His name is not really Skunk but that’s what everyone calls him. His mom and dad, his teacher, grandparents … everyone. Skunk’s nickname comes from a round patch of white – a birthmark— smack dab in the middle of his black thatch.
He is 12 and he lives on a farm in the middle of Kansas corn. Corn as far as the eye can see in all directions.
Skunk is a loner. There’s not much he can do about it. There just aren’t any kids to hang with.
What he does – day-in, day- out -- is sling a hard black ball against the tailgate of a saggy old Chevy pickup down there by the tool shed. He plays imaginary games, pitches against big league teams going all the way back to the 1950s. He knows every lineup.
He announces his games as he plays.
That’s what he’s doing the day Jack Gaines rolls into their yard in his new Dodge Ram. Jack is a soldier back from Afghanistan for “repairs,” as he puts it. A new leg.
He watches Skunk sling the ball against the old truck. He can’t believe the firepower.
What is it made of? “India rubber,” Skunk tells him. “My Dad calls it gutta-percha, the juice of the rubber tree. Same as in golf balls.”
“My gosh it come back at you like it was shot out of a gun.”
From that day forward Jack drops in on Skunk and they play pitch and catch. Therapy for Jack, something different for Skunk.
What a pity, Jack begins to think, that this boy does not know the great joy of playing with other boys … of being on a team. And that’s what Jack Gaines sets out to do (with the assistance of Skunk’ teacher, Ms. Lorenzen.) Scratch up a team.
How about the boy whose folks own the convenience store? He’s Vietnamese. He’s never thrown a ball in his life. So what? We’ll teach him. How about the fat sissy boy the kids call “Goggles” for his thick glasses. How about the boys at the Hutterite Colony. They’d never be allowed to play baseball. Sinful foolishness, the elders call it. Ms. Lorenzen lays into them with a torrent of German and coaxes a “maybe” out of them. How about Mary Massey? A girl? Why not? She’s got a better arm from third base than any of the boys.
And then there’s Joey Buffa in a wheelchair. He rolls himself out to center field.
They get uniforms … Ms. Lorenzen’s doing. Made of mattress ticking. They look ridiculous but don’t tell them .
They settle on a name. It takes hours of wrangling: The Plainview Marching Ants.
And now they’ve gotta get up a game. And Jack manages that too. It is – undeniably – the strangest game of baseball since the ball has been round.
You shoulda been there.