© Copyright 2007, 2010, 2011
by Autumn Writer
Author’s note: this story is entirely a work of fiction. It is not intended 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 blast of summer heat 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 in 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 have to be…?”
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,” Will answered.
“C’mon, Daggett! The whole bullpen’s out there already—except for you. 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, kept a close watch, looking 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 the men 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,” the coach 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 with hungry eyes as Jensen struggled. Will knew the reason. 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, hoping that the pitching coach would save him.
“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 strolling 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, spoke 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.
In the top of the second there was more to cheer about, as Diaz, sixth in the lineup, led off with a single. He stole second as the next batter struck out. All the players in the bullpen leaned forward on the fence to see if Jensen would be staked to a two run lead. He might be able to nurse that for a few innings.
“Diaz is wasted in the sixth spot,” Will declared to Clem. “With his speed, he should be leading off.”
“I’ll let Wayne know your thoughts on the subject,” Clem answered, as he sent another stream of tobacco juice to the ground.
The bullpen groaned as the batter took a home run swing and sent a pop-up to the Third Baseman.
“Don’t tell him anything. He’d probably have Diaz on waivers before daybreak.”
“Why’re you so bitter, Will?” Clem asked. “I would’ve expected you to mellow in yer old age.”
The count was two and one to the batter, their last chance to push Diaz across. He was number nine in the lineup, so no one gave him much chance.
“You’re right,” Will answered. “It’s just that my years are gettin’ short and there’s just one thing I’d like to do before my time is up.”
The count went to three and one—a hitter’s count. Still, no one expected much from the last man in the order.
“Pitch in the World Series,” Will answered in advance, in case Clem didn’t bother to ask the question.
The batter walked. There were two men on base, setting the table for the top of the order.
“We got a chance at the playoffs,” Clem asserted, “and then who knows what might happen?”
“If anyone but Curtis was manager, we’d be five games on top of our division,” Will insisted.
“Let’s watch the game,” Clem replied. “It’s not good for the younger players to hear us talkin’ like this.”
The top of the order was coming up for the second time. At the plate the leadoff hitter grounded a single up the middle. Diaz scored with ease from second. Jensen had a two run lead. Runners were at the corners. Clem and Will watched as the count went full. A hit would score another run and put Jensen in command. Even better, it would bring up Stone, the three-spot batter with two men aboard. The batter fouled off a pair of outside fastballs.
“Everyone in the stadium knows that he’s coming inside,” Will said. The opposing pitcher did, and the batter took ball four, a little too high and tight. Bases were loaded.
“Taking that pitch took guts,” Clem said. “I’ve got to admire that. This could be a big inning.”
Stone, the Right Fielder, stepped to the plate. He had a good balance of power and speed like a third-spot hitter should. He took the first pitch for a strike; it was right down the middle. The next offering was too low, for a ball, to even the count.
One-and-One is a count that favors no one—a limbo for pitcher and batter. An errant pitch would send the count to Two-and-One, a hitter’s count; a strike would put the pitcher in command. The pitch required finesse—tempting the batter to swing, but not offering too much.
“More careers have been ruined on One-and-One than any other count.”
Will’s attitude bothered him. He belonged to the fraternity of pitchers, transcending team loyalty. There was a tinge of sympathy for the opposing hurler, who faced loaded bases and a strong hitter. Will had been there before. Before he could reason the conflict away, the telling pitch was in progress, spinning its way to the plate. Stone swung; a full, powerful turn on a hanging curve. The ball burned its way down the line. The Third Baseman stretched and dove for the ball; knocked the missile down. He pounced on the ball and jumped up with it, but had no play. A run scored.
Far away in the bullpen Clem and Will watched the play unfold. They jumped up and cheered like Little-Leaguers. They looked at one another in surprise at the other’s glee. It was a scene repeated more than a thousand times in their experiences. It should have been too stale to induce such spontaneity, but somehow it did. Each grinned at the man beside him, accepting the other’s silly display as part of the game.
In fact, it was a disappointment for all. The opposing pitcher failed to get Stone out, but the heroics of his fielder limited the damage to single run. The third baseman made a sparkling play, but had no putout to show for it. Stone had a single and an RBI, but it should have been a double and at least two RBI’s. The umpire called time and Will started thinking again.
“Life is full of singles that should have been doubles. It’s always that way; it’s how things get done. I wouldn’t have thought so as a young man, but I’m older now.”
All eyes shifted to Markham, the rookie cleanup hitter. He was a phenom, called up from Rochester in June. A strong, sturdy young man, he wasn’t far removed from the farm. His forearms stored thunder and lightning that he loosed on hapless fastballs. When he connected there was a special sound—disheartening to a careless pitcher, guilty of grooving a fastball to a fastball hitter. Of course, Markham could look bad on a curveball thrown at the prefect moment, or a slider that looked like a fastball as it left the pitcher’s hand—if the pitcher had the guile to throw one.
Will and Clem pressed against the fence to watch the young Atlas take his swings with the bases loaded. A big hit would change the entire game. Jensen could nurse a lead like no one else. If the lead was big enough it would enable Will to stand down for the night and rest his tired arm. Markham worked the count to two and one—a hitter’s count. The pitcher would want to avoid going Three-and-One. He had to put one over the plate. Will nudged Clem.
“He’s sitting on a fastball. I can see it from here, just the way he’s standing at the plate.”
The men on base led off, expecting a mighty swing. The pitcher toed the rubber and squinted to pick up the catcher’s sign. A nod, and he straightened up, stretched, and the crucial pitch sped on its way. It was a fastball—letter high; Markham saw it. He strode into the pitch, unleashed his hungry forearms through the path of the ball, rotated his hips through the swing for full power. The bat whistled through the plane of the ball, making contact. As Markham followed through his swing he turned his head to pick up the ball in flight in Right Field, to gauge if he should begin his home run trot or hustle for a double.
Will and Clem shook their heads as the outfielder settled under the arc of flight in shallow Left. Markham’s mighty swing had nearly been a whiff. The pitcher had fooled him with a fastball off the plate. An opportunity was wasted and Markham threw his bat in disgust and yelled an expletive when he realized what happened.
“I think he’s disappointed,” Clem declared before sending a spurt of tobacco juice to the gravel on the warning track.
“He sure likes to let everyone know what he's thinking,” Will observed with a smirk. “Do you think he’d want to play poker tonight?”
Will and Clem watched Jensen sit on his three run lead through the second and third. He still hadn’t found his slider. Will knew that it was a matter of time before starving bats started feasting on Larry’s predictable fastballs. A good team would have already figured it out; Kansas City was in the bottom half of the division, and that provided some leeway. He had to admire Jensen’s relying on guile with no slider.
“Larry always is after glory—guts and glitz. He could never be a reliever. I gave up glory long ago. I’m happy just to do my job.”
They still led three-zero in the bottom of the fourth. The leadoff batter worked the count to two balls and a strike. Jensen looked in; the catcher gave the signal—no margin for nibbling. He put down a single finger—fastball—and in a moment it was on its way.
“Ouch! That’s a double,” Will declared.
He saw the ball rocketing toward them before they heard it impacting the bat. The ball sliced into right field and bounced once before hitting the fence.
“That guy was right on top of that one.”
“It’s suicide to get to Two-and-One if you haven’t got your slider,” Clem agreed.
Jensen walked the next batter and the bullpen phone rang.
“Skipper says to get up,” Clem yelled over to Will.
Rodriguez trotted behind the plate as Will took possession of the warm-up mound. He threw easy at first. He knew it wouldn’t take long to get loose in the hot evening. For a change, he was grateful for the heat as it bounced off the ground at him. With each motion he felt his muscles loosen a little more. He threw only fastballs at first. He searched for a good rhythm. It was what he had done a thousand nights in Kansas City and Anaheim, Texas and Chicago. He barely noticed when Jensen got the first out on an infield pop-up. He paid no attention to a fan yelling from the bleachers at him.
“Daggett, go home—you’re too old.”
He fired at the catcher harder in more rapid succession. A sheen of sweat spread its way over his face. All was as it should have been.
“I feel good. My arm is tired, but I’m in a groove and I’ll go as long as I can. I won’t lie down.”
“How’re ya feelin’?” Clem asked.
“I’m good—I’m loose,” Will replied.
“Let’s see it,” Clem demanded.
“Moment of truth!”
He nodded at Clem. He changed his grip on the ball, fingers together. His index finger was exactly in the center between the seams; the middle finger rode the outside seam. He turned his hand so that the fingers were aside, instead of atop the ball. It was a slider; he let one fly. The ball started out hard like a fastball, but then had a sharp break to the right just as it crossed the plate.
“Almost, but not quite, Clem. I’ll try another one.”
The throw back from Enrique popped into Will’s glove.
“Loosen the top finger a little; give it some more pressure with the middle finger, Will.”
Will followed Clem’s instructions and launched a new pitch. It screamed out of his hand and broke hard at the plate. Rodriguez grinned and nodded approval. Will knew it already. It felt good.
“I’m gonna throw three more. If they’re right, I’ll be ready,” Will told them.
In the meantime, Jensen got his second out on a lazy grounder, the runners moved up to second and third. Will threw the three pitches and finished off with a curve.
“Tell ‘em I’m ready, Clem.”
The coach punched the dugout number on the phone.
“They said to stay loose. They want to see if Jensen can pull it out.”
“I’m ready now!” Will insisted. “Why’d they get me up if they weren’t gonna use me?”
“Keep yer shirt on!” Clem scolded the now-young stud. “Just be ready if you get the call.”
Will stood down as ordered. At that moment a roar crescendoed from the crowd. The game was tied; Jensen had given up his lead. The ball landed with a telltale thud in the bullpen confirming what they already knew. The younger pitchers scrambled to get out of the way.
“One hangin’ slider too many,” Clem said, shaking his head. They watched the Manager stride nervously to the mound to talk with Jensen. The infielders formed a cocoon around them. Will stabbed at the dirt with the toe of his cleats, expecting Curtis to tap his left arm. The assemblage of players on the mound continued to huddle together and Will knew that there would be no call. Finally, the umpire ambled from behind the plate to the mound to break up the convention.
“Well, I’m warmed up,” Will reminded Clem with a sigh as he retook his seat next to him.
The home run had emptied the bases. Jensen got the third out on a sharp grounder, one pitch too late.
“Who’s umpin’ behind the plate?” Will asked.
“Mongelli,” Clem replied.
“He’s good,” Will observed. “If you establish a slider in the zone first, he’ll expand it a little outside the corners after that.”
“I wish that Jensen had known that,” Clem retorted.
“He won’t call a low strike, though,” Will continued, “just hafta’ move that slider a little off the corner.”
“It’s always the slider. A man could pitch in this league forever if only he never lost his slider. I’ve got mine tonight. I can feel it.”
“I hope I don’t lose my slider with this warming up and then sittin’ down again.”
“It wouldn’t be the way I would run things, Will, but I ain’t runnin’ things.”
Clem lofted a shot of tobacco juice to the outfield grass. They watched their team go one-two-three in the top of the fifth to leave the score still tied at three.
“That was a pretty short rest for Larry. He has the top of their order to face this inning,” Clem said. “This inning could be a tough one; you’d better be ready.”
Will felt that old growling in the belly. He was breathing a little faster. He wanted to get up and pace around the bullpen, but didn’t dare let anyone see him look nervous.
“Relax!” he told himself. “You’ve done this hundreds of times.”
He ignored his own advice, just as he did every time.
“I hope I haven’t lost my slider after bein’ up and then sittin’ down,” he repeated to Clem, hinting for reassurance.
In truth, Will would never want to lose the feeling he had at that moment. The little dancing feet in his belly were old friends who visited at such times. They came to announce that he was ready for something special to happen. He felt the little guests at every important event in his life, like when he got married and at the birth of each of his children. There was the time when he signed his first big league contract. At his advanced age, the rumblings should have been milder and less frequent, but he felt them more often. They were there each time he made love to his wife, or saw one of his kids in a school play. They came calling in every close game that he played in. He knew why.
“Every man gets a certain number of chances. I won’t waste a one—not anymore—the pile of chips is closer to the bottom than the top.”
He glanced at the bevy of younger players watching the game, knowing that in their youth, they couldn’t understand the wisdom that he did—just as he hadn’t understood it when he was young like them.
“I’d tell them, but they’d never listen. Besides, no one ever told me.”
Nature would have to take its course.
“Relax, Will,” Clem soothed. “Just don’t forget to loosen that slider grip some. You’ll be okay.”
Jensen walked the first batter.
“Do ya think I outta’ warm up again?” Will asked.
“You know that they don’t like anyone warmin’ unless they give the word,” Clem answered. He slapped him on the thigh. “I could tell you to stop bein’ nervous, but I tell you that ev’ry time.”
Jensen gave up a double to the next hitter; it was runners on second and third. The bullpen phone rang and Clem answered.
“Will, they want you to warm up again.”
“Tell ‘em I’m ready,” Will shouted. Clem spoke into the phone. Rodriguez hurried behind the bullpen plate.
“They said ‘warm up, anyway’.”
“Tell ‘em I’m warm now. They should bring me in now before Jensen loads ‘em up.”
Baker, the Pitching Coach, ambled to the mound. The catcher and infielders joined again.
“He’s stallin’ for time for me to warm up. For crissake, put me in now, before it’s too late. I am warmed up.”
Will threw a fastball to Rodriguez, and it popped into his mitt. Baker remained on the mound with the players scuffing dirt idly until the umpire broke the meeting up. They retook their places and Jensen prepared to pitch.
He threw a curveball in the dirt. The catcher barely blocked it. Jensen threw a ball outside. The catcher jogged out to the mound. What could he say to the spent pitcher as he struggled for an out? The next pitch was a ball, inside. Jensen shook his head. He walked the batter on the next pitch. The bases were loaded. Curtis jumped out of the dugout. As he walked to the mound he chopped his left forearm with his right hand. It was the call for Will—it was time.
Will was quick through the gate onto the field, on his way to the pitcher’s mound. Wayne Curtis waited, with the catcher and infielders flanking him.
“¡Buena Suerte!” Diaz called out, as Will crossed through Center Field.
Will knew what the Spanish phrase meant—good luck.
“Thanks, I’ll need it,” Will called back to him.
He wondered if Diaz understood the words, or if he thought that Will understood what he said in hailing him as he passed by. Somehow, he was sure that the meaning was imparted because of the communication common to men on a battlefield, or a playing field; in a barracks or a clubhouse. It was a language that transcended mother tongue and age—it was what men needed to create the bond that lies underneath their independent isolation.
As he crossed between Second and First Base he realized that the time for philosophy was over. He glanced at the base runners glaring at him and the hopeful expressions of his teammates assembled on the mound. He strode to the mound holding out his left hand; Curtis dropped the ball in it.
“I’m playin’ the infield in to prevent the run,” Wayne informed him.
Will started to bark back at the Manager, but caught himself in the presence of his fellow players.
“Are you sure about that, Skipper?” he asked. “McGrain’s up next and he could send one out of the park fast. With bases loaded that would mean four runs just like that,” Will argued, snapping his fingers for effect.
“I can count,” Wayne shot back, letting Will know that he didn’t appreciate the advice.
“You wouldn’t concede a run for a double play?” Will suggested in a final effort to convince him. “I know the score’s tied at three apiece, but it’s only the fifth. There’s a long way to go.”
“I already made up my mind,” Curtis spat back. “C’mon, Will! Let’s have some team spirit.”
“Let me get to my warm ups, then,” Will shrugged.
Curtis stalked off the mound and Will started excavating the dirt around the pitching rubber with his cleats. He decided to pitch from the stretch, although he didn’t have to with the bases full. He always did with any runners on base. Younger pitchers might have pitched from a windup. It would enable them to put more power behind their fastballs. Will’s experience taught him a different way. He could hold runners closer from the stretch; he would be less distracted by runners dancing off base as he delivered. It was one of those lessons that he learned over time that the younger pitchers would someday learn—the hard way, like Will learned.
He took his stretch and fired a fastball. It landed with a thud in Fantuzzi’s mitt and the catcher lobbed it back. It was his first warm up; he had seven left.
“What would have been wrong with a double play? Give up one run and get out of the inning.”
Will heaved another fastball. Fantuzzi reached high for it. Will churned up some dirt where his right foot landed on his follow-through.
“McGrain’s so slow we could double him up from left field!”
He threw a fastball at three-quarter speed to test his re-excavated landing area. It was more to his liking.
“But that would be too easy. Now try this one on your jugs gun.”
His anger caused him to throw his next fastball harder. Fantuzzi nodded approval. In the on-deck circle McGrain fidgeted with impatience; he looked hungry and confident. The throwback from the catcher snapped back into Will’s glove.
“I’ll give Mr. McGrain something to think about.”
He threw a fastball as hard as he could, and aimed it high and to the left, where he knew a batter’s head might be. It sailed over Fantuzzi’s glove and bounded to the backstop. He wasn’t sure if McGrain got the message, but Will did notice that he stopped chewing his gum for a few moments.
“Three pitches left. I’ll try my slider.”
Will let the pitch go; it started down the middle, and then broke down and to the right. It was perfect, just like in the bullpen. Will felt relieved and excited at the same time. A slider is an elusive pitch that can come and go. When it’s with a pitcher, he can get anyone out. If it leaves, he’s in trouble.
“A good slider beats team spirit any day of the week. I’ll try another, a little outside.”
He pressed just a little more with his middle finger as he released the ball. The ball started its flight so tempting down the middle and then landed outside the plate in the dirt. Fantuzzi clenched a fist and jabbed the air to let Will know that he liked it.
“Last one—let’s try a curve.”
Will waved his glove at Fantuzzi so that he knew it was coming. He pushed off, reversed the grip, and threw with the pull-down motion that would make the ball tumble over itself on its way to the plate. He felt the stab in his elbow and he knew that he had thrown a good one. The ball floated like a wounded quail, and then dropped to earth as it reached its target. Fantuzzi ran out to the mound with the ball.
“You got your good stuff workin’ tonight, Will.”
“I’m gonna need it, Mike,” Will answered. “McGrain’s at bat and the infield’s in. With his strength, even a grounder could get through.”
“How do you want to handle the signs?” Fantuzzi asked.
“The usual,” Will answered. “One for fastball—two for curve—three for slider.”
“Four fingers down will be the indicator,” the catcher elaborated. “Just don’t call the curve unless I shake you off,” Will instructed. “My elbow can only handle a few of those a night.”
“Gotcha, Will,” Fantuzzi confirmed.
“C’mon, c’mon—play ball,” Mongelli, the umpire, yelled as he strode to the mound.
“I thought he was one of your people, Mike,” Will quipped to Fantuzzi.
“Stop laughing on the mound. TV cameras are on us,” the umpire scolded. “Let’s play ball!”
“Start McGrain off with a slider,” Will called to Fantuzzi as the catcher started trotting back behind the plate.
Fantuzzi pulled down his mask and squatted behind the plate, Mongelli right behind him. Dotrell McGrain looked confident as he stepped into the batter’s box. He was a powerfully built left-handed hitter—perfect in the cleanup role. Will was correct in saying that he was slow afoot. His other talents made up for the deficit in speed. On a better team he would be leading the league in RBI’s. As it was, he had over ninety with a month left in the season. In a smaller park he would have over forty homers. In Kansas City’s generous outfield spaces, he had thirty-three. He was so strong that he could smash a hard grounder through a drawn-in infield. With bases loaded, he was a dangerous hitter, a force to be reckoned with. It was up to Will to do the reckoning.
“He sure looks confident,” Will thought. “He thinks that he’s gonna tear the cover off the ball. He won’t do it on a fastball.”
Fantuzzi flashed the indicator and then the ‘three’—a signal for a slider.
“He’ll take the first pitch no matter where it is.”
Will took his stretch, pushed off the rubber, fired the ball. It was a mediocre slider, at best. It crossed the plate through the outside part of the hitting zone. McGrain watched it pass by without twitching a muscle.
“Steerieeke!” Mongelli yelled out, thrusting his right arm into the air. McGrain didn’t complain and everyone in the ballpark knew it was a strike.
“He sure looks arrogant for bein’ O-and-One. He thinks that was my best slider. I’ll let him try another.”
Fantuzzi called for a fastball. Will shook him off. He called for the slider again and Will nodded. This time Will snapped the pitch harder; the ball tripped off his index finger as it left his hand. McGrain cocked his bat, ready to swing. His giant thighs flexed, starting his stride into the ball. His eyes widened, locking on the flight of the ball. The slider dove and broke sharp, away from the batter. McGrain summoned all his strength as he saw the ball sailing out of his zone. He barely held up his swing.
“Steerieeke!” Mongelli yelled again, punching the air with a right.
The count was O–and-Two. McGrain gave the ump a look of incredulity and with an abrupt turn stepped out of the batter’s box mumbling to himself and shaking his head.
“Good, old Mongelli; he always calls that outside slider.”
The big man returned to the batter’s box, planting one foot, then the other. Will took two steps off the mound and asked for a new ball.
“I’ll let him think on that last slider. No reason to rush this.” Will rubbed up the new ball. “I think it’s time for some team spirit. That should make Curtis happy.”
McGrain replanted himself in the box. He was standing a little closer to the plate than usual, leaning out to guard against another outside slider. His big jaw hung over the plate like a coconut on a palm ready to fall to the ground. Will waited for the sign from Fantuzzi—one for fastball. Will nodded, took his stretch, made a quick check on the runners and fired his fastball, aimed directly for McGrain’s big jaw. For an instant McGrain froze, probably wondering if it was another slider, and then dove backward. The ball sailed over him and into Fantuzzi’s glove. McGrain lay on his back in the dirt. The crown began booing.
“He threw at my head—he threw at my head!” McGrain screamed as he rose off the ground.
He began a half-hearted charge to the mound. Fantuzzi jumped out in front of him. Will stood still on the mound. Kansas City’s manager ran onto the field yelling at the umpire. The first Base Coach helped Fantuzzi hold McGrain back. Mongelli stomped out to the pitcher’s mound.
“This is the only warning you’re going to get,” he yelled at Will through his mask
“It slipped, Paul,” Will pleaded. “You know my fastball isn’t good enough to bean anybody.”
“Your only warning,” Mongelli repeated in a louder voice.
“Mongelli’s never serious unless he takes off his mask.”
By that time Curtis was out of the dugout, too, running to where Mongelli was standing. After the umpire repeated the warning, He glanced at Will.
“Team spirit!” he shouted to the Manager above the din.
The crowd was still booing. The commotion finally subsided; McGrain dusted himself off. Mongelli resumed his place behind the plate yelling, “Play Ball!”
“He knows I won’t come inside after all that. I’ll waste one outside.”
It was a fastball—wide outside. McGrain took it and the count was Two-and-Two. The next pitch was a slider away; McGrain fouled it into the stands. Fantuzzi called for a fastball but Will shook him off and sent another slider that McGrain fouled off. Things were back to normal. Dotrell was leaning over the plate again, guarding against Will’s slider.
“McGrain, you’ll never learn; time to introduce you to Uncle Charlie.”
Fantuzzi called for the slider; but Will shook him off, and the fastball, too. The catcher threw down two fingers and Will nodded. McGrain looked determined and ready. Will took the ball in a curve ball grip. He took his stretch, pushed off and let the pitch fly. Will knew it was a good one as he felt that little pain in his elbow as he pulled down through the pitch and the ball tumbled away spinning head over heel.
Will watched McGrain as he finished his follow-through. The big man’s eyes widened at first as he saw the ball whistling in at his head, the memory of the earlier brushback painted on his face. His knees buckled, ready to go down, but he regained them just in time to wave a weak swing as the ball dove under his bat.
“Steerieeke!” Mongelli yelled.
McGrain slammed his bat into the dirt and spun around, heading for the dugout. He looked over his shoulder at Will with fiery eyes, yelling something that Will couldn’t hear, but could guess what it was. There was one out.
The next batter was a right hander, number five in the lineup. He didn’t possess McGrain’s skills, but he was a rightie and a very good batsman. Will wouldn’t trifle with him.
“Don’t get all worked up just because you fanned McGrain. Bear down on this guy.”
Will looked to the dugout for the sign to back the infield to double play depth. As Will glanced in Curtis looked away and went to the water cooler for a drink.
“I’m on my own—no help from the dugout. I can’t afford to start lyin’ down.”
Fantuzzi jogged out to the mound. “How d’you want to handle this guy?”
“I want to get him to pop up, if I can,” Will replied. “We’ll start him off on the outside corner, then jam ‘im upstairs.”
“What do you want me to call for the first pitch?” Fantuzzi asked.
“Backdoor slider,” Will answered.
Fantuzzi turned to retake his place behind the plate. The ball started outside the left edge of the plate, diving to the right at the last moment. The batter stiffened, hoping for a ball.
“Steerieeke!” Mongelli yelled.
It was O-and-One. The batter stepped out of the box and wore a grimace to show that he didn’t like the call. Fantuzzi put down number one. Will fired a fastball outside for a ball. One-and-One. Fantuzzi put down number one again. Will shook him off and nodded when he got a call for a slider. He started it over the plate this time and the pitch dove toward the batter’s ankles. He swung and fouled the ball off his foot. The batter yelped in pain and hobbled about, waiting for the pain to wear away. One and Two.
“That had to hurt! I think I’ll waste a pitch.”
Fantuzzi called a fastball. Will aimed it high and away. Two-and-Two. The next pitch was another backdoor slider, fouled into the seats. The count held.
“Time for the payoff. He’ll be lookin’ for another slider away.”
Fantuzzi called for a fastball. Will threw it hard. It was belt high and a little inside. The batter swung frantically, struggling to catch up to the pitch.
“Batter’s out—infield fly!” The Second Base Umpire yelled.
The Second Baseman camped under it for several seconds before it landed in his glove. Two away.
“One more to go—stay with it.”
Will wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his jersey. The momentary respite reminded him how hot the Kansas City night was. He glanced at the three base runners in succession. As he made eye contact they turned their faces away, a notable change from their sneers two outs ago. The crowd quieted, sensing an opportunity nearly gone by.
“I’d like to get this guy with just one or two pitches. I’m not sure what I’ve got left.”
Will’s arm had that heavy feeling that told him that he was tired.
“I won’t give in. Bring the next guy on.”
The next batter was the six-spot hitter. It was Julio Mendoza, the catcher. He was a smart player—the catcher is always smart. Fantuzzi called for the slider. Will took his stretch and came set. He pushed off the rubber and swept his arm through the pitching plane. The ball left his fingers and Will knew that it was wrong. He hoped that it would stay outside, or that Mendoza would be taking all the way. It was not to be. Mendoza tucked his elbows into his body and stroked an inside-out swing. The ball screamed over Will’s head.
“Oh, no—it’s a double,” Will sighed to himself. His hopes were dashed. “I almost had it done.”
He hadn’t quite turned to watch the flight of the ball. As he did, a sudden realization gave him hope.
“Wait—he’s out there!”
He lifted his head and saw Diaz on the move—running at top speed to intercept the path of the would-be double. The ball’s spin made it curve away from the pursuer. Out of the corner of his eye will saw the three runners rounding the bases. With two outs, they had started running on contact. Diaz kept sprinting, refusing to give up, even as the ball began to plummet to earth. Will watched the chase; his hopes started fading. Diaz made a final, desperate lunge, stretching to his limit. He fell, rolled over and then bounced up off the ground. His glove arm was raised. The ball sat atop his glove like a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a caramel cone. Three outs.
Will walked from the mound to the dugout congratulating himself and thanking his lucky stars at the same time. The first two outs were textbook. The third out was a three-run double stolen from the batter by the Diaz’ heroics.
“It’s all in the history books now. I’ll sit in the dugout to see if they get anything going this inning and then go in and ice down my elbow.”
He took a cup of water from the cooler. Baker and Curtis fell silent as he passed and pretended to be preoccupied by pitching charts. Will walked to where Orlando Diaz was sitting and slapped him on the thigh.
“Good catch, Orlando!”
The young man looked at Will, half understanding.
Hernandez, an older Hispanic player sat along side Diaz.
“Pepe, can tell him what I said, please?” Will asked.
“El te dijo que fue un agarro bueno,” Hernandez translated.
“Ahh, muchas gracias,” Diaz answered, with a broad smile.
Will gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder.
“Agarro bueno,” Will repeated to himself. “I better remember that. I better tell Jensen, too.”
“Thanks, Pepe,” Will said to his translator as he retook his seat.
Will sipped the cold water and saw Steve Baker coming toward him out of the corner of his eye. Things out on the field didn’t look promising. There were two outs already.
“Skipper wants you to pitch the sixth.”
“I can’t, Steve. My arm feels like it’s gonna fall off. I pitched last night, too—and two innings the night before that.”
“We’ll give you a day off tomorrow, Will. No one’s warmin’ up. Don’t lie down on us.”
Will took a look out past Right Field. He saw Clem parked on the bench, next to an empty spot where he had been a half hour ago. It was true; no one was warming up. Will looked at Baker and gave a lethargic shrug. Baker turned and began to walk away. He spun around after he had taken a few steps.
“It’ll be no problem, Will. They’ve got seven—eight—and nine coming up this inning. Carstairs will take the seventh.”
“I gave ‘em a good inning—it took all I had. I don’t know what they think I can do, but I’ve never lied down—not once —and I won’t now.”
“I’ll use the fastball more this inning,” Will said to Fantuzzi as they took the field to start the sixth. They’ll be camping on the slider, and that line drive that Diaz caught was a close call.”
“Do you want to use any breaking pitches at all?” Fantuzzi asked.
“Just to keep ‘em honest.”
The bottom third of the batting order was reserved for the weaker hitters in the lineup, but all the players earned their way onto a big league roster. The term ‘poor hitter’ in the major leagues was a relative term. Some were older players whose bats had lost an inking of speed. Better to offer them some well-placed fastballs than attempt to finesse sliders with a tired arm.
“Just don’t let your fastball get up,” Fantuzzi warned. “I know you’re arm-weary.”
“Tell that to Baker,” Will answered.
The first batter was a right-hander, and went down easily. Will guessed that he expected a slider on the outside corner. On the first pitch Will rode a fastball in on the batter’s hands—letter high. The batter swung hard; trying to catch up to the unexpected speed. The ball struck the bat near the handle, lofting a high pop-up to shallow Center Field. Diaz made the easy catch.
“Thank you. I always enjoy getting the first out on the economy plan.”
Getting the next hitter out was more difficult. It was Glen Downey, a veteran. There had been a time when he would be hitting in the three, four or five spot. He was approaching his fortieth birthday, glad to be hanging on to an eight-spot in the lineup by his fingernails. Will never played on the same team with him, so he didn’t know him very well. They had faced each other at least a hundred times over the years.
“His bat might have slowed down, but he’s still as smart as he always was. I’ve got to be careful.”
Downey finally did surrender an out, but not before using up ten of Will’s pitches and a full count. After four straight foul balls he hit a sharp grounder to the First Baseman, Markham, who bobbled the fielding try. A faster runner might have beat Markham to the bag. There were two outs. Fantuzzi came jogging out to the mound.
“I don’t know anything about this next guy,” he said. “He’s their new Shortstop. I think they just brought him up from Topeka,” someone behind Will said.
The infielders had joined them on the mound.
“Look at him,” Will pointed out. “He looks young enough to be in High School.”
“How d’ya wanna pitch him?” Fantuzzi asked.
“Breaking stuff,” Will answered. “Young guys are always lookin’ for fastballs. I’ll start off with a fastball out of the zone, then it’ll be breaking stuff after that.”
He looked around at the assembled infield, finally stopping at the young First Baseman, Markham, who had an empty expression.
“Everyone look alive—okay?”
He paused until the youthful hulk nodded that he understood.
Will turned his attention to the willowy batsman and started him with a fastball away. Ball one.
“I was hoping that he’d bite on that one. I think he almost did.”
Fantuzzi called for a slider down and in. The rookie laid off again. Ball two.
“C’mon—just one more out. At Two-and-O he’ll be takin’ again.”
Will was right. He hung a slider over the plate, but the rookie let it go by, too. Two-and-One. Will shook Fantuzzi off when he called for the slider again, and another time when he signaled the curve. The catcher called time and trotted out to the mound.
“I thought that you said ‘no fastballs’.”
“I’ve got to make him swing at somethin’,” Will explained. “I don’t want to go Three-and-One.”
“You got it,” Fantuzzi shrugged. “Keep it down.”
As Fantuzzi walked back to his place behind the plate, Will stretched his tired body. He begged his muscles not to surrender. He took his windup and delivered the pitch, throwing hard, spending the last energy he had in him.
“Perfect! Outside corner at the knees.”
The batsman let the ball whistle past him. Will waited for the umpire to bellow out the strike call—music to his ears. At Two-and-Two he would be in charge of the young man once again. Will waited for the call—and waited. He knew it had to be a strike. The ball was on its way back to him from Fantuzzi and still no call. As the throw snapped back into Will’s glove he knew it was a ball. Three-and-One.
“That pitch was perfect—right at the knees. This kid’s lookin’ for a walk. I’ll throw a backdoor slider.”
A moment later the ump rewarded Will with a called Strike Two.
“One more pitch; what’ll it be. He think’s the slider’s comin’ again. I’ll give him a curve.”
Will shook Fantuzzi off until he got a two. He took a deep breath and started his windup. The ball rolled off his index finger as he pulled his arm down through the pitch. Will watched the young rookie in slow motion. He thought that the young man had a smug look on his face as he started following the spinning ball on its path over the plate. He began to stride into the ball, arms coming forward. Smugness changed to panic as the ball failed to appear as it should have on a slider. The batter tried to hold up. It was too late. He waved the bat weakly as the ball dove under the assumed trajectory. He was lucky to make contact with it. He slapped it in front of the plate and the ball bounded to the First Baseman, an easy play.
“Got to cover First—get over there quick—damn, this guy is fast!”
As Will sprinted to the bag he saw Markham give ground to the high-bounding ball. It evaded his glove; he struggled to find the handle as Will raced with the speedy rookie toward the base.
“C’mon—get me the ball, Markham! Hurry, this guy’s fast. Let’s go—dammit—gimme a hard throw.”
The clumsy First Baseman lobbed a weak throw at Will’s feet. He stretched to catch it on the run.
“Finally! I think we’ve got him—last out—Ugggh!
At the moment Will expected the ball to pop into his glove he felt a piercing pain on the back of his heel and then he sprawled forward. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the ball bound away from him into foul territory. Fantuzzi was chasing it. The young shortstop was tumbling to the ground, as well. Will was prone on the infield; dirt filled his nostrils; the line of chalk inches from his face.
“It looks like four, maybe five stitches, Will,” the trainer told him in the clubhouse where they took him while the game went on.
“How long will I be out of action?”
“That’s not the worst of it, Will. I’m no doctor—and we need x-rays to confirm it. I’d have to say…”
“It’s the Achilles, isn’t it?”
“Could be,” the trainer said as he finished the temporary bandage. Will winced in pain as the tape was snugged tight.
“That would certainly be the end of the year for you.”
“Not just the year,” Will added. “I’ll pack it in. The rehab won’t be worth it. Who knows if I’ll have anything left a year from now. When a player gets to be my age, he has to be ready for the end at any time.”
He sat on the training table, not daring to move the painful limb. He watched the game on the clubhouse TV. Carstairs cleaned up the sixth for him and allowed a run in the seventh. Roberts pitched the eight and ninth and got the win. It was Markham’s homer that won the game.
The players swarmed back to the locker room, noisy in victory. Markham saw Will sitting bandaged on the trainer’s table. He became quiet, stood motionless, a glum look on his face. Will saw him.
“Go on—shower up!” Will yelled to the repentant rookie.
Diaz approached. He shrugged, as if to say, ‘what can I do about it?’ Will slapped him on the shoulder in acknowledgment. From the opposite end of the clubhouse he heard Wayne Curtis taking to Steve Baker.
“Call Rochester and see who’s ready to be called up to take Daggett’s place. Get a leftie if you can.”
“Good old Team Spirit,” Will thought as he listened to his manager consign him to yesterday's news.
Larry Jensen sidled over, an ice pack taped to his right shoulder.
“I’ve got just two things to say,” he said.
“Oh, yeah—what’s that?” Will asked.
“First of all—good pitchin’! Thanks for getting’ me off the hook. You really won the game by stoppin’ ‘em in the fifth. You won’t hear Wayne say so, but it’s true.”
“What does Wayne know, anyway? At my age I should know whether I did my job or not—and I’m satisfied.”
“Sounds about right,” Jensen agreed.
“What else, Larry?”
“We need to know where you put the key to your hotel room so we can get the poker game started.”
The Trainer interrupted.
“They want to take you to the hospital for x-rays now, Will.”
He and Clem helped Will hop on his good foot to the waiting ambulance. “It’s in that little kit in my locker with my shaving stuff—and don’t make a mess in the room!” he yelled over his shoulder. Will struggled to pull himself up and in. An attendant was waiting for him next to a gurney and helped him climb up.
“Please just lie down here, Mr. Daggett.”
“Mister Daggett!” Will exclaimed. “Now I’m sure I’m too old to play the game.”
Will settled back as requested and eased down on the gurney.
“It’s the first time I ever lied down. I’m ready to go.”
Dear Readers, Thank you for reading "Middle Innings". I hope you enjoyed it. I am always interested to know your comments and questions about the story.
Good reading and best regards,