigger. Some can even crush the ball over the major league fences"
"As long as it stays in the park, there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to catch it. I never miss when we play."
"All right, all right. Just be alert out there. Don't rush in on the ball. Back up before you judge where it's gonna go. You want to catch the ball with a running start so you can throw it quicker."
"Wait a minute, I seem to remember teaching you these things about nine years ago."
"Yeah, and I remember dragging you into fencing, Mister Epee captain hero. Just keep what I told you in mind."
The bus slunk to a quiet stop, halfway on the lawn of the house next to where they stood.
"I can't wait until you get your car, Rob. Our chances of surviving until graduation will be so much better!"
* * *
"Okay, I want everyone trying out for the outfield positions to follow me, shouted
Coach Gregory at the pack of young ballplayers. About ten kids ran after him, as they knew him well enough to know they were not to keep him waiting. Mark Stevens trotted along behind the pack, not wanting to seem too anxious or nervous.
"Good luck, Mister Epee!" Rob shouted, using the nickname he knew Mark hated.
"Same to you, Knuckleball head!" returned Mark, turning back to force a smile at his friend. He had failed to make the team his freshman year, and not tried out due to injuries during his sophomore and junior years, but he was determined to make the squad in his final high school year. Though he attempted to display confidence, he was nervous to the point of distraction.
"Are you planning on joining us Stevens, or are you having second thoughts?" he heard the coach say as he looked ahead and realized he had run past the group of potential outfielders. He skulked back as the pack laughed in scorn of him. Great, he thought, in the doghouse already.
The day did not improve much, as Mark missed half of the balls hit to him, struck out three times, and was picked off of first after his lone hit. By the second day of tryouts, his hitting improved somewhat, possibly due to the fact that Rob was the pitching, but his fielding had yet to improve. Following the fourth day, a dejected Mark Stevens was called into Coach Gregory's office.
"Son," said Coach Gregory, immediately bringing to Marks mind how much he hated people other than his father calling him 'son'. It seemed to bring out anger in him, feeling as though the person wanted to make it perfectly clear that Mark was inferior. "Son, I appreciate you coming out for the team. We've seen some improvement in your play, but most of those guys have been on the team two and three years now. They just have an edge in experience. I wish I could put you on Junior Varsity, but the rules say we can't place seniors lower than the Varsity level. You're not a terrible player, and you have more heart than a lot of the kids out there, but ... I'm sorry, I'm going to have to cut you."
Something died inside Mark with that statement. Yes, he'd seen it coming, expected it from the beginning, but the actual realization was something he could not be prepared for. He had dreams as a youth of playing on a pro team, perhaps one day making the Yankees. He knew it was probably a silly dream, but it was one he nevertheless kept. Until now.
"I understand." Mark responded with the usual emotionless decorum he felt was expected of him. He was quite proud of his ability to disguise his emotions in front of others. Years ago, he learned that merely reacting would elicit reactions from others, often unwanted reactions. Becoming angry with bullies merely goaded them into more bullying. Displaying affection for girls often made the girls show their distaste for him. Showing depression would often cause others to pity him; this was worst of all, because it made him feel inferior.
"Now if you need a recommendation for your transcripts or anything, don't hesitate to ask," continued Coach Gregory. "I've had you in my gym class, and I know what a hard worker you are. I'd be happy to write you a referral."
"Thanks, coach. I appreciate your letting me try out. Good luck with the team This year..." Had anyone else said that in this situation, it may have sounded a little bitter.
"Thank you. And look, just because you didn't gel with the team, doesn't mean you failed. Everyone else has just been playing longer. We did have to cut a couple kids who've been playing with us for three years. Anyway, thanks for stopping in, and I will see you later." Somehow, Coach Gregory's statements were not reassuring.
"Yeah, thanks, I'll see you around." Mark stepped out of the office and walked dejectedly toward Ns looker.
"Didn't make it, huh?" Mark heard Rob's voice ask from the direction of Mark's looker, where Rob had been waiting.
"Nope. He said I didn't gel with the team. I guess I just didn't fit in very well," replied Mark.
"Aw, come on, you fit in fine. He only based his decision on a couple days of seeing you play. You were just rusty, and needed a few days to got back in the rhythm."
"Well, I guess now you're the only one who can make the majors now, Rob. You know, I never really seriously considered anything else."
"Hey, you're not dead yet. You still have college ball to try. We'll practice together all summer so you ran impress the North Carolina coaches next year."
"Do you really think so?"
"Yeah! Once you've been doing it for a couple of months, you'll be back at your old form. And even if you don't make their Varsity team, since you'll be a freshman they'll definitely give you a JV spot. You'll see."
"Maybe you're right. I was just really looking forward to being on a team this year. And you'll be up in Boston next year, so we'll never got a chance to be teammates."
"That's all right. Boston will play North Carolina a few times, and I'm sure we'll get the chance to play against each other. Uh oh, look at the time! We gotta run if we're gonna catch the yellow death machine!"
Mark walked in his front door, cheered slightly by Rob, but still unhappy with the day's events. He did his best to disguise his disappointment as his parents, who were sitting in the living room, greeted him.
"Hi Mark, how did tryouts go?" His mother didn't realize she asked the worst question she could ask at that time.
"Not too good. I was cut today." His parents had already looked a bit down, and in response to Mark's statement, their faces fell even more. Something else was wrong.
"I'm sorry to hear that, honey. I'm sure you did your best," replied Mrs. Stevens.
"Listen son," his father spoke for the first time. Mark recognized this as being the second time today he had heard the word 'son' used in that same tone of voice. Something was definitely wrong. "You got an envelope from North Carolina in the mail today. Your mother and I just couldn't wait, so we opened it." A look of terror crept over Mark's face as he realized what his father was about to say.