Outside the Foul Lines - Book I

by Rick Beck

Chapter 9

Ball Catcher

The following day at practice I had to get Andy away from my infielders who wanted batting tips. Andy didn't seem to be bothered by the hitters or me. As quick as I got him to one side and started to hit him balls to see what I could see, both Chance and Wertz were right there, doing their best to take my hits that were directed toward Andy. He didn't mind this at all; in fact, he proved he could stand his ground against two hungry infielders.

I mean he literally held his ground with Chance bouncing off him on one side and Wertz on the other side because they all wanted the ball. The remarkable thing was Andy caught more balls than he missed. He was no Chance, but he fielded the balls I hit from twenty feet away. I was hitting the ball sharply and his competition didn't dominate him.

As soon as I got tired of the game my teammates got a bat for Andy and once again they wanted to watch his swing. I was contemplating what to do next when I caught sight of Coach Bell walking back toward the varsity field. I didn't know how long he'd watched but he certainly left when he found I'd lost control of my student.

"Come on Andy. You aren't here to practice hitting," I said.

"I don't mind. Here, take the bat," he said, tossing his bat at me. "Let me see your swing," he said.

"We're not here to work on my swing."

"Yeah, I know, but you look like you're all tied up in knots. Loosen up and let the bat go all the way around behind your back. Don't stop your swing out in front of the plate, follow through. Let me see you swing.

"Yeah, loosen up," he said, going behind me to press his thumbs into a space a few inches below my neckline.

"Ouch," I said, twisting away from his bony thumbs.

"You're all knotted up. You need to follow through. Let the bat travel. Do what I tell you and you'll see it makes a difference."

"Go ahead, Dooley," Chance said. "Listen to him."

I swung the bat halfheartedly a few times to satisfy him. Chance and Wertz were doing the same thing and watching Andy for instruction, but he was focusing on me.

"Look, watch me. You aren't going to hit yourself in the head. Just wing the damn thing like you intend to do bodily harm on the ball. You couldn't even bruise it the way you're swinging."

Chance and then Wertz spent the next few minutes swinging their bats until they almost wrapped them around their necks. I did what he said and saw nothing in it. My shoulders did feel a bit less restricted as I implemented the full swing he wanted out of me.

"That's where your power comes from," Chance said.

"I don't know. It's a combination of things. You've got to use your entire body, especially your upper body, but your thighs and down to your feet are important. It generates a great deal more force when you hit the ball. It doesn't require you swing as hard as you can. You need to swing with balance and use all your body.

If you can't beat them join them. I didn't need to worry about Coach Bell showing up, so I listened to what Andy had to say. By the time we got to the batting cage we numbered an even half dozen and Andy stood behind the backstop until Coach Moore showed up to see what the disturbance was all about and to answer the question, where'd everybody go?

When he saw all the anxious hitters taking batting practice willingly, he walked away and left us to our own device. After batting against the machine a few times, a couple of the pitchers roamed over from their warm up area and they took turns pitching to us. The sound of batted balls echoed around the field and people turned to see who was hitting.

Simpson wanted to pitch Andy when he took a turn at bat. He continued pitching on the outside corner of the plate. After Andy hit two balls in a row out into deep centerfield, Simpson threw a pitch inside to force Andy back away from the plate. Andy did not brush back and took the hit, swinging his bat a half dozen times at Simpson without stepping out of the batters box.

I was impressed. Most batters would have moved further from the plate. The next pitch was back outside, after Simpson spent a few minutes rubbing up the ball and looking at the outfield. Andy caught all of the ball and it was over the fence in left centerfield. He stepped out of the batters box and left his impression on Simpson for the second time in two days.

I was next at bat and Simpson walked away, not having anything for me. When Baker took his place he started throwing heat right down the middle of the plate. He knew I was afraid of the fastball and he felt no obligation to let me catch a piece of the ball, but on the fifth pitch he threw, I caught it solidly and ripped it right back across the mound, making him dance out of the way.

"Hey, asshole, it's batting practice," Baker yelled, unnerved by my nearly taking his nuts off.

"Maybe you ought to ease back the throttle on your pitches if it's only practice," I said, knowing my voice carried plenty far enough for him to hear.

I hit the next pitch into right field and was delighted I hit two balls in a row. I quit while I was ahead and Wertz couldn't wait to get up to face Baker.

"Told you," Andy said. "You looked like a hitter up there, Dooley."

"Yeah, right," I said, not being that easy.

"I'm supposed to work with you on your fielding. You're not here to give batting instructions, but I appreciate that you did."

"I can't help myself," Andy said. "I'll spend the rest of the time fielding, but I don't see where it makes a difference."

"You don't have any trouble with ground balls," I said.

"Nope. I can judge grounders okay."

"So it's fly balls that cause you the trouble?"

"I guess. It's different in the field. I don't know how to explain it. I think it's going a certain way and that's not the way it goes. I don't know why. I guess my judgement isn't that good."

"You were scrapping with those guys when I was hitting grounders. I don't think you need that much practice. Maybe we'll try hitting fly balls to you and I'll see if I can find out where you run into trouble."

"Okay," he said, sounding as anxious as I did when I was told to take some swings.

He jogged out into left centerfield and I moved near second base. I tossed the ball in the air and met it as it came down. We had time for a conversation as I reached down and picked it up after it bounced against my knee to add insult to injury. My next try was a ball that hooked away from Andy and went well foul. He stopped running after three steps. He knew it was out of reach. He pounded his fist in his glove and the next fly ball bounced three times before it reached him. I was 0 for 3 and looked around to see if anyone but Andy was watching me. He didn't bother me so much, because he'd go back to the varsity in a few days and we'd never see each other again. I began making preparations for my next attempt at hitting a fly ball, but when I got my mind back on my work, I bumped into… Andy?

"You're supposed to be in the field so I can hit fly balls to you."

"Yeah, and you're supposed to be hitting fly balls to me. I could get old waiting. Hand me the bat."

I handed him the bat and he wrapped his hand around mine. He stood way too close for comfort. I smelled his fragrance and it created warmth down in my stomach and groin. He leaned further to get me to release the ball, but my mind wasn't cooperating just then.

"Let it go, for Pete sake. I'll show you how to do it."

He took my resistance for reluctance to let him have the ball. Feeling his hand on top of mine was a connection to him I hadn't intended and didn't want. There was no faster way to work myself off a ball club than to let the word spread that I was a little light in the loafers. I held it for a few seconds longer, wanting the hold his had on mine to continue warming me in a cold world.

I let go of the ball but our eyes met in the process; his eyes were a powder blue with a thin black ring circling the outside of the iris. I hesitated again as he smiled; I could feel his breath on the side of my face. Our bodies had ended up touching in several places as he laughed about my unwillingness to let go of the ball. I didn't find it necessary to tell him I would have thrown him on the ground and done unspeakable things to him, because I didn't know how to talk that way. It was how he made me feel, although he showed no inkling that he understood the half-minute or so it took to pry the baseball free.

"…and then you meet the ball," he said, after I missed how his sentence started.

"Run through it one more time for me," I said softly, watching his body move as he tossed the ball in the air and swung the bat away from me.

"You're tossing it too high. You only need to toss it as high as the time it will take you to swing when it is coming down. A couple of feet and," crack the bat went as he watched the ball sail into deep left centerfield. I watched him watch the ball sail into deep left centerfield.

"Hey, let me do it. You go out in the field with him. That way you can see what he's doing wrong," Chance said, taking the bat and ball from Andy in about a second and a half.

"Yeah," I said, as Andy jogged in front of me while Chance watched.

I wasn't sure how long he was watching. Chance often watched me. I thought it was because of my fielding, but he wasn't far from being as good a second baseman as I was a shortstop. Chance knew if it came to the choice between him and me, he'd get the pick, because of his bat, where I wasn't close to him at all.

"You take the first few," Andy said. "I get to watch you."

I wondered what he meant. He couldn't have known I was watching him for any reason beside what we were there for. Did he feel something too or, worse yet, did he sense what I felt when he got too close to me. It wasn't something I could let happen again. I was there to play ball and that's what I intended to do.

True to form, Chance hit soaring fly balls from just in front of home plate. I wandered under the first few balls and tossed them back into the infield once I'd made the catch. He only made me run once, but I knew he did it on purpose, because he had no difficulty hitting it directly to me the first half dozen times he hit it.

"You watching me?" I asked.

"Yeah, I see what you're doing. It looks like what I do."

"Except for one little detail. You aren't catching the ball. What do you think the problem is?"

"I don't know," he said, giving it little thought.

"Okay, you catch the next few."

The first hit he fielded, he circled, coming back to the same spot and catching it in the webbing of his glove. It would have rolled out if it were caught any higher.

"Let me see your glove," I said, waiting for him to take it off. "You use mine. I'll take the next ball."

It was too obvious. There was something wrong with his glove. I should have thought about it before. Sliding it onto my hand, it was softer than my new glove with its leather that was still stiff. There was the soft smell of leather and a hint of Andy's essence. My hand being inside the glove that he used became erotic. My mind shifted into another place. I didn't hear the crack of the bat or look for the fly ball. My brain was locked into something so unusual and so exciting, it had no time for the mundane. The ball landed a few feet to my right and bounced toward the fence.

"I think you're supposed to be showing me how to catch the ball," Andy said, sounding amused. "I can do that by myself. I'll get it."

He ran out behind me where the ball had come to a stop. I watched him as he threw the ball on a line. It bounced behind the mound and rolled to within a few feet of where Chance stood. His throwing arm seemed fine.

"You okay?" Andy asked, putting his hand on my shoulder.

"Yeah, just need to keep my mind on my business," I explained, glad I'd worn the plastic jock that day.

He gave me a big smile before stepping a few feet away. I heard the bat and moved a few steps to my left before I looked up to find the ball. I made the catch using two hands, one in the glove and the other to trap it so it couldn't squirt out. It's not how I caught but it's how you caught when you had trouble holding onto the ball. I caught another ball and knew the glove was fine. It was better than my glove, supple, and fragrant and broken in well.

On the next hit Andy glided toward where it should have been and this time, at the last second, he moved the glove up in front of his face. The ball dropped behind him.

"No! No! You can't do that. You've got to watch it into your glove. Don't take your eye off the ball," I said, moving to where he stood staring at me.

"I didn't," he defended.

"You put the glove in front of your face," I explained.

"I did?" he said.

"You did. You can't take your eye off the ball," I said.

"You never even looked until you were under it. How do you do that?" Andy asked.

"I don't know. It's instinct, I hear the sound the bat makes. I know if he's batting right or left. I know from the sound how far it is going to go, and by looking at the batter it's obvious where it'll go."

"Obvious to you maybe. I don't know where it's going. How can you know where it's going. Aren't you ever wrong?"

"Not usually. I know which way to break once it's hit. I never thought about it."

When the light started to fade, we called it a day. Coach Moore asked me how Andy was doing and I confessed I didn't know. I was going step by step and looking for the obvious. I hadn't found the problem yet.

Coach Moore walked toward the coaches' offices in the athletic building. I knew Coach Bell would hear what I had to say by the time I got to the locker room. Coach Bell in turn would take another trip down to watch Andy's progress the next afternoon. He might quiz me a little further than Coach Moore had done, but he wouldn't learn any more than I had told my coach. I wouldn't bother to tell him that Andy gave me a rod that was so persistent that I couldn't even shower, even though Andy was somewhere in the varsity side of the building.

I dressed and put on deodorant to cover up my odor. I'd be getting real ripe by tomorrow, but I knew better than to go into the shower with a stiff dick or let myself get one after I started my shower. There were certain rules and regulations you broke at your own peril. I knew by the time I finished working and got back to my room, any memory of Andy's impact on me would long ago have passed. Nothing could take the stiffness out of your underwear like a tour of duty at the Pizza Palace.

I gave my manager a big happy smile, which always perplexed him, and went to the "dump" pizza and took a couple of pieces to eat before I punched in. By the end of my shift I had to stay alert enough so I didn't fall into the oven trying to get one of the way-back pizzas out. I survived with a minimum of singed hair on my arms and what felt like a sunburn but wasn't.

I fell into my bed as soon as I got to my room. I had a late class to start the following day and I'd be able to sleep. Except my roommate kept opening the door and yelling down the hall at the same time. I didn't wake up completely but it took a long time for me to fully fall asleep, and it didn't make for a fun night or a restful sleep.

Sociology started my day at ten. I would eat in the dinning hall using one of my complimentary athletic tickets. This forced the cashier to lean back to mark a clipboard tacked to the wall with a single line. She took the ticket and placed it in a box conveniently placed beside her. She didn't smile or wish me happy eating, but then again, it was the dinning hall. I'd loaded up, not because I liked the food, but because I could. There were certain items that weren't offensive, because as a freshman you learn fast what to take and what to leave alone.

Even after my first class my eyes were still sagging. It was early but the dinning hall was filled and loud. I needed to search it for a table that wasn't crowded, and in the back corner there were several. Most kids couldn't wait long enough to scout the periphery and so they all ate in a clump toward the source of the food. I, on the other hand, had no desire to be close to what they called food, and the din of the crowd had already lost its allure when I was still in high school.

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