Chapter 1: The Educated Ballplayer
Billy was a ballplayer for sure and it would be interesting to know if the game had somehow shaped his personality or if perhaps he was just made for the role. Billy’s basic strategy for dealing with everything that happened in his life was to try and anticipate what might happen next. The most consistent baseball players always seem to be in the right place at the right time in the field or you count on them to produce a big hit in a clutch situation. This didn’t happen by accident! Baseball is a slow paced game and it rewards the athlete who thinks. Sure catching and hitting a ball is reflex and finely honed neural impulse, but before each pitch there a series of possibilities to think through and the opportunity to make an educated guess that will increase the player’s chancing of making that important play.
What if the ball comes to me with runners on second and third with less than two out? What if the ball were hit toward the gap in right? What did this batter do last time up? Does he usually pull the ball? What if the pitcher throws a curve? A fastball? A change-up? What if I decide to take this pitch? Correct answers for these questions did not always equate with success but it certainly improved the percentages for making a play in the field and of course everyone knows that the mark of a good hitter is a batting average of at least .300, which translates to failure 70% of the time.
When Billy first began playing he couldn’t manage to make solid contact as a hitter. Even his Mom or Dad would consistently strike him out in practice. Billy willed himself to become the player he wanted to be with a lot of hard work. Just think about all those hours he spent firing a rubber ball at the house to develop his reflexes as a fielder and then his constant requests to his friends to pitch the same ball to him at close range so that he could learn to turn his bat quicker and hit the ball hard consistently.
If you asked him, Billy never thought of himself as a born ballplayer but his commitment to the sport was such that at an early age he already conceived that he would die a ballplayer. When Billy was ten years old, he made an oath to himself that the last word it would utter in this life would be Baseball. A short time later this curious way of looking life and death was put to the test. He was riding his bike down a rural road when suddenly a car appeared racing around the curve and heading toward him. The car seemed to lose control and swerved toward the shoulder of the road. Billy immediately attempted to evade by turning to his left in an attempt to cross in front of the car but cut it too sharp and bike skidded and tipped over on top of him. In the next second Billy lay there in the middle of the road unable to move and heard the screech of the tires on the roadway as the driver attempted to brake. He had fallen such that he was facing the opposite direction of the car and could no longer see the car. “Baseball” he said aloud and then braced himself for impact. Another second or two went by and still he lay there but now with the realization that it was over. He lifted the bike away from his body and stood up. The car has stopped a full twenty yards away. Billy walked the bike to the side of the road and the driver waved at him. He was embarrassed by the mistake and anxious to it over with, so he smiled as best he could and waved the driver on. As he rode home, he thought that perhaps no one that ever lived could be said to have taken the game and more seriously. He vowed that when his chance came, it would play the game with passion and think of every game as the rubber match of a three series of Giants-Dodgers or Yankees-Red Sox. Billy was a ballplayer for sure.
Chapter 2: The High School Dropout
Five Years Later
Billy was anxious to play ball again. He had always known that the “for real” days of a ballplayer began in high school. Here is where the player will have the first opportunity to play in front of professional scouts or to amass a resume of outstanding stats that would result in an offer of a collegiate baseball scholarship. Unfortunately for Billy, there had been some difficulty to deal with that he could never have anticipated. His Dad had lost a job that he had been working for many years and the family was forced to move to a new location in order to make ends meet. The first move proved to be short-lived when his Father found a job in another city and the family had to pack and move again after just two months. Billy’s life had suddenly become a whirlwind of packing and unpacking along with filling out registration papers for different schools. Finally after the second move, things settled down but he had landed in a town full of strangers. Billy’s skills and confidence in baseball had pulled him through many challenges in the past but this time it was different.
He’d transferred in the school mid-term right after the Christmas holidays and had inquired about the baseball team when meeting with his counselor. The counselor had informed him that tryouts were in progress already. Billy had to take a couple of days to get himself situated in the new school including the whole process of class selection and finding his way around. By the time he’d been able to find the Baseball Coach it was in fact the very last day of the tryout session that had been going all week. Billy remembered arriving a bit late for the workout. They were working on bunting technique, a skill that he was particularly gifted in and quite proud of his ability. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to show off actual skill, instead the coach was leading them through a make believe proactive with focus on technique of holding the bat and stance. According to this coach, Billy’s technique was all wrong! He was off to a bad start, but wasn’t too worried because he’d always been able to work his way to a starting position whenever he joined a new team including many all-star teams. “Between the lines” Billy told himself, he was as good as anybody.
On this particular day, an unbelievable sequence of events occurred that would haunt him for years to come. When the drills were over, the coach split the players into two teams and then created line-ups. Billy was assigned to one of the teams, but did not immediately get sent in to the game. It started with him on the bench and continued that way for several innings. “Speak up” he thought as light grew dim and he was sure they probably wouldn’t be playing a full nine innings. It was inning number five now and shadows crossed the field and the sun was sinking down near the hilltops in the western sky. At first, Billy had been reluctant but now he sensed opportunity slipping so he got up and walked across the dugout and up the steps. The coach was standing in the box on the third base side. Billy drew a lot of unwanted attention to himself when he stood at the dugout entrance and tried to get the coach’s attention. He thought he’d made eye contact but there was no acknowledgement of his situation. “Is this some kind of test?” he thought, but there really didn’t seem to be any choice. “Coach!” he called. Just then the coach called time out in the game and walked out to the mound. For few moments he stood there talking to the pitcher and then he took a few steps forward and stared into the dugout. “Who hasn’t been in the game? It’s about time to call this.” The coach waited. Billy took a step forward. “I need to come in” he said confidently. “Ok, this guy and that’s it” the coach answered although he gave no indication that he was addressing Billy. “Well, I’m this guy” Billy thought to himself and he was certain he was going to make a good impression even if there was just to be this one small opportunity. He looked in the rack for his bat and grabbed a helmet. “Come on batter, its getting dark” called the umpire, who was one of the players himself. Billy took a couple of practice swings though he noticed that this umpire was impatient. The pitcher was smiling and the umpire stood behind him as customary in a practice situation where there is not enough equipment to put him behind the plate. The umpire sneered at him. “No ball, two strikes” the umpire called out. “What?” Billy said unbelievingly. He stepped out of the batter’s box and stared. The pitch was still smiling and the umpire’s face was frozen. “Let’s go!” the ump shouted. Billy stepped him and cocked his bat. This would be it, his only chance. The bat was locked and loaded. It was strange how sometimes the most outlandish situation might free Billy from pressure and nervousness. His arms were relaxed and his body was limbered and ready. The pitcher wound up and delivered a high fastball near the outside corner of the plate. There was some pretty decent smoke on this pitch and it moved slightly outside as it came in. All in all, it was a fairly impossible pitch to do anything with. Billy let it go by. “Strike three!” called the umpire. For hours afterward, Billy tried to rationalize the situation. For sure, that pitch was not in the strike zone. Had he swung there was a strong probability he would not have touched it and the result would have been the same. But there wasn’t a pitch to waste. Was it his fault or not! Damn the whole world and try to forget it about. Billy couldn’t even remember what happened after that except when the coach gathered the players together and before dismissing, had told them “the final roster will be posted in the locker room near my office tomorrow morning.” The other players were strangers that he hadn’t even met before this. No one said anything to him when the team had walked back to the lockers. Billy left to go home. That night he tossed and turned and tried to settle on what he should do. Confront the coach?
In the end, Billy had decided not to do anything. He told himself that he’d never have to face the finality of being cut under these circumstances as long as he didn’t go in there to look at that final roster. Later that year, the family moved away to yet another location and Billy’s baseball dream was put aside. Instead, he had to focus all effort just to graduate from high school and after that, to find a job and look for stability in his life again.
Billy never gave up completely on playing ball though. He tried to get out after work and on weekends, taking kind of game or workout he could find. He longed to get back to playing organized ball and his first opportunity coming with a team of Mexican semi-pro players. They needed a player one day and he was on a nearby field practicing. So let him in their game on a lark and discovered he had some talent. They had been surprised to learn he could speak some Spanish and even more amazed when he joined in a discussion of what country some of the current Latin America major leaguers had come from. After that he practiced with the team a few times. The experience with this team got Billy noticed around the area and he was able to get with other semi-pro teams with relative ease after that.
Chapter 3: Nice Catch!
Five Years Later
Billy had begun to realize that opportunity to play the game he loved was become scarcer with each passing year. He had occasional wild ideas about leaving his job and going to Arizona in the winter to try-out for the big leagues. Who really knew what to do? The call big league baseball “The Show” and Billy figured to get on a team was probably like trying to break into the Hollywood movie industry without credentials. Who knows? Maybe you just hung around the set and made a nuisance of yourself until someone gave you a chance to prove yourself? Billy could never bring himself to do that though. He had looked seen what happened to his parents and didn’t want to risk that he too might have an unstable life. Instead he’d even begun taking college courses at night and more or less settled into a career in business. But when he could, he played baseball and here and there he still came close enough to taste the glory of making the big play or getting the bit hit. For instance, there was that time he made the greatest catch of his life.
It was going to be his night! On his first time to bat in the first inning he had noticed the left and center fielders were playing straight away and deep. He had adjusted his knees to take a wider stance and lined a fast ball in the gap between the fielders. Out of respect for his ability to hit the long ball, they had given plenty of room and he was more than happy to take it. “Drive the ball hard over the infield and get on base, make something happen.” Billy had surrendered to this time tested impulse and was rewarded with a hit. He had eventually scored with the lefty Greg had produced a solid double down the right field line. But this was only the beginning!
Billy had taken his position in left field in the last of the third inning and then winced as a throwing error on the infield and a base on balls given on a full count had threatened to erase their one run lead. Now there was only one out with runners on first and second. Following another impulse, Billy moved a few feet forward as he remembered this batter had blooped a single over the shortstop’s head on the first time up. The pitcher was worried about his control and not wishing to walk another batter, he grooved the first pitch and this time the batter hit a hard drive to left field. The shortstop leaped futilely toward the ball but Billy was racing forward. Would he get to it? There was only a flash of ball descending toward the grass and a split second decision to make. If the diving fielder misses the catch, it was almost certain that two runners would score. Billy decided to go for broke! Accelerating and the diving forward, he reached with the webbing of his glove and skimmed the top of the grass. With his body stretched as far forward as possible, Billy’s glove intercepted the ball just above the ground and he slid forward a few feet on his knees. Billy saw the umpire wave his right thumb in the air signaling “Out!” and he jumped to his feet aggressively on the chance he could double up one of the runners. Both runners retreated, not daring the possibility to choke out a rally with at least one more hitter remaining.
The crowd was mostly just the team’s home folks, so there was a decent amount of cheering for the play along with the proper amount of caution for the danger of one more batter to face. Billy remembered that this guy had driven the ball well into the left side gap last time and he had to get over quickly to cut it off and prevent extra bases. Billy backed up a few steps and shaded to the left to allow him the luxury of arriving quicker if the batter favored the same spot as before. He watched the runners take their leads and could see them leaning forward threateningly. The third base coach was calling “two out and come on anything”! Billy could sense they all had a great amount of confidence in this batter, so he moved back another couple of steps.
The pitcher was working hard through this at bat. A couple of pitches fouled back in the screen, another two just off the outside corner, and finally a fast ball that blazed in down the middle but a bit high. Billy couldn’t see how the batter had managed to lay off that one, but incredibly he had checked his swing. From out in left field he began to fidget, wondering what was happening now as the catcher called for time and went to the mound. The batter appeared to be set up for the slow curve but apparently Jason had other ideas. The shortstop wagged a finger behind his back, pointing right and this meant Jason was coming inside with heat.
Instinctively Billy rose from his crouched ready position and adjusted his shoulders and feet toward his right. This impulse would have been imperceptible to anyone but the move was proof that the outfielder was locked in and engaged like a fighter pilot. The pitch came in belt high and tight and the batter turned on the pitch with perfect timing. There was a loud crack, and now a soaring drive headed deep along the left field line. The ball held a straight line and there was no chance it was going to hook foul. Many of the spectators rose from their seats and all eyes were focused on the left field corner. The base runners were dashing frantically around the bases and the batter had tossed his bat aside and was digging in for a sprint around the base paths. The ball must be caught to prevent disaster!
Billy’s impulse had been a true one and even as the sound of the hit echoed out toward him he had already turned and began running at full speed back and to his right. Farther and faster, his eyes had told him and now he was running with his left arm and shoulder extended. Billy wasn’t even looking at the ball, knowing that success depended now on his ability to get to a place that he somehow knew he needed to be. Finally his eyes scanned the sky over the left shoulder and he saw the ball. It was still high in the air but he could tell that it had the right angle and speed to intercept it. Billy reached out and extended his glove in a backhand position and felt the satisfying smack of ball sinking into the webbing and then it disappeared inside the glove. He didn’t break stride immediately but allowed momentum to carry him back a few more strides and then he pulled the glove toward his chest and turned back toward the infield. He was truly surprised at how much ground he had covered to chase down this ball. The other players and the crowd appeared to be somewhere far off. For a moment he stood there, enjoying the sensation of being alone in his own space. “Just like an old game of Three Flies Up” he thought to himself, only this time he’d actually managed to make a nice running catch when it really counted. “Three outs!”, so there was no need to surrender his prize. It was only then that the roar of the crowd and the voices of his teammates came to him. He smiled and jogged in toward them, accepting high fives from the third baseman and the shortstop along with a slap on the back from a very sheepish looking pitcher Jason. Some of the people in grandstand were still on their feet cheering and calling “nice catch” but Billy couldn’t hear them. He was already thinking about how he was due up fourth in the inning.
It was right about that time that the stadium lights of the old municipal ballpark had suddenly crackled, popped and gone dark. Billy had just jogged in from his position in left field and stood in the middle of the infield, looking into the sky. The team managers and the umpire stood in front of the breaker switch behind the third base dugout and Billy could tell that they had already pulled the lever several times with no effect. He had some glimmer of hope at first as more people began to converge on power utility box, but after a few minutes it became clear that no there understood what needed to be done. This city league game was not important enough to call out for an emergency maintenance crew. “Who would we call any way?” some one had said. Everyone was shaking their heads and Billy could tell they were going to give up.
Players were already packing away equipment and seeking out family members in the grandstand. Many were headed the parking lot which was still lighted. Billy’s desire to play ball on that night burned with each passing second. He thought about small town minor league ballparks and the way you could see the stadium lights for miles ahead on a country highway. Yet here in this place everything remained dark. Billy sat in the dugout with his elbows firmly planted on his knees and gritted his teeth against hard reality. He wanted with every fiber of his being to run back on to that field. Finally he grabbed his bat and glove from the ground and walked up the dugout steps. A young man was standing on the field waiting for him as he approached exit. It was apparent from his expression that he was a bit shy but with as much respect as he could muster; he extended his hand toward Billy. Billy accepted the handshake without saying anything and finally the young man spoke up. "That was a great catch" and the smile on his face broadened expectantly. "Thanks" Billy answered, feeling like there was nothing appropriate to add. “Well, I just wanted to tell you it WAS a good catch”. The young man turned away and hurried off into the night.
"Thanks" Billy said again silently. Somehow the acknowledgement of this one stranger had awakened his sense of “why?” and “what if?” Billy was twenty-five years old now and it was darn sure too late to think about how he might make a living playing baseball. He was lucky enough to being playing ball at all now given that there were not many people his age still playing hardball. Just this little semi-pro league for a couple of months in the summer was about all that was left. Billy came back and sat in the dugout alone for awhile in the dark.
Chapter 4: The Long Ball
Billy was smiling to himself. “Damn right I caught that ball out there tonight. I was made to play ball and that’s what a ballplayer would do. You have to get to that ball.” He put his things in the truck and took one last long look at the darkened field and resigned himself to his fate. Driving home that night, he began to feel better when he thought about the game he’d played. When he got back home, the first thing he noticed the flyer on his nightstand. “Yes, damn it!’ he shouted. It was an invitation to a home run hitting contest to be held at the local minor league ballpark. It was an annual event for the fans to take the opportunity to see if they could hit one out at a professional ballpark. Billy usually considered the contest as something for amateurs, but now he’d begun to feel differently about it. This time he was going in. That very night, he called a couple of his friends and arranged to start practicing. They may have thought Billy a bit crazy, but just the same it would be fun to get all wound up in this excuse to play ball a bit more regularly.
The practice sessions turned out to be as much as three or four times a week. There were two and sometimes three of them involved. Each player got ten pitches to hit from live pitching and then 15 hits from a tee. They all jogged after the balls after each round and kept playing until dark. It was as great a time as Billy had ever had with baseball. The contest was a month away and he was committed to keep working on building up his reflexes and muscles to crush a baseball. He’d never used a tee for hitting practice before but had read about it in some books and decided to give it a try. Billy was surprised to find that hitting from the tee had really sharpened his focus on the ball the result carried over to hitting live pitches. The places where they practices did not have fences, so Billy had used an old fashioned tape measure to get an estimate for how long the hits would go. In time, he was finding it easy to hit balls between 350 and 450 feet. The dimensions at the minor leaguer park were 330 to the foul poles, 375 to the gaps, and 410 to straight away center field. When the day of the contest came, Billy was ready. He going to take some cuts on a professional ball field and he was anxious to see what it would be like.
Billy had arranged to bring one of his friends to the contest and the guy was running late. Billy had waited in the car and blew the horn a few times, but finally had to come up on the porch and holler out to get the result he wanted. The game started at 8 pm and the contest was set for 6:30. When they arrived in the lot, it was 6:45 and the contest was already in progress. By the time Billy had it through the sign in process, he was the only one left in the on deck circle. As Billy selected a bat, another person showed up behind him and the announcement went out that these would be the last two batters. The batter hitting before Billy finished his turn and walked away amused at his lack of success. For the first time, Billy noticed that there were several orange cones placed out on the field, some of them near the warning track in the power alleys and one in the deepest part of the grass in center field. “What are the cones for?” Billy asked as he stepped in to the batter’s box. “Those are the longest hits for today” he was informed. There had not been a ball hit over the fence and they were planning to declare a winner based on distance to these cones. Billy had never felt so perfectly relaxed in his life. He wanted the moment to last as long as possible but it would come down to whatever happened with seven pitches.
The pitcher was a coach from the home town minor league team. Billy waited with his bat cocked and his eyes locked in on the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand. A little low and too the outside, but Billy swung and lined the ball in the left center field. The sound of the wood hitting the ball was sweet and the echo resounded across the park from foul line to foul line and back in to the grandstand. Another pitch, same location, and another line drive. “Sorry” called out the coach. “I’m getting tired out here”. The next four pitches came in near the strike zone and Billy promptly lashed hard drives just a few feet off the ground just as he had the first two. Billy’s bat had never seemed as lively as it did at this moment. He hadn’t been counting the pitches and did not realize the next one would be the last. Some of the minor league players had gathered around the batting cage and were watching. The next pitch came in belt high on the inside and Billy turned on it and got it right on the sweet spot of the bat. It was hard drive that sailed over the 330 marker near the left foul pole. The ball disappeared over a trucking company advertisement that had been painted on the wall, clearing the fence by about ten feet. “I knew that was gone, the moment he hit it. No doubt on that” called out one of the players. “Was that really the last pitch?” said another. Billy recognized him as the center fielder that had starred as lead off batter and current California League leader in stolen bases. His name was Ron Wilson and he walked up to Billy and extend his hand. “Nice hitting” Ron told him. “Thanks” Billy replied and the player nodded. Billy took a seat in the grass back of home plate and watch as people scrambled around the outfield to remove the cones and the last batter took his seven swings. It was all so blissfully uneventful.
Billy returned to the stands to watch the game. During the seventh inning stretch, Billy was asked out to the coach’s box along the third base side where he was announced the “Home Run King” and presented with the contest winnings which included a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe and tickets to all the games left in the season. Afterward, Billy retreated to the anonymity of the grandstand crowd along the third base side to watch the game.
Many years have come and gone, the triumphs and hardships of life endured, and still sometimes on a summer night Billy will come early to a game and sit in that same area of the grandstand to watch the warm-ups. It is the quiet time when the sound of the baseball hitting hardwood or cracking leather sounds most distinct and you can hear it echo across the field. It is the time when memories are stirred and reminders of what might have been.
Created by Bill Keys