ROOKIE • by Kyle Bilinski

Buddy stood behind the mound, rolling the rosin bag in his left hand, waiting on the catcher and manager. He looked to first base, at the man he’d just walked, and tried to swallow the fact that he’d just blown a perfect game on his Major League debut. Out in the left field bullpen, he could hear one of his teammates getting loose. It was the top of the ninth, there were two outs, and the Giants were leading the Dodgers one to nothing.

“Damn,” the manager said, taking off his hat, twisting it in his hands like he was ringing out a wet rag. His bald head glimmered from the tower lights. “I thought you had it in the bag.”

The pudgy catcher, in his thick Dominican accent, said, “That last one just miss outside.”

They were huddled in a perfect triangle, so close that Buddy could feel their warm breath on his face. And these were two men he’d met only a handful of hours earlier in the day. “I’ll get this guy,” Buddy said. He dropped the rosin bag and wiped his powdery hand across the stiff letters of his brand new uniform. “And I’ll still get the no-hitter.”

“What the hell happened?” the manager asked. “Is it your arm?”

“My arm’s fine,” Buddy said. “I just couldn’t find the zone for a minute.”

“We can’t mess around this late in the season. If we lose tonight, we’ll — ”

“This is my game.” Buddy said, getting frustrated. What kind of sorry pep talk was this anyway? “I said I’ll get him.”

“All right,” the manager said, his eyes darting between Buddy and the catcher. “Keep to the corners. Nothing fat over the plate.”

As the two men ran back to where they’d come from, Buddy looked around the stadium. He couldn’t believe he’d finally made it after five years of getting jerked around in the Giants’ farm leagues. Twenty-four hours earlier, he’d been wearing a Fresno Grizzlies uniform, sitting inside a dugout in Tacoma, Washington, and now he was standing in front of a sold-out stadium in San Francisco, pitching the game of his life. About forty rows behind home plate, he thought he could see his grandma’s bright orange jacket, knowing his parents and sisters were standing right next to her. All around, everyone in the stadium was standing, watching his every move.

The crowd started to chant his name again as he climbed the mound and kicked his cleat against the rubber. But five pitches later, the count was full, and the crowd went silent. He tried to focus on his catcher’s glove, set up low and inside, but as he reeled back and hurled a fastball, the ball tailed right and almost nailed the batter’s leg.

“Damn,” Buddy said, watching the batter jog to first. He slapped his mitt against his chest and waited for the catcher to throw the ball back. Once he did, Buddy saw the manager start up the steps of the dugout. That’s when Buddy did something he couldn’t believe. He held his mitt out, stopping him on the top step, and yelled, “I’ve got it.” Then he quickly took the mound and got into his stretch. He knew he’d hear about this later, but he wasn’t about to let another pitcher steal his shot at a no-hitter.

The first pitch was a strike, a curveball right over the plate. It was a risky pitch to throw, but he couldn’t get behind in the count again. The crowd seemed to be holding their breath as he leaned forward and shook off the catcher’s signs for the next pitch. He knew what he wanted to throw. As soon as he got the sign for fastball, he stood up and brought his hands together. Then, as he fired one low and right down the middle of the plate, the batter swung and smacked the ball on the meat of the bat, driving it right at Buddy’s head. Out of pure instinct, he stuck up his mitt and fell backwards, his feet sliding out from underneath him from the force of the hit. He fell back on the mound, flat on his back.

The crowd screamed when he pulled the ball from his mitt. Then he leaned his head back against the dirt and closed his eyes. He grinned, listening to all the noise, and waited for his new teammates to pick him up.

Kyle Bilinski lives in northern California where he works as a flight attendant and painting contractor. He recently completed his thesis as an MFA candidate at Pacific University and is preparing to graduate. Some of his stories and poems have appeared in places like Black Heart Magazine, Cloudbank, Monkeybicycle, Overtime, and The Prose-Poetry Project.

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