I Found My Heart in San Francisco
Book 17: Quandary
By S X Meagher
As one of the last two teams remaining playing in the championship round, the Cal softball team was allowed free access to the field. Batting practice was scheduled for 11:30, and the bus was scheduled for 10, but Ryan and a few of her fellow early birds were too hyper to wait for the rest of the team. They called for a cab at 9. There was no real reason to be at the field that early but there wasn't anything else productive to do, and Ryan hated to sit around waiting.
At the stadium, Ryan smiled as she went to the locker that held her uniform. Late the night before, the team had decided to wear their more traditional looking uniforms—after Ryan had begged for a good three minutes. She'd explained that since they were going to win, she didn't want them to look at their picture in years to come and realize how stupid their shorts made them look. Now, she happily pulled the alternate outfit from the hanger: snug pinstriped pants that stopped just below her knees; a short-sleeved, navy blue, mock turtleneck; and a sleeveless jersey that matched the pants. Long blue stirrups would cover thin white socks, and she wore hers so that a lot of the blue showed.
She took an inordinate amount of time getting dressed, totally ignoring the few other women in the locker room. She was almost embarrassed to admit how much she loved her uniform. It was as close as she'd ever come to a professional baseball uniform, and the part of her that had dreamed of being a major leaguer had never really died. She wouldn't have admitted it even to Jamie, but she thought she looked particularly cool when she was dressed and wearing her spikes, and she wanted to relish the last time she'd be wearing the entire ensemble.
Once she had donned her gear, she put the bag of Big League Chew bubble gum in her back pocket and checked herself out in the mirror. Way cool , she said to herself, squinting a little to look intimidating.
By the time she was ready, the team bus had arrived. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail, grabbed a glove, and went towards the dugout, calling out, “Wear your hair any way you want!”
She sniggered when she heard some of the women complaining about her decree. For reasons she didn't understand, women athletes seemed to like having matching hairstyles. She'd put up with that notion her whole life, but she wasn't going to buckle under today. Wearing her catcher's mask and helmet gave her a bad enough headache; having a bunch of braids wasn't going to happen if she had her way.
When she stepped from the dark dugout into the warm sun, no one was outside but the groundskeepers. She took in a deep breath, letting the sweet smell of cut grass, rich dirt, and spring wildflowers tickle her nose.
Even though softball wasn't her favorite sport, had Ryan been called upon to make a top ten list, the sport she was currently playing was always the one that she loved the best. Softball had a lot of elements she loved, and being outdoors was a big one. Luckily, the day was shaping up to be a beauty—warm, but not hot, low humidity, and a light wind. The best weather they'd had since they'd arrived.
Looking at the perfectly manicured field, she tried to fix the image in her memory. She would never again play in such a beautiful setting; she'd never play at this level of competition again; she'd never have such a cool uniform; and, most of all, she'd never again wear the big gold “C” on her chest, showing that she represented the school she'd always dreamed of attending. If she'd allowed herself, she would have misted up, but she didn't want to spend her last day as a collegiate athlete mulling over the past. She wanted to get warmed up and get busy kicking UCLA's ass.
She grabbed a softball from one of the equipment bags and started tossing it in the air, sending it higher and higher to test her reflexes and her ability to track the ball in the breeze. She'd run herself silly by the time Lupe joined her and tentatively asked, “Want to warm up?”
Ryan turned and saw the diminutive young woman gazing at her with wide eyes. Lupe looked like she might wet her pants if she didn't stay busy, so Ryan agreed. “Sure. Let's start slow.” She moved about fifteen feet away and tossed the ball softly back to Lupe.
They didn't chat but as they warmed up, Ryan could see that Lupe's nervousness was starting to ease. She'd observed that her teammate did very well when she was busy, reminding her of herself. A buzz of activity began around them as the TV technicians checked their connections and put wide plastic protectors over cables to prevent any players from tripping over them. Even those distractions didn't seem to bother Lupe. She seemed entirely focused on throwing the ball crisply and accurately, stepping back a few feet after every five or six throws to stretch her arm out.
Ryan took in the calm concentration on Lupe's face and began to get excited. If a young player like Lupe could play under this kind of pressure, she knew that they would give UCLA all they could handle.
The game was set to begin at 1 p.m. In Jamie's mind they had arrived ridiculously early, but when they got to the stadium at 11:30, Jenny was practically hyperventilating because they were so late. When they got great seats and were close enough to actually see Ryan's face, Jamie was glad they had come when they had.
Ryan caught sight of them and ran over to the fence to say hello. “Will you call the rest of the family and tell them to watch it on ESPN2?”
“The deuce?" Conor grumbled. “They've got you guys on the deuce? That's insulting.”
"Get over yourself," Ryan said. "I think it's cool they cover us at all. Make sure somebody records it for me.”
"I have to give you a kiss for good luck," Jamie said. "I can't do it through this screen.”
Smiling indulgently, Ryan said, "Meet me down by the end of the dugout.”
Jamie excused herself, with every member of the family teasing her as she went. She finally got down to where Ryan was waiting. “I didn't get to kiss you good-bye this morning.”
“I was up with the dawn, so I went down to the lobby and found a couple of other anxious teammates who'd beaten me there. I took them out for breakfast.”
“So your tummy is full?”
“Not now. I like it to be on the empty side when I play, especially when I'm going to have to haul my butt up and down out of a crouch a couple of hundred times.”
Jamie leaned over and gave Ryan a chaste, quick kiss. "I know you're gonna do great today.”
“I hope so. UCLA has more talent than we do, but I know one thing…" Her eyes were bright with intensity. “I'm gonna work my butt off to win.”
From the start, it was clear that both teams were tight. They didn't seem nervous...just tight. Each pitcher issued a walk in their half of the first inning, but neither team was able to score. There were a few mental mistakes on both sides, also, but none of them resulted in significant damage.
By the third inning, both pitchers had settled down and were mowing down batters one after another. By the fifth inning, Cal had managed three baserunners, and UCLA six, but the game was still scoreless.
In the top of the seventh, the UCLA lead-off batter drew a walk, and the runner moved to second on a sacrifice. The next batter tagged a good pitch for a single to short center field. The centerfielder grabbed the ball and hurled it to Ryan, putting so much of her body into the throw that she almost took a header. Ryan was crouched down low, her feet bracketing mere inches to the side of the home plate as she waited for the ball.
The runner headed straight for Ryan, and the ball got there milliseconds before she did. Providentially, the runner slid to the same side as the throw. Ryan twisted, grabbed the ball, and slapped the runner across the foot. Her momentum knocked Ryan onto her back, but she gamely held her glove up to show the umpire that she still held the ball.
The stands erupted as the umpire dramatically called thumbed the runner out. She jumped to her feet and began arguing as the UCLA coach headed for home plate to fortify her objections.
"What's wrong with Ryan?" Jamie said, her voice rising in concern.
"It looks like her ankle or her foot," Martin said.
The spectators fell silent, everyone standing to watch the commotion at home plate; Ryan still hadn't gotten up.
Coach Roberts and Cal''s trainer were running out of the dugout to tend to her. Both Jamie and Jennie looked as though they were going to climb the fence and follow them, but Martin put his arm around Jamie's shoulders, holding her still.
The trainer was on her knees, and the UCLA coach and the umpire now shifted their attention to the Cal catcher who was writhing on the ground. “She hates to ever show she's hurt," Jamie said. “It must be bad.”
"I've seen her with a broken arm where she didn't make this much of a fuss," Conor said, wincing when his father rapped him on the back of the head for his comment.
"That's not helpful right now," Martin hissed.
The entire Cal team stood about ten feet away, watching anxiously as Ryan finally struggled to her feet with the help of her coach and the team trainer. She doubled over, pressing against her knees as she tried to steel herself against the severe pain. Slowly, cautiously, she tried to walk, limping and repeatedly bending over to grasp her knees again.
"She's obviously hurt too badly to play!" Jamie said. "Why don't they take her out?"
“They don't have any other catchers," Jennie piped up. "Remember? Jackie is the only other person who's ever caught an inning, and I think that was a long, long time ago.”
Every set of eyes drifted to Jackie, who outweighed Ryan by twenty-five pounds and was a good six inches shorter. Of everyone on the team, she was the one most vocally exhorting Ryan to hang in there.
Ryan stood up and squared her shoulders. Jamie could see her grit her teeth as she jogged a few steps and then tried to speed up to a run. Her motion was ungainly, but it was close to a run, and Ryan nodded, accepting claps on the back from the coach and the trainer.
"I can't believe they're going to let her play," Jamie complained. “Everybody knows she's too stubborn to come out voluntarily. What if she's torn a ligament? She could easily make it worse.”
Martin patted her gently. "I know it's hard, darlin', but you can't change her. All you can do is lecture her later–even though it won't do a darned bit of good.”
When Ryan took her position behind the plate again, it looked like she was going to cry when she had to get down into her crouch. She kept shaking her head like a horse refusing the bit, and she stayed down on the ground, rather than getting up after each pitch as she usually did. Mercifully, the next batter grounded out, and Ryan stayed right where she was until two of her teammates came and helped her stand.
The first two Cal batters grounded out, and Jamie mumbled under her breath as Ryan limped to the plate, "They could put somebody in to bat for her now. It's the bottom of the seventh, and she clearly can't hit.”
"There's no score," Jennie said. "They may go into extra innings, and she's going to have to catch until the game's over.”
"If she walks with a limp for the rest of her life…”
“You'll tell her that limps are very attractive,” Catherine said, making Jamie reluctantly smile reluctantly.
"That's true, but I won't like it.”
Ryan stood in the batter's box, looking unusually tentative. She held her hand up, asking the umpire for time to compose herself. “She should be batting right-handed against the lefty pitcher," Jennie said. "Why isn't she?"
"It''s her left foot that's hurt," Conor said. "Maybe she doesn't want to risk having it get hit by a wild pitch?” He looked puzzled. "That doesn't really make sense." He held his hands up. “I'm sure she's got a reason, but I can't guess what it is.”
They all watched avidly as Ryan settled into the box, a little off-balance in her stance. She usually bent over quite a bit to make the strike zone smaller, but now she was standing almost straight up. Even though she was clearly not at her peak, Ryan battled the pitcher doggedly. The first two pitches were called balls, but she swung at the next two and missed badly. She managed to stay alive by fouling off another five pitches before the pitcher threw a ball low and inside for a ball. The count was full, and Ryan had fouled off nine pitches in a row, each swing looking as though it caused her great pain. Finally, to the relief of her cheering section, she took a pitch that was low and away, just barely out of the strike zone. Limping down to first, she stood on the bag for a moment, then settled herself and took a short lead.
"That's three feet short of the lead she usually takes," Brendan said. "I hope she doesn't have to run.”
“Let's hope Jackie hits a home run, and then we can take your sister to the hospital.”
“Famous last words,” Martin said. “If I had a dollar for every time I'd said that…”
Jamie shot him a scowl and focused again on her partner. Ryan''s lead was short by her usual standards, and she didn't dance around the bag trying to distract the pitcher like she usually did. But she stared at the pitcher with her usual fierce intensity, and waited for the pitch.
Jackie had a healthy cut at the first pitch and fouled it off. “She's had some good cuts today," Brendan said. "She's looked better than anybody on the team."
"She leads the whole NCAAs in home runs and RBIs," Jennie said, not taking her eyes from the action for a second.
Her tone implied a “how could you not know that?” and Brendan made a face behind her back. Jamie winked at him, always charmed when Brendan showed his playful side.
“C'mon Jackie!” Jennie bellowed, loud enough to make their neighbors cover their ears.
The next pitch came in low and fast, but Jackie caught it with the barrel of her bat and blistered it deep against the right field wall. Ryan was off with the crack of the bat, running as fast as Jamie had ever seen her. As Ryan rounded third, the right fielder fired the ball in to the cutoff, the pitcher. She whirled and threw an ace to the catcher, and the ball got there at exactly the same moment as Ryan. The catcher tried to block the plate with her body as Ryan propelled herself headfirst toward the outside of the plate, managing to sneak her hand in and touch the corner as the catcher tumbled onto her, her weight landing on Ryan's hand.
As the umpire signaled and screamed, “Safe!” Ryan was on her feet, joyously jumping into the air. Her feet almost reached her butt as she leapt and stuck one long arm into the air exultantly. The crowd joined her, everyone yelling out their elation or their heartache. Her team swarmed her, slapping and hitting her so hard it looked like she was going through a human carwash. Coach Roberts wrapped his arm around Ryan's neck and thumped her head like a melon while everyone else slapped or patted some part of her anatomy as they jumped up and down as one.
Jamie hugged everyone, tears rolling down her face, until she realized with a start that Jennie was gone. She frantically looked around for her until Mia bumped her shoulder and pointed to the field, where the girl was engulfed in the clutches of the players. Soon she was riding on Ryan's shoulders, looking happier than any of the women who had just won the College World Series.
The wild celebration at home plate died down quickly, and each teams formed into a line and moved past one another, shaking hands and hugging. As soon as their display of good sportsmanship was over, however, the Cal players became jubilant again. They had moved almost as one to stand near their dugout, but Ryan peeled away from the group and she and Jennie lumbered over to the O'Flaherty fan club.
Scowling, Jamie demanded, "Why don't you look hurt?"
"Why did you bat left-handed?” Conor asked.
"Congratulations, love," Martin chimed in.
Ryan crouched down, then bent over. She patted Jennie on the leg and said, "The ride is over, buddy. Now that I can feel my limbs, I realize I'm beat.” She put her arm around Jennie, who stood at her side, looking up at her with a worshipful gaze. "We've got to go be interviewed, but as soon as we're done, I'll come let you all fawn over me.” She turned and jogged back to her teammates, her stride easy and graceful.
"Did she fake her injury?" Jamie asked.
"If she did, it was an epic performance." Mia glanced over at Conor, receiving a smile that conveyed his full agreement.
It took longer than half an hour for the press interviews to conclude. Ryan finally exited through the dugout again and waved at her family, who was now surrounded by the families and friends of the other players'. There were over a hundred of them, and they were all chattering excitedly. Ryan ducked back into the dugout and called for her teammates to come out. One by one the young women emerged, but they stayed on their side of the fence. It was as though they didn't want to lose the magic of their team accomplishment by leaving the field.
As soon as the players all appeared, Martin spoke up, his voice carrying to all. "You are all invited to a party in your honor tomorrow afternoon in Hillsboro. I know most of you don't have cars, so Mrs. Evans is going to take care of transportation. Just come to the parking lot where you usually leave from at 2:30. Oh, and call Ryan to tell her if you're coming. You'll get a ride home, too. Just bring your bathing suits," he said, smiling as the girls elbowed each other and murmured their approval.
"It'll be a great party," Jennie agreed loudly. “Don't miss it.”
"She means it," Ryan said, smiling at Catherine.
"All of you are invited," Catherine said, trying to make her voice loud enough to be heard. "Family and friends.”
"I hope you have a very big house," Jackie's father said.
There was a beat, then Jennie called out, "Don't worry. It's ginormous!”
Ryan refused to answer any questions about her injury or her tactics until they were all together, and she didn't get that opportunity until they were at the airport. She'd decided to go home with her family, even though she would have preferred to be with the team. No matter how much Jamie and her family enthused about the victory, only her teammates truly knew what it felt like to win the ultimate game.
The little crowd was huddled in a corner of the terminal, waiting for the flight to be announced. “Can we finally hear what happened?” Jamie asked. “I have to know which specialist to call.”
Ryan pinched her partner's leg and stood up, drawing everyone's attention. "Okay, here's what happened. When Marshall plowed into me, I thought I was really hurt. I was afraid my ankle was broken."
"You're not even limping!" Jamie said, her patience at an end.
Ryan held her hands up. "Hang on, I'm getting to that. I don't know what part of her hit me, but she got me right under the ankle bone and it hurt like a son of a gun. Kind of like when you get hit really hard on the funny-bone."
Everyone who'd ever been hit at that particular spot on the elbow winced in sympathy, and most of them reached over and massaged that joint on their own arms.
"I felt like I was going to cry, it hurt so bad, but after a couple minutes it just felt numb. Coach told me I had to play, even if it was a compound fracture." She shot a look at Jamie, who was glaring at her, "but the trainer said that I'd probably just hit a nerve."
"So you were faking?" Mia asked.
"Not at first." Ryan's eyes shifted across the crowd and she looked devilishly guilty. "It hurt like hell for fifteen or twenty minutes once it wasn't numb anymore. But I've had that kind of pain before and I knew it wouldn't last long. When it felt better, I didn't think it was necessary to let UCLA know it had improved.”
"Good move," Conor said approvingly. "But why did you bat left-handed?"
"Oh, I hadn't gotten a good cut all day, so I was determined to get a walk. I was doing anything I could to confuse the pitcher. That's why I took a different stance and batted the wrong way.”
“You can just do that?" Catherine asked, looking befuddled. "Decide to get a walk, I mean. Why not do that every time?"
Ryan gave her a slow grin. "It's not as easy as it sounds. She wasn't completely fooling me all day, but I couldn't get a solid cut. Luckily, I was able to get around enough to foul her off pretty well, so I figured I could wait her out. She could have just as easily struck me out. I was just determined to make her work for whatever the outcome.”
"And once this lass is determined…” Martin began, not needing to finish the sentence.
Jamie got up and put her arms around Ryan, hugging her tightly. "So you're really okay?"
"No," she said chuckling. "My hand is killing me." She held it up and Jamie gasped. “Their catcher is a big girl, and every ounce of her landed on it.”
"Is it broken?" Jamie took it in both of her own hands and examined it carefully, barely touching the swollen, purple bruise that went from the base of her fingers to her wrist.
"I don't think so." She very slowly tried to make a fist, wincing in pain. "I should know by tomorrow."
Jamie grasped her ear and pinched it hard. "You'll know by tonight—after a professional looks at it.”
“Why don't we do the sensible thing and put some ice on it? If I can't flex it tomorrow, I'll see someone.”
“Since when do you know what the sensible thing is?” Jamie asked, still scowling. “And why didn't you do that at the stadium where they had ice and trainers and elastic bandages?”
“Well, just because I know it now doesn't mean I knew it then. My intelligence comes and goes.”
“She has a point,” Martin agreed to the amusement of everyone except Jamie, who didn't see any reason why the top hand surgeon in the Bay Area couldn't be added to their plans for the evening.
The O'Flahertys were driving back to the Noe Valley when Conor said, "Da, you called Catherine Mrs. Evans earlier. She's changing her name back to Smith.”
“Really? That's odd.”
“She decided it fit with her personality better now,” Maeve said. “I agree with her.”
“Well, if it helps to erase that no-account husband of hers from her memory, all the better.”
Maeve turned around and caught Conor's eye. They both smiled, with each thinking that Jim Evans had probably never been called a “no-account” in his life.
Continued in Part 12
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