A Major Success|
Book 6 of Outside the Foul Lines
by Rick Beck
"Back to Ball - Short a Shortstop"
Back to Chapter Twenty-Two
On to Chapter Twenty-Four
Rick Beck Home Page
Proudly presented by The Tarheel Writer - On the Web since 24 February 2003. Celebrating 20 Years on the Internet!
Tarheel Home Page
It was August when I saw it the first time. Louisville's usual heat and humidity felt worse than usual. I could shower, put on the uniform Mrs. Olson washed and ironed for me, and by the time I walked across the street to the ball park, I was wet again. I used talcum, Baby Powder, and Gold Bond, getting the same result each time. It was August after all.
Fans on five foot stands blew the hot air on both sides of the dugout. The door to the clubhouse was propped open and the air conditioning inside the clubhouse sent cool air up the tunnel that led to the locker room. Standing in front of the door gave you a shot of cool air when you were on your way out to bat. We all paused there for as long as we could.
Coach Bell's chair sat just beyond the door, but his shirt was soaked by the second inning on the hottest days. The humidity simply overwhelmed everything. When we played away games, there were no electric fans in the visitors dugout. It was you against the elements, which was part of the away game allure. It's what made baseball the game it was.
Jackie didn't seem to mind the heat. He was from Arkansas. I'm sure there was heat there, but somehow his shirt was never soaked in sweat. Jackie was having a very good summer and maybe that kept him cool. Any initial jitters were gone after his first month of playing ball at Louisville.
By the dog days of August Jackie had twenty three home runs and his batting average was flirting with .300, after a steady climb. Louisville was flirting with five hundred ball again. We dropped five games below the even mark in late July. We'd been on a relatively good streak since August began, playing our best ball of the season.
I had fifteen home runs while batting .283. It was double the number of home runs I'd hit in any season before. It was also the first time my batting average had stayed above .280 this late in a season. I was having a good summer and Louisville was winning ball games. It was too late for us to get into the playoffs, but we'd end the season on a high note at this rate, and that would give us some momentum going into next season.
That was the feeling last season as well. We'd just missed making the playoffs, but that didn't stop the major leagues from raiding our pitching and calling up our two best hitters. What would have been a very good year in Louisville had become a rebuilding year. We were replacing the talent that had grown up in our system and gone on to bigger and better things.
It was Sunday afternoon and we were off Monday before playing three road games. We'd return for a weekend series with Indianapolis, our biggest rivals. They liked coming to Louisville to show us how the game was played.
Evan Lane developed a soreness in his shoulder the middle of that week. He came to watch Saturday night's game, wanting to escape the media's constant questions about when he'd be able to play again. He was easy to recognize when he sat on our bench. He didn't hide the fact he was here, but he wasn't pestered when he returned to Louisville for a visit. Mostly people wanted an autograph or simply to say hello to the star.
Evan was a hometown boy who made good. He was respected not hounded. When he showed up the night before, no one was surprised and after the initial excitement, he was just another player in the clubhouse. Some of us knew Evan from when he played at Louisville.
Coach Bell was the type of man players came back to visit. What he brought to baseball went far beyond his knowledge of the game. If Coach Bell liked you, he was always there for you. He made you feel good when times were bad and he made you feel better when times were good. His smile could make your day and his slow decisive headshake could send a good player into a tailspin and a not so good players into a depression.
Andy came down for the weekend. He'd work all week the following week so he could spend four days in Louisville while Indianapolis was in town. Andy played for the Indians before he was called up to play for Pittsburgh. He calculated when he finished rehab, he'd be sent to Indianapolis to play a few games before Pittsburgh cleared him to play.
Andy's relationship with the Indianapolis manager wasn't very good. He would spend time on both benches while the Indians were in town. This would establish his neutrality, although everyone knew Andy played for Coach Bell in college and they had remained close over the years.
Andy was getting stronger. There was no great breakthrough that indicated he had passed the point of no return in his comeback, but the improvement was obvious and his disposition showed it. His determination grew the more he improved. It had been a good summer for Andy too.
After the game Saturday night, one of the coaches stayed to offer up pitches to Evan as he practiced his swing, looking for signs of impairment. The initial problem developed after Evan made a long throw to second base from deep left field. By the next inning his shoulder had begun to tighten up.
Jackie always stuck close to Evan whenever he took swings. It wasn't unusual for any number of players to stand and watch the balls leap off the slugger's bat. Coach Bell watched, leaning on the batting cage that was rolled out to keep balls from rolling all over the place. Coach Bell complained about his ball bill every time Evan showed up.
"There goes another fifty bucks worth of baseballs. One day they're going to start charging me for all the balls you hit out of here," Coach Bell said to Evan as he stroked a ball out of the park over the centerfield fence.
Coach Bell wouldn't miss the show. I wouldn't miss the show. Andy stood next to me as the bat cracked and the balls jumped out into the outfield with little more than half a swing by Evan. Mainly he was testing his range of motion and the feeling in the sore shoulder. He'd hesitate, stretch between pitches, before he drill another ball deep into the outfield.
Jackie stood in and took some swings. Evan moved up to the plate to talk to him about how he held the bat. He wasn't so much concerned with the position of his hands but the angle of the bat. Evan had Jackie lower the bat by an inch or two and tilt the bat back at less of an angle. This changed how the bat met the ball.
Jackie hit a few balls with the new positioning and went back to the way he was doing it before. Comfort was everything. Jackie tried the new positioning at times, always going back to the tried and true in ball games. The way he was hitting, I didn't blame him for being reluctant to change anything.
Andy moved up to the plate to join the conversation between Evan and Jackie. Then the two walked away leaving Andy holding Jackie's bat. Andy stepped up to the plate and indicated he wanted a pitch. The coach doing the pitching looked surprised before stepping up on the mound to pitch.
I tensed up. Both Evan and Jackie came behind the backstop and turned to watch. Andy hadn't said anything to me about this.
"Says he's ready to take a swing," Evan said to no one and to everyone in earshot.
My eyes focused on Andy's left arm. That's where the trouble would be. There was no way for me to ask him if he was sure he was ready to do this. Maybe he should wait a little longer. Will the force be too much on the bone? There was no discussion, only Andy, bat in hand.
Andy took some practice swings. They were light easy affairs. He merely moved the bat out over the plate and back on his shoulder. He'd done it a million times before, but not in over a year, as far as I knew. All I could do was watch and pray.
Two pitches came and bounced around the batting cage and the bat stayed put. The third pitch brought the bat around. It didn't hit anything.
Andy ended up with his back to me. He was holding the bat down in his right hand with the barrel touching the ground. He didn't move. His left shoulder had dipped far deeper than it should after a normal swing. His left hand hung straight down at his side.
I couldn't move. Evan started around the corner of the backstop toward Andy. Coach Bell stopped leaning on the batting cage and stood at attention, his eyes riveted on Andy. He had an expression of uncertainty on his face and it slowly turned to an expression of concern.
I couldn't breathe. Minutes seemed to pass. Finally Andy stood up straight. He stretched his left arm out in front of him. He reached up over his head with it. He leaned the bat against his right leg, using his right hand to straighten the left shoulder of his polo shirt.
He took the bat in both hands and stretched it out in front of him. He stepped back into the batters box and took two very easy swings, seeming to check his reach and flexibility. I knew he was looking for some feeling that didn't belong in the upper portion of his left arm.
He nodded for the coach to send another pitch his way.
I realized I was holding my breathe and I gasped air, shaking as I realized he was OK. Watching him take his first swing had completely unnerved me. I'd never had a reaction like that to anything before. Andy's entire future, our future, depended on that arm getting stronger. It could have shattered again and Andy's career would have ended at that instant.
Andy took another swing, still not hitting anything, but letting the bat follow through a little more than he did the first time. It wasn't a full swing. It was probably less than three quarters of a swing, but it was the first time he had swung a bat since he broke his arm in July the year before. The site of him holding a bat made me want to cry. Andy was coming back.
Andy took some practice swings, not putting a lot of force in it, and then he handed Jackie his bat on his way back to my side.
"Keep that bat kid. One day you'll tell your fans that this is the bat Andy Green used to take his first swings with before he made his comeback," Evan said.
I don't think Andy heard. He stood next to me and smiled like he was satisfied with what he had done.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Great. I've been wanting to do that for a long time. I was afraid to swing. I had to do it sooner or later," Andy said.
"It's OK. Not anything like what it needs to be, but it didn't snap when I swung the bat. It's going to be OK."
"That's not funny," I said, only hearing the word snap.
"No, me lying across that plate in front of my friends would have been no laughing matter. Now I know it won't break when I swing a little. One day I'll have to take a full swing and accept what happens when I do."
My heart began beating again. My anxiety level had skyrocketed. Seeing he was able to swing was a good thing. Seeing him take that first swing wasn't so hot. It was a moment in time that marked his progress as tangible. Last week he couldn't swing a bat. This week he could.
I was dripping wet and even the cool evening breeze that finally kicked up wasn't enough to stop the sweat. I couldn't wait to get to Mrs. Olson's and shower. Her air conditioning would make sleep possible, after Evan took us all to dinner.
It was a good life and seeing Andy gain strength made me stronger, once I caught my breath. All I wanted was to see him play the game he loved one more time, but he was in Louisville to see me play. Seeing Evan was a bonus, and Jackie was at Mrs. Olson's every night.
We did sleep late on Sunday but it was the same routine, once Andy and Evan went over to the park. Evan would go back directly after the game Sunday and Andy would drive back to the house and be on his way to Indianapolis before I got up on Monday morning.
We jumped off to a 3-0 lead in Sunday's game. It helped beat the heat after another shower came and went. I walked, Jackie doubled me to third, and Babshaw hit a homer to get us a quick lead. We had our best pitcher on the mound and that was a big advantage.
It was August and no one was secure on minor league rosters. By mid-month we lost both our long relief ace and our short relief pitcher, who had performed well all season. There were two management types from Cincinnati talking to Coach Bell and sitting with Evan as they watched the game. Cincinnati was having a good season. They'd make the playoffs and they were looking for fresh players to give their starters some rest late in games.
Anything could happen and I realized Jackie was on the block. He made two really super plays in the first three innings and he hit a homer his second time at bat to move us to a 4-0 lead. In the fourth and fifth innings with runners on base, we turned double plays to end the threat both times. Jackie made solid throws to first in both double plays. I was sure it wouldn't be long before these guys would be coming for him.
There was a three team trade early the following week. Cincinnati traded a good second baseman and there utility infielder for a starting pitcher and a shortstop, plus a player to be named later. This meant a deal was in the works but no one was talking about it. The opening had been made for Jackie to go to Cincinnati to play second base, but the call didn't come.
Jackie didn't pay much attention to what was going on at Cincinnati, his most likely next stop on the baseball fast track. The subject never came up during our off hours and Mrs. Olson talked about what a fine season we were both having. She didn't miss that I was having a pretty damn good year, even if we weren't going anywhere.
Evan was back in the lineup Tuesday and then he sat out Wednesday and Thursday's games. Andy called to say he'd be down for dinner at Mrs. Olson's Friday evening. He was driving straight from Indianapolis to Louisville. We'd spend the weekend together and he didn't have another rehab appointment until the following Tuesday.
We were talking about how long we'd sail this winter, and Andy was sorry to tell me that we had to cut it short, because he had to be at rehab every week, except from the middle of December to the middle of January, when we'd sail over Christmas again.
John Paul and Gene had everything in order and they'd had The Do taken out of the water to clean the hall and put a protective coating on it. Everything checked out and there was no major maintenance necessary. Everything was ship shape.
There was a big conference before the Saturday afternoon game. The Cincinnati honchos were back again. I started resenting them. Jackie seemed to play his best ball when someone was there to see him play, but the kid never talked about going up to the bigs. I don't think he thought about it.
As a fitting reception, Jackie and I led off the game with back to back home runs to jump out in front of the Indians. We'd beaten them 2-0 Friday afternoon. Starting off 2-0 gave me a good feeling. Indianapolis owned us. Beating them two in a row would be nice.
Cincinnati had been holding their own, but they'd made another trade for another relief pitcher. One of the pitchers they'd taken away from us went in a trade to Atlanta. They already had pretty good pitching and that left us with only two reliable starters.
By games end on Saturday we had twelve hits and beat Indianapolis again. We hadn't beaten them two times in a row all season. Jackie got three hits. I walked twice after my first inning homer, bunted for a hit and move a runner around to third. We both scored later in the inning.
The Indians were already assured of making the playoffs. They were in position to win the championship, which meant they were resting starters and not leaving their good pitchers in games for more than five or six innings. They wanted to keep their pitchers sharp but not tired. We didn't think we were getting that good, although we moved six games above break even ball for the first time all season.
We were held to one hit and lost 1-0 on Sunday. Indianapolis pitched their three best pitchers, three inning each and they silenced our hot bats, demonstrating that they could beat us any day they liked. Our pitcher pitched seven innings, giving up only one run. It was one run too many but we'd found another starter and that was good.
Why Coach Bell took the 1-0 loss harder than he took any number of loses that season, I don't know. He wasn't in a good mood when I stopped to say goodnight after the game Sunday. We exchanged pleasantries. I left him alone, sensing he wasn't in a talking mood. We did beat the Indians two out of three. We'd been hitting really well up until that day. We sure couldn't win them all. I wasn't going to let it get me down.
At dinner I mentioned to Jackie that he might want to keep his bag packed. Everything pointed to him going up soon. I was certain that's what was at the bottom of Coach Bell's sour disposition. Jackie looked at me like I was crazy.
"Evan said not for another year," Jackie said, draining his iced tea.
"Evan told you that?" I asked.
"Too young. Don't get your hopes up. Probably a year or two here before they'd want me in Cincinnati," he said. "I'm in no rush. I just got here."
"He told you a year, maybe two?"
"Yep. Could I have more iced tea please?" Jackie asked, and Mrs. Olson poured him more. "Can't seem to get enough to drink."
"Something has Coach Bell's goat. Those Cincinnati scouts have been hanging around like vultures. I was sure they told him they were taking you with them. He wasn't happy about Floyd and Tony going over there. They'd done the job all season," I said. "It is disappointing."
"Don't know. Don't have nothing to do with me. Evan talks to those guys every time they come over here looking around. Like you say, they're pulling good players out of here right when we're feeling our oats. We could get in the playoffs we keep playing like we have been."
"No we can't. We're third in the league and there's no way we can pick up eight games on the second place team in little more than a month. They're not going to let us pick up that many games. If we start to get close, they'll start playing their first stringers the entire game until we're out of the picture. We've been lucky they haven't been playing us hard down the stretch. They don't need to."
"I want to get in the playoffs," Jackie said.
"Maybe next season," I said. "You've had a good year."
"You haven't done bad yourself," Jackie said.
"No, not bad at all, but I've been at it a lot longer than you have."
"That's true. Six months ago I was working at the mill. Never thought I'd be playing ball for a living, and they're paying me to do it. That's the cats meow," Jackie said, smiling before he began to laugh.
Send Rick an email at email@example.com
On to Chapter Twenty-Four
Back to Chapter Twenty-Two
Rick Beck Home Page
Suggested Reading | Suggested Viewing | Links
Send a Comment
All Site Content © 2003 - 2023 Tarheel Writer unless otherwise noted
Layout © 2003 - 2023 Tarheel Writer