Batter Up

Mike Reynolds was off and running at the crack of the bat. The arc of the ball made him think the ball would carry over his head, but the hollow sound often signifies that the batter did not get all of it and the fly ball will be shallow. Should he go in or out? Mike decided to go out. His reasoning was to keep the ball in front of you. It’s easier to run in at the last second than run out as you would have to turn your head around if you run out and that would slow you down. As he ran, the glint of the sun got in his eyes and he was momentarily blinded. When he was able to pick up the ball, he realized it was going to be short and there was no way to catch it. His plan was to catch it on one hop, running on a full head of steam, and so the momentum would allow him to make a strong throw. He always had a rocket of an arm. In his younger days he wanted to be a pitcher, but he never had the control to be successful. He deftly picked up the ball on one bounce and fired a frozen rope to the catcher. A perfect strike from 200 feet away. It was a bang bang play, but the runner from second beat the throw by a split second. Damn! If only the runner was a little slower or took a smaller lead off of second. The two runs that scored gave the Syracuse Chiefs a 4–3 win over the Buffalo Bisons and the championship of the Double A league.

Mike started the long walk to the dugout. He always felt he was one misstep from going back to his old job at the gas station in Beaumont, South Carolina. At age 29, he knew his chances of making the big leagues were slim. Most of his teammates were at least 10 years younger, and they still had hopes, even if their skill levels were not up to his. They at least had youth on their side and could improve. He had improved as much as he could, and it was up to the scouts to decide if he was good enough or not. This effort wasn’t going to help his cause. As he slumped next to his locker, the manager, Charlie Grissom, walked by. “Mike, I need to see you in my office now,” he said, his voice giving no clue as to the reason why. Mike had a knot in his stomach. It was probably the outcome he was dreading. He was going to get cut and his lifelong dream was over. He was going to tell Charlie that he knew he was not much of an outfielder, but was a much better infielder. He can be a whiz at third base where his strong arm would allow him to rifle the ball across the infield. It wouldn’t be the first time he made that argument, and he knew Charlie would say the same thing, that the big club didn’t need a third baseman. They already had an all-star at that position who was younger than him.

When Mike got to the manager’s office he was surprised that Charlie had a smile on his face. “Mike,” he said. “I got a call from the front office. They want you to join the big club tomorrow in Baltimore. They need an extra outfielder now that Josh Bell is on the disabled list. Congratulations!” Mike was stunned. After all on top of his defensive struggles, he was in a batting slump. His batting average, usually around .300, had slipped to .275, and he struck out five times in the championship series with only one hit. He tried to hide his surprise, but couldn’t resist expressing his curiosity. “Don’t they have any decent outfielders at triple A?” he said. It was unusual for a player to jump directly from Double A to the big leagues. Charlie paused and said, “The scout thought you had the skills to fit their needs at this time, and the triple A team is thin on outfielders.”

Mike caught the red eye to Baltimore that night. The next day he was overwhelmed by the cavernous size of Camden Yards as he entered the stadium from the clubhouse and checked the lineup card in the dugout. He saw his name penciled in as batting seventh and playing right field. He found his way to the manager’s office where Fred Griffin was waiting for him. “We have a chance to make a run for the last playoff spot,” Fed told him after a brief greeting. “We are only six games behind in the race for the second wild card with a month to play. I need you to fill the hole in right field. You have the arm to keep the runner on first honest on a single to right. Every team gets the scouting reports and a slower runner won’t even challenge you. If you do well here, you will probably be invited to spring training next year. It’s up to you.”

In the locker room, a middle aged man who identified himself as the trainer walked over to Mike. “Hey kid,” he said, “let’s take a walk together down the runway. After they were alone together, he continued, “I know no one told you the real reason you are here today. I’m going to tell you truth. This comes directly from the owner who plays golf with my dad. It was supposed to be a secret, but it accidentally slipped out. They don’t want to make the playoffs. There is a deal to trade draft picks with the team ahead of us for a player and that can only happen if we don’t make the playoffs. There is also cash involved that that the owner really needs to keep this franchise afloat. No offense kid, you are a decent player for double A, but this is the big leagues. The pitchers here will eat you up and spit you out. I’ve heard that you get overpowered by 88 mile per hour fastballs. Well the pitcher we are facing today throws 98. His off speed pitch is more than 88, and his curve ball looks like it dropped off the end of a table. We have a player at triple A who can probably hit him, but that might ruin the deal. You know the guy you are replacing, Josh Bell? Well, he is not so badly injured that he can’t play. The owner ordered the manager to put him on the DL because he was playing too well. We are not likely to make the playoff anyway, but you are the insurance policy to make sure we don’t. They set you up for failure. My advice is to do what they want — throw the ball away when the game is on the line and strike out when the game is on the line. The boss will like that and you may end up with a job in the front office.”

The Boston Red Sox starter was a rangy, right hander named Tom Parsons. He won his last six starts and had a season ERA that was just under 3.00. His strikeout ratio was even more intimidating at 12 strikeouts per 9 innings. Mike struck out in his first three at bats, though he did hit some hard foul balls in this last at bat. The game was scoreless until the eighth inning when Mike momentarily bobbled a sharp single, allowing the batter to reach second on the error. Another single scored the first run and so the Orioles trailed 1–0 at the top of the eighth inning. Mike was the second player scheduled to bat in the bottom of that inning. The first batter walked on four close pitches, only the second walk allowed in the game. Mike looked at the manager, half expecting to be taken out for a pinch hitter. He saw the manager sitting stone faced on the bench so he walked slowly towards the plate with the crowd noise reaching a crescendo. The first pitch was a fastball and a late swing resulted in a foul line drive to right. A second fastball was fouled back. As expected, next came the waste pitch, a slow curve outside in the dirt. Mike expected another fastball and the next pitch was slightly up and in, the velocity slightly slower than in his earlier at bats. Clearly a mistake pitch and right in his wheelhouse. Mike turned on the ball, sending a laser over the left field wall to give the Orioles a 2–1 lead. He bathed in the cheers from the crowd as he trotted around the bases. The top of the ninth was filled with drama as the Red Sox put runners on first and second with two outs. Mike was hoping to get an opportunity to make up for his miscue in the previous inning. He got his wish when a sharp line drive was hit to right field, the kind that should bring in the runner from second. Mike charged the ball, quickly picked it up on one hop, and threw a bullet to the catcher. The runner reached the plate a second after the throw arrived and tried to evade the tag with a hook slide, but the catcher caught him by the ankle before he could touch the plate. The crowd erupted and Mike’s teammates mobbed him as he trotted in from the outfield.

In the dugout his smile dissipated as he spotted the trainer in the corner. Mike looked at him and said “I’m sorry. I wanted to take your advice, but I just couldn’t do it. Once I got on the field, the competitive juices started flowing and I went all out. I don’t know any other way to play.” To his surprise, the trainer smiled and extended his hand. “I’m so proud of you,” he said. “You see, I’m not actually the trainer. I’m the scout that filed the report that got you here. I’ve been watching you for a while and my gut instinct told me you had the talent to be a star, but I hesitated because I didn’t know if you had the mental toughness to be a big leaguer. So I decided to test you by shaking your confidence and watching how you would respond. Obviously, you passed with flying colors. Congratulations kid, you are going to be a star in this league!”

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