The Rhino in Right Field
EVERYTHING STARTED ON the day I had that close call with Tank.
Tank lives two blocks away, so I see him almost every day, but he usually ignores me. This is probably for the best, since Tank is a rhinoceros. A 2,580-pound Diceros bicornis with a seventeen-inch horn, according to the sign on his fence. That fence also happened to be our right-field fence, which is how Tank and I got to know each other on a first-name basis. It was my turn to play right field, and I’ll admit it: my mind wandered. If you’ve ever played baseball, you know what it’s like. Because no one ever hits the ball to right field.
Except, of course, when they do.
It doesn’t help that I’m a terrible outfielder. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t catch a fly ball to save my life.
So there I was, caught flat-footed when Pete walloped the ball. It sailed over my head and landed with a thunk in a pile of hay on the wrong side of the fence. Tank’s side. And there was Tank, snoozing in the shade of a billboard. (CALL KING’S MOTORS AT HOPKINS 5800. YOUR SOURCE FOR GENUINE PACKARD PARTS!)
That was our last baseball. Somebody had to get it back.
And that somebody was the right fielder.
Let me say this right now: the general public does not belong in rhinoceros pens—ever. This fact is so obvious, some genius decided that a stone wall topped with a chest-high chain-link fence would be enough of a reminder. Sure, it’s enough to keep a stumpy-legged rhino in. But it’s useless at keeping a twelve-year-old kid out. Because here’s another obvious thing: Baseballs do not belong in rhinoceros pens either. What if Tank ate the ball? That would end the game in a hurry—or at least postpone it. The truth always comes out in the end (so to speak).
The fellas gave me their usual encouragement.
“What’re ya waiting for, Nick?”
“I think he’s chicken, that’s what I think.”
“Some right fielder you are! What, are ya scared of a little ol’ rhino?”
I dropped my mitt and sized up the situation: hop the fence, grab the ball, and back to safety. Six seconds, tops.
Or never. Depending on the reflexes of the rhino.
“Yep. He’s chicken, all right.”
“Bawwwwk, bawk bawk . . .”
I took a deep breath, wound myself up, and . . .
vaulted the fence, up and over (“Atta boy, Nick!”)
raced to the hay pile (“Hurry up!”)
grabbed the ball (That’s not the ball. What is that?)
There’s the ball!
“RUN! Don’t look back!”
Over the top, and OUT.
Exactly 2,580 pounds of muscle crashed into the wall behind me, leaving a Tank-shaped dent in the stone. (I might be making up that last part. But everything else is true, I swear.)
I somersaulted on the ground. My heart was pounding. My pants were torn. Something smelled really bad.
But I was holding the ball.
“You did it!” said Ace, running out from shortstop.
“Holy moly, we thought you were a goner,” hollered Charlie from the pitcher’s mound.
Chuck just stood there in left field with his mouth hanging open.
“Look at you, Spirakis.” Here came Pete, swaggering out from home plate with the bat on his shoulder. “You might live to finish sixth grade after all. Now grab your mitt
and hand over that muddy ball. That was a home run and it’s four to three. Still two outs.”
I stood up, brushed myself off, and flipped the ball to Pete. “Not so fast, slugger. You know the rules. Anything hit into the rhino pen is an automatic out. And by the way—that ain’t mud.”