The Secret at Haney Field: A Baseball Mystery: Excerpt
Saturday, June 21st
The familiar red sign twinkled in the summer sky above me: “Welcome to Haney Field ~ Home of the Harpoons.”
Looking up at that lighted sign, I smiled, because tonight I was coming to the stadium as more than just a fan. Tonight, and for the next six days, I was going to be the bat retriever for my favorite minor-league Class A baseball team in my own hometown of New Blackburn, Massachusetts.
The security guard at the entrance to the players’ parking lot waved my dad and me right in. That was a first. As we walked through the stadium doors, I heard someone calling my name. “April? April O’Day?”
Spinning around, I saw a tall, slim woman with stylishly short brown hair rushing towards us. When she got closer, I said, “Yes, hi, I’m April, and this is my father, Danny.”
“Hello, I’m Beth Harrelson, director of promotions for the Harpoons. I’m so happy to meet you both,” she said, smiling warmly, talking quickly, and shaking our hands. She was wearing a red-and-white Harpoons jersey with jeans and white sneakers. She reminded me of my mom: pretty and fashionably casual. “Congratulations again on winning our essay contest!”
“Thanks, Ms. Harrelson.”
“Oh, please. Call me Beth.”
I won this bat-retriever job with an essay about something that even my dad, a former minor-leaguer himself, doesn’t completely understand but which I find super easy and fun. It’s called sabermetrics, and it’s all about baseball records, math, and statistics.
Beth checked her watch. “Well, how about that? We’re running ahead of schedule. Let’s take a tour first, shall we?” She was already walking away briskly—and expecting us to follow.
“April, that sounds like fun,” my dad said. “But do you need me for this?”
“No, I can handle it.”
“All right, honey. Remember, I’ll be sitting in the front row.”
“Okay, I’ll find you, Dad.” I gave him a quick hug and ran to catch up with Beth.
First, she took me down to the field to watch the players take their practice swings. From there, we went to the bullpen, where the pitchers were warming up. Then, it was on to the dugout!
“And here’s your spot,” she said, guiding me to the second step leading up to the field. Fortunately, there was a sturdy fence between the hitters and me, so I would be protected.
“We have two rules, April. One, you will wear a batter’s helmet at all times, okay?” Beth said.
“Sure!” I replied.
“And two, you’ll only come onto the field to retrieve the bat once the ball is back in the pitcher's hand, understood?”
“Absolutely.” I couldn’t stop smiling. This was actually happening!
Spreading her arms wide, she added, “You probably don’t realize it, but this place has quite a history. Full of ghosts, I like to say.”
“Ghosts?” I said. “Really? Cool.”
“Well, not real ghosts, of course.”
“Sorry to disappoint you. No, I meant that this stadium has been home to baseball for eighty years. To celebrate, I’m updating our website and collecting photos to tell our story. Would you like to contribute a photo essay about your experience here—you know, ‘South Coast Fan Finds Fun!’—or something like that?”
“That sounds great. I got a digital camera for my birthday this year, so I’m all set.”
We jogged over to Beth’s office to pick up my uniform. It was exactly like the ones the players and the coaches wore, except mine didn't have a number.
I kept my cap low with the brim flat, drew my shoulder-length hair into a ponytail, and pulled the red leggings up high, the way baseball players are supposed to wear them. The long part of the “p” in “Harpoons” was actually shaped like one. Neat.
Checking myself in the mirror—I’d even brought eye black to make those stripes under my eyes—I decided that I looked like a genuine player, freckles and all!
I was ready!
Our opponent that night was the Springfield Braves, the worst team in the league. I retrieved the bats without any problems. As promised, Beth stopped by every so often to see how I was doing. I was having a ball! The players spat and scratched themselves (lovely), but they also said nice things to me, like, “Good job!”
After six innings of outstanding bat retrieval, I figured it was time to make myself a little more useful to the team. I had been keeping track of each player’s bat size. Although most players had chosen the correct bat for themselves during batting practice, I could tell by the way some of them were swinging that they really needed my help.
A new left fielder named Juan Santiago was one of them. He had recently joined the team—a rookie, like so many of the others. I’d watched him hit plenty of times and had gotten a good look as he swung his huge 34-ounce bat. Sure, he could hit some pitches out with that size, but his swing never seemed quite right from my vantage point.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, he was standing near me while fastening his batting gloves, waiting for his turn. I went to the rack and chose a lighter bat.
“That’s not my bat,” he said, with a gentle smile. He was a tall kid, but not exactly beefy. “I use the thirty-four.”
“This pitcher’s hitting ninety-five today,” I said, meaning the miles per hour of his fastball. “This is the bat for you: Thirty-two inches and thirty-one ounces of pure hitting perfection. Tony Gwynn hit almost four hundred with this size.”
He took it and held it out, checking the weight. “But I want to hit like Albert Pujols. I need some thunder.” He made a weak attempt at flexing.
“Pujols mostly uses a thirty-one ounce bat.” I crossed my arms and gave him my best serious look.
He squinted at me. “Really?”
“Really.” I may know the Harpoons’ stats, but I know the major-leaguers’ even better.
“How old are you, Blondie?”
“Twelve. And my name is April.”
He tried to stare me down but failed. Finally, he shook his head and re-gripped the bat. “Well, April, speaking of twelve, I'm oh-for-twelve using thunder bat since I got here, so why not?”
He walked up the stairs with the lighter bat, took some warm-up swings in the on-deck circle, and then headed to the plate. On the third pitch, he laced a clean double down the third-base line to put the team up by four runs. When the next hitter singled, Juan scored, knocking the pitcher out of the game.
During the pitching change, Juan came over to see me.
“How do you know so much about baseball?”
I kept my eyes on the new pitcher. “My dad’s a former minor-leaguer and he’s taught me a lot. Plus, I read tons of baseball books. I check the scouting reports. Stuff like that. I’ve been around.”
“You’ve been around, huh? A whole twelve years.” He laughed. “I got a pair of cleats older than you.”
“Don’t believe me? Ask me anything about baseball.”
“Okay. What award is given to the best pitcher in each league?”
“Cy Young Award,” I said. Too easy.
“How about this one: How many consecutive games did Cal Ripken play?”
“That would be 2,131. He broke Lou Gehrig’s record from 1939. But those are trivia questions, Juan. Ask me about the game. You know, what happens on the field.”
He removed his cap and ran his fingers through his short hair. “Okay, let’s say next time I’m up, I see the third baseman playing back a few feet. Do I lay down a bunt?”
“Nope. Bad idea.”
“Why? Bunting is one of my specialties.”
I turned and looked him straight in the eye. “It’s a trap, Juan. The third baseman will back up a step to get you to bunt. Earlier in the game, it would have been smart. But this reliever is the best fielding pitcher in the league, and he covers twice the ground of most pitchers. His range factor and total zone runs are out of this world. At the beginning of the season, you may have beaten it out, but that ankle injury you suffered last week has cost you a step.”
“Wow, Blondie, that’s amazing.”
“It’s April. And my advice is to use the thirty-one ounce and let ’er rip.”
He smiled, balled his right hand, and put it out. It was my first fist bump of the season.
Saturday, June 28th – Wednesday, July 2nd
After a few more games, the players got used to having me around and offering advice. My one-week stint was over way too fast. When it was time for me to leave, I tried not to cry (’cause as everyone knows, there's no crying in baseball). I said goodbye to as many players as I could. There were more fist bumps than I could count.
Beth walked me down the tunnel after the last game. “So how did you like your experience with the Harpoons?” she asked.
“Oh, it was a total blast! I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss being in uniform and hanging with these guys.”
“Well, you can keep the uniform, April. And you know what? Some of the players and coaches are going to miss you, too. In fact, several have asked me if you can stay on through the summer. I’ll have to run it by the owner, but I can’t imagine he’ll have an issue with it. The team comes back from their road trip in a couple of days. What do you say?”
I tried to appear calm, but inside I was jumping up and down like a maniac.
“Okay, thanks! I’ll have to ask my parents,” I said, trying to act casual, “but I’m positive they’ll say yes.”
I was overjoyed—and would have done a cartwheel . . . if I knew how.
Four days later, I was back at my regular spot, retrieving bats and giving advice. I fist-bumped Carl “Cannon” Caswell, the first baseman, as he returned to the dugout. Cannon was an excellent fielder and a power hitter, but as slow as a turtle. Earlier in the game, I had pulled out my trusty stopwatch and timed him going from home to first base in 5.1 seconds! That was a full second slower than most of the other players.
“What's the word on this pitcher, April?” he asked, as he loaded his bat handle with pine tar from a towel. He knew I had been charting the pitches in my head for a while. It was another one of my talents.
“He’ll pitch inside with the two-seamer early in the count to make you swing,” I said. “Don’t. If you’re patient, he’ll hang a breaking ball.” I pointed a finger in his direction. “Money.” That meant I was sure.
Cannon laughed as he twirled the bat above his head. “I hope you’re right, April.”
He waited for his pitch and hammered the curve ball into the right-field seats. As he loped around the bases, I retrieved his bat and met him about halfway between the
dugout and home plate.
“Money!” he said, giving me another fist bump.
Many of the players on the Harpoons were guys straight out of high school or college in their first or second year of professional ball—and quite a few of them had never been away from home before, so I considered it my job to help them as much as I could. Some, like Cannon, caught on early. Others were a bit slow.
Roscoe Barnwell, the Harpoons' speedy center fielder who had joined the team the previous game, waited on the steps next to me a few innings later. I’d been watching the lefty relief pitcher closely, tracking his move to first base to pick off any runner who dared to venture too far. I looked over at Roscoe. “Watch the pitcher’s hands,” I said.
“What?” He put his hands flat against his chest. “Are you talking to me?”
“Yep. Watch his move to first, Roscoe. His hands come up high when he throws to first base, but they’re low when he throws to the catcher. It's not much, but it's there.”
He gave me a good stare down. “You’re the bat girl, right? I'm getting advice from the bat girl?”
“Bat retriever,” I replied.
“You should listen to her,” Cannon said from behind us. “April knows her stuff.”
The batter struck out and Roscoe moved up to the on-deck circle, laughing loudly. “Base-stealing advice from the bat girl. Now I've heard it all.”
After the next batter grounded out, Roscoe got up and hit a clean single to left. The pitcher threw over to first base a few times, lifting his hands just like I’d said, and then went to the plate. Roscoe took off on the next pitch and cleanly stole second base. He stood up, dusted himself off, and pointed to the dugout with both hands.
“Money,” Cannon said.
The estimated crowd of 2,500 seemed to agree as they cheered loudly.
Wednesday, July 2nd (After the game)
After every game, it was my job to put away the bat weights and the pine tar rags and gather the broken bats from both dugouts and dispose of them. Usually, there were six or seven from each team, but tonight’s game featured a couple of hard-throwing pitchers who chewed up batters with inside stuff. Twenty bats turned into firewood in the 2-1 win for the Harpoons.
There was a dumpster behind the stadium where the cleanup crew threw most of their trash. It smelled horrible. As I approached with a can full of busted bats, I noticed that the area was nearly overflowing with black trash bags, but I found an opening and let the bats fly.
After the second trip, I decided to return a different way—by going under the bleachers on the first-base side. The sign read EMPLOYEES ONLY, but I figured I was an employee. And anyway, I wanted to see all the ins and outs of the place.
It was fairly dark down there—even with the security lights on—and grungy. Old grounds crew equipment had been pushed into every nook and cranny. And based on the dust and the rust covering the tractors, drags, and rakes, it looked like everything had been there for a while.
Along the wall was something big and rectangular. It was covered in a green tarp, tucked under the grandstands as far as it could go. It seemed out of place, so I went in for a closer look.
When my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that the mystery item was bigger than I’d originally thought—probably fifty feet long and twenty feet high. Most of it was blocked by large equipment, but a section of it on the left was practically wide open.
Naturally, I was curious. But when I picked up the bottom of the tarp for a peek underneath, a sudden breeze blew it right up into my hand, ruffling it along the length of the enormous object. Then the tarp went flat. How did a breeze get under here? Thankfully, it disappeared as quickly as it came. When I started to lift the tarp again, voices interrupted me. A couple of grounds crew guys were heading my way, so I scurried back to the field and made a mental note to check it out again very soon.
* * *
The field lights were still blazing at half past eight while I finished packing up in the dugout. When they began to click off, I knew it was time to go. Just as I lifted my backpack, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, what looked like a shadowy essence running from first to second base—and then another on the pitcher’s mound. I closed my eyes and shook my head. When I reopened them, I blinked twice to readjust my eyes to the darkness. The shadows had vanished. Weird. I immediately flashed back to Beth’s comment about ghosts. I knew she was merely using a figure of speech . . . but then, why was I shivering?