A Major Success|
Book 6 of Outside the Foul Lines
by Rick Beck
"Back to Ball - Louisville Ball"
Back to Chapter Nineteen
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The next morning I woke up with someone banging on my door.
"Coach?" I said, feeling like I'd been chewed up and spit out.
"You hear the news, John?"
"No, I don't think so. I was late getting in last night."
"Prather signed for twelve million after last night's game. They gave him one season. He was holding out for twenty-five for two seasons. You must of scared the boy into signing before they decided to sign you to take his place."
"Yeah, only no one talked to me or even showed up to take a look at me. I saw Prather. He didn't look scared to me, Coach."
"You saw Prather? Where'd you see him."
"He was at one of the games. The second baseman pointed him out to me. Said he must have come to check me out. He was in the stands behind home plate."
"Someone told him he better come check on his job before you ended up with it. You got him thinking one season added up to more than none. They have the backup shortstop and a utility infielder, who can play shortstop, but they ask me to send you over. That's very interesting, John. There's more going on than meets the eye. The intrigue of baseball. I love it."
"Doesn't matter now. He's signed and I'm back here," I said with little excitement in my delivery.
"He signed for one season. He wanted two. He won't get another contract from Cincinnati. This is his last year. He wanted to sew up another big check next season, even if he didn't play, but it wasn't going to happen."
"And I'm still playing for Louisville, Coach. Doesn't feel any different to me. I played with some big leaguers and I enjoyed myself. I even hit big league pitching, Coach. How do you like that?"
"I saw. A double and a homer, three walks, and you scored three runs and batted in three. You batted over three hundred for the six games. That's respectable hitting, John."
"Spring training isn't exactly when you get your best pitching," I said. "I did hit Atlanta's aces. They don't come to spring training out of shape. I felt good about that."
"I want you to think about keeping on the extra weight. Do a little weight training. Not so much you'll slow yourself down any, but a couple of pounds of muscle. It might serve you well, John."
"Easier than trying to lose it. I'll hit the weight room a couple days a week. Andy put a weight machine at the house. I can keep in better shape in the off season."
"I don't want you to overdo the weights. Maintain a few more pounds than your normal playing weight. Keep yourself toned. Shouldn't take away any speed."
"What are we looking at this season? You didn't say much before I left here."
"It's going to be a long year, John. We've got a new infield. They're going to run you ragged. I need you to keep them in games. They get younger every year, you know?"
"Tell me about it, Coach. I'll give you one more season, Coach," I said.
"John, John, you're just coming into your own. What are you talking about? A major league club just gave you a big kiss."
"Yeah, Coach, and half the guys over there are younger than me," I said.
"John, good shortstops are worth their weight in gold. Prather just got twelve mil for signing his name. He's thirty-seven this season. You're ten years his junior. They just played you in front of guys who are already signed to the squad. You're in an excellent position."
"He's in the bigs, Coach. I'm in the minors. There's a big difference," I said. "I've been here too long. I'm getting tired, Coach."
"It's not an easy life. I realize you are frustrated. You're a damn good shortstop in a time when the best shortstops in the game are aging out. You jump out of here too soon, and you'll miss your call, John. I've been around a long time and your time hasn't come yet. That doesn't mean it won't come. I want you to think carefully before you make the final decision. What's Andy say about it?"
"I haven't told him yet. He'll support my decision. He won't have a choice."
"This have something to do with his arm?" Coach Bell asked.
I had to give that some thought. Andy was on his way back to the house and I was away from him for the first time in months. We'd been together more time in the last few months than we'd ever been together. I missed him big time.
"I suppose it does. I'm not sure it does. I'll talk to you about this before I make my final decision. I'll need to talk to Andy about it. I'm not saying I won't be here next year. I'm not saying I will."
By the time I took the field in a Louisville game, I was in pretty good shape. I'd played enough games to have my timing back and to be ready to play nine innings, although Coach Bell rarely wanted me out there for more than six or seven. We had a lot of new infielders to look at.
We had new infielders to look at and they needed some playing time. One was a keeper and two were going to require some work. That's where I came in. I was the only tried and true infielder now. Even the catchers were new this season.
The challenge of training new players to fill the holes in the infield had always excited me before, but it didn't excite me this year. As well rested and relaxed as I was, training new players was hard work. The younger players came to us more arrogant and less talented each season. It didn't make working with them any easier.
Louisville had been raided by the big leagues at the end of last season. Other experienced players retired when a big league club didn't pick them up. I envied those guys most. Each game I faced another day of errors and disagreeable players, who thought they played better than they did.
Some athletes who have successful high school and college careers think playing minor league ball will be easy. It wasn't. In the minors you played three times as many games. You played every day and you couldn't have a bad day and expect to play tomorrow. All those good high school and college players were standing in line waiting for their shot, and only a handful made the transition.
You had to make every play, not most of them. It was the most difficult aspect of minor league ball. You could boot the ball and throw it away in spring training, but do it two games in a row, or cost your team a game by blowing a play you should have made, and you might be on the outside looking in the next game. Other teams might take a look at you after another team releases you, but news traveled fast in baseball.
I wasn't going to play in an infield with players who didn't hustle. I wanted every play to get a maximum effort. Young players liked to leave a little something for later. My unwillingness to let them get away with that caused friction, and so none of us were happy. If I called an extra hour of infield practice, it didn't go over well. My ability to reason with newer players wasn't working either.
"You're being hard on those boys, John. You need to lighten up. They're screwing up to spite you. You want more than they're ready to give," Coach Bell told me in his office one morning.
"I know, Coach. I can't seem to get myself in gear. I yell at one of them and I know I shouldn't as soon as I do, but it's too late. They're not very good. They don't seem to mind, but I do, and I expect you do."
"It's called spring training because it's training. If you make it too hard on them, they're not going to respond and we're wasting a lot of time. I can talk to them and let them know how precarious their position on the team is, but all that does is create openings for more raw talent, and they'll need training too, John. If we train these kids properly, we won't need to do it all over again so soon."
"I know, Coach. I'll try to lighten up," I said.
"He's off four days this week. Goes to rehab three days. He doesn't like it much. They're working his ass off, but he's not seeing any progress," I said solemnly. "It's early."
"You know what you told me the morning after you came back from Cincinnati's training camp?"
"Yes, sir," I said, wondering why we were going there.
"You better make up your mind you want to play this year, John. If you don't want to play, than maybe you need to retire now. I want you to give that some thought. I need help. I need you to be here and not in Indianapolis or at your house. I want you and your mind and your glove to all be here at the same time. If you are so worried about Andy that you can't play for me, we might be reaching that time."
Coach Bell had never said an unkind thing to me in ten seasons, except for the season when he told me goodbye. He was an easy going man but he didn't pull punches when it came to ball. If he thought I should think about retiring, it was something to consider. I did feel old. I'd never had a season when I wasn't ready to play before. I didn't want this to be my first.
"Tell you what, John. You come in here every morning before we start. You sit in that chair for five minutes. You get your mind and your body here, and then you go out to play ball. On the morning when you decide you don't want to play, you tell me. We'll make arrangements. My infield needs work, John. It's the kind of thing you've done a half dozen times before. It's what you do. When you can't do it, or don't want to, you need to rethink what it is you want to achieve."
"Yes, sir," I said.
"That's all, John. You go back to the motel for the rest of the day. Come in fresh in the morning. Sit there for five minutes and if you go out to the field, I expect you to give me your best."
"Yes, sir," I said, closing the door behind me.
I had been scolded. Coach Bell had every right to tell me like it was. He was responsible for giving me a career in baseball and if he didn't think I wasn't pulling my usual weight, he had the right to say so and my mind wasn't always in the game.
Thinking about Andy made it better. Thinking about being away from him didn't. There were many facets to my discontent. I'd never been restless at spring training before. I'd never been less than ready to rock and roll when they called, "play ball."
As I grew older, I had more on my mind. Starting off spring training where I'd love to be as a ballplayer didn't help. It was a great adventure. Coming back to Louisville in a rebuilding year wasn't.
Add Andy's struggle to my worries and being so far away from him made me anxious. I had the world by the tail. Yet I was dissatisfied with my life for the first time I could remember. I figured being back in Louisville would give me access to most of the things that were most important to me. I'd play through my doldrums and get home the first chance I got.
I made certain I didn't leave Coach Bell's office without spending the full five minutes sitting in front of his desk. He wasn't there, but it didn't matter. I knew better than to cheat him when he asked me to do something. I got my mind on what I wanted to do that day and went out on the field ready to play ball.
We had a game in two hours and by the time I warmed up and showered and dressed in my clean uniform, the stands were filling with fans, all two hundred and fifty of them. It was the minor leagues and two fifty was better than fifty. The way we were playing fifty was good.
We were losing 9-0 when Coach Bell pulled me out of the game in the 5th inning. The infield had made four errors, most were throwing errors second to first. The second baseman must have thought the first baseman was nine feet tall. He kept powering the ball into the stands down the right field line.
I had three chances to start a double play. We turned none into two outs. I got the ball to second fine but the first baseman never got the throw. Coach Bell didn't want to test my patience. He brought me into the dugout and had a chair next to his where I sat so I didn't get the idea it was time for a shower and a Coke break.
"Jackson is amped up," Coach Bell said. "I understand your frustration, John."
"I'll work on his throw. The adrenalin won't be overcharged as time goes on. He's got a good arm," I said without thinking.
"Great arm if he was playing center field and throwing to the plate. I need a second basemen to get the ball to first base. What do you think about lifts?"
"Lifts?" I asked, not getting the picture.
"Lifts in Babshaw's shoes so he can reach Jackson's throws?"
"They don't make lifts that size," I said, picturing the baseball sailing over the first baseman's head. "A box might work better."
Coach Bell laughed at the idea of Babshaw moving the box in place to stand on it to reach Jackson's errant throws.
"Maybe I'll retire, John. I don't know if I can go through this again. We just put a pretty good team on the field a year ago, and now we're starting over again. I do understand your frustration."
"It's the nature of the beast, Coach. It's what you signed up for."
"That's the truth. I'm not getting any younger, John. Unlike you, I wasn't a kid when I began managing in the minors."
Coach Bell was a difficult man to read. His anger looked similar to when he was delighted. You had to listen to what was in the words, because his face gave nothing away. Perhaps it was the way a manager had to play his cards. This was the tenth year I'd known him, and even coaching State, he was the same as when he managed Louisville. I never knew what was on his mind until he told me. He was frustrated to.
I worked with Jackson and I worked with him. He was a pretty fair batter but his fielding sucked. I needed to cover balls hit to him to keep him from blowing plays. Babshaw was getting better at reaching Jackson's throws. Babshaw couldn't hit and that was no help. It was a rebuilding year and we were already beating the bushes for infielders.
I was hitting well. After working my way through my mental fatigue, I felt better. I finished spring training batting over three hundred for the first time. I kept five pounds of the ten I'd gained on The Do. I felt as good as I'd ever felt physically. It still didn't translate into me seeing five or six more seasons of baseball in my future.
I was the oldest player on the Louisville team. I wasn't as old as some of the coaches, but I'd been at Louisville longer than any coach, except for Coach Bell. Even the general manager and all the staff behind Coach Bell had changed by my sixth season there.
We returned to Louisville with a pathetic record, 7-15. You weren't supposed to win spring training games. You were supposed to make moves and improve in spring training. We weren't going to have a good season with the current infielders. It would be work playing with these guys and at the same time maintaining an even keel. I was working on it.
Loving the game and playing the game were no longer the same thing. Breaking sprint training camp meant a twenty hour bus ride to Louisville. There was no overnight stop. We arrived behind the stadium at 6 a.m. on a Friday morning.
We were all stretching and yawning after being stuffed in that bus with nothing but MacDonald's stops for the last day. We had to do all our business in a half an hour and the food ended up being eaten on the bus as we traveled.
The highlight of the trip was seeing Mrs. Olson standing on her porch watching the bus pull up on the opposite side of the street. She must have heard us coming and came out to wave. I would be her only border for the season and that included Andy when he came down to be with me.
It wasn't as nice as being at the house but it allowed us to be together more often. Andy was coming tomorrow with Harold driving my car down Sunday. They'd drive back together in Andy's car. I couldn't wait to see him.
I waited for the driver to get my bag out of the baggage compartment. Luggage for forty guys was enough to fill up the storage area. Of course my bag was one of the first to go in and the last one to be put on the ground. My mouth was already watering for a cup of Mrs. Olson's coffee. A thought about Gene's coffee came to mind and my mouth watered more, but I wasn't going to get his gourmet coffee. Mrs. Olson was a good cook and her coffee was good enough after twenty hours on a bus. Best of all, she had nothing to do with ball. We would sit and talk and laugh over old times. It was hard for me to think about having old times. Life was moving on.
I picked up my bag and walked to Mrs. Olson's porch.
"Hi," Mrs. Olson said as I stood at the bottom of the stairs.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," I said.
"Why, John, so are you. You've gained weight. You look good. Could be worth a few points on your batting average," She calculated.
Maybe Mrs. Olson wasn't completely devoid of a connection to baseball. She knew more than I did about Louisville's history. She'd have another two dozen new players to learn about this season.
"I sure could use a cup of coffee, Mrs. Olson," I said, stifling a yawn and starting up the steps.
"I just happen to have a fresh pot I started when I heard the bus. Figured you to be asking for a cup."
I followed her in through the front door and was blindsided and almost knocking down, except Andy wasn't about to let me fall.
"I didn't think you'd ever get your ass in here," Andy blurted. "Sorry Mrs. Olson. I meant butt."
"Andy!" I said, and all the disappointment, fatigue, and uncertain disappeared.
Andy's hold on me was surprisingly strong. I started to cry and I didn't know why. It just felt so good having my one true love in my arms once more. It made everything better.
My life came back into focus. Nothing mattered but Andy.
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