Outside the Foul Lines - Book IV

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8


The holidays were all wonderful. Having Andy with me made it the best ever. Andy had settled easily into my family, after a long absence. He seemed comfortable in his role. My parents loved him and me about equally by this time. We were practically inseparable, knowing separation wasn't far away. So we spent all our time together.

His departure for home the day before I returned to State was a most difficult day. The bus ride gave Andy time to decompress, but I went cold turkey. First I had to return to the house without him, sleep alone in my bed that night, and then I returned to our dorm room that I now shared with Jeff. I felt Andy around me every step of the way. We did not know when we'd see each other again.

It was inevitable there were a hard few months ahead of me. I was so close to completing my college experience and yet this was the slowest time in my four years at State.

I'd be in class and in baseball much of the time. Andy would go from home to training camp. There he'd be practicing his trade and working on achieving a better result his first full season as a minor league player. If he could establish himself as a key player on the Lincoln team, he'd be looked at carefully.

It would require a complete effort on his part and my hanging around wouldn't be helpful. I wanted to be there and he wanted me there, but I would leave college and find some way to keep myself busy so I wouldn't be able to go to Lincoln. We had a lifetime together ahead of us and if we wanted to make the most of it we had to sacrifice now.

I had a less trying task in front of me. I wouldn't be doing much differently than I'd done my previous years. Yes, the word coach was mentioned around me but there was also whispers that I couldn't hit, I was a has been, washed up before twenty-two. These would be trying times and I'd be trying to overcome my fear at the plate.

I related to coaching better than anything else I did. I'd always been instructing boys about fielding. Even early on they stopped to watch me control a game of pepper or stand on the sidelines as the infielders took fielding practice. What I was doing other boys wanted to duplicate and I enjoyed trying to demonstrate and explain what I did.

Coach Bell had come down to the freshman field to ask me to instruct one of his outfielders, Andy. He believed I was the man for the job. He'd watched me as I took charge of the freshman infielders and helped tighten their play. I wasn't pushy or arrogant, just confident in my ability.

Baseball had been placed in the gap after I lost my first love. It took up time and energy and helped me get beyond love. I owed a great debt to the game for doing that for me. When Coach Bell first came for me, I never imagined what the result would be. It took several years for baseball to give love back to me. It was a far better love than I ever believed existed. Had I not lost my first love, I'd never have met my one great love, and baseball was in the middle of it all.

I was more in the middle of it all than I'd ever been in my senior season. My reputation as a fielder made coaching it easy. Being an official coach meant I was expected to be a step above the rest. It wasn't a problem in the field but the questions came when I did or didn't bat. My deficiency couldn't be missed.

Other team's best hitters hit away from me if they could. This gave Carroll at 3 rd and Ford at 1 st more chances. Carroll was an artist with his glove but Ford needed work, which gave me work to keep my mind off my bat.

Working with Jeff became easier as we memorized one another's moves and began to know where the other would be most of the time. He was no Chance, but he was good and easy to play with. Living with him wasn't as easy after Andy had come to stay for two months.

My hitting always being on my mind, Coach Martin and I came to an understanding. I batted late in the line up, 8 th . I'd take one at bat and before I came up the second time, I'd put in Mandel, who'd pinch hit for me, going into the infield at second. Jeff would move to shortstop. Jeff didn't complain because he was a ball player and it wasn't up to him. He often sulked around the room to let me know he wasn't happy playing shortstop. I did feel guilty, but it didn't change the situation.

Coach Martin also discussed his displeasure with me for not coming to bat more often. He saw this as the way to beat the fear. He didn't understand how my insides turned upside down each time I stepped into the batter's box. He insisted and I refused. I told him it was either pull me before my second at bat or leave me out of the lineup all together. He was the coach but I knew what I needed to do.

Coach Martin could list a dozen or so reasons why I should go to bat every time but none gave me the nerve to face a pitcher more than once or twice a game. He would stretch it as far as he could but when I came off the field and crossed my name out of the lineup, Mandel picked up his bat and it was then Jeff bowed his head.

The preseason games and practices were routine. There wasn't the intensity to get my nerves on edge. I did stay in to complete a couple of games but pulled myself twice as often. The wild pitchers bothered me least, because by laying off their pitches I would often get a walk.

Certain pitches I didn't like facing at all. The fastball pitchers were my nemesis. Wild fastball pitches had me sweating before I ever came to the plate. It was a strange balance that I tried to analyze but couldn't.

I spent time with the freshman team, mostly coaching their infielders. Coach Martin could often be found speaking with Coach French, his replacement after he left the freshman team behind. It was easy to see Coach Martin was at ease with the freshman. Coach Bell had also taken a keen interest in the freshman my first year at State.

The head coach visiting with them was a connection to the 1 st team. My presence also offered them some insight into a higher level of ball playing. They respected me and listened to my instruction carefully as I put them through their paces. I was always happy to be with the freshman, they didn't know I couldn't hit and so didn't look at me like I was half a package.

There were no star standouts that would make their way straightaway to the 1 st team, but for the most part there was a good group of talented players in the early stages of development. They were learning the intensity of college ball.

There was a very good second baseman, another fine 3 rd baseman, and a few with possibilities as yet undeveloped. It was my job to get them focused on the position where I believed their skills were best suited. It was nice being away from the 1 st team and the constant scrutiny I felt there. I worried I was going to let them down. The freshman caused me no such stress.

Only my bat did that. I began to hate the feel of it. Each time I picked it up, I winced from some internal force that refused to let go of me. Was I possessed?

Standing in front of the pitching machine is as easy as it gets, and yet I continued closing my eyes before the ball got to the plate. The pitches were always the same. The machine couldn't throw at your head, but I couldn't get that into my head.

I sweat and my knees shook and this became my constant battle. Winning and losing couldn't compare with me stepping into the batter's box. I never learned to hate anything more. The idea of batting three or four times a game wasn't possible. I began to ponder if I'd get a hit or have a nervous breakdown first? My resolve was failing me.

Perspective was everything. Coaching was no great shakes. School was all but done, my graduation assured. My life was wonderful on every level. Andy and I talked twice a week and updated each other on what was going on.

He seemed more upbeat as his season was starting, but he was kind enough not to quiz me on how State baseball was progressing. It was a rebuilding year and I could tell he was glad to be in Lincoln and not at State.

The season began and Coach Martin said nothing when I pulled myself out of the game. Jeff moved to shortstop and Mandel, a guy who hadn't played freshman ball at State, replaced him at second.

The first time Mandel pinch hit for me, he lined a double over the second baseman's head. This made me look good. What a great move. Then he booted a ball hit to him in the next inning, two unearned runs scored, and we lost the game 5-4. My genius had faded fast. When I went to speak to Coach Martin in his office, as I did each afternoon, he'd already left the building.

Jeff once again let me know how he felt, ignoring me completely when I went up to the room. He kept his nose stuck in one of his books, until it was time to eat, and than he reminded me he was a second baseman, when he was leaving. I already felt guilty but didn't know what to do.

I was making his season miserable, because he wanted to stay at second. He almost never made an error. He was pleasant for the most part but he shared Coach Martin's ability to look at me soulfully, like he wanted to offer me some advice but he knew I wouldn't take it and so he didn't.

Coach Martin didn't need to ask me for advice. When your ship is sinking, you bail out the water as fast as you can. Then you regroup. We were still bailing. Whether I batted or not didn't make any difference.

Our team was inexperienced. We had no power beyond Crosby. In our start against Greenwood their ace pitcher struck out thirteen of us. I'd never come to bat against him before. We lost 9-0 and had a perfect season going after five games. There was no excitement at State.

Coach Martin took it well. He knew he wouldn't be around long if we kept losing at that pace. I felt a little sorry for his circumstances. Rebuilding years are the shits. It's all pain and no glory.

I felt no pressure because expectations were so low. I spent long hours wearing out our pitching staff, trying to find something that would make me want to come to the plate. No one complained about me taking batting practice after the rest of the team hit the showers. The pitchers I used needed to throw a lot to develop a rhythm, and it was just more practice for them. The results were questionable for both the pitchers and me, but I kept looking for a way to lose the fear that gripped me. Dread was without joy.

We had two away games, winning one 2-1, and for the first time that season our starting pitcher pitched a full game. We were scheduled to play at home the game after the win.

We were still drawing good crowds at State but we'd come up empty there. This made me feel bad, because I knew a lot of the fans remembered the team the year before. We were exciting to watch. It was surprising they hadn't started booing us yet. I liked it better playing at home in spite of our only win being a road game.

It was the game after the win that I came out to get my equipment ready for the first of three home games. When I stopped to look at the lineup posted in the locker room, Coach Martin had my name at the top of the batting order.

When I played for Coach Bell, I'd always batted first, but I'd been batting 8 th under Coach Martin. I went to bring this oversight to his attention, realizing it was close to the time he'd be presenting the lineup card to the umpire.

Coach Martin wasn't in his office when I went to chat, which meant the lineup card was likely in the hands of the umpires. I'd need to come up as our first batter in our half of the first inning or take myself out of the game.

I didn't understand. Was Coach Martin calling my hand? Play or sit on the bench. We'd just talked the day before and he made no mention of a batting order change. This wasn't like him. We chatted about what changes might work to offer us better results and we spoke about where we were coming up short. He didn't do things without mentioning them to me first.

As I came out to the bench, much of the team was already preparing for the game. When I saw Coach Martin in his usual spot, I went over to inquire about the change.

He saw me coming and watched my determined strides as my cleats clicked on the concrete.

"Good'ay, Mr. Dooley," he said warmly.

"Coach, I thought…."

I didn't finish my sentence, being almost immediately distracted. It was a bit like being hit in the head and my ears rang from the clang of the ball hitting the chain link in the backstop. My entire body vibrated as I swung to see the pitcher who hit me in the head taking warm-up pitches off the mound.

"I thought you'd want to bat against him," Coach Martin explained. "No point in putting it off, wouldn't you say?"

There was another clang and the catcher was turning to retrieve the ball for the second time.

"Yes, sir," I said with the determination in my voice. "I sure do and the sooner the better. Thanks."

He didn't last long because when our pitchers showed up he was expected to warm up on the sidelines. I remembered my batting helmet with the dent in it that now sat on my dresser at home. I remembered the feeling I had every time I faced a pitch since that yahoo hit me.

The fear never rose up in my belly that day. I wanted to hit against this guy more than I wanted to do anything else. I knew this was an important moment in my baseball career. I wasn't sure why.

We took them down in the first with one strikeout and two easy ground balls. One grounder came to me and I picked it up on a gallop, throwing it underhand to get the runner by a step at first. I went back to our bench, eyeballing the helmets in search of mine. Jeff handed it to me and my bat was leaning against the front of the rack. The entire team knew what was happening.

Taking conscientious swings I moved out away from the bench. My mind was almost clear as I noticed some applause. I looked to see people standing to applaud me. I was focused, determined, and a little bit mad. I thought of Chance and I remembered how he could hit the ball anywhere he wanted it to go. That was a good thing to be able to do, I thought.

I nodded at the umpire and stepped into the batter's box. For the first time I looked directly at him. He stood on the middle of the mound rubbing up the ball for his first pitch of the game before taking his first glance at me. He looked away as fast as he looked my way. He toed the rubber and watched the catcher for his sign. If he recognized me he didn't show any sign of it.

He went into his windup and a ball came in high and tight. My first instinct was to step back and get out of the batter's box. I leaned back away from the ball and felt it passing under my chin.

That son-of-a-bitch tried to brush me back on his first pitch. Already being mad turned into being enraged. I watched my feet as I dug into the batters box. He knew I wasn't going to get off the plate now. I took one slow practice swing, aiming the barrel of the bat at the pitcher. I did it a second time, holding the barrel of the bat pointing it directly at him. My teammates stood, sensing something was about to happen.

I had no fear.

He wound up and threw the next pitch over the catcher's head. It rattled around and the umpire picked it up, looking it over, he tossed it out and gave the catcher a new ball. I relaxed but didn't move out of the box. I rubbed my bat and took more practice swings before digging my feet so I couldn't easily move out of the batter's box. I took one practice swing followed by another which ended with the bat being pointed at him. I knew what I wanted to do. I didn't know if I could do it.

For some reason the umpire ignored my blatant aggressiveness. The crowd had gone silent. Many remembered me being hit at the peak of our previous season. By that time most of the school was following us. Some might have known this was the pitcher but most wouldn't. At best they knew this was the same team.

The third pitch was too far outside for what I wanted. It was ball three and I was running out of time if I was going to do what I intended to do. The pitcher stood for a long time rubbing up the ball before finally getting his sign and going into his windup.

He threw up the pitch I was waiting for. I could have parked it out over the left field fence, but I had no thought of parking it. I got my bat out in front of the ball and took a short sharp swing to keep the ball on target. I stung that sucker on a line right back at the mound, taking the pitcher's legs out from under him.

As I dashed to first base the pitcher was rolling on the mound, holding his shin, as the ball trickling over toward third after it bounced off the pitcher. I was proud and as happy as I'd ever been, pumping my fist in the air as I reached first base safely.

My bench cleared and everyone stood out in front of it applauding, including Coach Martin, who beamed. The stands came alive as the word spread about what I'd done and why. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe it was an accidental happening, but it was payback no matter how you saw it.

Everyone but the pitcher, his coach, and the home plate umpire saw it as divine intervention. Anyone who watched the swing I took knew what I intended to do. Even if I got thrown out of the game or suspended for it, I was proud as a peacock.

The home plate umpire walked over to get Coach Martin to get his team back on the bench. It took another minute for my team to voluntarily sit down. The stands quieted. The trainer looked at the pitcher's leg. A stretcher came out and we had a new pitcher for our second batter. I stood and waited on first base. I'd never get a better hit.

The umpire, two coaches, and catcher all met behind the plate and everyone put in their two cents worth. In the end the coaches retired to their respective benches and the catcher took warm up pitches from the relief pitcher that came to the mound. No comments were directed at me and I was not called to task. It was what it was.

George Carroll took two balls and fouled a ball off before bunting me to second. He almost beat it out, being fast down the first base line, but he was thrown out. I stood on second feeling ten feet tall. I was ready to run as Kevin Browning came to the plate. I couldn't remember the last time I was on second base.

I led off several steps and had both the shortstop and second baseman keeping an eye on me. I wanted to run. I was ready to run and it was then I watched Kevin coming around on a pitch. I started to run, stopping dead in my tracks to turn to watch the ball sail out over the centerfield fence.

There was never a question about where it was going once it left the infield. I jogged around to the plate and waited to greet Kevin. We went together back to the bench. It was perfect and I had never felt more alive. I was ready to play.

Doing what I did might have accounted for what followed. What I do know is that the next time I came to bat I didn't flinch or fear the pitches. In fact I'd never had a better day at the plate, hitting a double, and then a triple in my next two at bats.

We won for the first time at home that season and nothing was said about my batting or what it might mean. It was a game we could savor. We might not win again but this game was a team effort. We'd played together in a way we hadn't done before. The fact it started with my first hit just before Kevin's first home run made it memorable.

What it all meant to me was I'd settled a debt I owed. The disappearance of my fear of facing a pitched ball remains a mystery. What one had to do with the other, I can't say. It made baseball a lot more fun and gave me a lot less to worry about. I can say that.

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