OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND. — It was the bottom of the ninth and things were not looking good for the Blue Crab Jimmies.
Snake Wingate, so named for his resemblance to a reptile, star pitcher for the Lounge Lizards, was on the mound. So far, Snake had struck out both the Redmond Brothers and Earl Don Grinch.
Desiree Grinch had been hugging second so long that her blue infield chatter was causing Lizards baseman Born Again Brumbalow to lose the razor blade he had concealed in his pocket-sized New Testament. Snake, sure he had the game tied down, was grinning his beady eyed grin.
He had already struck Hudson out twice that day, and it looked like our boy just wasn't playing in midseason form. You could see that Snake was already anticipating striking Huddie out for the third time, just by the way he was licking the tobacco juice stain on his jaw.
In the long history of blood feuds and ancient rivalries that characterize the relationship between the towns of Oysterback and Wingo, perhaps no two single softball players have ever hated each other more than Hudson Swann and Snake Wingate. Snake Wingate is a player so mean, so ruthless that he is rumored to have a personally autographed picture of Don Sutton.
The Lizards are known from Cape Henry to Rehoboth Beach for their total lack of sportsmanship, and when the Jimmies play them, they're no charmers either, come to think of it. The field was littered with gobs of spit, balls of tar and emory boards, and that was only some of the stuff the fans had thrown from the stands.
As Hudson stepped up to the plate, he was hoping that no one could see he was sweating doughballs. Snake was on a streak, no doubt about that. Hudson met his beady-eyed gaze with an expressive projectile of sunflower hulls and hated him even more than normal.
Not naturally introspective, Hudson realized that the entire town was watching him with interest and that if he blew this one, he could count on a lifetime as a social pariah. This, he decided, was one of those Big Moments life dishes out from time to time.
Thoughtfully, Hudson adjusted his cap, spat some more sunflower hulls and gripped his Louisville Slugger in hands that he hoped were not shaking. Flakes of cork floated on the air around him.
Snake pulled his cap farther down over the place on his bald spot where his tarball was concealed and wound into a fastball that streaked past Hudson's bat.
''Strike one,'' said the ump, after some consultation with his seeing eye dog.
The crowd growled. Snake grinned and did a little dance on the mound. His Wingo groupies cheered him.
Hudson frowned, feeling the sweat pouring down his back. He gripped his bat even tighter, keeping his eye on Snake as the meanest player in the MircoBrewery League went through a dramatic series of contortions and let fly with another one of his patented fastballs. Hudson swung, feeling the ball sail just over his bat and into the catcher's mitt with a soft thud.
''Strike two,'' the ump yawned.
Wingo went wild; a shower of beer cans, old hot dog buns and barbecue chicken bones rained down on the field.
Snake took it as his due, grinning at his fellow townsmen. ''Heh, heh, heh,'' he said.
Hudson spread his feet, took his stance.
Snake wound up to pitch again.
The only sound was the buzzing of mosquitoes being fried in the bug zappers as the crowd held its breath.
Twirling his arm around like a bolo, Snake was thinking how good that MicroBrewery League Trophy would look behind the Jack Daniels bottles on the Dew Drop Inn bar down in Wingo. Using all of his strength and a little tar, he threw a fast curveball.
The Lizard fans were hauling out the Cold Duck.
Snake's ball flew from the mound in a long and evil arc.
Hudson pulled the Slugger back, then cracked forward.
The ball had not even reached him yet. He swung at thin air. But the momentum was so great that it swung Hudson all the way around in a 360-degree circle.
He connected with the ball on his way back.
Hudson only had time to watch the ball sail over the stands and into the Oysterback Hardshell Methodist Church graveyard before he took off, in a hail of cork dust, around the bases.
It is rumored that Snake Wingate quietly moved to West Virginia in the middle of the night, but Hudson thinks he'll be back for the playoffs.
Hellen Chappell is editor of The Banner and a novelist.