Outside the Foul Lines - Book IV

by Rick Beck

Chapter 9

Back on Base

We weren't about to become of championship caliber my senior season. What we were about to do is jell as a team. As I felt and suspected all along, my presence in the middle of the infield had a lot to do with my team's performance. Once I'd begun to hit we were able to win more often.

My breakout game had me getting a hit against three different pitchers. This indicated my determination to play a little payback wasn't all there was to it. It did break the spell in my mind and the fear of the pitched ball faded as quickly as it had seized hold of me.

We'd have to struggle mightily simply to get back to .500 ball by season's end. We were already too many games behind that lofty goal. Winning only two of our first ten games, but two in a row, meant we were heading in the right direction. The best part of it, beside my daring do in the first inning, we won one for the home crowd, and even if we didn't amount to much otherwise, they loved it and hung around after the game was over to encourage their team.

We were approaching the half way point in our season and time was running out to make vast improvements. Not only that, This was the time the scouts came to sit in the stands to watch the talent. They didn't come to watch State this time. They were there to see our competition. Tom Crosby was the only junior that had the kind of potential to attract any attention. He was hitting homers but not at a pace it took to stir the interest of professional scouts. His batting average was close to .300 but without the big home run production it wasn't exciting anyone including Tom, who showed his frustration.

Kevin Browning was a sophomore, but the day I began hitting, he hit his first home run of the season. He'd been struggling with his batting stance and was still searching the day of his first big hit.

By the time we played game twenty Kevin had eight homers to Crosby's ten, only Crosby had six homers when Kevin hit his first. He was also batting .325 and was most likely to bat in runs. He went about perfecting his swing and all his wiggle and waggle at the plate subsided as he settled into his game. Kevin had become State's best power hitter, but he was too inexperienced to gain more than a reference in some scout's notes, 'a future consideration.' They would have their eye on him next season.

Coach Martin became much more pleased with the progress State was making. We no longer needed to spend time discussing would I or wouldn't I bat and how often. Our discussions were of the talent and who was making progress and who might be losing his grip on their position on the 1 st team. These were the discussions the coaches on a rebuilding team should be having.

The freshman team was still raw with the few exceptions I'd mentioned to Coach Martin before. No one was shinning beyond his teammates at mid-season. This was to be expected but we were still determined to bring up a few of the freshmen to get some 1 st team experience to see how they reacted.

With me being the only 1 st team player graduating, there was a lot invested in keeping our current lineup in place to begin the following season with an experienced team.

It was during one of these discussions in the afternoon after practice that Tom Crosby came to chat fresh from his shower.

"How you doing, Tom?" I asked him as he slid into one of the empty chairs near the door.

"I'd hoped to be doing better, Do. I'm not putting my name in the draft. I wanted to let you know that I intend to graduate from State next year and play my senior year of ball here. I didn't want there to be any doubt."

"That's good to hear, Mr. Crosby," Coach Martin said. "You are key in my outfield plans. I just might stick around for another year to see how it all turns out. You boys have picked it up quite a bit in the last ten games."

"Sitting out last season hurt me more than I thought. My timing isn't what it was. I know my numbers will look a lot better if I keep at it. That way I'll go way higher in the draft next year than I would this year."

"I think you're making the smart move. You'll have your degree to fall back on and that means you can concentrate on baseball, knowing you have an alternative."

"Yes, sir," Crosby said, standing to make his exit.

First base and catching were the weakest positions on the team and might change hands if any of the freshmen began to shine. The team as a whole, even with my replacement, Mandel, sitting on the bench, was in place for a run the following season.

As we came down the home stretch, we played consistently. Kevin had a three home run game in the final week of play and took the home run lead away from Crosby. Kevin already led the team in runs batted in for most of the second half of the season.

Jeff Henry was tops in batting at .345. He was a fine second baseman and the center of our infield played almost as well as when I had Chance beside me. Jeff's average was only ten points bellow what Bobby Henry averaged in his tenure at State. I wondered if one day I might hear some major league announcer calling a game say, 'the ball is hit sharply to Henry at short, making a clean pickup, he throws to Henry at second, and the throw to first in time for the double play.'

Consistency made us much more competitive and the team's play had improved remarkably. Finishing with fourteen wins and sixteen loses meant we made up a lot of ground.

Even if we didn't get into the playoffs, we were playing as well as any team in our league at the end. Greenwood's steady program brought them yet another league championship. We sat home and watched and thought about next year.

I finished the season batting .252, which might have gotten me a look, because of my reputation as a fielder, except when the scouts were out looking for talent in mid-season, I wasn't batting .200. For me it was a major improvement that left me feeling satisfied.

Any offers from a minor league team would get in the way of Andy's career and our manageable future. Since he was the one most likely to succeed, I didn't want to complicate things by wandering around looking for a way to extend my baseball career beyond its expiration date.

My struggles my senior season did make me more aware of what baseball meant to me. Facing not having a senior season had made the season that much more important to me. I hadn't played well but I had recovered some of what was lost at the end of my junior year. I could face not being in baseball now, but I didn't have to enjoy it.

With no one looking at me and no invitations coming for me to try out for a team somewhere, my decision was easy and my baseball career had ended quietly.

I was happy and State was greatly improved from the beginning of the year. We were winning games against all the competition. We weren't knocking anyone dead with our firepower but there was a good balance between our hitting and pitching. With Kevin batting third and Tom batting cleanup, and Jeff preceding those two to the plate, State would produce its share of hits and runs next season.

It was a shame I wouldn't be there to watch it, but the time comes in all ballplayer's lives when they had to walk away from the game. I'd gone further than I could have expected as a fourteen year old sniffing around my high school baseball team, looking for a way to spend my time.

My grades had stayed steady throughout college and with my diploma in hand I was ready to start my life. It was anti-climatic at best. Baseball had been what took me to college and it was what kept me there. With Coach Martin staying on for one last season, I didn't mention to Chancellor Bishop that I'd be willing to take a shot at coaching his team. It was never mentioned and I figured Coach Martin was the one responsible for bringing me on as a player/coach. My future was not going to be at State.

All the worries and complications baseball had brought to my life had ended. My future was in doubt as I wandered down to the baseball complex my last day at State. It hadn't been locked up yet and the under classmen still had another week of classes.

As I slipped inside the fence to take one last look at my field, I heard a bat connecting solidly with the ball. There facing the pitching machine in a deserted stadium was Kevin, taking big cuts at the ball. He looked like a hitter. He was confident and precise with his swings, ready each time the machine spit out a ball.

My final year of baseball was so filled with anxiety and uncertainty that I didn't take time to prepare for it to end. I suppose I hadn't enjoyed my senior year as much as I could. Seeing someone who lived to play ball, playing ball, gave me chills, and left me with a positive feeling. I'd watched Kevin overcome his uncertainty, but he was determined and he persevered. It was a good note to end on and I headed for the exit without bothering him.

I had no concept that leaving my field for the final time would be so hard. Our final game was away. Coach Martin and I sat in his office talking as players cleaned out their lockers that evening. There was no feeling of finality.

There were high hopes for next season in which I would take no part. There would be a next season without me as there had been seasons before I arrived. I'd run my playing days out further than I'd had any right to expect and with results that were mostly pleasing, but it took me until my final day to return to our field to take a last look.

My regrets were few but leaving the field that last time brought on a melancholy concerning the uncertainty ahead of me. The next time I came I'd buy a ticket and watch from the stands.

The gate clanged, as it closed it behind me, but I didn't look back.

My college days were done. It was time to go to work. I could no longer say, I can't work and play ball too, while I'm going to school.

The End

Don't miss book V,

A Minor Success

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