A Major Success|
Book 6 of Outside the Foul Lines
by Rick Beck
"Back to Ball - Big Boy Ball"
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Evan took us to a backwater restaurant that wasn't on anyone's top ten eating spots. The waitresses were in shorts. The bar was bigger than the dining area, and the patrons were loud.
We began with a bucket of buffalo wings, and it confirmed to me why the buffalo had nearly died out. They sure couldn't get far on those wings. I must admit they were tasty, if spicy, and plentiful. You simply yelled, "Wings," and a bucket appeared a minute later.
Evan wasn't quite outgoing away from the ball yard. It was easy to see the difference between the ballplayer and just regular guy. He liked places where people were less likely to recognize him. Once spring training began, after the long off-season, people in the area of ballparks were on the lookout for their favorite players.
Andy didn't have the same problem as Evan, because Evan made baseball his stage for his creative side. He went everywhere in public in a white stretch limo and with a girl on each arm. They were always dressed to kill, as he was, and few places where he was expected during baseball season, or to baseball events, didn't have media waiting for him to add pizzazz to the proceedings.
In a small restaurant bar no one paid any attention to three more men in tee- shirts and jeans. To be sure we'd driven fifty miles from where the game was that afternoon. We had beer with our steak and baked potatoes. Andy and I had salads on the side, having acquired the taste from the exceptional salads Gene prepared.
"This isn't bad," Andy said, chewing his T-bone. "This place doesn't look like much but the food is good."
"My agent found it for me. I don't end up eating cold food after signing autographs for an hour. People in this place don't know me from Adam. They're here for the buzz and I get to eat and talk in peace," Evan explained in a voice a bit above a yell.
"Peace," I said, straining to hear him.
"All things are relative," Evan explained.
"I thought it was all about being seen, Evan," Andy said.
"That's business, Andy. I like putting on a show for the fans. Baseball is too conservative at times. No excitement. I give folks something to get excited about. I figure I'll be a sports announcer for a lot longer than I play baseball. People will know me from baseball, because I make a point of being noticed."
"Yes, you do," Andy said. "By the way I never thanked you for the flowers. I should have dropped you a note. They were nice."
"We spend all season locked in mortal combat. That's as much a show as anything, but I'm fond of you, Andy. I've liked you ever since that day when you tried to knock my block off."
"Don't remind me. I was so full of it back then," Andy said.
"You with your arm in a sling and thirty pounds lighter than me. I had to admire your spunk if not your good judgment."
"I was a kid, Evan."
"Weren't we all," Evan said.
"I was jealous. That's a compliment. I'd never loved anyone before and being away from him. Knowing he was with a guy that looks like you, drove me nuts."
"Love can make you do some stupid things. Remember our home run hitting contests at Slugger Stadium? I'd stand on the left side of the plate, you stood on the right, and they alternated pitches. We could lose two dozen baseballs in a hurry and no one knew our names."
"Yes," Andy said, not having much to say about that.
"Everyone stopped to watch you two. No one sat down while you slugged away," I said, remembering the events.
"Little did we know back then that we'd be battling for the home run championship every season," Evan said, tipping back his beer.
"Little did we know," Andy said sadly.
"I don't know about cancer, Andy. I don't know much about anything but ball. What I do know is, if anyone can get up the comeback trail, it's you. You're a natural, Andy. You were born to hit homers. I wish I had your sweet swing."
"We'll see, Evan. We'll see. I was leading you in homers when I broke my arm. You do know that?" Andy reminded him.
"You were beating me because you're better than I am. I'm part slugger part rodeo clown. I get big press and I make big bucks, but you, you're pure baseball. What you see is what you get. There's no show when it comes to the game you play.
"You say I said that, and I'll call you a liar, but I'll try to keep the home run championship warm for you. I've always admired that both of you are all business when it comes to baseball. You're dedicated to the game in a way I'm not. I love the game. I love the show. If I walk away tomorrow, I'll be fine. Neither of you can say that."
Evan seldom philosophized. I believed he believed what he said.
"I learned years ago that I was good and I needed to make the most of it. There is no guarantee in this game. You're a hero one day and a has been the next," Evan said.
"If I don't play again it won't kill me. It took me a few months on a sailboat to realize it. I'll give it all I have. I know the odds are against me. I'll be two years older the next time I face big league pitching. My swing will changed. My timing might never come back. It's a long shot but I'm planning on beating the odds."
Evan listened to the hope in Andy's voice. One slugger to another, there was nothing to say. He admired Andy's grit. He wanted to think he would battle Andy for some future home run title. He wasn't sure he would.
"I don't know if I'm a better hitter than you. That's why we play the game. I appreciate your confidence in me. I appreciate the flowers you sent. It did get a smile out of me and I never thought you were celebrating my injury."
"Lord I hope not. Never thought it would. I was sick when my agent brought me the picture of you lying across home plate."
The band had begun to play and we had to talk louder to be heard. A rather inebriated man staggered back from the men's room, and stopped to steady himself on the back of my chair. He stared into Evan's face.
"Aren't you," the man said, forgetting what was on his mind before he finished, and then he recovered. "You're!"
"Victor Showenberg at your service," Evan said.
The man stood up very straight as if he was going to try to look dignified and not like a drunk, but he slumped back against my chair before ambling off.
"Almost blew your cover," I said.
"It happens. When someone recognizes me, I scratch that joint off my list. This is a pretty out of the way place. I can usually fake my way out of it. Most people come here to get drunk," Evan said.
"He was more than half drunk," I said.
"He knew who you were. He just couldn't come up with a name," Andy said.
"No he didn't. He thought he did. I talked him out of it."
We stopped competing with the music and took our time finishing the meal.
It was early evening but it wasn't night yet. I wanted to get a full nights sleep to be ready for tomorrow's game. Evan was staying in a house his agent arranged for him. We were spending the night there. Evan would take me to the park the following day and Andy could come just before the game if he wanted.
"You going back tomorrow?" I asked Andy once the band took a break and the noise came from voices again.
"I think I'll watch you play a few games. This is a big deal," Andy said, talking about me playing for Cincinnati in spring training."
"That's good. You don't want to cut it too close. I don't want you rushing back for rehab," I said.
"Do, I'm a big boy. I'll call them and tell them I'll be a day late if I need to. I want to be with you for a few more days."
"We've been together every day for months," I reminded him.
"And I want to be with you every day for a little longer," he said.
A waiter came over with three more beers."
"I didn't order these," Evan complained.
"Gentlemen over there said, 'take the beer to this table and say thank you Mr. Lane."
We all looked in the direction where the drunk disappeared. He was sitting at a table with six or seven men and women. As soon as our eyes were on him, he raised his beer in a salute to Evan. Evan smiled and returned the salute.
"Told you he recognized you. Took him a minute to put it together. That's what too much beer does for you."
"Nice he respected your privacy," I said.
"Very nice," Evan said. "People can surprise you."
"People are generally decent, until someone talks them into being assholes," I said.
"Do, I'm surprised at you. Are you calling my fans assholes?"
"You know what I mean," I said.
Evan and Andy laughed at my seriousness. It was a problem I had never overcome.
We ended up around a card table in the bar at the house where Evan was staying. Evan and Andy drank beer. I drank soda. Our conversation went on late into the evening. We hadn't spent that much time with Evan since we both played in Louisville. We were more mature and more experienced, but we still had a lot in common.
In spite of Evan's success he was still an earthy guy and nothing like the character he played. He had once told me the men who helped raise him used to play old movies of Gorgeous George, professional wrestler, surrounded with women spraying him with perfume, holding his long flowing robe off the floor, as he made his entrance into the wrestling ring.
Evan understood it was all show business and it didn't have a thing to do with wrestling. The reaction of the couple who showed him the film, hooting and hysterical over G. George's entry, gave Evan an idea of who he'd be one day, when he became famous.
He was only then starting to play ball, so he didn't know he'd be successful at the game, but he already knew he'd be successful. Baseball, a conservative game resistant to change, meant he'd do a modified version of George. A woman on each arm, dressed all in white, as they emerged from the white stretch limo was Evan's trademark entry at most public events. His imitation of George.
Everyone loved his audacity. When baseball officials suggested he tone it down a few degrees, Evan made sure his chauffeur was black and he was dressed in the old fashion, Driving Miss Daisy, chauffeur's uniform, dutifully playing the subservient negro role to Evan's staring role. Opening all nearby doors and bowing and scraping to Evan and his luscious babes. Evan also was a fan of Jack Benny.
Only the black players got the joke and official baseball, after considering a suspension for Evan's behavior, decided he was too rich to suspend or risk pissing off. They realized that they were better off letting Evan be Evan rather than trying to tame him. The news coverage of him continually increased and the stands were filling up like in the days of Johnny Bench and Charlie Hustle.
Evan was good for ball but he never took himself seriously. He was smart enough to know he grew into a body that just happened to be built for power. Like Andy, Evan watched motion pictures of the great hitters. He was heavier and not as fleet of foot as Mickey Mantle, but he copied his swing, learned to bat on both sides of the plate, and he took a course in physics to better understand the art of hitting homers.
Evan was at Louisville when I got there. He was rude, obnoxious, and full of himself, but once I got beyond the show, we became friends, pissing Andy off, because he was a thousand miles away. Being around Evan again was okay. I'd never before related to anything as just like old times, but it brought back good memories.
Andy's initial desire to punch Evan in the face for being handsome and in close proximity to me passed, when Evan assured him that he wasn't into boys. Being competitors could get them going from time to time, but when all was said and done, they were friends and respected one another. Andy being hurt gave Evan no satisfaction.
Somehow being around Evan made playing with a higher level of baseball talent less threatening. Maybe my maturity was showing, as many of the major league prospects were younger than I was and some were my age. I'd been playing ball for so long I was confident in what I did.
The first game with me in the big boy infield went seven innings. They took me out in the sixth inning for a pinch hitter. I'd walked once and struck out once in my two at bats, facing two very good Miami pitchers. My knees didn't shake when they threw a couple of inside pitches that I'm sure brushed my uniform shirt.
These were big league pitchers. I trusted they wouldn't hit me, but I didn't get so close to the plate I was asking to get hit. The second game Andy had a front row seat with a clear view of the shortstop position. The crowds were modest for the second seven inning game in a row.
I knew the second baseman's name by the second game. It was written on the back of his shirt, which came into full view when he charged in front of me to take a ball well within the shortstop's range.
He'd done it once in the first game and two times in the second game. I was working on a strategy to get him back into his piece of the infield and out of mine. He was a backup second baseman on the Cincinnati roster. I was nobody and I didn't want to start a ruckus the first time I played big boy ball, but I had no urge to be upstaged either. One of us was the shortstop and it wasn't him.
I was forced to remain silent in the second game because a ball hit straight to me dug into the too loose dirt, took an odd bounce, and hit me in the chest, dropping onto the ground in between my feet. I took my time picking it up, because it was too late to make a play, and the odds were if I rushed it, I'd throw it away.
I picked up the ball, looked the runner back to first base, and accepted the error that should have gone to the ground's keeper. Two pitches later the next batter hit a sharp grounder to my right. I took it on the first hop, turned and flipped it to second for the first half of the double play that ended the inning. My error didn't cost us.
In between innings the grounds' crew came out to rake the dirt out in a more even fashion. I took that as vindication. Someone else saw that the loose dirt made the infield sloppy. No one said anything to me but my glove was my bread and butter. I didn't like making errors for any reason.
Evan came out and sat next to me in the dugout in the fifth inning, just before he pinched hit for me. He'd hit for me in the sixth inning the day before. He'd stood in the doorway for a couple of minutes before he took the walk to the plate in that game.
"You're looking good, Dooley," Evan said, talking to just me.
"I made an error," I complained.
"You should see some of the errors I make," he said, laughing.
"I'm supposed to be a good glove man. I should have made the play," I said, happy that he sat next to me.
There was a stir among the youngsters every time Evan appeared. They all kept an eye on him.
"You worry too much. Play your game. You'll be fine," he said confidently.
"You sound like Coach Bell," I said.
"I consider that a compliment," he said. "Maybe I'll coach one day," he mused.
"You know better than that. You're a trouble maker, Lane. You don't respect the natural order of the game. Once you stop hitting homers, they won't be able to unload you fast enough."
"Ain't that the truth," he said, standing up to get his bat out of the bat rack. "I don't kiss no one's ass."
He swung the too small bat easily as he moved up to the plate. I watched the outfields going back to the fences. The outfield was relatively small with deep center not being much more than three hundred and fifty feet. If Evan got a pitch he liked, it was going to drop on the other side of the fence.
It was the third pitch. It was up higher than the pitcher intended. Evan's modest swing was enough to loft it into the middle of the bleacher seats. The crowd stood and applauded. It's what they came to see. Only half the first string players were in camp and the stands were less than half filled. The people who did show up came to see Evan Lane hit one. He didn't disappoint them.
Evan tipped his hat as he rounded third and he pointed right at Andy as he passed where he sat. Andy tipped his hat to salute his rival, but no one knew who he was. He was just a bald guy wearing a Pittsburgh baseball hat and sitting in the front row a few feet up the third base line from the plate.
We were leading 9-7 and we went on to win 14-9. There were over thirty hits, but these games were meant to let players play, limber up, and get into condition. Players didn't strain at this point in the season. No one was paying attention yet.
Andy decided to stay one more day. The next game was nine innings and he wanted to watch it. We were playing the Braves and they were pitching three of their starters for three innings a piece. They also had most of the starting lineup in camp. This would be more like big league ball. Cincinnati's starters were beginning to arrive.
That night at dinner Evan gave us the names of the players who were now in camp. Two starters were still among the missing. One was the starting shortstop, Prather, who was still holding out. Evan heard he'd been seen in the area but hadn't been seen at the ballpark.
"When are you going to put Bitters in his place, Dooley?" Evan said to me out of the blue.
"What do you mean?" I said.
"He's been running all over top of you since you got here. You just let him run wild in your infield, son. You can't do that if you want to play big boy ball. You've got to put the showboat in his place or he'll crowd you even more tomorrow."
"What should I do. He's on the team. I'm just passing through," I said.
"You give the asshole a taste of his own medicine. You're faster and a better fielder. Take his balls away from him, and not politely. See how he likes it. You don't make any points being a good sport. Lots of eyes are on these scrimmages, son. You never know whose watching or what they're looking for. Time to play ball, Dooley."
"I didn't think about that. I'm only here a few days, Evan."
"Make hay while the sun shines, son. You're here now. You might not be here much longer. We go back to Arizona after this weekend. They'll send you back to Coach Bell so they don't need to pay for your plane ticket."
It made sense. Bitters did piss me off. I'd be the showboat in the next game. It didn't take long for me to get my shot. In the first inning the second batter hit a sharp grounder at second base. I broke toward the ball, cut in front of Bitters to scoop up the ball, and fire it to first for the out. Bitters stood with a scowl on his face.
I smiled at him and went back to where I belonged.
In the third inning I went even further to my left, cutting in front of Bitters, fielded the ball and threw the runner out at first.
"Hey, you do that again and I'll deck your ass," Bitters said.
"You mean you'll try to deck my ass, kid. I got a fine idea. You play second base and let me play shortstop. You like that idea? If you don't, you've fielded your last ball in my infield."
He followed me with his eyes as I settled back into my shortstop position as the pitcher stood watching us, holding the ball until he was sure we weren't going to fight, but we weren't. For the rest of the game Bitters stayed on his side of second base. I stayed on my side.
I walked in the first and bunted for a hit in the third, moving runners to second and third. In the fifth inning I hit a double, knocking in a run, and I scored on a single.
We were leading 8-5 when Evan came to sit beside me again. He patted my back and smiled at me. He was letting me know he'd seen me shut Bitters down. I was having a good day all the way around. It was early in spring training and the pitchers weren't straining, but they were Atlanta starters. I felt pretty good about that.
"Lane bat for Bitters," the coach hollered down the bench.
"Hey, he's leaving you in," Evan said. "I was supposed to come out to hit for you. You've been noticed, my man."
"Cool," I said, liking the idea of finishing a game.
Evan struck out and walked back into the dugout, slid his bat back in the rack, and went back out the door to go to the locker room. I went to the on-deck circle, but we made the third out before I could bat. I felt great about taking the field in the 8th inning.
We won the game 10-9. I began double plays in the 8th and again in the 9th inning. I ended up with two hits for three at bats and a walk. I scored two runs. It was a good day. I felt comfortable.
Andy and I spent a lot of time making love that night. He was leaving the next morning and I wouldn't see him again until I returned to Louisville to play ball. I didn't get much sleep. I still felt lonely as I watched Andy drive away. Evan was going to drive me around.
Bitters wasn't at second base the next day. He was riding the bench. Cincinnati's starting second basemen was in the lineup. We warmed up before the game and he came over to introduce himself.
When we took the field in the fifth inning, the second basemen came over to have a conference with me.
"Behind home plate. Up next to the first big roof support. That's Prather. He's got his eye on you, son. He's come to take a look. First time he's been to the park. He's still holding out."
Prather was smaller than I was. He had on big sunglasses and he wore a Yankees' cap. He studied the infield as we tossed the ball around before the umpire got into position.
The first batter walked and I moved up a couple of steps to be in position to cut the ball off to make a double play. The next batter struck out and I moved back a step to give myself more room.
The third pitch to the next batter was a fast ball. I leaned hard to my right as soon as the batter connected with the ball. I stretched out to stop it from going into the outfield, rolled onto my back to toss it to second base. We got the lead runner and instead of men on first and third with one out, there was a runner on first with two out.
It was the best play I'd made. The second baseman came over to pat me on the butt. He glanced up to see if Prather was still there, but he wasn't. The third baseman said, "Nice play."
I'd learned a long time ago that such a play really got my juices flowing. It jacked me up and sent adrenalin surging through me. I batted second in our half of the fifth inning. I hit the first pitch into the right field stands. It tied the game at 4-4. Several players came to greet me as I returned to the dugout. It felt good to play well.
Evan came out to pinch hit again in the 7th inning. He walked and stayed in the game to play left field for the 8th and 9th innings. Atlanta won the game 8-6, but the entire nine innings was more like real baseball. The players were beginning to settle in for another long season.
This is the way it was in spring training. You reached a point where everyone showed up to play. The muscles weren't as sore as they were the first few days. Everyone got ready to play the best ball they could play for the next six months. Guys like Evan put themselves in and took themselves out of games as they liked. No one pushed the stars. They were on a different schedule.
At the end of the week I turned in my Cincinnati shirts the equipment manager furnished me the first day in camp. Evan drove me back to Louisville's spring training motel. It was a let down to return from where I'd been. I'd never taken a step down before.
"I've enjoyed playing with you again, Do. You're still the best shortstop I've ever seen. You did okay. They'll remember you."
"Thanks for the confidence in me. Too bad someone else doesn't see it the way you do."
"They know it now, Dooley. You did good. You play a good game of ball. You were a rookie when I left Louisville. You've improved."
"Yes I was. I've learned a thing or two about a thing or two since then, Evan. I know enough to know I'm coming to the end of the line. I got one shot to play in the bigs. It was only spring training, but it was spring training in the majors. That's something to remember."
"You don't have anything to apologize for, Do. You did fine. Maybe I'll see you next summer when someone else holds out."
"Maybe," I said. "See you later."
Evan smiled and drove away.
It was a letdown being in a rundown motel on the wrong side of the Interstate. I'd been here before. I might be back one more season and I might not be. It was time for a plan for what came after ball. It was never more apparent to me than when I stood alone in the parking lot in front of that dump of a motel. I'd returned to Louisville.
I'd dreamed of playing major league ball and now I'd played it.
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