Outside the Foul Lines - Book V

by Rick Beck

Chapter 11

Davenport Blues

By the time the team bus rolled up in front of the motel, Andy and I were refreshed from a nap and a shower. We went with the team to dinner and enjoyed a free-spirited conversation with McCormack and Pappas, after they sought out our table to get to know Andy and chat with me over Louisville's prospects for the weekend.

My roll as a full time coach was best received by these two. We viewed the game from the same perspective and even though I was younger than both players, they accepted my fielding ability as equal to their own. Some team members weren't as easy to win over but when any of them decided to give me some grief by not following my instructions or respecting my authority over them, Hack was fast in having them running endless laps, until they saw the error of their ways.

We hadn't exactly been burning the league down, but we were still leading our league without any distance between the top three teams, making it too close for comfort. Minor league teams were in constant flux, as their big brothers might dip into a team's ranks and carry off the best player without notice, because they could. No lead in league standings was ever safe. Only after the final game was played could you be sure of where you stood. Tthen before the playoffs began, you still might lose players to the majors.

Sitting in Davenport Andy was more than halfway home and he seemed more relaxed. He needed to be back in Lincoln Monday morning at ten. He didn't talk much but he did answer the questions put to him. Andy had looked for where Lane was sitting, but he'd gone into Davenport for interviews on a couple of the sports shows on local television. Even out of Louisville, he was the guy everyone wanted to talk to. Everyone in the league wanted to see him hit homers. One sportscaster claimed that when Lane showed up the crowd doubled for Davenport's home games.

Once we went back in the room, both McCormick and Pappas came in to sit. When the evening news came on, we caught Lane in a two minute interview and There was a short clip of him entering the studio, with several microphones being shoved in his face by the local station's competition. Even in Davenport, the frenzy to trump the other guy was the accepted code of conduct, no matter how rude it looked.

Lane took it all in stride, and seemed quick on his feet when questions were fired at him by the waiting group of reporters. He'd probably had the same questions asked in every town we'd ever been to, but this was the first time I'd watched him in action.

It was the dinner with Mrs. Olsen and Andy that alerted me to Lane's legend. He seemed bigger than life that night. Before that, he'd been the outfielder whose fielding I was responsible for. My interest and perspective went no further than that and it was no longer possible to see Lane as a problem I had.

Never once did he tell me to get off his back because he was some kind of big deal in Louisville. No, he took it all in stride, but he was always ready to make me pay for the pressure I put on him with a joke or a few well chosen words to embarrass me. Lane played a different game from mine, and I knew it by Davenport. I would never view him as just another player again.

The sky over the Davenport stadium was hugely blue. The air was fresh and crisp. The field was well trimmed, the lines drawn precisely by someone that took pride in his work. The slight smell of manure reminded me I was in farm country. In fact, Indiana and Illinois were covered in farmland we passed on the way to Davenport. Because even in April you can get a freeze that far north, the corn was just being planted.

When we came back during the summer, the corn would be growing high and it would be all you could see from the Interstate. This time of year, the rich dark soil spread out as far as the eye could see as you drove.

Davenport was a fair team. They ran hot and cold, not that we hadn't. We won often early in the season but lost as often as we won lately. We came to Davenport to sweep the two games and we had the horses to do it.

Coaching wasn't difficult the first few innings. The two pitchers were locked in a no hit, no run game. It was a pitcher's duel which I might ordinarily have enjoyed, except by the third inning I was bored and catching glimpses of Andy, who was sitting in the stands beside first base.

The game was televised in Davenport, and Andy didn't want any pictures of him sitting in Louisville's dugout next to Louisville's coach, making their way onto local television in Lincoln, as they did the nightly baseball run down. It wouldn't go over well, since Andy was already in the doghouse. Pictures had a way of showing up where you least expect these days and Andy was taking no chances.

There were no signs given and nothing to look for, as one batter after another struck out if they didn't ground out. I don't think a single ball left the infield in three innings. I yawned. The biggest excitement was the peanut vender yelling, 'Peanuts, get your peanuts.' I'd have liked some peanuts, and maybe a cold one to wash them down.

Morgan walked in the fifth for our first base runner. With one out, I watched carefully for Coach Bell's sign. The runner needed to hold. We couldn't afford to lose our first base runner on a pick-off play. Sharp hit the ball hard to the Davenport shortstop. He shoveled it to second, and the throw to first was in time for the double play. 0-0 after five; no hits, no runs, no errors. It was all goose eggs. I loved a good pitching match and I had the best seat in the house, even though I had to stand up to watch.

McCormick got our first hit in the 8 th inning. Lane came to bat with two outs, and a man on 1 st . He hit a long, towering fly ball into center field. The center fielder caught it, and the inning ended. In Davenport's half of the 8 th the first man drew a walk. With two outs and a 2-2 count on the batter, he hit a breaking ball out of the park. 2-0 Davenport. Even sitting on the bench it took the air out of me. This game wasn't going to end well for Louisville.

That was it. We ended the game with only one hit. It was a quiet ride back to the motel. We had one game Sunday to redeem ourselves. We'd head back to Louisville early Sunday night, and Monday was an off day. If we lost the second game it was going to be an even quieter ride home.

Without Andy my thoughts wouldn't be on baseball. I'd wonder if he got home okay. I'd wonder what he was doing. But we had one more night together, and the only thing on my mind was getting McCormick, Pappas, Lane, and our other visitors out of there, so Andy and I could go extra innings if we wanted. It was amazing how well Andy fit in with my teammates.

It was actually more holding and kissing, once the room was cleared. Andy remarked that Lane's long fly ball was just an out but it would have been a homer in Louisville's shorter center field. That would have made the game 2-2 and it would have gone on, but baseball was played on different fields all season, and a hit in one ball park was an out in another.

Yankee Stadium, 'The House Ruth Built,' had a 325 foot right field fence before you reached the stands. It is where Ruth lofted many a home runs. The center field fence was a hundred feet deeper, to keep long fly balls in the park.

Minor league teams usually didn't keep the best players long enough to build stadiums for their style of play, but each had a personality of its own. You had to stay alert if you wanted to stay out of trouble when you were on the road.

The second game began with McCormick getting a hit in the first, Morgan struck out, and Lane doubled to left center field, driving the run in. Louisville 1-0. Davenport went down in order in their half of the first. There were two more hits, and another run in the second. Louisville 2-0.

McCormick got a hit in the third and was left on base. Louisville 2-0. In the fifth inning, McCormick got his third straight single. I clapped my hands, watched for a sign, and held McCormick close to the bag.

"Nice hit. You have your stroke down today, Henry," I told him, as their first baseman glared at me and I smiled real nice for him.

Coach Bell had the hold sign on, and I made sure McCormick was looking at me when I put the hold on him after each pitch. Morgan struck out again. Lane came up swinging his bats. He was beautiful. He took a controlled swing at a high pitch across the plate for strike one. He backed out of the box, giving his bat a few swings before stepping back in to take the next pitch.

I looked at Coach Bell. It was the hold. I made sure McCormick saw the sign. I went back to admiring Lane. The next thing I know McCormick isn't there, and I saw him dashing for second. I looked at Coach Bell to see if I missed another fucking sign.

Coach Bell stood up, confusing me further. He shows me nothing . McCormick is safe and as I look at him, he isn't getting up. By this time Coach Bell is crossing the first base line as I'm trying to figure out what the hell McCormick is thinking with Lane at the plate.

Two umpires have gone to second base. McCormick is lying on his back, not making any attempt to get up. The second baseman is over talking to the shortstop and Coach Bell joins the umpires.

"What the fuck?" I said to myself, not having any idea what was going on.

Everyone else knew. Everyone but me saw it, and I'm still wondering, 'where the hell did he go?'

I follow Coach Bell to second base and stand beside him. Now Davenport's trainer is between the umpires, kneeling over McCormick. Just as I was about to ask Coach Bell what the hell was going on, the trainer answered my question.

"Ankle's broken. Call the EMT's to secure his ankle before we can move him."

I reached down for McCormick's hand as they were getting him ready to go on the gurney. I was stunned. His had a death grip on my hand. He held on for dear life, watching them prepare his leg to be moved. I could tell by the expression on his face that he was in some discomfort. With one hand behind his head, he didn't take his eyes off the medics.

I didn't know what to do. My mind was intent on wanting to help the guy, and I couldn't help him. I was closest to McCormick, except for Lane, and seeing him disabled rang no bell, didn't have my mind working on the larger picture. My only concern was for my friend, and as a coach, was I suppose to feel he was my friend, or was there something else a coach should do?

"Come on, John," Coach Bell said. "Come to the bench with me."

"Good luck," I said to McCormick, knowing nothing but that I felt terrible for the guy.

Then he said something I didn't understand.

"Good luck, John. Knock 'em dead."

He was running out of time to make it to the big leagues and a broken ankle could well have been the end of his career and he's wishing me luck. When I let go of his hand they were lifting him up on a gurney.

As Coach Bell crossed back over the first base line, he shouted angrily, "Bradshaw, run for McCormick."

"Did I miss the sign, Coach?" I asked, thinking he was mad at me and I was about to get it.

"Slip, take over at first," Coach Bell ordered.

Slip jogged out to the coach's box. My coach's box. I didn't know what I'd done.

"No, John, you didn't do anything. Look, this isn't how either of us wanted it, but you're my shortstop now. Get your glove, and go out with the team once our half of the inning is over. Your coaching days just ended. You got anything to say, say it now."

"No, sir," I said, picturing McCormick's face in my mind, felling like I'd just stabbed him in the back.

I genuinely felt sad for McCormick. No, I didn't expect to ever play regular at Louisville, but I was going to play. I didn't plan to stop playing once I started. I didn't like feeling that way. I would stay a player, or hang up my spikes and go find a job in Lincoln, Nebraska, or whereever Andy went to play.

I was in shock about going out to play. I still couldn't get McCormick's face out of my brain. I liked the guy. I hated seeing him get hurt, and to make matters worse, I missed Lane hitting a monster homerun out over the center field wall, over the bleachers, and out into the cornfield behind the stadium. I thought about Mrs. Olsen circling in the street in front of her house, waiting to catch a Lane homer. This one wasn't quite that long.

"John," Coach Bell bellowed.

The team was taking the field and my mind wandered to nonsense images. I tripped going up the step, caught myself with my glove hand, and ran to the shortstop position. McCormick was gone. The position belonged to me. The whole damn infield was now mine.

We led 5-0 and our starting pitcher was still firing heat. There was a strike-out, a grounder to first, and another strike-out to get me back on the bench. I wish I'd had a ball hit to me. Waiting to make my first play only made matters worse.

"You all right, John?" Coach Bell worried out loud.

"Yeah," I said, still not having my head in the game.

The next inning was an eye opener and set my brain straight. My mind would be in the game every inning I played after getting my first minor league game under my belt.

With one out, a sharp ground ball bounced right in front of me. It was no easy play, but it was a play I'd made a million times. I'd made it so many times I was turning to make my throw before I had the ball in my glove.

The ball bounced over the heel of my glove, hit my chest, hit my chin, and fell between my feet. I picked it up and fired it at first base, throwing it two feet over Morgan's glove. He gave me a hard glare as the runner happily took second.

They had their first base runner on second base. It was all on me. Maybe he'd have been safe at first even if I made a clean play, but I knew better. I'd have gotten him out if I had been in the play. The generous scorer gave me an error for my poor fielding and another error on my throw.

"It's okay. We got these guys cold, Do," Pappas said, wrapping his glove hand around my neck as if I'd been playing next to him all our lives. "Let's get these guys. Let's show them who Louisville is."

"You got it," I said confidently, shaking off the impact of the ball.

My head was definitely in the game.

I wasn't about to blow another play that day. My focus came back as if I'd been playing ball every day for years. All my teaching and coaching was part of honing my skills as an excellent glove man, and no one had to remind me what I was out there to do. I kept my mind off McCormick and took care of business.

The side was retired without me taking another ball, and we held on to a 5-0 lead. I fielded two more grounders that day, making the throw to first base as if I'd done it before.

I came up in the ninth inning, but only after Coach Bell had me come over so he could plaster a band-aid on my damaged chin.

"Don't want to let the umpire see you bleeding, John," he said, patting my back when I turned to pick a bat.

The first pitch was low, but across the plate. The second pitch was outside and still low. I didn't like either and I left them alone. We had the game all but won and I wasn't going to get my panties in a bunch over one at bat. The third pitch curved in on the plate. I didn't give it a thought as I spanked it out past second base. I stopped at first. Morgan walked, and Lane came to the plate as I stood on second, watching him swing several bats before tossing all but the one he wanted down. I'd never seen a player more in command of a game. The stadium was quiet and even the peanut man stopped, turning to watch Lane's at bat.

He swung casually as he worked his way up to the plate. He didn't get much time to get used to being there. He hit the first pitch in the same place where he'd hit his last homer. I was watching him closely and I didn't miss this one. I took my time enjoying riding Lane's hit home.

We won 8-0. I had one at-bat, one hit, scored one run, and made two errors on one play. It wasn't my usual game but I'd take it. Winning meant everything to me that day.

Saying goodbye to Andy was worse than fucking up at shortstop. I reached into my pocket and gave him the one hundred and forty three dollars I'd taken out of my bank account. He said no and I closed his hand around the cash. He was suspended and had no pay to eat on. At least I had Mrs. Olsen between pay checks.

In a small way I wanted to fail. I wanted to go with him and I still wanted to play ball. I had my life. I wanted to live Andy's life. I wanted so much with only one lifetime to fit it into. That was the trouble with being a baseball player, you only had so long and then one day your time was up. That would keep me playing ball, until I was put out of the game.

Coach Bell went to the hospital, and flew back to Louisville on Monday. Hack took charge of his team and got us all on the bus, unable to reconcile the missing man, until Slip marked McCormick's name off the lineup card.

McCormick would never return to Louisville. He did come back and he did play for a couple of teams, but he never got his chance in the Bigs.

The lineup posted on the clubhouse door for our Tuesday home game against Toledo listed, at SS, John Dooley. My picture appeared beside McCormick's picture. He had been on the Louisville squad third longest. He was gone.

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