A Major Success|
Book 6 of Outside the Foul Lines
by Rick Beck
"Back to Ball - Playing the Game"
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Andy had good days and bad days. His disposition was good. By the second full month of rehabilitation his arm was showing improvement that extended beyond the one percent of recovered motion they could measure after the first month. Andy showed little emotion after letting his initial disappointment show, when he didn't make the progress he was looking for right away. He did his best to ignore talk of percentages and how much better it was this month than last month.
Until he recovered enough motion to swing a baseball bat without pain or limitation, it wasn't enough. It's where the difficulty began and only when he was back in the same condition as when he went down, would he care about his progress. This didn't require any adjustment between Andy and me. It had to be worked out to Andy's satisfaction.
I made no effort to reason him into my way of thinking. I couldn't begin to conceive of dealing with Andy had to deal with. Andy was staring at a mountain he had to climb before he could consider whether or not he could come back.
My career was Andy first and baseball afterward, but I was his link to ball now. He took pleasure in everything I did. Jackie Park was our project. We were in it together and Andy wanted Jackie to succeed as much as I did. This kept Andy close to ball.
Coach Bell had turned Jackie over to me. There was no discussion or suggestion. He didn't give me instructions on how to handle him. Coach Bell told me that I was responsible to keep Jackie safe and to see that he learned how to become, "the best damn second baseman around." I told him I'd do my best.
I suspect Coach Bell asking Andy to go to take the first look at Jackie, was meant to tie Andy to the project. If Andy couldn't come back baseball could still be his game. I didn't miss the significance of Andy's trip. We didn't talk about it but Andy didn't miss it either. He intended to play again, but if he couldn't, he had something to think about.
These are questions and considerations that run far beyond my ability to understand. I could have asked Coach Bell if he had something larger in mind than just getting a professional opinion on the boy's talent, or not, but Coach Bell wasn't in the habit of answering such questions. I wasn't in the habit of asking them. I regarded Coach Bell's judgment as sacrosanct when it came to ball. Whatever he had in mind, I was content to see where it led. I didn't need a road map.
Jackie made ball fun again. Seeing a kid with his talent made me love ball all the more. Life was good in Louisville. I spent a lot of time with Jackie. We trained together for several hours every day. When we were in town we talked shop over dinner at Mrs. Olson's table.
She in turn told baseball stories of players who played Louisville ball over the years. She was no longer capable of keeping up with a dozen overactive ballplayers, but one or two kept her connected to baseball. This in turn allowed us to enjoy Mrs. Olson's knowledge of Louisville.
Having her in the picture was good for Jackie. When we were on the road we roomed together and he always talked about missing Mrs. Olson's food. Jackie may have gotten homesick for Arkansas, but he never said so. I looked for signs that he might not be as happy as he acted, but I found no sign of it. Jackie was living his dream.
Jackie and Andy shared something else in common. Jackie's baseball career had ended and he had gone to work at the local mill. His dreams of playing big league ball never got closer than high school. Jackie was back in ball and loving every minute of it. Andy saw Jackie's journey as similar to his own. He didn't talk about it much, but he mentioned relating to how Jackie felt about it.
Jackie didn't get out ahead of himself and he didn't think he was ready for the big leagues. He got more attention than any player who played at Louisville since Evan Lane. The flashbulbs were always going off when he came to the plate the first time each night. He got the biggest applause from the crowd and he didn't disappoint them.
I didn't tell him I'd been waiting six seasons for one short glance to come my way. I'd already forgotten I'd played with Cincinnati in spring training. He'd have a long career with a big league team. As a second baseman Jackie could play for twenty years if he stayed healthy.
I'd seen more Cincinnati scouts and officials since Jackie arrived at Louisville than I'd seen since Evan Lane was called up to the bigs. There were a couple of scouts that came on routine trips to look at the talent, especially if there was an injury to one of the main guys. The rest of the time they were waiting to see some sign of brilliance.
Players like Jackie stood out like a sore thumb. You knew they were passing through on their way up. A lot of players played years before everything came together and they were needed by a major league team. Scouts knew what they were looking for most of the time, but they didn't know what they were going to find.
Jackie had me excited about what I did. He had all the tools and he picked up things I explained to him. I was able to teach him the mechanics that served me well. Jackie didn't complain and he thrived on having me tell him he did a good job. He was very much like a kid.
After having Jackson at second base, Jackie was a dream. He was smooth and his arm was powerful and his throws were accurate. His instincts were well developed considering his age and experience. There were tools you could be born with to make it more likely you'd succeed in sports. Jackie had most of these.
By the end of June Jackie was the second best second baseman I'd ever played ball with. Chance would always be first and we hadn't played together since college. There was no question where Chance would be when I was fielding a ball. All I had to do was turn and throw, and he'd be right where I expected him to be to catch it. Jackie was nearly that good by the time we were approaching mid-season.
There was a point when sports and art merged. It didn't happen often, but a true fan and other athletes knew it when they saw it. A pitcher going out to pitch a perfect game is art. Infielders that know each other so well they almost never make errors is art. Evan Lane and Andy Green hitting home runs is art. Everything has to come together at precisely the right time, and only a handful of players can crush the ball the way Evan and Andy did.
I once saw a film of the "Say Hey Kid," Willie Mays, sprint at full speed into center field's deepest section. I believe it was Yankee Stadium and you can see 425 feet marked on the wall he's charging toward. With nothing to go on but seeing the ball hit, Willie Mays extends his glove
as far as it will go, and at full speed, he catches that ball. That was art and the peak of athletic conditioning merging. It may well be the best fielding play ever caught on film.
Mickey Mantle won three triple crowns in a row in the 1950s. That's the most home runs, the most runs batted in, and the highest batting average of any player in the same season. He did it three times in a row and five or six times in his career, which was shortened by injury. There have been two players in the past fifty years who won one triple crown. That is art.
These are facts written in stone and they speak for themselves. Jackie Park was capable of that kind of art in my opinion. If he continued in the game with the same enthusiasm he brought to Louisville, Jackie could do big things.
When you are so good that sport becomes art, Jim Thorpe, Mohammed Ali, Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell, it transcends sport and becomes artistic expression. It's what happens when athletic ability transcends the physical plain. They say ballet dancers do this most often. They begin in dance and by sheer effort learn to fly.
While there was no sign that Jackie might enter this realm one day, he was the type of player who could. At nineteen the buzz followed him. Only the fact he lived so close to the ballpark and he could slip across the street unnoticed, kept the reporters away from Mrs. Olson's door.
No one dreamed he could be that close. All he needed as a beat up ball cap from high school, a pair of sun glasses, and an old worn out sweater Mrs. Olson gave him to keep anyone from recognizing him.
Jackie covered ground in a way most second baseman couldn't. He waited for his pitches and hit for a good average if not a great one. He was thirty games into the season before he hit his first home run. It just barely made it into the first row, but it was a homer. His second one came just two games after the first.
By mid-season Jackie led the team in doubles and runs scored. I'd previously led the team in runs scored for several years, because I walked so much. Jackie was scoring more often because he got on base so often. By July he was most likely to reach base.
Both Andy and Evan spent time coaching Jackie in hitting. Andy was in Louisville a couple of times a week. I wasn't in their league when it came to batting. I stood aside to watch when they came to instruct him. Evan drove to Louisville after playing an afternoon home game. After our game, after everyone left for home, he'd work with Jackie.
The only people there were Jackie, Evan, Coach Bell, a pitcher or two, and me, Andy and Evan some days. We'd all end up over at Mrs. Olson's for coffee and talk. I couldn't help but learn something by watching this operation a couple of times a month.
Jackie's hitting wasn't on the scale of Andy's or Evan's, who built careers on their power. Jackie was more wiry. He was able to spray hits through the infield. He stole bases once he got on. He was still a teenager. It remained to be seen what twenty pounds of well conditioned muscle would do for him as he matured.
By the end of June he was seen as a force on the team. Half the players were new to Louisville since last season and Jackie's entry and rise to a place of prominence didn't upset anyone. Most new players were more worried about staying on the team than someone else moving ahead of them in line.
It was the fourth of July, when we played a double header at home. We were three games below five hundred. It wasn't a good record but it was better than I expected. I thought Jackie had something to do with that. I was hitting over .280 for the first time in my career. It gave me an odd feeling to know I could still improve. Batting was always my weakness.
I was still a student of the game and by coaching Jackie, I learned. By watching Andy and Evan with Jackie, I learned more. Coach Bell had been instrumental in making me learn the art of bunting. Hardly a week went by that I didn't bunt for a hit or to advance a runner into scoring position. It did add points to my batting average.
Infielders who once closed in to crowd the plate, expecting I might bunt, now had to back off to make sure I didn't hit a stinging grounder past them and into the outfield. The more tools a hitter had the more hits he got. In my case there was slow progress but there was progress. My batting average had risen from the depths of my .240 and .250 years. I was proud of that.
I batted first in the lineup, because I might walk any time I came to bat. I had a good eye and I didn't go fishing for bad pitches. I'd always gone looking for a walk, because I wasn't a good hitter. Now that I was hitting better, I might take a swing rather than wait to see if the balls wouldn't eventually out number the strikes in any given at bat.
On July 4 th we sold out the stadium for a double header. It was two hot dogs for the price of one freedom day. I suppose everyone has the freedom to pig out. I had a hot dog before the game, because hot dogs and baseball were on the same team. A little stadium mustard and you had a meal.
Being the first home team batter always got me a big applause. I was also the most recognizable Louisville player, having been there the longest. As I came to the plate there were flashbulbs flashing and a drum roll announced my advance on the plate. I always enjoyed being the first batter. I'd been in that roll for years. It was game time.
Jackie batted right behind me and if I walked or got on, he was a real threat to move me around. At the beginning of a game this was a big psychological advantage if you could jump out in front of the visiting team. Today I was drinking in our first sellout since opening day. We were playing a little better than had been expected, but it was hard filling up Slugger stadium when we weren't winning.
The pitcher took his time making the first pitch and I took my practice swings and set myself in the batters' box. It was a fastball over the outside corner of the plate. It was a little higher than the pitcher had intended, but he was just getting warmed up. It was his mistake and there wasn't going to be a walk this time at bat.
I reached out and put the fat part of the bat on the ball. It sailed down the left field line and left the park just inside the leftfield foul line. The fans loved it and everyone was standing as I came around third base. I tipped my hat in appreciation for the crowds support. I didn't hit many home runs.
Jackie got a fine reception as his name was announced. He patted my butt as he greeted me on my way back to the dugout. Louisville was leading 1-0. The crowd settled down and Jackie moved into the batters' box.
The batter who followed a man who hit a home run had to stay loose. There was almost always a pitch way too far inside after a home run pitch. The pitcher brushed Jackie back to demonstrate his disposition. The crowd booed their new hero being treated this rudely.
The umpire walked out in front of the plate after calling it a ball. He gave his obligatory, don't do that again stare, before returning to his spot behind the catcher. The fans had stopped booing by then.
The second pitch was a strike right down the center of the plate, but Jackie was still loose from the first pitch and he didn't go after the fastball. He took more practice swings and the crowd went back to gulping beer and gobbling hot dogs as they waited for something to cheer. They didn't have long to wait.
The next pitch was just above the knees and another fastball in the strike zone. Jackie leaned back on his heals as he caught all of the ball. It soared up into the afternoon heat and went out of the park at the deepest part of centerfield.
It was 2-0 Louisville.
That was the first time we did that, but not the last. Two more times in July I hit a home run my first at bat and Jackie followed my home run with one of his own. The game didn't get any better than that. I hit seven home runs in July. Jackie hit nine. We were playing better than five hundred ball.
Normally this would be just another event during nine innings of ball, but it just so happened that on July 4 th two Cincinnati management types had come to take a look at Jackie Parks progress. Cincinnati was play out of town and it was a lot cheaper to drive to Louisville.
The same two men were monitoring Jackie's progress. They had a very good second baseman and no one thought he was going to be benched or traded, but Jackie was of interest. The shortstop wasn't hitting and while Jackie might not be able to play shortstop, the current second baseman now playing for Cincinnati might be able to make that transition, and that would open a spot for Jackie on the roster. That was how I saw it anyway.
Jackie was a player they wanted to protect no matter what they decided to do with him. After being out of ball for a year, in two months he was as good as anyone on the Louisville team. Just ask Coach Bell. He'd tell you. He told the Cincinnati brass. They wanted to protect this kid and they'd come to take another look before they offered him a contract that would keep him in Cincinnati's system.
All they had to do was say he might play with Evan Lane one day, and Jackie would sign anything they put in front of him. No one knew when there would be a trade or a retirement that might make moving Jackie to the bigs a good idea, but no one knew what might come next in baseball. One day you were on the top of the world and the next day you could be out of the game.
Life didn't usually turn that quickly, but one day you were alive and kicking and the next day you were dead and gone. You just never could be positive what came next. When several suits appeared in the clubhouse, after the game, Jackie was the center of attention. It was a public display that hadn't been allowed before.
Mostly this type of thing was handled in and around Coach Bell's office, but this time Jackie disappeared with his suited admirers for a time. He told me later they wanted to discuss his future with the club.
"Do you think I'm ready for the majors, John?" Jackie asked.
"What's the rush. You just got here, Jackie."
"That's what I thought. Coach Bell said to stay calm and play ball. I'd know when it was time to move up. I wanted to know how you felt."
Nineteen was a bit young for the bigs. Most teams wanted a player to gain some experience. Most kids who played high school ball went to college and played ball there for at least two or three seasons. If they were good enough and got noticed, they might get signed to a contract before they left college.
Some very good players left college before graduation to play ball. Most major sports franchises preferred not to sign a player before he finished college. Education was seen as important, even if a lot of players went to college to play ball and not for the education. It was the game they played.
Jackie couldn't afford college and he had been passed over when it came to scholarships. Being from a small town and going unnoticed was a high school hazard. If there wasn't a coach or someone to promote you, you could end up with a career at the local mill.
Now Cincinnati was talking to Jackie about staying in their system. I knew what was said because Jackie told me that night over dinner.
"It's very good you are being noticed at your age, Jackie," Mrs. Olson said as she delivered gravy to go on our meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
"Yes, ma'am. They said I'd play with Evan one day if I stuck with them. I'd like that."
"That boy loves my roast beef. I've never seen anyone put it away like Evan does," she said. "You come close, Jackie. You treat my meatloaf the same way. Eat up. You've got to keep your strength up."
"Yes, ma'am. Best I've eaten. You sure are a great cook," Jackie said.
"Why thank you, Jackie. That's nice of you to say," Mrs. Olson said.
"Eat up," I said. "I'll give you enough to do tomorrow to work it off."
"Don't I know it," Jackie said, shoveling in the mashed potatoes.
I couldn't begin to imagine being in the position Jackie was in. I was barely playing ball at State when I was nineteen. Coach Bell had me on the varsity, but I wasn't sure I belonged there. Jackie had the world by the tail and didn't know it. He was grateful to be playing ball at all.
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