Outside the Foul Lines - Book V

by Rick Beck

Chapter 12

Long Distance

I didn't feel any differently as I sat at Mrs. Olsen's table, drinking coffee and chatting about me being in the Louisville starting line-up. My lapse in fielding had lasted for one play and if there was one thing I knew it was how to field at shortstop. I suffered no loss of confidence.

I'd yet to call my parents to advise them things had changed. I suppose I needed to get adjusted to playing before I spoke with them. Dad would have already seen the box score in the Davenport game. He'd have run his finger down the Louisville line-up. He'd have stopped at my name, recognizing it as his name, John Dooley, shortstop.

Dad might or might not have told mom. He may have thought he'd let me call to tell them I had played in a regular season game, after I'd said I probably wouldn't, because Henry McCormick was such a fine shortstop.

Maybe I was superstitious and wanted to get a few games under my belt before risking it by making it known I was the starting shortstop. Dad would know I knew he followed the box scores, receiving the Louisville paper a few days after it appeared in Louisville. I'd have to call before he received the copy of McCormick and I on the front of the sports page.

It told of McCormick's injury and the hopes he'd return before the end of the season of what would certainly be a playoff season. My place on the team was relatively obscure. At first I was the player subbing for McCormick. You didn't come out and mention a name previously unknown to the fans, when one of their favorites was injured. It was best to speak in indefinite terms of when he would return. By mid-season his absence would be fact and I'd either be seen as his logical replacement or as a pretender and no replacement at all.

At State I was almost immediately in the game. I'd found myself playing unexpectedly as a freshman and I was slowly drawn into a personal relationship with my coach. My trials and tribulations were such that I was never confident I'd remain in the starting line-up at State. My ability to field and win over older boys, who admired my glove work, made my time at State easy until Coach Bell left.

Once I was a senior, I gave up the idea I'd ever see or play for Coach Bell again. My future in baseball was non-existent. I didn't like it but I accepted my last year at State was my last year in ball.

Appearing in the starting line-up in Louisville was a startling occurrence. I wasn't prepared to make the transition. I missed McCormick but couldhardly remember his face. Maybe it was better that way. This was the game I played and this was how careers were made and how careers ended.

The fact I was not only a shortstop but the most likely replacement for McCormick, never came to mind, when I looked into his face at Davenport. I had pretty much given up the idea of playing regularly back at State. When Coach Bell put me into pre-season games at Louisville, I regarded it as him doing me a favor. Letting one of his coaches feel the game he loved just one more time. I didn't think he might be measuring me for the shortstop job.

Starting shortstop at Louisville was not the same as when I was a school icon in college. Athletics was the coin of the realm in school, and I was rich with talent and easily recognized even off the field.

My first at bat in Louisville passed with not even a buzz from the several thousand fans in the stands. My name was announced, I went through my routine, stood in the box taking 3 balls before the first called strike. I walked on five pitches. Morgan struck out and Lane grounded out to end the inning.

Of everyone in the clubhouse, Lane was my biggest supporter. He would not give up on getting his feet straight and he looked to me to get that done. Nothing changed there. No one said I shoulod continue with Lane, but I did. No one told me to stop either.

We fielded together with Hack driving all kinds of balls in our direction. I asked Pappas to stay for extra infield practice and I put Lane between us, fielding Hack's spicy ground balls. Lane came over in the evening twice a week, usually off-nights, to dance with Mrs. Olsen and then me, after having Mrs. Olsen's home cooked dinner.

Lane was quite the diplomat, never minding anything. He asked questions and pondered whatever answer I gave him, even when my answers were less than clear. I was as committed to helping Lane as I was distracted by my role as starting shortstop.

Lane went into a slump and didn't hit a home run the whole first week I was in the line-up. I was on base in each of the following four games, one at home before three away, and I remained there, after Lane sat back down. We lost thee of the four games, after going 2-2 my first four games.

We slipped below .500 and out of the league lead. We were 3 wins and 5 loses with me at shortstop. Not a stellar record.

Andy called almost every day. He wanted a rundown on a game as soon as I was home. He wanted to know how I did. He'd figured out the time difference and kept track of what time the game started, calculating out how long the game would run and when he should call. If I didn't answer my phone, he called Mrs. Olsen's phone and talked to her, until I showed up.

My lover had way too much time on his hands.

Andy was close to his family in relative terms. He felt a responsibility toward his younger brothers and sisters, and he did his best to be an example for them. He wasn't particularly close to his mother, although it was apparent he loved her. His reaction to Mrs. Olsen told me she represented what Andy would have liked his mother to have been. It was another example of where my life had been so much better than his.

Poor all his life, the rigors of a Spartan existence in pro-ball was no earth shaking change for him, and now there were several representatives of big league ball clubs hanging around the rehabilitation center in Lincoln. It demonstrated Andy had been discovered, and these men were anxious to report Andy once more being in playing condition.

Andy's suspension meant he could talk to anyone he wanted. The team wasn't paying him, so there was no binding obligation not to examine his prospects. That was, until the Lincoln club got wind of the obvious baseball types sniffing around their biggest power hitter. He was quickly reinstated and offered a better contract to sit on the bench each day, where they could keep an eye on him. It wasn't six figures, but it beat the hell out of the four figure contract, which did included room and board, but it told Andy he was in a good position.

Andy seemed pleased with himself, and curious about Lane and me. He compared my answers to Mrs. Olsen's answers to his prying, and there was never any difference worth noting. When Lane came home with me, Andy spent more time talking baseball with him than he did with me.

When he got his new improved paycheck, he sent me my $143.00 back and a beautiful arrangement of flowers. The flowers were for Mrs. Olsen, and with the flowers came a strange request.

'pick a rose out and give it to Lane for me.'

I'd known Andy for a long time and I knew he was strangely attracted to his counterpart. Lane seemed equally fond of Andy and I figured it was what they did. Each man approaches the game from his own perspective. Andy and Lane approached it as sluggers. But when Andy wanted to fight Lane, Lane wasn't having anything to do with it. Lane had fought all his life and it was no longer necessary.

It was in a Monday afternoon make-up game that a South Bend player got his bat on a fat pitch, hitting it deep into left center field. It was a certain double and perhaps a triple. Lane took off as soon as it left the bat and caught up with the ball a few feet in front of the fence and three steps in front of our center fielder Sharp.

Lane caught the ball. I led the applause from shortstop and Coach Bell came up out of the dugout to clap for the best fielding play Evan Lane had ever made. It was one of the best fielding plays of the season. He was all smiles when he came in at the end of the inning.

I waited to pat his ass as he ran past. He looped his arm over my shoulder as we ran together to the dugout. The crowd went wild.

"Damn nice play, Lane," I bragged as we trotted together.

"Yeah, was nice," he admitted. "I been practicing, you know?"

I don't know how chemistry works. I know it is a fact that after making a terrific fielding play, the player often comes to bat the next inning. We were losing 1-0 to South Bend and Lane's catch saved it from getting worse.

I batted second and smacked the first pitch between first and second and stopped at 1 st base. Morgan walked after fouling off a half dozen pitches. Lane came to the plate and got a bigger than usual reception from the fans. Had Lane not caught the ball in their half of the inning, the score may well have gone to 3-0 South Bend. They let him know they appreciated him.

He tipped his hat to the crowd before stepping into the batter's box.

With a count of 2-2 Lane got the pitch he was waiting for and hit a line drive into the right center field stands. The crowd went crazy, and it was Louisville 3-1. Lane's longest home run drought of the season ended and he seemed very relaxed after the game.

We were still one game out of taking back the league lead, but the team wasn't concerned. Coach Bell spoke positively of what we were doing and of how the team was playing. Lane was always the key to Louisville. If he slumped, Louisville slumped, and we'd been losing more than we were winning, but we were still close to the league lead.

My conversation with my parents went well. I knew they'd be full of happy talk and encourage me to make the most of the chance I had. I didn't know why that talk was so hard to have. I knew what they'd say and what's worse, I knew my responses. It was all the kind of predictability that annoyed me. It had nothing to do with my parents. It had nothing to do with me. It just was what it was and I wanted to get on with playing ball and talking about it less.

Of course dad knew everything about what I was doing.

"Do, you're hitting over .300."

"I know, Dad."

"That's great. You've never hit that well."

"It's early in the season, Dad. This is a different game. I'm taking my cuts and that's about it."

He was excited but understood my need to be reserved on the topic. I wanted to play one game at a time and do the best I could do. Getting excited about one aspect of the game wasn't productive but Lane certainly was.

We had three consecutive games at home, after Lane broke out of his slump. In each of the three games, he rewarded his loyal fans with a home run. Twice I scored in front of him and at the news conference, after beating Bloomington, he called me over to brag about the two double plays I started that nipped Bloomington's top notch hitting attack in the bud.

On the front of the sports page the following day was a picture of 'Lane and Louisville's fine fielding shortstop.'

I knew Lane didn't need to share the limelight with anyone but he had gone out of his way to put me on center stage with him. I wanted to be one of the guys and not stand out in any way, but things didn't always go the way I saw them.

The infield had immediately accepted me in their midst. Pappas and Morgan were both good fielders and they recognized that I wouldn't let them down. Most of the rest of the team was indifferent to me. I was one of two dozen baseball players and I'd done nothing to separate myself from the crowd. As a coach I was simply a taskmaster. As a player, I was a relatively unknown quantity.

My relationship with the coaching staff meant they were happy to have me playing. Coach Bell didn't need to say anything. His fondness for me was obvious, and while we weren't as close as when I was at State, he never treated me like I was just another player. It was less for me to worry about, because Coach Bell knew me inside out and I couldn't fool him if I tried.

My hitting surprised and pleased him, but he never spoke of it. I had to go on the looks he gave me, after I hit, scored, or came in from making a play in the field. Coach Bell was not a man given to showing a lot of emotion, but he gave me enough to let me know I was doing fine.

It may well have been fine but I was ill at ease, even when I played. There was something going on inside me and I'd yet to put my finger on it. I did my job and never again screwed up the way I did that first day. Since that day I hadn't made an error and things were going smoothly as far as baseball was concerned.

Lane kept hitting. I was lucky enough to be on base enough to score a lot of runs, and Louisville retook the league lead by mid-May and we didn't give it up this time. Lane's fielding had improved and he made some very good plays. He rarely got caught flat-footed, and never tripped over his own feet, though he still came to Mrs. Olsen's for dinner once or twice a week. Preferring that to the constant upheaval that followed him into restaurants all over town. He'd stopped enjoying fast food early in his minor league career.

It was in May that Andy first pinch hit, after his injury had healed well enough for him to swing a bat. He wore a thick brace on the wrist to protect it from the ball if he should take a hit where the break had happened. By June 1 st he was back in the line-up, to the cheers of the Lincoln fans.

The phone calls went back to once or twice a week. Usually Saturday evenings and Mondays, because those were times we were both likely to be in and resting. Andy's spirits improved and even though he never seemed all that happy over my playing ball regularly, he asked about my progress and wanted to know about Lane.

The interest in Andy by the big league scouts had slacked off. The broken wrist had everyone in extreme caution mode. No one knew the story behind the broken wrist, so the worry of an unstable athlete didn't surface and his injury was written off as weak spot in the power hitters armor that needed watching.

Andy wasn't prone to slumps. He picked up hitting homers as quick as he was back in the line-up. He didn't hit one home run the three weeks he pinch hit. He hit four the first week he was back, and Lincoln's home crowd roared with approval. Andy had yet to attain the fame of Evan Lane, but there was no doubt they were in the same league.

By July we led our league by five games. Lane led the league in homers, runs-batted-in, and was hitting at a .325 clip. He'd made four fielding errors that season and they'd all come before May. The complete player New York was looking for had grown up in Louisville.

When Lane took Mrs. Olsen and I out to eat, the chaos was enough to give me indigestion. He always smiled, signed, posed with kids, and kissed restaurant owners on the cheek, men and women, if they picked up the check, which they often did. Everyone in Louisville was Evan Lane insane. He was a local hero, and there were no skeletons or scandals to distract from the hero worship.

It amazed me and I wondered if Andy would one day be faced with this kind of attention. He would never handle it as casual as Lane. I certainly wouldn't look forward to a loss of privacy. For me it was about the game and always had been. Even in the earliest days at State, my interest in ball was about an education.

It was difficult to say how I'd gotten here from there. I was on the same team as Lane, but I was not in the same league with him. Fielding talents were never seen in the same light as power hitters. Fielders were about mechanics. Sluggers were about glory. Each was important to the final outcome for any team, but only the power hitter caught the imagination of the fans.

Only a lover of the game could appreciate the fielding techniques that kept a game under control and set the stage for winning rather than losing. If you had a mechanically sound team, you didn't give away runs, and therefore you needed less runs to win. With Evan Lane in the line-up, the fielders kept the game in check, and he won it with his bat.

It wasn't that easy for me. I wasn't plagued by any particular doubts, but I didn't feel I necessarily belonged in Louisville. If Andy begin to field offers to go to the big leagues, I might have to hang up my glove and follow him to keep his mind on the game.

I wanted to play. I wanted to play every day, but I knew my career would need to take a backseat to Andy's. He would be the headliner and I was just a face in the crowd. Amusing myself playing minor league ball wasn't a reason to deny Andy the kind of life he deserved. I would give up my career for him.

It hadn't even been a question when I took the job as coach. I would go with Andy where ever he went, once he got to the Bigs. McCormick's injury had put me back in the game. I did love playing every day and I hated the idea I'd one day need to give it up, but it was an inescapable fact. I'd give up ball to be with the man I loved.

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