Outside the Foul Lines - Book V

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

Louisville's Head Coach

Coach Bell came around his desk to shake my hand. He rested his big left hand on my shoulder as we shook. This was a massive show of emotion for a man not given to expressing any. The smile was something I couldn't recall seeing more than a couple of times. It did confirm he had teeth, though I was sure he did.

My anger with Coach Bell passed. It was good to be in his presence once more. I'd held a grudge about him leaving 'his' team, no matter the cause. He left us with Briscoe, and not bothering to let me know where he had gone. It was difficult forgetting how he confided in me during his tenure as State's Baseball Coach.

"You called me up?"

I finally realized how I'd gotten to Louisville.

"You didn't sign the letter."

"I was in Florida looking at some of my ball players. Much of the starting lineup is getting some seasoning, playing with major league players. We have the makings of a fair team this season."

"You couldn't wait until you got back?"

"John, it was on my mind. My infield coach is probably going to play with the Red Sox this season. They've been sniffing around him at spring training and now their second baseman has an injury. You were next on my list."

"Coach?" I said, not ready for the idea.

"Yes, John, you're one of the best coaching minds I've ever come across. Now, you're younger than many of the guys you'll be coaching. It shouldn't be a problem, because you're my man, but this isn't college. These guys are trying to make a living playing ball. This is dog eat dog and some guys might resent you being a coach. They don't know what I know and I know you'll win over the skeptics."

"Coach? I won't be playing?"

"No, I didn't see you playing. I don't mind if you want to train with and try out for the team. I better warn you, I've got a damn good little shortstop. Pappas is fast, hits for a good average, and his fielding is flawless. I might be able to get you some playing time in the latter innings if that's what you want.

"I've got some naturals here, but holes in the fielding like you've never seen. I inherited the previous infield coach and was reluctant to make a change. He came to me asking to try out for the Red Sox. That's when I thought about you.

"Some of my best hitters think the glove is to sit on to keep their butts from getting sore between innings. Might help the adjustment if you are a player/coach. I wasn't thinking of that contingency, but it might make your adjustment easier."

Coach Bell thought of every contingency all the time. It's why he was an excellent coach. He had the answer before anyone thought up the question.


I tried out the concept.

"How are you, John?" he asked happily, smiling broadly at me.

"I was working steady back home. I figured I was out of ball. The letter didn't give me much time to think it over. It said report yesterday and I didn't want to lose a chance to play. I'm fine but all of this is coming at me pretty fast. It isn't what I expected."

"I should have been back yesterday but there was a game last night I wanted to see before coming back to Louisville. I should have been here but this has all come up in the last week."

"No one mentioned your name. Do they know you're coach?"

Coach Bell laughed and smiled again.

"Yeah, they know. I told them not to say anything about me until I got a chance to talk with you. I wanted to surprise you, John. By the expression on your face…, I'd say you were surprised."

"Yeah, never gave it a thought. I didn't know any Sizemore, but it didn't matter. I've been thinking about ball since spring training started. I always thought I could just walk away from the game."

"Well, John, I didn't have this job nailed down until over the winter. The team hasn't been all together yet and Hack and Slip have been here for long enough to keep things under control. I'll pull the team together once all the pieces are here. You're welcome to tutor under Hack, when you aren't working with my fielders. He's a tough old bird but no better hitting coach in the minors. We'll see what we can do about you playing, I promise. I called you to coach and that's your priority."

"I can't ask for much more than that, Coach. I've never been a good hitter but I've got a good glove. I'd like to play if possible. I mean I don't mind coaching. Coach Martin let me do things for him. He's a good man, but I missed you."

"We all resist change, John. I was familiar and leaving the way I did wasn't easy, but the only way you boys had a chance was for me to get clear of the program. You didn't let me down. You played as good in the NCAA Championships as you did most of the season."

"It was your team, Coach. We finished what you started."

"Well, Coach Martin had a lot to do with it. He was a better fit for you boys than Briscoe, under the circumstances. I got no say in that matter, but it turned out okay."

"Coach Martin didn't think so. He knew whose team it was. You should have seen us, Coach. We played damn good ball."

"What makes you think I didn't see you, John? I didn't miss a game. I was in the stands every time you boys were on the field. I couldn't go near the team but no one said I couldn't watch. I was proud of you boys. You did yourselves proud and State."

"I didn't play that much. It seems like a long time ago. My senior season wasn't much to write home about."

"You went ten games without a hit, John. You ended up with a .252 batting average for the season. I'd say you played respectable ball. You made a good comeback, after your injury. It takes courage to stand in front of a ball once you've been hit and hurt by one."

"Well, if I was doing so well, and you know it, play me. I won't let you down."

"I can't do that, John. I've got to do what's best for the team. I'll give you an equal shot and I'll see to it Hack helps you with your hitting. I called you up for your coaching skill. I need a fielding coach, and as long as your effort to be a player/coach doesn't interfere with the coaching part, you have my blessing. I'd like nothing better than having you play for me again."

"We've got a few days before spring training breaks up and our first string players report to Louisville. I figured that would give you time to get your feet wet, and after that you'll have your hands full with my fielders."

It was cordial, even though I hadn't forgiven him for leaving State in the middle of my junior season. It was difficult to be mad at Coach Bell. He knew what he was doing and why, leaving no doubt he was in charge. I was one player and he was responsible for the entire team.

Hack was tough and all business. He didn't mind yelling orders across the field at someone. He'd coached in the Bigs, since leaving his playing days behind, but he lived in Louisville and that's where he wanted to be these days.

Slip had begun preparing the pitching staff. He'd pitched a dozen seasons in the big leagues and finished his career with as many wins as losses. Pitchers could relate to him and he to them. These were the most temperamental players. Games rested on their shoulders and they were hard to handle if things weren't going well.

It took me a couple of days to get up in front of the batting machine, during a lull one day. I was taking all the practices with the players. I was there as an infielder in my mind. This wasn't a deception on my part. If I was going to play, these would be the men I had to beat out for a place on the team. I'd like to be the shortstop but I could play any of the infield positions if asked.

Coach Bell seemed convinced I couldn't make the first squad, and so I did all within my power to shine in his eyes. I could tell by the expression on his face he was pleased with my effort, but the bat would make the difference.

I waited for the batting cage to clear out. I spent a minute finding a bat I liked, I stepped in before the machine ran out of balls. Most of the guys were elsewhere and I'd been waiting for a chance to step into the batter's box without the audience. I hadn't been up to the plate in almost a year.

The first pitch whizzed past, bouncing around the inside of the backstop. I was better prepared for the second pitch, more watching the passing than thinking about hitting it. The third pitch I tagged and it hit the pitching machine, knocking it off to one side. The next pitch went over first base to some unseen hitter.

"Jesus, you know what these things cost?" Hack complained, going out to set the machine right, reloading it with balls once he was satisfied.

I hadn't been aware of him. I didn't know he had been watching, but immediately we were involved with my at bat.

"Okay, don't be hitting that thing again," he ordered, as if I aimed at the machine. "I'll see we take a new one out of your pay and you don't make that much."

"Yes, sir," I said, becoming accustomed to his salty style.

I had to laugh at Hack's concern for the machine. One of the players got hit on the elbow the day before and Hack had growled for him to get up and walk it off and quit acting like a little girl. It was plain to see he had more compassion for the machine.

I stroked a few balls between 2 nd and 3 rd base. Hack was soon standing at the corner of the batting cage, watching me. I had adjusted to the machines pacing immediately.

"Okay, John, turn yourself a little toward 3rd, move your front foot in the same direction by an inch or two. Move your back foot in toward the back of the plate. Keep track of where you are in the box and see where the ball goes."

The machine threw three pitches past me as Hack was rearranging me in the box. I felt a little awkward not being perfectly squared off in the box. I tagged the ball down the 3 rd base foul line and it stayed just fair, bouncing into the far corner of the outfield.

"Nice, stroke. Pull your back foot back a few inches and get the front foot closer to the front of the box. Turn yourself only slightly toward first base and see what we get."

The next time I hit the ball it went over second base. It was usually all I could do to get my bat on the ball. Worrying about where to keep my feet hadn't crossed my mind. Chance could put a ball anywhere in the field he wanted with most pitchers. It never occurred to me it had as much to do with his feet as his bat. It was obvious Hack knew his business. I was impressed.

I'd learned something important. It also kept my mind off of being hit by a pitched ball. Focusing on my foot placement allowed me to feel like I had more control over what I was doing. The idea of praying I didn't strike out had previously been my main hitting technique.

I changed my position in the batter's box to see what I could do with the pitching machines predictable pitches. Hack seemed fine with the idea I was swinging at the ball, even when I didn't hit it. I was happy with it too. Fear was no longer my most felt emotion, when I was heading for the plate.

It was a couple of years since I'd been hit in the head and I was older and more mature. I had to make up my mind to pickup the bat the first time at Louisville. A pitcher could still intimidated me, but I gradually lost all fear of the batting machine. If it hit me I had no one to blame but myself. There was a certain exhilaration that came with hitting against the machine.

I spent the first week getting acquainted with a lot of players that were probably destined to disappear or take a seat on the bench. Coach Bell said nothing about being in the middle of practices instead of being like Hack and Slip, instructing instead of participating. This told me these weren't the guys Coach Bell wanted me to coach.

Hack and Slip had been to the Big Show and I hadn't, and my best bet was to show that I could play ball first and coach later. Neither Hack or Slip showed any feelings toward me at all. They were there to coach and when they could instruct me how to do something better, they did, as they did to all of the players.

My roommates were all good guys if a little noisy when they slept. Eight hours of practice a day took much of the energy out of us, so there weren't a lot of late nights, although the rules said we'd be in the room at 9 p.m. each evening.

As my courage grew each time I stepped in to face the pitching machine, I decided I needed to hit against a real pitcher. The pitchers had returned from spring training two days before and the rookies on the pitching staff were replacing the pitching machine. I wasn't required to take batting practice if I was content with being a coach, but it was more than just a test to see if the new found courage extended to real live pitchers.

These were a dozen fuzzy face boys with more velocity in their fastballs than I'd ever seen. They had varying amounts of control, which I must admit concerned me. I figured if I was going to have a shot at playing ball, I had to take batting practice.

The level of fear was reduced since I'd been hit in the head, but I still anticipated bailing out if the ball was coming in on me. I was unable to control this response the first few days I came to bat against the pitching staff. There was little time for thinking with the kind of heat the new young pitchers threw. I would need to work on it. I had much less success hitting the balls they pitched, and there was the temptation to bail out on every pitch, but I stood fast, sweating more than the later stages of March in Louisville might be expected.

Glendon Easton was on the mound and had been throwing to Hack, who was catching batting practice, watching where the balls were coming into the plate. Slip would walk out to the mound every few pitches to talk to his pitcher while he looked into the empty outfield.

Glendon was a fireball pitcher. He could throw a breaking fastball but most of his stuff was straight at the plate. If he had a curve I hadn't seen him throw it and I'd watched him for a long time before I carried my bat toward the batter's box, getting in the back of the line to face him. The old fear was back.

I stood in, ignoring him for as long as I could. This was my weak spot. Standing in front of a fastball wasn't my idea of a good time. Hack pounded his glove and waited to squat. At his age it had to be difficult to catch, but he did it anyway, wanting to see the ball being delivered and the batter's approach to hitting it.

"Strike," Hack said with only the three of us there paying attention. "Get the damn bat off your shoulder, John. Miss it but at least take a cut."

I backed out to swing the bat a couple of times. Hack stood up and leaned on the backstop watching me. Glendon dug around the pitcher's mound, circling it as I was deciding when to move back into the box. I contemplated walking away but of course I couldn't. I was in the box and I had to get the bat on the ball at least one time. That's all I wanted and I'd call it a day. I carefully placed my feet in the batter's box, trying to get my focus off the ball hitting me.

"That's your plate, son," Hack said in a matter-of-fact voice. "You can't let that pitcher take it away from you. That spot out there belong to him. This here plate is yours. You don't act like it. No, you act like it's all his for the taking, and I'm here to tell you he can't have it. Hit the ball, John. Forget about what he's doing."

By the time Hack was convinced it was time for me to get busy, he squatted down and I stepped into the batter's box, finally looking at the pitcher just before he let go of the ball.

It was sailing in and up and coming right at my chin. I fell backward, tripping over my feet. I ended up flat on my ass with Hack shaking his head and looking away as he walked to get the ball.

Just as I was collecting my bruised ego a big hand was thrust down at me. I automatically took it, being pulled onto my feet. I was looking into the wrap around Oakley sun glasses of Evan Lane.

How embarrassing.

"Howdy there, John," he said cool as a breeze. "I'm Evan Lane and you're blocking my plate."

"Oh, sorry," I said, not realizing he'd be bigger and even more handsome in person.

"You can't let him take the plate away from you, John," Hack said, standing next to where I stood in front of Evan Lane.

"That's my plate and I don't want him to get the idea it's his, you understand. Why don't you move out of my way and I'll get it back for us," Evan said with confidence.

He offered me a pleasant smile.

He was tall and very well-built with broad powerful shoulders. Of course his uniform was tailored to give him the mobility a power hitter liked. He was maybe six-foot-two and maybe one hundred and eighty tightly fit pounds.

I took a full survey, having already seen his dynamics in the life size poster. He was far more impressive in person.

"You need some sun glasses, sport. It's not polite to stare and not where you're staring. Never let a guy see you taking a better look at him than his girl takes. If you must stare, you should hide it behind shades. See me after practice, I have a couple of pair I don't wear any longer. The manufacturer sends me more than I'll ever wear. You definitely need a pair."

"Okay, Lane, if you're done with the commercial interlude, my pitcher is getting cold," Hack said unsympathetic.

I backed away processing what he had to say and not able to put it all together yet. When I looked back, Courtney was in his catcher's gear and Hack stood behind the backstop, watching Lane. I walked behind the backstop to watch Lane's swing.

"Watch him, John. He'll show you what you do with a pitcher like that. It's a question of staking your claim to the plate."

The bold pitcher who looked larger than life to me, seemed to shrink once Lane took a few practice swings, never taking his eyes off Glendon. Lane made the bat look small in his big hands. He looked casual, even relaxed. When he stepped into the box, he was ready to hit. He looked at his feet before swinging the bat one more time, letting it come to rest on his shoulder as he stared at the pitcher.

Glendon walked around the mound a couple of times. He towed the rubber and went into his windup, delivering yet another fastball. The pitch was high and outside. Lane stuck out his bat to get the fat part of the barrel on the ball, taking advantage of his long arms to reach across the plate for it.

It wasn't much of a swing but it accomplished what he was after. The speed of the pitch was enough to send it bouncing right at the front of the pitcher's mound. The hit had Glendon hopping to keep from getting the ball tangled in his legs as it passed over the mound on its way through the infield.

Lane didn't seem to take any particular pleasure in warning the pitcher he could put the ball anywhere he wanted. The next pitches came outside, low, high, and a few were perfectly placed in Lane's power zone. He got his entire bat on the pitches in that zone, sending several out into the centerfield bleachers. His bat made a prodigious sound when he hit the really long balls.

"Good at bat, Lane," Hack announced from beside me.

No one had indicated Lane was to be one of my major projects, after our inauspicious meeting at the plate that day. Hack would tell me later, he needs a peach basket instead of a fielder's glove. I wondered why such a powerful hitter wasn't batting in a big league line-up. Lane had a contract for the Bigs, as quick as the retiring right fielder called it a day, but that didn't make him a better fielder.

Coach Bell had been told it was his job to get Lane fielding at a major league level. Coach Bell was depending on me to deliver a satisfactorily fielding major league power hitter.

Lane was maybe twenty-four or twenty-five. He was easy going, knowing he was big league bound. He had the contract to prove it. No club was going to let a power hitter like Lane get away. They'd keep working with him until he could field at a major league level, but he'd qualify as a designated hitter on most clubs if necessary.

All Lane needed to do was show up and he knew his bank account would grow. He was the proverbial million dollar baby, and I would become responsible for him in the field. It wasn't the job I expected, but I was back in baseball.

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