Copyright© 2015 by Bill Offutt
It wasn't hard to find the training camp since there was a huge banner hanging on the chain link fence that stated, in fancy blue letters ten feet high, Home of the New Nats. I eased through the tall gate and looked around at the busy scene, enjoying the familiar sounds and hoping to see someone I knew. A few men lounged in the sloping stands, well back in the shade, and fifty or sixty players in t-shirts were shagging flies pumped out by three ball-throwing machines. A few men were skylarking near the wooden fence, practicing goofy throws and circus catches.
Buzzy Harder spotted me before I saw him and ambled over, rolling like a schooner in a heavy wind, belly well out before him. I wiped at my forehead, settled my hat and waited, canvas bag in hand, trying to look more confident than I felt. My stomach began to churn and my mouth got dry. Hell of a thing at my age.
"What'chu doin' here?" Buzzy asked, fists on his wide hips, head cocked to the side.
"Hi'ya Buzzy," I managed, "good to see you again." I stuck out my hand. He ignored it and spat a brown gob off to the side.
"Ain't you still suspended or somethin'?" he asked, looking up at me with one eye closed. "Screwed up, didn' ya?"
I shook my head. "Time flies," I said hopefully. "Heard you might be looking for an arm or two."
He snorted and shifted his considerable weight. "Not yours. We ain't that hard up."
"Really," I said, trying to sound friendly. "Not what I read. Post said the guys you got in the expansion draft came in lame and halt, sore shoulders and trick elbows."
He shook his head and scuffed at the orange dirt. "Most a'them's aw'right, not all but some's pretty good. We got twenty-some pitchers right now. Don' need no more."
"I'm here to offer my services." I conjured up a smile at his pockmarked face. "Like to get a shot at a job." He looked sort of like the late Don Zimmer might if he fell nose first into a pile of gravel. "I work cheap."
"How old are you?" he asked, pushing his cap askew and squinting at me, his hands now stuffed into his back pockets. Buzzy Harder thought he was the second coming of Casey Stengel, and he often walked around like that. Most folks said it made him look like a ruptured pigeon.
"Let's say nobody's carded me lately." I kept my worn-out Oriole hat on my balding head, aware that its well-worn cartoon bird gave away its age. The hair I had left had gotten plenty of Grecian Formula to hide the gray, and I had shaved extra close in my motel room since some of my stubble looked kind of white. "I can still bring it," I bragged. "How old was Palmer when he quit, I mean the first time? Or Nolan, or Clements for that matter." I smiled. "You don't remember Bobo do you? Saw him when I was a kid. Or old Satch, what was he fifty when he quit?'
"Ho," he said, spitting off to the side. "Ho, that's a good one. Palmer! Jeez'us, you din' have nothin' five years ago." He rubbed the tobacco juice into the dirt.
"I've been resting," I said, still trying to look pleasant. "How about it?"
He shook his head and sniffed, turning away.
"Five batters," I said, trotting after him, holding his arm, "come on, you can call 'em from behind the backstop. Ten minutes, that's all." The players were moving around and the flyball barrage had ceased. The ground crew rolled out the batting cage while two men set up the screen in front of the mound.
"Why not," he said, "somebody's got t'throw battin' practice. But remember to duck. Don' wan'cha killed by no liner." He sniffed and rubbed his deeply-lined face, turned on his heel and waddled away. I had known Buzzy, off and on, for at least twenty years and must admit it hurt my pride to beg him for a try-out. He had kicked around the league forever, playing second banana to a string of failures, and now he had the opportunity to show what he had learned at incompetents' knees.
I sat, put on the my steel-cleated shoes with the well-worn rough-leather pitching toe, pulled my battered Stan Musial glove from my bag, tied up a loose lace and walked out toward the mound, hopping over a hot grounder on the way. I was wearing some faded khakis and a dark gray t-shirt, hoping the flapping shirttail might conceal my beer belly and the long pants my scarred legs. One knee had taken a liner when I was in the minors, ruining the patella, and the ACL in the other one just plain failed, right when I stepped on first. I could still hear it snap in my memory.
"Mumford, yo," Buzzy yelled, "you bat next, then Skeeter and JoJo."
The young catcher came out from behind the plate with his hockey-style helmet under his arm. I shook his hand and introduced myself.
"I've got your rookie card," he said with a big grin. "By damn."
"I'm going to throw a slider, then an overhand curve, a four-seam fastball inside, a circle change and then I'll probably turn one over so give me a steady target, inside half. If we go to six on a batter, I'll think of something. A flick of the glove means a curve."
He nodded, spat and pulled down his oddly painted mask. "By damn," he said again. In a game in which change takes place at glacial speed, catchers' equipment had improved a lot in my two decades, but it was still a nasty job.
I don't think most men could play baseball if they were not allowed to spit, and the game still has its snuff users, tobacco chewers and bubble gum addicts and let's not forget sunflower seeds. Although my mouth was dry, I spat just to get into the right frame of mind. I felt at home, comfortable as I did some gardening with my cleats at the front of the mound, working on my landing spot, calming myself, shutting down my head. I bent over, took a deep breath, put the ball behind me, turned it over a few times, felt the seams, and narrowed my vision so I only saw the catcher's light-tan glove and segmented chest protector clearly, everything else became peripheral. I could not have told you what color his shin-guards were.
Charley Mumford stepped in, tapped the plate and smiled out at me. I had pitched to him before when he was maybe thirty pounds lighter and ten years younger. Now his arms were bigger than my thighs, and he was pretty thick around the middle.
"You wanna warm up?" Mumford yelled out at me, whipping his bat like a tiger's tail.
I shook my head, put my foot in front of the rubber and waited until he was set. I was not going to tell anybody that I had been paying a kid ten dollars to catch me for an hour every morning for the last month, including this morning. I offered up a small prayer, stretched, coiled, pushed off hard, kept my left shoulder closed and threw a pretty good slider that dove very late, almost into the dirt.
He swung, reaching out as the ball moved away from him and lost his grip on the bat. It windmilled out toward third and somebody laughed. One of the coaches tossed the bat back to the big outfielder, and he dug in again, looking serious as I got another ball from the mesh box. I knew he was probably in the last year or two of a long career. The owner of the new Nats was certainly spending money freely. My fingers felt the seam, looking for the right place to grip, spreading, adjusting, digging in my thumbnail.
I threw him a slow, head high, overhand curve, and his timing was way off. He started to swing, hesitated, saw it was going to spin down, swung awkwardly and missed badly. He glared out at me. "Throw a strike, y'old fart," he yelled. "Supposed to be fucking batting practice."
"Not for me," I told him loudly as I tried to remember what I had said I would throw next.
I concentrated on form, lifted my knee, stepped right at the plate, followed through to a good fielding position and fired a hopping fastball inside, under his elbows, just about as hard as I could now throw. It hurt. It's supposed to hurt; that's why we use ice later.
He lifted his arms and let it go. It made a first class sound in the catcher's glove, rising as it popped and producing a small dust cloud. I could see the kid behind the mask smile; at least I saw his teeth and hoped it was a smile. He gave me a clenched fist.
"How about it, ump?" I yelled at Buzzy.
"Naw," he spat and yelled back. "Not today. It ain't that wide."
I held the ball deep in my hand, make the OK sign with my fingers and threw Mumford a good change-up. He struck out, twisting himself down into the dirt, braced on his bat. He snorted and glared at me as Buzzy dismissed him. It felt damn good.
Switch hitter Skeeter Woodruff whacked my first pitch right back to me on one bounce so I reached up and snagged it just above the L-shaped barrier. He popped up the curve ball into the netting, fouled off the inside hard one, watched the change-up sail by high and then missed a screwball that dove in and almost hit him on the knee. "That's enough," he said, tossing his bat away. He smiled out at me and made a rude gesture.
Jojo Peters had been rookie of the year two or three seasons before with one of the West Coast teams, but crack cocaine and expensive women got to him, and he was dealt away without regret, base-stealing records and all. Rumors said he was deeply in debt despite his robust salary. Now he looked ashen, and I hoped he was not trying to shake the habit without help. He missed the wide slider, grounded the curve to first on two bounces, checked his swing on the fast ball which was not close to being a strike, popped up the change and ignored the screwball I started wide.
"Buzzy?" I yelled after it wriggled back over the corner, and the young catcher framed it, his right leg stuck out at a wide angle.
"It was a strike," he admitted. "Go 'way Jojo. Where's the old Missionary? Jessup, damn your lazy ass, get in there and take him deep. This ain' no old folks' home."
"Makeeta Jessup?" I yelled, squinting in the bright sunshine while I found a ball I liked, one with a slightly loosened hide, "that you? Still alive?"
The big man nodded at me. He had caught one of my last games. He had wonderful hands. I was surprised he was still playing since he had been a back-up catcher when they tossed me out.
"Good to see you," I said loudly as I rubbed up the well-worn ball and then displayed a grip I never used.
He nodded and licked his purple lips. This, I suppose, was the last stop for him since he had never been more than a steady journeyman and his throws to second had to have lost something. In fact he got hurt in Florida and did not even make the trip north. He retired unnoticed, the fate of most big leaguers.
I threw him a good comeback slider and he took it. I raised my head and looked at Buzzy. He spat and ignored me, pulling his hat down toward his ruined nose. I tossed a tight curve that broke down very late, and Jessup almost missed it, fouling it into the dirt. He swung hard on my inside fast ball and hit it down the left field line about four hundred feet but very foul, a frozen rope as the guys on TV would have said. I hated to throw him the change-up, but I did, and he missed it badly as it sank. He walked away, head down, bat dragging.
Some called George Junkins "the missionary," others just called him "papa." He had been a minister in his father's rural church from the age of eight and a leader of every team he had played for, all seven of them. Unfortunately he almost never got along with the money men, had been a strike leader twice, had a terrible time with his coaches and managers for various reasons, was a very streaky hitter and refused to speak to most reporters, making an exception for an elderly gentleman from the New Yorker magazine, a man who seldom took notes during an interview. Junkins was a fierce competitor, but I had never thrown a pitch to him.
I studied the big man, about six-two and probably two-fifty, as he reached his black bat across the plate and took a wide stance some commentators compared to Joe DiMaggio's. He lined my hanging slider right back at me. It whanged off the pipe-supported screen in front of me with a sound like a gong, dumping a half-dozen balls to the ground. I am sure my heart stopped briefly as I saw that baseball getting bigger very fast.
Junkins smiled at me, displaying a gold tooth, cocked his bat and hit my curve ball straight up into the top of the batting cage. I really did not want to throw him what now passed for my fastball but I did, high and well inside, and he ignored it. He dribbled the change-up back toward me and grimaced when he did. I took a deep breath, aimed my crooked inshoot at the catcher's right knee, flicked my thumb down and it fooled him.
"Throw him two more," yelled Buzzy from behind the screen. He doffed his hat and wiped his wide forehead with his wrist.
"Curve," I yelled at the young catcher, flipping my glove to the side. I threw it side-armed and it broke slowly but stayed on the same plane. Papa Junkins smoked it, a screamer to left that hit the distant fence on two bounces and never got more than twenty or thirty feet off the grass.
"Another," I said, cutting a small flap of leather between the laces with my thumbnail. I threw him the knuckle-curve Moose had taught me one sunny day in Baltimore, and he missed it, scowled at me and strode away, flicking the bat toward the dugout.
"Aw'right," Buzzy Harder yelled at me, "Tha's enough. Enos get back to work." I handed the ball to the coach who had been pitching batting practice, and he smiled at me and raised an eyebrow. I walked to the plate and thanked the young catcher. I was breathing hard, but I felt fine, excited and satisfied, my right hand tingling, a groin muscle aching, sweat trickling down my spine.
"Good job," I told him. "Nice, steady target."
"I looked at the last ball," he said quietly. "Scuffed a bit wasn't it?"
"Didn't notice," I said.
Harder and I walked over toward the left field stands, and he pointed about halfway up the plank seats. "Man's name is Jepperson. Don' know how old is, out a'diapers though. He's the owner and he made hisself general manager. Assbrain thing to do Go talk to him. What was that last pitch?"
"Knuckle curve," I said blandly, the image of innocence.
He nodded and spat.