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In the spring of 1961, the real spring, no false spring now, I drove to the Braves' minor league training camp at Waycross, Ga. in a new white Chrysler. It had fins like wings and red plastic seats. Its dashboard was a glass globe filled with dials. At night it glowed with a blue phosphorescent light. The light reflected off my face and filled the car, and I drove as in a blue nimbus. The car was packed with my belongings and those of my wife of six weeks, who would remain at home in Connecticut until I summoned her to our as yet unspecified summer home. We were both 19.
At Waycross I was given a private room in barracks No. 2. I hooked up my new stereo system, a wedding present, so that its music could be heard in the long, open part of the barracks where the others slept side by side on cots. I had brought only two records. At night I played Lion Sleeps Tonight and in the morning, to the delight of an Alabama farm boy named Clay (Cotton) Carroll, who was to become one of the mainstays of the Cincinnati Reds, I played Cotton Fields.
I could not have known, after the bloom of hope I had experienced in the Florida Winter Instructional League, that the end was so few pitches away.
My first game at Waycross was against Jacksonville or Cedar Rapids or Yakima—I'm not sure. I remember it was still cool and I had to warm up a long time in the bullpen. I remember, too, that I did not feel right as I threw. My motion felt awkward. I had no rhythm. There was a point in my pitching motion when all the parts of my body—throwing arm, shoulders, back, hips, legs—should have been exploding in unison toward the plate. But the parts were out of sync. While the rest of my body was lunging forward, my throwing arm lagged behind. It was as if my arm was reaching back, too late, to grasp something it had forgotten. Only when both feet were planted in my follow-through and my body's rhythm was all but spent did my arm truly begin moving toward the plate. It was as if I was standing flat-footed and merely flipping the ball with my arm. Even as I threw I could feel what was wrong. But my arm had a will of its own. I could impose nothing on it. It bounced balls in the dirt and flung them over my catcher's head. And none of those wild pitches even faintly resembled the fastballs I had once thrown in Davenport, Iowa.
I pitched to 12 batters that day and did not retire one of them. After every walk and wild pitch and base hit, I cursed and glared and kicked the dirt as I so often had at Davenport, and then, quite to my surprise—I don't remember when or why—it occurred to me that what was happening at this moment was somehow different from anything I had ever experienced before. This thought startled me, as if I were suddenly faced with a strange and unexpected pinch hitter. I paused a moment between pitches and tried to focus on this different thing. When I finally did recognize it the rage left me and in its place came panic. It started as a flutter in my stomach and rose, a solid lump, to my throat.
I could not swallow. For one terrifying second I could think of nothing but getting a breath, and only when I finally swallowed again was my mind free to dwell on it. I had forgotten how to do it! How to pitch! I had no control over all those natural movements—arm motion, follow-through, kick—that had been merely reflexive actions for so many years. I tried to remember, but saw only bits and pieces. Shattered fragments of a thing once whole. I sifted through the fragments, tried to fit one to another, could not remember how to make my throwing arm move in unison with my lunging body. I could not remember how I'd once delivered a baseball with a fluid and effortless motion. And even if I could remember how those fragments fit, I somehow knew I could never transmit that knowledge to my arms and legs, my back and shoulders. The delicate wires through which that knowledge had once been communicated were burned out, I know now, by an excess of energy channeled along them too often.
Terror-stricken on the mound, I looked through the home-plate screen and saw the scouts and managers sitting in their deck chairs, shaking their heads in disbelief. A cluster of ballplayers was forming around them, growing larger with each pitch as word spread from diamond to diamond. Behind them all was the rotunda. On its flat roof I could see four Braves executives—Birdie Tebbetts, John McHale, John Mullen, Roland Hemond—standing together.
I began my motion, tried in mid-motion to remember, felt my arm jerk uncontrollably toward the plate, and then I saw the ball rising over the home-plate screen, over the heads of those behind the screen, higher still, over the top of the executives' rotunda, the men standing on it glancing up, startled, and then following the ball with their eyes until it came down on Diamond 4. For a split second everyone—players, umpires, scouts, managers, executives—stared at the ball, resting on the infield dirt behind second base, and then they looked up at the point where the ball had passed over the rotunda, and then, in unison, they turned toward me, standing stunned on the mound. Someone laughed, and then others laughed, too.
I lost it all that spring. The delicate balance I had so assiduously created in the instructional league at Bradenton collapsed, just like that. All that was left was a new and impenetrable frustration that I have only lately begun to crack. After each game I slid farther down through the rosters of the Braves' farm system—from Austin to Jacksonville to Cedar Rapids to Yakima to Boise and, finally, to Eau Claire, Wis. of the Class C Northern League. I broke camp with Eau Claire, an act of kindness by the Braves.
I arrived at Eau Claire in late April with my wife, who had joined me at the end of spring training. We rented a single room with a tiny kitchenette on the second floor of an old two-family house. It disturbed me that, unlike most baseball wives, Carol knew nothing about the game to which I had devoted my life. She took her cues solely from my enthusiasms and despairs. Whenever I pitched decently—a rarity—I had to tell her so, and then she would smile and say, "That's nice, dear." When I was knocked out of the box in the first inning and she saw my dejection, she commiserated with me: "Well, it's certainly not your fault. It's hard to do good when you only play a little bit.... Why doesn't your manager let you play as much as the other pitchers?"