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"How do you want me to catch you?" Chooch asked before they got out of the car.
"You call the pitches."
Doc shook off nothing that day and hurled three dominating innings. At once he sensed what the other Phillies pitchers did, something that was burning in those two eyes and shining from that round moon face looking up at him: all the innocence of the boy who'd lost his father and all the responsibility of the boy who'd become the father. Sensed Chooch's belief that the pitcher's ERA was his ERA, and that every opponent's hit should never, ever have happened to his hurler—it was his fault.
Three months after that day Doc was pouring perfection into Chooch's mitt against the Marlins, and four months after that, the second playoff no-hitter in major league history. Of the 219 pitches he threw in those two hitless games, he shook off Chooch once. "Speech!" cried the players, greeting Halladay with a standing ovation as he returned to the clubhouse after the perfect game. Doc pointed to his catcher and said, "Chooch is the man! What else can I say?" End of speech.
The numbers, in the end, sang their love song: When Chooch was his receiver last season, Halladay's ERA was 2.13 and the opposition's batting average was .232. When it was anyone else, Doc's ERA jumped to 3.75 and opponents' batting average leaped to .294. The two or three times a game he used to shake off his catchers, Doc says, became two or three times a month with Ruiz, and this season he began striking out more hitters than ever at age 34, steamrolling into another All-Star Game with an 11--3 record and a 2.45 ERA.
Words weren't Doc's currency, so how could he thank his masked mate? Here, Chooch. The home plate that the Marlins dug up and presented to Doc after the perfect game—it's yours. Here, Chooch. A wristwatch and a stunning diamond ring with that game's date and line score and thanks, roy etched inside it—yours. Here, Chooch. The topper, a brown box with to chooch and from roy scrawled in the corner, left on a chair in front of Chooch's locker in spring training: an exact replica of Doc's 2010 Cy Young Award. Then came the commercial for the MLB 2K11 video game in which Doc couldn't decide anything—whether to eat a turkey or ham sandwich for lunch, whether to wear his red shirt or blue one—without looking to a Chooch blowup doll for a signal. Each gesture stunned Chooch. He kept Doc's offerings near his father's photograph, police belt and badge, and his eyes filled with equal reverence when he spoke of both men and their keepsakes.
It's 6:35. They head toward the bullpen. Tonight the Tailor becomes even more discreet, measuring every word and gesture against the sanctity of the tunnel Doc burrows into when he's pitching. Even on days between starts, rather than risk interrupting Halladay's routine with spoken words, Chooch often exchanges texts with him. Their warmup session transpires in silence tonight, to the metronome of mitt pop.
Ohhhhhh, say ...
Chooch disappears into the dark bathroom and his own cocoon... .
The Star-Spangled Banner —the hurrah of a young nation overcoming the same empire twice in three decades—averages a minute and a half in length. Who's to say what odds mightn't be overcome by a man who spent a minute and a half each day touching the bottom of his being and the summit of his dreams? Why, to think ... the least-respected hitter in the Phils' lineup, usually relegated to the eight hole, might end up leading his first-place team in hitting, as Chooch's .302 did last season.