Outside The Foul Lines by Rick Beck
Love & Knowledge
Being enlightened is always a good idea, falling in love even better. The chances of achieving either in Statesville are slim to slimmer. While most people can attain knowledge anywhere, I knew that finding romance would require me to be elsewhere. It wasn’t a recent epiphany that brought me to this conclusion.
Once I found out what a year at State cost, I needed a minor miracle or about a million more lawns to mow to get there. It was beyond my reach but that wasn’t going to stop me.
I’d run a mowing service out of my family’s garage since I was twelve. My labor kept me in the essentials my parents called luxuries. In my junior year of high school I started putting all my money away, forgoing the latest CD releases and newest video game. It would take all I made and more to pay for a place on campus. Getting my plan past my parents would be an even bigger obstacle than money.
My parents had offered to help with a better car, after I parked the one that was eating up much of my income between insurance and repairs. Commuting to State would succeed in wasting even more money in gas, while eating up an hour each way. This assured I’d have no time for a social life in a town without opportunities.
While there may have been other gay men in Statesville, they’d carefully avoided me over the years. A change of location seemed right to me. At State I might meet someone who felt the way I felt at the same time I was becoming educated.
Before I knew it my senior year was fading fast with no way apparent for me to afford my plan. At eighteen I needed to use the awkward talent I’d mysteriously discovered in the infield of the high school baseball team to reach my goal. Baseball was never a central piece in the plans for my future. The pastime I took up to pass time at fifteen would now surprise me by opening doors I hadn’t considered.
The miracle I prayed for came in the top of the seventh inning in our first home game of the season. It was a cool Thursday evening, with the final glow of daylight waning in the western sky. I sat on the bench waiting for the coach’s call. He was a predictable man.
I’d become a “steady” fielder, according to Coach Price. This had him inserting me late in games, when my bat wasn’t a factor. My glove might protect a lead however. The days of having a lineup you stuck with throughout each game were gone. Baseball had become a chess match with me being a pawn in the game. Barely hitting my weight the year before, this arrangement suited me fine.
It was just enough value to keep me on the team. I made good plays and rarely booted a ball within my considerable range. I took pride in wielding a “wicked” glove and being one of the quicker boys on the team.
These assets, along with fast reactions and good instincts for the ball, made fielding easy for me. I made my body do things other boys had difficulty doing. The challenge made baseball exciting, but waiting to get into a game was oh so boring, and it was no sure thing, unless the circumstances were right.
After sitting the starting shortstop down in our first home game, Coach Price called me over as the seventh inning was about to start. He couldn’t have missed my smile.
He casually hung his arm over my shoulder, looking out at the field as he spoke. “Okay, Dooley, cover shortstop. We’ve only got a one run lead, so don’t let anything get past you.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, happy to get into the game without needing to worry about coming to bat.
Acknowledging the other infielders, I took my position, anxious to defend my turf. For a minute I had no doubt we’d hold our lead. The first batter proceeded to hit the first pitch he saw for a homerun. I stood fast in the infield, watching the ball soar over my head and over the chain link fence in right centerfield.
The game was tied.
I immediately began calculating the batting order for fear I might come to bat but praying I didn’t. I paid enough attention to know who batted last in our half of the sixth. Not only was I going to bat, the shortstop led off once we came to bat. My stomach began to churn. There wasn’t any more joy to be found from being in the infield.
‘Maybe the coach would pinch hit for me?’ I calculated, immediately realizing he’d then need another shortstop if we didn’t win in our half of the inning.
He had a complicated job and I couldn’t figure out who the third shortstop might be. It’s what I like about baseball. You never know what might happen next. This time I hated what happened next, but it’s the game I played.
‘I should have gone out for track,’ I thought, pounding my fist in my glove to keep the pocket fresh.
There was the usual walk after the homer, which gave me something to do besides worry. I became vigilant with the man on first. We needed the double play. The next batter hit a half dozen foul balls far enough down the right field line to be home runs. Coach Price came off the bench and wandered out to the pitcher’s mound, appearing to be in no hurry. He relieved our starter, patting his back and talking to him while the relief pitcher finished a few warm up pitches before trotting in from the bullpen down the third base line.
More warm up pitches followed as I pondered my batting stance. Then, I entertained myself by watching the infielders fidget. The second baseman took to kicking second base over and over again. The first baseman talked to the runner, who stood in the middle of the bag, smiling confidently.
The first pitch finally came and the batter’s bat cracked, sending the ball to my right in the direction of third base. I broke on the sound and instinct sent me to the edge of the outfield grass, where I caught up with the ball on its first bounce, stretching as far as my body could go, I knocked it down so it didn’t get into the outfield. My momentum carried me over the ball. Picking it up, I whirled to make a play.
When I pivoted toward second, the runner who had been on first was standing on the bag. The batter was crossing first base by the time I looked there. I held onto the ball not wanting to risk an errant throw that would advance the runners with no outs.
I jogged the ball into the pitcher, putting it into his glove as we came face to face.
“Okay, easy double play,” I said, having heard it said by other boys in my previous seasons.
I didn’t know of anything else to say and it pretty much covered what we needed. The pitcher nodded and I moved back to my position, waiting for the next pitch. I played a couple of feet closer to third, remembering the last right handed hitter’s hit.
There were more foul balls, which unsettled me. With each pitch the runners were on the move like they were determined to advance. With two on and no one out they were keyed up. They wanted the lead after trailing us the entire game.
While they were expecting to advance, I expected to get them out. I stood directly in the path of the runner on second, considering him before moving another foot toward third. I waited, pounding my glove, yelling nervously, “Easy out. He can’t hit.”
This helped me to stay alert and in the game while discouraging the runners from getting any big ideas.
The next pitch was a dozy. I cringed when it left the pitcher’s hand. He’d obviously let go of it before he intended, and it came in slow and easy right in the batter’s power alley.
Maybe it would curve or dip before getting to the hitter. Maybe it wouldn’t. The runners started, hesitated, and started again. They knew a fat pitch when they saw one, but hesitating, because they wanting to make sure they were seeing it right. Any hit would score at least one of them.
The crack the bat made got the runners up to full speed. The same crack sent me hard to my right. I reached as far to the right as I could, after jumping as high as my legs would take me. The line drive was rising fast as I got to it.
It stung my hand as it collided with my glove at an awkward angle, rolling into the furthest reaches of its webbing before I got control over it. As I came back to earth, I used my free hand to keep the ball from getting away from me.
At first I couldn’t believe I caught it, and then, I couldn’t believe the base runner was running far wider than necessary, and he was coming right at me before he realized I had the ball. He desperately tried to put on the brakes to return to second base, but he slid toward me before he could reverse his momentum. I took two steps and tagged him on the shoulder, dodging his out of control body.
The double play I wanted was a done deal, but as I started to relax, I realized there was a runner unaccounted for and I searched the infield in an effort to find him to see if I could make a play on him.
When the second baseman moved from my line of vision, there he was safely standing on second base. Seeing is believing but I didn’t believe it. I knew there was something wrong. In the excitement of making a double-play, and with the adrenaline rush still pulsing through me, I wasn’t able to figure out what was wrong.
I heard a commotion and found the other team coming off their bench, looking like angry mob. I couldn’t understand what they were screaming, which brought my mind back to the play.
The runner on first had tagged up and made it to second in the two or three seconds it took me to focus on tagging out his teammate. I remembered the lead he took off first at the time the ball was hit. It didn’t add up. I could have been wrong, but that dude didn’t tag up. That’s what his team was yelling about.
I trotted over to my second baseman, bypassing him as the runner on second base was keenly aware of my approach. I stopped in front of him. Opening my glove, I showed him the ball. We both looked down at it. He looked up at my face and I looked up at his, pushing my glove firmly against his chest to tag him out if my theory was correct.
I could see the expression on his face changing before he tagged me on the chin with his fist, knocking me flat on my back. I never saw the punch coming, but I made sure I held onto the ball.
The infield umpire had moved into position, once he made certain I’d caught the ball on the fly and not on the bounce. He was the perfect witness to the strangest play I’d ever been involved in, but it was about to become even stranger.
Once I dusted myself off, I handed the ball to the umpire for safe keeping, trotting back to my shortstop position, feeling pretty proud I’d stayed with the play until the end, but I still managed to embarrass myself.
It turned out I was as oblivious as their runners about the play. All my teammates were happily heading for our bench. It took me that long to get around to counting the outs, ‘one, two, three. It was a triple-play. I was still stuck on the double-play, but that’s before I got punched in the face. I felt like a fool being the last player to figure out the inning was over.
The applause and cheers rang in my ears as people were standing all over the place and it wasn’t the seventh inning stretch. It caught me by surprise, until I figured out the salute was for me. They hadn’t seen me bat yet.
It wasn’t the usual applause for the team after a good inning. It was an appreciative applause for giving them something special. It was a good play.
Suddenly feeling quite full of myself, I couldn’t resist doffing my hat and taking an audacious bow. I wasn’t given to showing off and I had no desire to be the center of attention, but it was an impulse I couldn’t fend off.
It was recorded for posterity by a local photographer, who took my picture in mid-bow, but I didn’t know it, until I saw the picture.
There hadn’t been any triple plays I could remember my first two seasons. I did make a nice catch but lousy base running accounted for two of the outs. Knowing it had been a fluke, I still felt good about it. Fielding was the only reason I played baseball and moments like these were rare.
Coach had a name for it, when I pulled myself away from my newly acquired fans and went to the bench.
“Unassisted triple-play, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he bragged, hugging me before holding me out away from his body, like he was double checking to see who I was, before he hugged me again. I’d never seen him hug anyone else before. Other guys patted my back and shook my hand as I took a seat.
I hadn’t seen anything like it either but I never really saw it. It was all in a day’s work.
After the game, the guy that hit me came over to apologize at his coach’s behest. My teammates moved closer to assure I didn’t get hit in the head any more.
Looking around for an escape route, he said, “I thought you caught the ball on the hop. When you came over, I thought you were trying to get me to step off the bag. Pushing the glove against me the way you did made me certain of it. I got a serious temper on me and it just took off. Sorry I hit you.”
Shaking his hand, I thanked him for the apology.
He was wrong on both counts and he was out twice. The ump called him out at second before throwing him out of the game, which made it a quadruple-play, but whose counting?
While being an amazing thing to see, it didn’t seem that amazing to do, except after it was done and there was all the hoopla. Whatever it looked like, it was enough to make me starting shortstop for the rest of the season.
“Got to have that glove in my infield,” Coach Price told his team.
I didn’t mind but Andy Reid wasn’t too pleased about me taking his spot. The idea of coming to bat two or three times a game didn’t thrill me. The one thing I hated was something I was destined to do. It was a good thing too.
You can’t always see where you’re going from where you are, but once I got to where I was going, the batting I did my senior year in high school made all the difference in a future I’d never quite get control over. I was always on the verge of quitting baseball, but it never did quit me.
When I came to bat after the triple-play, the applause started anew. I felt odd standing out from the team. I resisted the urge to take one more bow. Luckily I walked on four pitches and my admirers didn’t find out I couldn’t hit until later on.
Our competition had been deflated just as their hopes were soaring. We won the game when the next batter hit a double directly over the second base and into centerfield. I’d taken a sizeable lead and was off and running at the crack of the bat, scoring with ease. It was my day in the sun and scoring the winning run merely added to my legend.
The triple play saved the game and after scoring the winning run, I became the talk of the school, which I liked.
An article describing my feat appeared in the Statesville Gazette the following day with the caption, “Dooley Does In Central.” This fueled my fame. Along with the article were two embarrassing pictures. One picture showed my bow to the crowd. The second picture showed me lying flat on my back behind second base with a goofy surprised look on my face. Everyone at school loved it, except me.
Coach Price couldn’t stop talking about my unassisted triple-play. He bragged to visiting coaches, who hadn’t heard about the deed, showing them the article and pictures to make them believers. He called me Wonder Boy and put me in charge of the infield. My teammates took it in stride.
How do you teach infielders to make an unassisted triple-play? Of course you don’t. It’s all reaction and luck, but Coach didn’t care. He believed.
I consulted all the hitters about hitting and manage a .248 batting average for the season. I didn’t enjoy batting but I took it in stride and took a lot of Tums. Doing it every game did make it easier.
Baseball wasn’t in my college plans until I got news about my baseball scholarship to State, including room and board. I liked baseball and who was I to argue with success when it gave me everything I wanted.
All that was left for me to do was earn enough money over the summer to pay my incidental expenses. It worked for me. I was going to escape from Statesville after all.
I knew I’d made the big time when Ryan Weir stopped me in the hall to congratulate me on my most excellent play.
I never saw him coming, until we stood talking like we’d known each other all our lives. Life is funny that way, you know?