A VETERAN BASEBALL PLAYER STEPS BACK INTO THE BOX
by Thomas Turman Illustration by Clarence Lin
The merchants in small western towns use those reversible OPEN/ CLOSED signs in their shop windows along Main Street. Roscoe Dean reversed his OPEN sign in the machine shop window and closed the door. The sign now read GONE TO THE GAME.
Roscoe supported all the local teams, especially baseball, and would have gone to a game that night except he'd heard that a carnival had been set up at the baseball park. He has just turned 60, yet he still felt the same deep disappointment he'd always felt when a game he was to play was postponed. He decided to go out to the park anyway.
As he pulled off the highway, he could see children tugging their reluctant parents along the noisy, harshly lighted paths between the loud barkers for the shill games and the clanking, creaking rides that had taken over the parking lot. Because the lights were on, he realized something was happening on the diamond itself. Ignoring the closest barker's invitation to toss rings over coke bottles and staying clear of the whirling swing ride, Roscoe, out of habit, went to his favorite seat in the stands on the third-base side to see what was set up on the diamond.
Fixed to the pitcher's mound was a noisy, mechanical-arm pitching machine. An "iron mike!" This graceless insult to baseball commanded the spectators' attention with its spidery-slow coiling followed by the surprising, quick-arc catapulting of a well-used baseball at Bob Holeman's son Billy, who waited nervously in the right-hand batter's box.
A sign behind the machine offered ten balls for a dollar and a grand prize of $100 for ten safe hits off the ten pitches from the machine. Running the machine from slightly behind and on the first-base side was a thin, ferretlike man with slicked-back hair and a mustache. He wore a dirty white shirt. He was loading baseballs into the machine's basket, adjusting it to pitch different speeds to Billy Holeman and his teammates, whose game had been postponed. None of these players was over 18, and they were trying too hard either for the $100 prize or to impress the girls gathering behind them. The crowd's demands for perfection only added more tension as the carnie made confusing "adjustments" to the iron mike.
One of the loudest in the stands was old O.C. Billings, Billy Holeman's overweight, red-faced uncle.
"C'mon Billy, give it a ride," he shouted.
"Show 'em how it's done, Billy," bellowed O.C.'s drinking buddy, Parker Kincade, from his seat next to O.C.'s small birdlike wife, Millie, perched silently between them as usual.
No one had hit more than six out of ten so far. The rigged game and the demanding parents in the stands annoyed Roscoe, because baseball as he knew and loved it was not a carnival game. But what bothered him most was the machine itself.
He had taken batting practice from real pitchers during his baseball career, and that was the way it should be. Nobody ever wanted a pitching machine. The game should be played outside, on the grass, with real people at all the positions. The longer he watched, the clearer it became that something must be done!
After the mechanic from the truck stop out on Route 2 and a sunburned farmer had gotten five hits between them, Roscoe, dollar in hand, was next. Sure enough, a number of years had passed since he had tried to follow a fast ball to the plate, and Roscoe thought he might end up just another one of the old men trying to recapture the past. The town was not familiar with Roscoe's playing past, but the friends he met in the stands every week respected his solid knowledge of the game.
Parker Kincade saw Roscoe and yelled, "Hey Roscoe, you gonna show 'em how it's done?"
"Don't hurt yourself, Roscoe," snorted O.C. and got an elbow in the side from his wife.
"You can do it, Roscoe," encouraged someone in a clear high-pitched voice Roscoe didn't recognize.
He was beginning to tune out the crowd, got a fairly new 35 inch bat from Billy Holeman, and stood a few feet directly behind the current batter, Billy's older brother Greg. He began judging the speed of the pitches by swinging the bat at every pitch to Greg as if he were standing at the plate.
By the time Roscoe got his turn, the number of unsuccessful hitters had grown to about 20. The crowd had grown and contained a few older fans who might appreciate what he was going to try to do.
Stepping into the batter's box, Roscoe asked the carnie evenly, "Could I have a practice ball?"
Looking him up and down from his position next to the machine, the man laughingly agreed. "Sure, it don't matter, Pops, you ain't gonna hit it anyhow."
The machine made noises, stirred its springs and wheels, and then the mechanical arm whipped a ball toward home plate. Roscoe made solid contact and sent the practice ball straight at the man running the machine. The carnie ducked and ran toward the first-base line, leaving the machine on automatic. He would make no "adjustments" during Roscoe's time at bat.
Nothing sounds like a wood bat solidly hitting a baseball. The park came alive with the sharp crack of the first of Roscoe's ten pitches hit cleanly to left-center field. The second and third hits to center and right field gained the younger boys' attention and stirred the memories of the older players in the crowd. The fourth ball went over the left-field fence; the fifth bounced off the big Texaco Star advertisement in center field; the sixth landed in the warming track in right-center.
Parker Kincade was on his feet shouting, "Oooooweee, attaboy, Roscoe."
"Go for it, Mr. Dean." It was Billy Holeman in the on-deck circle, third-base side.
Roscoe was oblivious to everything now as he stared down the metal monster on the mound. The carnie, pacing back and forth, looked nervous. Sweating and fingering his pencil-thin mustache, he glanced up at the cheering crowd and started for the machine, but on its way over the right-field fence, the seventh hit whistled down the first-base line just in front of his face. Scowling at Roscoe, the carnie scurried to safety in the dugout behind first. Number eight hit high on the fence in left, and the ninth ball was almost foul but cleared the fence in left with two feet to spare.
The crowd burst into cheers. Roscoe needed only one more safe hit! He didn't hear the crowd, though, and the $100 meant nothing to him now.
The iron mike had run out of balls, so the carnie slouched out to fill the basket. Roscoe knew he had changed the speed, but it didn't matter. The clanking, grinding machine prepared to deliver ball number ten. The iron arm sprang forward with the last pitch. Roscoe swung around to the bunting position, and the astonished crowd gasped. The well-placed bunt trickled half way down the first baseline in fair territory; the crowd groaned. O.C. and Parker Kincade were on their feet shouting unmentionable things. That wasn't a fair hit! Surely the carnie would claim it was fieldable and therefore not a hit!
High and clear above it all was Millie's first outburst at a game, shocking O.C. and Parker Kincade, "Yes, Roscoe, that's it!"
Billy Holeman and his high-school coach leapt in the air and edged to the third-base coaching box as Roscoe sprinted down the first baseline past the surprised carnie creeping out of the dugout, and made the turn, running toward second base. As Roscoe rounded second base, the carnie looked at the position of the ball. A real pitcher would normally field a bunt on the first-base side. With his mechanical pitcher staked to the mound, he dashed for the baseball lying in the grass next to the foul line. Roscoe came puffing around third base, with Billy and the coach wildly waving him on, and slid safely across home plate about three feet in front of the carnie's tag.
The next morning Roscoe turned his sign around to open as the carnival trucks rumbled past on the way out of town $100 lighter. He began to look forward to the game that night.
About the author: Thomas Turman is a former first baseman, an engineer and architect in the San Francisco Bay Area and a teacher at Laney College.