He was right. We were in a hole now. There was a man on, only one was out, and Normie was coming up. I called for a curveball on the outside. Tony must have had trouble picking up my sign because he threw a high, inside fastball, and Normie ripped it down the third-base line. "Foul, foul, foul," our third baseman screamed, but the runners didn't stop. The leftfielder ran over, cut the ball off and threw it in to the third baseman, who didn't see it coming because he was still pointing to the spot where the ball had supposedly hit.
"All right, I'll do it over," Normie said, running in from second base. This wasn't a gesture of sportsmanship. For Normie (or Stooie) a double was no big deal. So Normie got up again, but this time Tony got smart and walked him on four straight pitches. The next hitter grounded to first. Two outs, men on second and third. Their No. 5 hitter, a lefthanded batter with a gold and purple shirt that said "Falcons" on it, went for the first pitch and popped it up about 20 feet behind the plate.
"Mine!" Stooie yelled from shortstop, invoking the age-old rule that the star takes everything he can conceivably get near, especially if the alternative is letting someone like me try for it. But fortunately I was moving too fast to observe the pecking order and I made a running, one-handed catch. "Nice play," Stooie said, a quick rewrite from, "Next time, when I call for it...."
I trotted over to the bench, confident that I could no longer be taken for granted. I soon found out otherwise. "One, two, three, four," Stooie said, pointing to his teammates as he made the batting order. "Five, six, seven, eight." A pause, and then reluctantly, "nine." All my catch had done was put me in the category of "good field, no hit."
The first 2½ innings were uneventful. Nobody scored, and I didn't get up. But in the last of the third the drama began. Two of our men had been left on base in the second, which meant that I would lead off the third. I was standing at the plate with a bat in my hands before any of my teammates had come in from the field. I had chosen a Hillerich & Bradsby Ferris Fain model. I would have preferred to use the Duke Snider model, but the fact that I could barely lift it off the ground mitigated against it. I swung the bat slowly and menacingly at the pitcher before putting it down for a second to conserve my strength. I tapped my spikes (a pair of $2.95 Keds with a red stripe around them), straightened my cap and indicated I was ready. The first delivery was a ball, high and outside. The pitcher was annoyed with himself. Why be cute with the bottom of the order? So he laid the next one in. It was the pitch I wanted. Ash met horsehide, and I sent a dribbler down the third-base line. The third baseman took a step in, picked it up on an easy hop and threw it over the first baseman's head. "Base hit," I said to myself and tore for second, sliding in headfirst just in case the first baseman had been able to climb the fence, cross the street, reach under the blue Studebaker and relay the ball back to the field in time to cut me down. Normie was standing near second. "Tough chance," I said to him, referring to a play he'd probably seen his sister make a hundred times. He spat in his glove. I took it as a sign of agreement.
Well, maybe it wasn't a clean hit. Maybe it wasn't even a hit at all, but getting on base was the important thing. The guys who got on through errors were the same guys who walked a lot, who got hit by the pitch a lot, who did all the little things that didn't show up in the box score that helped their teams win. Guys like Eddie Stanky. And me.
But apparently the subtleties of the game escaped Stooie and Normie, because despite my "single" and my errorless game behind the plate, there were no pats on the rear, no apologies, no expressions of amazement that such an outstanding prospect had been sitting right under their noses. The problem was that our team was losing, so my contributions remained unnoticed.
We went into the last of the ninth trailing 6-5. Our first man up singled and the next two popped up, so I came to the plate with one on and two out. This is what I wanted most—the chance to be a hero. It was also what I wanted least. An out here would never be forgotten. Stooie trotted out to shortstop to talk to Normie, and from the way Stooie was gesturing it became obvious that he wanted to pinch hit an 11-year-old delivery boy who had stopped to watch the game. Normie wouldn't hear of it. Why should he? Do they pull the hot-dog man out of the stands and have him hit for Mickey Mantle? It was too unorthodox even for a game with do-overs. Stooie argued furiously, slamming his glove to the ground every time he made a point, but Normie stood firm and Stooie finally gave up, dusted off his glove and returned to the sidelines.
I stepped into the batter's box and checked the position of the fielders. They were straight away and, unfortunately, shallow, taking away one of my primary weapons, the bloop hit. The pitcher went into his windup and fired the first pitch. It was right where I wanted it, belt high and a little inside. Right in my wheel-house, as they say. Right where every muscle in my body could contribute to the total impact. I took a mighty ripple and missed. "Oh God," I thought, straightening my cap, "is it going to be like this? Are the John R. Tunis books nothing but lies?" The second pitch came in. It was low, around the ankles.
"Strike two," someone said. I couldn't believe it. It was a foot low. But I was too numb to argue. I was down to my last strike.