A Major Success|
Book 6 of Outside the Foul Lines
by Rick Beck
"Back to Ball - Too Many Shortstops"
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We broke even the following week. We won 3 and lost 3. Sunday would give us our final chance to get to seven games above the five hundred mark. We were still playing pretty good ball.
The heat had subsided for two days at the end of the week but the humidity refused to drop. It's not isn't something you adapt to the more you are exposed to it. Humidity was draining and it wore you down.
A thundershower held up Sunday's game. We stayed in the clubhouse until almost three in the afternoon. When I first came out to do some stretching exercises, steam was coming off the field. It was so damn hot that the rain was turning to steam. The humidity must have been two hundred percent. It turned out to be the hottest day in a week.
When I came to the plate, once the game got started, I felt like I had been put through a wringer. It took four pitches to strike me out. The bat never left my shoulder. Jackie passed me on his way to the plate with a bounce in his step. Oh to be nineteen.
I stood by the water cooler and drank two cups of water. Coach Bell took his eyes off the field to watch me drink. It was an unusual use of his time. His eyes left me to look at Jackie after his bat cracked with a distinctively explosive sound. The ball was going to go a long way. I turned around to find the ball.
As I was finishing my second cup of water, Jackie hit his twenty-fourth home run of the season. The less than a thousand fans stood and applauded like it might be the difference in a tight game. Jackie rounded the bases like he'd just hit the homer that won game seven of the World Series. The kid was enthusiastic to say the least. Didn't he know it was hot?
It began to drizzle while Jackie was still running the bases. People began to scramble for cover when the drizzle turned into big noisy drops. The rains came to stay this time. It was approaching four thirty in the afternoon and there was one out in the bottom of the first inning. The game was supposed to start at one.
Evan stepped up out of the dugout to greet Jackie on his way back to the bench. They stood with their heads together as it poured down on them. They talked like they'd known each other forever. Evan patted his shoulder and they ducked back under the cover the dugout offered. Evan's polo shirt was now soaked. I could tell the rain water from the sweat. A nice shower would feel good, I thought.
Man it was hot. There wasn't a breathe of air anywhere near Louisville. Coach Bell sent his players into the clubhouse as the umpires ran for cover. The shower turned to a thunderstorm. The stands were drenched and what few fans decided to stay, retreated to the concession stands for a hot dog and beer break. Maybe we could make it a night game.
The grounds' crew rolled out the tarps to save the field if they could. I watched them working and took another cup of water. I didn't stand out in the rain. I only looked like I did. I stepped into the tunnel that led to the locker room and the cool air would have been too cool if I hadn't been too hot. I unbuttoned my shirt so it no longer clung to me.
"You may as well hit the showers, stud. They ain't playing this game," Evan said. "The outfield was sloppy before it started raining again."
He stood a few feet from my locker as Jackie sat on the bench in front of him.
"I guess not," I said. "What's Evan Lane going to do?"
"Head home. The shoulder held up pretty well last night. I might pinch hit a few days. I don't know if I should be making any long throws from the outfield for a week or so. They're gearing up for a playoff run and they want me rested and healthy.
"I can't hang around there and not play. It just worries me."
"Worry? What the hell does the fifty million dollar man have to worry about, Lane?" I asked.
Coach Bell stood in the doorway to his office looking at me like he wanted to talk, but he didn't move or say anything when he saw Evan talking to me.
"What's money got to do with it. I'm a ballplayer. Not playing is what I have to worry about. It's matter of timing and reflex," he explained.
"You've played every game this year. Relax a few days and enjoy it. Once you boys hit the playoffs, there won't be any rest. You'll be glad you took this time off."
When I looked again, Coach Bell was gone from the door. I made a mental note to stop to see what was on his mind on my way out.
"You sit on our bench and don't play, Evan," Jackie reminded him.
"I'm worried I'll get rusty. Timing is everything in my business."
"I know that business," Jackie said. "You don't have anything to worry about. I was out a ball a year and I had my timing back in a few weeks. I don't mind telling you I was worried I wouldn't."
"You're a natural kid. You've got all the tools. I'm not nineteen, and once you hit thirty, things don't work quite so well as when you're a teen."
"When your twenty-seven either," I said.
"You two sound like a couple of old ladies. You're king of the home run and you play shortstop like you were born doing it. With age comes experience and I'd like to have a little of what you two have," Jackie confessed. "I wouldn't have much to worry about if I was either one of you."
"Kid, you just don't know the half of it. Once you're on top, there's a long way to fall," Evan said. "Once you're on top, you don't dare look down."
"Yeah, I'm on the top of it all right," I said. "I'd be out of ball if it wasn't for Andy. I couldn't afford to play a game for a living and not make enough to pay for my own dry cleaning. If it wasn't for Mrs. Olson, I'd look like hell doing it."
"How much would they have to pay you to get you to play ball, kid," Evan asked Jackie.
"Me, shit, I'd pay them so I could play," Jackie said without hesitation.
"Me too, kid. Just don't tell them that," Evan said. "I'll take there money, but I'd play for nothing. Paying them is a bit of a reach though."
"You mean that?" I asked.
"Yep," Evan said. "But I worry. They won't let me take batting practice over there. I hurt my shoulder making a throw. I put too much mustard on it. That doesn't mean I don't need to take batting practice. That's why I come over here. I sit on your bench because I like you guys. You're my kind of people," Evan explained. "When I sit on the bench over there, I'm thinking of the escape route I'll take to avoid being asked the same question for the ten thousandth time when I leave to go home."
"I hear that," I said. "You looked good last night. A few days off aren't going to hurt you, Evan. You're five homers ahead of the next guy and you are twenty runs batted in ahead of everyone. You get a day off."
"Four. Kramer hit one last night. What about that Andy. I didn't know I'd be around to see his first swing. The way he stood there after he swung, I wasn't sure he was OK."
"Me either," I said. "Glad he got it over with. I think that was the biggest swing of his life. Taking that swing means he knows he can swing a bat now. That's a big deal in him knowing he can come back."
"Damn right it is. He's on his way back all right. Me, I'm on my way back to Cincinnati. We're still a month away from the playoffs and they're resting players already. We get too careful and we won't even make the playoffs. They make me nervous when they get too careful."
"Whose on second?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said.
"Third base," I said, smiling.
"Third base?" Evan asked confused.
"That old baseball skit. Abott and Costello. "Whose on First.""
"Oh, yeah, that little fat boy use to do that one. I heard it when I was a boy."
"Second base?" I asked. "The trade. Little Jackie here. Remember him? Remember Cincinnati?"
"They're getting two players from Atlanta that haven't been named. We've got a good utility infielder, Arnold. He can play any of the positions, but he started as a second baseman. He hits well. They benched Prather you know. Paid that mofo twelve super large and he can't get the bat off his shoulder."
"I know the feeling," I said.
"Never seen anyone go down hill as fast as he did. Benching him could snap him out of it, but he hasn't contributed a thing this season. He was the king of the hill when I got there. Best little short stop around."
"Watch it buddy. I happen to know a pretty good shortstop myself."
"Around Cincinnati. Can't say he played any better than you, Dooley. He just got more money doing it."
"Any money is more than I get," I said sadly.
""What a waste of money on him. There's talk we'll make one more trade to strengthen the infield. At least one Atlanta player is coming to Louisville. I heard that buzz. The player to be named later is the mystery man. Probably haven't finalized it yet. The wheeling and dealing isn't over yet. The last time Jackie's name came up, the word was he had to have a year of organized ball before they wanted to look at him."
"Told you," Jackie said. "I don't want to go over there and sit on their bench. Hell I can go back to Comet Rice at home if I don't want to play baseball some more. I need to play every day."
"You got our best pitcher and our best reliever. We're still holding our own," I said. "I hope you guys don't take anymore of our guys. We're barely holding our own. They raided us last year," I reminded him last year.
"Name of the game, Dooley. You guys grow 'em, we pay 'em the big bucks to come play with us," Evan explained happily. "Coach Bell's got a reputation for turning over some of the best talent in the minors."
"Games called. You boys can go home," someone yelled from the tunnel.
"Told you," Evan said. "Since we've got time on our hands, I'll take you and Jackie to the Steak House. I want some of those onion rings before I go home. I've been thinking about those onion rings all day. I told Andy to stay around for dinner but he said he needed to get back home."
"Talked me into it. You'll have to treat. I spent my allowance and don't get another fifty bucks until the end of the month," I said. "Andy has things he wants to do before he spends the entire week in Indianapolis. He'd rather hang out here with us, but that's not what's on his mind."
"You need a loan, Dooley. I can let you have a little. Low interest rate too," Evan smiled.
"No, I got to live on fifty bucks a month. Andy wants to supplement it but he pays all the bills already. I've got to make do."
"You let me know if you change your mind. I'll beat the loan sharks rate on account we're friends."
"I'll keep that in mind. Let me go see what Coach Bell wants. He's been giving me the long hairy eyeball all day. I won't be able to relax until he tells me what's on his mind. I'll shower over at Mrs. Olson's."
"I'll meet you over there. I can use a glass of her iced tea. She doesn't care for the Steak House but I'll ask her if she wants to go. She might want their salad or something."
"Yeah, you do that. She may not have dinner on for us yet. We've been held up for rain most of the day. She probably won't start something until she has an idea what time we'll be in."
Evan walked toward the exit that would take him to his car. Jackie changed his shirt and I went to Coach Bell's office. I knocked twice and opened the door when no one answered. The office was empty. I closed the door and regretted not talking to him before he left. I walked back toward the general managers office to see if he was there but everyone was gone.
I'd have to wait until Monday to find out what was going on. It always made matters worse when Coach Bell slept on something that was eating at him. Nothing I could do about it now. If I called him at home about baseball, he'd hang up on me. If he wanted to talk baseball when he was at home, he called me.
By the time I walked back to the locker room the word was there would be no Monday makeup game. We'd play a double header in September to make up for today's rainout.
Evan was in rare form and we had a great time at dinner. The Steak House was a place he frequented when he played in Louisville. All the people there knew him and liked him. He acted like a regular guy and they treated him like one. Except for people asking him to sign things, it was like going to any family restaurant.
Jackie took it all in. He was studying for a part he was almost certain to play one day in the near future. He acted like he didn't have a care in the world.
I went into Coach Bell's office the next day to see if he wanted to talk about whatever was on his mind, and he wasn't there. Since there was no game Monday, there was no formal practice, but guys came to loosen up. My heart wasn't in it. I went home to wait for Andy's phone call.
I talked to Andy and he was at his hotel in Indianapolis. He was finished with his morning session and he would go back after lunch. They'd added an hour to his daily routines when he insisted. They'd added an extra day that each week as well, making it five days a week from now on. He didn't act as if it was a very big deal.
"Coach Bell called for you just before you came in," Mrs. Olson said, after I hung up from Andy's call.
"I'll call him," I said. "If he called me I'm just answering his call."
"No, he's in Cincinnati. Said to be in his office at ten tomorrow morning. He has something he wants to discuss with you," she said.
"He's in Cincinnati?"
"That's what he told me," she said. "Could be why he was out of sorts yesterday. He doesn't like driving over there from what you say."
"No, he doesn't, but why didn't he tell me that. He didn't tell me anything. He was just in a sour mood," I said. "I guess he'll tell me when he wants me to know. I just work there."
"Probably was told to come for a meeting. He probably had plans that didn't include Cincinnati," Mrs. Olson said.
"Said we had at least one player coming our way in the Atlanta trade. That could be what they are talking about. You think Evan knows what he's talking about. Jackie isn't going up this season? He's the real deal."
"Don't know. Not like Evan to say something that isn't true. He knows everything that's happening over there. They don't do much without letting him in on it. He's a substantial presence on that team?"
"Yeah, he knows the language in the trades they made, but Jackie's playing good ball. They traded their best second baseman. I'd have bet he was on the way over there."
"I heard that. They make a lot of moves this time of year. You can't out think those boys. You can bet they're looking at anyone that might help them advance this season. They're in the hunt and they want to go all the way," she said.
"Don't we all. Where is Jackie?"
"Said he was going up to get a shower. I told him I'd call him when it was time to eat. He'll be back downstairs looking for food before I have anything ready. Typical boy. Eats all the time and gets thinner."
I sat at the table with a glass of iced tea and ran all the facts through my brain. I didn't like it. Whatever was up, Coach Bell didn't like it. I knew him well enough to figure that much out. Maybe Mrs. Olson was right. He had to go to Cincinnati and he didn't want to go. That's probably what he wanted to tell me when he looked at me from his office door.
We watched Field of Dreams after eating an early dinner. It was one of those movies that gave me cold chills. It also gave me a since of how universal baseball was. People's lives were built around the game. It was the National Pastime for a reason. It was a game of skill and grace, not to mention timing. It's a game of power and preciseness. You never knew when you time had come or when it ended, but the game went on.
It rained overnight. At first there was lightning and thunder. Then the steady rain followed. We'd be lucky to get in the next day's game, I thought as I laid in bed.
It was late when I fell asleep and it was late when I got up. I wanted to be in Coach Bell's office when he arrived, but if there was no game he would take his time coming in to check the field and tell everyone to go home if the game was called.
The lights were on and the doors were open when I got to the locker room. The rain was gone but no one had come in yet. Coach Bell's office door was open and he was sitting behind his best, writing names on the lineup sheet he'd hand to the umpire before the game before the game.
"Morning, John," he said as soon as I got to the door. "Close the door."
He went back to writing. He was dressed in his uniform and had a fresh haircut, probably got it cut before he went to Cincinnati. His cup of coffee was still steaming. He hadn't been there very long. I wish I'd gotten a cup before going to his office.
"Have a good trip?" I asked.
"No!" he said. "You know better."
He looked up at my face without moving his head and he scratched something out and wrote another name in its place.
"We losing Jackie?"
"No!" he snapped and didn't look up until he put his pen down and pushed the lineup sheet to the top of his desk.
"Have I done something. Just tell me."
"No. You haven't done anything."
"If you aren't going to tell me what's got your panties in a wad, I'll leave you alone."
"No," he said.
He was looking at me the same way he looked at me from his door the day before. Whatever it was it had nothing to do with him being pissed about being called to Cincinnati. The trouble was right here in Louisville."
"You're really making me nervous," I said.
"Sorry, John. Write it off to needing to do the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I don't want to do it, but it's not my decision. I manage this team. I don't run it. It's run from upstairs."
"Does it have to do with me?"
"What is it?"
"You remember when you came and I told you that I got a say in everything the team did, but I didn't make the final decision?"
"The player to be named later that Cincinnati is acquiring from Atlanta has been named now. It's Andre Bower."
"The shortstop?" I asked with surprise.
"The shortstop. My orders are to play him, John."
"Coach, I'm a better shortstop than Bower. I'm hitting better than he ever has. Even if he was called up to the majors, he's been sitting on Atlanta's bench in Atlanta for two years."
"You're not telling me anything I don't know, John. I told you I get a say. I don't make the final decision."
"That's where you were yesterday?"
"That's where I was yesterday. I called the meeting to get it straight from the source. They said to come yesterday. That's why there was no makeup game. There's more, John."
"I need a cup of coffee. I'm not believing this. It's the best year I've ever had. I've never played as well as I'm playing now."
"Remember what I told you about shortstops, John?"
"Something about we're investments that clubs pick for the long haul. I need something to drink. I need some air."
"The shortstop is the key to any infield. You don't just give him a glove and pop him into your infield. Most shortstops play years before making it to the big show. Once they make it, most clubs expect their man to be there for a long time. The shortstop runs the infield."
"I am a shortstop. I know that. I need some coffee, Coach. If you're telling me what I think you're telling me, I'm going to need more than coffee," I said, and I got up and walked out on him without waiting to be dismissed, which I'd never done before.
I went to my locker and got out my coffee cup. I stood holding it and my mind went blank. I couldn't remember what I was there for. I put my game hat on and took it off, brushing my hair back before putting my coffee cup back on the shelf. I closed the locker door.
I sat down hard on the bench and my mind was blank.
Was it over?
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