Back in the Day
“Did you play sports in college, Papa?” grandson Dylan asked Professor Lancaster Markem.
“Why, yes, I played baseball my freshman year at Heliotrope University They dropped baseball after our coach Hack Procrustes left to become athletic director at San Andreas Fault State University.”
“Please tell us a baseball story,” Dylan’s twin brother Blake begged.
“Very well, boys, here goes,” Markem said, glad to have an excuse to stroll down Memory Lane.
At one time the Heliotrope University baseball team dominated the Illini-Hoosier-Buckeye Conference because our coach, a sharp featured fellow named Hack Procrustes, was a master strategist and a genius at recruiting student-athletes. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Jack Palance, and when he spoke, people listened. He had a piercing look in his eyes that would shiver anyone’s timbers. His favorite mantra was “Don’t lose your intensity.” I was afraid of him.
I will never forget the day he came to observe my high school team play, looking to recruit players for his college team. Our coach, who was also our chemistry teacher, told us that a famous college coach was in the stands that day. “I don't want to put any pressure on you guys, but if you play well, there may be a college scholarship in the works for you.”
“Watch my dust,” Swiney Hunker said. He was the star of our team and almost certain to be recruited by a Big Ten university. He was that good, and I was not surprised when he was signed as a bonus baby right after he graduated from high school.
I knew that Swiney was the player who was the one who had the best chance, but I wanted in the worst way to go to Heliotrope University. My parents thought HU was too expensive, but I wanted to continue playing sports after high school, and I knew I didn't have a chance at Cornsylvania University, the big state school where they wanted to send me. I thought if I do something today to distinguish myself maybe I can get a college coach to persuade my parents that I have the skill to play college baseball.
As the game progressed, it did not appear that I would get the chance to do something extraordinary. We were playing Quincy High School, a team that had not lost a game all year. Quincy was so much superior to us that we could not understand why we were on their schedule. Playing us must have seemed to them like taking candy from a baby.
Their pitcher, a hulking brute named Monk Morelock, was unhittable, and he had kept us scoreless going into the late innings. Even Swiney Hunker couldn’t hit him. Quincy had a 3-0 lead as they took their last at bat. They loaded the bases with no outs, and it appeared they would break the game wide open.
Shagnasty Thompson, their big hitter, was coming to bat, and my instincts told me to play medium depth. I was right. He hit a line drive in the gap between the right fielder and me, and it sure looked like we had bought the farm because Pee Wee Odor, our right fielder, moved slower than a glacier.
With little hope I took off at full speed and dived at the last instant and caught the ball. I rolled over, came up and threw to second base to double off the runner there. Our second baseman had the presence of mind to throw to first to get the runner there. It was a triple play! Our fans went wild in their cheering. “I wish my girl friend had been here to see that,” I said to the umpire who had raced out to make sure I had caught the ball. Then I corrected myself, “I wish I had a girl friend.”
The umpire smiled and said, “Son, many years from now you can tell this story to your great-grandchildren. They won't believe you, but you can tell them anyway. As for the girl friend, just be patient. There is someone in this world for you to love, a main squeeze to share a life of connubial bliss with you. But watch out for the young women of questionable virtue. Be sure to follow this advice: Never eat at a place called Mom's, play cards with a man named Doc, or believe a young woman who says she will respect you in the morning.”
I have to tell you that my diving catch was the greatest moment I had in high school baseball, But our team was still behind 3-0, and we had only three outs to go. It was too much like Casey at the Bat” to suit me.
Monk Morelock was really pumped up. He stood on the mound like Fafnir and glared at our batters. In truth he was as mean as nine miles of bad road.
He retired our first two batters easily. We were down to our last out. But then Pee Wee Odor saved the day. Of all people, it was Pee Wee Odor, who was normally an automatic out at the plate. Pee Wee was playing only because our starting right fielder left the team when his father needed him to help with the farming.
How did a nondescript player like Pee Wee Odor save the day? Pee Wee used psychology. He asked the home plate umpire to examine the baseball. Angrily, Monk Morelock rolled the ball to home plate to express his disgust at being challenged. While the umpire was scrutinizing the baseball, Pee Wee Odor flipped the bird at Monk, gave Monk the middle finger, suggesting that Monk do something impossible..
Monk started to home plate with murder in his eyes. Wisely, Pee Wee Odor ran behind the umpire for protection, and Buster Monolith, the Quincy catcher went out to intercept his pitcher. The whole scene reminded me of a Mel Brooks movie. But everyone could see that Monk was fizzing with anger. Pee Wee had rattled Monk’s cage and rattled it good.
When play resumed, Monk’s first pitch came right at Pee Wee’s head, but the little fellow was ready and flung himself to the ground, moving with unaccustomed alacrity.
The next pitch hit Pee Wee squarely on the gnastus. It was thrown so hard we could still see the seams of the baseball in Pee Wee’s butt a month after the game. To him, it was a badge of honor which he would gladly display for any girl who asked to see it.
Pee Wee was on first base, grinning from ear to ear because he had challenged Fafnir and lived to tell about it.
On the other hand, Monk was so rattled that he walked our next hitter, our third baseman named Suds Guzzle.
Monk’s wildness continued with the next hitter, Windy Belcher, who also walked. By then Monk was as frenzied and out of control as the Tasmanian Devil, and the Quincy coach had to act fast .Quincy had one out to go for an undefeated season but a pitcher who could not find the plate if it came up behind him and goosed him.
Now Quincy had another pitcher, a mild mannered, scholarly pitcher named Justin Case, who had started warming up after Monk Morelock went postal. But Justin Case had a problem. Since Monk was so good, Justin had not pitched in a single game all season. Justin had developed a special pitch he called the apple pitch. He would grip the ball as if he was holding an apple by the stem, and when he released the ball, he would give it a twist with his thumb that would make the ball dance like a fart in a hot skillet. However, Justin’s inactivity had caused him to have no confidence in his pitch, and now he was being called on to use it.
I was the batter Justin Case was summoned to pitch to. I was the last hope for our team because even though we had the bases loaded we were still behind 3-0. I didn’t like it that the Quincy coach yelled to Justin Case, “No hitter, no batter up there, easy out.”
Crestfallen and melancholy with my lower lip quivering, I called for time and stepped out of the batter’s box. I picked up a handful of dirt, tried unsuccessfully to spit, took off my cap, checked my bat to see if it was cracked, and hyperphenated.
The third base coach, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Ronald Reagan, sensed my nervousness, and called me up the line. He put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, “Win one for the Gipper. You can do it. Take one strike and hit to right.” Then he walked back to the coaching box and gave me the sign. He rubbed his chin, tipped his cap, tugged at his sleeve, kicked the dirt, gently massaged his left testicle with his right hand, picked up a pebble, flibbered his lips, slapped his knee, held up one finger, and yelled encouragement.
“Why is he doing that? He’s already told me what to do?” I asked the umpire.
“Son, haven’t you figured out by now that baseball is all ritual? A sacred ritual. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The bat, the ball, the quest for the Holy Grail. Giving the signs is an important part of the ritual,” the umpire answered. “Now step in there and let’s finish this game.”
I obeyed the umpire. I faced Justin Case and kept my eyes on him as he wound up to throw his famous apple pitch. I was surprised that the pitch had nothing on it. The ball came my way straight as a string and at medium speed. I closed my eyes and swung as hard as I could. I felt the solid contact of bat meeting ball, and I opened my eyes to watch the ball soar toward center field. Back, back, back it went until it cleared the fence. Dazed and dumbfounded, I circled the bases and was mobbed at home plate by my teammates. We won the game 4-3.
As I left the field I was confronted by Hack Procrustes, who pointed a gnarled finger at me and said those words I longed to hear, “You’re my center fielder for next year.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said, and that’s how I came to play one year of baseball at Heliotrope University.