CHAPTER ONE: The Old Ball Game
Ernie had been totally bamboozled.
In his wildest dreams, Ernie never saw himself standing under the sweltering sun in the far right outfield of the old ballpark during the bottom of the eighth inning in a standoff between the Central Comets and the Bayside Bulldogs. Ernie was absolutely miserable.
"I don't even like baseball!" Ernie hollered to no one in particular. "I got no business in baseball!"
Normally kids in the outfield are happy to make the most of their isolated post by peppering the air with lame jokes like "Betty Crocker makes a better batter!" Some kids bleat "Naaaaah!" like sheep in a pasture. Other kids wag their hips to a chant of "hey-batter, batter-batter-batter, swwiiiing!"
Ernie didn't do any of that. Ernie just yelled whatever was on his mind and stomped in the grass to the beat of his own sulk. "Baseball is boring," he wailed. "Boring, boring -- OW!" A salty drop of sweat caught Ernie in the eye and he winced in pain. "Great!" Ernie bellowed, sending a growl across the outfield. "Now I'm sweating! And I now got an itch!" He used his glove to scratch his rump.
It is hard to believe but Ernie had recently become the new and self-appointed team manager for the Central Comets. His father, Red, came up with the idea while they were hogging a booth in a pizza joint on the way home from a movie.
"Come on, Ernie, admit it," Red said. "It's the perfect position to take advantage of your natural-born tendency to want to run the whole show!"
"Team manager?" asked Ernie, somewhat skeptical.
"Gotta a nice ring, don't it?" Red urged, reaching for another slice of pizza.
"Yeah, but," Ernie hedged, "I don't exactly like baseball very much. And I'm not very good at it either."
"Who cares!" said Red. He jabbed his pizza slice at Ernie to deliver the payoff punch. "You won't get near the baseball! You'll be team manager!"
"Team manager," Ernie repeated once more, imitating his father's enthusiasm. Ernie had to agree. It had a nice ring.
Not everyone was so enthusiastic about the idea. Kip, team captain for the Comets, wasn't exactly thrilled when Ernie suddenly showed up at practice to announce, "I'm team manager because my father says I get to be team manager and if I can't be team manager, I'm going home."
"Team manager?" Kip groused at the time. "Never had a 'team manager.'" He glanced at the other Comets on the field and scratched his head. "What's a team manager anyway?" he asked.
No one seemed to know the answer to that question. Nothing in the league rulebook addressed the subject of team managers. In fact, none of the grown-ups that comprised the Comets' rotating roster of coaches, chauffeurs, chaperones, and umpires had any experience with team managers at all.
"Now wait a minute," said Mrs. Morgenstern, who happened to be team coach that week, "I do seem to recall something about team managers but I remember it said team managers also have to play on the field." She placed a hand on Ernie's back and pushed him onto the baseball diamond.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Ernie protested but Mrs. Morgenstern had already chucked him a glove from the equipment duffel. "Do you want to be team manager or not?" she queried, with a look that expected to be obeyed. Ernie was backed into a corner. Just like that, Ernie's baseball career had begun.
As Ernie walked onto the field, all the Comets groaned. "Hey," Mrs. Morgenstern barked, "don't give me that! Are we going to play ball or not?"
The Comets deferred to Kip, the team captain, for an answer to that question. Kip kicked at the dirt. "Let's play ball!" he yelled, but it wasn't a happy moment. For quite some time, Kip and several other Comets had suspected that Mrs. Morgenstern made up the rules as she went along but so far no one had mustered the nerve to confront her or complain.
Later that afternoon, when Kip and several key Comets reconvened in the dugout to rehash the blow-by-blow of Ernie's unexpected arrival on their team, they agreed on two points: (1) Mrs. Morgenstern knew nothing about baseball; and (2) Ernie knew even less.
It was true. Ernie was hopeless at the game. He couldn't throw and he couldn't catch. Nobody actually said that Ernie "threw like a girl" -- the Comets knew better than to say that -- but Ernie certainly didn't throw the ball like he wanted it to go anywhere. When it came time to catch, Ernie would raise his glove into the air to offer a target and let the balls go whizzing past. He didn't even make an effort.
"He can't throw! Can't catch! He doesn't know the first thing about baseball!" Kip cried in desperation. Nobody argued the point. It took very little discussion for Kip and the Comets to decide to place Ernie in Outer Mongolia. That was their nickname for the far right outfield.
"Outer Mongolia, perfect!" said Kip. "The ball never goes there!" The Comets nodded conspiratorially in agreement. A kid could grow old in the outfield and never see the ball. They didn't feel particularly good about sending any kid to Outer Mongolia but they comforted themselves that it was for the good of the team.
"It's settled then," said Kip. "Bye-bye Ernie! Hello Outer Mongolia! We'll never hear from that kid again!"
Unfortunately, the Comets had overlooked one thing. Ernie was loud.
"What am I doing here?" Ernie bellowed from the outfield. His voice was getting a little hoarse because he'd been hollering the whole game. "I can't throw! I can't catch! I don't know the first thing about baseball!"
"That's what you're doing in Outer Mongolia!" cracked Ronjon, the kid at shortstop, and he said it loud enough for Ernie to hear. A lot of Comets snickered and laughed. Ronjon was always making wisecracks like that.
"Ugh!" Ernie barked indignantly from the distance. He tugged off his glove to wipe his forehead on his sleeve but ended up whacking himself with the glove. In the process, his baseball cap flew off his head and landed a few feet away. Ernie groaned in exasperation and began sputtering under his breath about his seemingly endless deficiencies as a ball player. "I don't even look like a ball player!"
That was true. Ernie's uniform was too big and his glove was too small. He had to cinch the pants at the waist and the sleeves hung halfway down his arms. It looked as if Ernie were wearing his pajamas. To make matters worse, there was the issue of Ernie's cleats.
Ernie couldn't run in cleats. Whenever he tried, his cleats stuck in the dirt and Ernie fell flat on his face in the grass. It was like throwing beanbags at sitting ducks during the school carnival -- one moment there, next moment gone. The sight was pathetic of course, whenever Ernie tripped over his own feet and fell smack to the ground, but it had happened so often that it was also getting to be really hysterical. To the Comets, it was comic relief.
And sure enough, the trick with the cleats is precisely what happened when Ernie trotted to retrieve his baseball cap. Still grumbling under his breath, Ernie took three steps, stumbled over his own feet, and dropped like a ton of bricks.
"There he goes!" hooted Ronjon, pointing at the outfield. "Now you see him, now you don't!" The Comets all laughed.
It was bad enough being stuck in the sweltering sun with no place to go and nothing to do. Ernie had suffered enough. He pushed himself to his feet, snatched his cap from the grass and whacked it against his leg.
"I can't take it anymore!" he hollered. "I'm supposed to be treated with respect! I'm supposed to be team manager! I'm supposed to be in an office with air-conditioning or something! I'm not supposed to be stuck in the field, itching and sweating and losing my mind!"
Ernie paused to see if his tantrum was having any effect. To the contrary, no one was listening. Kip caught a pop fly to first base. Another batter struck out and headed for the dugout, and the outfield and infield came in, anticipating a bunt. The game was going on entirely without Ernie. No one was listening to Ernie at all.
Ernie grunted with dissatisfaction. "We'll see about that," he muttered. He lifted his glove like a megaphone, took a deep breath and began to bellow as loud as he could.
"Swimming Pool!" he cried over and over until it became a chant. "Swim-ming Pool, Swim-ming Pool!"
Copyright © 2004 by Doug Cooney