Outside the Foul Lines - Book I

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

Can You Hit?

I got out of my first inning of varsity baseball without needing to make a play. I was relieved until I got to the bench.

"Can you field, Dooley?" Coach Bell asked.

"Yes, sir," I said with confidence.

"Can you hit, Dooley?"

"No, sir," I said with equal enthusiasm, never considering yes to be the right answer.

He looked away from me and down the bench before he broke out laughing. He'd seen me bat, so that came to mind.

"I found me an honest man. Well, Dooley, don't worry about your hitting the ball. When you get to the plate, you look at me, and when you see my face, remember, if the bat is on your shoulder you can't possibly hit the ball. Get the bat off your shoulder. That's it," he confirmed.

"What's it? What do I do?" I said, because I was sure I missed something.

"Swing at every pitch. I don't care if it's over your head. I want you to swing every time the ball is pitched to you. Look at my face before you step into the batter's box, then swing at the pitch."

"What about hitting?" I asked, thinking I needed more information than he was dispensing.

"We'll work on that later. First we need to get the bat off your shoulder."

"Yes, sir," I said.

"Can you do that?"

"Yes, sir," I said, having no understanding of where he was coming from.

We were back on the field before I could relax on the bench. I didn't know anyone on varsity. It was at these times I thought of Bobby Henry and how I'd love for him to be there to keep me from feeling alone. I could ask him what the coach wanted.

Their first batter hit a bouncing ball into short centerfield. He stopped at first base. I didn't even know the score and it was no time to start looking around. I was nervous enough already. All I wanted was to not screw up. How come it is, when you are telling yourself not to screw up, you always find a way?

The second batter hit the ball right to me on a single hop. I positioned my glove properly, kept my eye on the ball. There was no reason I didn't immediately reach into my glove, retrieve the ball and make the easy out at second, which would have been the start of a routine double play. Except the ball hit the padding in my glove down near my wrist and bounced off the webbing, falling between my feet.

I was lucky, in that I didn't boot the ball out of my reach, and I grabbed it as fast as I could and threw to second, never even looking toward first. With his foot on the bag the second baseman fired to first, but the runner had already crossed the bag.

Then I heard the coach's voice breaking into my funk.

"Nice recovery, Dooley."

I glanced at Coach Bell, who stood out in front of the bench clapping his encouragement directly at me.

"Okay, okay, you got the front man. We're okay," he shouted toward me as the second baseman gave me less than a happy-camper look.

I didn't get the error, but there was only one out instead of two and there was still a man on first. The next batter hit it right back to the pitcher on the fly and we had two outs. The next batter hit a lazy fly to centerfield and we were out of the inning. My muffed play hadn't cost us any runs.

"Okay, Dooley," Coach Bell said as I returned. "Nice recovery. Way to keep your head. Now, pick out a bat and make sure it isn't bigger than you are. You don't need big lumber, son. You remember what I told you to do?"

"Yes, sir. Look at you and swing the bat. When do I bat?" I asked, still not knowing the score.

Our first batter hit an easy ground ball and was being thrown out as I took a bat from the rack.

"No time for warming up. It's your turn at the plate. Remember what I said," he said, as I jogged toward the plate trying not to throw up.

I forgot to look at Coach Bell before the first pitch, but I remembered to swing the bat, even if I never came close to making contact with the ball. I looked at him and he was applauding my wild swing and I figured he knew what I was doing even if I didn't.

I swung at the next pitch without coming any closer to the ball and Coach was still applauding me. The third pitch was low and outside and I couldn't have reached it if my bat was a foot longer, but I swung anyway, and when I looked, Coach Bell was applauding my strikeout. I returned to the bench knowing a little more about how a fool felt.

"Okay, that's it. Every time you bat, you swing no matter where the ball goes. Got it?"

"Yes, sir, I think so," I said, still in the dark.

I got one more chance to field the ball and I threw the runner out at first. When the game was over, Coach Bell told me to return to Coach Moore and tell him he was done with me for the time being. I returned alone to the freshman game, but no one was there. The game was over and the scoreboard had been cleared of numbers. I'd had a perfect day. I played in two games and I never knew the final score of either. I was simply glad the day was over. Oh well, I did make the varsity for an hour my first season at Statesville, but my association with the varsity hadn't ended completely.

It wasn't very long before I saw Coach Bell talking to Coach Moore near the batting cage. Coach Moore yelled for me to take a turn in the batting cage. When I came to take my swings, Coach Bell stood right behind the batting cage. When I glanced at him, he nodded, and I knew what he expected.

I swung at every pitch that damn machine mustered up and I got a piece of my bat on a couple balls, but had it been a pitcher and I was up to bat, the balls I hit wouldn't have made it back to the pitchers mound. When I walked away from the plate, I glanced to see what Coach Bell was doing, but he wasn't doing anything, or at least he wasn't doing it with us. Coach Moore had disappeared with him. I shrugged and didn't think much about it when I saw none of the players had paid any attention to what I was doing either.

One day we were in the middle of a fielding drill and Coach Bell was back, watching Chance and Dooley as they covered much of the infield with their play. I liked showing off something I was good at doing, but I knew Coach Bell wanted Chance first, because he could hit a ton and was nearly as fleet on his feet as me, but that showed what I knew.

Something about making a fool of myself swinging at pitches no batter should ever swing at had me taking far more pride in what I could do well. Being watched no longer made me nervous and it probably taught me to sharpen my focus so I didn't muff ground balls hit right to me at any time. It no longer got me much praise, because I was expected to perform when I took the field.

Everything moved fast at State, everything except me. Classes were hectic. Practice swirled on around me much of the time. Taking a job at the Pizza Palace gave new meaning to chaos. The guy that managed the place was a year older than I was, but he fancied himself the master of his pizza kingdom. The twelve of us working under him on his shift didn't see it that way. It made for some interesting working conditions.

It was the first time I'd worked inside and the confinement caused the pressure to grow. The pressure on me from playing baseball made the pizza joint a piece of cake. What was fun to watch was the way people went out of their way to complicate each other's life. The workers would purposely do something that reflected poorly on the manager and in turn the manager would retaliate, making conditions unbearable for his workers.

I stood my ground and took the pizza out of the oven when it was time. It was a hot sweaty job that didn't allow for socializing if you valued your extremities. Besides, most people moved too fast to get to know anyone. After seeing them in action, I stayed at my station, watching the pizza wars and the clock. I was always happiest when my four-hour shift ended.

Baseball offered me a holiday from the mundane, except there was a certain routine you became accustomed to. Everything was organized in the same way each day. When you weren't to be at point A you were to be at point B.

The batting cage continued to frustrate me. No matter the coach, the results were the same. I sweat a lot in the batting cage, maybe more than at the Pizza Palace, but when I got out in the field, I was ready to play baseball. The idea that a shortstop who couldn't hit wasn't going very far no matter how good a fielder he was had come home to me more than once.

I noticed Coach Bell a few more times. He kept a close eye on his prospects, but he had no more words of wisdom when it came to my bat. He never spoke to me when he was on or near the freshman field and I didn't approach him.

Out of sight, out of mind, was my philosophy. I hadn't been cut yet, and maybe I'd make it to year two. I was certainly not going to make enough money at the Pizza Palace to pay for a year at State. I took extra batting practice whenever there was no one around, after the grounds keeper showed me how to load and turn on the pitching machine. It wasn't much different than a lawn mower, except in place of grass hurling at you, you got baseballs.

During practice one day, Coach Bell brought me Andy Warren. Andy was rangy with arms and legs that seemed a bit too long. He was amiable and soft spoken and he seemed anxious to do anything Coach Bell asked of him.

"Andy, this is Dooley. What's your first name, Dooley?" Coach Bell asked me.

"John," I said.

"That's no good. I've got two coaches named John and one of my players. He's Dooley, Okay?" he said to Andy.

"Dooley," Andy said in a deep voice that didn't fit his appearance.

After we all stood there silent for a few seconds, I figured it must be my turn to talk since no one else was.

"I don't understand what you want," I said, looking from Andy to Coach Bell.

"No, you wouldn't. I haven't told you what I want yet," Coach Bell said, seeming unsure himself.

Coach Bell wasn't a man you could rush.

"Yes, sir," I said, waiting.

"You two are a matched set. I brought him over here to…. He can't catch a ball and I need someone to work with him who won't do him more harm than good," Coach Bell explained. "You're it. You can't let him frustrate you and you can't yell at him. He is sensitive," Coach Bell said, sounding like the word was hard to get out. "Can you do that, Dooley? Work with him without yelling at him? My coaches can't and he's worth making an extra effort if I can make an adequate fielder out of him."

"Sure, Coach. How much time with him and how much time with the freshman team? For me I mean? I don't want to piss off Coach Moore."

"He's yours, except varsity game days. He needs to be with the varsity when we play our games. The rest of the time he's your shadow at practice every day. Include him in your drills but first let him watch you and Chance work together so he has some ida of what I expect of him."

"Yes, sir. Can you tell me a little more so I have something to go on. I want to do the job right."

I always felt like Coach Bell left things out, and it wouldn't have bothered me all that much, except the thing he always left out was the reason why. If he couldn't field, what did he do that Coach Bell couldn't do without on game days?

"That covers a lot of ground, Coach," I tried again as he stood fast and silent.

"I told you, he's sensitive. Take a lap, Andy."

"Yes, sir," Andy said, starting off toward the right and then changing his mind and running past us to the left. I was beginning to get the picture. How much of my career was resting on this little favor? Why me?

Coach followed him with his eyes and he spoke with clarity. "He can't field, Dooley. I got him in left field. Hell, my centerfielder can practically cover the entire outfield, but when a ball is hit right at the kid, once, two, three times a game, it's goodnight Irene. He moves under the ball like it might explode. It bounces off his arm, his chest, and in last week's game, the ball bounced off the kids head. I need someone with a glove and a soft touch to help him. I've been thinking about this all season and well, you're the guy that can do the trick."

"I hope so, Coach. I'll do my best. I will. Just him seeing your moves can't hurt, but you raise voice and he's no good for the rest of the day. He's like a whipped puppy. My coaches are pulling their hair out. I'd be pulling mine out if it hadn't fallen out years ago."

"Do I need to run another lap?" Andy asked enthusiastically..

"No, go tell Coach Moore to get you a pitcher. Tell him I want Simpson. You'll bat next. Maybe give me ten to fifteen pitches."

"Yes, sir," Andy said, jogging toward home plate.

"Hey, you two," Coach Bell yelled out into centerfield. "You pitchers?"

The boys nodded as they tossed a ball back and forth at a leisurely rate.

"Good, since you got nothing to do, go out the gate and stand outside the fence for a few minutes. Just do what comes natural."

They looked at Coach Bell like they weren't sure what he wanted, but they opened the gate and walked out behind the chain link fence near centerfield.

"Simpson's best pitch is outside and high on his fastball and down and away on his curve. Andy's reach exceeds most of my hitters. He lives to face a pitcher who pitches him outside. A good outside pitcher, once you've hit him, has a tendency to go further outside. It's the wrong move against this kid. If they pitch him inside, he lets them hit him. It's as good as a hit. Once you hit him, he crowds the plate even more, forcing the pitcher to pitch him outside. Watch his swing. He might teach you something."

Andy batted right and stood at the plate swinging the bat. He moved up to the plate when the pitcher said he was warmed up. The first pitch was shoulder high on the outside of the plate. The bat hitting the ball made a sound my bat never made. Coach Bell and I looked up as the ball sailed over our heads as it gained altitude, going over the fence in left centerfield. Before we turned around there was a second crack and another ball went out of the freshman field.

Simpson knew he was being watched by the big guy and he reached back for his fastest fastball. Andy hit this pitch up against the fence on one bounce. As Simpson regrouped with his curveball, Andy hit two in a row over the fence.

Coach Bell said, "Don't you hit him."

His voice wasn't raised at all, but Simpson turned and looked at us. His usual confidence was shaken as he nodded to let Coach Bell he understood.

"Give him two more strikes and I'll be done with you for today," Coach Bell said to let Simpson know the game plan.

"Okay, Andy, that's enough," Coach said, after two more towering fly balls.

I watched his swing and recognized it from old film I'd watched on the best hitters to ever play the game. Andy's swing was fluid and when he took a full cut at the ball, he rocked back on his heels. I didn't know who swung like that but I'd seen his swing before and could only hope to learn something from him.

"You two boys were made for each other. If he can show you anything about hitting it's a match made in heaven. Do me proud, Dooley. And don't yell at the kid."

"I won't," I said, as Coach Bell walked off raising his one hand up to wave that he'd heard but he wasn't turning around.

My heart was pounding. If he could teach me to hit how cool was that? Andy seemed like the answer to my problem and I was his."

Once Coach Bell left the field, Andy came out to where I was still calculating my future.

"What do I do?"

"Well, let's play catch," I said, suddenly faced with needing some kind of plan.

We tossed the ball back and forth and he caught it every time I threw it to him. He held the glove right and he didn't seem all that awkward to me. I couldn't put my finger on anything and I figured we'd make a plan as we went along.

Andy was friendly. He smiled and thanked me several times for putting up with him.

"What do you think the problem is?" I asked, figuring he might have an idea.

"I don't know. I hit okay but being out in the field is boring. I don't get many chances to catch anything. Maybe I need more practice."

"What happens when you do get a chance to catch something?"

"I guess I'm awkward. I can't make up my mind what to do or how to play the ball. I mean throwing it back and forth is easy. I know it's coming and I'm waiting for it and I throw it back. You never know when they'll hit it your way when you're in the outfield."

"No, but it shouldn't be that much different. I mean they hit the ball, it's in the air, it's hit into your part of the field, you know it's coming, why not just pretend you're playing catch and someone just threw the ball at you?"

He thought about it some and couldn't say what the difference was. It was worth a shot but he didn't know any more than Coach Bell knew about the reason behind his fielding lapses.

I decided to hit the ball to him and see if that changed his reactions to the ball, but it didn't and after five minutes, Chance, Morgan, and Wertz were crowding Andy out, as each tried to make the play on every ball I hit.

That didn't work.

I decided to take a break and get some water and I took Andy with me. After a couple of cups of water, I turned to find Chance and Wertz grilling Andy about his swing. They each stood in every possible position around him as they watched his wide stance, squared shoulders, and slight uppercut swing that pushed him back on his heels as the bat finished its journey around behind him. He was never off balance or awkward looking, even after twenty or thirty swings.

Chance and Wertz grabbed a bat and tried to copy the smooth motion as Andy's bat sliced through the air. I was coaching him and he ended up coaching us. I grabbed a bat and watched what he showed us and I too tried to copy his swing.

Andy smiled and laughed, seeming none the worse for wear. As he got ready to head back to the varsity field, the daylight was fading.

"See you tomorrow," he said

"Yeah, see you tomorrow," I answered as he jogged away from the freshman field.

I liked him.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead