Outside the Foul Lines - Book IV

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

Chancellor's Call

It was difficult not thinking of Andy and the fact he wasn't going to be there for me for the first time. From early on in my career at State, I'd been put with Andy. Little could I guess that three years later I'd be back at State, thinking about my lover when I thought about him. My return to school was bittersweet.

It took much of the afternoon for me to unpack satisfactorily. I still wanted to be ready to move at a moments notice, but I'd need time once school started. By that time all the convenient rooms around campus would be rented, leaving me to scramble off campus for digs. Moving was distasteful but a possibility.

It wasn't a good idea to get too comfortable but I was comfortable there after three years. Giving it up would mean giving up my many connections with my baseball past. Baseball wasn't in my blood, but it sure as hell was on my mind.

I lasted until after I'd gone off campus for a burger before I walked over to the baseball complex. It was quiet. Summer practice was over and everyone was getting ready to return to school for the new school year. The grass needed a trim and I remembered my turn at lawn care and management at State along with Andy. It made me smile as I went to sit on the team bench. It was bare and there was no sign of a team or its players in the empty space.

I sat for a long time realizing it was one of the few places where I'd belonged beyond my house and my town. The baseball field was part of who I was for three seasons. There were struggles, a brotherhood of teammates, and the final glorious victories that raised us all beyond anywhere we'd been before.

Together we'd gone far and these were memories that would compliment my life. As a team we'd bonded beyond the game. I had no brothers but Andy and Chance were as close as if we'd known each other all our lives. I depended on them to be there for me all the time. Their absence was never more keenly felt than at the baseball complex.

I couldn't imagine being as lucky as I'd been. I'd started playing baseball in high school. I played to waste time. It was nearly seven years since I first played baseball on a team. It was Bobby Henry who gave me my infielder's insight on the game. It followed an ebb and flow. You tightened up to deny the hitter his favorite spot. You loosened up to reduce the hits for extra bases down the foul lines.

"Fielding is an art, Dooley. Your glove is your brush. Your footwork is the dance you do. Make a great play and they remember it when they come to the plate. They want to hit the ball away from you. You are inside their head and they are less likely to get a hit."

The shortstop was at the center of a game. Yeah, everyone remembered Andy, Monte, and Wertz for their homers, but I held the infield together so a lesser team couldn't scratch hit us to death and win by luck alone. The best shortstops could turn twice the number of double-plays. With Chance on second, we were a threat every time a man reached first and the other teams knew it.

I stepped away from out bench and jogged from home plate to first, from first to second, second to third, and then I walked to the plate. The bags were all up and in the storage locker and there was an impression where the plate sat down in the ground so it was level.

I looked up at the stands and felt a little emptiness in the pit of my stomach that joined the burger, fries, and soda. I looked at my feet and wondered what Andy was doing that early evening. If I got to keep the dorm room where we'd so frequently made love, I'd get a phone with the savings. There was a glimmer of hope left but no more.

I walked around the corner of the stands and standing at the gate was Coach Martin, watching me. How long he'd been standing there I didn't know and he didn't say.

"Hello, Mr. Dooley. Nice to see you made it back."

"Yes, sir. How are you?" I asked, wanting to grill him about where I stood but knowing it wasn't the time and the decision didn't rest with him.

"Not quite settled into the idea of coaching the varsity for a full year. I told my wife I'd retire two years ago. Coach Bell talked me into staying. You don't figure that clever son-of-a-gun knew Briscoe was going to bomb and they'd need to ask me to pick up the pieces?"

"You did a damn good job, Coach. Final sixteen in the NCAA. I'd say you're up for a nice salary increase."

"Money isn't everything, Mr. Dooley. This team could put me in my grave. It's all rebuilding here on out and it was never Coach Briscoe's team and it surely wasn't mine. You boys were carefully groomed and trained by a master, Coach Bell. You can take him off the bench but you can't deny it was his team that went to the sixteen round.

"You can bet he was there, Mr. Dooley. He was in the crowd, somewhere, each game you played. I imagine he was quite proud of his boys and you did him proud, Mr. Dooley."

"I didn't even play."

"It was your play that got us there. We were lucky to have a good shortstop that could fill your shoes without giving up a lot of your mobility. Jeff's going to be fine."

Nothing in anything Coach Martin said answered my questions. Talking about the guys, my team, our finish, made it impossible for me to let him walk away without telling me what I was waiting to find out. I wanted to know where I stood at State.

There was no time like the present to find out. Coach Martin had opened the door and I came charging through.

"I didn't get invited for summer practice," I said, biting my tongue, not wanting to complain to him.

"Chancellor's call, Mr. Dooley. You need to talk to him. I'm the coach but he's in charge. He specifically told me, 'don't send a letter to John Dooley.'

"I'm sorry. I just do what I'm told. He says coach my varsity, I coach it. You've got to talk to him to find out what he has on his mind. He doesn't tell me much and specifically he hasn't indicated he'd pay a dime more to have me stay on for this season."

"Coach Briscoe was convinced I lead a conspiracy against him. The Chancellor decided against him, but he felt I had some responsibility for what happened. I could have tried to work with the man. I never did. I don't blame Chancellor Bishop. He can't tolerate mutiny."

"I don't know anything, but I do know this. Coach Briscoe was supposed to coach the baseball team. He let it go to his head, Mr. Dooley. No one could tell him anything if he got into one of his moods where he knew best.

"It's why Coach Bell kept him so far removed from decision making. Briscoe was a fair second or third team coach, but he didn't have a head for the natural subtleness of the game. All he saw was win, lose. I don't know what the Chancellor wants and I'm smart enough to let him decide this one on his own. He's in the Bahamas fishing this week. He'll be back before classes begin and he out to be in a pretty fine mood."

"Well, I'm back in my dorm room and there was no question about giving me the key. That's all I got, Coach. If he wants me out he isn't leaving me any time to find a room."

"Yeah, Henry asked me if he could share the room with you. I told him I didn't see any reason why not, but I'd have to make sure it was okay with you. I don't want him in the freshman dorm any longer than necessary and he asked to room with you. I've got two extra rooms in your dorm, because of so many boys leaving. I won't fill them, Mr. Dooley. That way you'll stay where you are for as long as you need it if we don't get the outcome we want."

"Jeff's fine with me. Do you think Chancellor Bishop is going to let me stay in the baseball dorm if he isn't going to allow me to play?"

"Until I hear different, you are a scholarship player. That's the way Coach Bell wrote it and I go by what's written. It's the way I see it. He'll have to tell me to move you out. If he doesn't say it you're fine where you are."

"Yeah, I figured it would be like that. I appreciate you doing that for me. It will be hard to find a room once school starts."

"If he tells me you are out of the program and he wants the room, I'll tell him you need time to make other arrangements."

"Thanks, Coach. I appreciate that. You know I can't hit?" I said in what would be my rational for Chancellor Bishop dumping me.

"No, I know you got hit in the head. I know you think you can't hit. It's a demon you need to face on your own terms. The kind of glove you bring to the game is invaluable, Mr. Dooley, it would be a shame for me not to have it patrolling my infield. The batting will come back in time if you don't convince yourself otherwise."

"You think so?"

"I've seen it before. A guy gets hit, gets gun shy, shakes, sweats when he comes to bat, closes his eyes, swings wild, doesn't swing at all, and if they stick it out long enough, one day they get a hit, and then another, and another, and the next thing you know, they forget they can't hit and just play ball."

"I was always scared of the ball, even in high school," I admitted to him in my version of confession.

"Look at where you are, Mr. Dooley. You're at State. You didn't get here by accident. If you were always scared of the ball, you should be pretty proud you still faced the pitchers year after year. That takes courage. Don't sell yourself short and things might be a lot different than you suppose. I can make no guarantees, but I know what I know after fifty years in the game."

"Thanks. I like being in the infield. I loved having Chance there with me. Damn we were good, Coach," I bragged. "It was magic."

"The best double-play combo I've seen in ages, and I've seen a few."

"He's already in the starting line-up and batting over .300," I bragged. "He's on the way to the Bigs."

"He's a keeper, Mr. Dooley. He'll have no trouble making it to the Bigs if he stays healthy and keeps his nose clean."

It was a refreshing conversation. Just two guys talking ball. Coach Martin was smooth, relaxed, and smart enough to know he didn't know everything and wasn't about to presume for me.

I didn't know Chancellor Bishop very well, but I knew he kept his cards close to his vest. The fact Coach Martin didn't know what was up with him didn't surprise me.

We shook hands before I returned to the empty dorm and my quiet room. The meeting did nothing but make me become more obsessed with my future.

I slept in Andy's top bunk and his comforting smell was still there and I dreamed about being in his arms all night long. I woke up disappointed, but the dream had to do for the time being. It was vivid enough to make me feel as if we'd actually been together. This was comforting on a day I was becoming more anxious about my future.

School was a walk in the park. I needed the credits for English and History to have the credits to graduate. My business courses were the easiest, but I didn't mind any of my classes. It just wasn't going to require a big effort to pass all my classes.

I went down off campus and rummaged through the used books at the corner thrift store. I spent two dollars and a quarter for nine books that were new titles to me. 'Ruby Fruit Jungle' sounded like the most fun. 'Get Shorty' was a movie I'd seen and Elmore Leonard was a most excellent writer. I'd compare the book to use up some time.

I read constantly until classes began. It was a blessing to have something to do, getting to eat in the cafeteria, not so much. The food wasn't bad but it lacked the gusto I enjoyed and got at home.

It was my final year of college and I didn't have any idea of what I'd be doing in a year. It was the first time in my life the plan had run out. The idea of opening a small appliance repair shop would allow me to work in Statesville. Mr. Bartlett was lobbying for me to return to his company in a supervisory role, which was a backup position if the business idea took time to take off.

Andy being certain to change teams a couple of times before going to the big leagues wouldn't allow for us to make any permanent arrangement. We'd take our time making sure we didn't waste a lot of time and energy playing musical chairs. My income would allow him that much more time to succeed without the pressure of how to survive.

I couldn't help with the house he wanted to buy his family. It was his priority when we first met and I wouldn't want him to do something different on my account. We were going to be fine and spend a lifetime together, giving a little bit of time to show his appreciation to his family seemed noble to me.

My desire to play baseball hadn't diminished, even if my ability to play was in doubt, and there was someone between me, my desire, and my ability.

The thing that stood between me and my future, the fact I wasn't invited to summer practice on the Chancellor's say so. I could have seen some hope if not for that. It didn't bode well for my baseball future.

Maybe on his fishing trip he'd catch some big fish and figure it would be bad luck to cut me loose. At least it would give him time to think about it and reconsider. I had a feeling Chancellor Bishop rarely reconsidered anything. He took a lot of time before deciding anything so he didn't need to give it any more thought.

All my classes turned out to be keepers. I had more electives and didn't need all the credits for graduation, but I needed them to keep my mind off Andy, baseball, and a future I could not yet see.

I stopped by the baseball diamond between classes on the second day and the grounds keepers were busy trimming and mowing the grass around the field. They rarely let it go for more than a week or ten days but after summer practice it wasn't touched until just before fall practices were called.

The team needed to stay in shape and keep their timing down. Fielding took a lot less time to work its way back into the routine at a playing level. It was batting that took the most time to get back to game readiness.

It was at the end of the week I was handed an envelope when I picked up my key at the front desk of the dorm. I knew who it was from. I climbed the stairs to my room, dumping my books on the chair in front of my computer before dropping down on Jeff's bottom bunk, leaning back and looking at the envelop, I held it up at arms length for some time.

I pictured the old guy who was on late night television. He'd hold the envelope to his forehead to read what was inside. It wasn't a consideration, but opening it wasn't as easy as it should have been. I knew my future was tied to whatever was inside.

By the time I opened it I had figured out what it said. Chancellor Bishop wasn't going to write me a note to tell me about it. My wait wasn't over yet.

The letters embossed at the top of the single slip of paper, 'From The Chancellor's Desk.' His handwriting under the golden letters was bold and concise. 'See me tomorrow between 3:00 and 3:30. Bishop.'

I didn't sleep that night.

"What's wrong, Do?" Jeff asked, after my third trip to the bathroom that hour.

"Nothing. Just restless."

"Tell me about it. Wake me up when you go to sleep, okay."

Jeff was okay. I got cross when someone kept me from sleeping. He was so quiet I had to look to see if he was there. He studied when he was in the room and didn't waste a lot of time. It was the first time we were alone together in a confined space and it took some getting use to.

I knew Bobby was quite intelligent as well as a good ball player. Jeff had finished his first year with a better grade point average than I had my first year.

I lay a wake remembering baseball, how I got into it, how much of a part of me it was. You can hardly spend seven years doing something hours each day and not wonder what happens when you are no longer doing it. I wondered if it was like retiring from a job you like.

I liked baseball and now that retirement was on the table, I wasn't ready to stop playing. I wanted to play baseball my senior year. Yes, I could probably pay all my bills and not go too deeply in dept to finish my senior year. I could graduate without baseball, but by daylight I had become very nervous that my days as a player at State might end that afternoon.

I'd been in my dorm room for over a week since the Chancellor's return. I guess he had more to do than worry about one baseball player's future.

Coach Martin was no one's middle man and he wouldn't tell me if he'd spoken to the Chancellor about me. Stopping to see him first was a waste of our time. I liked Coach Martin and regretted him being in the middle of the confusion about who would be playing in his infield.

He was stretching the boundaries of his life beyond what he'd planned. I had no doubt he'd walk in a New York minute if Chancellor Bishop jerked him around even a little.

But Chancellor Bishop wasn't a jerker. He didn't do anything without a plan. He would have worked it all out in his mind by now and he had a lot to do today before he had time to see me. Thinking about it didn't do any good. Not thinking about it was impossible. I could have skipped class and may well have missed one with the state of mind I was in. One eye was constantly on the clock as gravity refused to allow the hands to move all day.

My life was in the balance and time stood still.

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