Outside the Foul Lines - Book III

by Rick Beck

Chapter 3

Bell Ringer

The catcher jogged out to the mound with the ball as I crossed behind the backstop to get to my side of the plate. The umpire stood staring at Bradbury's bench as if he was expecting something from their coach.

I stood fast as the first two pitches were so far outside the catcher had to scramble to get to them. Both times his throw back to the pitcher was a rocket. When the ball collided with the pitcher's glove, it created a popping sound. The next pitch forced the catcher to chase it down. The pitcher's glove popped once more with the catcher's angry throw. I walked on the next pitch and hadn't seen a strike yet. If they left that guy in it was going to be a long inning. Their team had lost even more of its pitching staff the year before to graduation than we did, but, like us, most of their best hitters were back. They could break a game open in no time at all.

I was ready to steal second and then third on this guy, but the third base coach gave me the stop sign. Every time the pitcher threw the ball, the catcher had to scramble for it. When Pierce walked on five pitches, I understood that I got to second without the risk of being thrown out. With a wild pitcher you waited him out and didn't give him any easy outs. We'd let him walk the entire lineup if he lasted that long.

I took a good size lead off second. The catcher was way busy and the pitcher was still searching for the plate. I really wanted to run. After two balls thrown well outside to Chance, the Bradbury coach came off the bench and the catcher met him at the pitcher's mound. The idea of walking the bases loaded to start the game didn't seem to be appealing to either of them.

After this meeting of the minds, the next pitch went over everyone's head, hitting high up on the backstop. The chain link rattled and Chance followed the ball's trajectory with amazement before he relaxed, stepping back out of the batter's box. He glared out at the pitcher, taking a couple more practice swings before he was ready to step back in to the batter's box.

The pitcher glanced at his bench as if he expected company. The catcher walked out in front of the plate, firing the ball back at the pitcher. Chance crowded the plate. This guy hadn't thrown anything inside yet and this way he could possibly get his bat on the ball. I moved a few strides toward third. Chance took a few more practice swings, the catcher eased back down into his croch, and the sequence of events began again.

The next pitch came in on Chance, forcing him to stumble backwards. As he twisted to get away from the ball, his bat found the ball and instead of a walk, it was a foul, strike one. I had been off and running and only a step from third base when I was forced to retreat back to second base. I hadn't lost my anxiousness to run.

I waited for the coach to reappear, taking the long walk back to the mound, signaling for another pitcher and yanking this yahoo once and for all, but he didn't move from the bench.

I looked back at the plate to see Chance taking more practice swings. He was no worse for wear. I could see by the color of his face, he was pissed. To prove it he pointed his bat at the pitcher twice, holding it the second time so the barrel was aimed directly at the wild man, pulling the bat back down before he could be warned by the umpire to play nice.

I think even the umpire had had enough of this guy. There were more Chance practice swings taken as he stared in the pitcher's direction, and he eased himself back into the batter's box, digging his cleats firmly into the dirt, showing no fear. Two more practice swings, still glaring at the pitcher.

Then, the pitcher was ready. Chance grew still. As soon as the pitcher started his motion, I was off and determined to get to third no matter what happened at the plate. I'd waited long enough. It was time to run and I ran.

Call it a hunch or whatever you want, but I felt no danger of being thrown out. The odds were it was going to be ball four anyway and I got to stretch my legs as the walk would send me to third and put Pierce on second.

When I heard the bat crack, I was only a couple of steps from third base, I lengthened my stride. Rounding third as the ball hit directly in front of the pitcher's mound, forcing him into an impromptu little dance as the ball squirted between his legs and it bounded over second and out into short centerfield.

I was on home plate waiting for Pierce as Chance made a wide turn at first, dashing for second base as the second baseman and centerfielder ran down the ball. Pierce joined me at the plate before Chance pulled up at second, beating the throw in to the shortstop by a step.

My coaching skills still needed work or the Bradbury coach needed a refresher course on when to pull a pitcher. They left the guy in to pitch to Andy when I was sure he was done for the day. They had to know Andy was on a tear with nearly half his hits being homers in the past nine games.

Why let this guy feed Andy a fat pitch? Of course they could walk him with first base open. Maybe they'd let him do the dirty, walk Andy, and then call on a relief pitcher to take over. It was still the first inning with no outs. Bringing in a relief pitcher meant calling on another starter. If they had a well rested starter would they be pitching this guy?

Bradbury, not being very deep in pitchers, might be leaving him in as a strategic move. We hit everyone equally well and maybe they were giving up a game to keep their better pitchers fresher to pitch against weaker teams. A loss to us put Bradbury two games behind us in the standings. With Wertz and Kane following Andy in the lineup, walking Andy was risky. Maybe coaching wasn't my cup of tea. I'd have pulled this guy a long time ago.

Where in the hell was Coach Bell?

It's easy to speculate when you're flying high. My junior season was going far better than the beginning of the previous season. I was established as a key member of the team. I didn't need to prove myself or fight for any recognition. I was batting respectably. It might not be major league hitting but it was better than before, which allowed me to become more comfortable at the plate.

I could tell a ball from a strike. I was willing to take a walk every time I came to bat, because it put me on base and with the lineup behind me, I scored often when I walked on my first turn at bat. It was key to our offense. If I walked and scored the pitcher wasn't likely to establish dominance in the game, which isn't always the cse, but starting off with a couple of runs in our first inning was instrumental in our winning season. Our competition was often playing catch up and that kept them off balance, giving State the advantage.

We'd come close the year before and this year we were playing together as a team and getting a good result. How losing Monty made such a difference baffled me. We were on our way to the tournament. We'd played well all season and his bat was dependable. Losing him upset our chemistry and we were soon sitting on the sidelines. While we all knew one man couldn't make that much difference, at that strategic time it did. We were unable to regroup and in a couple of games we were toast.

Sports were funny that way. It's why you kept wearing the same socks in every game. I was more of an objective observer. My future in baseball was limited. I could not be objective when thinking about Andy and Chance. They were likely to be climbing the baseball chain, once the season ended. Andy was playing his best ball of his career, after a slow start. Chance was hitting a ton and his fielding was close to perfect. Waiting meant risking injury and the possibility of having a bad season his senior year. His value would never be higher, but Chance hadn't announced his intentions.

If this was Andy's dream it was hard to tell. He sulked a lot and he was moody. He hadn't started hitting right away but that was behind him. While we were in the homestretch of our season, our three years together were about to end with less than a month of ball left to play. He'd graduate and a whole new world would open before him.

I wanted a championship season for Andy. It would be the perfect sendoff and he'd have something great to look back on. Andy didn't like change, I realized he wasn't very happy knowing change was coming. Unhappiness over leaving me behind, even for baseball, meant he cared a lot. Once he was gone, I was sure he'd have so much to do to adjust to his minor league team, he wouldn't have time to miss me all that much. It was only a year until I graduated and then we'd plan our future together.

I had no history in playoffs or championships, which made me no different from most athletes. For each player who reached the championship heights in their sport there are a hundred who never get beyond taking pride in achieving a personal best or a school or county record. For us it was, 'how we played the game.'

We played with championship caliber players, Andy and Chance, but there is never the depth behind them to propel their team to the championship level. I worried this would be true of State again. We'd come close and we'd played well enough to play in the championship rounds, except fate steps in to stop us.

There was no talk of this team being the equal of our last team, even though our record was the equal of that team. The idea of reaching the championships was enticing for me, but my future didn't depend on it. I worried I'd fuck up and cost us a crucial game. My talent was as a fielder and I wasn't likely to blow a big play. My bat was adequate but my abity to get a walk was a definite plus, but I still worried I wasn't good enough.

No one talked up our record or our tenuous standing at the top of our league. There was such a thing as a junx and that was the sure way of bringing one on. We all knew where we stood and we all knew Greenwood and Bradbury were breathing down our necks. We wouldn't win our league until the next to last or last game if we won at all and then we were in the Division Championships. It wasn't something you needed to talk about. You played the best ball you knew how to play and the rest was out of your control.

I never thought much about playing on a winning team. There was never any idea of a championship season while I was in high school. The buoyancy of winning that accompanied our team last year was eye opening. Once you catch the fever, it changes everything. You fly high with every win and you crash and burn with each loss. Superstition and routine become a supernatural force that you can't afford to ignore.

I don't know what makes a winner, but on the off chance it's wearing that same pair of socks you were wearing when you started a winning streak, you took no chances. You always approached the plate the same way. You never disregarded anything under your control, because there was so much you couldn't control. The more you win the more careful you become. I never understood until we won the year before.

I liked baseball. I never considered it as a career opportunity but it was my ticket to being college educated. Doing well assured the status quo wasn't likely to change and that made for comfort for this shortstop. I liked consistency. I liked predictability. I couldn't ask for more as we reached the homestretch of my junior season. The only thing I'd change was to make Andy a junior so we'd graduate together.

We were winning 2-0 with Chance on second with no outs. Andy was coming to the plate with Wertz and Kane followed him. Our power hitters were coming up against a pitcher who couldn't find the plate. I couldn't take my eyes off the field. This was what made baseball exciting. My knees jumped as I watched Andy take practice swings. God he was beautiful.

Chance eased off second base four or five steps, realizing there was little chance of tempting a throw. Andy took a few more casual swings as he stepped in to the batter's box. Talking about someone being in charge, he owned the plate.

Sitting in the catbird seat, I watched in disbelief as Andy took two straight balls before he stretched out across the plate with his bat to swat at what would have been a certain ball three, but instead it was a line drive right at the second baseman. Chance was a dead duck. A double play and that quick we felt the letdown that comes with disappointment. No one was more critical than Andy. He knew when he did it, it wasn't smart, but he couldn't stop himself.

It was a shocker that excited the Bradbury team. Wertz came up and struck out on three straight pitches, after the first two pitches were balls. Bradbury's pitcher had finally found the plate and we'd let them off the hook. The team was growling as we took our 2-0 lead to the field.

Coach Briscoe let us hear about it. We'd let a golden opportunity slip away. We could have buried them in the first inning and instead we let them stay in the game. Bradbury hit two singles in the second but the runners were stranded as Phillips pitched his way out of it.

Bradbury's pitcher settled down enough to keep us off balance. Every third or fourth pitch was wild, but in-between he managed to frustrate us with his curve and sinkerball cutting the corners of the plate. We couldn't stand there waiting for a walk, although he did walk me my second at bat. There were already two outs and I died on first base.

It was easy for me to wait him out and take the walk but our biggest hitters, Andy, Wertz, and Kane, all struck out on bad pitches or topped balls that didn't get out of the infield. On Chances second at bat he pitched four straight pitches well outside for a walk.

We were still nursing the 2-0 lead and Bradbury could break open a game just as fast as we could. A two-run lead wasn't enough against a team with so many good hitters, but Phillips was pitching his best game at State.

When I came up in the fifth inning, I was staring out at the same unpredictable pitcher for the third time. It wasn't what I expected. I'd written him off in the first inning, but he was still out there. How we were only leading 2-0 was even a bigger mystery. I'd do my best to work him for a walk and if I was lucky I'd get a pitch I could tag for a hit.

I knew better than to try to force anything. It wasn't for me to break a game open. I was the guy that got in position for someone else to break the game open.

I got on my shin guards and the batting helmet and picked out my bat. Jogging out behind the backstop, I heard a familiar clang as the warm up pitch rattled the chain link. I shook my head, reached for a handful of good old State dirt, wiping it through my hands. I took my place in the batting box, looking out at the disorganized pitcher. He didn't look at me until he pitched a pitch high and outside. The catcher stretched to knock the ball down. I shook my head again, having seen that pitch every time I came to bat that day. This guy was too predictable; 'next pitch outside and low,' I thought.

The second pitch bounced just over the plate and the catcher scrambled around, trying to find it between his legs and under his butt. I chuckled, remembering my previous at bats. The next pitch would be high and a little closer to the plate. I could see his pattern in my head. All I had to do is stand there and not swing at a bad pitch and I'd be on first base. He could be getting tired and our big hitters were right behind me.

I moved back up to the plate, took a couple of practice swings, after the catcher had fired the ball back to the pitcher. I waited for ball three. I was comfortable. Maybe I'd swing if the ball really looked good, marbe I'd wait for the walk.

I was too comfortable. I knew too much. I let myself believe I knew something I couldn't know. Getting ahead of the game and especially getting out ahead of the pitcher was never a good idea, but I wanted to win and it seemed so safe, because this guy had been pitching me outside all day.

I watched the pitch all the way to the plate. It broke late. It broke inside and seemed to pick up speed. I got my feet tangled trying to move back out of the way of the pitch, but I was too slow, or the pitch was too fast, and a gigantic thump rang my bell as the ball smashed into the side of my batting helmet.

I felt the dirt under my back and I could feel the confusion whirling around me. I was there but not really. Faces came and went from my vision in that awkward position. Then, I took a nap.

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