Outside the Foul Lines - Book II

by Rick Beck

Chapter 6


By the time we got back to campus Andy showed no sign of being laid low by Coach Bell's decision. I'd done all within my power to keep his mind off baseball. I did invite Bobby Henry over for Sunday dinner and my father was particularly delighted. Dad had wanted a house full of sons for hunting and fishing and especially for playing games, but my mother had such a difficult time giving birth to me that they stopped there.

Bobby talked about how much different it was playing for money than it was playing for your school. The pressure we felt as college players could be multiplied by three or four times when playing ball was your livelihood. The pressure was on his mind, but the love of the game overcame any disadvantages moving on to the minor league might present.

Andy listened carefully but didn't talk much. I tried to anticipate what might be some of the questions on his mind and ask Bobby about them. He was anxious and excited and there was no doubt he expected to go to the Big Show. Most players knew after a year or two if anyone was interested. Many times the scouts who recruited college players often followed their careers and knew if and when a team was in the market for a player at that position. Many times it was simply a matter of luck and how easily you could move from being a right fielder to playing left if that's what was needed.

Even when Bobby coached me in high school, I felt he was headed for the Major League. He had it all and was the cornerstone of our high school team. He was the go-to guy and whatever was called-for Bobby produced. He was never rattled and rarely went hitless for long or booted balls he could reach. When he did make an error, he didn't dwell on it and he didn't repeat it any time soon.

I could sit and listen to Bobby talk all day but I had other responsibilities and didn't encourage Bobby to stay once dinner was done. My father was still talking as he was leaving and Andy and I went up to my room where he promptly kicked off his shoes and sprawled on my bed for a nap. He was hard to read. He usually talked to me, but he didn't have much to say.

My father got up way early to see to it that we were back to school on time. I was just able to make my first class of the day and I didn't see Andy again until practice. After getting dressed and getting out to the practice field, Andy was in the batters box and pounding one ball after another into the farthest reaches of the outfield. There was no effort in his swing; the bat gave off an impressive cracking sound each time the pitcher pitched.

Batting-practice pitchers were there to be hit. Rarely did any of our good pitchers volunteer. I think it bruised their psyche to let guys hit you when your job was not to let them hit you. Pitchers were notoriously self-absorbed with the team coming in right after their own ego.

I suppose all of us had that to a degree. We were on stage and if we shined and played our roll well, we were praised. If we didn't perform and brought attention to ourselves because of poor performance, we got shot down and sometimes we were moved out of the starting lineup, replaced by someone better able to play the role.

Monday was a near perfect day. It was the kind of day when you don't want to come inside. I stayed in the infield for a long time, fielding for hitters who came up to hit ground balls that challenged us. This kept me loose and on top of my game. Chance chattered and laughed and made perfect throws to first once I'd gotten him the ball. It was smooth, fluid, and the two of us could cover the center of the infield as well as anyone could.

That was the ego thing popping up but we did work well together. We could read each other like a good book. I never had to wonder where he was in the infield if I had to make an off-balance throw. I knew by the way the ball was hit where he'd be. There was never a doubt in his mind what kind of throw he could expect from me. There were no surprises. That's how we avoided careless errors that cost unearned runs. The longer we played together the smoother we became.

Coach Bell had to tell us to come off the field for fear we'd tire ourselves out. I didn't think fielding could tire me out, but batting, that was a different story. Chance, Wertz, Andy, and even Monty stood by the batting cage to offer advice. I no longer hated batting. I didn't sweat waiting to come to bat. My improvement was modest at best, but at least my legs no longer shook. Keeping a close eye on the ball allowed me to walk frequently enough to keep my average near .250. Every time I walked, it took one at-bat off my statistics. This helped my average as much as the hits I got. It was better but it wasn't good.

On Tuesday I singled on my first at bat. I went to second when Brooks dribbled a ball into the infield. I was on second with one out when Chance came up to bat. He lined a ball that the shortstop barely caught at the tip of his glove. Luckily I hadn't taken my usual carefree lead and I stepped back on second before the shortstop could get the ball out of his glove to make a play.

Monty came up and hit a line drive between first and second. I was crossing home plate before the ball got back to the infield. Monty was on second. Andy hit a towering fly ball into straightaway centerfield. The fielder kept backing up and backing up as the high flying ball carried further and further until the fielder's back pressed against the chain link fence. When he dropped his glove it was obvious the ball was going, going, gone.

We led 3-0 after one inning. After being driven home by Andy's homer, Monty waited at the plate to greet him. They jogged together back to the bench. In one nice sweet swing Andy showed us his new fifth place hitting spot didn't change the way he played the game. I was happy for him and went over and sat next to him. He blushed when he looked at me.

"You trying to make me look bad?" Coach Bell asked Andy.

"No, sir. Just playing baseball."

"Damn nice swubg," Coach Bell bragged.

It was one of those chess-playing games. Our pitcher kept the opposition hitting the ball on the ground and Chance and I showed our stuff. It was my kind of game as I had to reach for a lot of the balls, but the results were never in question in my mind. We could have gone home after the first inning. We won 3-0 and had five shutouts on the season.

We won Thursday going away. Both Andy and Monty hit homers. I got two singles and chance drove me in with a double once and I scored on Andy's home run the second time. Coach Bell sat silent in his chair at the end of the bench. The team was loose and we were playing as well as we'd played all season.

We had a long bus ride and a Saturday game away from home. A few dozen cars and another bus came with us because by this time our momentum had excited the school. We remained two games out in front in our league and more and more students were coming out to watch us play. This was the first game when more than a couple of cars came with us.

I struck out my first time at bat. Brooks grounded to second. Chance walked. Monty lined out to right field. The first batter on the other team caught a high outside fastball on the first pitch and knocked it over the big green wooden fence that surrounded the outfield. There were two singles and Coach Bell stood up to get a closer look.

By the time the inning was over we were down 3-0. A Dooley to Chance to Morgan double play ended the inning or it could have been worse. We chipped away over the next four innings and got the score to 3-2, but we came up in the fifth without getting our offense going.

Our pitcher walked and I got hit by a pitch. There was no one out with runners on first and second and Brooks struck out. Chance came up to hit a grounder down the third base line. I stopped at second and the throw to first base was too late to get Chance but the lead runner was out at third. Monty was up.

Monty fouled off one ball after another and the count stayed 0-2 for what seemed like forever. The pitcher would rare back to deliver a blazing fastball and Monty would catch just enough to keep from striking out. I was sure the guy had thrown nine or ten straight fastballs right down the center of the plate. No one had ever challenged Monty in such a way.

After about the tenth foul ball Monty tagged one over second base. I rounded third and scored the tying run and when I turned to see how the play ended, Chance was coming right at me, scoring the run that put us into the lead. Monty was on second base smiling at us. Monty didn't often smile but he liked what he saw.

Andy followed the same routine, fouling off one ball after another as the pitcher threw nothing but heat. If Andy could only catch a hold of one, the ball would have gone into orbit, but he didn't. He went for what turned out to be a curveball and he never came close to connecting.

It was 4-3 and we led as we came up and went down without getting anyone on in the last inning. The opposing team would have one opportunity to tie or defeat us or we'd go home with another win. The first man up singled. The next guy walked. I was unable to stay still. Between watching the runners, our pitcher, and the batter, I had way more to do than I liked.

The third guy came up and laid down a bunt that our pitcher had to field. He threw out the batter at first but with one out there were runners on second and third. If one run scored we'd go into extra innings, but if that second run scored, the game was over and they won. We had to keep that second run from scoring, but even a high fly would score the man on third.

Our pitcher went to taking a full windup before his pitches while keeping an eye on the runners to keep them from taking too much of a lead. If we could only pick one of them off it would be a good break for us, but they knew the score too and they weren't taking any risks. The runners stayed close and watched the pitcher for any sign of an attempted pickoff play.

With one out and a 2-1 count on the batter, he caught the next pitch on the fat part of the bat and lined it right at Chance. There was no way to get either of the runners. They both got safely back to base to avoid a double play. They'd have been off and running if the ball hadn't been hit so hard, but at least we had the second out and still had a chance of keeping the lead if we could only get the next guy out.

I watched the runners and our pitcher. I stayed loose and pondered every contingency. Then, the batter caught hold of the next pitch. It was another line drive, but this one was heading into the outfield with Monty having to run at full speed to try to reach it. The modest crowd stood cheering. Both runners crossed the plate and stood watching, and then there was the most awful sound I'd ever heard. Monty had run into the green fence at nearly full speed.

Lying flat on his back he didn't move. The crowd went totally still. The runners stood at the plate with our catcher. Chance and I ran into the outfield right behind the infield's umpire. Andy and Wertz leaned over him but he didn't move. Wertz looked around for the ball.

"Did it go over the fence?" Chance asked. "All I saw was Monty hitting that fence."

Monty's legs started to move. The umpire yelled at us to get away from him. The trainer for the opposing team came sliding to Monty's side with his medical box. Monty moaned.

"What the fuck hit me," Monty said, and all of us laughed weakly at hearing him speak.

"The ball?" the umpire yelled at our fallen teammate.

Monty raised the hand with his glove on it and dropped it at the umpire's feet. The ball rolled out of the glove and settled between the umpire's shoes.

Pivoting around to face the plate the umpires arm shot into the air as he yelled, "He's out!"

I was aware of the drama around me but I was more concerned with the way Monty hit the wall than how the game had turned out. The crowd was remarkably quiet since their team had just lost the game. No one left their seats as they waited for some sign from the outfield. There was something more important than the game to the people who came to see it. I was glad to be there to see that.

It took a few minutes for Monty to regain his senses, but the trainer had to splint his throwing arm. He was sure it was broken. When Monty stood up to be taken to the university hospital, the crowd applauded politely and only then did they leave the stadium. Chance, Andy, and I escorted Monty to the waiting emergency vehicle. He smiled and Coach Bell got in beside him.

Winning one more game wasn't important. Although we had won the game it wasn't worth the price we paid. I'm not a hypocrite and I was no fan of Monty Kristoff, but seeing him hurt was never something I wanted to happen. Even Andy felt bad for his biggest competition. It was far larger than breaking an arm. Monty was on the fast track to the Big Show. We all agreed on that. This was not going to help his career in baseball.

We returned to school without Monty or Coach Bell. There was no celebration or happy banter about how great we were. Most all of our thoughts stayed back with Monty. No one missed the fact that our team was missing what had been an essential piece all season. We weren't as good a team without Monty. It didn't excite any of us to contemplate going on without him.

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