“Good luck.” Victor flashed him a warm smile.
Chris took off, beelining for Coach Hardwick. He plastered on a smile, but Hardwick only frowned back, and the harsh lighting of the gym showed the furrows on his forehead and the lines from his bulbous nose to his weak chin. It struck Chris that Coach Hardwick resembled the Central Valley Musketeer, the angry colonist whose painted likeness scowled from the center of the gym floor.
“You’re late.” Hardwick glared. Up close, his glasses looked dirty, and their bifocal windows magnified his brown irises.
“Sorry, I’m Chris Brennan. Good to see you again—”
“You were talking to Victor. Don’t. He talks too much, he’s Italian. Stay away from him. It’ll take years off your life.”
Chris let it go. “I read your email and I know what we’re practicing today. I’m good to go.”
Hardwick’s frown eased. “Call the kids over here. Holler. We don’t use whistles. They’re not dogs.”
“Will do.” Chris turned away, cupped his hands, and shouted, “Varsity, come on over!”
Heads turned, and the boys came running almost immediately. Raz jogged over ahead of Jordan and Evan.
“Come on over and take a knee, please!” Chris clapped his hands together. The boys settled down, looking up at him with eager faces, probably twenty-five of all different shapes, sizes, and races, all of them in their blue Musketeer Varsity baseball T-shirts and shorts.
Coach Hardwick put his hands on his hips. “Boys, I’m going to make this short and sweet. Today we’re going to practice hard. The Musketeer standard is excellence, on the field and in the gym. Nothing less wins.”
Chris kept his game face on, noticing the boys’ rapt attention. They showed every emotion on their young features, and they so wanted approval. Chris would exploit that very emotion, starting today. Jordan, Evan, Dylan, and Trevor were paying attention, but Raz’s shaggy head was down, and he was picking his cuticles.
“Boys, let me tell you a story before we get started. It’s from the legendary Coach John Scolinos, who coached at California Polytechnic. Coach Scolinos used to say that in high-school baseball, in college baseball, in the minor leagues, and in the major leagues, home plate is seventeen inches wide.”
Chris watched as the boys listened, especially Jordan. Only Raz kept picking his cuticles.
Hardwick continued, “Baseball is a game about seventeen inches. If you don’t reach those seventeen inches, the plate does not get bigger or wider to help you. It’s a standard. The standard on this team is excellence. You reach the standard. The standard does not reach you.”
Chris nodded, as Hardwick kept speaking.
“How do you reach that standard? How do you reach excellence? You must hold yourself accountable at all times.” Coach Hardwick gestured to Chris. “Boys, meet our new assistant coach, Coach Brennan.”
“Oh, hi.” Chris smiled as all the heads turned to him.
Coach Hardwick continued, “Coach Brennan was late to practice today by two minutes. Coach Brennan might be thinking, two minutes doesn’t matter. It’s only two minutes. Coach Brennan might be thinking, two minutes isn’t as late as five minutes. Or ten. Or seventeen.”
Chris felt himself flush. This would not further his plans. He needed to be an authority figure to Jordan to gain his trust. He could see their smiles fade when it dawned on them that Coach Hardwick was about to make an example of him.
“Boys, if Coach Brennan is thinking any of those things, he is sorely mistaken. Coach Brennan may have been hired by the school district, but he will not stay on this team. If any of you are thinking the way Coach Brennan thinks, you will not stay on this team, either.”
Chris kept his head high. Evan started to smirk, out of nervousness or derision. Trevor and Dylan frowned. Jordan averted his eyes, and Raz kept looking down.
“Boys, the standard is arriving at practice on time. The standard never changes. Why? Because the standard is excellence, and excellence is the only thing that wins. The way to achieve excellence is through accountability. If you do not account to yourself, then you will fail. If Coach Brennan does not account to himself, he will fail.”
Chris realized he’d been thinking about this the wrong way. After all, the boys were identifying with him, seeing him as relatable, which was exactly what he needed. So Chris played it up, lowering his gaze as if utterly ashamed of himself.
“Tomorrow we play Upper Grove. We are ready. We have been accountable. And we will win.” Coach Hardwick stood taller, hitching up his pants. “Now, boys, line up at your regular practice stations. If you read the Bible, you know the drill.”
The boys scrambled to their feet, then jogged off quickly.
Chris turned to Coach Hardwick. “Coach, it won’t happen again.”
“Damn right it won’t.”
Chris took it on the chin. “I saw you talking with Jordan and Raz. Anything I should know?”
“Raz wants to stay as starting pitcher.”
“No, over Cy Young.”
Chris smiled at the bad joke. “From what I hear, Jordan doesn’t have the stuff to start.”
“What?” Hardwick’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “Did Victor tell you that? What does he know? He coaches JV for a reason. He hasn’t seen Jordan throw since last season. You don’t believe me, go see for yourself.”
“You mean have a catch with Jordan?” Chris asked, which was exactly what he wanted.
“Yes. Let him show you what he’s got. I know talent when I see it. Hmph.”
“Okay, Coach. Will do.” Chris jogged off after the team, smiling inwardly. He was looking forward to his catch with Jordan. Just the two of them, alone. Like father and son.
Or so Chris imagined.
Chris approached Jordan, who was standing in line for batting practice. “Got a minute?” he said, tossing the boy a glove. “Coach wants us to have a catch, so I can see what you got.”
“Okay.” Jordan came out of line, and a few of the boys glanced over, including Evan and Raz.
“Let’s go on the other side of the curtain, for safety’s sake.” Chris started walking along a blue plastic drape that hung from the ceiling, sectioning off a portion of the gym. Chris had already moved the portable pitcher’s mound and other equipment to the other side.