P.S. Please don't worry about my arm!
Why, of all people, did I become friendly with Julius French? I often wonder. Neither of us fit in on the team, and so we gravitated toward each other. But that is a shaky foundation on which to build a friendship—one that turned out to consist primarily of sullen silences. At best we shared a common moodiness, a dissatisfaction, but with what we did not know. French was regarded as a troublemaker, and most people avoided him. He said he had signed a contingent bonus contract with the Braves and had been promised $10,000 if he remained on the McCook roster 60 days.
We met every day at the pool hall and played throughout the afternoon. Our games began jovially enough, but always turned sour. We fought each other across the table, took out our private frustrations in those games. The day's loser stalked out of the pool hall determined never again to speak to the winner. Those resolutions lasted a few hours, sometimes even a day, but never longer. We were parted and reunited by our murky dissatisfactions and the grudging admission that we needed someone with whom to share them. Our friendship was neither forced nor intimate.
Julius and I watched home games from the bullpen in the left-field corner. We sat on a picnic bench and chewed tobacco. We stretched out our legs in front of us, dug the heels of our spikes into the ground and pushed back slightly so that the bench tottered and our backs rested against the wire fence that separated us from the fans behind us. We held this pose for innings, hats pulled down over our eyes, hands folded on our stomachs, stirring ourselves only to spit tobacco juice high into the air, part our legs quickly and close them again before we lost our balance. The bullpen was in the shadows and so far from home plate that we could see the ball in the catcher's glove a split second before we heard its crack. We watched the games with faint interest. They were being played by someone else and so affected their careers, not ours. We rarely found ourselves a part of those games, and only by accident. One night a base hit skipped over the foul line and hooked under our bench. We were so surprised at this intrusion into our solitude that we didn't move until we heard the puffing and cursing and pounding feet of the opposing team's leftfielder. We dove oft' the bench just before he grabbed the ball and fired it to third base. Julius dusted himself off with mock solemnity and said, "Damn, fella, show some manners!" The fans in the stands laughed and we righted our bench and resumed our pose.
More often the closest we came to the action was when Phil Niekro sprinted to the bullpen to warm up before going in to save yet another game. Most of the time we just sat there chewing tobacco and cursing Overby's luck as he struck out batter after batter. To help pass the time there were always a few young boys rattling the fence behind us. They pleaded with us to show them our gloves. Like prisoners they reached their hands through the fence and tried the gloves on. They pounded their fists into the gloves and shouted, "Fire it to me, babe!" When we turned our backs they tried to pull the gloves through the fence, but the openings were too small. They would lose interest in the gloves and ask us to give them a baseball. Often we did, but only in return for a hot dog or a hamburger, which we ate behind our raised gloves so that Steinecke could not see us from his spot in the third-base-coach box.
It was difficult to sustain enthusiasm when we were not pitching, and even more so considering the number of games we played in only two months. We had no scheduled days off, not even for travel, because none of the league's six towns was farther than a three-hour bus ride from any other league town. Our road trips were one-night stands. We arrived in time for batting practice, played the game, ate supper at midnight and returned to McCook at around four a.m. Because we never stayed overnight in these towns, I have retained no sense of them. I remember only that to reach Hastings and Holdrege and Kearney and North Platte and Grand Island we had to pass through miles of flatland that smelled sweetly of alfalfa and occasionally through a town like Funk or Indianola or Wellfleet or Juniata or Arapahoe that was only a block long.
I remember specifically only one afternoon. We had stopped to eat at a roadside caf� outside of Holdrege. It began to rain and the drops splattered the plate glass window. Soon hailstones were bouncing off the window. They grew larger and larger, until they were the size of a book. They were flat, jagged chunks of ice that looked as if they were torn from an iceberg and were being hurled against the window by some savage god. The ice hit the window with a clang, and the window buckled and rippled like a transparent sheet of aluminum. Everyone in the caf� huddled against the far wall away from the window. We stared at it in disbelief and waited for it to shatter. But the hail stopped as suddenly as it had begun and seconds later the sun was shining. The sun grew hot now and quickly melted the hailstones. Outside, we searched for the larger pieces we had seen hit the window but could find none. We had begun to doubt their size when one of the waitresses pointed to the used-car lot across the street and we saw cars with shattered windshields and pockmarked bodies.
The sun stayed out for the rest of the afternoon and that night we played a doubleheader against the Holdrege White Sox, although how those games turned out I cannot remember. I do not remember much of any of the games we played on the road other than those in which I pitched. I remember in detail, for instance, a game I started in Grand Island in mid-July. I defeated the Grand Island Athletics 1-0 for my first victory in professional baseball. My mound opponent was Jose Santiago, a tall Puerto Rican with stiletto sideburns. Santiago would one day become a successful pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, for whom he started two games in the 1967 World Series. That night in 1959 I was a better pitcher than he by a slight margin. I threw harder. We matched each other's serves for eight innings before Ron Hunt scored from third on a fly ball to shallow center. He dove headfirst past the lunging catcher. I hugged him when he entered the dugout. I ended the game by striking out the last batter on three pitches. In nine innings I had struck out 11, walked three and surrendered two singles. It was the kind of performance that would hound me throughout my career. I would produce such games once in every four starts. After them, my manager would say, "It shows you can do it." But I could never summon those games and, in fact, the harder I tried to duplicate them the more elusive they became. In my next three starts I failed to last beyond the fourth inning. Then, when I was about to despair, it all returned in a whoosh—speed, curve, control, savvy, even luck—and I pitched a game of blinding and maddening brilliance.
I remember the first game I pitched after my two-hitter in Grand Island. It was my first appearance at Cibola Stadium. The McCook Gazette carried an article about me. It described me as one of the brightest of the McCook Braves' pitching prospects. It mentioned that I was a bonus baby. I was very nervous before the game and determined to impress the fans with at least a repeat of my performance against Grand Island. I walked the first three batters and then struck out one. The fans cheered. I saw myself striking out the side with all those runners on base. I walked the next batter and the next, and when Steinecke came out to the mound and I saw Niekro walking from the bullpen I made no attempt to dispute Steinecke's decision. I escaped to the dugout. When the inning was over Steinecke told me I could return to the armory and take a shower. "You're through for the night," he said. I stepped out of the dugout and walked through the fence into the parking lot.
I felt my second game at Cibola Stadium would be a chance to redeem myself. But I did not pitch much better than I had the game before. I lasted a few innings before the other team got two hits off me and I began firing the ball like a madman. Finally Steinecke came out to the mound. "What an exhibition!" he snapped. "Go take a shower!"