First Inning:

The Glowing Orange Ball

~Thursday, July 26, 2007—Iowa Cubs/Home

An orange ball came streaking through the heavens, sailing over the back wall of Riders Field, captivating the attention of nine-year-old Billy Youngfried.

At the time Billy was the only person watching the glowing orange object because the ballpark crowd had collectively focused on a deep drive to center field by one of its hitters, praying it would make the distance. Just as the visiting team’s center fielder leaped and snagged the baseball from the top of the fence, Billy spied the orange ball bouncing and settling against the back of the left field fence. As fans settled back in their chairs, still buzzing from the exciting defensive play, the curly blonde-haired boy strained in his seat as far as he could before spilling Coke on the man next to him.

“What is it, Billy?” his father asked. “What’s up?”

“That ball over there. Against the fence.”

“Probably came from the bullpen,” said Sheldon Youngfried, cracking a peanut shell.

Billy stretched in his seat. “Someone should get that orange ball down there.”

“They’ll get it later.” Mr. Youngfried brushed flakes of peanut shell from his shorts. “An orange ball, you say?”

Billy nodded and pointed to the left-field foul pole. His father squinted for a better look. “By God, I think you’re right.”

“Can I have it?” Billy asked hopefully.

“Oh, I don’t know, son. Like I said, probably came from the bullpen. One of the relief pitchers probably threw it over the fence by mistake. Did you see where it came from?” Sheldon asked.

Billy pointed toward the stars. “Up there.”

Sheldon didn’t know if his son was imagining things again. No one had hit one out tonight. And this wasn’t one of those special promotional nights. What really puzzled him was the ball’s unusual color. Although he was a relative newcomer to baseball, Sheldon had never seen one like it before.

While play resumed, Mr. Youngfried ushered his son down the aisle to the rail. He signaled for the security guard down on the grass, who was peering over the outfield fence onto the field. At first, the stocky black man in the brown Riders jacket didn’t hear the call. But a sharp whistle prompted his head to swivel like a startled magpie on a backyard branch. “Howzat?” yelled the guard over his shoulder.

Mr. Youngfried pointed to the foul pole corner area. “That ball. Over there.”

Just as the guard moved toward the ball, nine thousand voices exploded in a cacophony of shrieks, hollers and howls as Garvey Porter, the Riders’ first baseman, had smashed another one over the left field wall. Leaning against the rail, Sheldon felt an oncoming avalanche of souvenir-crazed youths trampling down the stairs and leaping over the wall on to the open grass area behind the fence.

A pile formed over the lucky young boy who first fell on the ball. He struggled to retain his grip on it, tucking it under his stomach to prevent the scrappy scavengers from tearing it from his hands. While the guard peeled the boys from the pile, a redheaded teen in a black Raiders cap spotted the orange ball. He dashed over, picked it up, and waved it to his friends remaining in the stands. The security guard ran over and shooed the Raider redhead back up the stairs.

From his seat, Billy carefully tracked the ball, watching as the redhead bounded past him up the stairs, rejoining his friends against the back wall. But as soon as the teens took a quick look at the odd-colored ball they chided their friend. “Outta here! Git this outta here,” they jeered. One reached over, swiped the orange prize from the redhead and flung it backward over the wall.

 Even though it had disappeared, Billy Youngfried held out hope that he still might get the orange ball. Vigilantly watching, a few seconds later his heart raced when the orange ball reappeared. He watched it trace a trajectory rivaled only by the St. Louis Arch, or a Mark McGwire home run, which essentially are one and the same. This time the orange ball carried to the outfield grass and came to rest ten feet from Riders’ left fielder, Rich Armstrong. The sun-tanned surfer from Santa Monica nonchalantly looked up in the stands, figuring the home-towners had thrown another wadded Coke cup to taunt him for going hitless over the past five games. The fans began yelling ARM-strong, ARM-strong to call his attention to the object. He called time and walked over to the ball. He picked it up and examined the thin blue seams. Pleadings resounded from souvenir hounds. He obliged and lobbed it in the stands.

It landed in the hands of a dark-haired man in cutoffs and a tank top who handed the ball to his bouncy-blonde companion. The crowd urged the woman to heave the ball back over the wall, just as the teens had done. She gave it her best effort, but her clumsy attempt flew only a few rows up, where it landed directly at the feet of the redhead boy and his friends. They resurrected the chant “Outta here!” and one of them flipped the ball backward over the wall for a second time. Unwittingly, they had started a new tradition at Riders Field, similar to the one at Wrigley Field where the Bleacher Bums toss a visiting team’s home run back on the field. Except in this case, in reverse.

Meanwhile, on the mound Riders’ pitcher Rolm Kutchen had fired a third strike past the Cubs hitter for the last out of the inning. But when a blue light streaked across the darkness nobody ran in from the field or moved in their seats. Armstrong gazed up from his left field position as the light reached a pinnacle directly above his head, then descended on him with the deadly aim of a SNARK missile. He imagined it landing directly on top of his cap, creating a brown and white puddle, there for God and everyone in the ballpark to see. Including Billy Youngfried, who rationalized that none of this would be happening if the orange ball had rightfully came in his possession.

When the blue light descended to the height of the ballpark lights a device suddenly recoiled and a parachute opened. Dangling in the evening summer breeze the orange ball gently rocked side to side, hypnotizing the onlookers. Including Susan Minkin, the team’s marketing director, who sat in the press box alongside Sentinel sports columnist, Randy Bridger.

Throughout their young careers neither of them had witnessed a more bizarre event at a ballpark. Minkin had come up with some wild promotions during her stint in the California League, including the time she booked the elephant that could bunt down the third base line. She sat there wondering who had the technology, not to mention the gall, to pull off this prank in her park? Figured it had to be some Silicon Valley brat, fresh out of Cal Tech on her way to fame and fortune with some fetching new device. As she watched Armstrong frozen in the outfield grass awaiting his misfortune, Minkin bolted from the press box.

The ball tumbled against Armstrong’s shoe. The tiny parachute reverted to its original form, folding back in to an aquamarine pyramid attached to the ball by a flexible band. Armstrong noticed the LED readout on the pyramid: Take Me to Your Manager.

Bending down to pick it up, Armstrong was startled by the sudden appearance of the Riders’ ball boy who stared at the device as if it was a crab crawling back to the ocean froth. “Ain’t a bomb, is it Rich?”

“How in hadesisimo should I know, dude?” Armstrong snarled. “Take it to Skip, man.”

The ball boy picked it from the grass and tore out for the dugout, running straight past Julio Ramirez, the team’s skinny shortstop. Silence permeated the ballyard. There were no cheers, nor strains of organ music, not even a call for Peanuts, here! Get your hot, roasted peanuts! Everyone watched in silence, waiting for the ball boy to arrive at the home dugout. He raced in from the infield and nearly stumbled on the dugout steps as he handed the device to Dalton Sweeney. The Riders manager first inspected the curious spheroid, then read the message on the shiny pyramid: I Pitch or Else—Luther. The silver haired manager scratched his head. “Damnedest thing I ever saw.”

Susan Minkin arrived at the dugout just ahead of the plate umpire. “What is it, Skip? What have you got?” she asked.

“A goofy orange ball from some idiot named Luther. Says he wants to pitch—or else.”

“How’s that, Sweeney?” barked the plate umpire. “You got a relief pitcher comin’?”

“We got no Luther on this staff,” growled pitching coach Rube Hewell over the manager’s shoulder. “Throw the damn thing in the garbage. Let’s play ball.”

“No one’s throwing this in the garbage,” Minkin said, plucking it from Dalton’s hand. “We’ve gotta check this out.”

Quickly losing control of the game, the umpire bellowed, “Sweeney! Have you got a new pitcher or not?”

“No, you damn fool!” Sweeney barked. “The inning’s over.” Realizing his rude remark could get him tossed from the game, the manager abruptly turned and exhorted his players to run off the field. “C’mon, you guys, get in here! Let’s get some more runs.” A buzz of energy returned to Riders Field ballpark.

“First git rid of that damn thing,” Rube said, cleaning a penknife blade on his pants. “It’s an embarrassment to anyone who’s ever played the game.”

“For God sakes, Rube, settle down. It’s just a baseball with a friller on it.”

“Hell it is,” Rube said, dribbling tobacco juice from his lip. “Ain’t like no baseball I’ve ever seen. An’ you neither.” Sweeney couldn’t argue with Rube’s logic.

Susan held the ball up as if it was a remnant from an Aztecan burial site. “Skip, we’ve got to find the owner. This is so cool.” She walked down to the end of the dugout, holding the amulet-shaped object attached to the ball. She called to Armstrong, who was fitting into a baseball helmet. “You saw it, out there, Rich. Where did it come from?”

“Dude, I didn’t see nothin’. Okay?” he said, pounding the plastic helmet tight on his head. “Like, it landed near my foot and Archie picked it up, okay? Don’t go tryin’ to get me involved in this thing, Minkin. All you want is more publicity, man.”

“Armstrong—you were staring straight up at it. Where did it come from?” she persisted.

Right fielder Randy Miles broke in, “That first time, you tossed it back in the crowd. Must have come from the stands.”

Armstrong wanted no part. “Thing came from space, man. Too weird.”

Minkin heard enough. She swung around and breezed past the ball players on her way up the dugout steps. Before placing the object in her brown windbreaker she looked down and noticed the pyramid’s message had changed. It now read: Luther Needs a Ticket.

  She walked along the lower level section behind the third base dugout as play resumed. The ballpark announcer intoned over the loudspeaker Now batting, number twenty-nine, shortstop, HU-lio Ra-MEER-azzz.

Half an inning passed before Minkin got any useful information from anyone in Section 124 where the Youngfrieds were sitting. Of course, everyone had seen the device explode and open to the parachute, with the orange ball dangling like a piece of fruit. Others remembered the redheaded boy carrying the ball up the stairs. But now, during the seventh inning stretch, Minkin found her voice straining over the PA blaring “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”

Billy Youngfried tapped his father’s arm. “That lady over there in the brown jacket,” said Billy. “She has that ball.”

Sheldon Youngfried, one of Sacramento’s most promising young architects, grabbed Susan’s arm as she ascended the stairs. He explained how his son first spotted the orange ball and hoped to get it from the security guard when the group of boys intercepted it.

“Thanks for the info. You’ve been very helpful,” Susan said while handing Mr. Youngfried her business card. “Drop by my office before tomorrow’s game and we’ll see what we can do for the boy.” She hurried up the stairs where Sheldon had pointed. Billy stared and watched as the teens gestured, slapped high-fives and then directed Minkin to the ledge of the wall with a jerk of their thumbs. Billy could hear them shouting, “Outta here. Git it outta here,” as they recounted the incident for the team marketing director.

Billy’s eyes were still fixed on Susan as she stood on her tiptoes, looking over the wall. He watched her wave to someone below in the parking lot. As she pulled a card from her pocket and scribbled on it, Billy glumly wondered what it would take for him to hold the orange prize just once. He watched her slide the card under the band and deftly toss the ball over the wall.

Where it was routinely caught by Luther Woundup, who scarcely rustled his orange and purple zerlixer suit while making the barehanded grab. An excellent athlete despite his smallish stature, Luther had finally gotten the response he desired.

Before leaving the parking lot, he took one last look at the name on the wall—RIDERS FIELD. The billboard-sized brown and yellow letters emblazoned in Old West-styled lettering on the wall captivated him. Although this was only Triple-A, it hardly mattered; he had finally arrived at the doorstep of professional baseball.

Crossing the railroad tracks Luther tossed the orange ball in the air and caught it with one hand. His index finger slid in the small, recessed dimpled area between the thin blue seams. He smiled to himself, knowing that when he pitched it with just the right spin it would fall off the table like a Koufax curve. There was nothing like it on this planet and only could be rivaled by the pyramid-shaped Aquatrilene dangling from his neck. His father’s company had engineered both devices exclusively for this mission. Zeltac Lab was the preeminent research and development laboratory back on Spalding. With this powerful one-two combination, Luther Woundup felt assured of earning his ticket to stardom.

Luther returned to the golden ziggurat-styled building sitting at the bank of the Sacramento River. He clambered up the invisible sliddy, all eleven stories, and when he reached the roof he nearly collapsed; the strenuous climb in the warm night air had exhausted him. Resting, he listened as applause from the ballpark sounded like ocean waves retreating over sea stones.

For the first time that evening, he had a chance to survey the local geography. From this vantage, the view was tremundo. Directly below flowed the Sacramento River, dividing the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento. Two bridges spanned the river: the I Street Bridge, coal black and double-decked to his left, and the golden, twin-towered, Tower Bridge, located some 200 yards down river. Across the water, twinkled the storefront signs and street lanterns of Old Town Sacramento. Further off in the distance, spotlights illuminated a formal white structure with a prominent rotunda: California’s capitol.

Luther watched the parading white lights of automobiles driving across Tower Bridge. Riders’ fans were going home happy tonight, for the team had won. He considered residing atop this place of power, but knew it was out of the question. His mission required a much more discreet location. He waited until the lights of the ballpark dimmed and the last car had left the area, then quickly and quietly retracted the sliddy. It folded compactly into itself, neatly storing in the craft’s side panel. He approached the spacecraft and waited for the recognition sequence to activate. The hatch opened, he climbed aboard, and powered the vehicle.

The Slingerlux rose slowly, then floated the short distance over to the river, where it hovered silently between the two bridges. Luther took a reading, estimating the river’s depth. About thirty feet. Ample.

He rotated the spaceship upside down and angled into the water. It slipped through the river slowly to avoid disturbing anything below the surface. Although the craft was impervious to heat, liquid or even explosive forces, a tree branch lodged inside one of the censoring wexels could disrupt its balance. But Luther wasn’t planning to lift off any time soon. He hoped this would be a permanent home in the weeks to come. The craft settled, then stabilized as the landing columns stuck firmly in the muddy river bottom.

From the craft emerged an object, protected by an invisible shield that rose upward through the water. Breaking the surface, the shield revealed a Disneyworld-scale lotus, with each leaf unfolding elegantly until it completely retracted and melded with the sides of a ship. There, floating atop the water, was a replica 20th Century schooner. It appeared as if it had resided there for nearly a century. The schooner was permanently tethered to the spacecraft below by a 25-foot lingstrom, just wide enough for a small person to crawl up and down.

Luther ascended the narrow tube, unpacked a few personal items and slid into one of the schooner’s beds. In seconds, he began to quickly drift off to the slow-rocking river current. Things had gone pretty well on this first day, he thought to himself. Except for that failed introduction. Twice the orange ball had come back over the wall. Did they really not understand? Finally, when he resorted to the Aquatrilene, he got their attention. But he knew his father would never approve. The ’trilene had been sent along for one purpose and it wasn’t for frivolling. Fortunately, the nice lady had dropped a proper invitation over the wall. Tomorrow, he would show the ballclub exactly what he could do.

While his spacecraft hugged the muddy river bottom like a mythical creature in hibernation, Luther fell asleep dreaming of sticky green grass, rich brown dirt and spanking white bases.

{end First Inning or Chapter One}
© R.A. Cabral 2004 

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