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By Staff Writer
It's ten after four. In the morning. Can't sleep. Sitting at the kitchen table. Drinking coffee. Writing short sentences. Like this. I hate short sentences. Awful. But every time I start to uncork something with drive, a line that travels longer than a Texas leaguerI come back to a loss that's kept me awake for thirty years. It was my last loss. Can't forget your last one. Ever.
1970. Shouldn't have been pitching in 1970 anyway. I was old. My body was fragile. Weary. Rickety. But the Manual Arts Toilers were short a pitcher and when Bisby Uggs phoned, I answered the call. Once Bisby got you on the horn, you were dead meat. He was the son of J. Uggs, inventor of the first pitching machine. (And you thought it was named for what? J. Uggs was actually the inventor of the first pitching machine that wasn't propelled by blasting caps. After World War I, a doughboy named Merle Townsend, frustrated because he could never catch up to a fastball, used the model of a machine gun to create a pitching machine that fired balls in rapid succession. "Fired" is the operative word herethey were literally fired out of tubes by small explosives, and the "Firing Squad" probably would have helped a lot of hitters when they faced guys like Walter Johnson, except that it operated a little too much like a real firing squad. Townsend was never able to perfect the accuracy of his machine and after the fourth or fifth fellow was taken to the hospital with a baseball embedded in his chest, Townsend gave up the experiment.)
1970. Bisby Uggs called. Brief conversation. Needed a pitcher. For his boys. Uggs owned a team in a precursor to the Northern Leaguethe Northern South Dakota League. Aberdeen. Milbank. Faith. Blunt. La Plante. The city managers of Pierre wanted in, but Uggs held the linethat was Central South Dakota, by gum, and they should play Huron and Brookings and stick to their own damn longitude. He was a man with a mission. He took kids from the Aberdeen Manual Arts High School and molded them into men through baseball. Back then, Manual Arts pretty much did what it said: it taught kids how to use their hands. Repair cars. Frame houses. Spot weld. Uggs took those graduates and fielded a team of shovel-faced boys with strong hands.
Cynics claimed that what he really did was put together a team that could repair Aberdeen Park for free. Because part of his coaching philosophy is that a ballplayer should know every inch of the field he plays on. Including the stands. And the concession area. And the parking lot lighting. And the owner's Ford Galaxy.
1970. Last loss. Bisby told me he wanted to give his boys a win. They'd had a tough season. It's hard to play wearing a welder's mask. That was one of his marketing brainstorms: Manual Arts ToilersA Defense Welded Together. All I can say is that it gets hot under there after about four innings. But it's good for pop-ups: they never lost a ball in the sun. Now here they were at the end of a summer. Looking for a win. Bisby needed something to send these fellows home happy. I was happy to give them a shot.
The stadium was in great shape. Freshly painted, every circuit working fine, and, needless to say, beautifully welded. We were playing the Faith Pilgrims. In contrast to our uniforms, with the cumbersome carpenter's apron and mask, the Pilgrims traveled light: they played barefoot in loose fitting cotton robes. Their bats were long and knobbystaffs they called themand when a pitcher was removed from the game, he'd rend his garment as he left the mound. So it was a classic match-up between faith and technology.
The Pilgrims batted their clubfoot first. This was a point of debate among their fans: It's enough to have a clubfoot on the team, and yes, we all hope that at the end of the pilgrimage his limbs will be healthy and miraculously restored, but during the long haul shouldn't you bury him at the bottom of the order? The Pilgrim's skipper, Dick Augustine, shook his head. "O, ye of little faith. Come on, Gimpy, get a hit!" Gimpy Frederick-son wasn't really a bad hitter. It was just the time it took him to get down the line. We were going for a win here, so I didn't want to fool around. A fastball low and away, a ground ball to third, and we were on our way.
I have to say, for a guy who belonged to AARP, I was pretty damn good that day. Got around their big power hitters. Turk Prescott, who had proclaimed a jihad against left-handers earlier that year (this was after a southpaw on La Plante had stuffed a banana up his tailpipe after the game), fouled out twice. Their big Buddhist, George Riley, hit a towering fly to deep left-center, but little Perry Walker banged into the wall and held on. (He then did a nice putty job on the nick he'd made.)
But their pitcher, Billy Bob Ruvell, felt the power that day, too. He started speaking in tongues about the third inning, and that throws a batter's rhythm off bad. We just couldn't hit him. Finally got to the ninth inning of a scoreless tie. We went down in order and Billy Bob fell to the mound, writhing and spasming with joy. He was carried off by the grounds crew and I went out for the last inning I'd ever pitch. Of course, I didn't know it at the time. I was feeling strong. I was thinking, hey, I've still got it. Maybe next year I'll be a starter again.
The clubfoot led off. I was feeling strong, like I said, and I never saw it coming: he laid down a bunt. I guess he was going for the element of surprise, and it worked. He was hoping for a drag bunt, but the ball dribbled out toward me instead. It was the surprise that got to me, I guess. I took a little jump step toward the ball. Why was I rushing? Why didn't I walk to the ball and pick it up? Why did I run? Why? Because in that one jump-hop to the ball, my knee exploded. Not just a torn ACL. Not just a medial meniscus. The entire knee blew up. Shattered. Ligament torn. Muscles ripped. Kneecap dislocated. I couldn't walk. But I had the ball. All I had to do was get it to first base. I was in a heap on the ground. I pulled my arm back. And the shoulder went out. Not just the large muscle. Not just the rotator cuff. The entire shoulder was ripped, torn, dislocated. I groaned in pain. Gimpy was now rounding first and heading for second. I dropped my glove and switched hands. I'd always had a pretty fair right throwing arm. I could still get him. I pulled back to fireand my back went out. Not just the upper back. Not just the lower back. The entire back. Seized up. Excruciating pain. Now, at this point, with Gimpy heading toward third, you might wonder why my teammates didn't take the ball out of my hands. It was because they were just too darn polite. See, I was like a Manual Arts teacher to them. They respected me. These were blue collar kids. They weren't about to disobey an elder. And I was a proud man. I was going to get this final out, goddamn it.
So when I saw Gimpy lumbering down the line toward home, I started to crawl toward him with the ball in my left hand. That's when my legs went numb. Not just the shins, not just the thighs. The entire lower half of my body was paralyzed. Putting the ball in my mouth, I attempted to spit the horsehide to our catcher. Closer and closer stumbled Gimpy. I puckered up and tried to blow. And that's when my teeth fell out. Not just the uppers. Not just the lowers. The whole set. I lay immobilized, the ball dribbling a couple of feet away, my teeth closer to home plate than the ball, and watched the clubfoot score the run that beat me for the last time. I knew then I was done.
Gimpy still had the clubfoot. There was no miraculous cure. There was only the miraculous collapse of me. And maybe that's what faith brings youan ending you didn't see coming.
Feeling better now after a lifetime in baseball and the upholstery trade, this is Staff Writer.
STAFF WRITER has survived LaZebnik, he's survived Lehman, and he's sure as hell going to survive this Goldstein fellow. Count on it.© 2000 Elysian Fields Quarterly
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