Now it was the summer of ’62. That dormant dream of playing professional baseball flickered brightly again.
Mr. Larsen and Mrs. Larsen had not been to any of the first seven games. They had heard that Rich was playing well and decided to come to see him play.
It was just past mid-season.
Infield practice felt good. Nothing beats a good infield practice when nothing gets through the infield and no balls are dropped or thrown wild. All that is heard is the chatter of the players, the crack of the bat hitting grounders, the snap of the first baseman’s mitt, and the pop of the catcher’s mitt. And if one listens closely, very closely, the hiss of the ball whiz across the diamond sounds like a distant meteor across a quiet summer sky.
Rich batted third. He liked to always try to bunt his way on, the first time up. It was used as a way to gauge the pitcher, and Rich always took the first pitch.
Today was different. The ball was no longer a white blur. It was round with red stitches. Playing pepper before the game seemed like Rich saw how each stitch curled beneath the seam and snaked in and out of the holes.
Rich watched the first two batters; one struck out and the other bounced to second.
He stood his place in the batter’s box and dug his cleats into the dirt. He made up his mind to go for the first pitch. It was a fastball – pretty and true. He swung. The bat bent like a bow and lashed forward, catapulting the ball straight and true climbing steadily over second base. Rich watched the center fielder as he charged toward first, his feet frozen into the sod, and suddenly running as hard as he could with his back to the infield. Rich looked out at the center fielder as he approached second his back was still toward him and running away. The shortstop ran out for the relay throw. Mr. Hawk, the third base coach, swung his arm like a windmill. Not fast like normal, when the coach sends a runner home, but slow. “Take it easy,” he said. “You got it made.” Rich slowed and rounded third and looked over his shoulder. The shortstop was still waiting for the throw. Rich trotted home—a home run.
During the Red’s half of the first, a hot smash came to third just over the bag. Rich backhanded it and threw a perfect strike to first.
From Rich’s poised position at third, he saw his mom and dad walking from the parking lot and taking up a standing position behind the backstop.
Rich quickly noticed his dad had more than a few beers; the way he walked, the dull expression on his face, and curled down mouth. He was used to seeing it and able to identify it from much further if he had to. Rich observed other parents telling his mom and dad how far he hit the ball and pointing to where it landed.
Mrs. Larsen was too embarrassed by Mr. Larsen’s condition to take note. In Mr. Larsen’s condition, he could not take note either.
The next time to the plate Rich struck out. An easy hopper bounced through his legs and he tossed an easy double play ball over the second baseman’s head into the outfield.
Rich walked over to Mr. Hawk after the fifth inning and said, “Take me out.”
Mr. Hawk slapped him on the rear and said, “You stay in there.”
Rich replied sitting on the bench. “I ain’t movin’. Yer gonna hafta play the rest of the game without a third baseman.”
Mr. Hawk grasp Rich’s shoulder, “Yer right, sit the rest of this one out.”
Mrs. Larsen and Mr. Larsen never came to another game. Rich was relieved. Nothing looked the same or felt the same after that. He played only adequately after that game.
The last game of the season was in early August and against the Blues. They were in first place and the Reds were next to last. The first time the Rads played against the Blues, it went badly. Larry Coleman pitched a one-hitter. It was 12 to 0 loss for the Reds.
The attitude of the Blues surprised Rich. A week before the game they were bad-mouthing and taunting the Reds’ players as if they were both tied for first. The Reds had absolutely no expectation of beating the Blues. In fact, the Reds, for the most part, would have been happy for them go undefeated.
Two days before the game, Rich rode his bike to Carpenter’s Market. Sitting on the steps were Mark Hire, Tom Miles, and Mort Johnson – the Blues’ center fielder, second baseman, and shortstop.
“You guys win?” Rich asked dismounting his bike and leaning it against the market.
“Pft, It was a truculent (he pronounced it with a long “u” and a soft “c”) victory,” Mark said pridefully looking at Tom and Mort.
“Truculent?” Rich said to them the same way said it to him.
They smiled arrogantly. “Yeah, truculent,” Tom said mispronouncing it again. “It means savagely,” Tom said conceitedly.
“They haven’t got a word yet for the way we’re going to beat you guys,” Mort said.
“Well, perhaps it will be truculent,” Rich said with the correct pronunciation, as he walked by them and into the store.
Rich pulled a Double Cola from the cooler and paid Mr. Carpenter.
“Those guys givin’ you the business?” Mr. Carpenter said as he returned the change.
“They’re trying,” Rich said.
“I’m going to have to chase ’em away,” Mr. Carpenter said. “They’re keeping customers away and drawing the flies at the same time. Can ya tell ‘em to leave, for me?”
“Sure,” Rich said and walked out to the steps.
They were laughing among themselves. Rich got on his bike and took a swig from the bottle. “Can you guys wait here for me? I’m going to Coleman’s. I’ll be right back. We’ll talk about the game.”
Rich pushed out on his bike to get it rolling and peddled to Coleman’s house. He sat in the driveway watching Mark, Tom, and Mort have a good time.
The door of Carpenter’s Market swung open. Mr. Carpenter gave a gentle shove on their backs to stand them up. “I told you guys not to hang around outside this place. Ya keep decent people away. Go on, get out,” he said waving his arms and punctuating with an air kick. He turned, squinted, and saw Rich smiling. He scowled and stepped one foot inside, leaned back, and grinned at Rich.
Mark, Tom, and Mort peddled their bikes past Rich, who was still in Coleman’s driveway.
“Coleman ain’t home anyway,” Mark yelled.
“That’s funny,” Mort spoke quietly and retraining outright laughter. “We could have told him that before he rode down here.”
Rich turned his bike around and pushed into the road. “Coleman going to pitch?” Rich asked?
The boys turned around in the road and peddled back to Rich.
“Nah,” Mark said, “the coaches want us to get some fielding practice for the tournament.”
“Booker is going to pitch,” Tom snickered.
“Does he pitch?” Rich asked.
“No,” Mort said, “but that’s the only way we can make it a game.”
Arrogance exuded from their smiles, eyes, and their pores. Rich did not know what turned Mark against him. Mort was always smug, but never mean-spirited. Tom was supposed to be a friend. For the first time, Rich was happy not to be a part of their team. They held themselves as being superior.
“You guys are so puckish,” Rich said, “and that’s not a bad word either.”
Rich peddled back to Carpenter’s Market where Mr. Carpenter and Rich had a good laugh.