Chapter One: New Beginnings Chapter One NEW BEGINNINGS
“That ball was outside!” Derek Jeter sprang up from his seat on the living room couch, his arms outstretched in protest. “Dad, that ump needs glasses.”
“Now, Derek, that was a borderline pitch,” Mr. Jeter replied, gazing at the TV screen as the dejected Tigers batter headed back to the dugout. “Give the umps a little slack. It’s a hard job.”
“I think the hitter should have swung,” said Derek’s little sister, Sharlee. Over the winter she’d become obsessed with baseball, and hitting in particular, mostly because their dad had started taking her along when he and Derek went to the indoor batting cages to practice.
“Who was that batter, anyway? I never saw him before,” Derek said.
“Jim Faye,” said Mr. Jeter. “He was in the minors last year.”
“There are so many new guys on the team,” Derek complained, sinking back down into his seat. “I barely know who’s who now. Where are all the guys from last year?”
“Well, they traded some away, let others go to free agency. The Tigers are rebuilding, Derek.”
“Why? They had a great team a couple of seasons ago.”
“Well, things change, Son. It’s a new season. New players, and a nice clean slate, too. Everyone’s in first place on opening day. Speaking of which, are you two excited for your leagues to start up next weekend?”
“Yes!” Sharlee exulted, bouncing up and down in her chair. “I can’t wait. I’m going to hit a home run every game this year!”
“She does have a mean swing,” Mr. Jeter said, glancing at Derek with a wink.
Derek laughed. “Hey, I’m just glad to get on the field again after all this time. It feels like years.”
Derek really was feeling jazzed about the new season. First and foremost he was now on the travel team. And unlike last fall, when practically all they’d done was practice, this spring would bring a whole slew of games against the stiffest competition in the region.
It made Derek feel like he was an elite player—at least in Kalamazoo. Of course, his dreams were much bigger. He wanted to be the best, not just in Kalamazoo but in the whole country.
On top of travel baseball, Derek would also be playing his final season in Junior League. Next year, in eighth grade, he’d move up to the Senior League, where the players were older, bigger, taller, faster, and stronger.
Derek himself had grown four inches over the past winter. If he kept it up, he might even get to be six feet tall, which would be really cool. Onward and upward, that was how he looked at it. Every day brought a new challenge, and he would work as hard as necessary to be ready.
“Derek!” his mom called from the kitchen. “Sharlee! Anyone going to clean up in here?”
Derek and Sharlee hopped up and went to help. Their chores around the house were all laid out in the contracts they’d signed with their parents. In exchange for privileges, they had clear responsibilities, and doing dishes after meals was one of them.
“There are so many leftovers,” Sharlee complained as she and Derek packed them up for later.
“Easter Sunday lunch,” their mom remarked, shrugging. “Should I have just made peanut butter sandwiches?”
“No!” Derek and Sharlee said at once, and they all laughed. Their mom had made a heaping feast, and Derek couldn’t imagine eating again till at least Tuesday.
“You guys ready to go back to school tomorrow?” Mrs. Jeter asked.
“Yes!” said Derek.
“No,” said Sharlee at the same time.
“What’s wrong?” Derek asked his sister. “You just had ten days off, didn’t you?”
“But it’s springtime,” Sharlee explained. “Finally. I want to be outside. Why can’t we have classes out on the lawn?”
“When you’re in charge of the schools, you can make those decisions,” Mrs. Jeter said, patting Sharlee on the shoulder. “And don’t forget to dry the frying pan.”
Sharlee moaned, but did as she was told.
Derek had had the same ten days off, but Sharlee had been hanging out with her friends the whole time. Ciara had been at their house almost every day over the break, and so had the Parker triplets—London, Adriana, and Abby. They’d driven Derek crazy with their talking and laughing and playing all kinds of games he wasn’t interested in.
His own best friend, Vijay, had been away with his parents, visiting family in India the whole time. Derek’s other best friend, Dave, had moved to Hong Kong with his parents the year before. His friend Avery, who lived across town, had gone traveling with her mom over Easter week, so Derek had spent a lot of time alone, getting a head start on reading assignments for school.
Last term he’d fallen behind in his schoolwork while playing both basketball and baseball. He’d done fine on his final grades, but not without a lot of hard work cramming at the last minute. He was determined to get ahead of the game this time around, because playing in two baseball leagues at once was going to eat up a lot of time between now and the end of June.
“Can I go over to the Hill?” Derek asked his mom. “I think Vijay might be home by now.”
“Sure,” said his mom. “Give him my best. Be back by six, okay?”
“We’re actually eating supper tonight? After that lunch? Seriously?”
“You’re a growing boy, old man,” his mom said with a wry smile. “You’re full now, but you’ve been basically a bottomless pit the last six months.”
He could tell she was happy that he’d gotten taller. For the longest time it had seemed like every other kid but him was growing into a man. Now he’d joined the party.
On the other hand, in a couple of months he’d be an actual teenager. The thought of it made him uncomfortable, and a little sad. Why did things always have to change? Why couldn’t life stay like it had been his whole life?
Vijay was already out on Jeter’s Hill (named for Derek because he spent almost every free minute there, playing ball). Vijay was playing catch with Harry Hicks, who also lived at Mount Royal Townhouses and whom Derek had known since he was a little kid.
Derek had never been happier to see his best buddy. They exchanged hugs and high fives with their mitts, and their elaborate secret handshake with their throwing hands.
Harry came over to greet him. “Hey, Jeter,” he said.
“How was Disneyland?” Derek asked him. Harry and his family had just returned from the West Coast, he knew.
“Awesome, but I might have outgrown some of the stuff,” Harry admitted. “My little sister went crazy for it, though.”
“So would mine,” Derek said, thinking of Sharlee and remembering how excited she’d gotten at that water park in New Jersey last summer.
“Hey, are you on the Yankees this season?” Harry asked him.
“No,” said Derek. “The Reds.”
“Bummer,” said Harry. “Hey, I’ve got to go. My grandma’s coming over this afternoon. See you guys in school.” Harry took off at a trot, checking his wristwatch.
“How about you, Vij? What team are you on?”
“Oh… me?” Vijay had a funny look on his face, almost like he was suddenly shy.
“You see anyone else here?”
“Um, I’m not playing ball this year,” Vijay said softly, looking away.
“Say what?” Derek couldn’t believe his ears. “But… we’ve been on the same team every year since…”
“Since the beginning,” Vijay said, nodding. “But for every beginning there’s an end.”
“You mean you’re not going to play ball again? Ever?”
“Well, like, here on the Hill, of course I’ll still play. But I’m just… I don’t know….”
Derek wanted to press the issue—to ask Vijay why. He just couldn’t understand.
Vijay had improved greatly over his years in Little League. He’d started as a complete novice and had wound up being an asset to the team. But he’d never been one of the better players. And while many of the kids had started their growth spurts already, Vijay hadn’t grown much at all the past year or so. He still looked for all the world like a fifth grader.
“Remember that kid last spring, who got his arm broken by a fastball?” Vijay reminded Derek.
Derek nodded. “He wasn’t on our team, but we all signed his cast anyway.”
“I’ll bet he’s not playing ball anymore either. I wouldn’t want to get hit like that. Some of the pitchers are six feet tall!”
It suddenly hit Derek that Vijay was really quitting the game. “Gee,” he said, feeling suddenly emotional. “It won’t be the same without you.”
“You’ll do fine,” Vijay assured him. “You’ve got what it takes, Derek. You always have, and you keep getting better every year. I’ve kind of hit my ceiling, if you know what I mean.”
Derek wanted to argue with him further, but Vijay preempted him. “Anyway, don’t feel bad on my account. I’ve got a new passion.”
“Oh yeah? What?”
“Are you ready?” Vijay asked, as if he were about to reveal the secret of the universe. Spreading his hands out and smiling blissfully, he said, “Video games!”
“Video games?” Derek repeated, confused.
“Derek, it’s a whole new world. No, a whole new universe. Wait till you try them.”
“I’ve tried them,” Derek said. “A couple of times. I think it was over at Jeff Jacobson’s house. Super Something Brothers…. It was pretty fun.”
“Super MARIO Brothers,” Vijay corrected him. “And now I have my own game console at home.”
“My parents got it for me for my birthday, right before we left for India. I took it with me, and I was playing it half the time there. My parents even yelled at me because I was ignoring my cousins to play it. But, Derek, you can’t believe how much fun it is!”
“Well, next time I’m over at your house…”
“Totally. And guess what? Now there’s actually a real video game store in town, where you can go and play all these games on gigantic screens, and you can win tickets to redeem for prizes, and you can blow your entire allowance in one afternoon of supreme ecstasy!”
Derek had to laugh. He knew Vijay was joking, but he also knew that his friend meant every word. Vijay had already probably blown an insane amount of chore money at the new arcade.
Derek had seen the place from the outside—it was right across the street from the batting cages—but he’d never been inside. He couldn’t imagine having time for video games.
After playing catch with Vijay, Derek walked home feeling dejected. He’d been so excited about playing in two leagues, one with old friends and the other with new ones. But without his best pal, Little League baseball wouldn’t be what he had envisioned.
Last fall he’d worn himself out playing basketball and baseball at the same time. In fact, he’d wound up getting hurt and missing substantial chunks of the season.
Maybe I should just do travel team, he thought. Multiple games a week for the next two months was a lot, for sure. And travel back and forth ate up a lot of time too.
On the other hand, the more baseball he played, the better he would get—right? Derek was confident he could handle it, and also get his schoolwork done.
But it just wouldn’t be the same without Vijay.