Max and the Solar Eclipse

MAX loosened his grip on the bat, stepped back from home plate, and kicked the dirt. Sheldon's just itchin' for one more strike out of me, he thought. His stomach churned.

``The count's 2 and 2,'' barked Sheldon. Sheldon couldn't hit the ball. Sheldon couldn't catch the ball. But Sheldon had a major- league set of lungs. And the 15-year-old ump loved nothing more than shouting to the world, ``And ... yer-r-r out!'' His booming voice constantly reminded Max and the rest of the Redlegs of what they were trying to forget: They weren't even good enough to know what a slump or a losing streak felt like. They were always losing. The Monarchs, on the other hand, had a coach who played college ball and had his own batting cage. Of course they're top of the league, Max kept reminding himself.

After five innings of play, the score was 8-zip. The Redlegs gave up their prayers of scoring. Now they hoped only to hold the reins on the runaway Monarchs. So, Max stepped back up to the plate, dug in his feet, and prepared for the worst.

BUT the pitcher didn't wind up. Instead, he called time. The Monarchs' coach strode out to the mound. While the two talked, Max eased off the plate, blew a bubble from his well-chewed gum and glanced into the stands along the first-base line. He caught sight of a man wearing a catcher's mask tilted back on his head. Neatly inhaling the bubble, he squinted and realized it wasn't a catcher's mask at all. It was a familiar-looking welder's mask. And it was Mr. Rosiello wearing it.

Before Max had time to wonder about the silly headgear, Mr. Rosiello stood up and waved his arm. Max waved back. Mr. Rosiello shook his head and motioned to him again. What's he trying to tell me? Max thought. He wants me to come to the stands! What? Max held up his arms in disbelief.

``I'm at bat here!'' He held back his voice, but mouthed the words as hard as if he were yelling.

The coach returned to the bench. Max dug in his toes and took his stance. The pitcher pumped in a fast ball. Max swung. The ball grazed the bat and popped up foul over the stands. It floated, floated - and then crashed down near Mr. Rosiello, who dove for it and came up smiling as he held it in the air.

Then, as everyone waited for him to throw the ball back to Sheldon, an idea occurred to Mr. Rosiello. In plain view, he casually slipped the ball into the pocket of his baggy sweater. The crowd, as well as the players, stilled. Mouths fell open. A hundred pairs of confused eyes focused on Mr. Rosiello.

A sudden, strong breeze filled the coaches' shirts and ruffled the women's skirts in the stands. Cooling air prickled the players' forearms with goose-bumps. Near the tops of the towering pines, crows dipped and wheeled in commotion. Their screams ripped through the silence. Then Mr. Rosiello began to chatter animatedly with a few people near him. He pointed at the sky. One by one, people looked up. They began to nod their heads and talk among themselves. The two red-faced coaches stomped over to take charge. But soon, they were looking up, too.

``What is going on?'' Max muttered. ``So the crows are going crazy. The weather's clear. Come on, Mr. Rosiello, give the ball back and let's get this game going!''

But instead of the ball, Mr. Rosiello pulled a bunch of white cards from his pocket and started handing them out. People dispersed. Some went onto the field, some walked behind the stands or under the trees. Then players trailed after the spectators. Max rolled his eyes and lumbered toward Mr. Rosiello.

``Oh! Ciao, Max,'' said Mr. Rosiello. ``A fortunate catch, eh? And just in time.'' He snapped his welder's shield down over his eyes and looked up at the sun.

Max glared at the old man. ``Mr. Rosiello! There's not a cloud in the sky - it's only the top of the sixth, and I'm up! Why are you breaking up the game?''

``Max! Something extraordinary's happening up there.'' He pointed to the sun. But when Max glanced up, Mr. Rosiello quickly covered the boy's face with his hand. ``No, don't look with your bare eyes. Here, you can use the welder's mask - I gave away all the eye-protectors.'' He pulled the contraption off his head, placed it on Max, then snapped down the shield. ``Now,'' he pointed up again. ``Look.''

Behind the dark No.14 welder's glass, Max felt as though he'd been plunged into deep sea. He looked up toward the sun to see a bright disk with clear edges. Then he noticed something. ``Hey, it looks like someone took a bite out of the sun!''

``It's the moon, Max! It's moving in front of the sun. In about half an hour it will almost completely cover the sun. Then we'll be in the moon's shadow. Think of it, Max! The moon that lights the night is going to darken the day. It hardly ever happens - a nice turnabout in the natural order of things, si?''

By then, the fans had forgotten the game. They were scattered in groups, looking at the sun through the eye protectors. As the moon sneaked across the sun, the ball of fire gradually shrank into a crescent. The light became thin and eerie. The crows calmed down and the field grew strangely quiet. People whispered and waited. Even Sheldon was at a loss for words. He was studying the bare ground under the maple trees where tiny crescents of light glimmered.

``They're images of the sun,'' explained Mr. Rosiello, as he walked among the groups. ``The tiny spaces between the leaves let through just enough light to project an image - like the hole in a camera.''

Max took off the welder's mask to look around. The odd light didn't appear to be sunlight. It seemed to come from everywhere - or nowhere in particular. The air was full of expectation. He didn't know what, but something was bound to happen. He watched the shrinking crescents glitter on the ground. He watched people who, moments ago, had known each other only as competitors and had sat on separate sides of the stand. He saw them talk quietly together, share the eye protectors, rest their hands gently on one another's shoulders as they pointed into the leaf shadows. Time slowed. Space widened. It feels like I'm walking through another time, thought Max.

``There!'' cried Mr. Rosiello near third base. ``It's the ring of fire!'' Everyone with an eye protector looked up. Max clapped on the welder's mask. To his surprise, the crescent sun had stretched into a thin, delicate hoop of light. He watched it for eight minutes. He wanted to jump through it. Or throw a baseball through it. He could nearly feel himself falling through it. In the extraordinary silence, Max was completely isolated behind the dark welder's mask. He could see nothing except that ring. It seemed to beckon him to step through, to step out of his world and into another.

THEN - abruptly - the ring of fire broke on the left side and gradually swelled into a slender crescent on the other side. As the moon continued its path across the sun, the new crescent would fatten until it became, once again, the old, familiar sun. But that would take a little more than an hour.

``Play Ball!'' Max was startled by Sheldon's voice. It took him a moment to shake off his daydream. As the coaches herded players to the field and spectators to the stands, Max exchanged the welder's mask for his baseball helmet and made his way to home plate.

Everyone returned to their previous spots, but somehow it all seemed different. Max glanced back at the sun - still just a sliver. He couldn't remember playing baseball in such a peculiar, rare light. Not like twilight, not like cloudy skies, the light was foreign, other-worldly. @bodytextdrop =

And the sound wasn't normal either. As the Monarchs warmed up in the field, Max noticed the hollow thwump of the ball pounding each glove. The game was embraced by a silence so big that every sound seemed special.

As the pitch whirred toward the plate, Max didn't even have to think. He hit it clean. The cr-r-ack! of the bat told Max what everyone else saw: The ball was out of the third baseman's reach, deep into the outfield. He glided through the thin air to first base. Keeping his eye on the outfielder, he kept up his momentum all the way to second. ``Yes!'' he huffed as he landed on the base-bag.

Max was too pumped up to moan when he saw Tim going to bat. Tim hadn't been on base all season. But after a few pitches, Max could swear that Sheldon was pulling back on his ``ste-e-e-rike!'' calls. Was Sheldon losing his voice? On the 2-3 pitch, Tim hit a double and put Max home for the first run.

In the next inning, everyone heard Johnny telling himself he could catch the fly ball way out in left field, and they believed him, even though he never had. He did. By the seventh inning, Max was wondering what was going on. His team was playing way beyond its ability.

Then he remembered the science magazine rolled up in Mr. Rosiello's back pocket. It reported how animals often act strangely in the unearthly light and changing air of an eclipse. Cows sometimes head home in the middle of the day, birds - like the crows - grow restless. Certainly, the Redlegs were acting strangely.

At the end of the 10th inning - just as the sun was rounding out and the light and sounds were once again ordinary - the scorekeeper put up the final score: Monarchs 8, Redlegs 10.

``A nice turnabout in the natural order of things, huh.'' Max commented to Sheldon. With his bat over his shoulder and his glove hanging from the bat, Max started home.

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