back to the Black Table

 Matters are good. The weather is at last warming up, Iím enjoying my new job, Iíve finally discovered Napster - allowing me to hear the bootleg of Radiohead and R.E.M. doing OK Computerís ďLuckyĒ - and, most important, baseball is full swing.

Nothing, maybe with the exception of taking a bath with Woody Allen, could possibly make me feel better than baseball, spring, the Cardinals in first place.

Like any blue-blooded baseball fan, Iím convinced that this life - the one where I write and edit and whine about my life, the one where I smoke and drink and generally lay waste to the body I was given - is the wrong one, a mistake, a waste of opportunity.

Because I was supposed to be a major-league baseball player.

Itís not my fault my youth-league and high-school coaches never figured out my talent, how I was ticketed for the big time, the show. Theyíre the bastards who didnít play me, who didnít give me the chance to show my stuff on a daily basis. No, they thought their backup catcher would be better off keeping score, warming up the closer, filling the water cooler, keeping the guys loose on the bus.

How wrong they were. I could have done it, you know, played baseball all day. The happiest moments in my life have been on the diamond, chatting it up with the umpires from behind home plate, joking with the hitters, blocking a pitch in the dirt, slapping a hit-and-run single past the out-of-position second baseman, getting clocked in the head by a line drive while I was checking out the redhead in the second row.

There is nothing, nothing in this world I miss more than playing baseball.

Iíve looked around for recreational leagues, but thatís all softball, a bunch of fat guys drinking beer in the outfield, complaining about their jobs and their wives and their kids and their hemorrhoids, goddamn those hemorrhoids. There is no real baseball, the way itís supposed to be played, with fastballs on the inside corner and picking the runner off first, waving a guy home for the play at the plate, itís gonna be close, here comes the throw, shit, they got him, should have held him at third.

No, no, I havenít played actual organized baseball in, well, exactly six years this June. June 29, to be precise. (If you think that my remembrance of the exact date is indicative that a sad, drawn-out story is upcoming, youíre right, of course. Youíve also been reading too many of these columns.)

Throughout the Mattoon public youth baseball leagues, I had always been known as a bit of a throwback. Typically, our baseball-mad town would force-feed any kid between the ages of seven and 15 into one of the locally sponsored teams. (I played for the V.F.W. as a kid, which seemed wrong in a way I still canít quite place.) Their dads, like mine, would coach them, usually screaming at their sons to compensate for their own misspent youth, steering them quickly from the game. Most of those kids, by the time they were 16 and had a car to get the FUCK away from Mom and Dad, did so and were too busy screwing in the backseat to have time for baseball.

I, however, loved the thinning of the talent ranks. Out of sympathy and a need to get the team grade-point average up, my high school coach didnít cut me from the varsity team, but he was still quite hesitant to play me, as Iíve gotten into before. I dealt with it, since we were winning conference championships and I was getting out of class early to go to cities as exotic as Rantoul and Villa Grove. Still, I ached to play.

And in the youth summer leagues, thanks to all those kids who decided baseball was too cerebral and bolted for factory jobs, I got my chance

We didnít have enough players for an actual league, so we just corralled all the 17- and 18-year-olds left into a traveling all-star team. By the time I was 18 and home for the summer from college, I was ready. It was my last chance at glory, the last time Iíd be able to play baseball for a long, long time. And because they had so few players, well, doggone it, the all-stars just wouldnít have any choice but to play me.

Plus, all the kids were younger than me, just out of high school at best, and I was the big college boy back in town. I was the grizzled workhorse, the Crash Davis, the vet making one last tour of duty. Everyone knew how much I would miss playing, so I started every game at catcher, in towns as ludicrous as Cerro Gordo, Moweaqua and Teutopolis.

It was a wonderful summer. I worked on a magazine assembly line (if thatís what theyíre called), folding double spreads of Vogue into a monstrous machine, made a ton of money, had an older girlfriend and played baseball. I knew this was my last shot, so I made the most of it and played as well as I ever had, even knocking my only home run of an 18-year career and serving as a calming presence, an extra coach for my younger teammates.

Either that, or they just saw me as a snooty college kid, pathetically hanging on to the last threads of his youth, taking up a valuable roster spot. Time has dulled my ability to decide which it was.

Anyway, we came down to the final games, a doubleheader in rival city Effingham on, of all days, June 29. Now, I donít know how much of a baseball fan you are, but here are a couple things you should know about catchers:

1. Due to the strain on a catcher over the course of a baseball game, it is typical for a catcher to play only one game of a doubleheader, considering that two consecutive games would tire him/her out the way a real sport, such as basketball, does. In baseball, that is not acceptable.

2. Considering that most (male) catchers tend to want to either someday reproduce or simply avoid having their groin feel like itís being ripped apart by rabid ditch diggers, it is commonplace for those who play the position (and most positions, actually) to wear something characteristically referred to as a ďcup,Ē to protect a region that perpetually needs protection, both for and from.

OK, so you know that. Now, two things you should know about me:

1. There was no way, not under Allahís green sky, that I was going to play only one game of that doubleheader, not during my last day on a ballfield. My last game ever, on the bench ... nada, Iíd had that view quite enough, thank you.

2. I had a peculiar way of catching, one I suspect broadcasters wouldnít advise young players to follow. Early on, when I was learning the fundamentals of catching, I found that the best way to make sure no pitch in the dirt ever snuck past you was to throw your mitt in front of your crotch and dive in front of the ball, allowing it to hit only your mitt or your chest protector, nowhere else. That worked for me, and I was known as an excellent defensive catcher, but I was still looking for an edge. So, in order to make certain that I instinctively thrust my mitt where it needed to go, which is the elementary nature of catching after all, I secretly - because no coach in his right mind would allow a player to go without - refused to wear a cup. And Iíll have you know, Mr. Smarty Pants, not once did it come back to bite me, because never once behind the plate was I hit there. My glove was where it was supposed to be; jeez, what more do you want from a catcher?

Question my tactics, but do not question my results.

My coach, a pleasant and accommodating sort with an almost cute combover hidden under an Anderson Trucking mesh cap, made a compromise with me: ďIn good conscience as a coach, I canít let you catch both games, Will. Sorry, but how about we put you at, say, third base for the second game? Itís the same principle, right? Knock down whatís in front of you?Ē

Even though it had been so long since Iíd played the field that I had to borrow a teammateís glove, I agreed with him, and so it was.

In the first game, I threw a runner out, forgot to back up first base on a groundball that cost us a run, went 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs, and walked in my last at-bat. We won 8-5.

Of course I remember the details.

I took off my shinguards and chest protector for the last time, sighed and grabbed some guy named Billís glove and headed to third base for my final game. I fielded the first couple of ground balls, warm-ups tossed by the first baseman, with relative ease, and when the first batter stepped to the box, I even started up some ďhey batter, hey batterĒ chatter. Our pitcher, an outfielder by position and ultimately a plumber by trade, walked the first guy on four pitches.

A short kid, with no semblance of or potential for body hair, about 15, scampered to the plate. I was ready, crouched in anticipation of the double-play ball, ready to scoop, pivot and fire, the way Ken Oberkfell and Terry Pendleton used to do it. Having caught the first game, I even made sure to come in and tell our pitcher that this batter was struggling with the curve.

ďI donít have a curveball,Ē the pitcher told me, annoyed.

Iím in position. The pitch.

Short Kid gets an inside ďfastballĒ and slaps it down the line. Hard. So hard, in fact, that it takes one hop, spinning wildly, whistling, and plants itself in my crotch a split second before the glove can make the trip.

As you know, there is a brief second, before the gnashing and screaming and fuck fuck fuck happens, where you are able to rationally and disinterestedly understand that you have just been hit in the genitals, and itís about to genuinely, all-encompassingly, awesomely, hurt like a bloody bitch-and-a-half.

I had that second, then collapsed. The spectators gasped, followed by those involuntary giggles that we cruelly catch every time we see someone hit in the groin. The coach came out with an assistant and carried me off the field. That Bill guy with the glove took over.

And I spent the last seven innings of my baseball career with an ice pack under my shorts, keeping score, wondering when school started again.



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