Outside the Foul Lines - Book V

by Rick Beck

Chapter 13

Playing the Game

In the middle of June we got hot. We won nine games in a row and I was batting .312. Coach Bell moved me to the third batting spot in front of Lane. Pappas would bat second, and Morgan became our lead off batter.

If there was any one thing to account for the winning streak, it was Evan Lane. By late June he had 21 home runs and 65 runs-batted-in. He was hitting 345, hadn't made an error since May, and he had saved a couple of runs with his fielding. It was the best of both worlds for me, and Coach Bell smiled at me a lot. The team had come together.

By the first of July we led our league by five games. Our clubhouse was a great place to be and my life had become something I'd never dared dream it could become.

I'd never played the game better and maturing accounted for a dedication in the infield that had us on the top of our game. After McCormick left, I was considered the leader of the infield. No one remembered I'd coached them a few months before. No one cared what I'd done before, once we'd started to roll.

We still spent our off days going through practices to keep ourselves tuned up. We no longer strained in the heat and shortly after noon, we were hitting the showers, or in my case, going across the street to my air conditioned room.

"I'm home, Mrs. Olsen," I said, coming in through the front door and announcing myself so I didn't give her a heart attack.

"Oh, John," she said, holding the phone. "It's Andy."

"Have him call me upstairs. I don't want to bother you," I said, wondering how Andy was so often on the phone when I came in.

"John, don't make him call you back. He's lonely. Talk to him," she said, holding out the phone for me to take from her.

I took it and sat beside the table with the phone on it in the hallway next tothe kitchen.

"How you doing, Slugger?" I said, trying to sound enthusiastic and not hot and tired.

"Fine, Do. How are you?"

"Hot, sweaty. I just came in from practice."

"Yeah, I know. Mrs. Olsen said so. Not often we get the same day off. I figured you'd be getting in about this time."

"No, not often. How's Lincoln doing these days?"

"Terrible. We can't hit our way out of a wet paper bag. I'm beginning to get tired of this place. I miss you, Do," he said, letting my name hang out in the air for a minute.

"I miss you," I said, wanting to sound convincing for his sake.

"Are you okay? Are we okay?" Andy asked, a strange insecurity in his voice.

"We're fine, Andy. I had a night game last night. We went 12 innings and I just came in from practice. I'm tired, hot, and I don't sound excited, because I'm tired and hot. You know I love hearing from you any time."

"I'm sorry, Do. Mrs. Olsen said you'd come in late last night. I just wanted to hear your voice. It's been so long since we've been together. I don't like being here alone. It isn't getting any easier."

"Andy, you know what the deal is. If I wasn't here, I'd be there, but I am here and I've got to do this. It's the deal we made."

"I know. I never said you shouldn't. I said I don't like it."

"Here, John," Mrs. Olsen said, handing me a large glass of iced tea and putting a tuna sandwich down beside the phone. "He's lonely, John. Don't be short with him. You boys shouldn't be that way."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, putting my hand over the bottom of the phone to answer her and take a big gulp of tea to cool my throat.

"Look, I'm going to have a sandwich, some iced tea, and I'm going up to hop in the shower. You home?"

"Yeah, I'm home. I'm off today."

"Give me a half-an-hour if you're going to be there, and I'll call you as quick as I'm out of the shower. We'll talk as long as you want."

"Cool. I'll be here. Mrs. Olsen is sweet. Don't be getting short with her on my account, Do. She's a nice lady. She cares a lot about you."

"I won't, Andy. I'm fine. I'll call you in a few, okay? That way we can really talk."

"I'd like that."

I waited for his phone to click and I hung up the receiver. I sighed and let out all the air from my lungs before inhaling and sipping some more of the cool tea.

"Thank you, Mrs. Olsen," I said loud enough for her to hear me in the kitchen.

She walked to the door with an equally large glass of tea in her hand. She stood for a second and looked at my wet uniform.

"Put your uniform out by the bathroom door. I'll have it cleaned and ironed before tomorrow's game. Who do we play tomorrow?"

"Gary," I said. "I didn't mean to be sharp. I'm tired."

"It's been terribly warm. I turned your air conditioner on before Andy called. It should be cool up there before the sun gets down on your window. It's hard to cool once it warms up in there, with the sun setting on that side of the house."

"You don't have the air on down here. It's pretty warm in here."

"Meatloaf tonight, John. Kitchen is too hot for the air to do any good. I'll have the stove off before long and it'll cool off in no time. I thought it would be nice for you to have sandwiches."

"You are a peach, Mrs. Olsen. I don't deserve to be treated as well as you treat me. I don't pay all that much."

"I'd let you stay for free if they didn't pay me, John. I like having baseball players in the house. It makes me feel useful."

"You treat me like I'm your son. You treat me like my mom does. I've always had it good and you spoil me; I don't pay enough for the food you buy."

"If I couldn't afford to feed you I'd ask for more. You pay your share and that's all I ask. Keeping you well fed and healthy means you'll take care of business with Louisville and we'll both be happy about that. We are on a hot streak."

"Yes, we will, Mrs. Olsen. That was good. I'll take the glass up with me. How long did you talk to Andy?"

Mrs. Olsen looked at me, considering something other than the truth before saying, "A half-an-hour or so. He's so lonely without you. I can hear it in his voice and how he sounds when I tell him you're home. He really liked it here. I guess he didn't want to leave you."

"He calls more often than when he talks to me?"

"Yes, he does. He needs someone to talk to when something good happens, or something bad. You're gone so much. Now that you're home, maybe call him more often. I don't mind because he's such a nice boy, but I'm not who he wants to talk to and you need to do whatever it takes to keep him from feeling so sad."

"I guess I do, Mrs. Olsen. Thank you," I said, handing her the plate and kissing her cheek before taking the steps two at a time.

Andy was in a batting slump. He hadn't stopped hitting home runs but his average had dropped from .330 to .282 since he'd injured his wrist. He'd hit two monster home runs in the last week but neither had added up to a win and Lincoln was in a nosedive that could be tracked directly back to his injury and suspension. His return to the lineup hadn't stopped the freefall.

So there were some hard feelings and controversy that accompanied his return to the team. He still had scouts standing to watch his every at bat and this didn't always please his teammates. The fact he was a home run hitter was one thing, but not hitting up to his potential was another. It didn't bother anyone looking at him as a power hitter, but Andy wasn't back to normal and he knew it.

I listened, and told him that his timing was off because of the games he missed and it was no more than that. Once he'd been batting every day for a while, he'd be back on top of his game. He'd never hit under .300 in his career and it made him think he was losing his edge. This was never good for an athlete. I had a hunch our separation also had more to do with it than he indicated. I could read him like a book and the reading was a little depressing.

There's nothing worse than a loss of confidence. I don't think coming to Louisville did him a bit of good. As great as it was seeing each other, the separation made our lives even more miserable, serving to remind us of how bad it felt living a part, and we did and would, probably for years to come.

He didn't like the fact Lane was my friend, although he liked the idea of Lane as his friend, and I scolded him for being silly. Not that it did any good. Lane did let many people close to him. I got a pass, because I was made responsible for him. Andy got a pass because he was with me and a slugger to boot.

We agreed that we loved each other and nothing had changed, and we both hated the separation. Right now he hated it more than I hated it, because his team was not doing well, and my team was. Winning is the best antidote for heartache for a ball player. It is way hard to get down when everything has you flying higher than ever before. Andy was not flying and he was not happy.

I tried to sympathize with him without encouraging it, and he spoke of punching another door with his other hand to get another few days with me. As hard as we tried to calculate some way to meet, when our teams got as close to one another as they get, the logistics were impossible. Transportation was never direct from one modest size town to another. By the time we could get to where we could hook up, it would be time to turn around to get where the next game was played.

I felt good about my life, about baseball, about where I was in both. I was positive it was going to work out for me and I felt bad about it. I wanted to miss Andy as much as he missed me, but I didn't have time. My schedule was full and when I wasn't playing or practicing, there was a function or some obligation the club arranged for us. An orphanage needed to make extra funds to provide for their kids. A charity game on a day off would do the trick. A bowling tournament where fans came and paid to see us do something we couldn't do very well, making us more human.

Evan Lane was a first class bowler and never failed to win the charity events. One of the gay guys who helped raise him took him bowling on Saturday mornings. A dozen games or more and he hadn't lost his touch.

We bowled against other Louisville athletic teams. I mostly watched, because my bowling skills were far from perfected. I was notorious for my remarkable ability to throw gutter balls. Keeping score was more up my alley, and holding Lane's bowling ball as he was interviewed, photographed, and paid more attention than the Pope or the President. Lane was King in Louisville and his fans couldn't get enough.

Lane loved Louisville and any charity event he showed up for was well attended. Other local celebrities showed up to be photographed with him. The biggest shock I ever got was when I turned around, after packing up his ball, and witnessed his sparing with Mohammed Ali. There were never two more beloved Louisville icons and the cameras couldn't get enough of them.

Mr. Ali was gone before I could get near him but the pictures taken hung in the clubhouse for my entire time at Louisville. The caption under it read, "Two Louisville Sluggers", and not a single bat in the picture.

The most amazing thing was what happened in that room when Ali was in it. Every eye, all the attention, as well as the energy shifted in deference to him, a one of a kind experience, even for Lane, who was speechless, when he realized the man knew of him.

Coach Bell told me Ali was his hero as a boy. Meeting him and merely being in the same place where he was became the highlight of his life. With Louisville nine games out in front of the rest of our league at the time, he was having a very good year.

Coach Bell was celebrated in the local press as the genius behind Louisville's success. Several times in that part of the season, there were pictures with Lane on one side of him with me on the other. The caption under one read, 'the heart of Louisville's winning ways.'

It was great to be held in high esteem where I played, but I wasn't in Lane's league. I was a shortstop doing the best job I could and I had no complaints.

When I was the center of attention at State, it was no big deal. For one thing I never felt I deserved it. Now, I wasn't sure I didn't deserve some recognition. It gave me cause to look back to the day my mother came to get me off a Statesville roof with the cry,

"Louisville wants you."

It was quite a shock. I wasn't out of the game. That was nice, because I loved baseball. Even making half what I did on the roofs of Statesville, standing in the first base coaches box was the greatest thing since I got to go to college, because I played ball.

There was no indication that by accepting the offer it would put me on the fast track back into a playing career. The only negative part of my rise to playing status, someone had to get hurt to make it possible.

I was where I wanted to be. No, it wasn't perfect. I knew there were glitches and that there would be tough times. My future was now and while I missed Andy every single day and wanted to be with him just as often, I needed to play ball, and as long as he was playing ball, we were both doing what we wanted to do and that got us by. The price was high but we had agreed to pay it.

We continued winning enough to maintain the nine game lead in our league. We were as far out front as ten and a half games and fell back to an 8 game lead one time. Our playing stayed consistent and I kept hitting for a .303 average. I scored in front of Lane often enough to like it a lot.

No one was able to keep up with Lane's home run output or his RBIs. He was the only team member to score more runs than I did but he was often right behind me when I scored. The team settled on one lineup and stuck with it, even when someone wasn't hitting up to expectation. Enough of us were playing well enough to keep us out front.

Each time Andy hit a homer, he wanted to know about Lane's last homer, and it was a difficult pace to keep up with. Lane rarely asked about Andy's slugging, but I gave him the figures from time to time so he was aware of what Andy was doing.

It didn't hurt to promote my man, and maybe Lane would mention him to someone he didn't intend to sign with but who was looking for a power hitting outfielder. It was all in the game.

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