Outside the Foul Lines - Book V

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4

Lane Change

The speculation around when I'd be employed as a coach in front of the team came in the Birmingham game. Up until then my hopes were with the idea Coach Bell hadn't ruled me out as a player yet. We were 5 and 2, losing twice to Nashville over the previous weekend.

Birmingham jumped out into a 3 nothing lead in their half of the first. When we came to bat, Coach called me over.

"John, you'll coach first. I'm sending Slip out to the bullpen to get a relief pitcher ready. Look at me John and stand in front of me."

I was baffled but did as he asked.

"My hand here on the inside of my knee means to hold the runner close. Tug at your ear, but never go right to your ear. Touch your elbow, your hip, which means nothing, but when you go to your ear, the runner gets the sign. When I put my hand on the outside of my right knee means to let the runner take a lead. You rub your index finger under your nose, back and forth like it's itching and you're scratching it. Don't look at the runner. He knows what he's looking for. You're just a telegraph machine."

"Yes, sir," I said.

From that day forward I coached at 1 st base, walking up and down just outside the foul line, mostly confining myself to the coaches box there. It was a major change. There wasn't a lot to do as Hack and Coach Bell had control of the game. I was there to make it easier for the runner to get his sign.

I more managed my infielders than played with them after that. In the game against Birmingham Evan Lane hit a home run, knocking in three runs in the third, but with two men on and one out in Birmingham's half of the third inning, a ball bounced out of Lane's glove and skittered away as he awkwardly chased it down. There was no finesse at all as he collided with Jim Busby, our centerfielder, and three runs scored, costing us the game.

This was the event that got me put in charge of Evan Lane. I still coached the infielders, but Brad was so strong a figure in the infield, I felt comfortable leaving him in charge and reporting to me with his suggestions and comments. In this way I didn't miss anything and Brad felt good about my presence as his superior in a coaching sense.

The first time I was told to coach Lane, I figured it was a mission in futility. Would Coach Bell finally see through me, when I couldn't yank his problem child into shape?

The day after the Birmingham game I was called into Coach Bell's office. It was the first time we'd sat across from each other since the first day he'd been at the ballpark. I had no doubt he had his hands full with a new team to learn and hopefully improve.

"He pulled that shit a couple of times in spring training. Just a total lapse of fielding. He seems to be distracted when he does it. I've watched him like a hawk, and well, it's your turn. I don't have the time for this."

"I'll do what I can, Coach." I assured him.

"Now you're dealing with a player who has a million dollar contract in his pocket. I'm paying you $14,000 a season and room and board. How is Mrs. Olsen. She taking care of you, John?"

"Yeah, when you cut the squad down she gave me a private room. It's quiet. She's nice."

"She had ballplayers of her own. Two sons played. The club has used her for years to house players trying to hang on here. Just stay out of the card games. A couple of these boys are sharks. Probably not a good idea you get too friendly with the players."

"Yes, sir."

"What are you thinking?" Coach Bell wanted to know.

"I'll need to watch him. I don't have anything. I've seen what you've seen, since I been here. I'll come up with something. He doesn't live at Mrs. Olsen's."

"Lane, hell, they got him put up in some apartment building across town. Lane goes first class, John. He is waiting for the call. They want him in shape and can't play him regular yet, so we keep him warm for them, until the regular leftfielder hangs it up."

"Good life if you can get it," I said.

"I can't protect you concerning him, John. I'm asking you to do the impossible and you can't ruffle his feathers. One miss step and we'll have franchise administrators down on our ass. You fuck up, John, and they'll can my ass in a New York minute."

"He's under contract to the Yankees?" I blurted.

"I can't say that to you. He's under contract to Louisville. What other arrangements the General Manager has for him is none of my business. I'm here as a coach. I give him my wish list and he tells me what he can and can't do. That's my business. Where he'll end up isn't, but he'll leave here a better fielder if I have anything to do with it. He could be traded a half dozen times before he sees his first big league at bat."

"Coach, I'll do my best. I can't do miracles. I'll do nothing to upset him, but if I'm going to coach him, I've got to coach him."

"That's why you get the big bucks, John. I wouldn't have called you down here if I didn't trust you to do the job."

"This is why you called me?"

"I had a hunch I'd need… I'd need someone to rein him in. I'd heard stories long before I ever saw him play. Evan Lane is an item. He's probably worth more than all the rest of us combined, but he is a loudmouth arrogant son-of-a-bitch. Those are his good points as far as I can tell."

"I do this, Coach, well. I want to play for you again."

"We only have one pinch hitter," Coach Bell said.

"Coach!" I said, and the corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly as he observed my reaction to the prospects of pinch hitting.

"You get Evan Lane to catch a damn ball like a big leaguer and I'll try to get you playing time where I can. It's the best I can do, John. I play favorites here and I'll be looking for a job."

"That's good enough. I'd rather be here than on some roof in Statesville," I said, standing up to head out for practice.

Our first lesson was in how to hold the glove. Lane had an oddball way of fielding and it wasn't going to be easy to reshape him. Cooperation from him wasn't expected. He was a one man show and while the players were fine with him, he was a handful. His attention span lasted five seconds on something he didn't want to be doing.

Someone had failed to help Lane become a competent fielder. Coach Bell came along and decided he had to learn to field. Lane could hit a ton but if he couldn't field he would cost his team games, which wasn't satisfactory to Coach Bell.

My job was to figure out what would work to give him what he needed. Getting him to take pride in his fielding was key. Telling him he was a walking disaster as a fielder would get me nowhere. I needed a way to reach him without insulting him. Having that kind of contract made him difficult to coach.

There was a phone in the room where Mrs. Olsen put me. Coach Bell vouched for me and I was given unlimited use of the phone. I could lie on my bed and talk. By the time I had time to talk I needed to lie on my bed to do it. I called my parents once a week and I called Andy on Lincoln's usual off days.

This helped. Andy had grown restless in Lincoln. He was not happy with me. I don't know if it was that I was in triple A ball or that I hadn't called him right away to tell him. By the end of the first phone call he was more like his old self. He'd been in a slump and hadn't homered in two weeks. He'd burned up the Grapefruit League, while playing with and against major league players.

I told him all was well between us and he wanted to know when we would see each other. We'd have had phone sex that first evening, except he wasn't alone in his room and it might have been a little rude for him to haul out the lumber and start whacking away. I understood.

It didn't keep me from getting major wood at the sound of Andy's voice. He was still soft spoken and pleasant but his frustration was obvious. This wasn't what he'd signed up for and he wasn't happy. There was a strain on our relationship and I didn't know what to do about it.

There was work to do and I was still on shaky ground. I started the following day in the infield, getting a kick out of Hack hitting balls to us. He used Busby and Courtney when he needed a break and it felt wonderful. First base and third needed work and settling on McCormick at second was no contest. I was the one most often at second when McCormick wasn't on the field, and Brad seemed to like having me there. Second wasn't my place on the field but it would do.

The outfielders started out with batting practice, after the infield got more than an hour to work up a sweat. Hack told us to take a break and he called the outfields to take the field. There was no time like the present to start attending to business. I trotted out to leftfield without anyone but Lane noticing.

"You lost?" Lane asked. "The infield went that-a-way."

I kept my glove under my arm and Hack hit three high looping fly balls in a row at Lane. He fielded the first two with little more than a slight hitch in his step. He circled under them like he wasn't sure of what he was seeing.

On the third of these high fly balls I got what I wanted. Lane did his usual strolling around, tripped over his size fifteen loafers, and I slipped on my glove and stuck it out to catch the ball as he sat on the ground looking up to see where it went.

"You enjoy that?" he asked unpleasantly. "Is that what you came for?"

"It's called fielding. I do enjoy it. If you pick a spot and stay in it, your feet won't get in your way."

"Fuck you, asshole. I been doing this for years. How long you been at it.'

I looked at my watch.

"About three minutes."

"What's that mean?"

"Long enough to be able to read a fielding play before it gets to me."

"Ain't you special?"

"Good, yes. Special, that's debatable. About a million guys play ball as good as me."

"I here you can't hit a lick," Lane said, standing to brush off his bottom, while trying to find some fuel.

The bat cracked and before he turned around to see where the ball was heading, I caught it in my glove and tossed it underhand at him. It bounced off the heel of his glove and rolled out in front of him as he watched.

"Get your head out of your ass," Hack yelled and the words boomed as if he stood ten feet from us.

"You're distracting me," Lane complained.

"Funny thing about that. You field the same way distracted as you do when you're not?"

If looks could kill I'd have been a dead man. Lane didn't have a response. Hack hit another ball at us.

"Pick a spot and stand there. As the ball starts down, move whichever way that's required. The more you move your feet the more trouble you create for yourself. You're clumsy."

"I am not," he objected, and the ball dropped down in front of him and bounded into the corner of the field.

"Earth to Lane. Get your head out of your ass," Hack yelled even more angrily.

"You're not helping," Lane argued. "You're trying to distract me."

"You're not paying attention. Listen to what I say. Don't look at me when I'm saying it. Follow the ball off the bat. Let your brain calculate speed, distance, and trajectory."

"What?" Lane said.

"Quit worrying about where it might be going. React to it from the time it leaves the bat."

"Hell, he might not hit it to me for half the game. I'm supposed to stand here and watch the batter?"

"Lane, you're the left fielder. You've got to expect every ball is going to come to you. You focus on the pitcher, follow the pitch, watch the batter, if he swings and connects, let your brain tell you at what point it isn't coming to your position. You don't wait until the ball is in the air to decide you might want to get to where it is going before someone yells at you to do it."

"What makes you so smart?" Lane wanted to know.

"I pay attention, Lane."

There it was. I'd passed the message and he may have even heard me. Had he understood or paid attention to what I told him about fielding is anybodies guess. I couldn't read Evan Lane and I didn't know him well enough to make any firm conclusions. He didn't seem to have his head in the game and why hadn't someone gotten it there before he was looking at multi-million dollar contracts.

I backed off, tucking my glove back under my arm as I leaned against the leftfield fence a few dozen feet from where Lane had settled into his position. The next balls went to centerfield and rightfield. Hack ignored Lane as he stood nonchalant, except when the bat cracked, when he looked to see if it might come in his direction. Luckily it didn't.

I'd spent five minutes instructing him and three quarters of an hour watching him. I was amazed he didn't fall down when he walked. He had these powerful unpredictable legs under him. I'd seen them up close and they were impressive, except they were useless the way he put them to use.

I knew why he didn't play football on his high school team. He should have been greased lightning, but of course he wasn't. His lack of coordination combined with his short attention span made him a one trick pony. The thing he could do was focus on a pitched baseball.

Having a big bat was all anyone cared about. They'd given him a pass on fielding, but now there was no pass. The guy he replaced in leftfield would have two or three more seasons as a designated hitter. Lane wasn't going anywhere and starting as a designated hitter. In fifteen years, if he could justify staying in the major leagues for that long, he'd become a designated hitter to extend his hitting career.

The man could hit a baseball. I recognized the full easy swing that came from his shoulders. It was effortless. The ball leaped off his bat and soared. Guys like Lane and Andy have this hand eye coordination that gets the bat on the ball a split second faster than the ordinary hitters. They put the wood on the ball at precisely the right time and at the right angle, and the ball just kept on going.

Coach Bell called me into his office after I came in from the field.

"Well, tell me something, John."

"He's got big feet," I said.

"John, I'm not kidding around here. I'm getting pressure."

"I don't know. He's got all the tools. I'd rarely seen anyone with the kind of muscular body he has and he doesn't seem to work on it. I don't know, Coach. This is the first day he's listened to anything I've said. Give me a few more days and I might come up with something he won't object to."

"I'm depending on you. How many games do you think I can give away with him in leftfield?"

"Give me a few days."

Lane was drying his short hair in the doorway of the locker room as I left Coach Bell's office. He immediately came toward me. I watched the pink appendage swinging in front of even pinker balls that looked to me to be the perfect decoration for his thick dick. He shook his head slightly as he caught my eye.

"I can help you, Dooley. You got this weird swing, you know. If you lighten up some, quite tensing before you swing. I can show you."

"You aren't going to offer me your sunglasses?"

"You caught me short. No, I wanted to say that, but that don't mean you don't need some. I wasn't going to mention it."

"You always do," I said.

"You got to figure it's my package you're staring at. That gets me a mention. I never said nothing nasty."

"You have more than the average bear," I said, "but don't read anything into it. You're a good looking man and people are going to look."

"Thanks. I've been around long enough to know people, guys, even teammates notice things about me. It don't bother me. I don't think anything about anything. I was a handsome kid before I was a handsome man. People noticed me."

"What's that mean?"

"I attracted the attention of a lot of admirers early on. Not much gets past me these days."

"Except high fly balls?"

"Now you're being nasty and I'm trying not to be an asshole here."

"It's noticed and appreciated. What were we talking about?"

"Your batting," he said, and my immediate reaction was to look at the only bat in our vicinity.

"Yeah, well not much chance I'll be doing much batting. I'm here to coach."

"You're too young to coach," Lane said. "Besides, I've watched you in the infield. You're damn good. You should be playing."

"Not in my future. I'm here to coach. They just gave you to me."

"Maybe it will be in your future if I show you how. Slavery went out with Lincoln."

"You make it sound like it's easy. I got hit in the head as a junior in college. Standing at the plate and letting someone throw fastballs at my head isn't my favorite thing."

"No, but if you know more about what you are doing at the plate, you might forget about the pitcher throwing at your pumpkin."

"Where are you from, Lane?"

"Paducah, Kentucky."

"You're almost home?"

"Hardly. Look, I admit I'm an asshole. We can just agree on that and accept it. I'm not stupid. …I'm not that stupid. I know you are trying to help me. I might be able to help you. If you want to work together on that basis, you got a deal. I'll curb the cracks and do my best to pay attention, but I do have some difficulty there."

"You have ADD?" I asked, thinking it was a bit simplistic.

"I don't know what I got but I'm not as clumsy as I am forgetful. I forget to pay attention to my feet and they get away from me. Some days are worse than others. It's always been that way."

"We're making some progress."

"We got a deal?" Lane asked.

"Yeah, we got a deal," I said, not sure what we had decided but thinking it was a good idea to go along with him to hopefully bring peace to Louisville's outfield.

I thought of Andy as I watched Lane's ass, as he went back toward the locker room. I sprung a woody on the spot and I don't know I wouldn't have nailed Lane if the opportunity arose. Thankfully, I was sure it wouldn't. There was some comfort in knowing my fantasies about a guy I couldn't stand until five minutes ago were way out of line.

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