Outside the Foul Lines - Book I

by Rick Beck

Chapter 7


College was a bold new experience. State was far enough from Statesville that I had to live at the dorm. Unlike most of my counterparts, I didn't want a car, trips home, or anything to distract me from campus life. The problem came once I got there and realized my predictable environment had been replaced by something less organized, mainly because it depended on me to get things done.

By November fall practice was over. The coaches had taken a look-see at what they had to work with and we'd seen our competition. If fielding was the most important thing to Coach Moore, I'd get a spot on his freshman squad. If hitting was what he was looking for, I might be on my way back to Statesville for good.

In the half dozen games with nearby schools, I'd walked twice, got two hits, and mostly struck out with the bat's never leaving my shoulder. When I thought about hitting, I still thought it would be what finished me off. I'd listened. I'd watched. I'd talked to guys like Chance to get batting tips, but none of it took. Once I was standing at the plate, staring out at the pitcher who was staring back at me, my focus broke, and no matter what he threw, I wasn't ready for it.

By the time there were only studies to occupy my time, I felt alone and isolated in a chaotic dorm that made studying in my room more and more difficult. With Big being your basic slob, having never once in his life put away anything he owned, the entire room was awash in dirty clothes, clean clothes, and stuff he needed to pacify his over-inflated sense of being.

I could have made it an issue, constantly arguing with him, but I didn't want to be that intimate with him. If his parents hadn't been able to tame him in eighteen years, what chance did I have in a few months?

My parents asked me to come home for Thanksgiving, but I didn't want to let them know I was homesick and wondering if baseball was really the ticket to higher education. I could have asked for a car and lived at home, but during baseball season I'd have had to leave home before six in the morning and wouldn't have gotten back until after midnight on days we had late games. No, if I was going to play ball I needed to adapt, so I simply told them I had to live on campus so I could study. They sounded disappointed, because I'd never been away from them for that long before.

The day before Thanksgiving I climbed aboard the afternoon bus to Statesville and felt no excitement about going home, because as wonderful as it would be to sleep in my own bed and to hear silence again, it wasn't what I wanted to do. I guess I had to go home to gain some perspective on what I was doing and why.

I walked with my bag the two miles to the house and I knocked on the front door before opening it.

"It's me," I yelled, and my mother was upon me, kissing me and hugging me the way I had always hated but strangely appreciated after so long with no personal interaction with anyone.

My father waited and shoved out his hand for a good shaking, and then he hugged me against his ample chest, tearing up the way he did when there was a happy surprise.

"Well, come on, honey. I'll warm up some supper for you. You must be hungry. Did you bring your laundry?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said, thinking I had my nerve, and not realizing she expected I brought a bag because it was jammed with the T-shirts, shorts, and sweat clothes I wore day in and day out at school.

"I would have driven out to pick you up, John. Why didn't you call?"

"Oh, I wanted it to be a surprise," I lied.

"Your mother said to me last night, do you think John will come home?"

"I told her you were having too much fun to worry about having Thanksgiving with your parents. How's ball?"

"Good! Fine! I only see the guys at gym. Fall practice ended about the time it got cold. Our coaches make certain we get plenty of exercise in gym class."

I walked to the fridge and swung open the door to get some cold refreshing milk. There on the top shelf was some lump covered with plastic wrap and seasoning visible under the covering.

"Mom, what's this?" I complained like a ten year old.

"It's a turkey breast, dear. For Thanksgiving."

"Mom," I complained, "It isn't a turkey. I came home for a turkey dinner."

"Yes, I know. Your father will go out and find one. It can't be frozen, I'll never get it thawed in time. Try Leonard's butcher. He might be open and if he's not, that little butcher shop over by the old highway. They live above the store. Pay them whatever they want to open up if they've closed," my mother directed my father as he left, while I was digging into the leftovers of their dinner.

"Ooh wow, this is good," I said, remembering the cardboard and plastic foods I got at school, except when I walked down to the highway and got greasy burgers and fries.

"Glad you're going to eat it. With all the leftovers from Thanksgiving, I'll never be able to use it all."

"Make me some turkey sandwiches for when I go back."

"We'll need to take you Sunday early. Your father works Monday. It'll give you a little time to relax, but you must eat those sandwiches pretty fast or they'll spoil if you don't have any refrigeration."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, figuring that would take no effort and for a few days I could have real food.

The ride back to school was quiet. They didn't want to see me go and I didn't want to return to school, so we were all going against what we wanted. When they delivered me to my dorm, I hugged my mother from the backseat of the car and shook my father's hand, carrying my fresh clean clothes and bag of ten turkey sandwiches.

I swung open the door to my dorm room, thinking Big would be sitting there expanding off one of the two chairs in the room, but the room was empty. The smell of his clothes permeated everything. I kicked them out of my way as I moved to put my clothes away.

It was quiet and I started in on the turkey sandwiches with dressing, cranberry sauce, and Miracle Whip. The only miracle being how I managed to get it on the book I was reading, the shirt I was wearing, and even some decorating my blanket. I somehow got it off with out ruining anything to the point it was useless, then reached for my second sandwich. I'd had a big breakfast but it was two hours between then and when I started in on my rations.

Big returned that evening, howling like a banshee after swinging open the door, which wasn't unusual for him.

"Mom, I'm home," he yelled, laughing large and looking at me like he could not believe I was reading a book.

By nine o'clock the entire dorm was back to being filled with people, noise, and annoyance. I once more wondered if this was the way I really wanted to spend four years of my life. The answer was a resounding no, but I had to finish the school year and consider my options.

I had eaten seven turkey sandwiches by the next afternoon. Then my mother's warning about the Miracle Whip spoiling had me thinking twice, and I closed the bag and set it at the back of my desk to throw out the first chance I got.

Big came in screaming on Thursday afternoon. He tossed the one book he sometimes carried at his desk and slapped my back before asking, "How's it hanging there Do, buddy."

"Fine," I answered as he leaned to look at what I was writing.

"You boys on the baseball squad write your own papers?" he asked, mortified by the prospects.

"You don't?" I asked, having never seen him put pen to paper.

"I'm a football star," he answered. "Besides, they couldn't read nothin' I wrote."

"Yeah," I said thoughtfully as I recognized his girth.

"What you got there in that bag, Do? You ain't holding out on your roomy, now are you? That ain't food is it?" he asked, snatching the bag from where I had stored it.

"Man oh man, can I have one," he said, pulling one of the overstuffed sandwiches from the bag. "Turkey! My absolute favorite," he said, unwrapping the top sandwich and smelling deep, which I was certain would warn him of potential danger.

"I wouldn't…."

"Please, Do. I'm starved. Just one. You got three."

I reconsidered the warning I was about to give him and contemplated him on his knees barfing his well-camouflaged brains out.

"You can have them all," I said happily about the nearly five day old sandwiches.

"Oh man, I'll never forget you for this," he said, dropping into his too small chair.

As he literally stuffed the first sandwich into his mouth, he chewed to make room for more as he pressed the backside of the sandwich to keep it moving into the gapping hole in his face. Dressing, cranberry sauce, and Miracle whip oozed out onto his face and down his shirt into his lap. He reached for sandwich two and then three, consuming them all in little more than a couple of minutes. He wiped his well-greased mouth on his shirt sleeve, which now had the same red hue as the front of it and his sweat pants. A matched set of sweats, I thought. Let the barfing begin.

Big was fine and never so much as came up with an errant belch, which was his favorite activity when he was bored. I felt like I was going to get sick myself, thinking about his eating habits.

Life never improved that first semester. I ran across Chance twice, he grabbed my hand, pumping furiously and giving me that big toothy smile. He always acted so happy when we ran across one another, but I felt nothing at all, except I had a friendly face to look into for the few minutes we'd stand and chat.

The dorm wasn't a hostile place. It simply lacked any sign of civilization. Our senior resident rarely said anything about anything anyone did. I supposed by the time you became a senior the chaos was merely a reality of campus living. I was certain if I stayed to be a senior, I'd be as crazy as a church house mouse.

Christmas was grand. I was home for more than three weeks. The new semester didn't start until the 5 th of January and I mostly slept. I was comfortable with my grades, which came out to a 3.4 and assured ineligibility wouldn't come because of my grades. I laid in bed most mornings, basking in the quiet of my house, wondering if murdering Big would make me ineligible to play baseball. I even had a plan. I'd buy a box of rat poison and liberally sprinkle it on the sandwiches my mother made for me, and leave them in a bag on my desk. I could say I had seen mice and I'd set the sandwiches out for the mice to eat, but alas, my beloved roommate had fought the mouse and consumed the poison I intended for a smaller rat. What's the worst I could get, negligent homicide. I could say I never intended for him to get the sandwich. They'd look at my history and deduce there was no sign of homicidal tendencies in my family, but there was a history of gluttony in Big's.

I left home with the bag of sandwiches, but without the rat poison. I'd need to hope he was hit by a bus or maybe a really unexpected heart attack from the massive body he toted around with him, but the gods were not smiling on me and Big was bigger and noisier than ever, but only a little more obnoxious.

As the days passed, I showed up twice a week for conditioning exercises and kept up in all my important classes. I didn't consider my A's in gym a factor, but they raised my grade point average so they were in the stratosphere compared with many of my fellow athletes. I was only playing ball to go to school and not as a road to my future.

Spring practice started indoors with more conditioning. It took a week of daily exercising for my body to get with the program. We ran laps and used the batting cage, set up with an automated pitching machine to start working on our timing and swing.

The pitching machine wasn't nearly as intimidating as the human pitchers. The rare mis-pitch usually meant it failed to deliver a ball as it's arm came forward, but there were no pitches at my head or body to force me back off the plate. I didn't find it easier to get my bat off my shoulder, but there were no hits, just contact and the ball's bouncing around in the net enclosure where the batter and machine faced off.

Chance was always smiling, always nearby, delighted to be back with his team. He was a leader and the type of guy a coach knew he could depend upon. It was a pleasant change from my off-season life. I was happy to be back with boys I had some knowledge of but didn't know.

I was considered important to the team because of my glove. I didn't feel important, but Chance never missed a chance to tell me, "you got one hell of a glove on you, Do."

I always blushed at times like that. Chance was the entire package, and if I was a better fielder than he was, it was by such a small measure that a coach would never put me in a game if Chance was waiting to play.

These were contradictions I didn't understand, because I wasn't a coach and each coach valued something different. Fielding was certainly an important part of the game, but if you didn't hit for a reasonable average, which was a different number existing inside each coach's head, you were in trouble.

I was on the freshman team, which wasn't there to win games. We were there to learn and to practice in the hope we'd go varsity as a sophomore or junior. Seniors going varsity were toast. One year playing real ball wasn't enough to get a scout out to scout you. Two years on the varsity would get you a look see, and three varsity years might get you a scout who kept coming back to look at your play.

I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

Our varsity had played six games by the time we were playing our third. Freshman teams didn't travel long distances with the varsity, but a short trip did allow a half dozen freshman teams to play one another. With six teams in our vicinity, our games were played against teams we played often. I'd started two of the three games but warmed the bench our third game of the season.

We could hear the applause and reactions of the crowd watching the varsity game, and I wondered what it would be like having a college crowd behind you. I wasn't paying much attention to what was going on, because I wouldn't do any pinch-hitting if Coach Moore was smart.

I heard coach Bell's voice, recognizing it from our conversation a few months earlier. He stood at the corner of our bench talking to our coach. Coach Moore stood up and walked the length of the bench to where I sat.

"Dooley, go with Coach Bell. His shortstop just sprained his ankle and his backup is ineligible. He wants you. And swing at the damn ball if you come to bat."

Coach Bell nodded at me as I approached.

"Did he tell you what I need?"

"Yes, sir," I said, forgetting about the bench I was warming.

He kept his hand on my shoulder as we walked toward the stadium. I was in shock that he called on me. I didn't have time to worry about all the stuff I worried about in every game.

"Sit down," Coach Bell said as he stood up to watch his batter swing and miss a third strike pitch. "Go on. That's out number three. You're my shortstop. Do what you do. I don't want to need to tell you what out it is again," he said, firmly but with no hostility.

I trotted on the field and smelled the fresh mowed grass and the lime used to mark out the playing field. There was applause and maybe a couple of thousand people watching the game. I forgot everything I knew. I swallowed hard as the applause greeted the players taking the field.

Before I knew what was going on the ball came whizzing at me as the infielders moved the ball around to warm up for the first batter. It hit the palm of my glove and plopped out at my feet.

"Shit!" I said, grabbing the ball angrily and blasting at the third baseman and the ball made a loud sound as it hit the padding in his glove.

"Lighten up," he yelled at me, after throwing to the catcher, who let the ball squirt over at Coach Bell's feet.

Coach Bell had turned his back in response to my dropping the ball and it was still turned as the first batter came up to the plate.

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