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This Tiny Altitude
By JB Powell

Ron Bristol didn't expect a sign to bean the umpire, but he wasn't surprised to get it. So when Butch Allen knelt down into his stance and started pumping his fist down between his thighs, Bristol simply blinked the sweat out of his eyes and came set like it was any other pitch. He could see Butch grinning through his mask though, and rolling his eyes up and back to indicate the target—poor, stupid Siegelman.

The sign came from Jimmy Hatcher, of course, the manager. Though he'd only been with the team for a month, Bristol had already seen Hatcher call for it once. Jim Daniels was throwing that day and the ump was squeezing him bad. The very first pitch of the game painted the outside corner, right at the knees, one of those pitches where even the batter stands frozen after it passes, waiting for the blue to bark out, "Strike!" But that ump, Eddie Pendergrass was his name, just stood there, smugly silent. Hatcher got up immediately and started to pace and cuss. But it only got worse. Daniels walked two guys that inning on borderline pitches and Hatcher had already thrown his gum on the field by the time that red-headed kid smacked a three-two fastball way out into the left field bleachers. That's when Hatcher started hopping up and down in place. Bristol had never seen anyone literally "hopping mad" and he would have laughed out loud if that fat little man hadn't scared the rest of the team into stunned silence with his fury. Chew-colored spit and bits of sunflower seed flew out of Hatcher's mouth as he hopped and hollered, "You see that, Pendergrass? Those runs are yours! They belong to you! Not my guy!"

His tirade lasted the rest of the inning. But Pendergrass stared forward the whole time, clenching and unclenching his jaw. His apathy enraged Hatcher even more. Usually when an umpire ignored him, Hatcher charged out of the dugout and berated him to his face until his adversary finally gave in and ejected him. But Hatcher was too mad to do anything but hop and cuss and grab at his hair. Finally, he collapsed at the end of the bench, barely able to watch the game any longer. He sat that way for nearly three innings, but then Pendergrass called a play at the plate against them and Hatcher sat bolt upright, alert and ominously quiet. Butch Allen settled into his crouch before the next pitch and looked over into the dugout. Hatcher touched the bill of his cap twice, then patted his chest. Butch grinned as he turned to relay the signal to Daniels, and Bristol saw his fist darting down beneath his thighs.

Daniels's face darkened. He paused for a second and nodded grimly, then went through his windup slower than usual. The pitch hissed through the air and right on cue, Butch dove outside, as if expecting a breaking ball. The ball hit its target with a shrill ping and caromed back nearly into Daniels's glove again. Pendergrass's head jerked back and the big man crumpled to the ground. The crowd made a single, shocked noise, then varying murmurs of outrage and delight went through it. As the trainer sprinted out and knelt over the prone umpire, Bristol could hear Butch Allen apologizing.

"We got switched up," he kept saying. "I thought the hammer was coming."

The whole time after the incident, Hatcher just stared at his cleats, which didn't even reach the dugout floor. As they helped Pendergrass to his feet again, Hatcher reached into a bag on the bench next to him. Out came a little flask and he snuck a snort off of it, then wiped his wet lips with the back of his hand. Now it was Bristol's turn. He'd known since he'd seen Jim Daniels do it that his day would come as well, but he'd put it out of his mind. He had enough to worry about anyway—a thirty-three-year old journeyman stuck back in Single A ball.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2001 issue.


JB POWELL currently lives in San Francisco. His debut novel, The Republic, will be published next Spring by Livingston Press.

© 2001 JB Powell


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