Grandmom knew more about baseball and the men who played than I did, but I knew more about mean girls. There were girls in the summer league who would call out those of us who weren’t local, no matter how far back our blood ran through town. Jackie Murray was the meanest local and she didn’t hesitate to rally for a “shoobs-only” team—which would have made about four of us. I didn’t like the term “shoob,” because certainly nobody in my family had ever worn shoes to the beach!
Amy Patterson seemed like a mean girl too—she didn’t smile at anyone even though she was local and knew everyone. When she ran into you full throttle to beat the throw, she didn’t apologize, like so many girls did. Aiming the ball hard and at your heart was her way of making you pay attention.
After Amy heard Jackie making fun of my oversized glove—she had called me “Big Mitt, Little Tit”—I saw her pick up Jackie’s glove and pour soda in the thumb, so I repeated in my head, “Let me play on Amy’s team, let me play on Amy’s team,” and just like I knew Dad was going to leave us in September no matter what any of the adults that summer were telling me, sure enough, Amy and I not only got picked for the same team, but I was first pick as pitcher, and she was last pick as catcher.
There were fifteen of us, but mostly I remember Samantha was our shortstop, which was funny because she was short. Kari, whose arms were very hairy, was on first base. Chrissy was on third, Gina played second, and our outfielders were Ann, Tiffany, and Danielle Miller, the coach’s daughter. Our league was for girls aged nine to twelve and we ranged from peewee, like Samantha, to oversized, like Danielle.
We were the Sandpipers. It was 1980.
After tryouts, Coach Miller took us all for pizza on the boardwalk. We scooped up four outdoor tables, and when I saw Amy trying to make up her mind which table to join, as if she had a choice, I pointed to the empty seat across from mine. We sat with Coach Miller and Danielle; we were the awkwardly quiet table.
But Coach, after he inhaled a few slices, did make a few team announcements. He talked about the importance of showing up for every game—of being dependable. He said there would be no “Batter, batter, batter.” Coach told us we had promise and that the most important thing, besides showing up, was to have fun. Then he had the good idea of making a team telephone tree and after each of us wrote down our number, he told us to act like responsible ladies while he went down the block and made Xerox copies for us.
By the time Uncle Max picked me up, I had a brand new set of friends I could call, a schedule, and a uniform. Our jerseys and caps were orange and our pants were white. I was Number 9. The lettering was black and shiny, not the cheap felt iron-on kind.
When I got back to Grandmom’s house, I gave her the schedule and telephone tree and she taped them to the refrigerator. “See,” I said. “If there’s an emergency or a rained out game or something, Danielle calls two friends, and they call two friends, and—”
Lacey sashayed into the kitchen in her short shorts and sparkle tube top. “You sound like a shampoo commercial,” she said, “but you don’t look like one.”
I stared at the refrigerator and thought, “Maybe I can just start a whole new life here with Grandmom.”
“Coach Miller?” my grandmother said. “I wonder if that’s Randall and Rose’s son.”
“First game is Tuesday,” I said, skipping up the stairs with my uniform. “And we have regular practices and a woman coach too!”
I was in my underwear when Lacey came in and sat down on the bed. “Hot shot,” she said.
“I was first pick,” I said.
“For the worst team,” she said.
I pulled my orange shirt over my head.
“You’re just mad because you don’t have any friends here,” I said.
“Roger Curtin is my friend,” Lacey said. “We have a secret spot and we’re meeting there in five minutes.”
Roger Curtin worked at our uncle’s marina. He had tried to teach me to sail three summers straight, but I was a puker.
“I thought Grandmom grounded you for a week.”
Standing at the mirror, Lacey licked her middle fingers and ran them over her eyebrows. On her way out, she turned and looked at the reflection of her butt.
I slammed the door and locked it. All the mirrors in the world seemed to belong to my older sister, but I stood in front of this one, in my first numbered uniform ever, and threw my shoulders back. I pulled my uniform pants on. Because I was so tall, I’d had to choose large pants and because I was so skinny, they ballooned on me like jodhpurs. The elastic waistband had been stretched out by some girl before me, but I didn’t care. I moved closer to the mirror until my whole body filled the frame, and then I licked my index finger and touched it to the Little League patch above my heart.
“Tzssst,” I said, jutting out my hip.
I asked Grandmom if she didn’t want to come for just part of my first game.
“Those bleachers aren’t made for old ladies,” Grandmom said.
“Coach Muldoon is old,” I said.
“Gretchen Muldoon is thirty-two years old. I taught her in the first grade. Go on. Go play. That’s what summer is for.”
I kissed her cheek. She smelled like the cool shade of her house. I knew she really wanted to stay home to listen to Harry Kalas and her Phillies. “This is their year,” she would say, “I just know it!”
Tempting Lacey to do something she wasn’t allowed to do would be fun under any circumstances, but I really did want her to come to my first game. I thought I might convince her with the idea of boys in the bleachers, but what boys would show up to watch a bunch of nine to twelve-year-old girls play softball?
“I’m pitching,” I said. “Come for just one inning.”
“You’ve got your diamond,” she said. “And I’ve got mine.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Nice glove.”
The only diamond-like thing my sister possessed was her icy heart. She was sixteen: it wasn’t like high school boys gave high school girls diamonds. Her last boyfriend bought her a silver-plated ID bracelet with his name engraved in it. I watched her flush it down the toilet after she broke up with him because she and her friends decided his pants were too highwaisted.
Was she shoplifting again? Could my sister shoplift diamonds? She probably could. Had she inherited something from Grandmom? Or worse, when Mom took off her wedding ring, was she going to give it to Lacey?
No, of course not! Lacey was trying to fill my head with pirate treasure, tempting me to drop the Sandpipers and be her same baby sister, digging up Grandmom’s woods alone again and finding nothing but rocks. I did want to ask her what she meant about her diamond and I did want to explain to her that the glove Uncle Max had bought me was still too stiff to play with so I was using one of his old ones, but instead I pulled my cap lower over my eyes and went early to warm-ups.
Along the way, I tossed Uncle Max’s big floppy glove in the air and told myself as long as we weren’t playing Jackie Murray’s team first, I didn’t care if I looked like a cartoon character, with everything I was wearing too big for my body. This glove had Whitey Ford’s autograph on it, and he had been a lefty pitcher, just like me.
Only Danielle and the coaches were at the field when I arrived. We stood together on the left baseline for a spell. Coach Muldoon looked like she would rather be sleeping in, and Coach Miller seemed to have nothing to say if the entire team wasn’t there to listen.
“I think I’ll jog a lap,” I said.
“Take an easy one along the fence,” Coach Miller said. “Danielle, you too.”
Danielle and I had different strides; I slowed mine.
“I was Number 9 last summer,” Danielle said.
“You could have it back,” I said. Her pants looked like they might fit me tighter. “I’ll trade you uniforms.”
“No thanks,” she said. “9 is my unlucky number.”
“I guess 7 is your lucky number?”
Danielle shrugged and almost tripped in the grass.
“I don’t believe in luck,” she said.
“Ten push ups!” Coach Miller shouted as we rounded leftfield.
“I guess Coach wants us strong for nine innings,” I said, doing two pushups for each of Danielle’s one.
“You mean six,” Danielle said. “There’s only six innings in softball.”
“Why would I make a thing like that up?”
I bounced through my last two pushups and jumped to standing.
“Coach Miller,” I said. “Do we only play six innings? Why don’t we play nine, like the boys do?”
“Boys play six too. In Little League you’re all the same.”
I looked over at the boys’ field. Their bleachers stood longer and higher, the concession stand was behind their backstop, and they had big silver lights for night games. The grass in their outfield was greener and mowed in a checkerboard pattern. The lime lines against the raked dirt seemed to glow. Their dugouts were sunk into the ground with roofs overhead, like Big League dugouts.
In our infield, between third base and home, there was a small puddle. Our dugout was an old splintery bench behind a wobbly hurricane fence. The grass in the outfield was cut, but patchy.
“When exactly,” I said, “do boys start getting more?”
“Heyho!” Coach Miller said. “The equipment’s arrived!”
Coach Muldoon looked like a Muppet. Her eyeglasses were as large as two full moons and made her eyeballs bulge out. She wore middle-aged-woman ponytails and loved to teach us how to slide into home plate.
“Trust me. I broke my ankle sliding the wrong way,” we’d heard her say at every practice. “Sure, I scored the winning run, but was it worth it?”
She would pause.
“Yes! Yes! The winning run is always worth it!”
Coach Muldoon was wiry and loud. She had played shortstop for Arizona State University, and was a senior on the team in 1972, the year they won the national championship.
“’72,” she would say. “Oh, how we won that year! Our team with the national championship trophy, and all female athletes with Title IX!”
Each player on Coach Muldoon’s ’72 team had commemorated their victory by purchasing a solid gold charm bat necklace, and she still wore hers, at least while coaching us she did. Watching that gold bat dangling from her neck as she was trying to fill in that lousy puddle between third and home, I thought I’d go over and ask her about the six and nine innings difference.
But then Amy showed up, skidding in next to the bleachers on a bike that was too small for her.
In just five practices, Amy and I had invented and memorized a secret code to psych out our opponents, even though technically I was limited to only one kind of pitch—high and slow. She had a strong arm and caught every pitch I sent her, even the rare wild ones, so I couldn’t figure out why she had been last pick.
The coaches and Danielle helped Kari’s dad unload the gear.
“Mrs. Mulgoon doesn’t have any kids,” Amy told me.
The ball left my hand, arched, and fell smack into her glove.
She readjusted her position. Her knees were already grass-stained.
“Danielle missed half the school year,” Amy said. “And still passed into seventh grade! The rest of us have to get up early for nine months, but Danielle gets to stay home all spring and then attempt to play softball all summer. She’s weak, any way you slice it.”
“She told me 9 was her unlucky number,” I said, tugging at my pants.
Amy rolled her eyes. “You got safety pins holding those things up?” she said.
“My grandmother’s going to sew in new elastic.”
“You’re so skinny you’re an optical illusion.”
“I figure 9 is a lucky number,” I said. “We get to play ball because of Title 9.”
“You mean the thing Coach Mulgoon is always telling us we should thank our lucky stars for? It’s not for girls our age.”
“I’m going to invent Title 10, so girls can play nine innings in Little League.”
“Are you crazy?” Amy said. “Six is fine with me. It’s hot out here and summer is short enough as it is.”
“We’ll play nine one day. And have better dugouts. I’m going to be a lawyer in college.”
Roger Curtin was going to Harvard in the fall. He told me was going to study criminal law.
“College?” Amy said. “A lawyer?”
“Somebody has to change the rules.”
“You think too much,” Amy said. “Keep it up, you’ll wear yourself out before the first pitch. You know, this game is supposed to be fun.”
“Exactly,” I said. “And my new law will make the fun last hours longer.”
Amy adjusted her chest guard. “It’s hot already,” she said.
“I have a friend who’s going to Harvard this fall,” I said. “That’s an Ivy League college. Studying in the Ivy League is like playing in the Big Leagues.”
“Sounds fancy,” Amy said. “So maybe this fancy friend can lend you a softball glove that fits.”
I brought my uncle’s glove to my face and purposefully pitched one in the dirt. Amy didn’t bat an eye.
Amy and I jogged over to the big orange water cooler set on the end of our splintery dug out bench. Danielle was slowly unloading bats, hooking each handle into a hole in the fence.
A few of the girls were hitting and catching. Kari and Ann were sitting on the bench on their bags of Big League Chew.
Danielle asked them what they were doing.
“Making bubble gum pancakes,” Kari said.
“More like bubble gum hash browns,” Ann said. She pulled the bag from under her butt and opened it. A waft of pink sugar filled the air. “See?” she said. “It’s all smooshed together now.”
She offered some to Danielle.
“Mmm,” Danielle said. “It’s warm.”
Kari offered some to Amy and me. I took a wad. Amy shook her head no.
My sister had heard right somehow: The Sandpipers had had a losing record the last three summers. None of the girls on my team looked like losers, not on an individual level anyway, so how was it they could not win? It seemed the five of us just then were asking ourselves the same question.
“We’re gonna be winners this year, Number 9,” Amy said.
We high-fived. I high-fived Kari, Ann, and Danielle. Only Kari held her palm in the air and waited for a high five from Amy.
“Rally round,” Coach Miller yelled. “Danielle has an announcement to make before we get cracking.”
Danielle lumbered up to the front of the crowd. She was eleven, like me, and I didn’t know what she would do for a uniform when she was twelve—her black number 4 was pulled so tight across her back I thought it would peel off by mid-July.
“The words four and death sound the same in Chinese,” Amy whispered to me.
“How do you know?”
“I can count to one hundred in Mandarin.”
“Say nine,” I said.
“Girls,” Coach Miller said. “Listen up!”
“I’m having a slumber party tonight,” Danielle said. “Everyone’s invited. It starts at four thirty.” It was the sorriest invitation I’d ever heard.
“Four,” Amy said. “Told you.”
Amy was right: although Danielle was a large girl, she inhabited space like a very small one, or even less. She didn’t speak loud enough, and though she was inviting us to a party, every syllable was a hand held up, asking for permission to be excused.
“My cousins are in town,” Samantha said, and a few girls repeated the same thing.
While Danielle was handing out maps to her house, I looked around again at all us girls, thinking about our different voices and different shapes, how far our bodies were at nine to twelve from what they would be when we were as old as Lacey. I thought sixteen was still a long ways off and my pants were embarrassing, but somehow I was lucky I wasn’t Coach Miller’s daughter.
My uncle’s arrival in the third inning of my first game created a pressure, but it wasn’t a bad pressure. I carried some of his blood and he’d almost gone pro. He took a seat on the highest bleacher.
Coach Miller was yelling at each batter, “Keep your eye on the ball” and “Punish it!” He told weaker batters, “Choke up, choke up!” Coach Muldoon spoke loud and steady with, “Wait for your pitch,” and a few of the girls chanted “Sweet spot, sweet spot.” I sat on the bench seeing myself from my uncle’s perspective, with that huge 9 on my back and a red frizzy ponytail popping out of a stiff orange cap. He was taking time away from selling boats to watch me play.
Chrissy had managed to get a double and Amy not only knocked Chrissy to third with a bunt, but slid into first, snapping Coach Muldoon fully into the game. But still, the third inning ended with stranded runners. We were down 5 to nothing.
At the top of the fourth, we hustled back on to the field. I tugged at the laces of my glove, and gave all the knots holding the fingers together a twist. I looked over at my uncle on the top bleacher. He lowered his cap over his eyes and I did the same.
Amy shouted, “Heads up,” and threw me a ball. She squatted like a rock and I wound my pitching arm around a few times in its socket. In the center of the diamond, on the mound, I could control the air my team breathed and how fast they breathed it; I could control the number of hits the opposing team hit through our air. I inhaled our air and then exhaled my own, until the big black hole in my mind’s eye became a pinpoint out ahead of me in the strike zone.
The statistics on a perfect game in Major League Baseball are complex, but at least they are limited. After Grandmom told me, “More people have walked on the moon than have pitched a perfect game!” I started to live for pitching, for Amy’s stability behind home plate, and for her ear too, as I filled it with the names of men like Heinie Manush, Catfish Hunter, Bake McBride, and with team names as magical as the Worcester Ruby Legs and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms.
“Steve Carlton rams his fist into a bucket full of rice,” I told her.
“Satchel Paige used to rub his arm in axel grease.”
“They called this Orioles’ pitcher “Cakes” because he believed if he didn’t eat pancakes before a game, his team would lose.”
It was of course impossible to erase the five runs the Jaegers had batted in already, but I called Amy to the mound. “What’s the word for death in Chinese?” I said.
“Se,” she said. “Sewang.”
“It’s the fourth inning,” I said.
We didn’t win that first game, but we shut the Jaegers down in the fourth and brought in four runs ourselves.
Grandmom had given me a twenty-dollar bill to take to Danielle’s party, for what, I didn’t know, but I did know that I needed a Dairy Queen Peanut Butter Parfait, or I would die. Trudging over the bridge with my sleeping bag and old suitcase, I looked down at Uncle Max’s marina and spotted Roger Curtin out on the far dock by the gas pumps. I stopped and let traffic whiz by behind me. It was the hour people started to leave the beach to head back for their homes on the mainland, or for the turnpike. I imagined many of them would eat corn on the cob with tomatoes for dinner.
The bridge rumbled and one of my mother’s favorite songs came to me. Technically, it wasn’t the Earth moving under my feet, it was concrete, but as I stood and watched Roger Curtin in his little red shorts and crisp-collared shirt, I wished the sky would come tumbling down. Maybe that would stop the summer of 1980 in its tracks, and I would never have to come to know a single Christmas without my father.
“Roger, look up,” I said into the wind. But of course he wouldn’t. He was chasing my sister, who might as well have been a mermaid, and I was just a girl on Earth, trembling.
And so I turned, and ran like a maniac all the way to the Dairy Queen, not caring about the tourists that honked and shouted at me because they thought I was a sun-ravaged hobo with bloodshot eyes who lived under a bridge by day and scavenged under the boardwalk by night, looking for candies and crumbs that had slipped through the cracks. Let them think my old slumber party bindle was filled with arcade prizes tossed off by kids who didn’t know how good their summer was.
In line at Dairy Queen, I scanned the menu for something new—something I had never ordered before. I tried figuring out how many items I could order with a twenty-dollar bill and how fast I’d have to eat everything before it melted, but math—especially word problems—was never my strong point.
The family behind me was becoming impatient.
“Young lady,” the father said.
I turned to look at the man’s face, intending to toss him my new cool pitcher’s glare; but my eyes were drawn to his legs, more specifically, to his feet. He was a shoob!
“Would you mind telling me where you got your tube socks?” I said. “I’d like to get my dad a pair. He hates getting his feet sandy too.”
“Well!” his wife said.
“Young lady, some of us don’t have all day,” the man said.
“Haven’t you ever heard of baseball?” I said.
I turned to the cashier and started to place my order.
“Number 9,” Amy said, coming up behind me in line. “I should have known I’d find you here!”
“She’s with me,” I said, hooking my arm into Amy’s.
“Butter!” one of the boys behind us said.
“No,” Amy said. “Winner!”
Then she turned to me. “We rule! The Jaegers died in the fourth.”
“You want a milkshake? Or two?”
I asked the cashier to change my entire order. The shoob-father behind me groaned, and his descendant-of-a-shoob-sons murmured, “Stupid girls.” Then the mother told her sons not to talk that way, and the father said, “That’s it! No treats for anyone!”
Amy and I shrugged and took a small outside table for two amongst all the big round tables meant for families. Amy’s sleeping bag wasn’t any cooler than mine, and she carried her overnight stuff in a plastic grocery bag. We looked like runaways.
“You live close by?” I said, licking a dollop of chocolate Jimmies just before it slid onto my fingers.
“Mmhmm,” Amy said.
She had ordered a banana split and was sucking up the whipped cream through a straw.
“The Sandpipers sure needed you,” she said. “Kari’s great at first, but she was a shitty pitcher.”
We were surrounded by five and six-year olds, and their parents. I expected an adult to tell Amy to watch her mouth, but no one was paying attention to us.
“I never played softball before in my life,” I said. “Until this summer.”
“I’m not lying,” I said.
“Okay then. I believe you.”
For an instant, I saw an ache in Amy that was so palpable, I thought if we didn’t leave right then for Danielle’s party, we’d both start begging to go home with somebody else’s parents.
“One day we’ll name our sons Yogi and Babe,” I said.
Amy brought the plastic boat that held her banana split to her nub of a breast and rocked it like she was nursing it. She cooed to the banana, “There, there, Baby Babe, have some more milk.”
We started laughing harder than we should have, and continued to make a spectacle of ourselves until we finished our ice cream. Then, as we were leaving, Amy set the maraschino cherry she didn’t want on the trunk of some kid’s stuffed elephant boardwalk prize, and yelled, “Eat my nipple!”
We took off running for a full block, snorting with temporary victory. I vowed to use “Eat my nipple!” against my sister, or maybe even Roger Curtin, just to see what his face would do.
“When we get to Danielle’s,” Amy said, “I’m snooping. I want to know what her disease is.”
“She’s just tired,” I said.
“Tired? She’s pooped! You’ve seen her on the field. It’s easy for you to forget, because you don’t live here year-round, how she misses weeks of school. She’s a freak. Don’t you want to know why?”
“You with me?”
“We’re a team.”
“We are the team! We rescued that game, now let’s rescue this doomed party.”
It wasn’t the summer I had planned—playing softball and seancing dead people with a bunch of strange girls while my parents plotted out the details of their divorce miles away from me. But maybe I needed to learn at age eleven, you step to the plate and rescue who and what you can.
“If 6 Was 9” is an excerpt from Christine Fadden’s novel-in-progress, Outta Here! — a novel that honors, among other things, the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies and Harry Kalas.
Photo by Luyen Chou