Outside the Foul Lines - Book I

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4

There Will Be Change

Timmy got between Ryan and me without any comment from Ryan. While our routine changed, because someone else was always around Ryan, I still did my best to maintain a friendship, thinking in a matter of time Ryan would see that Timmy was only after one thing and our friendship meant more to him than that.

It helped to ease the pain of being excluded, but I'd mostly excluded myself. I didn't want to be around Timmy, although my hard feelings for him didn't arise when we met at school. This was about the only time I ran into either of them and then they weren't together. For quite some time Ryan was still friendly toward me, but the matter of our separation never came up.

After I put out handbills in my neighborhood, my lawn mowing business grew. And since I'd been offering to fix small appliances for the elderly around us, I decided to add that to the handbill. My small appliance customers became customers for my lawn mowing service and visa versa. The workbench in our garage was often covered in toasters, blenders, and coffee makers. A lot of my spare time was consumed with making repairs.

During my freshman year at Statesville High School, I took a bigger interest in the baseball season. I did show up to play softball on Saturday mornings but Bobby Henry rarely came. It was his senior year and he'd devoted all of his time to having a good baseball season. It would be his ticket to State.

As far as I could tell, he was achieving his goal, leading the team in batting average, most singles, and most walks. His glove work was as close to perfect as anyone got. I took a seat behind third base to get the best view of what Bobby did. At times he waved in my direction, and before he got set for the next batter I waved back.

Some afternoons I put off appliance repair and showed up at baseball practice. I met other players and watched what went on behind the scenes. I was fascinated by the games of "pepper", which consisted of a batter and up to a half dozen fielders. The batter, often Coach Price, sprayed balls to the right, left, and straight at the fielders. They in turn caught the balls, hopefully, tossing them back to the person who was feeding the balls back to the batter.

Mostly I went to baseball practice to watch Bobby Henry bat. When he took his turn in the batting cage, I weaved my fingers through the wire behind the batter. With my face in a position to get an unobstructed view, I memorized his stance, his swing, and his gracefulness. No matter where the ball was pitched, he seemed to have little trouble getting his bat on it.

"You should have gone out for the freshman team," Bobby said, after walking around the back stop once he'd finished batting.

"Nah, I've got to work most afternoons this time of year."

"You obviously like the game. Playing is a lot more fun than watching."

"I've never thought about joining a team," I said.

"Think about it. You're a good fielder."

"Can't hit, Bobby. I don't like hardball that much."

"You get use to it. No one has good timing the first time he faces that hardball coming at him. You learn to follow it and stay out in front of it. That's all there is to it," he advised.

"There's one more thing. You've got to hit it."

"You learn, Dooley. It takes practice."

I suppose that was the first time I thought of going out for baseball. It wasn't a big thought or one I spent much time on, but it did add an option to my uncertain future. It was the following week that I'd stayed for our 3-2 win over Preston High. It was a boring game after the third inning, when we took the lead for good. Bobby started two double plays and he got two singles, but one of his hits batted in the winning run.

After the game, with me being one of the two dozen people who stayed for the last out, Bobby trotted over and called me down on the field.

"You hungry?"

"Always," I admitted.

"I'm going for pizza with a couple of the guys. You come along. I'll pick up the tab for you."

How could I say no? I was flattered and excited by his invitation. I hadn't had much of a social life since getting up to the high school. We walked toward the high school with most of the team straggled out in front of us. As quick as we passed through the doors into the hallway beside the gym and locker room, Bobby guided me in front of him with his big hand in the middle of my back; the clack, clack, clack of the baseball spikes echoed around us.

When I sat down on the bench next to Bobby's locker, he said he was going to take a quick shower before we'd join a couple of players who were going with us. I felt a bit uneasy as he undressed. I'd imagined what his body looked like for some time, but I was made uncomfortable by his undressing in front of me.

Bobby was tightly built; a narrow waist gave way to wide shoulders. His legs were thin with muscular thighs to give him added mobility. He had rusty blond hair on his head though his pubes were a shade darker. I tried not to let my eyes linger in all the wrong places, but that didn't work all that well.

Most of the other players had similar builds with only a couple having signs of extra weight. There was no doubt they were at the peak of physical conditioning. I did want to have that kind of body but I wasn't sure what it took.

The steam rolled across the ceiling above me as the guys turned up the hot water and the humidity in the locker room began to rise. Having time to check the scenery wasn't something I'd ordinarily do, but it was difficult to ignore so many naked young men. I sat silently and tried to keep my eyes to myself.

Bobby was walking with another boy, when he came from the showers. I only picked up on the final part of the conversation, but I figured I knew what they were talking about.

"I don't know if he is or isn't on the juice, but how do you explain the improvement in his numbers at an age when most guys are starting to fade," Bobby said to a more husky boy I recognized from the game.

"Well, he's not the only one on it," the other boy said.

"I don't care about who is or isn't. I have no respect for anyone who taints the game by going on the juice. They discredit all of us if you ask me."

"I suppose," the other boy said, turning away.

"Don't let me ever hear that you're shooting anything into yourself to improve your performance. It betrays the game. It betrays the history of the game," he said adamantly, poking his finger at my arm as he spoke and dried himself.

"I would never," I said. "I don't even like taking aspirin."

"Good. I know you're clean now, but there are guys right here fooling around with that stuff, and we know who they are," he said with a forceful voice amplifying his words.

It wasn't a conversation I wanted to be in on. I figured I knew what it was about, but I didn't want to know who was or wasn't using illegal drugs. I did understand the purity of the game but I didn't know what the answer was.

If Bobby noticed me watching him dry off he didn't mention it. He pulled a fresh white T-shirt from his locker, then put a plaid shirt over it. The shirt had a hint of green that matched his eyes. His blue jeans were faded but cut to show off his body, especially his posterior, which had the jeans looking like a million bucks worth of denim.

Once he'd packed his locker with his baseball gear, he indicated it was time to go. I felt his hand in the middle of my back as we passed the rows of lockers on our way to the locker room entrance. Bobby spoke to a couple of guys and a few of them spoke to him. There was a familiarity between them that I liked.

"Hey, I've got to stop by to see the coach for a minute," he said, as we entered the long hallway that passed all the coaches' offices.

"Coach Price," he said, after knocking, and he stuck his head inside. "It's cool," he said to me, pushing open the door and waiting for me to enter.

"Henry," Coach Price said, shaking his hand. "Good game. This the boy you told me about."

"Yes, sir. John Dooley, Coach Price," Bobby said, making me feel a bit like going on stage without a script.

"Sit down. We don't stand on formality here," he said, as Bobby took the last chair in a row of chairs and I sat next to him and directly across from the coach.

"So, you're a nifty little fielder, are you?" Coach Price asked.

"I don't know," I said. "I like fielding fine."

"He's good coach. He's fast and has a nose for the ball," Bobby said, putting his hand on the back of my arm to comfort me, but adding instead to the tension.

"Well, I don't have that good an eye for baseball talent," Coach Price lied. "Suppose you come out and do some fielding with my freshman team. Mr. Randolph is the coach but I'll tell him I want you to get the feel for shortstop. No obligation, understand. We're fast coming up on the final few weeks and you'll get enough practice time to see if maybe you'd like to join us next year. If you're as good as Henry says you are, I'll want to give you a solid look. What do you think? There's no obligation here, just a chance for you to meet some of the boys you'd be playing with and you'd learn tips that make you an even better fielder. Might even help you develop your batting."

"What do you say, Do. I talked you up because you're good. Why don't you give it a try."

We all shook hands and Bobby pushed me out of the office in front of him once we were done. We walked to the backdoors that led out to the parking lot and athletic fields.

"I should have told you, I guess, but I was afraid you'd say no right off, and I'd already told Coach about you. I've never recommended anyone before, Dooley."

"Thanks. I don't know if I'm good enough," I hesitated.

"You are, Do. You're as good as most of the guys on the freshman team. What you need is some experience. Once you get a feel for the game, you'll love it."

"I can't bat," I said. "I've watched you bat and I just can't bat."

"I'll teach you what I know," he said. "Some guys are never good hitters but their gloves keep them in the game."

"Okay, if you'll help me with the hitting part, I'll turn up at practice to give it a go," I said, liking the idea of spending more time with him.

That's how baseball became part of my life. Bobby introduced me to Coach Randolph, who knew I was coming. Coach Price came the first day to watch me with the fielders. I felt like I was on stage again.

Bobby was true to his word; after finishing varsity practice, he'd take me aside to give me batting tips. He pitched, I hit, or did my best to hit, and the backstop stopped most of the balls. He was right about one thing. I lost most of my fear of the baseball.

I never told him that my knees shook every time I faced a pitcher who only threw fastballs. These pitchers never lasted and rarely got far without adding a curve and a slider to their inventory of pitches, but they made me shake as I fully expected to have one of those pitches hit me right between my left eye and ear.

Whatever the fears, Bobby got my full attention. I especially liked it when he took me to the infield with him while someone batted ground balls, line drives, and balls that would most certainly be beyond my reach. Bobby taught me there wasn't anything beyond my reach, because nothing was beyond his.

As we left the field after a fielding session with him demonstrating most of what he knew, he told me, "It's all inside here," he said, pointing at his head. "The fielding, the hitting, and how to use the knowledge to get the best of every player you face.

"Almost every player that comes to bat on the opposition team I've faced before. All I need to do is remember the pitches he likes and where they go when he hits that pitch. You simply use the knowledge you gain to beat him the next time you face him."

"So it's like having a computer in your head. You just pull up the file of the guy, when he comes to bat?"

"Something like that. It's true of batting as well. You'll face the same pitcher several times each season. You'll remember how he pitches to you and then you go about outsmarting him. He'll be doing the same thing on his end, trying to outfox you."

"Cool," I said, recognizing memory was the great equalizer. "I understand all that, but how'd you learn to move the way you move. You never seem to lose your balance or get grossed up like most players do from time to time. Where's that come from?"

"Promise not to laugh?"

"Why would I laugh?" I asked.

"Modern Dance. I took dance classes for four years. If nothing else it teaches you to be graceful. I even did some ballet one year."

"You're kidding?" I said, surprised.


"I'll be. It makes sense."

The freshman players didn't necessarily interest me, but Coach Randolph was totally cool because he treated me like I was special. I guess when the big coach brings you a player and tells you to work with him, you assume he knows why he's doing it.

I was aware of what was going on and why everyone was being nice to me, but I wasn't certain that once Bobby Henry went on to college, I'd have the same interest in baseball.

Like anything you do, there are some things that grow on you. My reluctance to get caught up in team mentality was another issue that bit the dust once I'd played and practiced with the freshman team. When baseball season ended, I missed playing after school. When I went to Bobby's graduation, I asked him if he was going to be around to coach me over the summer.

"You're on your own, Do. I've got to be at State for summer practice on Monday. I doubt I'll be back for more than a couple of days once I'm there."

"You got the full scholarship?" I asked, certain he did.

"Yep, I got the full ride. Now I've got to prove I'm worth it. I'll be playing against some good players. I might not make the varsity the first year. They have a starting shortstop and he has a backup in case he's hurt or goes sour. I'm just going to be another freshman."

"You'll make it," I said. "You're good and you can do it all."

"We'll see. There might be other shortstops from out of state I don't even know about."

"I'll be watching for your name in the Gazette," I said.

"Yeah, and I'll be coming home from time to time. I might come to see you play, Do."

"I didn't say I was going out for baseball," I said.

"You're going to make me feel like I wasted my time teaching you what I know? You'll go out for the team. I've seen you play and you love it. That's why I figured you'd take my place at shortstop on the varsity. You are on top of your game and don't make many mistakes. That's quite an accomplishment for a young player. It's why I took an interest in you. You're better than I was at your age."

"You're just saying that," I said.

"No, I only saw you play softball, but it was obvious you had a nose for the ball. I figured you'd make a good shortstop."

"I only played shortstop because you did," I confessed, feeling a loss as we said goodbye.

"Doesn't matter why. You know what you're doing and I've taught you all I know about it. Whatever got you playing the game is fine by me."

"Yeah, well thanks. You've got people waiting for you," I said, and he shook my hand and made his exit.

I didn't see Bobby Henry again. I joined the baseball team and sat on the varsity bench my sophomore season. A few times Coach Price inserted me into the lineup after the first string shortstop booted a play. The first ball ever hit to me was a slow easy ground ball. It was a piece of cake, or so I thought. I set my feet, got my glove in the proper position, and waited as the ball hit my glove, rolled across the pocket, ran up my arm and bounced off my face and into the outfield grass.

Man was I embarrassed.

"Nice play, Dooley," Coach Price said of my only chance of the season to field up until then. "You'll have to show me that one some day.

I'd heard the sarcasm before but he left me in the game. I charged a ball hit off the pitcher's glove, determined to make the play, and I threw out the runner at first.

"Nice play, Dooley. That's more like it," Coach Price said, taking some of the sting out of his original rebuke.

I remembered the scolding long after the picture of my heads-up play faded. I didn't see any more action until we'd played ourselves out of the league championship. We weren't going beyond the regular season my first year.

This is when Coach Price started substituting me at shortstop late in games, when my bat didn't make a lot of difference and my glove did. The first time I came to bat I was petrified of their relief pitcher's fastball, which was all he threw at me. I stood paralyzed at the plate and walked on four pitches. My knees were still shaking when I got to first base. I was fearful that everyone had seen me shaking, but if they had no one said anything to me.

The coach played me for about half my junior season. I only had one error for the first fifteen games we'd played, but Coach Price pulled me out of the lineup with my pathetic .196 batting average. He started getting me into the game in the fifth or sixth inning each game thereafter, unless the shortstop made the kind of error that drove him crazy, and he'd yell for me to take over at shortstop as he stepped from the dugout to call timeout.

My senior season started the same way the previous season ended. My name appeared as the starting shortstop, and it was scratched through before the game started and another shortstop was inserted.

I was pondering quitting the game since my sophomore year. There was no great desire to spend much of the season riding the bench. Then, after being substituted in the seventh inning of our first home game my senior season, everything changed.

I made an unassisted triple play, and I was in the lineup for the rest of the season. My bat became of secondary importance to my glove for Coach Price. Batting in every game, I did get my batting average up to near respectability as Bobby Henry predicted I would.

With my senior year behind me and no invitation to summer practice at State, I was mowing lawns and saving money to pay my personal expenses at college. It was hot and never-ending work, but it kept me out of trouble, or so I thought. How much trouble could you get into mowing a lawn?

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