Outside the Foul Lines - Book IV

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4

New Season

Being told I was a player-coach didn't explain it to me. I met with Coach Martin a few days later. He told me the idea began with him. He didn't want to obligate himself to a full season on a team that was rebuilding. State was going to require a lot of work to find the pieces that would work best together. He thought he was up to it with my help.

Once Coach Martin walked away, it would require a major search be made for a qualified coach. After State's most successful baseball season, Chancellor Bishop didn't want to be faced with an exhaustive search for a new man. We all knew it wouldn't be a great season, but by season's end we would have a competitive team and that would make a search easier.

Coach Martin was apologetic for failing to be honest with me when first we met that school year. He admitted that once he'd turned the suggestion over to Chancellor Bishop, he wasn't comfortable saying anything about it until the Chancellor spoke with me on the subject.

I had to wait three days to tell Andy what had transpired in Chancellor Bishop's office. He was on a road-trip with the Lincoln team and each time I called they took a message at his boarding house. He laughed when we talked and told me I was such a dope for thinking State would want to play ball without me, when they could play with me.

Of course it made sense by this time. I'd bothered him with my worrying the entire time I was in Lincoln. He did his best to reassure me but I wasn't having any of it. It couldn't have worked out any better if I had plotted it myself, except I wasn't the only one with good news.

Andy was in the starting lineup at Lincoln. He'd hit two homers in his first three games. He'd made one error but they won the game and the error didn't factor into it but his two run homer did.

Knowing Andy was starting meant as much to me as what had happened to me, maybe even more. This was the beginning of us being able to plan a life together. The first step was him doing well in the minors so that he'd be picked up by a major league team. I had no doubt this was inevitable, but him having taken the first step meant we were on our way.

It still wasn't clear to me what I would do after I graduated. If I stayed in Statesville and opened a business, I'd be tied there for a couple of years. By that time Andy would be in or at least on his way to the Big Show. He'd be able to come visit me during the off season, except the coach at Lincoln liked his players to play in the Spanish Leagues in the off season.

We hadn't discussed it all that much but it was all stuff we faced as we went on with our lives. Any business I began I could leave with employees if I hired people I trusted, which I would. It was a loosely knit plan we'd talked about even before Andy graduated. The only thing that had changed was we knew what club he played for and where he might go as a result. Nothing was certain but it gave us enough hope to go on.

With mostly new players on the first team there would be new personalities, making the job more complex. I'd come up from the freshman team at a time Coach Bell was building his team. He had replacements picked out for the graduating players and brought their replacements up to play in the later innings near the end of the season. Playing with the first team would help them fit in the following year.

I'd been lucky enough to see it and Coach Bell had spent a lot of time questioning me about my thoughts and ideas. It was another level above simply playing ball and I liked it. He shared his ideas with me and he was a quiet pleasant man that I liked. In high school I rarely heard from the coach one-on-one, unless I'd screwed up, and then I got an ear full.

This was exciting. If I decided to sit down and quit playing, I would remain on the team. I couldn't imagine quitting. My entire school experience was built around baseball. I wasn't ready to let it go. I wasn't sure how I could play and not bat, but I was working on it.

Coach Martin wasn't sure what my role would end up being but he wanted me doing what I was most comfortable doing, after leading the infield through its paces. Even the infield was a question in my mind, but I could deal with infielders. I'd coached most fielding positions for Coach Bell. The only place I would be of no help was in the batting cage and the bullpen.

The idea of Platooning my position was discussed without Coach Martin showing any enthusiasm for it. If we came up with an extra infielder, after the first half of the game I could sit down and he would play. He would bat for me. Jeff wasn't at all enthusiastic when I mentioned it to him. He figured he'd have to play my position and the replacement player would play second, a less demanding position.

It's what we'd done with the starting lineup the previous season. Jeff was waiting to fill in for me and it allowed him to play. He brought a good bat with him. We couldn't expect to find anyone nearly as ready to play on the first team as Jeff had been. While he was still learning, he was confident in his ability and he'd fit right in with Chance.

Coach Martin wanted me in the lineup full time. He wanted me to work on my batting, but he knew I had my own ideas and he didn't want to argue about it.

He wanted me to know I couldn't hurt the team by taking all my swings. I didn't know that hurting my team was what was on my mind. It would be a while before we had to make any decisions and I was thinking about it.

Before we began the official practice we met two or three times a week in the gym for light exercises meant to keep us conditioned. This would give me time to adjust to so many new faces and to make them familiar with what I did and what I expected from them. I took control of the conditioning sessions to free Coach Martin from chores I could easily manage.

Once fall practice began, he wanted me to start working with the infielders, which would include a new first baseman, third baseman, and catcher. I had no doubt about Jeff and I being at the center of the infield, but the rest was a work in progress.

Baker had come in to catch in a couple of games in the late innings at the end of the previous season. That experience put him at the top of the list for first string catcher. Kramer would play third and Ford was set to go on first but they lacked experience. Both had been in a platoon arrangement at the end of the previous. Neither played more than a few innings, but it was a few more than the rest of the sophomores. That put them at the head of the class for infield positions but neither was solid.

I had no feeling for any of the three but they knew me and I was about the only name player left on State's team from the Coach Bell era. While this might be the Martin-Dooley era, I preferred to defer to Coach Martin and made it known it was his team and I was there to serve him in ways he thought I was best suited. The talk of my being a coach was limited to Coach Marin's office.

Jeff turned out to be an excellent roommate. He wasn't nearly as distracting as Andy, so my studies were always up to date and my reading was usually well ahead of where I needed to be.

Jeff made it known he didn't want to hear about him playing shortstop. He didn't mind it but he had work to do to become nearly the second baseman as Chance. He asked me if I thought he could become as good as Chance if he only did it part time? It wasn't fair to ask him to keep changing positions, although we both knew he could.

Jeff was smart and he knew how to approach any disagreement we had, although they were few. We were both smart enough to avoid conflict. It was a matter of taking care of our own business and sharing baseball in portions that were easy to digest. Jeff was more studious than I was and less likely to get caught off guard by something he hadn't considered, which made him seem mature, when I questioned my own maturity.

When Bobby Henry dropped by he had to give both Jeff and I equal time. He was being called up to the majors the following spring and he was as happy as I'd ever seen him. After so many years of baseball, the dream was coming true for him.

It made me even happier when I envisioned Andy following in Bobby's footsteps in a year or two. I figured it to be about the same timeframe as it took Bobby. After two or three years in the minors, and then the big boys would want to take a look at Andy. Power hitters were always on the top of any teams wish list.

Bobby wanted to know about my hitting and I confessed I didn't know. He'd always batted well over three hundred and as good a shortstop as he was, he might have been an even better hitter. Any team looking at him would want his bat swinging at every opportunity. Even when I was able to stand at the plate, I was never a threat to do more than make contact, when I was lucky. I didn't like thinking about it.

My strong point had always been the walks I took, which were easier for me than measuring pitchers. At times I walked one out of every three or four times I came to bat. Most pitchers knew I walked a lot and I had a reputation as having a good eye, but actually, it was the pitcher who was responsible more times than not.

Knowing I was anxious to walk, they tried to be precise with their pitches, wanting to fool me into swinging at a bad pitch, but I rarely did because I kept my swings at a minimum and my reputation was safe from discovery, until I got beaned. That changed things and now pitchers suspected I couldn't or wouldn't hit and this changed the equation and meant fewer walks.

It was a new season and the game was the game and we each played our own angle. Mine was mesmerize them with dazzling fielding plays so they thought I was a better player than I really was. Chance knew what was what from seeing me hit on the freshman team. I told Andy, so he knew, and Coach Bell told me what he'd seen.

"Son, if you hope to hit for an average, you've got to get the bat off your shoulder."

Yes, I did but I didn't often get it around. Coach Bell merely shook his head each time I walked, advanced, and scored. With the lineup I had behind me my hitting wasn't a big problem. Now the best hitters were gone.

I was all that was left of Coach Bell's carefully developed team. I didn't know how Coach Martin thought or what he saw. At the beginning of freshman practice early in my senior season, Coach Martin sent me to watch the freshman team.

Some of these players were singled out by Coach Bell for scholarships and letters inviting others to think about playing for State. We immediately wanted to know if we could replace Kramer or Carney if need be.

Raymond Livingstone had a wicked fastball, but finding the plate wasn't so easy. Steve Tyne was a heavy hitter and a fair right fielder in high school. Jake Barney was also a good outfielder with an adequate bat. Both could play for the first team but probably wouldn't at this point.

Donnie Woods and Harmon Carney were outfielders and easy pick-ups from last year's freshman team. Along with Ford, Kramer, and Baker left only one outfield position as uncertain and Tom Crosby sat out the previous season in his league so he could come to State in his junior season.

With Jeff and I at the center of the infield it left only the pitching staff as uncertain. Getting comfortable playing together and getting to know how the new players moved took time. Coach Martin picked Coach Wills to supervise his pitching staff and they spent a lot of time looking for starters and separating them from relief pitchers. We did have two starters who didn't graduate or go out in the draft. It was a start.

As I spent time watching the freshman, it was obvious none were going to break right into the first team, which was good as far as I was concerned. They'd get the time to adjust to college ball and maybe toward the end of the season a few would shine enough to come over to get a look at what the first team did.

There would be no easy road. None of us were up to the best of us that had left at the end of the previous season. Jeff was modest about his talent and both Kramer and Ford left a lot to be desired as far as I was concerned. That's what rebuilding seasons were like. I was surprised at how good a catcher Baker had become. He was a scrappy ballplayer who took his lumps and got right back down behind the plate. He'd shown none of that tenacity the season before, but he wasn't first string either. He'd obviously grown into his position.

We spent most of the first couple of weeks on fielding and conditioning and I was happy smelling the grass and hearing the sound of the ball smacking against the leather gloves. It was familiar as taking a breath and I felt comfortable with most of the first squad. There was no real personality conflicts in the infield, although the outfielders, starting with Harmon Carney, were out to eat each other's lunch and there was no love lost there.

Donnie Woods and Carney got into a scuffle the first day we took the field to practice in game conditions and only Tom Crosby coming between them got the issue settled. He was a powerfully built outfielder who played ball seriously. He'd been screwed by Coach Bell's demise, coming to State to play for him and ending up in the hands of Coach Martin and me. He wasn't going to put up with a couple of sophomores who didn't get along. He made his feelings known but Woods and Carney couldn't be in a closed area together.

I liked Crosby. He was a bit physical for my taste but when he spoke to you he got your attention and Woods and Carney got the message, glaring frequently in the other's direction, but having nothing to say with Crosby in centerfield between them.

The first day we batted, it became obvious why Coach Bell had been looking at Crosby. The first pitch coming out of the pitching machine resulted in a loud crack as the ball flew high and far over the center field fence as pretty as you please.

There was no effort in Crosby's swing. He hit two more balls into the same area that day. No one complained about going out to chase the long balls. We'd discovered we had some power. Crosby was a natural kind of guy, quiet, and not prone to butting in, except when it came to the outfield, and he was often seen referring whatever argument Woods and Carney were having this time. There had been no blows struck yet but it was only a matter of time.

We stuck with infield drill for most of our time and both Kramer and Ford failed to field like they wanted their jobs. Jeff and I wasted no time at half-speed or less than full game speed when we fielded. That left especially Ford trying to keep up with us. The balls came hard and fast and it was all he could do to stay in front of them much of the time. Catching them was another story.

Kramer's throws from third were questionable. They were throws but the question came when wondering if they'd get all the way to first base. He began to pick it up a little after the first week but his arm left something to be desired and we found the weak spot in the infield.

With Kramer you could get accuracy or speed, but both were impossible. If he didn't stop before throwing, the ball wasn't going to be near the mark. If he did stop before making the throws they were too late to get a runner out.

This called for my coaching hat and I ordered Kramer to the weight room. Kramer was not a tightly put together player. Once we'd lifted weights for a half an hour, we ran laps around the track that added up to a mile. He hated this more than anything else, but I was determined he would lose the extra ten pounds he was carrying in his gut.

By the third day of weight training, we had Jeff, Ford, Crosby, and Woods joining us. By the end of that week Coach Martin ordered the entire team to spend one hour at the beginning of practice with weight training and running. Players like Chance and Wertz were so well-conditioned I didn't think about it. For some reason the newer players weren't all that well conditioned.

I couldn't prove this approach improved the play of my players, but it became the most spirited part of practice, when we came together as a team to exercise. As we ran laps Woods and Carney always seemed to end up running next to one another, shoving and jostling, as they fought for position on a track that was a quarter of a mile around.

Kramer became the subject of our endeavor and the biggest slacker, taking any opportunity to lean up against something to rest his girth. He wasn't so much fat as he was sloppy looking. Most of the guys burned off their calories during daily activities but Kramer was one of those guys who wore their lunch and added dinner to the look. By constantly forcing him to run and exercise he began to lose pounds and tighten his muscles.

My next little coaching trick was to put Kramer ten feet outside the third base line and I'd hit balls at him. He was supposed to field the balls, making the throw to fist base. I was smart enough to put three first basemen along the first base line to chase his throws. At first the balls were dribbling by the time they got to the first base side of the infield but after a few days he was able to throw them over the heads of all three first baseman. He might never be a third baseman but at least he was able to get the ball across the infield.

Crosby would rather lift weights than run and often stayed behind to add weight to the bar once we'd given it a workout. Crosby wasn't as wide at the shoulders as Andy but his muscles were compact and bulged beyond anyone else on the team. He was well put together. There was no Coach Bell and no hopes of a NCAA Championships were dancing through our heads, but Crosby came to play.

We would be lucky to hold our own and at the beginning of my senior season I didn't know what holding our own meant. I expected we would win games but I didn't see us leading our league any time soon. We had a lot of room where we might improve and I was optimistic we would improve as the season progressed.

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