Middle Innings

by AutumnWriter

Tags: ,

Desc: Drama Story: An aging relief pitcher is called upon in a tight spot in a close game. He shows what he's learned about baseball--and other things, too.

© Copyright 2007

Author's note: this story is entirely a work of fiction. There is no intention to portray any specific players, team or event. If there are any similarities it is completely coincidental.

Will Daggett stood atop the dugout steps. "Whew! Feel that heat." The hot blast was the price to pay for clubhouse air conditioning. He could remember when locker rooms smelled like liniment and only the manager's office had central air. As he stepped onto the field the younger pitchers broke into a trot around him, headed toward the bullpen. Will didn't know what their big hurry was. "Maybe they're afraid that there aren't enough chairs for everyone and whoever's left standing will be on waivers." He gave a little smirk as they passed by.

Kansas City was always the hottest ballpark of them all. It was especially true in August. Fatigue made it seem even hotter as the season moved to its final leg. He ambled down the First Base line on his way out to the bullpen, just beyond the Right Field fence. More of his teammates sprinted by to take positions for infield practice. He saw the First Base Coach, Bob Johnson, nearby. He had nothing in particular to do at the moment, so Will sidled over. He and Bob had been teammates at Chicago in their early years. In those days it had been Bobby Joe Johnson, but he was a lot of years and miles away from his Alabama roots—and many at bats from his glory days.

"How're ya feelin', Will?"

"Hot 'n' tired—just like you," Will answered. "I'll be glad when this road trip's done with. Isn't this our last set in KC this year?"

"It's hot—that's for sure," Bob agreed. "Should cool off when the sun goes down. Just tomorrow's day game and we're outta' here."

"This is when it gets the worst. It should get cooler, but it doesn't, and then you feel cheated, somehow. They don't call these the Dog Days of August for nothin'."

"How 'bout a poker game when we get back to the hotel?" Bob asked.

"Whose room are you thinking about?"

"Why, yours, of course!" Bob laughed.

"Why does it always... ?"

The conversation was interrupted by a raspy cacophony that Will knew too well.

"Am I breaking up the ladies' tea party?" It was Wayne Curtis, the Manager. One thing Will couldn't stand about him was that he could never just walk up to a player and say what was on his mind.

"I'm on my way right now, Skipper," he answered.

"C'mon, Daggett! The whole bullpen's out there already. It looks bad. It makes it harder on Clem to keep a rein on those guys when the older ones are straggling."

"Alright, I said that I'm goin'," Will protested, as he turned and started out to Right Field.

"C'mon, get movin', Will!" he heard Curtis' hoarse barking behind him. He broke into a trot, for Curtis' benefit, and whoever else might be watching and caring.

Will entered the bullpen through the door in the Right Field wall. The relievers were stretching, bending and contorting to loosen the muscles in their legs. Larry Jensen, the starting right-hander was warming up with Rodriguez, the Bullpen Catcher. Clem Hartwell, Bullpen Coach, watched attentively for signs of stiffness in Jensen's delivery.

"Good luck tonight, Larry," Will called out as the ball snapped back into Jensen's glove.

Larry was a good guy and a good pitcher. He always kept his team in the game. Like Will, he was thirty-seven, a young man by the usual standard. Baseball has a way to age a man in his autumn years in the game. Fastballs slow; curves hang longer over the plate. Players like Larry and Will made up for it in guile and knowledge of the game. They did whatever they could to keep the autumn leaves on the trees. When guile ran out, they were finished.

There were scars—of scalpel blades on elbows and shoulders. There were wounds invisible to the eye, too, where a man really lives. There were marks of disappointment and guilt—commissions and omissions and better paths too late to be chosen. Worst were the memories of victories of so many yesterdays ago that they could only be savored in the mind's eye—or with the help of a whiskey or two.

There were still good times, too. As the Dog Days of August wore on they were reminded that the season of autumn brings days of color and sunshine before the chill makes the leaves descend from the trees.

"Poker after the game?" Jensen asked as he toed the rubber.

"Johnson volunteered my room," Will replied. "What about you, Clem?"

"I guess so," he said, and then turned his head and spat a stream of brown juice to a nearby corner. "Or I can just give all my money to Jensen right now."

"No checks!" Jensen warned as his pitch made a snapping sound in the catcher's glove and a puff of rosin sprayed out.

Each successive throw snapped with a little more anger as Jensen exerted a little harder.

"Let me see the slider," Clem ordered. Jensen hurled another pitch that was a little slower than the rest. Rodriguez circled his glove around its path as he caught it. "That one hung," Clem pronounced. "Enrique!" he yelled down to the catcher, "Don't circle it like that. I want to see where it's going."

"Lo siento, Boss," the young man called back.

"It's just not workin' tonight, Clem," Jensen pleaded. "Maybe I can get it grooved later."

"Throw it out of the zone to set up your fastball," Hartwell advised. "At least to the right-handers. You'll have to dance around the lefties."

The big right-hander continued warming, trying to find the handle on the slider. "You'll find it, Larry," Will called over. The young pitchers watched hungrily as Jensen struggled. A slot in the starting rotation was what they coveted and none of them imagined that they could ever lose the groove on their sliders like an old man might.

Clem walked over to Will where he stood doing the splits, stretching his groin muscles. "Skipper says to be ready," Clem advised. "He wants Larry to get through six. You take the seventh. Carstairs can set it up in the eight for Roberts in the ninth."

"Does Baker know that I pitched an inning last night and two the night before?" Will asked.

"Yup," Clem replied.

"Did he tell Curtis?" Will asked again.

"I dunno what Steve tells Wayne."

"Does Wayne know the difference between a pitching arm and a dick?"

"I dunno what Wayne knows," Clem answered, and then discharged a brown stream of tobacco juice to the turf.

"It's getting' worse every year," Will said to himself. "Arms get tired in August. They make us choose between lyin' down and tryin' to do what we can't do. I'm too young to lie down and old enough to know that I'll have to lie down sometime—'cause the more I try to do, the more they ask for."

"It's good that we pushed across a run," Will said to Clem, sitting beside him on the bench. "We're going to need every one we can get. They were watching Larry
Jensen walking briskly through the outfield to take the mound in the bottom of the first.

"I'm worried about Jensen's slider," Clem said. "He better find it."

"He won't go six," Will replied. "It's hot and he's tired. It's been a long road trip. If we were back home—maybe. It's easier to build your strength back up at home than on the road."

"He's the starter; that's why he gets paid the big money."

"Whatever Larry's got—you'll get it. He can't give what he hasn't got, and tonight he has no slider. He'll try to find it, but he won't. He's just too tired to snap it crisp enough. He'll tempt them with it—hang it out of the zone for a while. By the time they start through the order the second time, they'll be wise. You can't get by on guile without a slider."

"Well, he's got the first two guys out."

"I'd bet with you, Clem, but then you'd be outta money and we'd hafta' call off the poker game tonight."

"Maybe you oughta' be the starter, Will."

"I was a starter once. I won thirteen games for Oakland in '96. I was known as an 'up 'n' comer'."

"Ooow! That was a close one," Clem interrupted as the two stood and watched a long drive by the number three hitter curl past the foul side of the pole. "Just a noisy strike," Clem said, taking his seat back on the bench. Out on the mound Jensen rubbed up a new ball and waited for the crowd to quiet down.

"Larry'll get this guy. He's got him foxed; he was reaching for that slider off the plate."

"So why'd ya give up bein' a starter?" Clem asked.

"Didn't want to," Will answered. "I went under the knife after that season and Oakland traded me to Texas. They said they thought my elbow couldn't take startin'. They gave me the choice; move to the bullpen or prove myself as a starter again with a minor league contract."

"So, you wanted to stay in 'The Show'?" Clem guessed.

"Right, right," Will admitted. "I shouldda gone to El Paso, but when you're twenty- seven, it's hard to see that far down the road. So, I went to the bullpen—thinkin' I could work my way back to the rotation. Never happened, and here I still am."

The conversation ended as Jensen got the third out on a fly to deep right-center. Diaz caught it right in front of them. Jensen started with a one-two-three inning.

Orlando Diaz was the Center Fielder. He came from the Dominican Republic, speaking little English. He didn't need to know much—just simple phrases, such as the translation of 'Good Catch, Orlando' as he ran down screaming liners that came his way courtesy of the aging, tired, August arms.

.... There is more of this story ...

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