Time for a change of pace. Spring is all about Derby Fever of course. It is also about the beginning of the baseball season. I am not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I played far more than my share of it growing up. The following is a short story I wrote when I was 18 about playing baseball growing up. At least ostensibly that is what it is about.
“All right now,” began Mr. Oar, the usually jovial manager, “this is the last game of the season today, and we’ve got a chance to win it all, to really make something out of it.”
He was addressing two rows of ten- and 11-year-old boys, nearly identical in their crew cuts and baggy, blue baseball uniforms that had long ago seen better days, lined up against the new, brown-brick school building. A raunchy fart was distinctly emitted from the back row, causing a wave of refugees from the immediate area and remonstrances such as, “Oooooo, you stinky creep, you.”
“All right now, come on, let’s get serious,” Mr. Oar frowned with irritation. “You guys act like a bunch of babies. Do you guys want to play baseball or not? If not, you can just go back home and back to bed, where babies belong.”
The commotion subsided somewhat. Mr. Flaherty, the other coach, with his arms folded solemnly across his chest, tried to frown as well, but an Irish grin of amusement crinkled his mouth and spoiled the intended effect.
“OK then,” Mr. Oar continued. “We’ve beat Antoninus once, and they’ve beat us once, but we all know they just got lucky that day, and today is gonna be a different story. It will be, that is, if you guys don’t horse around like usual, and set your minds to playing some baseball today. Let’s get going out to Oskamp and get some batting practice in before the other team gets there nd then work on some fielding and then go out and play this ball game, what say?” Mr. Oar concluded.
With murmurs of assent, the blue boys trudged off to the cars, arguing less vehemently than usual about who claimed what seat. One boy was not carrying his own glove. That was the catcher. He used the team’s catcher’s mitt. The catcher quietly assumed his usual position in the right back seat of Mr. Flaherty’s station wagon, wondering if he would have to catch batting practice. He hoped not, but he would if they told him to.
The catcher was stockily built with a round face and bristly brown hair and loads of freckles. On the ride over he discussed with Mr. Flaherty the Travers, the upcoming race on television that afternoon. After much formal wangling, Mr. Flaherty gave him 1-t0-2, a dime to 20 cents, on Buckpasser in that race. They joked as usual about the “family jewels,” which Mr. Flaherty protested would have to be pawned to pay off such an immense wager. This had been going on all summer. Buckpasser was in the midst of a 15-race winning streak. The catcher usually collected a dime or so on each race from Mr. Flaherty.
They arrived at Oskamp and carried all their equipment across the street and up a slight incline to the baseball field. Mr. Oar began handing out orders. To the catcher he said, “Take a good ball and go out to right field and get Steve warmed up. Tell him to take it easy, not throw too hard, there’s plenty of time left before the game, but I just want him to get good and loosened up.”
The catcher and pitcher followed instructions. Steve threw easy at first, then he began to hum them in. The catcher told him to take it easy, but it was as futile as usual. Steve deemed himself sufficiently loose, and they returned to the bench.
The catcher got his turn at the plate, five swings, and hit three pretty hard liners down the left line. He tended to get ahead of the ball and pull everything left and foul. Pitching batting practice was Dan Oar, the manager’s son, who was not much of a pitcher at all and hence was used mainly for batting practice.
Then came fielding practice, which concluded with the catcher throwing vigorously down to second, remembering to cock the ball behind his ear like they had taught him to do and like he usually forgot to do during the game itself. Throwing to second was his main weakness. He knew even at that age that his arm was just barely adequate.
The other team had arrived in their black uniforms. Many of their faces were familiar from the two earlier games. The catcher began to buckle on the “tools of ignorance” (shin guards, chest guard, and mask). With a few warmup pitches, the game began.
With the very first man at bat, the catcher became another person. He began chanting, his voice rising and falling with the approach of each pitch. He was basically instructing each batter the best way to graduate from Strikeout School, magna cum laude on three pitches, cum laude on four pitches, etc. His speech was pretty much unintelligible but went something like this:
“HeybatterbatterhereyouareatStrikeoutSchoolandthefirstthingyougottalearnisNO!!!batterbatterthat’snotthewaytodoitdon’tyouevenknowtheveryfirstruleofStrikeoutSchool?Whichisifapitchsiaballyouswingandmissataitswingandmissyethat’sbetterbatterbatter. . . .
“What’sthatyousaybatterbatter?somethingaboutmeshuttingup???yousggestsuchathing??? AccordingtothefirstmendmenttotheconstitutionoftheUnitedStatesIhavetheunqualifiedrighttospeakandifyoudon’tlikeityoucanstickitupyourWHOOPS!!!!congratualtionsbatterbatter youarethefirstgraduateofStrikeoutSchooltodaysendupthenextvictimerImeanstudentthatis andbesureandcomebackformoreyessirweaimtoteachy’alltoday. . . .”
His spiel went on ad infinitum and ad nauseam for the other team. Although they had played against the catcher twice before, the other team never became quite inured to it. By the end of the fourth inning, there had been eight graduates of Strikeout School, and Steve had given up only one ground ball single and walked only one.
The score stood at 3-0 in favor of the blues going into the top of the fifth. The catcher had scored first, drawing a walk and then scampering home from first after a Mark Schroeder double to right center. Two more runs had followed.
In the top of the fifth, the first man for Antoninus had beaten out a deep hopper to short. The next batter homered, making the score 3-2. Steve gave an anguished look in the direction of that home run ball, stomped back to the mound, pounded the ball against his glove, tugged wickedly at his cap, graduated the next two batters magna cum laude, and got the final out on a hopper back to himself.
The catcher came up to bat in the bottom of the fifth with two out and two men on. He still din’t have a hit today, he was thinking to himself. In the first inning he had gotten good wood on it and flied out to left, then in the third he had walked and scored, but that still wasn’t a hit. He hated hitless days. He hated striking out worse. He dreaded striking out. He always had.
He swung on a two and two count. The ball dipped lower, almost into the dirt, and he missed considerably. He had struck out. With men on too. Already he was starting to cry, tears of humiliation, anger at himself, helplessness, inadequacy. He walked over to the bench and sat down facing away from the field as his teammates grimly loped out for the top of the sixth and final inning.
He started putting the catcher’s equipment back on. Mr. Oar came over to help him.
“Come on now, what’s the matter? Just because you struck out?”
The catcher nodded imperceptibly in confirmation, his face contorted. Mr. Oar gave him a pep talk. Whatever he said, it seemed to work somewhat. The catcher went back to work.
Mr. Flaherty had already warmed Steve up. They were all ready to go. The catcher resumed his chant, a little wobbly at first but gradually gaining its usual modulation.
The first batter worked the count to full before the blind umpire awarded him a walk. Steve set the next batter down cum laude, in four pitches. With the count one and one on the next man, the runner streaked for second. The catcher’s throw wavered to the left of the bag, and Schroeder’s sweeping tag was just a trifle late. The next batter bunted. The catcher threw him out at first. The runner on second advanced to third. Two outs, tying run on third.
Mr. Oar called timeout from the third base coach’s box. The infield congregated near the mound. Mr. Oar warned them to look out for the steal. “He might even go with the pitch,” he said to the catcher. “Just keep an eye out for it.”
They walked back to their positions. On each of the first three pitches the runner danced menacingly down the line. He was a big kid, their center fielder. He had the catcher by about 30 pounds. The catcher had to chase him back, brandishing the ball.
The count stood at one and two when the runner finally came roaring down the line, with the pitch. The pitch was high and a little outside. The runner was about 15 feet away from home when the ball thudded into the catcher’s mitt. There was a collision and a tangle about five feet from home. The runner was on the bottom, his left hand groping comically through the dirt for the plate, still about five feet away. The ball was still solidly in the catcher’s mitt.
“OUT!!!!” roared the umpire, not quite so blind this time.
The catcher picked himself up out of the dirt without elation. He had done his job. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The blue boys came dancing in from the field, tossing their gloves and shrieking. Everyone shook hands and congratulated each other and jumped up and down. Naturally Mr. Oar made them shake hands with the other team and tell them “nice game.”
“Say, ain’t you that loudmouth catcher?” one of them inquired as they were shaking hands. “Come on, Mighty Mouth, what have you got to say now? Or can’t you even speak any English, just your garbage jibber-jabber?”
“I reckon not,” was all the catcher replied.
The victorious team made haste to Fanny’s, a local watering hole. The coaches and a few parents assumed prominent positions at the bar. The players sat at the black beer-ringed tables and gulped down their soda pops, occasionally imploring, “Mr. Oar, Mr. Flaherty, can we have some more pop, can we have some more potato chips too?”
And Mr. Oar and Mr. Flaherty, having consumed a fair amount of amber-colored liquid themselves, generously relented, saying, “Sure, sure, give ’em all some more pop and some more potato chips too.”
They were a very happy and noisy group. All except for the catcher, that is. He sat on the outskirts of a crowded table and sipped his pop, not saying too much of anything. He never said too much of anything, except behind the plate of course. Or when discussing Buckpasser.
He was not unhappy. He felt like he had done his job and done it well. Nothing more. Nothing less.