Sizing Up The Competition
Sunday, January 18, 2015
I arrived at Delta baggage claim at the Tampa Bay airport, wondering how I might identify my Detroit Tigers fantasy camp teammates and opponents. It was easy enough to find the fathers of my fellow campers as they were wearing either jackets or baseball caps with the iconic Olde English D, but where were the players? Surely these gray haired, well past middle age, limping old folks couldn’t be my teammates, or could they? I stole a glance in a mirror and was relieved to see that I did not look at all like them – because I had forgotten my baseball cap.
Once the over the hill gang began dragging athletic equipment bags off the conveyor belt, I realized that I truly was in company with my teammates. Obviously, I had over trained for the past four months. Heck, I’d over trained for the past four days! I did not recall seeing pizza and donuts on the Recommended Conditioning note I had received from the Tigers. Obviously, I was on the wrong mailing list.
On closer inspection, however, I began to see the men behind the paunches. There were signs, faint though they may have been, of past athletic glory. Where else could all of those limps have come from? And then there was the fire in their eyes that hinted at intense competitiveness within. Or perhaps it was just cataracts.
I smugly congratulated myself on my obvious ability to compete against these guys – until I realized that half of them would be my teammates. Surely I wasn’t expected to carry the team, figuratively, or given what I saw, perhaps literally. I then saw past the hip replacement crowd to some young bucks sitting casually to the side. They also had Tigers caps on their heads and they were looking at me, flexing their muscles and smirking.
This week just might turn out interesting after all.
Don’t Talk to Strangers
While waiting for the bus, I got into an unfortunate conversation with an elderly gentleman. He was spouting off about how he wasn’t going to put up with practicing or warm ups or any of that nonsense. The man looked like he may have been fit at some point but age had bent him a bit and obviously affected his mind. He was stomping around challenging everyone to a batting duel. People smiled and let him rant on. He then came to me.
“Hey you! Pretty boy! I bet you think you can out hit me, don’t you?”
“Oh, I don’t know…” I demurred.
“What’re ya, chicken? C’mon, youngster let’s hear it. Can you beat an old man?”
I’ve never known when to step back from bullies and blusterers so I said, “Sure, I can probably beat you.”
“Oh you can, huh?!? Well, batter up! Tuesday morning, you and me! We’ll see who’s who then, big man. Let’s make it interesting too. Put a hundred bucks on it.”
“Fine, you’re on!” I shouted back, assured that all of my batting drills were about to make me some easy money.
“Okey dokey. We’ll start right after I finish pitching batting practice,” He announced smugly.
One of the other players laughed and announced, “You’ve now met our batting coach. He didn’t play much in the majors but a fair bit more than you, I imagine and he’s been coaching a looooong time. Welcome to camp!”
Rules and Regulations
On the bus ride from the airport to the hotel, I began to hear stories from previous camps. There are some special rules for the baseball games in order to accommodate the special skills of the players. There are no bunts, no passed balls, no leading off and definitely no stealing. The most curious rule, however, is the pinch runner.
In normal baseball, it’s not all that unusual in the late innings of a tightly contested game for a manager to put in a speedy pinch runner after a lumbering slugger has gotten on base. Of course the player for whom the runner comes in must leave the game. The rule here is a bit different. Pinch runners are allowed – from home plate! The runner stands off to the side while the arthritic geriatric batter flails away. On the off chance that contact is made with the ball, the runner sprints for first base. The batter is free to stay in the game.
“Hey rookie,” one of my teammates said. “Listen up because you’ll certainly be a pinch runner.”
I laughed and assured him that I’m no sort of runner at all. I have absolutely no speed.
“Hmph. Look around you. We aren’t exactly asking for sprinters. If you’ve still got your original knees, you’re a pinch runner.”
He then told me a story from a few years ago. A pinch runner was hit by a pitch, which is quite a feat given how far away from home plate he was standing. The runner started trotting to first base only to be recalled by the umpire.
“You don’t get a walk,” the umpire bellowed. “You’re not the batter!”
The runner returned to the plate and awaited the next pitch. There was no comment as to whether he donned protective catcher’s gear.
This story led to a conversation about the quality of pitching, of which, apparently, there is none.
“You’ll be pitching too,” one of the staff members told me.
“Certainly not,” I replied. “I really don’t throw very hard and I’m not sure I could consistently hit the strike zone.”
That set off a round of laughter from the alums.
“Let me explain how the strike zone works here,” an old timer said. “As long as you swing, it’s a strike. Fair enough. However, if you are down in the count, say 0-2, and you don’t swing at the next pitch, it’s a ball. It could be right down the middle and, trust me, it’s a ball. Sameways, if you take two or three balls way outside, the next one is a strike. It may sail over your head and end up the other side of the backstop but it’s gonna be called a strike. Look, somebody’s got to pitch and, as far as I can tell, you’re somebody!”
This brings up one of my numerous baseball fears. I could see myself throwing a complete game no hitter – and losing 19-0 all on walks and hit batters. That’d be embarrassing or … maybe it would be normal in this league.
The nutritional coach came by shortly after I checked into my room. She may have announced herself as housekeeping but the cart she was pushing said otherwise as it was piled high with sugary sodas and cookies. “Special delivery!” she called out as she bustled into the room and stocked me up with what I can only hope is the beginning of my training table meals. All of this sugar should go well with the grease supplied by the Waffle House across the parking lot, which is apparently the preferred provider of athletic breakfasts.
Feeling superior to the other campers came naturally with my relative youth, vitality and good looks. I also began to smug up in the brains department because the camp director had said the average age of the campers was 54. Now I’m a quantitatively inclined professional so I can actually estimate things like averages. Unless my mates had aged very, very badly indeed, the average age on the bus was far above 54. I’m 53 myself so I have an eye for these sorts of things.
As I walked into the orientation session, I was met by a bunch of musclebound, bald headed (a guy’s got to get in his licks where he can), definitely younger than 54 sort of athletes. I assumed they were the coaching staff. I assumed wrong. Gulp.
Where did these guys come from if not from the airport? Well, I imagine they ran down from Detroit last night, probably wearing 200 pound packs just to keep in shape. No bother really. At that size they must be outfielders and outfielders and I get along just fine. I never pester opposing outfielders with fly balls, line drives or really anything. As for my teammates, I simply turn my back on them and make sure nothing gets through the infield. What they do out there all day, I don’t want to know. Either wrestle steers to the ground or inject steroids I suppose. Let them have their Neanderthal fun, the real sport of baseball is played in the diamond.
Up until tonight, I always liked Mickey Lolich. He seems like an affable guy, he owns a donut store, he pitched three wins in the 1968 World Series and he even hit a home run. My opinion changed tonight.
Mickey was the last of this year’s coaches introduced during orientation. He came in wearing an elaborate neck brace and told us a truly sad story of how all of his pitching, dodging line drives, snapping his neck to see home runs fly out of the park and his motorcycling had pushed a vertebrae forward, necessitating major surgery. Bad things happening to a nice guy. I hate that. But then, oh but then…
Mickey looked us in the eye, all of us at the same time somehow, and said, “Obviously, none of you are going to make it to the big leagues so…”
I didn’t hear the rest and why should I have bothered to listen to someone who was obviously so out of touch with reality? I would have gone right up there, grabbed him by the ears and taught him a lesson but, you know, the neck brace and the fact that he is like 97 years old and obviously demented – I just let it go. I’ll let my performance on the field correct his ridiculous statement.
Ok, it’s not really a draft. Someone just picked a bunch of names and assigned them to teams with some reference to distributing ages evenly.
Good news, bad news for me. Most of the aforementioned muscleheads are on my team. We should be a powerhouse. That’s good. As the weakest appearing one, if I screw up, they’ll grind me into sausage. That’s the bad news and quite ironic given my vegetarian habits.
First pitch: 2 PM Monday.
Frank Tanana was a pretty good ballplayer. Good enough, in fact, to be selected in the first round by the California Angels in 1971. He was known as one of the first pitchers to consistently throw over 100 MPH and won an impressive 240 major leagues game while striking out 2,773.
This morning, I absolutely shelled Frank Tanana. He threw 10 pitches to me. I mercifully fouled off three before hitting seven screaming, I emphasize SCREAMING, line drives over the infielders’ heads. He then ordered me out of the batter’s box. Although he was obviously shaken that the very first batter could hit him so hard, he regained some composure and pitched around the rest of the players for the remainder of batting practice.
I apologized to Frank later for blasting him so hard. He told me that he had been taking it easy on me but, hey, numbers don’t lie.
Once the first game of camp started, I was shocked to find myself as the lead off batter for the whole camp. I suppose that made sense given my fireworks in batting practice. My managers, Steve Kemp and Juan Berenguer, have keen eyes for talent.
On the very first pitch, I ruined the pitcher’s fantasy by hitting a line shot deep to the third baseman, who had wisely positioned himself 20 feet behind the bag after watching my earlier power show. He fielded the ball cleanly on one hop, fired it to first, only to have his fantasy ruined as well. My foot slapped the bag a split second before the ball smacked the first baseman’s mitt. Yes, I actually beat out an infield hit. The crowd roared.
The next batter hit to the shortstop who flipped it to the second basemen, who was far too terrified of me charging him to actually turn the double play. I trotted off the field, head held high, knowing that I had kept my team on base.
Throughout the rest of the game, I made some spectacular plays at first base, played an uneventful inning in right field and coached first base better than anyone on the team, or perhaps any team, anywhere, anytime. We’ll never know because they just don’t keep statistics on that sort of thing.
Once I realized that our pitchers were going to walk home many, many runners (walkers really), I tactically adjusted my batting to psych out the opposing pitchers. The next time I meet them in the playoffs, they will THINK they can strike me out, perhaps multiple times. Well, they might want to talk to Frank Tanana about that!
Heroes, On and Off the Field
And now, for something completely different…
When I was a wee lad in 1968, the Tigers had a great season, capped by a very exciting World Series which, of course, they won. To a seven year old, that’s the way the world is supposed to work.
My hero, then and now, was #23, Willie Horton. Willie played left field well enough (and actually saved the Series with an unbelievable throw to home plate to get speedy Lou Brock out) but his real skill was as a slugging hitter. He was all power and no grace. Just pitch it in there and then have someone go pick up the pieces of the ball after he hit it out of the park.
Willie’s style of play was in stark contrast to Al Kaline, who was all grace and speed and consistency. Al was ok I suppose (as do the fellows who voted him into the Hall of Fame) but he had one major flaw: he was my older brother’s hero. Al would consistently get on base and could sometimes hit it into the stands. Willie never bothered to hit it into the stands – he hit it straight THROUGH the stands.
Of course, a pure power slugger is going to have a few strikeouts. Maybe more than a few. Well, this gave my brother and, importantly, my father, plenty of opportunities to rib me over Willie’s mighty swings. I didn’t care because the ground shook even when Willie missed the ball.
Now Willie was more than a ballplayer. He was a true Detroiter. He grew up on the streets of the city and never left. Still lives there today. During the 1967 race riots, Willie actually went out into the streets, got on top of a truck in his Tiger uniform and called for restraint and sanity. That was courageous beyond belief given the intensity of the riots. His words didn’t stop the violence or the fires but they sure made him a hero in many people’s eyes. The next year, the city got to see a winning team (they had barely missed the pennant in ’67) and they got to see Willie, a black man, embraced as an equal, or better, by all of his teammates. In fact, there were only three black players on the Tigers but it didn’t matter a bit because there were 25 Tigers and they were all equal in the fans’ eyes.
Family was extremely important to Willie and he often talked about the influence his family had on him growing up and how he has carried those lessons throughout his life. He now lives in a house full of five generations and I can imagine only one man who could be his equal as a patriarch – my father.
My father passed away a year and a half ago after leading an exemplary life. He was smart, kind, hardworking and, most of all, funny. Some of his earliest humor that I recall involved ribbing me about Willie Horton. I figured my father didn’t really think much about Willie’s abilities as a ballplayer but he was careful to never make fun of Willie as a man.
As I grew up, every two or three years I’d find myself in a conversation with Dad about the ’68 Tigers. We weren’t a big sports family but there was just something special about the memories from that year. My parents packed up all five kids and took us to ballgames and listened to them on the radio and we all had a grand time. Recalling those memories was always heartwarming – and provided a convenient opportunity for Dad to continue kidding me about big Willie’s mighty swings.
The last time I spoke with my father was just a few weeks before he became sick and quickly passed away. We talked about the Tigers but this time, it was different. He told me that Willie Horton was one of the finest players he had ever seen. He knew all about his life and even knew that a couple of Willie’s sons had gone on to play in the major leagues. It turns out that my father was more of a baseball fan that I knew and, in particular, he was a Willie Horton fan. He told me about what Willie had done during the riots and the charity work he has done for decades. He knew about his family and his character.
A little more than a year after Dad passed away, I became interested in baseball again when I moved to Greensboro, NC and lived only two blocks from the stadium of the Single A Greensboro Grasshoppers. I also played on the company softball team. Last fall, I thought about that final conversation I had with my father and looked up a few things on the Internet, just checking the stories. That’s when I accidentally came across the website for the Tigers Fantasy Camp and saw that one of the featured attendees was none other than Willie Horton. I thought of my dad and how much he would have enjoyed coming to the camp with me and meeting Willie. I also thought how proud Dad would be if his son, who’s never had an ounce of athleticism in him, could get at least one hit. I signed up and started training.
That first ball I hit today was for Dad. I’ve been dreaming about it for months and thinking of his spirit sitting in the stands, watching me.
Tonight I sat down with Willie Horton and had a long, private, personal conversation with him. We talked about baseball, life, family and my dad. Dad would have liked Willie even more after meeting him.
To Willie, thank you for taking the time to let me relive some precious memories.
Dad, thank you for creating those memories. I can’t promise you I’ll hit another ball all week but I sure nailed that first one for you.
Breakfast of Champions
I woke early for my 5 AM training breakfast of eggs and hash browns at the Waffle House. As usual (ok, I’d only been then once before but this is how patterns start), I was the only customer at that hour. However, just as my eggs were served, who should walk in the door but my arch nemesis for the day – the batting coach, Ike Blessitt!
Just a couple hours ahead of our Batting Duel of the Century and he just happens to come into the Waffle House? I think not. What I do think is he was up all night tossing and turning due to worry over our impending contest. He must have finally decided that he needed an edge so he sauntered over to have a look at what my training meal looked like. He sat across from me in the booth and proceeded to tell me some fantastic stories for 90 minutes, obviously trying to distract me.
When the check came, I offered to pick it up. He thanked me and said he’d let me off the hook on our $100 bet in return. Off the hook? Batter up, buddy! However, since my mama raised me to respect my elders, I allowed him to retire gracefully from the contest.
I will relate his stories later. They are nearly as colorful as some of my own!
We rode together to the clubhouse and dressed for another full day of athletic excellence or misadventure, depending on your point of view. A small ragged group of fellow players showed up shortly afterwards.
Ike, a man of simple but nonstop words, told me to get my sorry ass in the cage and he’d teach me to hit. As I so often do, I absolutely lit up the cage with screaming line drives. When games start being played in batting cages, I’ll be a unanimous All Star pick. Fearing for his own safety, Ike soon told me to get out of his cage so he could actually work with someone who needed some instruction.
Every few minutes, however, Ike would yell out to me, “Do you think you can still hit? Well, get your ass back in here!” at which point I would once again smash everything he threw at me. Most guys got one or two rounds with Ike. I got seven. My arm was pulsing afterwards. Not in a good way.
“There! Now that I’ve taught you how to hit, get your ass on the field and actually play some baseball!” was Ike’s final bellow before we headed back to the clubhouse for team pictures. A couple of the former pros also asked for pictures with me so I obliged and didn’t even charge them!
When I came to the plate for the first time, I remembered what both Ike and Grant (my Greensboro coach) had told me about the key to good hitting. Wait for your best pitch and hit it hard into the ground. That way you won’t swing at bad pitches and you won’t pop it up.
Naturally, I pounced on the first pitch (because every pitch is my best pitch) and absolutely slammed it exactly as I have been taught. Never in the history of baseball has a ball been hit so hard into the ground. In fact, I hit it so hard that it actually STUCK in the ground. Two inches in front of home plate.
A hit’s a hit so I sprinted for first base. Three steps away from the bag, I introduced one of my special base running techniques to the camp. I let out a bloodcurdling scream as I saw the first baseman reach up for the throw. As often happened during summer softball, he promptly bobbled the ball in surprise and I obtained safe residence on the bag. An error to be sure and it will drive down my batting average but my on base percentage remains exceptionally high. A couple plays later, I scored the first run of the game after some exceptionally skillful baserunning.
There was very little defensive work for me at first base as our pitchers continued to walk batters onto and around the bases so I eventually retired to right field where I could relax and pray that no one would hit anything towards me. God was listening and I had a quite pleasant and uneventful time out there.
On my next at bat, the infield pulled in close and the first baseman plugged his ears. I took a few pitches just to confuse the opposition and then rocketed a line drive over second base and into center field.
“I taught his ass how to hit!” Ike screamed from somewhere in the complex.
There’s a rule in camp stating that after a team scores five runs in a single inning, their turn at bat is over. We exercised that rule quite a bit, taking turns running up the score on each other. As the morning wore on and people grew hungry, I decided to put a stop to this nonsense. I approached the plate and stood facing the field for a bit so the defenders could see who I was.
“Now that you’ve seen me twice, are you going to play me close or hang back?” I asked. I tend to talk a lot more on the field than the average player. The players arranged themselves in a very confusing scattering of some people in and others hanging back. I confused them further by striking out. They didn’t see that one coming!
We came into the seventh and final inning all tied up at some astronomical level. Our opponents, as the away team, batted first and promptly scored a run. At least breaking the tie would get us to lunch more quickly but then in the bottom half of the inning, we miraculously scored a run, knotting the score at MANY to MANY.
With grumbling stomachs, we headed into extra innings. Our opponents had not learned their lesson and promptly scored another run, which was a major mistake because I was due to bat in our half of the inning. I ended their half of the inning with a spectacular catch of a routine pop up. (All of my catches are spectacular and many are miraculous.)
With runners on first and second and one out, I strutted into the batter’s box with Ike screaming in the background, “I taught his ass how to hit! You better back way the hell up! Just keep going all the way to the cafeteria.” Or something to that effect.
I patiently took three mighty swings, never endangering my strategy by coming anywhere close to the ball. After the third strike, I took off for first base at a dead run.
“What the hell are you doing?” the umpire screamed.
“Getting into coaching position,” I hollered back. All part of the plan.
As first base coach, you play the key role of instructing the runners on tactics for every situation. I called over the runner and whispered in his ear, “There’s two outs, run like hell on anything.”
I had struck out both to make baserunning tactics perfectly clear and to bring up one of our better hitters. He promptly hit the ball softly into the infield to start one of the most bizarre plays I have ever witnessed. I swear the ball was caught and thrown by six different people, some multiple times, before the winning run crossed the plate. The umpire shrugged his shoulders, yelled, “Lunchtime!” and we left the field with a solid win in hand.
After wolfing down nothing but carbohydrates, I ran (yes, ran) all the way back to the diamonds ahead of the rest of the team in order to work on a secret plan for game two. I paced off sixty six feet, took a bucket of balls and started chucking them at the backstop. You might think I could find someone to play catch with given there are 75 baseball players here but I did not want to give away my surprise. Eventually, our catcher showed up and I tossed a few balls to him before going up to our coach.
“Kemp, we’ve got some control problems on the mound,” I told him.
“Ya think? Just because the score of the last game was like a million plus one to a million?”
“I’ll take care of it for you. Put me in as a middle reliever.”
“You want to pitch?!? Are you crazy? I’ve seen you throw and you don’t throw!”
“It’s all part of my plan. Get a couple of innings squared away and then bring me in. It’ll work fine, you’ll see.”
He walked away muttering and throwing his lineup card in the air. I took that to mean I had the job. I took first base, made a few key plays and bided my time.
I was the lead off batter in the bottom of the second inning. The score was tied as tight as can be at 0-0 when I stepped to the plate. I turned back to my teammates and said, “Limber up. I’m about to start a rally.” I actually talk a LOT more than most people on the diamond.
I then stroked a line drive, but an on the ground kind of line drive, right at the shortstop. He gathered it up cleanly, pivoted and rocketed a throw to first base.
Yes, I beat out an infield grounder for the third time this week for a hit. I could echo the first baseman’s comment as I have never, NEVER, had an ounce of speed in my life. Maybe all that running in the past few months was making a difference. That and the fact that my legs have rested comfortably for 50+ years and so are quite fresh and ready to go.
Inhaling cubic miles of air, trying to get my breath back, I waited for the next batter to either strike out or walk – anything to give me a break.
He hit a line drive to left field on the first pitch.
I took off running and watched as the ball fell in front of the left fielder. God only knows what possessed me to make the turn at second base and head for third.
Only 90 more feet I told my oxygen starved body as the third base coach, a bona fide retired professional baseball player, did the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. He waved me home.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the left fielder stepping into his throw even as I rounded third. I didn’t have enough air left to squeak, much less let loose a rebel yell so I just poured on a little extra speed and hit the plate a quarter step ahead of the throw. The dugout went absolutely nuts and I went seriously anaerobic.
Having started the rally, I would have liked to watch it develop but I was far too busy trying to keep my lungs inside my chest as the team rapidly scored four runs, thus ending the inning. I went to sit down and let someone go in for me when the coach shouted, “You’re up Parrent! Ya got a five run lead. Don’t blow it. Take the mound.”
Still gasping, I tottered out to a place I have never in my life been before – pitcher’s mound. I rolled a few balls to the catcher as a warm up and then squeaked, “I’m ready. I guess,” and the first batter stepped into the box.
And all over the box. He filled the box.
My first batter was at least 6’6” tall and by far the best athlete in camp. Young, long legged, thin and strong, I’d seen him hit the stuffing out of the ball and then speed around the bases without seeming to touch the ground. At least he presented a large strike zone.
I threw the first ball over his head just to show him that I could actually get it that high (a feat in itself) before delivering a perfect strike right at waist height. Well, it would have been a perfect strike if he hadn’t ruined it by making solid contact and rocketing it back at me.
The ball bounced hard once, somehow ended up in my glove and I turned to throw to first. Except the first baseman wasn’t there – or anywhere in the vicinity. He had been playing very deep in case tall boy got hold of one. If tall boy got hold of one, it was going over the fence and the first baseman might as well have been over the fence himself for all the good he was going to do for me.
“You have got to be kidding me,” I thought as I raced for first base while the batter did his cheetah floating over the Serengeti imitation. I saw him, fangs fully exposed, a split second before I hit the bag, crossing it no more than a quarter stride in front of him. He did not look happy having been run down by a rhinoceros. This rhinoceros didn’t look all that happy either having sprinted more in the past ten minutes than I ever planned to sprint in my whole life. I stumbled back to pitcher’s mound, called for oxygen and faced my second batter.
The sound of a solid strike of a wood bat on a leather ball is a wondrous thing indeed – unless that ball has just left your hand headed for home plate. My no hitter ruined, at least I could take solace in a very nice play in centerfield that limited the batter to a single.
The next hitter grounded out but advanced the runner to second.
One crack of the bat later and I had runners on first and third.
Batter number four stepped in, smiled and promptly hit a hard shot back at me. I fielded it again on one bounce, turned, stood defiantly flat footed and glared at the first baseman. He sauntered over to the bag and I threw the runner out to close out not only my first inning pitched but a shutout inning at that.
After scoring so many runs so quickly behind me in the previous inning, my teammates had far too quickly arranged for me to be at bat again. I waited patiently through several pitches, fouled off a few and then pounced on MY pitch, a high floater well outside the strike zone. I popped it high into the air right along the first base line.
“I didn’t teach him that
I reached the first baseman just as he was catching the ball and let out another of my patented rebel yells and, sure enough, he bobbled the ball just enough to let me reach the bag in time.
As I stood bent over on the bag, gasping for air, I said to the first baseman, “Would you
A short time later, I found myself crossing the plate yet again, legs dog tired, lungs worthless and arm pulsing with pain from all that pitching. Having scored our five runs again, the inning mercifully ended and I returned to the dugout for a well earned rest.
“You still got arm?” the coach asked.
“Sure, whatever,” I replied, hoping that if I just went along with this he would let me take a nap.
“Well then get out there and pitch! I’m warning you though, I’ll yank your ass out of there if you start walking people!”
There is a god. I promptly walked the first three batters to earn my nap in the dugout. The relief pitcher promptly escorted all of my stranded runners around the diamond and safely home to boost my earned run average.
Lots of stuff happened in the next inning that I have no recollection of because I was zonked out of my mind until I heard, “You’re up Parrent!”
Oh for crying out loud, again? One of the rules in camp is you can substitute people in and out all game but the batting order remains in place. Stupid rule. I just wanted to sleep.
I stepped into the batter’s box, muttered, “Screw this,” and promptly hit a line drive into right field, driving in two runs as I yelled, “Shut up Ike!” and WALKED to first base, taking my own sweet time.
Some bizarre stuff then happened that I frankly can’t remember and we ended up winning by one run, thus avoiding a truly unjustified black mark on my pitching record.
I stopped at the trainers on the way out and had them wrap my arm in ice ‘cuz that’s what us big league pitchers do and then returned to the hotel where I had a dinner that consisted mostly of apple pie, lots of apple pie.
All Evened Up
Our vanquished opponents from yesterday afternoon’s game returned to the field this morning bent on revenge. They brought out their ace pitchers – or at least two guys who could still throw – to face us down.
After they silenced our mighty bats in the top of the first inning, I gave them a little lesson in defense by making all three putouts myself, two of them unassisted. Don’t hit that ball in MY house!
Stretch, the tall guy I outran yesterday, faced me from the mound in the second inning, looking to take back some of his pride. He gained a bit on me as I hit a hard shot straight at the second baseman. Hard for even me to outrun that.
Two innings later, I lined into right for a base hit. Of course this meant I had to be ready to run again. Mercifully, my teammates hit short singles behind me so I only had to advance one base at a time.
I played a flawless first base throughout the game. In fact, everyone played decent baseball so we had a real game on our hands. I struck out late in the game but at least hit some hard fouls and didn’t swing at any bad pitches.
We loaded the bases in the final inning but couldn’t bring anyone home and ended up losing 6-3, evening our record at 2-2. A disappointing result but a good game nonetheless.
At the halfway point of the season, I’m carrying a very respectable .385 batting average with an impressive .538 on base percentage and 5 strikeouts. I also technically have an earned run average of 27 and I don’t expect to see much more opportunity on the mound to bring that down.
8:30 game tonight under the lights. I think a nap is in order.
Fun under the lights tonight at Henley Field, a very nice facility where Ty Cobb apparently played quite a bit. The Georgia Peach wasn’t seen tonight but I did get to meet Dave, a very good friend of my father, who showed up to cheer me on. He had some very nice things to say about Dad and I really appreciate that he took the time to come out.
As I trotted to the dugout, one of my teammates asked me who the guy in the stands was. “Autograph seeker,” I replied as I grabbed a bat.
Dave saw me hit a hard hopper to second base and (of course) beat the bobbled throw to first. With Dave there, I felt like my father’s spirit just might be sitting high in the bleachers swapping stories with Ty Cobb. It was a very nice start to the night.
Of course once Dave left, it all went down hill. We had some decent pitching but our fielding was atrocious. I’m not sure there was an actual earned run scored on us but there were a LOT of runs scored. I took some solace in not making any errors myself and in actually saving a couple of really bad throws to first.
One interesting play developed in the third inning. With men on second and third, the batter hit to the second baseman who promptly threw the ball far off the bag to the home plate side. I saw it veering off and jumped off the bag and snagged it. As I turned to tag the runner, he actually turned around and headed back towards home plate.
“Stop!” I shouted. “Where are you going?”
“I have no idea,” he replied as I chased him down, tagged him and held the runner on third. Of course the runner and 14 of his friends eventually scored anyway but the play did break up the game a bit.
Halfway through the game, the opposing team sent in a very good pitcher who was probably throwing 80+ MPH. I fouled him off a couple of times before drawing a walk. He snarled at me as I trotted to first. I stuck my tongue out at him. This isn’t exactly the major leagues.
The game mercifully ended at some point. We packed our gear, tucked our tails between our legs and returned to the hotel.
Only one game scheduled for tomorrow and tickets are going quickly so call now to see some of the most interesting baseball ever played. It’s fitting that a circus is setting up in the parking lot of the stadium.
Earlier tonight I recalled a previously unreported blooper.
On the first day of camp, I rode over to the clubhouse with a bunch of guys. We approached the door and took a collective big breath, anticipating that first sight of our uniforms with our names hanging in the lockers. We opened the door with a grand flourish…and walked right into the kitchen. There’s no graceful way to back out of that!
Field of Dreams
People occasionally question the veracity of my stories. Sadly, the stories are all true. Today’s tale, however, will really stretch the elastic bounds of credibility. So much so that I actually had to seek out eyewitnesses to convince myself of the facts.
We have a wonderful couple on our team who are on their honeymoon. At Tigers Fantasy Camp. At the suggestion of the bride. Who has never before played baseball.
And that, my friends, is NOT the hard part of the story to believe. No, indeed. The unbelievable story is the one told to me by the young lady, who, by the way, has turned into a wonderful player and seems to be having the time of her life. When her husband made a spectacular catch in left field the other day, she shouted out, “That is SO sexy!” The rest of us couldn’t argue with that sentiment because it WAS quite sexy. You’ve got to call it like you see it.
The story starts at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit. That’s hallowed ground for Tigers fans as it marks the location of the beloved Tiger Stadium, which was torn down a few years back. Shiny new Comerica Park is located a short distance away and the old location, owned by the city, was left vacant like so many other lots in this failing city.
As the weeds grew higher, people started using the lot as an open dump and it quickly filled with trash. A few diehard fans felt this was a disgrace and, unlike so many other problems in Detroit, it was a mess that could actually be cleaned up. So they started to pick up the trash. A few other people heard of their cleanup efforts so they joined in and made a real effort to get rid of all the trash.
The Detroit police, underfunded, undermanned and definitely underappreciated then intervened – and ticketed the volunteers. For picking up trash. In Detroit.
That makes you pause and wonder if the world truly has gone stark, raving mad.
Many emergency calls go completely unanswered in Detroit. City equipment is broken and dangerous. People steal aluminum ladders off of fire trucks for the scrap value while the firefighters put out arson fires in the thousands of vacant homes.
And yet the police ticketed the volunteers for picking up trash. They were told they were trespassing and this just couldn’t be tolerated. Who knows what might happen if such activity was not nipped in the bud. People might start mowing the grass!
Which is exactly what they did.
The volunteer force grew in size and energy and defied the police by bringing in brush hogs and clearing the shoulder high weeds. They didn’t want to do anything except clear the lot, tidy it up, keep a few memories alive.
They were threatened with arrest. For cutting weeds in a vacant lot. In Detroit.
The Tigers organization wanted nothing to do with the cleanup. Apparently there were politics involved. Politics – over a vacant lot in Detroit, a city which has more vacant lots than populated ones. A city that cannot afford to keep the street lights on.
The volunteers continued their cleanup over months of weekends, scattering when the police rolled up and returning when they departed. Eventually they found the original base paths under the weeds. They put down clay on the base paths, replaced weeds with grass and even chalked the lines.
As things were starting to look nice, a police cruiser pulled up once again. The volunteers stood their ground as the officer walked over. He looked over the lot, took a deep breath and said, “My son wants to know if he can come play baseball here.”
The tickets have stopped although city hall still makes threats of action against the outlaws. Games are played on the restored diamond and volunteers come out all summer to make sure the lot stays nice and neat. They recently found the original base anchors under the dirt and have installed real bases where they belong. Special, old time, vintage baseball games are played there from time to time. Illegally of course because this is still Detroit and fun, especially when it’s good, clean and civic minded just can’t be tolerated.
I told you the story would be hard to believe.
Mixup on the Mound
Another beautiful day greeted me as I arrived at the batting cage this morning. Somewhat later, so did the always cheerful Ike Blessitt, batting coach to the stars.
“Where the F*&^ is everybody?!? I get up this early and nobody shows up?!? Where have you been Parrent?”
“I’ve been in here for a half hour waiting for your greatness to bless my morning.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Why aren’t you doing something?”
“I’ve already hit two buckets of balls off the tee. Feeling pretty good today.”
“Oh that’s just great. Now I have to fix all the crap you screwed up. You ain’t gonna be able to hit anything out there today if you been instructin’ yerself. Get in the batter’s box and stop pussyfootin’ around.”
I stepped up to the plate and made a simple request.
“Yo, Ike, give me a chance to get set between pitches. Yesterday you were throwing the next ball while I was still halfway through my swing.”
THWAP THWAP THAWP!
“That slow enough for you? Now get in there and HIT!”
Thirty minutes later, he finally let the next victim into the cage.
“You can’t hit shit Parrent! Get out of here and go see the trainer for a baby aspirin or something. Maybe he’ll give you a lollipop.”
I walked away not the least bit puzzled by the fact that I had hit everything he threw at me. I’ve started to understand Ike’s teaching methods. As I walked away, I heard him say to the next batter, “I made that scrawny assed Parrent kid a HITTER! I can’t do shit with you!”
“Thanks Ike!” I called back.
“I AIN’T TALKING ABOUT YOU! It’s some other guy named Parrent. You can’t hit shit!”
I went in to the trainer’s room and asked for some pain killing cream for my pulsing bicep.
“Now don’t massage it this time like you did yesterday. That hurt like hell and I’ve got to go out and … ARGH!!! OW!!! STOP IT ALREADY!”
“I can’t put the cream on without touching you,” the trainer said, driving his thumb straight through my bicep and out the other side.
“Oh, I feel completely rehabilitated now. Thank you so much.”
“Don’t forget, it’s Tip the Trainer Day!”
“Here’s a tip – go tell Ike to have a nice day. He’ll appreciate it for sure.”
I wandered through a locker room full of quiet, broken warriors. Too tired to talk, too hurt to move, too proud to go home, they tried to dress for day four of camp. Several guys looked dejectedly at their socks on the floor, wondering how they could possibly bend over to put them on. I, on the other hand, was feeling pretty good except for that “treatment” on my arm.
On tap for today was the final game before the playoffs. A win would give us a high seed and a chance to play a lesser opponent. We had no chance of actually getting a first round bye. Tomorrow, in the playoffs, winning could actually be problematic as a first round win would lead to a second round game where a win would lead to the championship game. Three games in one day? I guess that’s just something we will have to worry about tomorrow.
We were scheduled to play nine innings like real ballplayers but the two managers held a conference at home plate and decided that six innings would be plenty, especially since our opponents were mostly injured. Our guys had some issues but nothing debilitating – except for our youngest player who didn’t bother to show up because he had a sore thumb. Seriously? Kids these days…
Our opposing pitcher was throwing some real slow stuff which is surprisingly difficult to hit. I watched him carefully during the first and second innings to get my timing down.
I stepped to the plate for the first time in the second inning with runners all over the bases. I looked at the catcher and then told him to stand up and take his mask off.
“Ump, did you check this guy’s ID? I don’t think he’s old enough to drink and he is certainly below the minimum age for camp!”
“I’ve heard about you, Big Talker,” the ump said. “Now stop your yakking and Play Ball!”
I turned to face the pitcher, watched him release his best fastball, checked my watch, bent over to tie my shoes, stretched, yawned and whacked it into right field.
“I let my bat do my talking,” I shouted as I coasted into first base.
“I taught that kid how to….”
“SHUT UP IKE!” both benches, the umpire and some neighbors all shouted back.
Chalk up a hit, a run batted in and an eventual scored run to my athleticism.
I played a couple more innings of flawless first base as the score seesawed back and forth due to muffed fly balls, walks and innovative fielding techniques.
“Have you grown your first chin hairs yet?” I asked the young catcher as I came to the plate in the fourth.
“Now listen here…” WHACK! A clean hit into leftfield along with a satisfied smile directed at the umpire and catcher.
After resting comfortably in right field for a few defensive innings, I came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth with the game tied and a couple men on base. This was my chance to be the hero and drive in the winning run. Figuring I shouldn’t change a thing about my successful approach to batting, I approached the batter’s box and called out to the catcher.
“Hey junior, I think your mommy is looking for you. She says you need your snack now so you can grow up big and strong like…WHAT THE…?!?!?”
The catcher stood up, took off his mask and chest bumped me. He stood about 6’5” and just about that wide too if you didn’t bother counting his biceps.
“Ump, you need to test this guy for steroids RIGHT NOW! What the heck happened between innings?’
“Sub Sti Tu Tion,” the behemoth replied, emphasizing each syllable with a finger jab through my sternum and out my back.
Shaken a bit but not really worried since all I had to do was drive in the winning run and not meet the catcher again at the plate, I settled into the batter’s box and prepared for Mr. Slow Motion. Springsteen’s “Glory Days” started playing through my head along with the theme to Rocky as I brought the bat to my shoulder and faced the pitcher. I saw a vision of Todd Jones, the all time leader in saves for the Tigers, the great middle reliever, the former All Star with 868 strikeouts. I smirked. I was really getting into this Fantasy Camp thing. Time for some heroics. I shook my head to clear it, looked back at the mound and made the fastest move I have ever made in baseball or any other sport. I leaped straight out of the batter’s box, screaming, “What the..?!?!? Time! Time! TIME!”
The catcher laughed, a deep rolling thunderous thing coming from his chest. The umpire smirked and Todd Jones glared at me from the mound, all six foot fifteen inches of him with an arm the size of a telephone pole. This was definitely NOT my fantasy.
“What the hell is going on? He can’t pitch to me!”
“Try me!” Jones called out. “We’ll soon see if I can pitch or not.”
“Play ball!” the umpire yelled.
“Just get a freakin’ hit Parrent!” Kemp called from the dugout.
“Now wait a minute…”
I saw Ike hiding behind a light post as I dug into the batter’s box.
“What?!? He didn’t throw the ball. I didn’t see anything.”
“Then why’d you swing?” the umpire asked. He had a point.
I patiently waited through two low pitches for balls. Now ahead in the count, I could wait for my pitch and here it came, waist level, over the plate, moving fast….
The ball rocketed off my bat deep into leftfield.
“FOUL BALL!” Oops, wrong leftfield I guess.
Todd stood dumbfounded on the mound, looking a little sad.
“You hit my pitch. You made my ball go away. Todd is very unhappy now.”
THWACK! The ball hit the catcher’s mitt.
My bat finally made it across the plate.
Todd made his hand into a gun shape, blew smoke off the finger barrel and said, “Eight hundred sixty nine.”
“Aw for cryin’ out loud Parrent,” Kemp shouted encouragingly. “What the heck was that?”
“He’s an All Star pitcher!”
“I never had a problem hitting him.”
“Kemp, you didn’t even play in the same decade as him.”
“Maybe that’s why I never had a problem hitting him.”
I shuffled back to the dugout under the withering stares of my teammates. I had committed the greatest possible sin in Fantasy Camp. I hadn’t lost the game. I had left it tied. At lunchtime.
“Great at bat.”
“I hope there are cookies left when we get back.”
I was whacked repeatedly with gloves as they headed back onto the field. I returned to right field, half hoping that the first pitch would go over my head and beyond the fence. Instead, a long inning ensued with one almost spectacular play, for once having nothing to do with me. Our second baseman, who was usually our pitcher, made a diving play for a hard hit grounder. He barely missed the ball and face planted into the clay where he remained for awhile. I know how that feels. Well, sort of. I mean I theoretically know how it might feel to miss a play and then, out of frustration, be frozen in place for a minute. He must have been pretty frustrated because he stayed down awhile before getting up.
The other team scored a few runs so we had a big hill to climb in the bottom of the inning. We got one on base before Steve, the pitcher/second baseman stepped into the batter’s box. He wisely took four balls but then inexplicably came back to the dugout.
“I’m done,” he announced.
“You need a pinch runner?” I asked, grabbing for a batting helmet.
“Oh fer cryin’ out loud,” Kemp said encouragingly.
“No, I’m done pitching. Send someone else in,” Steve said as he sat on the bench.
“Yeah? I’m just done pitching. Send in Mike.”
“Did you hurt yourself on the play at second base?”
“What play? I’m just done pitching, that’s all.”
As we talked through the concussion protocol with Steve, who had no memory of the day so far, the umpire shouted, “Play ball!”
“Who’s up?” I asked, beyond grateful that it couldn’t be me given my starring role in the recent inglorious end to the prior inning.
Nobody answered. I looked around the dugout. We had no walking wounded as they were all laid out flat, except Steve who was sitting up wondering what day it was.
“Grab a bat, Parrent, and end this thing! And don’t strike out!” Kemp shouted before turning back to poor Steve.
I approached the plate, listening to the medical discussion going on back in the dugout, glanced at the behemoth catcher, who was grinning maniacally and turned to face Todd Jones again. Except he wasn’t there. Junior, the young catcher from earlier in the game stood on the mound, looking all fresh and strong.
“TIME!” I shouted. “Where’s Jones? I had him figured out.”
“Over here, Mr. Talksalot,” Jones called out from the opposing team’s dugout. “I was always a better middle reliever than closer and, besides, you hit my pitch and I don’t like that.”
“That wasn’t even close ump!” I complained.
“Close enough to lunchtime for me and here comes … Strike Three!”
“I tipped it!”
“I caught it,” the catcher explained.
“You bobbled it and dropped it,” I pointed out.
“HE CAUGHT IT!” my always supportive teammates shouted in unison over the grumbling of their stomachs.
Thus ended the regular season portion of Fantasy Camp. Our record of 2-4 was good enough to get us into the playoffs in the same way a record of 0-6 would have gotten us into the playoffs.
I’m carrying a .350 batting average into the playoffs along with an astounding .500 on base percentage due to my determination to run out every ball I put into play. I’m even considering running out strikeouts during the playoffs. I have five of those so I’ve had some practice.
Steve, alone amongst my teammates, is quite happy with my performance today. Of course he doesn’t remember a thing about today so that helps.
Beef and Bull
We had the team dinner last night at Texas Cattle Company, a restaurant somewhat imperfectly suited to my vegetarianism. I didn’t mind feasting on a pile of wilted broccoli if it meant my teammates could pack in the protein and put some muscle on their aged bones. Three pound pieces of cake consumed by my mates did give me pause. Looks like I could be pinch running today.
Sometime during dinner, talk turned to people’s professions. As always, I maintained my shy, introverted demeanor but then our shortstop, sitting next to me, mentioned he was a financial advisor. After coming in for some withering criticism by our always supportive coach for having muffed a simple mathematical calculation, someone leaked that I worked in the financial industry as well. Too much beer causes too much talk in my teetotaling opinion.
“Parrent, you’re riding the bench tomorrow,” coach announced. “You’re going to sit next to me the whole game and give me some financial advice.”
“I really don’t do that type of work. I do not give out financial advice to individuals.”
“Aw, bullshit. You’re riding the bench.”
“Look man, I’ve got a playoff game tomorrow. This is what I came here for.”
“On the bench. Next to me. All game long.”
“I’m actually a worse financial advisor than baseball player.”
“That is not even remotely possible.”
“That’s it! Play me or trade me,” I demanded.
“The other coaches are my friends, dude. I see them here every year. There’s no way I could trade you to them. I’m a competitive guy but there are some limits to what I’ll do to win. You’re on the bench, you’re going to fix my portfolio and you sure as shit better not strike out at that!”
Now the pressure is really on!
Mr. January Makes Fantasies Come True
There was no friendly conversation at the Waffle House this morning. Steely eyed players from opposing teams glared at each other as they slurped grease, awaiting the start of the league playoffs. All of the hard work, pulled muscles, muffed balls, strike outs and endless walks had led to this final day of the season. This is where fantasy ends and reality emerges.
As I arranged my gear in the dugout, Kemp came over, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Tom, I really need you to work on my portfolio buddy. Let the other guys play, it’s just a game after all.”
“Ok Steve,” I said. “But there’s one thing you should know.”
“I really am a worse financial advisor than baseball player.”
He leapt back, pointed to deep left field and screamed, “Get away from me! Go to deep left, climb the fence and just keep going. I don’t want any bad karma infecting my investments!”
I trotted out to first base, not feeling the least bit guilty about my deception. Just a game, indeed! This was the playoffs with a win or go home format. No way was I going to let down my teammates now.
I then trotted back to the dugout when I realized we were the away team and due up to bat first. I then returned to first base, beginning to feel a bit winded from all of this trotting, when I realized that I was mercifully not due to bat for quite awhile. I assumed my position as first base coach.
Normally the first base coach has the critical assignment of telling runners to either go or stay. Critical, but a wee bit simple for my tastes. I expanded the role to include giving opposing teams’ first basemen advice on fielding. As the league’s premier defensive first baseman, having accumulated exactly zero errors, I had a lot to teach and boy did these guys have a lot to learn. The first thing they had to learn was to not listen to me when the ball was in play. They were not very good students and we accumulated quite a few runs during the week due to my helpful chatter. I’m not sure how that shows up in the box score.
A bunch of baseball stuff happened and eventually it was my turn to strike out, so I did but with a certain flair in my opinion. As I headed back to the dugout, Kemp called out to me.
“Are you seriously worse at finance than baseball? Did you have something to do with that financial crisis?”
“As a matter of fact….”
“I don’t want to know. Get out to first base,” he mumbled.
We had some tired arms on our infielders and no throws came anywhere close to first base. I was justifiably proud of and immensely modest about my success in stopping every single throw. Unfortunately, with one out a throw was seriously off the mark and I had to take a couple of steps towards home plate to snag it in flight. As I turned to make the tag, a locomotive of a runner steamed right through me, knocking my glasses askew and twisting me into several simultaneous unnatural positions.
What? You want to know the result? Excuse me but I OWN first base. NOBODY knocks a ball away from me. Out two was safely recorded.
Other than a few injuries to my pride, I had remained remarkably healthy throughout the week. My natural athleticism, extreme conditioning, impressive good looks and dumb luck had protected the temple of my body. That locomotive went right through the front door of the temple. I refused to limp or even grimace but I knew something was wrong. Fortunately, the inning ended with a spectacular catch of a slowly rolling ground ball by yours truly. Rather than risk aggravating the grievous injury by walking back to the dugout, I simply stepped out of bounds and resumed my coaching duties.
Our next batter hit a nice line drive that I would have turned into a triple but he was a couple decades older than me so he stopped at first base and then called for a pinch runner. Now there’s an odd rule in this league that the pinch runner is supposed to be the player who got the previous out. It’s meant to keep teams from sending their fastest (it’s all relative in this league) runners out to the field. In this case, the previous out had been made by me but that was before I was mortally wounded.
I shook my head, sighed, grimaced, bit a bullet, rubbed some dirt on it and said, “Give me your helmet Dale, I’ll run for you.”
A couple of line drives sent me and my increasingly gimpy leg to second and then to third before the rally fizzled, stranding me within 90 feet of another run to hang on my stats board.
I returned to first base for an uneventful inning, with the notable exception of a whole bunch of runs scored by the opposition. With two out, the opposing team’s first baseman stepped into the batter’s box, looked my way and snarled. I’d taught him that so I smiled back and nodded. He then shot a smoking line drive, which actually looked to most people like a ground ball, between me and first base. Technically it was a hit rather than an error since no one could have cleanly fielded it. My record of error free fielding was safe but my pride was nicked. I didn’t have a chance to take up the issue with him as he rounded first and headed to second. Once the inning finally ended, I resumed my coaching position and waited for him to trot, really more of a limp, out to first base.
I shook my head ruefully and said, “Man, what was that all about? I thought we were part of a brotherhood of first basemen. Why’d you try and embarrass me? What would my son do if he saw that on video?”
“Probably put himself up for adoption,” he wisecracked.
To tell you the truth, I’d rather have thought up that line than made the play. I laughed all the way through our scoreless half of the inning.
I walked my next time up. We scored a few runs while allowing the other guys to score a few in turn. The game was turning into something resembling real baseball when I approached the plate for what would likely be my final at bat during the game.
Ike, the batting coach, and Kemp, the manager, were talking in the dugout as I stepped into the batter’s box and took a feeble swing at a ball three feet outside the strike zone.
“You say he’s WORSE at finance than baseball?” I overheard Ike say. “How can that be?”
“”I know it sounds incredible but some of those Wall Street guys are real idiots,” Kemp replied as I jabbed the bat at an inside pitch that I should have let hit me.
“Guys, could you keep it down over there?” I called out. “I’m trying to play baseball here!”
“Who taught you to swing like that? I didn’t teach you that crap. What’s the matter, are there flies buzzing around you’re trying to swat? Play baseball, my ass. Hit the freakin’ ball!” Ike suggested gently.
I let the pitcher throw three in the dirt and one over my head before I trotted down the first base line, giving Ike an upside down fast ball signal. I may have used the wrong finger.
An inning later, a dropped fly ball could have ended the game but no one was actually close enough to drop it so the game ended with the ball sitting out there in left field all by itself.
Fortunately, in the fantasyland of second chances, we got to play one more game to determine who would crawl out of the cellar in the standings. A three inning, loser lose all kind of contest. We dragged our gear and broken bodies over to the next diamond.
Kemp gathered us in a circle, took a deep breath and gave a truly spectacular inspirational speech.
“Just go out there and end this.”
Words to live by.
Three nice plays by our previously unheralded second baseman then took us through the defensive half of the first inning.
As usual, nothing much happened while we were at bat. Nonetheless, it looked like we might keep the game close enough to drag ourselves out of last place – right up until our new pitcher loaded the bases with walks in the top of the second inning.
“PARRENT! Get in here!” screamed Kemp.
What the heck had I done wrong this time? How can a first baseman be responsible for walks thrown by the pitcher?
“Joe, take first base,” Kemp told Joe who could barely move at this point.
I was more than a little pissed off. After all, I’d played spectacular first base all week, catching all kinds of junk thrown my way and quite a few balls that weren’t thrown anywhere near me.
“Sorry man, I had no choice,” Kemp grumbled, then handed me the ball. “Take the mound.”
“Eye of the Tiger” started playing in my head as I headed to pitcher’s mound. I looked at the loaded bases and tired faces. It all came down to me, The Closer.
I struck out the first batter, surprising the batter, the catcher, Kemp, my infielders and even the umpire who at one point actually said, “Damn, I guess that was a strike.”
The second batter hit into a fielder’s choice which in this case meant that I could have chosen to leave the mound, field the ball and throw the runner out at home but I chose not to, being an exalted pitcher now, and let the shortstop toss the runner out at second while a runner scored. While baseball is certainly a team sport, it is important to note that the runner who scored belonged to the prior pitcher’s earned run average, not mine.
With men at the corners and the cellar of the league at stake, I faced my third batter of the day and shocked everyone by striking him out. My teammates didn’t carry me off the field but at least they weren’t angry at me. Besides, we still had an inning to play.
Drenched in sweat from the pressure of pitching, I approached the plate to take my turn at bat. I noticed there was no catcher but the umpire was getting set anyway.
“Ah, ump, there’s no catcher,” I said, hoping to get thrown out of the game for impertinence.
The umpire lifted his left hand and showed me a catcher’s mitt.
“I’m catching,” he said. “They’ve run out of players.”
Only in fantasy baseball.
“Well, in that case,” I said, “Play Ball!”
I took a feeble swing at the first pitch and looked back at the umpire/catcher.
“I would have called it a strike,” he said. Fair enough.
I battled the pitcher to a 2-2 count before swinging wildly at a ball straight down the middle.
“Yeah, I would have called you out on that. I won’t say you took a good swing but at least you didn’t swing at a bad pitch,” the umpire said, somewhat encouragingly I suppose, as I headed back to the dugout.
Far too soon, we were done with our half of the inning.
“It’s all up to you, kid,” Kemp said. “Take the mound and get us the hell out of here.”
With my first pitch, fantasy camp truly began for the opposing team. I threw nice, softly arcing pitches right into the strike zone and batter after batter had a grand old time blasting them into the outfield. The crack of wood on leather filled the air and everything seemed right in the world. Time and again, high fly balls lofted towards my outfielders who consistently obliged the fantasy atmosphere by dropping them. My infielders actually started throwing their gloves up at the balls, Little League style, in vain attempts to stop the onslaught. None of the opposing players could run anymore so no matter how far they hit the ball and how weakly the balls were thrown back in, they couldn’t get past first base so I loaded the bases one by one then proceeded to toss more pumpkins to batters so they could drive in the runs one by one. With only eight functional players left, everyone on the opposing team got a chance to blast a ball before they finally reached the five run limit for the inning.
As I sat on the bench watching our batters quickly get out 1-2-3, Kemp turned to me and said, “We tried to clock your pitches but the radar gun couldn’t pick them up. We had to switch to a calendar. Most of your pitches were thrown on Friday and crossed the plate on Saturday. Some waited until Sunday. Well, if you can’t have your own fantasy come true, you might as well help someone else with theirs. It was a hell of a try and I do seriously suggest you think about making a comeback. In another profession.”
The season could have ended there but, as you might expect, I was called up to the Show. I don’t know if it was my spectacular pitching, my flawless fielding, my power hitting or my first base coaching but they want me in the All Star game tomorrow to play against the former major league players. A small group of 74 other players have been chosen from the combined roster of 75 camp attendees to be my teammates. Introductions at 10 AM, first pitch at 10:30. Call early for the best seats.
I sat next to Barabaro Garbey, a utility player for the 1984 World Series champion Tigers, at dinner. Garbey is from Cuba which means he did not come up through the usual system in baseball. Since I am also taking an unusual path in my baseball career, I figured we had a lot in common and he might have some helpful tips for me.
Garbey came to the U.S in 1980 as a refuge in the Mariel boatlift when he was 23. When he told me this, I formed an image in my mind of a young man, wide eyed and confused in refuge camp. I figured a scout just happened to pass by one day and saw him tossing a ragged ball around behind a chain link fence and then gave him a tryout. A real American success story with Hollywood potential.
“Tell me what it was like the first time the scout saw you in the camp,” I said.
“What you talking about, man? Some scout didn’t just see me, I was on the Cuban national team. Baseball scouts were waiting for us and checking the name lists every day. They signed me right away as a free agent.”
Ok, maybe the movie script needs a little work.
We talked hitting for awhile as Garbey is one of the batting coaches in camp as well as being an instructor in the Atlanta Braves minor league system. He gave me some tips that directly contradicted Ike’s instruction. I felt relieved because, with contradictory advice, I could swing any way I wanted and I would still be following professional training.
Our talk eventually turned to Cuba because of my concern that a flood of talent from the islands was about to hit our shores and compete with me for a space on professional baseball rosters. Garbey, recognizing my deep international political expertise, asked me what I thought would happen with respect to Cuban/American relations as he was keen to go back and visit at some point.
I told him that relations would be fully restored sooner than most people thought, regardless of all the noise to the contrary in Washington. I figure the Republicans will jump up and down and scream for awhile, because that’s what they do (the Democrats do not jump up and down and scream as they prefer to wring their hands and sigh a lot before asking for more money – I’m an equal opportunity skeptic when it comes to politics), and then their money men will whisper in their ear to shut up because there’s business to be done in Cuba. It should all be wrapped up by July because this is an issue that cannot continue into the next presidential election season for the simple reason that 99.87% of Americans believe the embargo has become ridiculous. They want sun, sand, cigars and speedy baseball players. Besides, Pope Francis brokered the deal and anyone would be a fool to cross him.
“So I can plan to visit Cuba in July? Are you sure?”
I sat back, nodded sagely and without any real expertise at all, said, “I guarantee it.”
“That will make my father so very, very happy. He has been waiting many years for this day.”
“Well, you can tell him for me that this one is in the bag.”
“Oh no, that is not necessary. You can tell him yourself. This is may father sitting next me. I would like to introduce you.”
I kid you not. His father was sitting there listening to us. Now he’s making plans for a family reunion based on my diplomatic expertise.
I quickly changed the topic, hoping they would forget about my bold pronouncements (they won’t, I fear), and brought the conversation around to baseball – an area of shared expertise. Expecting to spend a brief time in the minor leagues before I’m called up to the bigs, I asked Garbey about evaluating talent.
“When you look at a new team in Single A, can you tell who the one or two guys are that have a chance to advance?”
“Absolutely, no question about it.”
“Are the players aware of who is likely to make it as well?”
“Absolutely not. Every player thinks he is the one who is going to advance. Part of my job is to make everyone believe that, even though I know it is not true. They want to believe it so that’s easy. The problem is really simple. There are 40 draft picks each year for each team. That means 40 people have to be let go every year. We know who they are.”
“Why bother selecting so many new people each year if you know that only one or two will make it?”
“Simple. We need teams to play against the one or two who will make it. That’s the job for the other 38. They don’t know it. They can’t know it because then they would not play as hard.”
I immediately felt sad for the 38 guys who would be assigned to practice against me so that I could further sharpen my skills on the way up through the farm system. Oh well, I guess they should have practiced harder or chosen better genes. Still, concerned that some of my yet to be met friends would face quick disappointment, I asked about instruction.
“How much better can you make a player with coaching? Is there any chance that someone could surprise you and move up?”
“Anything is possible. I can make anyone better if they work hard enough but that does not mean I can make them good enough. Still, you never know what could happen.”
“So you could take a player like me, who has never played competitively, and make him better?”
“You? Sure, I can make you better. Look at you now. Anyone could make you better. I don’t know if I could get you to Little League standards but maybe. Stranger things have happened.”
“You mean Major League.”
“I say what I mean, man.”
We were obviously having language problems. I figured I should clear things up so that Barbaro would remember this conversation when we got together in a couple years to compare World Series rings.
“So you can make me a good hitter. I mean you can make me an even better hitter than I am now.”
“Man, I never said anything about making you a good hitter. Don’t you listen? I said I could make you a better hitter. That doesn’t mean good. I also said anything is possible but we are talking about you, man. You are not anything, you are more like nothing. I didn’t say I could do anything with nothing.”
Garbey’s father nodded in agreement even though he’d never seen me play.
I felt sorry for Garbey’s confusion but didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his father so I let the issue rest and resumed my discourse on the intricacies of global politics as we finished dinner. As we got up to leave, Garbey brought the topic back around to baseball.
“Just so you are not confused, I am sure you will make it into the minor leagues. After all, it only costs five bucks to get in the gate. I will see you there!”
Isn’t that nice? A former pro player is actually willing to pay to come see me play. That’s really touching. I think I’ll surprise him by leaving him some complimentary tickets at the box office. Maybe he’ll bring over his whole family from Cuba to watch.
The Final Pitch
A gloomy, rain filled sky greeted me on my morning walk to the Waffle House. After yesterday’s hit fest, I decided a change in my routine was necessary so I switched from grease to sugar for breakfast, substituting waffles for eggs. That should fix everything.
The nutritional alteration certainly changed something as the electricity went out twice as I sat at breakfast. The wind picked up and sheets of rain whipped against the window. After a week of perfect weather, was it possible we would be rained out of the most important game of my life?
A couple hours later, a subdued group of grizzled veteran ballplayers quietly emptied our lockers and prepared to head home. The rain had let up somewhat but the infield was soaking wet. It was time to finally face reality and …
TWEEEEEEEEEET!!! TWEEEET!!! TWEEET!!!!!!!!!!
The camp director’s whistle cut through the melancholy filled locker room.
“First game starts at 10:15! Get dressed and get out there!’
We looked at each other, grinned ear to ear and grabbed our uniforms out of our bags. It was time to play ball!
The format for today was a little different than sports fans might be used to. Each team of campers would play the former Tigers for two innings with half of our batters coming to the plate in each inning. After the two inning game, the next team would step in and play the pros. The order of teams playing would be week champions first, followed in descending order according to final ranking in the standings. Batting order was determined by the original team roster.
This format worked to our advantage because we would, of course, go last. This would give us ample opportunity to scout out the pros. Furthermore, I would be the last batter as I was in the original roster, which Kemp had reversed at the beginning of the week in an attempt to break his previous years’ pattern of always coming in last. (Makes you wonder if coaching might be the problem, eh?)
I climbed into the press box to begin my scouting. A hard, cold wind blew in from right field, quickly drying the infield and chilling the players’ bats. Amateur hitting is just hard to match up against professional pitching, at least for the other campers. I, however, saw some chinks in the pitching that I felt sure I could exploit.
The Tigers hitting was reasonably good and the other teams’ pitchers were regularly tagged for singles until Ike, the batting instructor, came to the plate. In each appearance, Ike would swing and miss, hit a few foul balls and then weakly bounce something into the infield. Expletives filled the air after each appearance even as I shouted encouragement. During the fifth game, I finally went over to the pros’ dugout and found Ike.
“Hey man, you gotta help me with some hitting advice, Ike. Next game I’m going to be at the plate for the last time this season. I need your advice.”
Ike straightened up, cleared his throat and said, “Ok, here’s what you do, just like I told you before, you keep your shoulder…”
“Hold on Ike. What I need you to do is simply tell me how to forget everything you ever taught me because, Ike, you can’t hit worth shit!”
This set the whole dugout rolling in laughter.
“I’m gonna git you Parrent! You better watch your ass at first base because I’m steaming through! You think you can get me out? Sheeeiiiiiit, you can’t field an ear of corn hanging on a stalk!”
I trotted back to our dugout and prepared to face the music.
As the fifth game wrapped up, the Tigers had racked up five solid wins. Everything was proceeding as it always had. The Tigers had never, NEVER, lost a game in the 52 previous sessions of Fantasy Camp. Of course, they’d never faced our team before.
Our first inning lineup quickly succumbed to superior pitching. However, something extraordinary happened when the Tigers came to bat. We held them. Concussed Steve found his control and the infield played better than we had all week. The pros scored one run but then we held tight. With a man on third and two outs on the scoreboard, their last hope, Ike, approached the plate.
“I’m gonna show you some hittin’ now, Parrent. Hey! Someone get that boy a helmet and facemask down there at first base. He’s gonna need it when Ike’s bat speaks!”
I called all of our outfielders in to the edge of the infield. This infuriated Ike but since he hadn’t hit it to the dirt, much less the outfield, I figured it was the right strategy.
Ike then surprised everyone by hitting a hard hopper between first and second. Our second baseman stunned the crowd by snagging the ball and tossing it to me. Just before the ball got to me, I stepped off the bag. I caught the ball and started walking down the first baseline towards home plate where Ike seemed to be having a bit of a problem gathering speed while the runner from third touched home.
“You and me buddy, you and me,” I said, slowly approaching the pro. “You gotta make it to first to make that run count.”
I couldn’t understand a word of Ike’s vernacular but I’m pretty sure none of it should be printed.
Our pitcher strolled over to me, said, “This is sad. Give me the ball.” He walked up and put the tag on Ike, retiring the side.
With only four players left to hit in our lineup, an amazing story unfolded. The Tigers led us 1-0. To maintain their perfect record, they had to stop us before our final player, me, came to the plate. Once I batted, the game would be over regardless of whether we had three outs. Our batters, silent so often during the week, started plunking hits over the infielders. One by one, they filled the bases.
Appropriately, it all came down to me and the pitcher, Mike Maroth, a pro with 443 strikeouts in the major leagues. He needed one more to preserve tradition, dignity and, most importantly, bragging rights.
Maroth stared me down.
“Parrent can’t hit shit!” Ike screamed from the dugout.
“Aw man, I can’t believe it’s come down to this,” Kemp muttered, realizing that after having his team finish last, he now faced the prospect of losing to that very same team and, far worse, to me.
The first pitch came in fast, waist high, middle of the plate – my sweet spot. I swung harder than I intended and smashed the ball farther than even I ever imagined possible. The wind blew it foul.
Maroth, visibly shaken, threw the next one low for ball one.
“Throw it in the strike zone! Throw it in the strike zone! Parrent can’t hit shit! I should know, I taught him!” screamed Ike, not quite realizing what he had had just said but it did set the crowd laughing.
The next pitch came screaming right through the strike zone as I swung late and high. Strike two.
“He’s a freakin’ strikeout artist Maroth! Get him out!” screamed Kemp.
I stepped out of the batter’s box. I looked at the loaded bases. I noticed the wind dropping down to a whisper. I closed my eyes. I breathed deeply. I thought of all the balls I hit in practice. I visualized the perfect swing. I opened my eyes and stepped back into the box. I had opened the camp on the very first pitch with a line drive off of Frank Tanana. Now, I was ready to face the final pitch of camp – and the legacy of an unbroken win streak by the professional Detroit Tigers.
The pitcher set.
The infielders tensed.
The crowd held their breath.
I watched the ball leave Maroth’s hand, fast, waist high, down the middle.
I loaded my stance, shifted my weight, tracked the ball, kept my shoulder in, held my head still and swung.
The ball met the barrel of the bat perfectly…