A Major Success|
Book 6 of Outside the Foul Lines
by Rick Beck
"Back to Ball - Short a Shortstop"
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Sitting on the bench in front of my locker, I felt alien. It was almost like I didn't belong here. My mind settled on nothing it could grasp.
Coach Bell was back in his doorway. He gave me his long unhappy look that had been part of my life since I began playing varsity ball my sophomore year in college. He didn't speak for longer than usual. I ignored him, which is something I'd never done before. This was about me now, not him. I had to deal with this in a way I could understand.
"John, you're not making this very easy on me. Come back and let's finish up and call it a day. I want to get this over with. I've been living with this for days."
I didn't stand up right away. I didn't get my coffee cup. I didn't get any coffee. I settled back in the chair in front of Coach Bell's desk a few minutes later. His eyes didn't leave me after I came back into his office.
"We've been together for ten years, John," he said softly, as if I might not remember.
"Nine. You left for my senior year. This is my sixth season in Louisville. I had four seasons on varsity at Sate," I said, being full of facts to keep the inevitable from entering the conversation for another few seconds.
"Yes, I recall you didn't make that very easy on me either," he said after a pause to consider my words. "They'll send Bower here. He's probably already here but hasn't reported. He's the official starting shortstop, according to the front office. This is how they proposed it to me," he said, letting me know it was the orders he got. "We'll need to have a day to honor your time here, John. I don't know what I'll do. Maybe at the end of the season you can come back so the fans can say goodbye. You've been here a long time, John. You're Louisville's most recognizable player."
Coach Bell was wandering. I wondered if he might be losing his grip. This was like no conversation I'd ever had with him. He seemed to have as little grasp on the point he was making as I did.
"When I sent for you to my ballplayers, I figured you'd be around for a while, because you're so good at what you do. I began to think we'd grow old together, John."
"Coach, you were old when I got here," I said bluntly.
"Don't remind me. I feel old today. You've got a good baseball mind, John. It's why I've always talked things out with you. Even if I didn't intend to follow your advice, I wanted it to weigh against my own thoughts. You often could come up with an aspect of a situation I hadn't considered."
"Why don't you spell it out so we can get this show on the road," I said, not being particularly happy to be there.
"You know they've benched, Prather?" Coach Bell said, clearing his throat like we were getting somewhere now.
"Yes," I said. "It's in all the papers."
"They'll release him tomorrow."
"They're going with one shortstop. What if he's injured?" I asked, thinking this was stupid. "Why send Bower here. Why not have him go straight to Cincinnati. Why screw with my job?"
Coach Bell leaned back in his chair as I spoke. A look came across his face like I didn't get it. It was the same look that I thought might be on my face. I didn't get it. This was all an exercise in lousy planning. Even I could see a hole in their plan big enough to drive a Mack truck through.
"John, they don't want to waste a spot on the roster. Cincinnati is going to the playoffs and they want to make use of every player. Prather didn't figure into the club's long range plans. They gave him a one year contract because it was time to get the shortstop to replace him.
"You can't report until the official release is announced. I'm telling you now so you can get your house in order. I'm not supposed to tell you until after they release Prather. He's got a big following after ten years. Malone will begin playing a little second base. After a week you'll become the starting shortstop. It's all very well planned to make your transition to Cincinnati easier on everyone. Heading for the playoffs will have the excitement level up. By the time they realize you're replacing Prather most fans will have moved on. It's not like they have a big attention span."
"Wait a minute," I said, finally hearing the fact he should have started the conversation with if he didn't want my mind racing all over creation.
"They want you Thursday. They'll list you as a late season pickup. They'll call you a utility infielder."
"Pickup? I'm going to Cincinnati?"
"John, what do you think I'm telling you? Prather is out. What do you think all the attention has been about all season. We've had Cincinnati officials here every week for months. You played with their infield in spring training. You thought they were just wasting everyone's time. Come on, John, you're smarter than that. You've been under glass all season."
"I thought they were here looking at Jackie," I said. "No one said anything to me. The fuss was over Jackie."
"Yeah, that's a big reason for them to want to keep an eye on us, but Prather stopped hitting in May. His fielding hasn't been top notch for two seasons now. They've been looking at you to make sure they didn't need to go out of the system for Prather's replacement. You picked a damn good time to have your best season, John. They've wanted you all season but they couldn't release Prather after paying him all that money. They've got bosses too. This way it looks like they got most of a season out of him."
"I'm going to Cincinnati?" I said, trying out the words. "I thought you were releasing me."
"I am, John. I'm releasing you to go to the majors. You're in the big show now. Not quite yet. Thursday it becomes official. They won't play you for a few games. The plan is to start bringing you in late in games in early September. Malone, who is playing shortstop, will move to second base. He began as a second baseman so it's also a move they've been planning. He'll go back to utility duty once they move Jackie over next season. Malone knows what his role is."
"Wow! Can I go home to tell Andy?"
"Sure. I can't play you. We release you. Louisville did while I was over there yesterday. You're technically wearing the wrong uniform, John. They'll have uniforms for you when you get over there. You can stay with Evan until you have time to make your own living arrangements. He's looking forward to playing ball with you again. He has an extra bedroom his wife has all ready for you."
"Let me ask you a question. Did Evan know this is what was going on? I mean all the scouting and Cincinnati officials spending so much time in Louisville. Did Evan know they were looking at me and not Jackie?"
"Not much Evan doesn't know. They ran it by him after Prather stopped being effective. He told them you were the man they wanted at shortstop. Didn't hurt your stock any with Evan promoting you."
"All the time he's been over here the last few weeks and he never let on. Not even a hint. I can't wait until I get to talk to him," I said.
"Clear out your locker, John. Better tell Mrs. Olson before you go home. She'll be sorry to see you leave. Good thing we got Jackie for her to mother. I think she likes having one or two ballplayers still rooming with her. She'll miss you. You're like a son to her.
"A lot of that going around. You and Andy have been like sons to me. I'll miss our conversations, John. You have one of the best baseball minds I've ever coached. I wish you success. I have no doubt you'll play ball over there just as well as you've played for me all these years.
"I have a number here for you. It's what they'll pay you to play for them the rest of the regular season. You don't have to accept this and I have the name of an agent Evan recommended you talk to about the contract you negotiate with them. This is probably a little low, because they won't show you everything the first offer. According to how far they go in the playoffs and how you perform to what they'll pay you for the extra games after the regular season," Coach Bell said, sliding a piece of paper toward me.
"This is for real?" I asked. "You didn't add a zero?"
"John, don't ask them that once you're over there. It's not the kind of thing big league clubs joke about. Whenever money is discussed, it's for real."
"Five hundred thousand dollars to play six weeks of ball?"
"Five weeks. You won't play right away. They paid Prather twelve million to dick around for five months. It's an opening offer. Your agent will instruct you on how he wants to play it. I suspect if you stick around for the playoffs, that number will double if Cincinnati wins against their first playoff opponent. Win the league championship and it'll double again; maybe triple."
"Stop, you're killing me. They're going to pay me this to play baseball?"
"You're in the big time now, John. Money is no object when a club wants something. This is the tip of what you might make between now and the final game of the playoffs. Every time they advance, your pay goes up."
"Wow! I wasn't thinking in terms of money, only of playing big time baseball."
"You'll have advisors and investment opportunities for your money. I'd keep it separate from Andy's so if anything goes wrong with one of your investments, both of you aren't hurt. That's my opinion. I am neither an agent or a money funds manager. I'm just a coach that's got to say goodbye to a man he's watched grow up into quite a ballplayer. We better break this up so you can take care of business."
"Yes, sir," I said, my eyes misted over all of a sudden.
It was a hard goodbye. I'd be back, but it would never be the same.
I was still somewhere between confused and confounded. I'd gone from thinking I might be out of baseball to being as deep in baseball as I could go. I wasn't just going to Cincinnati to warm their bench the last month of the season. I was going to Cincinnati to play shortstop. I never thought this day would come. I never thought I would make it to the bigs.
I didn't say goodbye to Mrs. Olson. I left my clothes there. Andy would want to come down some days to visit with Coach Bell. I'd come back over when our schedules matched up. Jackie was flabbergasted. After all my talk about him going up, I ended up being the one making the move. It was an option that hadn't been mentioned. He was happy for me and told me he'd be looking forward to meeting me over there. It was a good thought.
I called Andy from Mrs. Olson's and told him he'd need to come home tonight. We needed to talk and he might tell them he needed Wednesday off for family business. He wanted to know what was going on. I wouldn't tell him on the phone. I said I had news that couldn't wait.
Driving home was about the weirdest I'd ever felt. I'd worked all my life to be the best shortstop I could be, but I never thought I was good enough to make it to the big leagues. After college I had been out of ball. Coach Bell called for me to come to Louisville. Louisville is where I learned my trade on a professional level. Now I was going to the majors.
* * * * * * * * *
Andy didn't get home until an hour after I got there. I'd opened the windows to let out the afternoon heat. I turned down the bed while I was upstairs. I knew what I wanted to do after I broke the news to Andy. It was a pleasant day and the house didn't smell musty or like it had been closed up for ages.
When Andy got out of his car, he walked up to mine, looking in to see if there was anything that might indicate what I had to tell him. He walked up onto the front porch and I came bouncing out the front door.
"Hi," I said. "How's rehab?"
"Fine. What's the big mystery? You OK? You're not sick?"
"I'm OK. I'm fine too. I wanted to come home before I went to Cincinnati," I said calmly.
"What's in Cincinnati. Don't you have a game you should be playing right about now? I didn't look at the schedule, but it is Tuesday."
"No, I'm going to Cincinnati," I said.
"You said that. Why aren't you in Louisville?"
"I'm going up," I said, and I could see it dawn on him.
"Cincinnati called you up? They benched Prather," he remembered.
"Cincinnati called me up," I said.
I was in his arms, or he was in my arms. We hugged and kissed and hugged and kissed some more.
"I had to tell someone, and I said to myself, 'who do I want to tell,' and here I am.'"
He pulled me against his chest and he kissed me again.
"I've been wondering when they'd call you up. That's great."
I wasn't sure how Andy would take my advancement. He was out of it and now I was the one who would be playing big league ball. His reaction told me all I needed to know. He was as happy as I was. He may have been happier than I was. I was a little scared, so happy wasn't complete.
I'd had it easy for a long time. I'd played at a level of ball that was no longer a challenge for me, and now I was moving up to a level of ball that demanded excellence. You didn't get second chances to be a major league ball player if you bombed your first time around. There were only so many positions and a lot of players standing in line to fill it.
"When do you report?" Andy asked.
"Thursday. They'll let my presence sink in before announcing I'm moving into Prather's spot. I'll spell Malone in the late innings for a few games and then I'll start at shortstop in early September," I said.
"I'll be damn. You're going to the bigs. It's about time."
"I didn't think I was going. I thought Coach Bell was cutting me," I said. "He wasted a lot of time talking about details before he got to telling me Cincinnati had picked me up."
"Cutting you. You're the most solid player on the team."
"They got Andre Green in the Atlanta deal. He's the player to be named later. He's taking over as shortstop in Louisville. It's the first thing Coach Bell told me. I didn't connect the dots. I was in shock."
"He's riding the bench in Atlanta. He's a fair shortstop. He's not nearly the player you are. He might be okay if he plays regular."
"I don't know. He'll have to figure that out on his own."
"Where for dinner, my love. We're going to celebrate. You've got until Thursday. It's only a little further to Cincinnati from here than it is to Louisville," Andy said. "I told them not to expect me back until Monday."
"I know Evan drives it, but he's going from Cincinnati to Louisville."
"We're straight north of Louisville. You can drive straight over there from here. Probably two and a half to three hours. Not Interstate but good highway. I can drive there instead of Louisville. Do, I'm glad one of us is in the majors. Makes me feel better about my rehab. If I don't make it…."
"You'll make it, Andy. I know you'll make it. We'll still go to see Coach Bell. I left things at Mrs. Olson's so we can stay there when we go to Louisville. She was happy about that."
"Can't leave Mrs. Olson without a baseball player or two to take care of. I think we keep her young. You think she'd like to go sailing?"
"No," I said. "I think she's a landlubber."
"That's what I think too," Andy said.
We showered and dressed to go out for dinner in Indianapolis. It was almost dark by the time we got to the restaurant. We'd decided on Thai food. It was superb and the people were as pleasant as anywhere I'd eaten. Andy had been told about the restaurant by someone in rehab with him. It was the perfect night for a new experience in food.
It was chilly by the time we got home and with all the windows open. We got them closed before we got into the bed I'd turned down that afternoon. I was careful to be sure that Andy got enough exercise to make up for anything he got out of by leaving rehab early. The truth was Andy gave me all I could handle and he was willing to keep going after I'd run out of getup-and-go.
Curling up in his arms was the perfect finish to a perfect day. It had all started with my future in doubt and it ended with me being on top of the world, and with Andy kissing my neck as I drifted off to a peaceful sleep. My life was perfect.
* * * * * * * * *
It took me three hours from the driveway at the house until I was sitting in front of the Cincinnati ball yard. I had a pass that came with the paperwork Coach Bell gave me and they opened the gate to allow me to park in the players parking lot.
I left my car among the Mercedes and sports cars and went toward the stadium. A guard stopped me before I got to the first ramp.
"I'm John Dooley. I'm reporting to play for Cincinnati," I said.
"You've come to the right place. Louisville shortstop. You're here to replace Mr. Prather. They cut him loose yesterday," the guard said.
"Yes, sir. That's what I understand," I said.
"Just call me Gus, Mr. Dooley. I was told to keep my eyes open for you. I saw you drive into the player's lot. Welcome to Cincinnati."
"Thank you, Gus. Just call me Do."
"Yes, sir. What you want to do is follow this staircase to the top level. You'll be behind the offices. Go left and take the first right and you can ask anyone where you need to be. They know you're coming."
"I want to go down to the field before I report. Is there any way I could do that?"
"Mr. Dooley, you can do anything you want. You work for us now. This is your house. Follow me. I show you."
We walked up two long ramps and went around a third of the outside of the stadium. We stopped at the top of a long walkway that led toward the field.
"Follow this ramp. It'll take you down to field level. You'll come up behind the plate. I believe that'll give you the view you're looking for. When you're done, walk back up here, turn right, go back where we came in and go up to the top level. The offices aren't difficult to find. If you have any trouble, just stop the first person you meet."
"Thanks, Gus," I said, and I began moving into the center of the ballpark. I was still a long way from the field when the brilliant green grass came into view. The infield dirt was a rich reddish brown. The perfect white chalk lines marked off the field in no uncertain terms.
It was all perfect. This was a real baseball yard. It took my breathe away when I stood in the front row looking out at the outfield. I couldn't wait to dig my first grounder out of that infield and make the throw to second to start my first Cincinnati double-play.
When I sat down I smelled the fresh cut grass. It was precisely the proper length for ball. I got a whiff of hot dog starting to steam deep in the stadium somewhere. There was a faint odor of peanuts that made me think baseball.
My heart was pounding as I looked out to the left of second base. That was my position. I'd have to learn the hitters to know how to play them effectively. I'd need to learn the moves of the second baseman, as I'd just learned Jackie's moves to make us more effective.
It was difficult for me to imagine playing in such a spectacular park. Slugger Field was one of the best minor league parks, but this was nothing like that. Andy would come every night starting Friday, until he saw me take the field the first time. Rehab came second to my big league debut. I wasn't sure how he was going to take the news about me going up but he was thrilled he'd get to share this moment with me. I was thrilled he wanted to be there the first time I played shortstop for Cincinnati.
I'd never thought I'd make it to the majors. My career was starting over. Baseball had become brand new again.
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