Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer
When we were 12 and got banged up playing baseball, we rubbed dirt on ourselves and kept going. But now it's not the same. These kids don't want to play hurt. They whine, and the scrubs on my team spit sunflower seeds all over the dugout, and now my best player Jackson Irving will be out for the championship game because of a stinking twisted ankle he simply needs to walk off, but he won't walk it off because his father, Mr. Floor Salesman, told me, "It hurts too much," and I'll bet he's behind it all—this fake twisted ankle—just because I batted Jackson fifth behind Corey in the last playoff game, instead of fourth, as usual.
Little does Mr. Floor Man know, Corey is a situational hitter, and Jackson is a streak hitter who gets jittery when runners on base ahead of him try to steal, so he knows squat about batting orders and matchups, just as he knows squat about selling floors—or keeping saliva in his mouth, for that matter, because he spit in my face yesterday, "accidentally," when Jean and I went to his store looking for new laminate for the upstairs.
"Sorry, my son can't make the championship," he said. "He twisted his ankle." And his spit shot right at my eye at the word "twisted." Good luck selling floors after spitting at your customers, pal.
Yesterday was only two days after I switched the batting order, and then this happened. What a coincidence. His spit-dot flew too fast for me to dodge, and it just missed my eyeball and landed on my eye-socket bone. He knew he did it, too.
When I batted his precious Jackson fifth, he stood way out in the right field corner watching the game by himself. He leaned against the fence and dug at the ground with his foot during the entire first inning, and he turned away when Corey left Jackson on deck after making the third out on a grounder, which shouldn't have been an out anyway because that bum Covington didn't get his fat rump out from behind home plate to make the right call. The bastard.
Anyway, there is no shot for us to win the championship with Jackson out of the lineup, especially now that I have to start two 11-year-olds in the outfield. I'm short-handed, and everybody else moves up in the order. David the strikeout specialist has to bat fifth now, and the 11-year-olds have to bat eighth and ninth. Two automatic whiffs.
I waited a year to get back to the big game, all set to win my second consecutive championship and third overall, and now I have to play two scrubs full games in the damn championship. This summer all they ever did while sitting on the bench was spit sunflower seeds all over the dugout and look depressed because they weren't playing when they should have been trying to earn more playing time.
Anyway, whatever happens in this game, my record still speaks for itself. If I calm myself and take out my notebook and really look at it, my record is as good or better than a lot of the bums who have managed major league teams, even compared to a Hall of Famer like Earl Weaver.
Me: .622 winning percentage, 2 championships.
Earl Weaver: .583 Winning percentage, 1 championship.
So I'm not doing half-bad, if I really take a look at the big picture and realize the crappy luck I've had, like when Covington blew that call in the championship in 2012. Said my guy was out at first when he clearly beat the shortstop's throw. The bastard. How can an ump make a proper call at first base when he keeps his fat derriere behind the plate and doesn't even run out to get an angle? I've been talking about this for years, but people just shrug about that lazy bastard. Twice this season alone he botched calls at first base, and during the first playoff game, I finally had enough and yelled out to him, "Come on out on the grass. How can you even see around yourself?"
"Worry about your team," he hollered back, without taking off his mask, and I turned around and laughed and paced the dugout. My players were quiet. They knew I was right, and I think it got the team going, too. We rallied and took the lead after that, and near the end of the game, after Blue smashed a double, clearing the bases, I yelled out to Covington, "You can't call that one an out, can you?" He had no comeback.
When I was a kid, I played at the same field my guys play on, but back in those days, getting yelled at was normal. My dad yelled at me during the games and didn't wait for the coach to correct me. One time he hollered I was running like a sissy Mary because I was almost out at first on a slow ground ball. Well, that made me so mad I couldn't think straight, so on the next pitch I took off for second. The catcher's throw bounced in the dirt and dribbled past the shortstop as I was sliding, but I was still so nervous and crazy, I popped up and kept running for third base. As I slid into the bag, the throw bounced off my shoulder, and I popped upright again and tore for home. The throw from third base came in high, and I slid under the catcher's tag. When I got back to the dugout, the coach crabbed at me, and my father looked out at the parking lot and shook his head.
A couple of years after that, I was in the senior league championship game. This was the summer after I finished seventh grade. I was a really good pitcher. Hummed it right in there. Struck out a lot of guys and even pitched a no-hitter once. Well, in the championship I faced another pitcher who was pretty good—Boswell I think his name was. He was all right but not as fast as me, and I got a couple of hits off him in that game. Still, the score was tied at zero in the last inning. Well, he came up with two outs and no one on base, and he finally got a hit off me, a ground single into left field, but then the ball went right through Bobby Gutman's legs and all the way to the corn field. Boswell rounded the bases, and his team went nuts because they'd just won the championship. Later my father asked me why the hell I pitched Boswell inside when I knew Gutman couldn't field to save his life, which is why he was out in left field in the first place.
My coach had no better place to put Gutman though, because if a guy can't field, he plays in the outfield, where he can do the least damage. If he can't hit the ball to the outfield, then he rides the bench, except for nowadays, with that stupid new "two innings in the field / one at bat" minimum rule, which is supposed to keep the parents from squawking. My 11-year-olds can't hit or field. Can't run for anything, either. But in two days, I have to play them both—one in right field and one in left. Bad enough having to play one sunflower seed spitter, even for part of a game, but now I have to play both for the full championship.
Anyway, back then we didn't have these crazy rules about playing time. If you were good, you played. If you sucked, you didn't play, and then maybe your mom could find something else for you to do. Parents weren't up the coaches' butts looking for playing time for their sucky sons. That's how it was, and everyone accepted it.
This afternoon, one day before the championship, I was forced to go back to that floor store with Jean to try squeezing a better price out of Irving. In the morning, though, I somehow burned my pinky making a grilled cheese sandwich for Corey because when I pressed my hand onto the sandwich to smash it down a little, it slipped and my pinky came down flush into the buttery bottom of the pan. My hand shot up out of reflex, and the pan and the sandwich flew off the stove and onto the floor, scaring the hell out of Corey and Jean. I ran my finger under cold water, but Jean hurried upstairs and came down with some brown, goopy medicine her grandfather had made from plants about a hundred years ago. So she spread the medicine on, insisting I walk around for two days with a brown, goopy pinky.
"I can't coach a majors championship game tomorrow with brown stuff on my finger," I told her.
"It's fine, nobody cares," she said.
But then at Home Depot, while we were trying to get a better deal for a floor than that bastard spitter Irving was offering, their floor guy glanced, just for a second, at my brown pinky while I questioned him about plank thickness. In fact, he was so wrapped up in my finger, he forgot what my question was, and as I repeated myself he glanced down at it again, so I walked away, Jean trailing after me.
"That was a better price," she said. "What's wrong?"
"When someone keeps looking at my pinky and making me repeat myself, then I'm gone."
So we left, and back at Irving's store I took out my contacts and put my glasses on before we went inside.
"No one spits in my eye twice," I explained to Jean, and she groaned.
Still, we pretty much got the deal we wanted on the floor, and Irving didn't spit in my eye again. Even so, I stood away from him and kept my lips shut tight so he wouldn't spit in my mouth. It was a victory for me, and maybe a good sign for the championship. If my everyday life strategies worked, I thought, then maybe my baseball moves would work, too.
Later though, while driving home, I scratched an itch near my eye with my brown goopy pinky.
"Crap, I just touched my eye."
"Oh, you can't do that," Jean said, which made me nervous, so I blew past the light just as it was changing to red and went completely through the red light at Walgreens, where I parked and ran inside and asked if I could use the bathroom. The girl working there said, "Employees only, sorry."
Jean caught up with me inside and tried to turn me around. "I think it's dried, so it can't do any harm."
"But I touched my eye, and my tear ducts are wet, so wouldn't that make the brown stuff wet, too?"
Then I caught the girl staring at my pinky. She'd been standing there the whole time like a nosy body, so I hurried Jean out the door.
At home, I ran my eye under the sink for a long time and washed the brown goop off my pinky.
"You should have left it on," Jean sighed. "That medicine always works, especially for burns."
"That's all I need, to coach a championship game with a blind eye and brown goop on my finger."
"You're fine," she said. "Anyway, if it was going to blind you, it would have happened already."
Near the majors Little League field, there are other minor league fields with only dirt infields, no grass. This afternoon, my pinky throbbing a little, I took a drive through town and passed one of the dirt fields on Pulaski Road, and I saw O'Donnell's team practicing, the championship only hours away. I turned the car around in a driveway and circled back, parking far enough under a tree so I could watch. O'Donnell was drilling his players on how to make relay throws from the outfield. He threw a ball against the outfield fence, and each kid had to take turns picking it up and throwing it to an infielder acting as the cut-off man. Then the infielder had to throw it all the way to third base or home.
O'Donnell spent 15 or 20 minutes on this drill, and he even stopped everything at one point to show them the throw had to be on the cut-off man's glove side, which is an obvious and useless thing to be practicing with a championship game the same day. And that's all they worked on—what to do in case a ball went all the way to the fence. That's like planning to lose. I laughed all the way home.
O'Donnell has had a losing record every year he's coached, including this year, until his team got lucky in the playoffs. It's like he'd rather his team lose or something. He holds up games by teaching stupid little details, explaining to his players what they should have known or worked on in practice. Pain in the neck to coach against him. Plus, he's a phony bastard sometimes. He says, "All right, good call," to an ump, even if the call goes against his own team, and he'll say "Good play," to someone on the other team, too. Fat chance he butters up my team that way, and Covington better not do anything but call the game straight or he'll hear it from me. I'm no O'Donnell who will say, "Okay, good call, ump."
When O'Donnell's players scattered to their parents' cars at the end of practice, I took off for home. Jean told me my throbbing pinky meant the medicine was working because it was making the blood circulate.
"That's good," I said. "But I have to put two Band-Aids on it for the game. First pitch is in four hours." I stared at the clock.
"Just leave the medicine alone."
"I need something to cover it."
"It needs air."
I was quiet for a while, sitting there at the kitchen table. "I really don't think the ump will allow it," I said at last.
"Foreign substance on a finger—"
"Covington will have a fit. He already has it in for me."
"Oh, he doesn't care. It's just a game."
"Right," I said, my voice rising as I stomped off to the garage. "It's only the championship game."
With three hours until the first pitch, I watered the always-burnt patch of grass in our front yard, and my old high school coach Mr. Flannery came to mind. Sometimes, when we didn't execute a play well enough during practice, he threw bats at us, or he threw them into the outfield. When I was a sophomore, he gave me hell because without reason, I suddenly had trouble hitting curveballs. To him, I sucked, even though in 8th grade my junior high school coach Mr. Hughes had told me I was talented and had a chance to make the major leagues. But then in high school I had stomach problems and was absent for a while, and when the baseball season started, I couldn't hit a curve ball to save my life. I just barely made the team, and Flannery told me I had to start hitting or be benched. He kicked dirt on me once near the dugout after I struck out on three straight curves. He acted like he'd only kicked dirt in general because we were losing, but the dirt covered me all the way up to my knees. Another time I was at bat, and the catcher and the ump were talking about fishing or something, so after I missed two straight curve balls, I said, "Hey, I'm hitting here."
They were both quiet for a second, and then the catcher said, "Yeah, I guess we better be quiet, he's hitting," and the ump agreed. When I struck out looking at a fastball way outside, I stared down the ump on my way back to the dugout. The bastard. And as I put my bat and helmet away in the dugout, Flannery frowned at me like I was pathetic. Another bastard.
My father was pretty quiet about my ball playing in those days. After I came back to play and couldn't hit curves, it wasn't the same. I'd talk to my dad about my hitting problem, but he didn't say anything except, "Well..." One time I went oh for four, including three strikeouts. By that time Flannery had me hitting 8th, and I said to my dad, "This guy's not giving me a chance to get out of it." I thought he would say something like, "Keep trying, son," or "That coach is a bum," but all he said was "Well..."
As we left the house, Jean didn't wish me and Corey luck. All she said was to keep the brown stuff on my pinky and for Corey to be careful and have fun. Before we reached the car, though, she stopped me.
"Maybe try to relish losing," she said. "Just let it all go and embrace it."
"Are you trying to jinx me with this relish stuff?"
In the car when we were stopped at a red light, I whipped out the two band-aids I'd sneaked out of the medicine cabinet and wound them around my pinky.
"That's all I need, a brown pinky in a big game like this," I told Corey, and a car horn blasted behind me because the light had turned green.
Just before the game started, I told my guys I was proud of all of those who had stuck out the season. I didn't mention Jackson's name or even think of that quitter. Still, I stared at the lineup on the dugout wall, nervous about the two scrubs batting eighth and ninth. Historically, 11-year-olds aren't ready for little league majors pitching, so we were sunk unless Corey and the rest of the guys picked things up.
After four innings, though, it looked like we were going to stomp them anyway. We led 7-3. Their team hit no balls to the scrubs, and Corey was pitching lights out, except for a few errors that let the three runs in. By the end of the fifth inning, I was thinking a third championship might really happen. While my team warmed up in the field, I imagined going back in time and throwing a bat right back at Coach Flannery, then kicking dirt on him up to his waist and asking him how many championships he ever won. Zero, that's how many, I'd tell him. I've won three—three, pal, in nine short years. Maybe I'd even accidentally spit in his eye at the word "pal," and say, Oh, sorry, Coach, that was such an accident. But since it curved on the way to your eye, you should have been able to swat it away. Or maybe you can't hit curves.
O'Donnell's team got a couple of base runners on in the sixth inning. Corey had walked both guys, but I wasn't worried. I still talked to Flannery in my mind: What's the matter, Flannery, can't you hit curving spit?
The bases were loaded then, but there were two outs and one of O'Donnell's many scrubs was coming up. During our annual little league draft, he always picked scrubs, maybe on purpose. He never picked the top guys, even in the first round. Anyway, the next guy was maybe the worst of them. Covington called the first two pitches balls, and Corey looked at me as if to say, "What the heck?" so I screamed at Covington. He ignored me. O'Donnell meanwhile was chattering, "Atta boy, be confident up there, you're a hitter, man, you can do it." He was spitting sunflower seeds, feet planted wide along the third base coaching box. Two pitches later, after ball four, the score was 7-4, and I went out to calm Corey down. The other infielders gathered around me.
"I'm a little tired, Dad," said Corey.
"What do you mean tired? I got no one else here. Jackson's out."
Blue, coming to the mound from first base, said, "I'll pitch. I pitched in the minors last year."
"The minors," I said, and ignored him. "Finish this inning," I told my son. "Reach back. Don't you want this championship?" He looked down and nodded, and I walked back to the dugout.
The next guy up didn't come close to touching Corey's first two fastballs, but O'Donnell was still calling from the third base box, "Atta boy, be a hitter up there. Be confident, son."
"Give it a rest," I muttered, leaning against our dugout fence.
Then on the third pitch, which Corey should have wasted, O'Donnell's scrub connected and sent the ball to the fence on one bounce. He only wound up on second base because he was fat and slow, but he'd cleared the bases and the game was tied. I went out there and took the ball from Corey and switched him with Blue. But I barely made it back to the dugout before Blue threw two wild pitches, scoring the fat kid. It was 8-7, and their side was going nuts. Blue finally got out of it, but suddenly it was our last chance when just minutes before I was thinking of my third championship and spitting in Flannery's eye.
I stared at the lineup card on the wall. Our sixth through eighth hitters were due up, with Blue first, followed by Davidson and the two scrubs. No pinch hitters to use, so we were sunk. As I passed Covington on my way to the third base coaching box, I said to him, "Why did you squeeze my pitcher? Every borderline pitch was a ball, huh?"
"Just coach," he shouted, his mask still on.
The parents watching the game heard his big mouth and got quiet. Then O'Donnell broke the silence by chattering to his fielders, "Be confident, fellas. You can do this, boys."
I stood in the coaching box, arms folded. Blue hit a surprise double down the right field line. The guys in the dugout were getting excited, but I kept my arms folded, maybe to keep the luck going. Next up was the Davidson kid, though, who'd maybe had two hits all year. He hit a dribbler to second and was thrown out. Blue moved to third, but with one out my two scrubs were coming up.
The first scrub whiffed on three pitches, all of them down the middle. He never took the bat off his shoulder. After each pitch, he only looked back with dread at Covington. I didn't say a word. O'Donnell's team pumped their fists and screamed for one more out, while O'Donnell kept up that chatter: "You can do this, boys, be confident out there."
Finally, I said to Blue, "Hey, if the ball gets away from the catcher, just run for home. The heck with it. You have to try." He nodded. "Even if it just dribbles away," I added, as the second scrub came up.
On the very first pitch, though, the kid hit a hard line drive toward left field, and my heart jumped, but the ball sank and their shortstop squeezed it on the run and the game was over. I passed the kid on the way back to the dugout. His head was down, and I wanted to tell him if he'd only taken a couple of pitches then maybe the ball could have gotten away from the catcher, but it was no use telling him that. The season was over.
In the dugout, I ripped the two Band-Aids off my pinky, rubbed off the brown goop, and stayed in the dugout while the teams lined up to shake hands. O'Donnell stopped scrub number two and put his hand on top of his head and talked to him. The kid was crying, so O'Donnell bent over and kept talking, and the kid smiled and wiped his eyes. Then O'Donnell headed my way, and I came out of the dugout.
"Heck of a game," he said to me. "Both teams. Your guys didn't give up. That last guy—good job—he really got a hold of it."
I shook his hand back. "Good game. It was."
"It really was." He smiled and popped some sunflower seeds into his mouth and turned away to shake more hands. I watched him wave to Covington and then gather his team together. Meanwhile, most of my team was already heading off with their parents to the parking lot.
At home in the living room, I finished filling in my record for this year. "Lost Championship," I wrote, and added, "Best hitter quit." I brooded at the word "quit" for a long time. I still heard O'Donnell's chatter and remembered standing in the coaching box in the last inning—man on second, no one out, only one run down—and saying nothing to the last three batters, and then nothing to them after the game. I squeezed my eyes shut, seeing that line drive fall into the shortstop's glove, and the kid crying on the field, and then O'Donnell's hand on top of the kid's head, and the kid breaking into a teary laugh.
Jean came in from outside and scolded me for sulking over a game, for not embracing losing like she told me to, and for not keeping the brown goop on my pinky. She reached for the brown bottle and opened it.
"All right," I said. "I'll keep it on this time."
She spread the stuff all over my pinky. "It's only baseball," she said. "It's not life or death. It really isn't."
"I know," I told her and looked out our living room window. Outside, Corey and Blue were having a catch and laughing like there had never been any championship game at all.
Finished with the goop, Jean hugged my head, and I had to laugh a little. "Maybe you should put some of that stuff on my forehead," I told her, and she looked at me. "Because I'm a real sorehead..."
"Oh, stop." She put the bottle away and stood at the window and watched Corey and Blue having their catch. I stood behind her and watched them, too. I imagined myself out there with them, their age again, maybe. Maybe O'Donnell would be my coach then, instead of Flannery. Maybe in practice, O'Donnell would feed me curve ball after curve ball, one after another, until I got my timing down, until I got the hang of it and started hitting them. He'd say, "Atta boy, I knew you could do it, buddy. There's the confidence, kid." And maybe my stomach wouldn't have ached before and after every game. O'Donnell might laugh and pop a few sunflower seeds into his mouth. And maybe he'd even grip the top of my head and say, "Atta boy," after each big play or small play, and after each small or big game, even when I failed.