Matthew looked up from the sports section of the Saturday newspaper and said, “Dad, can we go to the Cannons game today?”
Mason looked out the window and said, “It’s a beautiful day for a baseball game.” Then he sang, “Take me out to the ballgame.”
Dad stopped working on his Sudoku puzzle and said, “I was planning to work around the house today.”
“Please, Dad,” Matthew said. “Tank Thompson may set a homerun record today.”
“Barry Bonds holds the major league record for homeruns,” Mason said.
“What kind of a homerun record are you talking about?” Dad asked.
“Total homeruns, including those he’s hit in both the major and minor leagues,” Matthew said. “I’ve been adding them up and he’s tied for the all-time lead.”
“That’s interesting,” Dad said. “Tank Thompson spent many years playing in the minor leagues. When he first started playing he could hit homeruns, but he also struck out a lot. His batting average wasn’t good enough to play in the majors. He practiced hitting every day and his batting average improved. Then he played in the major leagues for a long time. When his legs started to give out he didn’t want to retire, because he loved playing so much. The Cannons were glad to have him. He’s been playing for them ever since. And he’s still hitting homeruns.”
“Does that mean we can go to the game?” Mason asked.
“It looks good,” Matthew said. “You know Dad loves to watch records being broken.”
* * *
“Let’s sit in the right-field bleachers,” Matthew said when they arrived at the ticket office of the ballpark. “Tank bats left-handed and he hits most of his homeruns to right field.” He had brought his baseball mitt with him.
They got good seats in the third row of the bleachers. The sun was shining; it was a beautiful day for baseball. Mason was still singing: “Take me out with the crowd.”
When Tank came up to bat in the first inning, the three of them cheered for him to hit a homerun. “Knock it out of the park, Tank.” He hit into a double play instead.
“Darn,” Mason said.
“Don’t fret, Mason,” Matthew said. “He’ll get to bat three or four more times.
In the third inning, Tank came to bat again with a man on first. Matthew, Mason, and Dad cheered, but Tank hit into another double play.
In the fifth inning, Tank came to bat with a man on second.
“At least, he probably won’t hit into a double play,” Matthew said.
Tank hit a hard line drive down the first base line. The first baseman made a leaping grab of the ball and threw to second, catching the runner off base. Another double play.
“I was wrong,” Matthew said, ruefully. “Maybe he’ll set a record for hitting into double plays.”
Mason and Dad laughed.
When Tank came to bat in the seventh inning, Matthew was losing hope. But Tank stood at the plate, tall and proud, concentrating on the pitcher and not thinking about his previous times at bat. He swung hard at the first pitch and hit the ball high into right field.
“I’ve got it,” Matthew yelled, excitedly. He stood up and raised his glove as the ball reached the top of its arc and descended toward the bleachers. Matthew looked the ball into his mitt where it made a satisfying thunk and stuck. The fans in the bleachers cheered.
“Nice catch, Matthew,” Mason said, giving him a slap on the back.
Dad also congratulated Matthew. An usher came over and told him what a good catch he had made. He said, “After the game, come over to the dugout. Tank would like to talk to you.”
Mason took the ball out of Matthew’s mitt and looked at it. “There’s a black mark across the stitches where he hit the ball,” He said.
“The umpire had just put a new ball into play,” Matthew said, “so we know that the mark was made by Tank’s hit.”
When the game ended, the usher escorted them to the dugout and introduced them to Tank. Tank was a big man with thick arm muscles. He smiled at the boys as he shook their hands.
“So you caught my homerun,” he said to Matthew. “You must be quite a baseball player, yourself.”
“I like to play,” Matthew said, “and I’d like to give you this ball, because it’s the ball you hit for the all-time homerun record. You need it for a souvenir.”
“You know about that?” Tank asked, surprised. “I thought I was the only one keeping track of that record. In fact, since I have the record I’m going to retire at the end of the season. But it’s very nice of you to give me the ball. It will go on my mantle with other balls that represent milestones in my career.”
A newspaper reporter who was standing nearby heard Tank talk about the record and the fact that he was retiring. Realizing that he had a story, he called a photographer over who took pictures of Tank and the boys. Tank gave each of the boys an autographed baseball—not the homerun ball—and the owner of the Cannons gave Dad free tickets to another game.
* * *
It was the following Saturday. Matthew, Mason, and Dad were planning to go to the Cannons game again and use their free tickets. Matthew was reading the sports page at breakfast when he exclaimed, “The homerun ball has been stolen from Tank’s house. This article says the ball was taken from his mantle. It was the only ball taken. Tank thinks the thief got in through an open window.”
“That’s terrible,” Mason said. “Who would be bad enough to do something like that?”
“I don’t know,” Dad said, shaking his head. “But there are some bad people in the world.”
* * *
During the game, Matthew thought that Tank wasn’t playing up to par. Maybe he was upset about the baseball being stolen and couldn’t concentrate. He only got one hit and that was a scratch single the opposing third baseman couldn’t field fast enough to throw him out.
When the game ended, the three of them went to the dugout to talk to Tank. When he saw them, his eyes lit up.
“Well, if it isn’t my homerun catcher and his brother,” he said, giving them high fives. “Unfortunately, the ball is gone now.”
“We are very sorry you lost the ball,” Matthew said. “I know it means a lot to you.”
“I received a phone call this morning from a man who claims to have the ball,” Tank said. “He says he got it from the person who took it from my house. But how can I tell whether it’s the right ball or not?”
“We can tell,” Mason said, nudging Matthew with his elbow. “Remember, it has a mark where Tank hit the ball.”
“That’s right,” Matthew said. “Since it was a new ball and you hit the first pitch, there’s only one mark on it.”
Tank looked at Dad. Dad said, “If they say they can tell, I believe them. They’re very observant boys.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Tank said. “The man is coming to my house in about an hour. I don’t live far from here. Can you come with me after I shower and change my clothes?”
“Yes, we can do that,” Dad said. “I’ll call Mom and tell her that we’re going to be home a little later.” He took out his cellphone and punched in their number.
* * *
They followed Tank’s car to his house. He had a white, two-story house with a green lawn in front. Dad parked the car in the driveway behind Tank’s car. They got out and Tank ushered them into his house.
“My wife isn’t here,” Tank said. “She’s visiting her mother with our two children. But I can get you something to drink.”
Tank took them into his game room and went to the kitchen to get drinks. The room was filled with baseball memorabilia. Pictures of Tank covered the walls. There were pictures of Tank hitting the ball, pictures of him running the bases, and pictures of him with other famous players. Baseball bats hung from a wooden rack. They were bats that Tank had used to hit various homeruns. A number of baseballs sat on top of the mantle over a fireplace. Each ball had a plastic holder that was labeled with a milestone Tank had accomplished when he hit the ball.
The space in the center of the mantle was empty. Tank came back into the room with a tray of drinks, which he set down on a coffee table. He saw the three of them looking at the balls on the mantle and said, “I put the new homerun ball in the middle. When I came home after the night game two days ago, it was gone. I haven’t had time to get a holder with the description on it yet. There’s just a handwritten note on the mantle telling about the ball.”
“So the ball was sitting loose on the mantle,” Matthew said.
“Yes,” Tank agreed.
“Why do you think the thief took only that ball?” Matthew asked.
“It was the ball that got all the publicity. Remember, it was written up in the newspaper with your pictures. And, unfortunately, I was quoted as saying that I was going to place it right in the center of the mantle. So the thief knew just where to look. I guess he figured that it was worth the most money. I got the impression that the guy who’s coming wants some compensation for returning the ball. He may be mixed up in this, somehow.”
The doorbell rang.
“That must be him now,” Tank said. He walked out of the room.
“I’ll look at the ball first and then pass it to you,” Matthew said to Mason. “Look at it, but don’t say anything. Just nod if it’s the correct ball, or shake your head no if it’s not. Let me do the talking.”
Tank returned to the room. Behind him walked a smaller man with shifty eyes. He was carrying a plastic bag. He looked at each of them, but Tank didn’t introduce them.
Tank said, “This is Sam. Well, Sam, let’s see the ball.”
“Not so fast,” Sam said. “I went to all this trouble to return the ball to you; I deserve something for my trouble.”
“How did you get the ball?” Tank asked.
“I saw this guy coming through a window.” He looked at the windows in the room and pointed at one. “It may have been that one. Anyway, I knew he was up to no good. I saw he had something in his hand. I told him if he didn’t give it to me I’d call the cops.”
“And he willingly gave you the ball?” Tank asked.
“Well, he needed a little persuading, if you know what I mean. But he finally gave it to me. I rang the bell but there was nobody home. I was going to return it when I got around to it, but when I saw the story in the paper I knew it was a big deal. That’s when I called you.”
Tank looked as if he didn’t completely believe Sam’s story. He said, “You realize we have to verify that you have the correct ball before we can talk about compensation.”
“How are you going to do that?” Sam asked.
“You’ll see,” Tank said.
He held out his hand for the ball. The man was obviously reluctant to give up the ball, but Tank looked him straight in the eye and kept his hand out. The man started to fidget. Finally, he stuck his hand in the plastic bag and pulled out a baseball. Tank took it and immediately handed it to Matthew.
“What are you doing?” Sam asked.
Tank ignored him. Matthew looked the ball over carefully. Then he handed it to Mason. Mason studied it. After a couple of minutes, during which there was absolute silence and Sam kept shifting his bag from one hand to the other. Mason shook his head and handed the ball back to Matthew.
“This isn’t the homerun ball,” Matthew said to Tank.
“Whaaa,” Sam said. “How can these little kids know whether it’s the right ball or not? You can’t tell one ball from another.”
“You may have seen their pictures in the paper,” Tank said. “Matthew caught the ball when I hit it. Matthew, tell us why that isn’t the correct ball.”
“The ball you hit was brand new,” Matthew said. “The umpire had just given it to the catcher. You hit the first pitch that was made with the ball. Therefore, there was only one mark on it. That mark went across a seam. There is no corresponding mark on this ball. In addition, this ball has a number of other marks where it has been hit by a bat. It’s also a little scuffed in places, so it has been used to play catch and dropped. It couldn’t possibly be the homerun ball.”
“Sam glared at Matthew. “I’ll bet he’s just making that up.”
“Nevertheless, I’m going to accept it,” Tank said. “And you are invited to leave. That is, unless you want me to call the police.”
Tank took the ball from Matthew and handed it to Sam. He escorted Sam out of the room as that man muttered indecipherable words under his breath.
Matthew got up from the couch where he had been sitting and said, “So the homerun ball is still missing. That’s a shame.” He walked over to the mantle and gazed at the baseballs there. He wasn’t tall enough to look straight at them, so he lifted his head. He placed his hand on the red bricks of the fireplace to steady himself. With his other hand, he reached up and felt the smooth wood of the mantle top. A loose ball could easily roll off.
His toe touched a copper tub that had once been a washtub. It was sitting on the bricks in front of the fireplace. Matthew looked down at the tub. Then he looked again. He reached into the tub, which was used to hold logs for the fireplace, and pulled out—a baseball.
As Mason and Dad watched, holding their breath, Matthew turned the baseball over and over, examining it as if he had a microscope. He looked up just as Tank returned to the room, and said, “This is the ball. There’s a small nick where it hit a piece of wood, but otherwise it still looks the same.”
Tank couldn’t believe it. Matthew showed him where he had found the ball.
“The cleaning lady must have knocked it off the mantle,” Tank said. “Or maybe she placed it on the edge where it rolled off when a big truck went by and shook the house. She came before I left for the game on Thursday. I told her not to move anything, but she’s a compulsive cleaner and likes to get all the dust.”
Tank was so delighted to have his baseball back that he gave the boys signed posters with his photograph on them. He told them that they could attend any Cannons game free as long as he was with the team. He also promised to get a holder for the ball, so it wouldn’t roll off the mantle again.
In the car on the way home, Mason said, “Matthew, it was smart of you to figure out that the ball might have rolled off the mantle.”
“Well,” Matthew said, by now convinced that he had known what had happened all along, “when solving a problem, look for the simple solutions first.”