Mr. Friendly Says So
Since I was thirteen years old, every time we played McGowan Hardware, Terry would pitch. And every time he pitched, I got plunked. That works out to two times a season and three seasons, six bean balls. One pitch got me in the shoulder, one in the thigh, three to the back, and finally, the topper to my ass. It was bad enough that the guy was successfully throwing at me but, he threw the baseball as only adolescent Cro-Magnons could. “Hulk throw ball. Crush puny human head,” I thought I heard him rumble more than once from the mound. As luck would have it, he missed me once. The ball sailed about six inches over my head, hit the plank board backstop on the fly, leaving a three inch dent there. I knew this because, as our catcher, I inspected the wall between innings.
I found it hard to think that Terry felt some deep seated hostility towards me. In the three years we spent at Cohunk Intermediate Baseball League, we may have exchanged eight and one half words (grunts count fractionally). Standing at first rubbing my thigh, back or ass, I would ponder the mystery. I would stand there waiting for the coach’s sign, which seldom came, to steal second against the vaunted McGowan Hardware nine. Maybe I breached some baseball etiquette. Perhaps I forgot to shake his hand after they shellacked our team again. Could the hostility stem from butting the hot dog line? Was I too tall? Too short? Not worthy to be on the field? I had no idea. The only certainty was that I should never, ever dig into the batter’s box when facing Terry Bove.
Indeed I am no angel. More than occasionally I considered letting my bat “slip” in Terry’s general direction. Reasoning, or so I thought, that my flying aluminum Adirondack would be construed as a defensive measure against more talented and hostile adversaries. However, more fearful and judicious voices in my head restrained me.
A cinch for last place, our team, “Mabel’s Sundries,” entered my last year of organized baseball by meeting very low expectations. Two men in scoring position and no outs, there they stayed until the end of the inning. A pop out to shallow left field turned into a double as the fly ball would fall between the shortstop and outfielder who subsequently fought over who would throw the ball back into the infield. I too made remarkable mistakes, both at the plate and behind it. While my .222 average was mediocre in anyone’s book, my .432 strike out average opened many eyes to my true putridity. When Ricky Mason, the amazing limping first basemen for the opposing Berdar’s Bakery, tried to steal second in our first meeting of the season, I managed to bounce my throw before it reached the pitcher’s mound. I outdid myself the next week by hitting the batter’s club with an errant throw to third. These plays and others less ridiculous are recorded in my mind’s highlight reel. From time to time, I review them and vomit.
You might expect a more understanding and grounded adult manager would find some humor in our baseball escapades. There might be such a man. A man with beautiful wife and two happy kids. He enjoys his work and attends church every Sunday. He’s a Boy Scout headmaster that no one thinks anything but wonderful about him. Alas, Don Sanders was not him. Coach Sanders was former semipro standout who settled down, got a job, and had a family. He was in his mid-forties, yet maintained many of the abilities which made his glory days, well, glorious. Standing about 5 foot 10 inches, his shoulders almost managed to be as wide as he was tall. Popeye would envy this man’s forearms. They were massive; I could see him ripping the top off a can of spinach. His legs were just bigger versions of his arms. Don’s kid was on the team and lacking his father’s gifts, I imagined Dad coached Mabel’s with the hope that he could get Donny Jr. some playing time. Unfortunately, our pathetic play proved that there were bigger fish to fry.
By the third week of the season, Coach Sanders had seen enough. After another inevitable and yes, ignominious blowout, he held a meeting after the game. His face burned with shame and the clenched tendons in his neck told our team that now would not be an excellent time for levity. We gathered in the dugout with heads hung low in disgust. Standing at its entrance, Coach Sanders gripping the roof with his great ape arms and began his speech.
“We’re going to have practice on Memorial Day. Be there or hand in your uniform now. Our play is like crap and I don’t want to manage a team that doesn’t want to get better. We will have batting and infield practice, but mostly we are going to work on fundamentals. That means hitting the cutoff man, getting in front of the ball, making strong throws, and basically, changing our attitude towards this game. I can’t take it anymore boys. We are a laughingstock and I’ll be damned if that will continue. See you on Monday at 11 sharp.”
Sheldon Lisp, our starting right fielder, thought this was a good time to manage the manager’s schedule.
“My mom and her boyfriend wanted have a cookout Monday. Is it ok if I leave practice early?”
While twelve pairs of his teammates’ eyes peered at Sheldon with incredulity, Sanders, expecting some lame excuses, fired back calmly and evenly.
“Sure, Shelly. You can leave early. You can leave right now. But, please don’t bother coming back. Oh, and by the way, could you take some of the boozers, potheads, and girl chasers with you? I am sure your Mommy has a few extra wienies for your friends that don’t want to play better.”
And at that debate ended. The following Monday practice was full of griping young men. Resigned to my fate, I took my position behind the plate for batting practice. Before I could get into a squat, Sanders barked out: “No, uh-uh, we are not hitting yet. Coach Stram will conduct infield practice for the next hour. Get to your positions. Coach Stram, if anyone of our lovelies doesn’t get in front of a ball or doesn’t hit the cut off or doesn’t call for a fly ball, make him run a lap around the field. Another lap every time he does it. If he drops while running laps, leave him where he lies.”
Turning to me he barked “Catcher’s practice is in the bullpen. Bring your gear and I hope you wore your cup today.”
Thankfully, I had.
Watching Coach grab a bucket of balls, he strides over to the bullpen. It was then I remembered that Coach Gargantua used to pitch semipro. Putting two and two together, I cursed my fate and shambled along behind him.
“All right. We are going to practice digging balls out of the dirt. Get your mask on and get behind the plate,” he recited his request, expecting no complaint. Taking my punishment like a man, I gave him none.
The first pitch was a hard “12 to 6” curve about a foot wide of the plate. It bounced about five feet in front of home and to my right. Since I was leaning on my haunches, I offered a very feeble glove move to block the ball. Coach Sanders yelled “Don’t relax back there. Get on the balls of your feet and move your ass!”
The next pitch was much the same only to my glove hand. In response, I tried to “Ole” the pitch. Ole was trying to catch the ball by waving your glove towards the ball similarly to how a matador waves the cape at a bull and precisely the habit Sanders was trying to break. “One more wave at the ball and you will be running a very long time. Get in front of the pitch.”
Next came the fastball. Ninety miles an hour, right in front of me, and airborne for fifty feet. The ball hit a rock in the bullpen and bounced over my glove into the chest protector. I felt a direct hit to my solar plexus. I fell forward, gasping for air. The ball, miraculously, stayed in front of me.
My coach offered the following praise, “Nice job. That’s what I’m talking about. Here comes the next one.”
And so it went. After half an hour, I thought he had enough and we would move on to some skills training. That’s when Coach Sanders managed to squeeze a low hard one between my thighs, pass my cup, and into my prized family jewels. When the stars cleared, I heard him say, not very concernedly, “You all right?” Since the searing pain prevented any communication on my part for a minute, I assumed my position. I can’t be sure, but I thought I heard him say “Good man.”
After another half hour, we stopped. While we gathering the stray balls about the bullpen and I appraised my various bruises, he muttered to me. “Look, the other kids look up to you. You have to make an effort or this whole team is going down the shitter. You did well towards the end. Use your quickness to stop the passed balls. Anymore catching balls with one hand and we’re going to have to do this again. Understood?”
I was tired and a little embarrassed by the need for Coach’s special attention. In his own way, though, we both knew that this was his peace offering. If I agreed to play harder, he would stop breaking my back. With a little luck, he believed, we could make our team a little more than cannon fodder for the rest of the league. Beaten like a rented mule, I considered the alternatives and said “OK.”
Practice was only beginning. For our next exercise, Coach gathered the team, save Jimmy Beales and myself, at first base. Jimmy was sent to second and I was behind the plate. Before he went to the mound with his bucket of balls, he left me with some words of advice. “Look, you have to stop thinking about your throws. Just get up and throw the ball. Honestly, you can’t do any worse. You’re already starting to worry about your them. How you’re gonna be embarrassed in front of your friends. How your dad is going to hate you. How the girls wont think you’re cool. Knock it off. Just throw the ball to second.”
The session began unmiraculously. My first five throws were wide left from two to three feet. After the next throw sailed over Jimmy’s head, I bounced five more ten feet in front of the bag and into right center field. Red with rage and shame behind the plate, I tried to settle myself down. And there, in the middle of all my anger and embarrassment, I had an epiphany. A little nugget of truth covered in batter box slop:
“Who fucking cares?”
And I paused for a moment to mull over my deep thought. What in God’s name do I care what my moronic teammates think? In a couple of weeks, I’ll never see them again. Hidden from their derision through no proximity, what I should be worrying about is how best to intimidate these guys and how to end this particular drill. Quickly, I strategized. Given my current state of mind, some action utilizing my hostility would probably work best. In that moment, I stopped worrying about what these losers thought and I began to visualize throws bouncing off their heads…one at a time.
On the next pitch, my throw reached second on the fly, on time, but just a little high. I darkly grimaced behind the plate. The next throw was on the money. Runner is out. And so was the next. And the next. Feeling the rhythm of Coach’s pitches and the runner’s break for second, I could get out of my stance and unload each throw quicker than its predecessor. Even errant throws, by the end of the drill, were getting the runners because: one, they weren’t that errant; two, I was giving Jimmy plenty of time to adjust to a less than perfect throw. Eventually the rhythm became mindless, receive pitch, out of stance while getting ball from glove, cock my arm and unload. Again and again.
“Whatever the hell you’re doing back there, keep doing it,” Coach Sanders said. Artful encouragement from an artful man.
“Not a problem, Coach,” I tried to say without my anger.
“Get in the outfield for batting practice,” Coach bellowed from the mound.
From left field, I watched my teammates hit. Occasionally, a ball would make its way out to me but I was mostly occupied with thoughts of how best to stop these drills from ever occurring again. I stood out there and let my rage roll over me: rage at myself for getting in this predicament, rage at my teammates for their crummy play, but mostly rage at my opponents, rage for those bastards who think they can roll right over my team. They think I’m their patsies. They think we have no pride. Well, the other teams are screwed. Let them ridicule Mabel’s. Let them say anything they want about our play. But God help them if they try to steal. And have mercy on their souls if they lose their helmet in the process.
Our next game was Berdar’s again, with Donny Jr. on the mound no less. I am sitting behind the plate as the game starts grimly determined to collect payment from those attempting to steal on Donny’s weak stretch delivery. When the first two batters made out, I thought I would have to wait until the next inning to unleash my fury. But Ricky Mason, with his uncanny leaden legs, walked on four pitches. I go out to the mound to talk to Donny.
With my mask still on, I say “Donny, don’t pitch from the stretch. And fire the first one right down the middle.”
“No way. My old man will kill me,” Donny whispers, ever the courageous one.
“Look, I have a plan. Just hurry up and throw me a fastball, then a pitch out.”
“You think old lead ass on first is going?” Donny caught on.
“He will if we ask him to.” I left the mound.
Donny waited for me to get behind the plate before he set for the pitch. With the batter in place, he threw with a full windup before anyone realized what he was doing. Strike one. The first complaints came from our dugout.
“Donny, what the hell are you doing? You have a man on first. Pitch from the stretch or you’ll be in right field faster than you can say ‘Dad, I hate baseball.’” Coach Sanders yelled and, in the outfield, Shelly’s heart skipped a beat.
I threw the ball back to Donny and the batter got in the box. Immediately, Donny stepped on the rubber and prepared to pitch full wind up again. I smiled from behind my mask and watched ambulatory impaired Ricky take off on Donny’s first movement. Without looking, Donny fired three feet wide of the plate where I waited. Ricky hadn’t reached the midway by the time I threw to second. Before he was ten feet from the bag, Jimmy was waiting for him with the ball. The inning was over.
Donny and I entered the dugout together. From the third base coaching box, Sanders promised us endless days filled with hundreds of laps if we didn’t start listening to him. I kept my head down and smiled.
The game was tight for a couple of innings, but Mabel’s would not be denied. It seemed that my rage infected the rest of the team. It was as if, collectively we surmised our opponents’ ability and desire as slightly more pathetic as our own. And, as you know, once you reach that understanding, there is nothing to do but the lay the hammer down on your competition. Our box score became littered with decent plays and some timely hitting. For the first time that I could remember I had no passed balls, three assists, and two hits. The final score: Mabel’s 6, Berdar’s 3.
After the game, there was no post mortem, no skull session following ignominious defeat. Sanders just told us we did well and we should continue to focus on those things that led to our victory. That was easy. In two short days we faced McGowan again…with Terry Bove on the mound.
Our lineup remained the same except that Jimmy and Donny would switch positions. Jimmy Beales was one of the best players in the league and gave our team a marginal winning chance with his pitching, despite the talent letdown of Donny at shortstop. I am not sure if the Berdar’s win made my teammates a tad delusional or if the stark reality of our plight made gallows comedians of us all, but the mood in the dugout was jovial. The other Mabel’s players optimistically thought that perhaps, just perhaps, lightning would strike twice and we could win. Maybe this was the start of a new, brighter, winning era for the league punching bags.
In the top of the first, I got to bat with no one on and two out. Stepping into the batter’s box, I already new what was in store for me. I stepped lightly. The first pitch zipped right over the outside corner. Strike one. I was unfazed. Terry couldn’t resist. His second pitch hit me square in the back.
I didn’t flinch.
I didn’t look at the mound.
And I sure as hell didn’t rub my back. I took my base and planned.
In some other world, maybe fifteen year old baseball players act like they know less than their coaches. A more effective and less fun world, it must be. I stood on first and looked at Coach Sanders. With Jimmy at the plate, he didn’t waste anytime with signs. I would not be stealing. Or so he thought. I thought I would give Jimmy two pitches.
At 2 and 0, I took off. McGowan’s catcher had no chance. Terry had bounced a curve in the dirt and I stole second, standing up. The 3-0 pitch was a fastball that Jimmy fouled directly behind him. From second, I watched Terry set for the stretch pitch, pretending to peer in at the catcher’s signs. I can’t be sure but, I think I saw sweat on Bove’s brow.
With the count 3 and 1 with two out, conventional wisdom dictates that runners on second not try to be heroes this early in the game. I had different scores to settle. Not even bothering to look at Sanders, I took off for third. The pitch hit the inside corner and I was safe by a mile. While I was dusting myself off, Coach said, “Do that again and you’re sitting.”
“Won’t happen again,” I smiled. “I think I have their attention though.”
“Don’t screw up.”
“C’mon Jimmy. Knock me in, man.”
Nowadays, you can pay big money in consultant fees in order to learn how to relax. In that moment, I think Jimmy and I reached a mutual understanding that when you have nothing to lose, the job at hand becomes much easier. Given prevailing opinion, we were expected to fail. How nice it was to see our opponents, the guys who couldn’t be bothered with our pesky presence, shouldn’t be concerned with our crappy team, become a little worried. It was in that moment that I learned that even the most accomplished amongst us might wilt under a little bit of pressure.
Terry fired a fastball down the middle of the plate and Jimmy deposited it over the left field fence.
Of course our story does not end there. There wasn’t much more scoring; Terry settled down and McGowan managed to squeek a run. At the end of five and a half innings, we led 2 to 1.
Jimmy pitched a pretty good game but our opponents were beginning to catch up to his fast ball. Their first two batters lined out sharply to left and center. With two out, they sent up my nemesis. Terry Bove relaxed at the plate. He didn’t look at me or the people in the stands. He just watched Jimmy, imagining the next pitch. I figured we would start him off atypically with a curve in the dirt. Jimmy missed but Terry didn’t. That curve landed on the center field fence and Terry stopped running at second.
Next to the plate was McGowan’s first baseman, Jack Watson. On the very first pitch, Jack screamed a shot past Donny into short left field. And the next few seconds I remember as if it happened today.
On the sound of the bat, Terry took off. He rumbled halfway to third as the ball zipped by Donny. From my vantage point, I could see he intended to round third. By the time our left fielder threw, Terry was rounding the bag.
I begin to see the short term future. If Donny cleanly retrieves the ball and realizes Terry is on his way to home, he quite possibly could throw home. I throw my mask aside and wait for the throw to get into the infield. It’s only moments…
Terry rounds third without looking, he is headlong for the plate. He doesn’t acknowledge anything but the current mission, score. And if that means Hulk must crush some puny human (that would be me, folks), so be it. Donny fields the ball cleanly and I don’t even wait for him to assess the situation. At the top of my lungs I cry out “Don, get it home.” I make sure I am blocking the plate.
Don turns and realizes the magnitude of the moment. Without hesitation he responds like a seasoned pro. He fires a seed at my chest…
Terry is ten feet from me. He is running hard and heedlessly. He is ready to bowl me over. In his eyes, I am not another guy, someone you might share a joke with or a beer.. I am an obstacle to be overcome, or in this case, flattened. He lowers his shoulder and I finally, finally, finally, after three long years, dig in on Terry Bove. Because today kiddies,
I already have the ball.
Jammed in my glove and protected with my right hand, I tag at Terry as he lowers the boom. His shoulder meets my jaw while my hands, arms, and torso push him off the base path. We land in a crumpled heap in front of, but not touching, home plate.
Standing up first, my first, my only concern, is the umpire. What’s the call, man? He’s looking at me and waiting. I realize he doesn’t see the ball and I know I’m home free. Holding it now with my thumb and forefinger, I show the blue suit that I never, ever, intended to drop that ball.
I wish I could say the crowd went wild. Perhaps they did. They should have. It must have been a hell of a show. Nonetheless, I was only interested in slapping hands with my fellow Mabel’s morons. We did it. We showed those opposing jackasses that we can’t be trifled with. It’s Miller Time Everybody!
They talk about men who share foxholes and K rations form brotherly bonds. I never served our country and the only thing I know of that approximates that feeling may be that night. We were shamed and ridiculed and finally, redeemed together. I will remember each of my teammates, my brothers in athletic shame, for the rest of my life. Even Shelly Lisp.
The celebration on the field eventually ran out of gas. As was the custom, we crossed the field for our usual after game ritual: the handshake. Walking over, I felt Terry owed me some answers. I mean, it was three years of hell, what was his reasoning. When I got to Terry, I had to ask:
“Terry, good game. Why do hit me with a pitch every time we play?”