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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Teaching Einstein the Hit-and-Run
By Jay Thomas

I suppose my high school teammates called me "Professor" because I looked more like Ogilvie, the wheezy statistician from The Bad News Bears than an all-state pitcher. But asthma, Ryne Duren glasses, and National Honor Society membership notwithstanding, I was a serious ballplayer. By my freshman year in college, though, my Peggy Lee fastball and molasses feet confirmed what all had suspected—I was an academic with an imminent scholarly future. I never fully developed the persona of an accomplished and seasoned baseball man, but I was not ready to resign myself to an alter-life as a bleacher-dwelling statistician.

A year out of graduate school, providence shined upon me and granted what only Heaven itself could provide for a baseball-impassioned academic: coaching varsity baseball at a charter school for the gifted. While my former teammates languished in beer league softball, I walked right straight from the hallowed halls into a varsity job—and eighteen little Ogilvies.

Without coaching experience, I taught the way that I had learned. I invoked the time-honored truths of interscholastic competition: respect the game, honor your commitment to team and school, stay in shape, get to bed early, eat your Wheaties, etc., etc. I recalled my first baseball meeting in college. After reminding the returning players that they had earned the lowest mean GPA of any interscholastic athletic team at the university, the coach asked us to answer three questions on a sheet of paper: what position do you play, what positions have you played, where would you like to play this season?

I glanced at the yellow legal sheet of the kid sitting next to me, a burly first base/DH type with a lip bulging with Copenhagen. His answer looked something like this: "I use [sic] to play thirt [sic] base, but I wood [sic] play anywere [sic] you wannit [sic] me to, coch [sic]." But fortune has many faces, and the same questionnaire, filled out by my geniuses, contained no misspelled words or misplaced modifiers, was resplendent with meta-phors and aphorisms, and read, by comparison, like articles in Harper's.

"I'm not sure what position to list," one wrote, "as I haven't played baseball since I was eight years old." A precociously developed kid, one I had pegged as catcher, wrote: "I'd like to catch, but my depth perception is pretty bad, so I think I'll try right field." A wiry center field/water boy type replied, "Will baseball require much running? If so, I may switch to volleyball or another anaerobic sport." And among Ogilvies, there are Super Ogilvies—Renaissance men: "I really want to play baseball, but I'll have to miss about half the first month practices because the chess season isn't over. I'll be playing Hamlet in the spring drama, too."

Then we broke out the baseballs. Our athletic director suggested rubber covered balls. I assumed he had wanted to avoid scuffing the gym floor where we were gathered, but it was really a preemptive strategy. Any fan knows the aesthetic pleasure of the resonant pop of leather from a ball properly caught. But balls do not sound the same when they bounce off shins and walls and teeth and windows and Adam's apples: And when this happens inside a gymnasium, the sound is like a hailstorm, the feeling is like being on an artillery range, and the scene begins to resemble triage during a natural disaster.

Week 2: Batting practice.

"Chicks love the long ball," Nike tells us. So do geeks. Somehow, professional baseball has successfully and insidiously promoted the home run as the orgasm of organized sport, eschewing both strategy and the physical limitations of would-be Mark McGwires. "Coach," my eggheads pleaded, searching for a tonic to their defensive woes, "we just have to get into the cage and start hitting." At first I was dismissive and fearful of potential litigation, but soon their request seemed like sound baseball wisdom. Our pitching would no doubt make our score book resemble a PGA scorecard. Our defense was a sieve. So, reluctantly, I fired up the pitching machine—Earl Weaver would have done the same, I told myself. Hitting would have to be the sine qua non of our season.

The first kid hopped into the cage with a fungo bat. "You're going to have to find another bat," I told him. He looked at the bat and then at me and said, "But Coach, this bat is perfect for my kind of swing." The only other wieldy bat he could find was a 28-inch, solid-core Adirondack, but it didn't come with a ball magnet, and he missed every fifty-five mile-per-hour, straight-as-a-string fastball by a foot. "I woulda crushed that ball if I'd had my first bat," he grumbled to the next hitter.

For all the precaution—we eventually turned to rag balls and wiffle bats—we still couldn't avoid a casualty. The last kid to face a live pitch with a real baseball took a full cut and caught a putative fastball on the forearm. He dropped his bat and ran to the trainer's room, from which he emerged a half an hour later with his arm in a sling. The trainer later told me that it took fifteen minutes to convince the kid that his bruise didn't warrant a trip to the ER.

With a week to go before our first game, we were running out of players. Those concerned about too much running in baseball defected to track (presumably for the field events). The ambivalent and urbane defected to chess club, jazz band, and swing choir. So we began a mid-spring recruiting campaign. One night, the residuum employed an aggressive, grass roots, door-to-door baseball mobilization project. Our motto: "Join the baseball team: You'll play every game."

And it worked. We ended up with five new players (one of whom went on to be the team's leading hitter his senior year). We had a team with as much promise as the original corps. But, by the end of the first inning of our first game, injuries followed us like the phantom limb of an amputee. Our shortstop (and number two pitcher) jumped to snare a high throw and came down with his right foot on the corner of the second base bag, which bent his ankle at a very unnatural angle—outward. On the next play, an attempted steal, our second baseman was launched into left field by the baserunner. He wasn't hurt too badly; at least he could carry himself to the dugout to tell me he had to be taken out of the game. "Why?" I asked, having recently become curious as to the nature of contrived injury. "I'm a hemophiliac," he said. He pulled down his stirrup and showed me a shin that already looked like it had been pounded with a ball-peen hammer. He was out until the last week of the season.

With our bench depth depleted, with a black hole in our middle infield, and with a number two pitcher who wore glittery orange tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a Star Trek T-shirt to practice, we led the city (and probably the nation) in oh-fers. Our cleanup hitter went oh for seventeen before getting his only hit of the season—a legendary, four hundred fifty foot Ruthian bomb. Our number nine hitter went oh-for-the-season. He almost had a hit one game on a long fly that sent the left fielder scrambling toward the wall, but the ball fell about two inches foul. We had four times as many strikeouts as walks (our hitters, I mean, not our pitchers), and a team batting average that could rightly be called an imaginary number.

But the defining moment of the season—a late season, late-inning catastrophe—led me back to my calling. Everyone loved playing us; nine-spot hitters would fluff up their averages against our remedial pitching staff, and every opposing benchwarmer relished the chance to have a multi-hit game, though they only had four innings to do so (we were spared daily by the ten-run slaughter rule).

But I mean teams really loved to play us—for the same timeless but irrational reason that kids with glasses and pocket protectors are most frequently beaten up on the playground. To listen to opposing players' chatter, you would have thought we were the defending state champs or great rivals, when the truth was that we were just trying to get past the fourth inning of every game and didn't really care who we were playing. As frustrating as it was to be beaten by football scores, I found that post-game tirades aren't the most effective motivating strategies for the Ogilvie types. It was both sad and pathetic.

And so one day in late May, we had a lead—a huge lead late in the game, actually past the fourth inning. It was cold. And raining. And we had our star left fielder back after a month of back spasms. And then the brakes went out.

It started raining harder in the top of the seventh, and our pitcher started getting racked. Two runs. Four runs. Still nobody out. Our relief pitcher had the same fate. They batted around. So in came our junk-balling, pizza-faced, Trekkie reliever, who got two quick outs. Unbelievable! One more out and we'd take home a win. Their cleanup hitter came up with two runners on. His eyes lit up when he got a waist-high heater—and he popped a lazy fly to left-center. Our left and center fielders converged on the can of corn. I actually heard bones break when they collided.

Our left fielder had a mouthful of loose teeth, and our center fielder had snapped his shinbone. ("Technically, it's the fibula, Coach.") Neither could quite recall just where he was at or what day it was. So the ambulance took them both away. What we needed now was a rainout.

And the ump asked, "Coach, we gonna finish this game? It's only going to rain harder if we wait any longer." I could tell that the umpire empathetically hoped to call the game, but I saw the opposing coach pacing the dugout and shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "Let's go! You're killing our momentum!"

Towards the end of this singularly brutal loss, I had looked down our dejected bench and saw not Ogilvie, but Timmy Lupus, the pathetic, snot-nosed Bad News Bear who gets beaten up and dumped in a trash can by the Yankees. So we finished the game. We lost. I don't even remember the score, and I don't think any one of my players cared about another tally in the loss column. What I remember is that a couple of the kids from the opposing team tossed calculators at our bench as they departed for their bus.

And, all dignity intact, our team manager and statistician picked up one of the calculators, threw it in the air, and shattered it with a fungo bat.

"Take this back, you Visigoths. You're gonna need it when you come to work for me in a few years!"

The "Bad News Brains" is what another coach had called us. Something tells me that victory does not come at nearly the same cost for state champs as it does for those who look at life through Ryne Duren glasses. —EFQ

JAY THOMAS has given up hopes of a state championship and instead spends his evenings teaching and completing his doctorate. He still throws BP and hits fungoes every Friday during the high school baseball season.

© 2001 Jay Thomas

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