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Hardball

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“But he’s only 13,” said Bob Sr.

“It’s never too early to call it in,” said the scout.

The game begins with Bobby at first, but KB on the bench. Karl stands alone on a far bleacher. “KB isn’t in the starting lineup, not even at DH,” he says. “That never happens.” Ever since he flubbed the pop-up against East Cobb, KB’s playing time in the field had been declining. Lately, he’d been mainly pitching or playing DH.

Arsenal jumps out to a quick 5-2 lead. The fathers exchange thumbs-up and toast each other with beers. But then a fastball hits Bobby on his shoulder. At first, Bob Sr. says nothing, but he’s seething. The next time around, Bobby Jr. is hit again, this time with an errant breaking ball. Neither pitch seemed intentional, but Bob Sr. jumps up and shouts, “If he gets hit again, I’m coming over the wall.”

An Arsenal parent makes an attempt to calm him down. Moretti jerks his hand away. “Don’t you dare tell me how to raise my son!”

Arsenal starts to fall apart. Their three-run lead disappears in a cavalcade of errors and missed opportunities. Still, come last at-bats, the team is only down by two runs. Arsenal mounts a rally. After a hit and a walk, there are two on, with two out. Barth points into the dugout for a pinch hitter.

It’s KB. He’d only pinch-hit once or twice before. He takes a few practice swings and strolls to the plate. The crowd is a Tower of Babel, two dozen parents shouting different instructions.

KB didn’t tell anyone about his sore arm. “It was a big tournament. There were people watching. I had to play.”

KB works the count to three balls and a strike. He waits for his pitch. The pitcher gives him a fastball over the middle of the plate, but KB watches it sail by for a strike. Karl lets out a grimace. KB walks on the next pitch to load the bases, but the opportunity is missed. The next batter lines out to left field.

Arsenal winds up losing, 7-5. Bob Sr. is still steaming. He paces back and forth. A parent asks him to behave for the good of the team; Moretti snaps back and waves a finger. “I have everything invested in my son. Everything!”

Bobby Jr. watches from ten feet away. He says nothing, and then walks off in the opposite direction. Today is his birthday.

Karl approaches KB. “That 3-1 pitch was meat. You have to hit that,” he says. “That’s why you’re on this team.”

KB offers a hangdog look. “I know. I just froze.”

Although the fathers take the losses hard, their sons’ memory banks are easier to wipe clean. A few hours later, KB is in a game room with Morgan at an ESPN Club restaurant. The machines blink and chime. KB spots a shy blonde tween in cutoffs. The two circle each other. The girl picks up a mini-basketball from a basket and starts dribbling. KB picks up a basketball and dribbles, too. He then cracks a smile. The two almost make small talk, but then an older boy and a fortyish woman come over. The girl reluctantly walks away.

“Older brother and a mom,” KB tells his dad. “I can’t compete with that.” He scratches his head. “Man, this has been a long day.”

It’s midnight in the Magic Kingdom. Disney World’s nightly fireworks have long faded away, but day three of the World Series staggers into hour seventeen. Games aren’t supposed to start this late, but lightning storms have set the event hopelessly behind. Tonight, the officials look the other way. “Someone is going to call child services on us,” jokes one parent. No one laughs.

Arsenal had played its first elimination-round game earlier in the day against Action Baseball, a team from Texas. Bobby Jr. was tapped to pitch and hurled an impressive 6-5, complete-game victory. But the celebration was marred when Bob Sr. shook Barth’s hand and said, “Congratulations, but you threw my kid under the bus. He should have pitched the East Cobb game.”

The East Cobb game, a much-anticipated rematch against the suburban Atlanta-based powerhouse, is now set to begin. A boy named Matt Vogel starts the game for Arsenal. Vogel features an 80-mph fastball, but it has none of Bobby Moretti’s movement, and Vogel gets tattooed for ten hits and five runs. By the fourth inning, Barth has seen enough. “KB, warm up.”

Back in the condo that afternoon, Karl had asked KB if his arm was okay.

“It’s fine. I can pitch. No problem,” KB had said.

Karl had nodded his head in agreement. “He says he’s fine.”

But later, during warm-ups, Bob Sr. mentioned to me that KB had unconsciously dropped his motion from overhand to the three-quarter slot, a move that can reduce the strain on KB’s elbow but costs him critical velocity. “You can tell he’s hurting,” Bob Sr. said. “He shouldn’t pitch.”


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