It was the top of the 9th. Last game of the season.
Two down. The runner on third inched down the line, ready to bolt for home.
Joe's knees ached, but the excitement kept his mind focused on the pitch.
He signaled low and in, and the pitcher complied.
Sharp grounder to short.
The runner's cleats kicked up dirt as he flew home. Joe jumped in front of the plate, waiting for the throw.
The ball slapped into his glove. The runner's cleats came up. Joe braced for impact.
Joe stood his ground, even as the breath was knocked from him.
He held the ball up for the umpire to see as the crowd cheered.
He took his time getting back to the dugout, catching his breath.
As he pulled the chest protector from over his head, he heard his coach call, "You're up, Joe. Do your thing."
He unclipped the shin guards and tossed them aside. He grabbed his bat and helmet and headed back to the plate.
It was a mighty swing, but a wimpy hit. The ball dribbled down the third base line.
Joe put his head down and ran like his butt was on fire.
He ran through the bag as the first baseman stretched for the throw. He wasn't sure whether he was safe or not, but then the crowd's roar let him know. He turned to grin at the first base coach, expecting a thumbs up. There was nothing but intensity on the first base coach's face as he pointed at second base with one arm and windmilled the other.
Joe was already running for second before he realized what had happened - the throw to first had gone wide and the ball was at the fence.
He slid into second, grinning and wheezing.
A moment later, he watched a long fly ball head to center field. He tagged up on second, and sprinted for third on the catch, easily making it on time.
Bottom of the ninth. Score still tied. One down.
Joe glanced to the dugout, raising an eyebrow at his coach.
His coach shook his head, slowly and firmly.
Joe knew he should play it safe.
Should wait for the hit.
Shouldn't risk everything on a hair-brained risky move.
But on the wind-up, his feet were already moving, as if they were in charge and he was not.
For a moment, he was terrified. But there was no turning back now, so he leaned forward, legs and arms pumping in a desperate effort.
He dove, arms stretched like Superman, stretching for the plate.
The catcher was blocking his way, but had taken the pitch too far in front of the plate after pushing the batter out of the way. Joe glimpsed the back 6 inches of the plate, exposed behind the catcher's shin guards.
The throw had beaten him, but he hadn't been tagged yet.
As he landed, he lunged. He felt the tag hit him hard on the head. He rolled away, momentum carrying him into the umpire's legs.
He lay there, tangled with the catcher and umpire, panting as the crowd's screams filled his ears.