Outside the Foul Lines - Book II

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4

Roll On

I invited Monty to go along with us when I took Chance, Wertz, and Andy down for a discount pizza my old manager was happy to give me. If he had a pizza that was sent back or couldn't be delivered, he threw that into the deal. He followed the baseball team and was a big fan of Andy who had nine home runs in our 10-3 season to that point.

We hadn't quite reached the halfway point in the season, but we had two games the following week against last year's league champions and I wanted to celebrate before we might meet defeat in at least one of the games. We'd already beaten them once and we had a four-day break coming up before we played our next game against them. Then we had one more away game after playing them at their house, followed by a two day break before they came to play in our stadium.

We were sure to play them after the regular season was over because while they remained two games behind us, they were five games ahead of the third place team, which was playing below five-hundred ball. I'd never been on a team as good as this one. Celebrating seemed like a good way to blow off some of the pressure. These were the guys I was closest to and so I shared what there was with them, except maybe for the most personal thing about myself and the most important person to me. That wouldn't be smart but I wanted to yell it from the rooftops, "I love Andy."

Andy never complained about such arrangements. He seemed disinterested in my social arrangements and went along because he wanted to be with me. I think he liked Chance, because Chance was one of those guys you couldn't dislike, but Andy and Wertz seldom talked. They were both outfielders and only a little more verbal than Monty.

By the time we were working on our third pitcher of soda and the second free pizza, the manager came out and sat with us to inquire about how the rest of the season might go. He knew we faced Collinwood twice next week and wanted to know if we were going to "kick butt." We assured him we would without considering the alternative to be an answer we'd consider. He seemed satisfied with the answer and went back to cracking the whip on his employees behind the counter. He liked talking baseball and he stopped to ask more questions about the team. Maybe that's why he gave us free pizza?

Collinwood rolled into town on Tuesday. It was threatening rain. Their ace who had never lost to us was on the mound. We lost 7-2. It was our worst defeat of the season and we never were in the game. He three hit us and if not for a walk to Chance followed by a Monty homer, we'd have looked pathetic at the plate.

I was nervous and grouchy on Wednesday before the next game. We'd taken over an hour bus ride and got tied up in traffic before getting to the stadium. When we climbed off the bus, we had five minutes before game time and were informed there was no time to warm up.

It was a lousy deal to have to get right to the bench and the next thing I knew, I was at bat and I had to pee. I dug into the dirt and stepped out of the box a half dozen times before I could relax. The pitcher looked nine feet tall and the first ball hit the catcher's glove like a rocket. I could see dust coming up from the force of the ball making contact with the leather. It was clearly a strike but my bat had stayed put.

There were two balls outside and one inside, which left me at 3-1. There was a free pitch I'd take and if that was a strike, I'd need to decide what to do on the final pitch. Only it was a fat hanging curve ball that never did break, and I lined a ball right back through the pitcher's box and through into centerfield. By the time I stopped running, I was on second. The pitcher kept looking back at me glaring his anger at my nearly taking off his head.

I took a modest lead, not really wanting him to make a throw, but if he did there was the chance it would go into centerfield. I still wasn't going to test him. There was no one out and odds were in favor of me scoring a run. It took seven pitches for Brooks to walk.

Chance came up and batted left handed for the first time. Of course it was to his advantage to bat left if he could pull it off, but I didn't know he was a switch hitter until that moment. Bobby Henry was the only other baseball player I'd known who could bat both right handed and left handed. It didn't surprise me that Chance wanted to add that to his list of skills.

On the second pitch Chance lined a ball over the first baseman's head and right down the first base line, rolling into the corner as the right fielder raced to recover it. By the time he did I scored with Wertz scoring behind me. It was 2-0 and I finally relaxed for the first time since Collinwood beat us.

Andy walked, Monty doubled, and Morgan hit a triple. We scored five runs and had two men on when I came up the second time that inning. I struck out after the pitcher had struck out before me. Brooks struck out and the inning ended with us well on our way to our eleventh win.

A 10-2 win was enough to get our juices flowing again. The ride back to school seemed to be without memory of our Monday loss and the fact we would face the same team on Friday. No one mentioned it and we pretended it wasn't on our mind. Our practice was brief Thursday. It was still threatening rain and was cooler than it had been.

When Collinwood marched in the following day, they were one game behind us in the standings and you could tell they planned to leave leading the league by virtue of having the same record as we had but beating us two out of three times we'd played each other.

My disposition was back to apprehensive. It didn't help when our best pitcher walked the first batter. I prowled the infield like a nervous cat. The second batter had gone two balls and a strike when he hit the next pitch on the ground. I scooped it up charging it hard to cut down the time it took me to make the play. When I twirled and shoveled the ball to Chance, he was ready with his foot on the bag, and his throw to Morgan was perfect. We'd turned the double play with time to spare. That was more like it. They weren't going to find beating us so easy this time.

I struck out, Brooks grounded out, and Chance hit a line drive into centerfield but it was caught for out number three. The score remained scoreless for three innings. There had been one runner and we'd cut him down in a double play. No one else had gotten on base. Our ace pitcher was flawless, but so was theirs. I worked the count to three balls and two strikes in the fourth inning. The next pitch looked outside and then broke on the corner of the plate at the last instant.

I looked back at the umpire, waiting for him to call it, and then I threw my bat down and trotted to first base. I still think it was a strike but it went as ball four. Until the next pitch I was expecting for someone to come and tell me I was really out. Brooks hit a soft grounder to shortstop and I ran for all I was worth, throwing my cleats in the air as I slid into second. The second baseman had to shift to avoid me taking him out and by the time he got rid of the ball Brooks was safe. I trotted back to the bench having broken up a sure double play. My team gave me a thumbs up but it was still scoreless and anything could break the game open.

Chance stood in and struck out for one of the few times I'd ever seen it. He was disappointed, dragging his bat back to the bench with him, apologizing to anyone who would listen. Andy came up and worked the count to three balls and two strikes. The next pitch sailed a foot over Andy's head and clanged against the backstop. Wertz ended up on third by the time the catcher recovered the ball and realized Wertz wasn't stopping at second. It was a heads up play and we were still alive.

Monty came to bat banging his bat against his cleats. He stood outside the batters box, looking down the third base line while running dirt through his hands. He took tome practice swings with his back to the plate. The umpire stood up and shouted, "Play ball."

Monty turned like he was oblivious to the umpire's order. He tapped his bat on the plate, dug one foot and then the other into the batters box before pulling the bat up on his shoulder, and for the first time he looked at the pitcher who was patiently waiting to deliver his next pitch. Just as he started into his windup, Monty stepped out of the batter's box, holding up his hands to signal timeout.

Once more he looked down the third base line, swinging the bat.

"Play ball," the ump growled anxiously.

Monty took a minute to return to the box and he followed the same ritual, finally looking out at the pitcher as he was waiting to see if Monty stepped out yet again.

The windup was fluid and smooth and the ball came in hot and right over the center of the plate. There was no doubt where the ball was headed as soon as Monty made contact. It exploded off the bat and disappeared out over the straight away centerfield fence.

It was 3-0 State.

Andy stood and waited for Monty, shaking his hand and patting his back. We were all relieved. There were no more runners and no more hits. The game turned on one big-time swing by Monty. The locker room was filled with the biggest celebration yet. The vanquished Collinwood team left on their bus. We played one more time this season and the best they could do was a draw and we were back to being two games ahead in the standings.

At 12-4 our season was more than half done. We'd gone 16-14 the year before and merely had to show up to improve on that record. Coach Bell was starting to pace again, during the second Collinwood game. He rarely moved out of his seat until then and as anxious as he seemed that day, he settled back into his seat once Monty had done his thing. It was like he knew the game was in the bag. We did have our ace on the mound and the Collinwood pitcher was almost as good.

We hadn't fallen apart under pressure but we were well past that point in the season. We knew we were playing good ball and we weren't likely to blow a close game with careless mistakes. We played our game and did what we did best. Monty realized when he came to bat with two men on base that this would be our best chance to take the lead. He played a very good pitcher like a fiddle, got him out of his rhythm, and he delivered up the pitch Monty was waiting for.

Coach Bell called Andy to his office after his shower. Monty was going back to cleanup. Andy told me he was doing it because Monty had earned it. Andy hadn't done anything to cause Coach to want to make the change but rewarding production was traditional.

Andy wasn't thrilled at losing the cleanup hitting position. Monty was out-slugging him in the past few games and as long as he was playing, Andy wasn't going to get too upset. There were more than ten games left and Andy planned to get the prized hitting spot back before it was over. I told him he didn't need to worry, because he was the best hitter and Coach Bell knew it. He made the move to see if it would motivate Monty even more.

My parents came to the Friday afternoon game and were delighted when we agreed to go back with them. They would drive us back Monday morning before my first class. My mother was happier to see Andy than she was to see me. Of course she'd lived with me all my life and knew what a slob I was and Andy was a big wide-eyed kid that appreciated any attention at all.

We stopped for lunch to decompress from the pressure of the season and having just won our most important game to date. Andy was quiet but he seemed fine and his movement to the fifth hitting spot didn't seem to hurt his appetite. I must admit I didn't go away hungry either. There was something reassuring about my parents coming to such an important game and then asking for me to come home for the weekend. They knew I'd want Andy to come along, because we were roommates and we were close and my parents didn't mind anything that made me happier.

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