Where Triples Go to Die

Novel Excerpt, Chapter 20

Editor’s note – In celebration of the arrival of Spring and baseball, local author, Phil Hutcheon, has graciously allowed SoundingsMag permission to publish and excerpt from his 2017 novel. Even if you’re not familiar with the infield fly rule, you’ll be turning the pages to see what happens next in the messy intersection of sports, race, and romance in contemporary college life. Read his essay, “What Baseball Means to Me.” 

 

Chapter 20

What a beautiful day for a ball game. Let’s play two!  –Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs Presidential Medal of Freedom winner
Give my regards to the catcher.   –Franklin Delano Rosevelt, in reference to MLB catcher/ OSS spy Moe Berg, who declined the Medal of Freedom awarded for espionage relating to Werner Heisenberg and Nazi efforts to build an atomic bomb

One of the perks of Wade’s hybrid position was that he could now and then blow off a meeting and go to a ball game instead. On the pretext of keeping tabs on the athletes whose academic progress he was monitoring, he could spend an afternoon with peanuts and popcorn in the sunshine instead of stuck inside a conference room for an update on the latest breakthrough in MLA documentation format or the shortage of light bulbs in the A-V budget. With both Norma’s softball team and Josh’s baseball team set to play on campus on the same day, a few hours apart, Wade decided to go all in.

 The double-header had largely gone out of fashion in today’s game, except for make-up games after rain-outs or, in the amateur ranks, playoff elimination rounds. The toll on pitching staffs caused most coaches and players to hate them, but Wade still had fond memories of the custom. One day in his youth when his father had taken him to Candlestick, the second game had gone into extra innings. Attendance of twenty thousand or so had been announced, but by the time they finally made the return trip to the parking lot, they spotted his father’s Ford sitting almost by itself (Wade, ever the worry-wart, had wondered how they’d ever find it again when they parked, somehow doubting that a man who’d navigated by the stars through enemy skies and brought his crew home safely through thirty missions could find his own car where he’d left it). They’d wound up spending more than ten hours at the ballpark. Parking lot jitters aside, Wade had loved every minute of it. “Watch the way he carries himself,” his dad had said, the first time they saw #24 come out onto the field. “That’s the best ballplayer in the world.” Mays had homered in the first game and made a catch for the ages in the second. In between, he’d fouled a ball into the stands; Wade’s father had snatched it, bare-handed, out of the sky, and then casually presented it to his son as if it were an Easter egg he had failed to unearth in the backyard hunt. Wade still had the ball. Years later, through a contact with someone in the Giants’ front office, his father had arranged to have Mays sign it. Along with the Wilson A-2000 glove bearing Mays’ stamped signature stashed in a closet at his sister’s house, it was one of the very few possessions to which Wade attached any importance. 

As he took his seat in CSU’s renovated softball park for Norma’s game, Wade admired the improvements Allenby and his A.D. Marilyn Porter had made. Along with alumni leader Cal Logan they had spearheaded a fund-raising drive to upgrade the campus’s playing fields and locker rooms. One of the meeting rooms Wade had seen when he toured the facilities with Allenby two years ago was a quonset hut dating back to World War II. Allenby had made it clear that he wasn’t supporting or encouraging others to support an edifice complex to rival JerryWorld or the Taj Mahal. The extravaganzas being constructed all around the country didn’t impress him. After soliciting bids from several contractors, he had negotiated an arrangement for two rival firms to work together.  At his urging, a relatively new minority-owned firm that had submitted the lowest bid agreed to work with a more experienced builder who had done stadia at other campuses. After working through a few inevitable glitches, together they had installed playable, modern all-weather synthetic turf fields, and comfortable, if far from plush, facilities for the athletes, with the option to expand the stands later. Allenby had flatly rejected more grandiose plans for current seating capacity: “Let’s prove we can get two thousand out here to watch a game before we build for ten.”

The president’s caution was well-deserved. Most games on the CSU campus were lightly attended at the best of times. Wade guessed maybe three or four hundred others were in the softball stands with him waiting for the first pitch to be thrown. Norma had recovered from her injury and was warming up the pitcher who would throw it. Watching her surprising agility behind the plate, Wade was reminded that the best athlete he had grown up with, Carlie Richardson, had far outshone him and all the guys in their class at every sport she turned a hand (or foot) to—dodgeball, tetherball, kickball, soccer, as well as baseball and basketball—you name it, she dominated it. He’d long lost touch with her and wondered now if she’d had the chance in the pre-Title IX days to earn a scholarship with her talents. He hoped she hadn’t turned out to be one of those women who had abandoned all physical activity except stuffing her face and ballooned to three hundred pounds, like a certain someone he had promised himself never to think about again.

One of Wade’s few disappointments with Obama’s administration had been the President’s failure to inspire a personal fitness movement akin to JFK’s 50-mile hike fervor from the 1960’s. Lean and fit himself, still playing competitive basketball as he hit his fifties, Obama had been understandably too preoccupied with keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the the insane leaders of Iran, North Korea, and the Republican Party to give his full attention to the cholesterol crisis, instead largely delegating that battle to his wife. Wade admired The First Lady’s tackling of exercise, nutrition, and obesity issues, but still, looking around him every day, in town or on campus, in the stands around him even now, Wade was appalled by the excesses that met his eye. Students at the cafeterias were still commonly lunching on a plate of “loaded fries” and a twenty-ounce soda. In the meantime, high schools around the country had cut back on or even eliminated P.E. classes, the most important in the whole curriculum. What good did it do you to excel in Chemistry or Biology if you couldn’t control the amount you consumed? In the town he’d grown up in, his sister had reported, the high school had eliminated the budget for towels, so kids had stopped taking showers after P.E., instead sitting in their own sweat in classes afterwards. Eventually P.E. had been made optional after the freshman year, and now fewer than half of the students even took the classes at all.

At CSU, as at other colleges and universities, so much emphasis had been placed on the varsity programs that P.E. classes had shrunk to a minimum. Facilities were mainly devoted to the varsity athletes, and even in the summers, the coaches ran clinics or camps to supplement their own income and to cater to prospects for varsity play. In was true that there were intramural programs, such as the one Norma had thrived and been discovered in, but a relatively small portion of the student body engaged in these. Good luck signing up for badminton if there was one section scheduled for a population of 20,000 students. Allenby wasn’t ready to deal with the blowback yet, but he had kicked around with Wade the idea of establishing a requirement at CSU for students to maintain enrollment in a Physical Education class and a Community Service class every semester. Students would be required to do something to get into better shape, and they wouldn’t have to go to Mexico, as Norma had done, to find their service projects; there were plenty of them in the local neighborhoods. 

Norma fired a strike down to second after the last warm-up pitch, and the game began. Wade fought off his annoyance with the “walk up” music blasting from the announcing booth as the first batter approached the plate; he’d forgotten to bring his plugs, so he tore some napkins up and stuffed his ears. Indecorous, no doubt, but he wasn’t about to risk any more hearing loss for the lyrical pearls forthcoming. At least, he noticed, he didn’t have to worry about hiding an erection as was common at one of Lara’s volleyball games or various other events featuring women athletes in scanty garb. Either he was getting senile or the softball unis were distinctly unerotic. All those bouncing pony-tails could probably be a turn-on if you let them, but Wade forced himself to concentrate on the game.

Both sides went down in order in the first two innings, the pitchers dominant, as usual in the women’s sport. Wade was reminded that although in theory it seemed it would be easier to hit the softball since it was so much bigger than a baseball, the shorter distance from mound to plate made the task actually more difficult. He remembered seeing on TV an exhibition game in which Eddie Fegner had struck out Mays and Aaron, among others, so much in command that he needed only three defenders behind him: the King and His Court. 

In the top of the third Norma made a nifty move from the behind the plate to pick up a swinging bunt, the closest thing to a mighty blow Wade had so far seen, and throw the batter out. In the same frame she impressed Wade again by sprinting out of her squat to back up a throw from third base on a roller there; when the ball ticked off the first baseman’s glove, Norma was right there to catch it in the air, preventing an advance to second base. Hitting in the seventh spot, she led off the bottom of the third with a line drive out to left field, the first solid contact a hitter on either side had made. In the fifth, with the game still scoreless, she advanced with a deft sacrifice bunt the girl who had walked ahead of her to lead off, hustling down the line and nearly beating the throw that retired her at first. The runner made it to third on the infield out that followed but was stranded there when the nine-hitter struck out. The top of CSU’s order finally pushed across a run to take the lead in the bottom of the sixth, and then in the top of the seventh won the game with something Wade had never witnessed in all his years of watching baseball. He’d grown up with the aphorism that every time you came to the ballpark you saw something you had never seen before, and this time it turned out to be true. With the tying run on third and two outs, game on the line, the batter hit a sharp single up the middle. The centerfielder, playing very shallow, raced in, scooped up the ball bare-handed, and fired it to first base, nipping the girl who hit the ball by half a step. Wade had seen this play made from right field many times in softball, and a few times even in MLB, usually with the lead-footed pitcher hitting a fluke and half-assing it to first, but he had never seen a game end this way and had never seen the play made from center. Norma rushed out from behind the plate to greet her teammates, gripping the centerfielder in an impressive bear hug after similarly congratulating the pitcher of the shut-out.

With a few minutes yet to go before Josh’s game began, Wade walked down to the field to offer his own congratulations. Norma spotted him almost immediately, disengaged from her teammates, then headed over to the stands before turning back to greet him with two more of her fans in tow. 

“Dr. Wade, this is my mom and my dad.” She turned to her father, then grinned as she pointed at Wade. “This is the teacher who almost flunked me in English.”

“Thank you for help my daughter. Her English better now.”

“Pretty good ballplayer, too,” Wade said. “I hear she gets that from you.”

Senor Rodriquez shrugged. “I try help her a little bit. I’m glad she get a chance to play here, for school.”

“Norma tells me you never had that chance yourself.”

Another shrug. “Quit school long time ago, go to work. Not so important now. This my wife. Her English not so good.”

“Better than my Spanish, I’m sure,” Wade said. He gave it a shot. “Con much gusto,” he said to Senora Rodriguez, sounding, he imagined, like someone fresh off the boat from Albania. She smiled tolerantly and put a calloused hand into his own, weathered mainly by the dishpan, then stepped back behind her husband.

“We kicked ass today, didn’t we?” Norma said. 

“You get good bunt down,” her father said, his pride evident. At last a man who understood small ball. What would the Giants have to throw into the trade to get this guy in exchange for Bochy? 

“Yeah, but that didn’t go anywhere,” Norma said. “Traci won the game for us with that throw from center. Have you ever seen that before, Dr. Wade?”

“No,” he said. “And—”

“Neither have I,” Head Coach Connie Estrada finished for him as she came up behind them. She thanked Wade for coming to the game, and then spoke in Spanish with Norma’s parents. Norma pulled Wade aside.

“What’s going on with that case against you?”

“Nothing to report yet. The committee is still”—counting its butt-hairs—“considering the evidence.”

“Just remember: I’ll be there to help if you need me.”

Wade nodded his thanks.

“I really appreciate you coming today. I’m glad we didn’t let you down. Sorry I couldn’t hit a home run or anything for you.”

“Maybe next time,” Wade said. “See if you can point to the stands first, okay?”

Norma looked puzzled, the lore obviously lost on a generation far removed from the Bambino’s exploits, real or apocryphal. 

“Just kidding. It was an honor to meet your parents. They’ve got a lot to be proud of. And I don’t mean just that nice bunt.”

“I almost beat that out, did you see?” 

“I saw,” Wade said. “Good wheels. Nice game.”

And on to the next. Josh Jackson had played a few innings in a road game earlier in the week, but this was his first game at home and his first start of the season. The team was hovering around .500 and hoping he would give them a lift in the remaining conference schedule and playoff seeding. Wade looked around the stands, with a few more fans than at the women’s game, and wondered if any in attendance were scouts. He wasn’t exactly sure how you spotted them anymore, especially after Moneyball. Maybe that skinny East Indian guy with the laptop was working for Billy Beane. 

Eduardo Alvarez had the CSU team playing hard and putting pressure on the defense with their speed at every opportunity. Several hit-and-run plays kept them out of double-plays and kept innings alive early in the game; they scored single runs in the second and fourth on a sacrifice fly and an infield out, then added another to tie the game in the fifth after a stolen base, an errant pick-off throw, and a wild pitch. Josh Jackson, obviously struggling to regain his timing, did not contribute to any of the early scores, whiffing in first three at-bats, although in the third of these he raised some eyebrows with a four-hundred-foot foul ball. In centerfield he showcased his instincts and range, running down several balls in the gaps that initially had looked like extra base hits. In the top of the eighth, on a single to right-center that plated the go-ahead run, he atoned for an earlier overthrow and helped to limit CSU’s deficit when he unleashed a laser to cut down the runner trying to score from second base. Allenby sat down next to Wade just in time to see it, after a crazy day full of accreditation-related meetings and a physical examination squeezed in between them.

Wade filled him in on what he had missed, with emphasis on the loud foul.

Allenby wasn’t impressed. “Just another strike. Let’s see what he does this inning.”

In the bottom of the eighth CSU’s lead-off hitter singled, and Alvarez put the hit-and-run on again. This time his counterpart was ahead of him, waiting for it; he called for a pitch-out, and the runner was thrown out easily.

“Nothing works every time,” Wade said. “I’m just glad he’s willing to take some chances.”

His rhythm possibly disrupted by the pitch-out, the pitcher walked the second hitter on the next three pitches. Jackson stepped into the batter’s box.

“Better take one here to see if the pitcher wants to walk him, too,” Allenby said.

It was a strategy Wade generally agreed with, but it was hard to argue with the result when Alvarez started the runner again, the pitcher laid in a get-it-in-there fastball, and 

Jackson smacked it over the centerfield fence with plenty to spare. His first hit of the season: a home run to take the lead. Jackson, head down, ran around the bases quickly, and joined his jubilant teammates in the dugout.

“I like to see that,” Allenby said. “No showboating.”

Wade nodded. “The other kid pitched a hell of a game until now. No reason to rub it in.”

The opposing head coach came out to replace his ace, one batter too late. As Wade and Allenby waited for the reliever to warm up, Sherman Slate came over to join them in the stands.

“Quite a shot your quarterback just hit,” Allenby said.

Slate nodded. “I’m just glad he’s healed up so well.”

The MLB draft would be taking place in May. Wade wondered how Slate was feeling about the prospect of losing his best player if the team that selected Jackson signed him and declined to let him keep playing football, as was likely, to protect its investment. “Hard to replace a talent like that.”

“We’ve got another good QB coming in as a spring transfer from Delta College. Coach Barlow runs a top notch program there, and we’ve established a pretty good pipeline. We’ll be okay if Josh doesn’t come back.” Slate looked at Allenby, smiled. “If he were my son, I’d tell him to play baseball. Take the money and run.”

Now Allenby nodded. “He could play this game for twenty years.”

Or blow out his arm on his next pitch. Wade recalled Jackson’s own risk assessment, as Alvarez brought him in from center in the top of the ninth to close the game. 

“Posey used to close sometimes for Florida, didn’t he?” Allenby asked.

“Right,” Wade said. “Their best hitter was also their best bet to finish the game. With that cannon of his, I bet he could still close now if the Giants gave him a chance.”

Six fastballs, the last clocked at 99 miles per hour on CSU’s sometimes disputed radar gun, dispatched the first two hitters. The third managed to tick one foul before Jackson finished him off with a killer curve ball that startled with the degree of its break. He’d added the pitch to his repertoire since last season.

“Tony Gwynn in his prime wouldn’t have touched that one,” Allenby said.

“I was thinking maybe not even Ty Cobb.”

Game over. Jackson was back. Wade watched him celebrate with his teammates, thought about the last time he’d seen him on the field of play, carried off on a cart. Slate went down to the field to offer his congratulations, perhaps to say goodbye to this year’s bowl aspirations.

Wade wasn’t worrying about football yet. Two late-innings wins in one double-dip. How could a day get any better than that?

“Where Triples Go to Die” is available on Amazon. 

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