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Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Great American Pastime (a short story by David H. Roche)

I wrote this story a few years ago I still think it's a good one.  Enjoy

The Great American Pastime

A short story


David H. Roche

© 2005

How I had managed to bring the team into a tie for first place with the Robots was, in my mind, a miracle in the same class as walking on water.

My kids lacked everything from athletic ability to discipline. There was Kiddle, who couldn't swing the bat without looking like a helicopter taking off. But he had the knack of getting hit by a pitch, and you could almost always count on him getting on base. Shawson, Jayne, Castle and Brown were the big kids. They could hit and field, but were at the age where girls were becoming interesting and sometimes didn't make it to practice. Smith and Dwyer were the team clowns and always had some routine going on between them.

Haines, our only girl, was discovering boys, and vice versa. Girls create special problems too: you can't chew them out the way you do boys. I uncovered that principle when she brought her purse to a game and forgot her glove. She pouted the whole game. But she was a walking rule book and twice had been crucial in winning games by bringing an infraction to the attention of the umpire. 

Burton, our youngest player, was ten years old and the only kid with a new glove. His chief asset was that he was 5'4" and one hundred and eighty pounds. While practically immobile, he was virtually an impregnable barrier. He was our catcher and on the team, mainly, for the reason that his father had donated the money for the uniforms, such as they were. It was hilarious to watch him run. Run is not actually the right word to describe the procedure he used to get to base. He actually waddled. But he waddled fast. 

Castle and Jayne were fifteen, at the age limit for the league, and pretty good, but when the spirit moved them they'd send a younger brother or neighbor to take their place. And so it went. There were ten players to begin with. Now I had nine.

The Robots had complete uniforms, everything from shoes with rubber cleats to names emblazoned across the back of their brilliant orange shirts. My team, the Owls, had faded tan T shirts with the number of choice inked in by hand. Smith and Dwyer chose the same number.

Beating the Robots in this last three game series was going to mean more to me than winning the league championship. There was a rivalry between myself and the Robots manager, Drew Davidson that had nothing to do with baseball. It went back to high school, to girls, to Drew's being on the head of every committee because he came from the east end of town where the doctors and lawyers live. I came from the west end of town where people worked at the Columbian Rope shop or at Singer. He came from money, I came from sweat.

Drew liked to make a display of everything and he made me laugh when, chewing a cud of tobacco, he sauntered to meet me with the umpire, Ray Sheardon, at home plate. He spat, reached to his groin, grabbed his balls and repositioned them, and with self conscious aplomb kicked one shoe against the other to remove some non existent dirt from the cleats. He repeated the process with the other foot and then spat again. 

He droned on, juggling the cud of tobacco with his tongue, as he read the line-up and repeated the ground rules verbatim; though we each knew them by heart. He was a stickler for protocol. While he was rambling on I looked over at the small group of spectators to see if Marilyn, Drew's wife, had come again. She had. She was sitting on the bench with a clipboard in her hand ready to record the stats and keep score. 

I had seen here at the last two games and an old fire had been awakened. The years had done alright by her. She had been cute when she was seventeen, but now. Whew she was hot. Cut off jeans and a T shirt were still perfect for her.

She and I had taken the tumble a few times in high school. And as Drew was droning on it occurred to me that he would never have proposed that the losing manager buy drinks after the last game if he knew that. I caught her eye and waved. She waved back. There's nothing like the light in an old loves eye to bring the passion back. While Drew was continuing his monologue I was thinking of the time she had won the wet Tee shirt contest at one of the graduation parties. Her name then was Marilyn Dobriqui. She'd come from the west end of town too, but being sexually active gave her a transfer to the other side of the tracks. 

The monologue finally came to an end and I looked back to Drew. He was glaring at Marilyn. "Looks like you're a little short handed." His voice contained traces of irritation that had nothing to do with baseball. He nodded toward my bench and continued his now familiar routine of pulling at his balls, spitting a stream of tobacco juice and kicking imaginary clumps of dirt from his cleats. 

"Yeah we've got eight. Brown had a fight with his girl friend and hasn't got here yet. Shawson said he'll make it. But we're ready to beat your ass whether or not he comes."

"The hell you will. The rules say nine players on the field per team. If you don't have nine there isn't going to be any game and we win by default."

"What the hell are you talking about? This is the last game."

We're talking about the rules. Baseball rules." 

I detected a motivation a little greater than baseball orthodoxy in his voice as I saw him glancing back and forth between Marilyn and me. "I can't believe you're pulling that nine player rule. Nobody pulls that. This is a fucking kid's game. Just give me a half an hour. I'll have him here."

Drew glanced toward Sheardon, who nodded. Then he looked at me: "A half an hour and that's it. And watch your god damned language there's kids her."

"Asshole", I said just loud enough for him to hear as I walked back to the bench.

I went to Brown's house. Ten minutes later I was knocking at the door. 

"Yes," Mrs. Brown answered apprehensively talking through the screen without opening the door.

"Jimmy Home?" I asked.

"He ain't done nothing," She replied.

"Mrs. Brown I'm not with the police. I'm his coach. He's supposed to be playing ball right now. It's the most important game of the season and if he doesn't show up we're going to lose by default."

She looked relieved. "I was sure you was with the police. He had a fight with his girl friend and was out all night. Sometimes he does crazy things when he gets hissself upset. I'll git him up."

"Hurry. I've got fifteen minutes or we lose the game."

"I'll git him, I'll git him." Mrs. Brown, who could have been the model for Aunt Jemima pancakes, ambled like an indolent hippo into another room and came back in less than a minute pushing Jimmy in front of her. "It's your coach, not git yourself out of here or it's your fault you gonna lose that game."

Jimmy wiped his eyes and stumbled to the refrigerator and gulped milk from the carton, wiped his chin with his T shirt and ran out to the car where I was drumming on the steering wheel.

Arriving on the trot and out of breath I saw Drew talking animatedly with Sheardon and pointing between his watch and the Owls bench. Jimmy joined the team, and I went over to where Drew and Sheardon were talking. I was still pissed at his insistence on the nine player rule, shit it was to his advantage. But he always was a prick. "Looks like you're going to have to beat us now. Got number nine on the bench." I pointed to Brown. 

Drew grabbed his crotch again and spat a stream of brown juice at least ten feet down the first base line and said, "Alright, let's play ball. It's late." He turned around quickly without looking me in the eye. As he spun around his cleats dug into the ground and he tripped over his own ankle and sprawled face first onto the ground. He jumped up immediately and walked quickly back to the bench despite a newly acquired limp.

I couldn't help but laugh. When I got back to the bench I found everyone but Haines grinning and pointing in the direction of the Robots bench. I looked to see what was up. There it was. Marilyn was bent over inspecting her husband's ankle. Her perfectly round ass stuck up in the air and outlined delightfully in her faded denim cut offs. It made me remember the night I spent with her at a friends summer camp when she had banged that exquisite ass up and down with wild abandon all night long. Her shape was still perfect, even more so now and her legs had that sleekness that comes with a perfected maturity. The years had not been bad to her at all.

I reluctantly turned my attention to the team. "Okay guys. Let's cut out the sight seeing. They're up first, keep them from scoring."

That was easier said than done. The Robots scored three runs in the first inning, two of them with two outs. 

In our first at bat the Owls left the bases loaded when Kiddle got hit by a pitch and the umpire ruled that he had intentionally interfered with the pitch. So instead of the score being three to one, or better, it was three to zip. I was getting the feeling that this was going to be a long game.

In the next inning the Robots were scoreless. In the bottom of the second Davidson tried having Smith called out for batting out of order. Smith quickly pointed out that he and Dwyer had the same number. Davidson fumed over that, but since there was no rule concerning it, Smith batted. This was nothing new for Davidson. He had demanded proof of age for Shawson, a six foot four inch string bean of a fifteen year old that the NBA would have liked to clone. We had to delay the start of that game when I had to drive Shawson to his house to get his birth certificate. He was just being a jerk and he excelled at it.

In the third inning the Robots went three up and three down. The owls scored one run and left three on in their half of the inning. So it was three to one. It wasn't that we weren't playing up to snuff we were playing better than average. The Robots were just a tough team. I hated to admit it but Davidson was a good coach. He used his well honed managerial skill that he put to work in his robotics design company to bring the team to as high a degree of perfection as possible. He got them to practice, and had them on a very strict program. He wouldn't hesitate to suspend a player for a slight infraction. His system worked, but he was still as big a prick as he was when he was younger.

I didn't think of discipline as part of my duties. It wouldn't have worked anyhow, my kids were free spirits. My duties as I defined them were those of a tactician and strategist. I took the game the way it came at me and told my kids to do what they could with it. What was coming at us today was the pay off to the Robots trips to the batting cage. Davidson had shelled out $20 a night, three nights a week to polish up the Robots batting skills. I couldn't afford such a luxury. Besides I couldn't get my team together one night a week let alone three nights. So I just let them play and they played to the best of their ability. And it worked. The best they had to offer came out in their game and it had brought us to a tie for first place.

Now here we were in the last game and we were down by two runs going into the fourth inning. What's running through my mind is whether or not I'm going to have to spend my grocery money for the week on beer for Davidson.

I looked over my players. Brown was unusually quiet. He had girl problems and hadn't gotten a hit, but his glove was working. Smith and Dwyer had their dialogue going and managed to keep base runners distracted enough to cause a couple of pick-offs. Davidson complained to Sheardon about their chatter, but there was no rule against it and they kept right on. The problem now was that the Robots got two men on before we managed to finally get one of them out.

I knew we had to do something and I called a time out for a team conference. "Okay guys". Haines cleared her throat loudly. "And girls," I mumbled. "Alright now those two runs they have don't bother us do they?"

Murmurs came back from the circle of perspiration stained faces. "It's those two runs out there on base that have us up against the wall. We're going to have to pull a little hanky panky on them. Are you up to it?" The ring of faces smiled in assent to the conspiracy. They had managed to win the second game by a little unorthodox artistry. Haines had pulled the hidden ball trick and gotten an unsuspecting Robot base runner out stopping a Robot attack in its tracks.

They listened as I told them what I wanted them to do. "We need a pop fly in the infield and you're going to have to be alert. Now they're just as intense as on this game as we are, but we're loose and they're tight. We've got two outs right?" Half the team responded "yes" and the rest hesitantly said "one" or "I don't know". 

That's what I mean. There's one out. I'm betting they aren't going to be sure either when we pull this on them. And if they are sure, we're going to make them unsure. We've got to get two outs and those base runners and we haven't turned a double play all day. We are going to have to create an uncertainty in them if they are not uncertain. We need these two outs now because if we don't get them we are going to have to pitch to Baxter and Grey." A collective "Oh no", came from the circle of faces. Baxter and Gray was the league equivalent of Ruth and Gehrig. It reinforced their determination to get the next out. 

Brown spoke up, showing life for the first time in the game. "I can make him pop up coach. My brother showed me how to throw the ball so that it goes straight up when it's hit."

"That's right", Shawson spoke up. "When Talmadge does it, every single one of them goes straight up. 

Haines seemed ready to jump out of her skin. "You can't do it coach. We're still going to have to pitch to Baxter cause there's the infield fly rule. You can't have a double play on a pop fly to the infield with two men on and one out."

"Wanna bet," I said. Not only are we gonna do it, but I want Smith and Dwyer to pull it off for us."

Haines looked a little perturbed. She put her hands on her hips and wrinkled her nose. "You can't do it. An infield fly with runners on base and less than two outs is automatic and all the runners are safe."

"That may be so. But what if they tag up and then leave their bases?"

Haines looked puzzled. "Why would they do that? If they do that you can get them out. But why would they?"

"Listen and find out. It's gonna be legal too. It's gonna be another way to play by the rules. We can't get a double play. You're right. But we can get two outs and that's what we need or we're down by five."

"Smith, you're going to play first base. Dwyer, you're going to play second." I watched them listening intently to me. I felt a sense of intense pleasure knowing they were ready to pull this off and that we're were going to get this over on Davidson. 

"Here's the deal. Brown's going to pitch. If at all possible I want Smith on first base to make the catch. If not we'll improvise. Got that so far?" They nodded and waited for me to continue. "Now when you make the catch Smith what out is it? He saw them all forming the words,' the second out'. "That's right. But I want you all to act as if it were the last out and come running in. Smith I want you to give a whoop and everybody come running in. Then Smith I want you to toss the ball to Shawson. He's going to be in right field behind you. Just flip the ball up in the air to him like you are celebrating the last out."

"Now Shawson. What you do next is critical. What out is it?"

"Two after Smith makes the catch."

"Absolutely. Now Smith tosses the ball to you. A little back hand as you are all running in because it's the last out." I watched their faces light up as the understanding dawned on them.

"That's right. Now, when you all come running in, shouting and happy that you've got the 'last' out, I want Castle and Jayne who are going to be in center and left, to come in as far as second and third. While all this is going on I want Dwyer to turn one of his cartwheels. Now what are the Robots thinking?"

The circle of sweaty faces all smiled and said simultaneously: "Third out."

Exactly. At least I hope that's what they'll think. And what are you going to do Shawson?"

Shawson could hardly contain himself. "I'm going to throw one of them out."

"That's right. You've got the arm. You're going to either first, second or third. Which ever is the best. But you've got to remember. You just can't throw them out because there's the infield fly rule that Haines brought up a minute ago. We have to make them tag up so they leave their bases. After they leave their bases and head for the bench, then we can get out double play. Infield fly rule or no infield fly rule. How does that sound to you Haines?"

Mischievous as always Haines broke into a huge grin and said: "Sounds good to me coach."

I patted her on the head and said, "Good, we wouldn't want to break any rules would we?"

Everybody laughed. "The only thing we have to be sure of is that the runners tag up and leave their bases after the ball is caught. If that happens we're still in the game."

I gave the list of changes to Sheardon at home plate and the game resumed.

Brown's first pitch was popped up high and down the first base line. Smith circled underneath, shading his eyes with his glove, appearing to get dizzy, and then at the last minute, stuck his glove out and missed the ball.

"Foul ball," Sheardon bellowed.

"Whew, Smith managed to say." He wiped his forehead and made a face at Dwyer. 

The next pitch was a towering pop-up to Haines at third base. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she made an anxiety free snag of the ball.

"Alright", Smith shouted as she pulled it in.

The Robot runners had already tagged up when she caught the ball. As soon as the catch was made Dwyer let loose a rebel yell, shouted, "Third out," threw his glove into the air and turned three successive cartwheels.

Like a choreographed routine the Owls came running in and the two Robot base runners stepped off their bases and started to the sidelines. Jaynes, having caught the ball that Haines had tossed him exploded into an improvised war whoop and immediately tagged the Robot runner who had left third base. 

The Owls were ecstatic. There was less energy generated from the Manhattan Project than from the Owls. We were still two down but not four. The Owls congregated in a circle slapping each other on the back and whooping.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute." Drew was livid and hollering at the top of his voice. He swallowed a mouthful of tobacco juice, appeared to gag, and hobbled toward home plate waving his hands. "No. No. No. They can't do that. No double play. Infield fly rule." His face was red from anger and having swallowed the tobacco juice.

I walked slowly to home plate while he shouted at Sheardon. When I got there I looked at Drew and asked: "What's the matter, somebody break a rule?"

"Damn right they did. What the fuck are you trying to pull?"

I ignored Drew and looked at Sheardon. "Listen Ray, isn't there some rule about swearing in front of the kids?"

"We're not talking about swearing. We're talking about rules and you can't do that." Drew was stuttering.

For the moment Ray didn't speak. He appeared as if he had witnessed an anomaly. Then he said: "This is what I saw." He pointed to Drew. "Your man popped up. Automatic call, he's out and your base runners are safe. But then your man left his base and got tagged. So he's out. That's three outs the inning is over. The infield fly rule doesn't apply after the runners have tagged and left their bases."

I couldn't have been happier. "That's the way I saw it too Ray. They just walked off their bases and got tagged out." I was taking a lot of pleasure in this and added. "I don't know why you're making such a big deal out of this Drew you're still ahead by two."

Drew appeared to be on the verge of hitting me but restrained himself and said: "You know that you pulled that out of your ass Morrison." 

"Ssssh. the kids." I put my finger to my lips and turned back to the bench with a big smile on my face.

The Robots were ahead but from that point on they played as if someone had put a sabot in their gears. I could hardly contain myself watching Drew across the field alternately spitting and grabbing his crotch while he hobbled back and forth in front of the bench. It felt really good. Win or lose this moment was worth it.

Haines lead off the inning with an infield grounder and got on base due to a throwing error. Then she went to second on a passed ball and an overthrow from the catcher. And so it went. The Owls scored six runs before their end of their half of the inning. 

By the ninth and final inning the Owls were up by twelve to five. I felt great. Drew was agitated. Going through his motions; grabbing, spitting, hobbling on one foot. He looked like a man having a seizure.

The final score remained twelve to five. I walked slowly over to the Robot bench hardly able to keep from laughing and managed to say with out cracking a smile: "Nice game Drew." I extended my hand. He looked at it and then at me and said nothing. Marilyn, who was holding an ice bag on his ankle looked up at me. I winked at her and smiled. She smiled back.

"I suppose you came over to gloat", Drew finally said.

"No way. You played three good games. I guess it just came down to the best man, aah, best team winning. There's no need to feel ashamed." I couldn't help myself. It felt good. Marilyn's smile was getting bigger as she tended to Drew's ankle.

I couldn't hold it in any longer and I laughed. "Just playing by the rules Drew. And I was wondering if you remembered our little wager. It's hot today and I am pretty thirsty."

"I didn't forget. But you can see standing up all night is out of the question. You'll have to take a rain check."

"Yeah. I can see that. It's too bad. At least you've got a pretty nurse to tuck you in." 

Marilyn looked up. I smiled at her and winked again and said to Drew. "That's okay I can wait till you're feeling better." I was feeling better every minute.

That night around nine my phone rang. "Tom?" A female voice asked. 


"It's Marilyn. I was wondering if you were up to settling that bet you made with Drew."

"Is his ankle better already?"

"No. He's conked out. The doctor gave him codeine and told him to stay off of it for a few days until the swelling went down."

"Sure. Sounds like a good idea. Should I pick you up?"

"I was thinking I could come over there. 99 Vananden Street right?"

Now this was a nice twist. "Yeah come on over."

"Great Tom. Is Michelob good with you?"

I had no problem with Mich. "Yeah sounds good."

"I'll be there in about fifteen minutes." The phone went dead.

I changed the sheets on the bed quickly and turned on the air-conditioner. Then I sat down and rolled a couple of joints at the kitchen table and looked up at the clock.

A smile crept across my face. Aaah Marilyn. Hurry up."

© 2005

David H. Roche.

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A practitioner of the art of living with the intent of learning how to die without fear.