Outside the Foul Lines - Book IV

by Rick Beck

Chapter 5

Future's Presence

During fall practice Andy called on Monday nights, as it was the night he was most often off. With a phone in my room it was way easier for him to call me and I called him right back. The first sound of his voice gave me chills and his first comment was always the same, "Do you know how much I miss you?"

Always my biggest advocate, he loved hearing me happy and I wasn't happy at all the entire time I suspected my baseball career had ended. It was inconceivable to me that I might have to find something else to do for hours each afternoon. Having the entire issue resolved in a way that gave me more responsibility and not less had me flying high. I couldn't help but look forward to my senior season. Andy was grateful when he heard the news and was anxious to have details about what coaching decisions I might make. It was still early and seeing the team as less than complete meant a lot of coaching decisions to put the proper plaers in place.

Being told I was still in baseball was enough to get me excited. It wasn't difficult to play and coach, because my coaching was demonstration, except when it came to Woods and Carney. No matter what I did to get them to pay attention to their fielding, they fussed the entire time, which wasn't going to cut it as far as I was concerned.

Getting Crosby to hit fly balls to them was a certain recipe for tantrums by one or both of the outfielders. If I had three or four outfielders fielding Crosby's lofty hits, no matter who called for the ball, Woods and Carney fought each other for position even if the ball wasn't near them.

Woods and Carney were the best of the first string outfielders but I hadn't given up and my next trip would be to watch the 2nd team players who were new at State but not freshman. I was determined to purge the disagreeableness out of the 1 st team. We were going to have difficulty fielding a winner and we didn't need distractions to keep us from doing the job.

Andy laughed and remembered Coach Bell never having guys fight on his team. No, that was true, but Coach Bell was a big man that no one crossed on purpose. I was a regular sized fellow who played in the infield and the outfielders had little or no respect for my coaching skills, when it came to the outfield.

The rest of the team took instruction well. Fielding was a specific chore we worked on each day. For me working with Jeff was crucial. We could turn good plays together but I didn't know his moves the way I knew Chance's. No matter where in the infield a ball was hit, I knew where Chance would be. It was almost certain that any awkward or off balance throw would be collected without much effort.

Chance knew me as well as I knew him and he knew where I'd be under most circumstance. It didn't require conscious thought, only reaction, and I wanted to develop something like it with Jeff. We didn't have three seasons to play together but I wanted to make the most of the time we did have.

Jeff and I talked a lot about our fielding in the dorm at night. This also gave me the opportunity to quiz Jeff about our fielding assignments. This would inevitably bring us back to second base versus shortstop conversation. Jeff remained firm on his position and I didn't press the issue.

"One day, when I get up there, I want to think Bobby and I will play in the same infield. You might say it's my dream. If we both play the same position we can't play together. No, I'm a second baseman. You're a shortstop. Bobby is a shortstop," Jeff explained.

While Jeff and I felt comfortable talking with one another, my hitting was still on my mind. By pulling myself out of a game Jeff would be forced to move to shortstop. Knowing how he felt about it made the move more difficult. I knew our bench strength did not include anyone particularly suited to shortstop.

Coach Martin didn't see himself as a big time coach in a big time program. He knew his limitations. Coaching a team that was rebuilding was something he was qualified to do. He had an eye for talent and didn't like distractions any more than I did. Whenever we discussed moves, he'd already given it some thought before I came to hijm with my concerns.

Even from the beginning when we talked about my knowledge of the team, I reminded him that most of the guys I knew best were gone. He seemed positive that coaching boys I wasn't close to was better than having emotions tied up with my decisions.

This didn't occur to me on my own. He was right and looking at the team's weak spots was a lot easier when I didn't feel like I should be trying to protect my friends. This worried me because I wondered if I could make the right decision concerning someone I was close to. Coach Martin answered that question for me without me asking.

"Besides, your friends weren't the guys who had problems, Mr. Dooley. They all got jobs in the minors because they knew their business. It was Coach Bell who taught them their business. Now it's our job to teach players who don't know their business that well and may not be as talented as we might like. It makes what we do that much more important to their futures. They'll be playing for State after you and I have moved on."

"I only see what you see, Coach. I don't have any special aptitude for picking talent. Well make the best of what we've got."

"You come to know them all, their strengths, and their limitations. When I look at my lineup card, I can't always put a face with a name. The 1st team is easy to remember but the bench is filled with boys I don't see play that often. Few teams lose almost the entire starting lineup at the end of the season. I've got to watch the pitchers and catchers, keep track of what's happening on the field, and in the batting cage. I don't have enough eyes at this point. Come spring, we'll have the lineup firmed up and we'll make sure the bench is filled with the right players. You play with them and you'll know which will serve our purposes best.

"I want your opinion, because I trust your judgment. You understand them in a way I don't. It's why I wanted the arrangement making you a player-coach. I can lean on you when I'm not sure and that leaves me free to do all the other things I need to do."

"It's just an opinion, Coach. You make the decision. I tell you what I see. You decide what you want. I do like the challenge though."

"Almost always a good opinion in my mind, Mr. Dooley, and few coaches are almost always right. I'm not married to State baseball, but with your help I'll see the team through my last season at State. For most of our boys it will be their first full season at this level. It's what they've dreamed about and planned on. I want to make the experience a good one."

"I'm glad to be part of it. I worry about my hitting a lot. I don't want to hurt the team. Helping other guys learn to be better fielders makes me feel useful in a way hitting makes me feel inadequate," I said.

"Worry may be your problem. You worry too much. You think about it too much. Do it, Mr. Dooley. Go up there determined to do it and then do it. One day you'll find your bat. Hitting is an art. As a shortstop you're an artist. You can hit. You need to approach it the way you approach fielding. Be part of it. Live it, Mr. Dooley. Quit worrying about it. You'll never become a good hitter by thinking you aren't one."

"Yeah, it's all quite simple," I said forlorn. "If it were only that easy. I can't get comfortable at the plate. I still see that ball coming at my face."

"I can't help you there, son. It's your demon and you must find a way to slay it."

Coach Martin was as pleasant a fellow as you could find. He never raised his voice and he took pride in his players, his team, and in State. He was a head coach, even if he didn't feel he'd earned the job. If I had to do a senior season with someone other than Coach Bell, I'd want it to be Coach Martin. He was a good man.

This wasn't the first time we'd had this conversation and it wouldn't be the last. Worry was part of what I did. In spite of worrying all summer I was still on the team. Now I worried about my hitting or lack of same. His words did express his confidence in me, but in essence I feared the baseball and Coach Martin couldn't do a thing about it.

When I was fourteen and faced my first fastball pitcher, I was scared shitless, fearing he'd take my head off. I didn't believe that would be at all pleasant. He didn't hit me but I worried he would.

Somehow I'd overcome the fear along the baseball road. One day I went to the plate and left the fear behind me. It just didn't occur to me to be afraid. I never hit for a great average but my ability to walk was the result. College pitchers were only so accurate with their pitches and walks were often the result. Leading off each game meant a cold pitcher and if I could walk, I had my on-base for that game.

Once I was playing for State at eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, my walks meant I was more likely to score.

Now, no longer worried about my future in baseball, I had plenty of time to worry about my bat. I'd been in baseball for eight years, and I was back to being fourteen again. Even standing in front of the batting machine, I closed my eyes before the pitch reached me. Cursing my lack of courage and determined to swing at the next pitch the iron machine hurled up, and failing in my effort to keep my eye on the ball.

What kind of player-coach was I? Even before we'd seen any competition, I was known to be no threat in the batter's box. If I came to bat late in the lineup I would get one less at bat per game. This created an opportunity for someone who was a better hitter to get an at bat if I pulled myself out of the game before what would be my final at bat.

This plan also left an inning or two when someone else would be in my place in the infield. It didn't look good and it felt even worse. I belonged at shortstop and pulling myself simply made my short comings all that more apparent. Not pulling myself required more courage than I might be able to muster.

By the fourth week of fall practice the team was looking more like a team. Kramer was still straining to make his throws but he was improving. Woods and Carney still argued almost every time they came together. I'd never seen two guys so intent on besting the other. I tried to view it in the context of the game and couldn't. They were a disruptive force and I began looking for Carney's replacement on the second team, which I hadn't looked at all that closely because any time I wasn't with the 1 st team I was with the freshman team, getting an idea of what might be available there.

Kevin Browning was tall, thin, and fairly muscular. He was fast on his feet but he didn't bat all that well. He was polite and quiet, far more like Crosby than Woods or Carney. He'd played some right field toward the end of the freshman team's season the previous year. Like most college athletes he was still growing.

I hadn't noticed him the year before because the 1 st team was a bit busy winning games. Coach Martin might have missed his playing time for the same reason and this would mean selling him on the idea of switching Carney for Browning.

While I was watching the second team in the field, keeping my eye on Kevin, I caught sight of a curly haired baby faced boy making the throw across the infield to first. The first baseman's glove popped from the force behind the throw.

I watched George Carroll play third base. He was fast, good with the glove, and made quick accurate throws across the infield. Where the hell was he when Coach Martin was pulling together the 1 st team?

Of course we were replacing most of the team and we had plenty of time to pick and choose the best guys for the job before spring. Coach Martin was busy working on the pitching staff and I accepted perhaps some of these guys were new to him.

I stayed to watch Kevin take some swings against the pitching machine. I wasn't impressed by his swing but Carney was no heavy hitter himself. I asked Coach Morgan where Kevin had come from. He gave me some history as he understood it.

"He's a good boy and plays the outfield well. He's coming along."

"What about that guy at third base?"

"He played a little freshman ball. He has a good glove, bunts as well as any of my boys, and he has a lot of poise. He's put on ten or fifteen pounds and grown a couple of inches since last season."

"I'll probably want Coach Martin to take a look see, when he has time. We need to make some changes on the 1st squad. We might like those two."

"They both could play regular or they'd make for good bench strength. We have a few boys that could hold their own. Most lack experience but we all started somewhere."

I watched Carroll move in the infield and he looked twelve but he was quick and gobbled up grounders effortlessly. He was better than Kramer in the field but with my luck he hit like I did and while Kramer lacked grace in the infield, he could hit for a fair average. I purposely didn't stay to watch Carroll take any swings. I was jazzed up on both counts and didn't want to loose my enthusiasm before speaking with Coach Martin.

I caught him in his office once I cut the infielders loose from our practice field.

"George Carroll. He was on the freshman team last year. Apparently he was smaller. He is small but he's quick and he makes Kramer's arm look like spaghetti al dente. I just want you to take a look at him."

"Carroll? Carroll? I don't know the name. He played on the freshman team."

"I suspect he didn't play as much as he sat," I said.

"Little kid. Curly hair. They called him flea he was so small. I kept him around because he was so determined to make the squad," Coach Martin smiled as he remembered the details.

"Yeah, that sounds like him. I just watched him fielding on the 2nd team. He's a good little third baseman. The first baseman's glove pops when he throws across the infield. Coach Morgan said he'd grown a bit and put on weight."

"We've got plenty of time, Mr. Dooley. Invite him to spend the rest of fall practice with us. Don't tell Kramer we're looking at his replacement. We have two utility infielders but no other solid third baseman. We wouldn't want Mr. Kramer losing his confidence."

"Yeah, Kevin Browning, right fielder. Good arm. Moves well. He also played a little at the end of last season. He's at least as good as Carney."

"I'd love to get Carney out of here. Woods is too good a hitter to make a change there but I can't see Carney brings anything to the 1st team. We need a warm body to replace him and send him to the 2nd team."

"I'll tell Coach Morgan we want a closer look at both of them if you want. How's the pitching going?" I asked.

"We've got the two starters, Hernandez and Platt. They'll be fine and Cleveland is a strong kid. Walsh and Smith are first class relievers. We're weak outside of those boys. We'll need to find two more starters and two more relief men to have a solid pitching staff. We aren't going to have any room for injuries. Take a look around the second team and see if Morgan has someone he might want to recommend for our pitching staff."

"Good thinking. We're doing pretty good for only a month into fall practice. We can make a few more moves, get some bench strength and get rid of the dead wood. It'll make it a hell of a lot easier when spring comes. I think we're pretty solid if we get some mileage out of the two boys I saw today. I don't want Carney on the bench. Let him play on the 2nd team."

"Sounds right to me. You going to do the heavy lifting with Carney."

"I will enjoy it," I confessed, happy Coach Martin wanted to look at the guys I recommended.

We had spent most of our time in conditioning and doing the routine of getting in shape for some games we'd scheduled for the final few weeks of fall practice. We barely had enough guys for a complete squad. Come spring we'd be adding the depth we needed to cover injuries and to have replacements for weaker players like Kramer and Carney.

It was early and I was new to building a program but I felt like I was doing something important for my younger teammates. The new season was coming and I felt I was ready for the challenge. We might not be championship caliber team but we might be able to hold our own by season's end. It seemed like a good outcome in a year filled with questions.

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