“So, Chris, what’s your deal? You single or married?”
“Looking to meet somebody new? My sister-in-law’s about to free up. You can take her off my hands. I can’t get her out of my house.”
“Not yet, thanks.” Chris thought Victor was likable but he didn’t need a friend.
“Lemme know. Did you get the free iPad? It’s from the Boosters, God bless them.”
“Yes.” Chris unzipped his backpack and took out his new iPad.
“You downloaded the software, right? It’s like that app, MLB Dugout.”
“Right.” Chris had downloaded the coaching software as per Hardwick’s emailed instructions, but he had also created secret player files. “Any pointers for working with Coach Hardwick?”
“Ha!” Victor’s dark eyes glittered. “The kids call him Hardass behind his back. Also Hardhead, Hardwood, Hard On, and Hard Dick.”
Chris chuckled, happy to be taken into confidence so quickly. “He’s not exactly Santa Claus.”
“Understatement of the year.”
“Are you friendly with him?”
“Is anybody? That’s why Kwame left. Couldn’t take it another minute. Hardwick goes through assistants like Kleenexes.” Victor chuckled. “You know the secret to getting along with him? Follow the Bible.”
“Really? I didn’t know he was a man of faith.” Chris hadn’t seen anything in his research about Coach Hardwick’s being religious or he would’ve worn a crucifix.
“No, not that Bible. Hardwick’s Bible. He emailed it to you. He calls it the Bible.”
“Oh, that Bible.” Chris remembered the packet of information that Coach Hardwick had emailed him. He had it with him in his backpack.
“The Bible is the Gospel According to Hardwick. If you follow the Bible, you’ll get along fine with him. The Bible is his program, his rules, rain or shine, off-season to postseason. To be fair, you can’t argue with results. He wins.” Victor yakked away. “I follow the Bible because it’s good for JV and varsity to be consistent. But I use more emotional intelligence than he does. I like to get close to my players, get to know them personally. Hardwick’s not like that. He’s old-school.”
“I think it’s okay to get close to the players. You can still retain your authority.” Chris processed the information. If Hardwick didn’t get close to the players, it gave him an opening with the boys.
“I agree.” Victor smiled, his approval plain. “But keep it to yourself. Follow the Bible. Stay in your lane. The kids, too. They know what’s expected. If the kids follow the Bible, Hardwick doesn’t sweat anything. Like hair, for example. Take Raz. Mike Sematov.”
“I have him in class.”
“Good luck. What a wackadoodle. He pitched last season. Throws hard. A great fastball but major control problems on and off the field.” Victor snorted. “If you have him in class, you know what he’s like. Hair down to his shoulders like Lincecum. Wears a man bun. Hardwick doesn’t care. He even told Raz that his hair had superpowers like Samson. Now the kid’ll never cut it.”
Chris smiled. “So Raz is the starting pitcher? What about Jordan Larkin? I heard Coach Hardwick might start him instead.”
“Larkin? Love that kid.” Victor’s coarse features lit up. “He played for me on JV last season. He’s a great kid. A quiet kid, shy, but great.”
“Really.” Chris was targeting Larkin, more and more.
“Then over the summer, he grew. That’s the kind of thing that happens in high-school ball, I see it all the time. The kids grow, put on muscle. Or they sharpen their skills, improve their mechanics, go to a camp. Larkin came into his own. He’s got the stuff. He’s bringin’ it. The team’s losing with Raz pitching. I think Hardwick will start Jordan.”
“How did Larkin improve so much?”
“God knows. He didn’t go to camp, he can’t afford it.”
“Do you think Raz taught him?” Chris was fishing. “Or maybe he learned from his father?”
“I don’t know if Raz taught him. If he did, he regrets it.” Victor frowned. “FYI, neither Larkin or Raz have a dad. Raz’s dad died last summer, helluva guy. Neil, came to all the games. Larkin’s dad skipped out when the kid was little. He’s got a mom, a waitress. He’s an only child.”
“Too bad.” Chris had thought as much. There had been no mention of a father in Larkin’s social media.
“Yeah, it’s a tough break. Larkin’s praying for a scholarship.”
“Guess we better get going, huh?” Chris gestured at the clock, getting a plan. They left the office and went down the hallway. The air felt hotter, and the heat intensified a weirdly strong odor.
“The stench is Axe body spray. Good luck getting it out of your clothes. My wife can smell it in my hair.” Victor fell in step beside him, and they continued down a long corridor to the gym entrance, double-wide with the doors propped open. “Wait’ll you see how big the gym is. Batting nets, weight room, the whole nine. Again, the Boosters buy it all.”
They reached the gym entrance, and they went inside. Boys were rolling nets, dragging blue mats, and lugging mesh bags full of equipment this way and that. The noise echoed throughout the gym, ricocheting off the hard surfaces. Chris scanned for Jordan, who was with Raz, talking with Coach Hardwick.
“See what I mean? Awesome.” Victor gestured with a flourish.
“It’s amazing.” Chris couldn’t have cared less, though the gym was immense, with a high-peaked ceiling of corrugated material, bright strips of fluorescent lighting, and blue-and-white championship banners hanging from the rafters. The walls were white cinder block, and the bleachers, also royal blue, had been folded against the sidewalls, revealing a glistening hardwood floor.
“Today varsity and junior varsity are practicing. I run my guys, you run yours. They’re setting up the equipment.” Victor pointed to the four corners of the gym.
“I see.” Chris kept his eye on Coach Hardwick, who was talking to Raz more than Jordan. The discussion seemed to be heating up, with Coach Hardwick gesturing and Raz shaking his head, no. “Victor, I’d better go check in.”