Outside the Foul Lines - Book II

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Monty Less

Andy didn't know or wasn't talking about where Monty was heading. I didn't feel it was up to me to say anything. Coach Bell didn't say it was supposed to be general knowledge and I didn't dare step on his toes again. We both knew there were all kinds of problems with college guys and college coaches being involved in soliciting teams before the rules allowed. I knew why Coach Bell stuck his neck out in this case and he wouldn't have done it for a guy that wasn't going anywhere anyway, but if it meant saving a kids career, he did whatever it took to help the kid in spite of the rules. It was his job as the kids coach to help him if he could.

Monty doing what we'd been speculating he'd do a few weeks earlier than the rules allowed didn't bother me, because being in a first class rehab program might make the difference in him being an also ran and an even better big time major leaguer. The rules weren't there to protect the kids as much as they were there to protect the colleges in my mind.

Coach Bell had put his player first, which is what I knew he did daily. He never mentioned it to me again either and I didn't inquire how the rehab was going. It was none of my business and that's how I liked it.

I must admit it was a relief knowing what I knew for some reason. Once the word started to spread, Monty withdrew from school the day after he was injured so he could go to rehab, the speculation started. Maybe a major league team was taking a look at him became a major league team was taking a look at him.

Of course he was a really good hitter, he could field fine, and his throwing arm was good before he broke it. No one doubted he'd make it if the arm came around. The break wasn't serious as breaks go and it wasn't going to hurt him in the long run if the rehabilitation was complete. We all agreed.

We had a home game and the stands were more than half full. Students were enthusiastic as we warmed up before the game. Kane dropped the first ball I threw to him from shortstop. He kept apologizing. Chance told him to shut up and keep his mind on what he was doing. I cringed. Chance was never harsh but Kane had evidently rubbed him the wrong way. I kept my opinion to myself. It wasn't going to help the situation but I didn't think we were going to maintain our modest advantage over the competition after losing Monty, but what did I know?

"You coming out after next season?" Chance asked when we went to get a drink, after our warm-up ended.

"Me? No. This is the end of the line for me. I can't hit, Chance. No one wants a shortstop that can't hit."

"You're the best damn shortstop in the state. You hit okay. You aren't going to win any batting titles but you got a good eye and you walk a lot. You win games with your glove. Someone's going to want you in their infield."

"Yeah, well, I'll be taking a long walk after college. This is it for me. I'll follow you in the papers as you work your way through the Bigs. You, my friend, are the real deal."

"I've started to think about coming out. I can't get Monty out of my brain. Man, you got a shot and the next minute. Oh, man, what a bummer. I didn't even like the guy. I'm still sick over it. I hear him hitting that wall when I go to bed at night."

"He's got his ticket punched," I said.

"Yeah, right, the market on one armed centerfielders is going great guns."

"The rehab he's going to is affiliated. He's already withdrawn from school. The boy's a free agent. He's on his way. You should be so lucky. It's obvious what's going down," I said confidently to boost his spirits.

"Yeah, well, if you say so. I've never known you to even bend the truth, but that doesn't change my feelings. One day you're worth a million bucks on the futures market and the next day you're toast. I ain't going to play that game. If anyone so much as asks me for my phone number, I'm out of here."

"Don't rush it, Chance. You've got a solid career ahead of you. Don't rush if you don't think you're ready yet. When you think you're ready, put your name out there. This college isn't going to give you anything for your talent."

I knew how he felt. I wasn't going on past my senior year of ball but seeing Monty go the way he did wasn't encouraging. I could still hear him smashing into that fence too. The memory was still fresh, although in time the sound might be muffled by my distance from it. You not only had to be good but lucky as hell to make it to the majors. Monty and Chance were good bets in my mind and Andy was almost as likely to move on up.

We took the field as the game got underway and I tossed the ball into the dugout, once we'd sent it around the horn so that all the infielders touched it. Coach Bell watched the ball rolling toward his chair before looking at me. I was still leading his infield, even after he told me I wasn't. It was habit and he'd need to get over it. I made up my mind to stop worrying. There were finals to pass and games to play. I'd worry once school was out for the year.

We'd been pressed down the stretch and we used up our best pitchers keeping out two game lead in our league. Coach Bell called on Jim Bale. He'd been doing relief work for most of the season, but many of our games hadn't required much more than an inning or two of relief. Jim was lucky to see a batter in a game once or twice a week and then it was to keep him from getting rusty. He wasn't our best reliever and therefore using him up wouldn't cost us that much.

His warm ups looked fine and he'd spent a lot of time pitching his own team batting practice. Because he didn't pitch all that often, getting hit by his own team was better than not pitching at all. His first two pitches were balls; he seemed focused and his motion looked good. The third pitch was one I'd had nightmares about since the day I walked out on practice, after Monty's injury. It was hit directly at me and popped out of my glove and landed at my feet. It was exactly what happened that day. For some reason it had caused my mind to shut down and I left. I couldn't pull that crap again.

It ran through my brain for about a third of a second. I reached straight down for the ball and fired it at first base. At the point I released the ball, I realized Morgan wasn't on first base. Kane was. I cringed and waited for it to go sailing past him, too hot for him to handle, but Kane caught it much to my relief.

"Nice recovery," Chance said from over my shoulder, sounding impressed.

Coach Bell stood and applauded my sloppy play and it was a damn good thing I made the play. By the fifth inning Bale was sitting at the far end of the bench talking to him self. He'd given up no hits, no runs, and we'd not made an error. He was perfect after five. It's one of those moments you can't mention to the pitcher but everyone knows what's going down by that late in a game. After five there's a real chance the pitcher can complete a no-hitter.

Some of the steam went out of us when Bale walked the first runner in the sixth. The next batter hit a lazy ground ball to my left. I gobbled it up before making an off balance throw to Chance. He danced across second base for the out and threw it on a rope to Kane for the double play. I still cringed every time the ball went to Kane. I'd seen him field before.

"Yes! Yes!" Bale yelled at us, following the ball's path closely.

He struck out the next batter and the no-hitter stood going into the 7 th inning. The game was secondary by this time. We led 5-0 and Coach Bell stood up after Bale gave up the walk but once we'd turned the double play, he sat back down. Bale struck out the first batter in the seventh and I was on pins and needles.

'Lord don't let me fuck up," I prayed as I surveyed my infield.

Most of the crowd was on their feet by this time, sensing they were seeing something special.

Bale dug furiously at the mound with his cleats. He talked to himself, sometimes yelling at the dirt he kicked. He spit and pitched the next ball in a fury of arms and legs.

The first walk didn't alarm me. We weren't going to lose the game. There was only one question on my mind. Would Jim Bale make his first start a no-hitter? After the second walk, Coach Bell was up pacing. I could see he wanted to pull him for a relief pitcher, but he couldn't. You couldn't take a possible no-hitter away from a pitcher, but if another man reached base, Bale would be done. He wanted to let the kid play out the string.

There were three straight balls on the next hitter. Bale was circling the mound like a circus cat. He kicked the dirt and yelled at it. He turned his back to the plate and rubbed up the ball. The runners led off of first and second but there weren't going to be any throws. This was pitcher against batter and Bale had reached the end of the line. There was one out, two on, and three balls on the batter. He stood on the mound and stared in at the catcher.

I couldn't take my eyes off Bale. It was like watching a horror movie and you just knew the demon was about to jump up and grab someone.

The umpire called time. He walked out to the pitchers mound. He said something to Bale but it wasn't hurry up and pitch or some order he felt obligated to give. I think he knew the kid was scared shitless. It was like having rolled eleven straight strikes in bowling and you need one more strike to have a 300 game. It was the third ball in the tenth frame for Bale and he was having trouble letting go of it. He stood somewhere between history and dreaming about what might have been. I did not envy him.

Coach Bell stood and applauded his pitcher. The bench was empty with everyone standing as close to the first base line as the umpire would allow. There was a buzz running through the stands as the word spread about what was going on.

Finally Bale pitched the ball and it leaped off the bat. I caught it by moving left and stretching out toward third. I wasn't able to spring up fast enough to throw the guy out at second before he scooted back. There were two outs and the no hitter remained a possibility. If only I could have gotten that runner at second. At least the ball hadn't got past me. I was even more nervous than before. No way I'd have to field another ball in that inning. I wanted the game to end. I didn't care how. I just wanted to leave.

Bale kept his back to the plate and stared at me. I was sure he was wondering why I hadn't turned the double play so he could get out of here too. We were both doing the best we could. He was ready to pitch faster this time. The count went to 2-2 and he was prowling the pitcher's mound again. He came to attention after a minute of preparation and he threw the sweetest curveball I think I've ever seen. The guy was swinging at it as it tailed off and a way from the plate.

"Strike three," the umpire yelled.

Game over.

Bale was rushed by his team. He jumped up on the catcher Boggs and wrapped his legs around his waist. He began pumping his fist in the air screaming, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Boggs could hardly hold him for the equipment he was wearing but it was his no-hitter too. No pitcher could take full credit for a no-hitter without giving some credit to the catcher. It didn't matter who got the credit. We were a team and we'd just seen a brilliantly pitched game from a substitute starter. Coach Bell could do no wrong and the crowd roared its approval long after the final pitch. We were still winning ballgames.

I loved baseball. This was why I played. There was always something new and exciting that happened. It might look simple and easy and somewhat mundane, until you see a guy like Bale, a nobody on his own team, pitch a no-hitter. Magic moments are rare but Bale's no-hitter will always be one for me. Like a caged animal, he performed for the ringmaster, and Coach Bell bragged about what we'd seen. Bale was tall and skinny and he wore thick glasses to boot. He was an unlikely looking hero.

We were all flying high again. It was as difficult to say how we'd handle Monty's departure from the team. He hadn't even come around to say goodbye, but that didn't surprise me. The worry was that not having him in the lineup might upset the balance we'd established on the team. Even if one guy wasn't hitting, someone else always was. We had fewer options without him in the lineup. We'd no-hit a fifth place team in our league. Our hitting had been fine but they were a fifth place team and we were leading the league.

Coach Bell ordered pizza and Jim Bale was immediately inducted into State's Baseball Hall of Fame Honor Roll. We made the most of the impromptu celebration. We had a day off and then the final game of the season that meant nothing. It was still a game and it had to be played. Then we'd start our playoff games the following weekend and if we advanced to the finals in the Tri-state championships we'd get invited to play in the NCAA tournament ball. We were confident and feeling good as the season was coming to a close.

We won the final game going away and finished three games out front in our division. Our pitchers were rested, our hitters were hitting, but our fielding had slipped a bit with Morgan moving to the outfield as Kane settled in at first.

We won our first three games in the Tri-state but it was against the weakest teams who advanced into the tournament. None of the games were close and we seemed to be maintaining our momentum. It was easy to feel good and think we were on our way to the NCAA national tourney. The excitement in the locker room increased every day we advanced to the next level. We were having fun.

Our first loss was to Collinwood, which stung big time. They'd won the league championship the previous two seasons. We'd beaten them all season but they'd played tournament ball before and we were new to it. We beat Standardsville and it came down to Collinwood vs. State for the league championship and the free pass into the NCAA tourney. One of us would advance and one of us was going home for the summer.

We hit three home runs in the last game. Andy had two and Wertz one. We'd scored eight runs. It was one of our best run productions of the season. Collinwood scored 11 runs and we were eliminated.

It's not how we'd planned it. Some guys would say Collinwood simply out-played us. Other guys would say it was Monty cost us a shot at advancing further in the tournament. I didn't believe we'd have lost if Monty had been in the lineup. He'd been an important part of the team all year and you can't simply yank a freshman into the lineup and figure you're going to remain as competitive as before. It was a long shot at best and it hadn't paid off.

I can't say how many nights I was kept up thinking about what might have been. Chance shrugged, Wertz punched his locker door into submission, I pouted, Andy sat silent with little to say. Coach Bell went about his business, accounted for the game uniforms to get them dry cleaned and ready for the following season. The padlock was put on the practice fields and the cage that separated the baseball team's lockers from the rest of the athletes.

I maintained my B average and there were only two exams and one paper due after the final game of our season. I didn't even look to see what was going on in the tournament. I guess if I wasn't in it I didn't care, but my father would know and he'd tell me. For him I'd act interested.

Andy was going to come home with me for a week and then I was flying out to his house for a week. It would give me something to do besides work, but I had a job with a construction firm that would keep me outdoors. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to work inside. I had never liked being indoors all that much. I guess I could always come back and reclaim my lawn mowing empire, but I'd done that before.

Coach Bell called me into his office one more time before the season ended. He informed me that Monty would play in Portland any part of this year he might be available and the following season if I wanted to watch their box score.

"Chance told me he didn't want to run my infield, you know. You didn't intimidate that boy, did you John?"

"No, sir."

"You do understand why I had to do that, John?"

"Yes, sir. It was stupid and disrespectful. You did the right thing. I don't know what made me do it."

"What did Chance tell you about running my infield?"

"He told me nothing had changed. He told me I was the best shortstop in the state."

"Sounds like Chance. Monty and him were always the ones I picked as major leaguers. He going to declare after next season? No one will look at him before that."

"You'll have to ask him. He doesn't tell me his business," I said.

"Yeah, but you know his mind. The big money is out there. Guys like Chance can only wait for so long. He'll go after his junior year. We'll need to find a new infield, John. Brooks graduates. Where do we stand with Kane?"

"He's trouble, Coach. I didn't like it when I worked with him and I especially don't like him in my infield," I said positively.

"My infield," Coach Bell declared. "What if we go with Morgan back to first and I'll get Wertz to work with Kane in right field? I just don't want those two beating the hell out of each other. Wertz ain't got good sense and Kane's no Einstein."

"He might do better in the outfield. You keep him at first and he'll cost us a key game, maybe two. The balls he dropped or missed this season didn't cost us but you keep him there and he'll lose us games."

"Nice bat on that boy," Coach Bell said. "Why can't I get a kid with a good bat and no attitude?"

"Andy," I said.

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm lucky to have him. I don't think he took his demotion too hard. I don't see anyone in cleanup but him next season. I hope he stays for his senior year. He going to stay?"

"He hasn't said anything different. I haven't asked."

"He needs another year of seasoning. We'll be doing a little building next season and then, look out. Your senior year is going to be a rebuilding year big time."

"I've got all I can handle worrying about my own bat. You've got to do what you've got to do, Coach. I don't expect any favoritism. I can only do the best I can do. It's all I got."

"Sometimes it's not easy. Sometimes I wonder if I might just take one of those minor league jobs and leave all this," he said, opening his arms to indicate the typical tiny coaches office and the limited help he had bringing winning ball to State.

"Just don't go before I do, Coach. I got a feeling if you aren't coaching I'm not in the starting lineup. You appreciate what I bring to the game but another coach is going to see my batting average and sit me down."

"I'm not going anywhere until we win the championship next year. We should have gone this year, John. This was our year. I don't know if next year will be as good. I felt it in my bones this year."

"I just play shortstop, Coach."

"Yes you do, John. You play one hell of a shortstop. Now get the hell out of here so I can get some work done. Have a good summer. Watch your weight and stay away from the fast women."

School is out for the summer.

The End

Don't miss Outside The Foul Lines – Book III

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