Outside the Foul Lines - Book II

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

Play Ball

By the time spring came around the entire team couldn't wait to get outside for good. The exercise sessions and running was fine but it wasn't enough, especially after a couple of months of nothing else. The first day Coach Bell posted the message "Meet on the baseball field," I was exhilarated. The smell of the fresh cool air and closely cut grass was a sign that we'd soon be outside every practice for the rest of the season.

The sound of the baseball popping against the leather in my glove was exciting. The sound the ball made when someone caught a hold of one on the fat part of the bat had me turning my head every time. We ran, we fielded, we hit and we listened to Coach Bell as he dispensed wisdom.

Coach Bell was different. Gone were the nervous pacing and the strain on his face. He moved gracefully for a big man and if he didn't bark at one of us now and then, I'd have worried he was sick or had lost interest in the game. But he hadn't, and he watched us like a hawk might watch his prey. At times I felt his gaze on me, but he was silent for the most part. The loud head-shaking coach of the year before had mellowed for my sophomore season.

I could take Coach Bell any way he came at me. He'd been fair and he gave me more than ample opportunities to prove my value to his team. I still understood my hitting might do me in, but I was the best infielder he had. I did my best never to give him a reason to suspect anything else might be true.

Monty and Andy were the two batters he watched closest, but Chance and Wertz were rarely far away when the two outfielders were taking batting practice. They seemed to feed off of one another and if one hit a long ball over the fence in center field, the other would be doing all within his power to match it or beat it.

Monty was stoic, Andy at ease, and this seemed to work. Chance got the colder and more remote side of Monty. He'd be cutting up and entertaining the rest of us, when Monty would go from staring blankly at him to walking away. Chance wasn't accustomed to being dismissed. Of course he was a nice guy and wanted to make the time easier. It only got on my nerves at times when I had something on my mind.

Wertz was more like Monty than Chance, but they'd learned to get along and hung around together. Wertz didn't need to say much with Chance around. I figured Monty would learn to deal with Chance the way Wertz had. There wasn't any disharmony among us unless the pitchers got in on the act and invariably one of them would have something unpleasant to say. Heaven help us if we let the pitcher lose a one-run ball game.

We did far more fielding practice at our positions with fewer pepper games once we were outside. My timing with Chance was as close to perfect as we could make it. He still thought he was the cats meow, but when Coach Bell called me over to the bench one day, he said the magic words.

"You want me, Coach?" I asked, after trotting in from my position.

"You are the leader in the infield," he said, not making it a question.

"I am?" I said and asked at the same time.

"You are. If the subject comes up with Chance you are. Brooks knows it. He won't squawk."

"What about first base?" I asked, figuring I ought to know, seeing that I was the leader in the infield.

"Don't know. Check with me later on that. We can use Stuart or Welch for the time being. I might decide on one of them or you might have a better idea. Keep your eyes open."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"You better go back and tend to your infield. I expect you to make only heads up plays out there, Dooley," he said softly, leaning back so his big body was all in the shade.

"It's the only way I know how to do it, Coach," I said before breaking away to trot back into the infield.

Nothing changed. Chance knew he was good and it didn't matter to him which one of us was best. If there was ever something to argue about, he'd merely bring out his bat and see what I had to say about it.

I didn't carry the fear with me to the plate any longer but years of being afraid to face a fastball pitcher made my swing less than convincing. It did help when Andy took me to work on my hitting and Chance and Wertz were no less eager to help me grow a bigger bat. The confidence I had in my fielding, the confidence Coach Bell expressed in me also helped. I was more poised, even in the infield and Chance and I could turn a double player faster than anyone, regardless who played first.

We played the freshman team for exercise and their shortstop booted two double play balls, kicking one almost back to the plate before he was done trying to catch it. The catcher picked it up, growled at the shortstop, and threw the ball back to the pitcher after checking the runner at third. The batter had safely made it to second on what should have been an easy out.

I didn't think anything else of it and was content with my roll as the starting shortstop. With the weather warming and other teams coming to play on our field, life was good. It was two weeks before the season started and we took our first bus trip. We came back with an easy win over a smaller less experienced school.

We had a home game against a team that mostly had their way with us the year before. They'd beaten us four out of five games and were one of the state schools most often mentioned as possible league champions. We weren't mentioned in the same sentence with them.

It was one week until our season opener against the same team and I figured they wanted to get a taste of knocking us around a little to get their juices flowing. In the first inning I fielded two hard hit balls right at me, throwing the runner out each time. The third batter up hit a long fly ball at Monty; he eased under it and it was time for me to hit.

"You can hit this guy," Coach Bell said to me as I picked my bat off the rack.

I'd faced the pitcher one time the year before. I think he struck me out twice. I wasn't going to be an easy out this season, and I took my practice swings before I stepped into the box. My normal style was to let the first couple of pitches pass. If I didn't have any strikes on me I might swing at the third pitch if it was close to being over the plate. There were three balls in a row and a strike on the outside corner that looked like a ball to me. The next pitch was further outside and I trotted off to first base.

Brooks came up and hit the first pitch toward shortstop. I'd taken as long a lead off first as I dared. I sprinted toward second as soon as the ball left the pitcher's hand. I just beat the throw and was safe at second but they threw Brooks out at first. Chance immediately hit the first ball between short and third for a single and I stopped at third as the coach held up his hands so I didn't get any ideas about trying to score. Monty drove us both home with a ball that bounced off the fence in center field. I'd never felt better as I waited for Chance to follow me across the plate. This was the start of something good.

I knew it was only a pre-season game but what we needed to do to win was what we were doing. It felt good even though Andy flew out and Wertz did the same. For the first time that season, Coach Bell started to pace in front of the bench. He wanted to win and he especially wanted to win against this team. I'm not sure Coach Bell was sure what he had yet, but he knew what to do when we were playing solid baseball.

That might have been what Coach Bell wanted to see from us. He knew what it looked like when you won and that's what he saw in the pre-season; we were always leading no matter how many innings we played and it didn't matter who we played. We hit, we ran, and we played together as a team. It was enough to have us all excited, except for Monty, and nothing excited him. His dark brooding eyes seemed to be looking far off in the distance as the rest of his team celebrated their high hopes for success. We played well in the preseason, but it would mean absolutely nothing once the regular season was under way.

Coach Bell came to thank me for my heads up play at practice the next day, but that wasn't all he came for. He'd kept his remarks at a minimum and I figured he wanted something other than to pat me on the head.

"Dooley, I've got a favor to ask you."

"Sure, Coach."

"Don't say sure Coach until I tell you what it is. You don't have to do it. I'll understand if you don't, but I need your help."

"You know I will. What do you want me to do?"

"My freshman shortstop. That boy's a mess. I don't have anyone that has had any luck fixing him. I know you can and I wouldn't ask you to go down there and help him if there was any other way. You're varsity all the way and you'll probably catch some ribbing if you spend a few days down there looking at him for me, but it's what I'm asking you to do."

"Sure, Coach. When do I start?"

"Today," he said. "We can walk down there and I'll introduce you. He knows I'm bringing someone down who can show him the right way to play shortstop.

"Why not move him to first? That's easy enough."

"I got the best freshman first baseman I've ever had. I can't sit him down for this kid. No, he's got to learn or fold his cards. If anyone can show him, it's you."

I made the trip in the opposite direction from the year before. I took the walk from the varsity squad back to the freshman squad. The freshman coach didn't act all that happy to see me, but once again he got no say in the matter and I'd only be there a couple of days.

Al Kane was a mess. I asked for a batter and I set up shop between second and third as I instructed the hitter where to hit the ball. Kane sat on second base and watched me vacuum up the balls to my right, left, and those that were hit in the air just on the outfield grass.

I got him up and had him stand beside me so that he could get a close up view of how I moved, how I held the glove, and how I broke on the ball once the batter hit it. Most of these things were instinct for me, but you had to know how to do it to allow your instincts to get you into the right place to make the big play.

It was mechanics but Kane didn't ask any questions. Then, I let him field. He leaned too far forward, let his arms dangle far too loosely, and his feet had the ability to go in two different directions at the same time, which was a sure recipe for failure.

"Watch me," I told him, and once again the batter hit to me.

I did my best to explain how to set his feet and where to hold the glove so nothing got in his way as he went for the ball. It wasn't pretty and by the time I was done I saw little if any improvement. I told him I'd see him tomorrow.

By the time I trotted back over to the varsity field everyone had gone in and I went in for my shower. I'd then head back to the dorm for some studying before Andy and I went to the cafeteria. The thing with Kane had disturbed my easy schedule, but it wouldn't last long and things would go back to normal once the regular season started.

By the middle of the following day's practice, I was playing shortstop with the freshman team. One of the better batters hit the ball around the infield and I tried to give my best instruction on turning a double play. All the other infielders were far more interested in what I had to say than Kane was.

When I was getting ready to pack up shop and get back to the varsity, I heard that sound the bat makes when someone in the know makes contact with a fastball that's thrown down the center of the pike. I looked up to see Kane taking practice swings before he made the same sound for the second time in two swings. I watched the ball sailing out over the centerfield fence.

Kane was a little bigger and more bulky than I was. His arms were slightly longer, but other than that there were more similarities than differences. No wonder Coach Bell wanted to make him a shortstop. Andy, Monty, and Wertz were all solid players and weren't going anywhere for the next two seasons. Chance wasn't going anywhere. Brooks would graduate and Kane could play third. He could play first, except Coach Bell had his eye on the freshman first baseman.

That left third and short to fit him into the lineup next season. Shortstop was the key to any good infield. Coach Bell wasn't going to replace me with Kane, or was he? He thought he was asking a big favor of me, but I liked coaching and I'd been coaching his fielders since I started playing for him.

It was only a big favor if I was training the guy that would replace me. That would be a very big favor, but I'd do it even if the idea was for him to replace me, because coaching's what I liked doing. If doing it helped the team it was even better.

I wondered how most people would feel about training the guy who was going to take his job? It was a thought I didn't like. I knew if I asked Coach Bell, he'd tell me what he had on his mind, but I wasn't going to ask, because I didn't want to know. I was in charge of his infield and I had too much to do to dwell on ideas that were as likely to be wrong as right. I saw nothing in Kane's movements that told me he could even play a competent game at shortstop.

Even if he was put in at shortstop to replace me, Chance would be the first to cry foul. If there's one thing that would get Chance's goat faster than me outshining him in the infield, it would be a guy who couldn't field at all. Maybe I could teach Kane enough for him to stand at the spot where a shortstop stood, but how long would it take for him to blow a one run or two run lead while messing up an easy double play?

He didn't have the instincts of an infielder and no one could teach him instincts.

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