Woody Huyke blows Bazooka bubbles as he takes quick, pigeon-toed steps away from home plate. His shin guards click between his legs and his chest protector rises and falls against his gray-flannel uniform. His cap is still on backward, and his olive-skinned face is streaked with red dirt and sweat and the light outlines of his catcher's mask. He shakes the hand of a tall, impassive Negro who has just walked in from the pitcher's mound. Huyke says something in Spanish and Silvano Quezada smiles. The Waterbury (Conn.) Pirates' team crowds into the dugout, slapping Huyke and Quezada good-naturedly. A voice calls out, "Nice going, you old goat." The remark could be meant for either man. Together they have played 25 years of professional baseball, and their combined age is near 70. "God only knows how old Quezada is," Huyke will say with a raised eyebrow. "He is ageless. Me, I am a mere boy in comparison." Soon Woody Huyke will be 34.
The rest of his teammates disappear, but the catcher remains in the dugout of the Elmira, N.Y. ball park. The outfield, which is nothing more than intermittent clumps of grass, is bordered by a wooden fence painted with advertisements. On this muggy afternoon there are less than a hundred fans on hand. Directly behind the home-plate screen is a cluster of eight women, the wives of the Elmira players. Throughout the game they have chattered amiably, and now that it is over they do not seem to have noticed. Woody Huyke looks at them and at the few old men sleeping high in the shade of the home-plate stands and at the young boys fooling around in the third-base bleachers and he shakes his head. Then he steps onto the field and says with just a trace of a Spanish accent, "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your applause." He pulls off his cap, sweeps it with a flourish across his chest and bows deeply.
The Waterbury Pirates, a farm team of Pittsburgh, have just won the first game of a twi-night doubleheader from the Elmira Royals behind Quezada's four-hit pitching. The victory, a shutout, moves the Pirates into second place in the AA Eastern League.
The team had arrived in town earlier that afternoon after a six-hour bus ride from Waterbury. The players had only enough time to change into their uniforms at the Mark Twain Hotel and wander conspicuously about the streets of Elmira for a few minutes before reboarding the bus for the drive to the shambling ball park.
June 13, 1971
During the six-hour ride many of the players tried to sleep. They jacked their knees up into their stomachs, flattened their hands into knuckled pillows and closed their eyes to the pines and lakes of the Hudson Valley flashing by. Between naps players drifted in and out of a pinochle game. Before the ride ended, every man but two would be devoured by the game.
Bruce Kison, a 20-year-old pitcher, had no patience for cards, and he had not traveled on enough charter buses to be able to fold his 6'4" frame into a cramped seat to sleep. Instead, Kison spent the time reading The Sporting News. He bypassed the stories about Tom Seaver and Sam McDowell and turned to the back pages, which told of the accomplishments of minor-leaguers like himself. Kison looked first for news of other Pittsburgh farmhands, specifically pitchers, so that he could see just who stood in his way to Three Rivers Stadium.
Woody Huyke did not sleep or play pinochle either. He had been on too many 28-hour bus rides to be impressed by a mere six-hour jaunt. Nor did he read The Sporting News. There was no Pittsburgh farmhand either beneath or above him who could cause him anxiety. Instead, as is his custom, Huyke talked ceaselessly to anyone who would listen and finally, after a few hours, he would talk only to himself. He spoke of his winters in Puerto Rico, where for three months each year he played baseball with some of the most famous major leaguers—Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda—men he would never meet during the regular season because he had never played one inning of major league baseball. "I played some beautiful games in Puerto Rico," he said. "The most beautiful was when I hit a single off Juan Pizarro in a championship game.... Ah, I would have paid to be part of it." Huyke turned in his seat and elbowed Ray Cordiero, a balding 32-year-old relief pitcher. "Heh, Rook, you know what it means to play in such a game?" Cordiero grunted and went back to sleep. "Rookie!" said Huyke in disgust.
Halfway to Elmira the bus stopped at a roadside diner and the team got out to eat. When the bus resumed its journey the players were still grumbling about the greasy food. Huyke, who sat up front, began smacking his lips and rubbing his stomach. "Man, that was a great meal, eh, Rook?" Cordiero, an 11-year veteran, said it was the greatest meal he had ever eaten. Huyke nodded emphatically. "I loved it, too," he said. "I love it all." The players began to hoot and swear at Huyke, and someone threw a rolled-up Sporting News up front. "Bah!" said Woody. "These kids, what do they know? Always complaining. They don't appreciate the finer things in life, eh, Rook?" He nudged Cordiero again. "What they gonna do when they get our age, huh, curl up and die?"
Cordiero put his hands over his ears and said softly, "Why don't you shut the hell up, you old goat?"
After catching the first game of the doubleheader Huyke sits down, too tired to unbuckle his shin guards. Steam rises from his face. He is just beginning to be stocky, although he claims that his waist is the same size as when he was a 20-year-old rookie. What he does not admit, however, is that his uniform no longer fits him in the same way. The buttons seem about to explode and his pants fit his calves like an added layer of skin. The constant squatting and standing of his profession have made Huyke's legs round and muscular, like gigantic bottles of Coke. Because of his age, Huyke ordinarily would not catch the second game, but today is an exception. The team's backup catcher is on reserve duty and furthermore, Bruce Kison, the Pirates' talented right hander, will be making his first start after sustaining a sore arm.
Huyke walks down to the left-field bullpen where Kison is warming up. Woody stands behind Bruce and watches him throw. Kison has a small pink face covered with peach fuzz, which makes him look about 15. His teammates call him "Sweetie." Whenever they call him that in shrill, affected tones he will smile, although his face grows noticeably pinker. He is also called, on occasion, "The Stick" because he has the long limbs and small chest of a stick figure. His uniform billows at the waist like a sail and his pants billow at the calf like harem pants. At no point does his body impose any definition on the uniform he is wearing.
Now with Woody Huyke watching, Bruce is throwing much too hard and rapidly after his layoff. The ball is dipping into the dirt or flying over the head of his catcher, who must repeatedly run back to the fence to retrieve it. After each wild pitch Kison, expressionless, paws the dirt with his spikes, only to throw even harder and more rapidly. He throws with a loose-limbed, sidearm motion somewhat like those great side-arm pitchers Don Drysdale and Ewell Blackwell. It is a motion conducive to sore arms, especially on curveballs. Kison's meteoric rise through the Pirate system was halted two weeks ago by a strained muscle in his right elbow. It was strained on a curveball. This was the first sore arm of his career, and now in the Elmira bullpen Kison is throwing too hard and too rapidly to prove that his arm is no longer sore—and also to punish the arm for having let him down for the first time in his life.
After Kison's sixth wild pitch Huyke relieves the catcher. Kison throws a low fastball. Huyke scoops it expertly out of the dirt, but before returning the ball he says a few words to the previous catcher. The young pitcher takes a deep breath. Huyke returns the ball, and Kison fires it over the catcher's head. Huyke gets up from his crouch and walks slowly back to the fence. He picks up the ball and walks back to the plate and returns the ball to Kison, who by this time has taken three deep breaths. The next pitch is a strike. Huyke walks a few feet toward Kison and shakes the ball in his face, "Atta boy, Bruce. Use your head." Before long Kison is throwing fastball after fastball into Huyke's glove. Finally the catcher calls for a curveball. Kison spins one up cautiously. Huyke calls for another and studies Bruce's face for a sign. A lob. After a few more soft, halfhearted curves, Huyke shrugs and goes back to calling fastballs.
It is not the seriousness of his sore arm that is worrying Kison and the Pirate front office, but the fact that it could be the beginning of an irreversible pattern. Kison knows that if he is still to be considered a prospect he must prove that he will not be a perpetually sore-armed pitcher. That is why this second game is so important.
The game is also important to Huyke, although not in the same way. He will never play in the major leagues no matter what—he knows that—but if he can contribute to the development of a prospect like Kison, if he can guide the young ballplayer out of this sore arm by making sure he warms up properly, by calling the right pitches, by making Kison twist his elbow a little less strenuously on a curveball, then maybe someday Huyke will have a job in baseball, too.
Elwood Bernard Huyke (pronounced "high key") was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1937. When he turned 18 he wanted to sign a professional contract, but his father convinced him instead to go to college. He enrolled at Inter-American University at San Germ√§n with the hopes of eventually becoming a doctor. In his junior year Huyke batted .408 in the Central American Games in Venezuela. He was offered a number of professional contracts, and finally convinced his father to let him sign with the New York Giants for $225 a month. When he left for spring training Woody promised his father he would finish school in the off season and become a doctor.
He worked out one month at Artesia, N. Mex. before being given his unconditional release. But Huyke pleaded with the Giant scout every day for a week until the man finally consented to give him a chance at Hastings, Neb. in the Rookie League.
There Huyke played third base and lived in a hotel that charged only a dollar a day and had knotted rope hanging out the window labeled "Fire Escape." Since the ball park had no locker rooms Woody had to dress in the hotel and walk through town in his uniform. When he arrived at Elmira for the first time and discovered the same conditions he said, "I thought those days were behind me."
In 1959 Huyke had one of the best hitting years of his career. He batted .311. "I thought I could hit anyone," he says. "I don't know what happened along the way, but after 12 years I don't hit so good anymore."
Huyke was assigned to Monterrey in the Mexican League in 1960. The first road trip consisted of a 28-hour bus ride to Tulsa in 110° heat. Another time, the team arrived in a town at 7 a.m. after an overnight trip, and the manager drove directly to the ball park for a workout. There were cities where the players stayed at YMCAs, sleeping on mattresses in the halls to keep cool.
Despite such conditions Woody was—I batting .296 at Monterrey three days before he was slated to play in the league's All-Star Game. Then he suffered the first of a series of injuries—a broken finger—that would hamper his career for the next 10 years.
The following season Huyke played for the Shreveport, La. and Portsmouth, Va. clubs. He batted .307 at Portsmouth and was looking forward to the 1962 season when he was drafted into the Army. He returned to baseball in the spring of 1963 when the Athletics invited him to their major league camp to help catch batting practice. In three weeks Woody got into only one game, against the Dodgers. He went 3 for 4 off Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and Ron Perranoski.
"When it came to batting, I thought I could hit anyone," he says. "It was the confidence of youth, I guess. I didn't know any better."
On being shipped to the minor league camp, Huyke was immediately converted into a catcher, which he hated. "All day long they fired balls out of a machine at my shins. But I was too afraid to complain. Eventually I realized I would have a better chance making it as a catcher, and then I actually began to enjoy it."
Huyke started that year at Lewiston, Idaho in the Class B Northwest League. He was hitting .317 in midseason when he was handed a plane ticket and told to fly directly to Binghamton, N.Y. "It seems like a little thing, flying," he says, "but by then I had taken so many trains and buses I felt the organization had no interest in me. Now that they wanted me to fly I felt they must consider me a worthy prospect."
Huyke caught his first game with Binghampton and broke a toe on a foul tip. When he returned to the lineup a month later he promptly hit two home runs. The next week, however, he caught a foul tip on his throwing hand and broke a finger. He was through for the season. The farm director convinced him to play in the Winter Instructional League in Florida. "He said that it would be my big chance to make the majors," says Huyke. "It was the turning point of my career, all right. I threw out my arm one day, and I have never been a prospect since. I was so ashamed at having another injury that I didn't tell the manager. But it was so bad I couldn't even reach the pitcher. The fans used to laugh at me. It was a terrible thing for my pride. Finally the club found out and told me to go home."
In 1964 Huyke was sent to Dallas, where his contract called for him to stay for at least 30 days. After a week he was sent to Birmingham. He couldn't understand why until he was told that Birmingham needed someone to help out with the Spanish and black players who were finding life very rough in the South.
"At first it didn't dawn on me that they were using me as an organization man," says Huyke. "In my own mind I still thought I was a prospect. But it didn't take long. Ever since then I've been too ashamed to ask the front office for a raise no matter what I hit. I have always felt I owed them something for just keeping me each year. After all, I was 27 years old, and they had decided I would never make the majors. Now I realize they were complimenting me by telling me I had other talents besides natural ones. The things I had would never leave me. Lots of guys don't have the temperament or intelligence to be organization men. It makes me feel good to know I can adapt to the facts of life. But at Birmingham in 1964 I thought, like all kids do, that there was no sense playing baseball unless you had a chance to make the bigs. I wonder why I didn't quit. Who knows? Maybe I thought I could prove I was still a prospect. Foolish! But I love baseball too much now ever to quit. I am always grouchy when I don't have a uniform on. I even get imaginary pains. These days just going to any ball park will do. For the home games, I always arrive three hours early and get right into my uniform. It's like a pair of pajamas to me. When I have the uniform on I relax. I guess to be like me you have to be born this way, huh?"
Bruce Kison finishes his pregame warmup and he and Huyke walk back to the dugout as the Elmira Royals take the field. In the dugout Bruce dries his face with a towel and Woody gets a Darvon pill from the Pirate trainer and a fresh supply of Bazooka bubble gum. The gum is to keep his mouth moist and the Darvon is to kill any pain he feels in his chronically sore arm. He has taken a Darvon every playing day since 1964.
It is 8 p.m., twilight and considerably cooler, when Huyke trots out to catch Kison's first warmup pitch in the bottom of the first inning. There is a loud click and the lights go on around the park. A female voice behind the visitors' dugout says, "Look at that pitcher! My oh my, he looks so young."
Bruce Kison was born in 1950 in Pasco, Wash., a rich farming community near the Columbia River. By the time he was 12 he had developed into a fine pitcher, having hurled several no-hitters in Little League "like a million other kids," he says. "In one of those games I struck out 15 batters in five innings, and ever since, the possibility that someday I might pitch a perfect game has always been in my head when I take the mound. I dream of games when I strike out every batter I face on three straight pitches—but I guess that is every pitcher's dream, isn't it?"
After hurling three no-hitters in his senior year of high school Bruce was drafted by the Pirates (not very high) and signed to what he calls "a sizable bonus, although I'd rather not say how much." Before he signed, however, he made the Pirates promise to let him finish his spring semester of college each year before joining a club. "I wanted to make sure I finished college," he says. "So many guys drop out and are left with nothing. I was determined that wouldn't happen to me."
After signing, Bruce enrolled at Columbia Basin Junior College as a history major and then was sent to Bradenton in the Rookie Gulf Coast League. When he arrived he found "a hundred guys running around in Pittsburgh uniforms. We had 30 pitchers, and there were supposed to be just 15 by the end of the season. It was like a pressure cooker, everyone trying to cut each other's throat. You would make friends with a guy, and the next day he would be gone. You wondered when it would be your turn. You learn to evaluate yourself and your talent honestly, and in the process you grow up. I was one of the 15 pitchers left at the end."
Bruce posted a 2-1 record and a 2.25 ERA in 10 games, nine of them as a reliever. "When I got back to Pasco," he says, "I thought I was quite the stud. I told everyone I was going to give baseball three years and then quit if I wasn't at the top. Now I've already been in two years, and if I work myself up into Triple A the next few years, I probably will find it hard to leave. Maybe I'll stick it out five years. But I definitely won't stay in as long as Woody. I'll finish college first. This baseball is a nice game and all, but not in the minor leagues."
Kison moved up from the Pirates' Class A team at Salem, Va. to Waterbury in June. After he had watched a few Eastern League games Bruce decided that it wasn't a very tough league after all. "Any good high school pitcher can win here," he said. He was as good as his word. He hurled back-to-back two-hitters in his first two starts.
"I no longer worry about being released," he says. "I know I'm established. Now all I worry about is how soon I will get to Pittsburgh. Our farm director, Harding Peterson, said I was one of their top prospects, but you can't rely on that stuff. They are never straight with you."
Harding Peterson arrived in Waterbury shortly before the trip to Elmira. He had sat in the dugout, immaculately dressed and motionless, staring through dark glasses at the players performing before his eyes. "We usually let young pitchers build their confidence in the lower leagues," he said, "but Bruce Kison already has his. We would like to hurry him along to Pittsburgh. That's why I am here, to talk him into playing in Florida. But whenever we ask him to do things like that he has a thousand questions. Other guys will stammer and hesitate, but in the end you get them to do what you want. But not Bruce. He plans ahead."
Peterson did not hide the fact that he no longer considered Woody Huyke a prospect. "We drafted Woody from Oakland because he is a fine, intelligent fellow with a reputation for getting along with people," Peterson said. "His job is to work closely with the manager in bringing along kids. He is an excellent liaison man between the front office and the Latins. Huyke has never made any money in this game, so I told him if things work out there might be a job for him one day as a coach. But I have never promised anything. We still have some use for him as a player."
The Waterbury Pirates take the field in the bottom of the first. Huyke tells Kison to let him know if the arm bothers him. Kison nods, though he is thinking he will not say a word unless the pain becomes unbearable. Kison's first pitch is a strike. Huyke returns the ball, and the pitcher looks for the next sign. He fires another fastball past the Elmira batter for a strike. After two wasted fastballs Kison strikes out the batter with a fifth fastball.
On the mound Kison does not look so young or awkward anymore. His pitching motion is spare and quick. It is distilled of all impurities and his thinking is concentrated like a point of light. He throws each pitch from the same side-armed angle, with the same speed of delivery and with the same amount of time taken between each pitch. He gets his sign, delivers and waits in his followthrough until the ball is returned. Then he turns, takes two steps back to the rubber, turns again and repeats the process. He never, for effect, rubs up a baseball, wipes sweat from his brow or turns to contemplate the center-field flagpole. His face shows neither self-satisfaction after a good pitch nor anger after a poor one. He seems to have no self-conscious desire to call attention to himself as do most young pitchers.
Many inexperienced pitchers have speedy deliveries such as Kison's. Usually such deliveries mask their fear and ignorance of their craft, as if just by moving quickly through all the motions they define themselves as pitchers without having to impose their will on such motions. Kison's movements, however, are quick and consistent, not because he is defined by them but vice versa. He has neither to slow nor vary them, just as a finely tuned watch has neither to slow nor vary its workings.
The second batter goes to a full count before he lines out to center field. Kison is no longer throwing as hard and recklessly as he was in the bullpen. When Huyke calls for a curveball, Kison shakes him off.
"I've never had a sore arm in my life," Kison had said earlier. "When I hurt it, I was more confused than worried. I did not tell anyone and took my next turn. I walked eight guys in three innings, and when the manager, Red Davis, found out the reason, he was frantic. He yanked me right out. He was afraid if anything happened to me it would affect his career. If I were an older pitcher, like Quezada or Cordiero, say, the manager could take chances and no one would care. If my arm doesn't come around soon, I will quit."
Kison retires his third batter on another well-hit ball and walks off the mound. Red Davis, who was smoking a cigarette on the top step of the dugout, goes quickly over to Huyke, who is waiting for him near home plate. Woody can be heard saying, "I think it's sore." Red Davis' head bobs up and down nervously and then he trots out to his third-base coach's box.
John Humphrey (Red) Davis has the sharp features and slack skin of a man who has lost too much weight too quickly. His fingers are permanently stained with the nicotine of a thousand doubleheaders. After 35 years in minor league baseball (he is 55) Davis has acquired an assortment of twitches and abortive gestures that give him the appearance not of a former athlete but of some aged drummer who has stopped too often at Greenville and Mayfield and Corpus Christi.
He has managed 23 consecutive years in the minor leagues, as low as Class D and as high as AAA. And yet in none of those leagues has his front office ever given him complete authority over certain of his players. For instance, Davis had decided to pitch Kison in Waterbury's last home game, to try his arm then, but after conferring with Harding Peterson, Davis postponed Bruce's start until the Elmira trip.
"Bruce is a fragile piece of property," says Davis. "If he gets hurt it will be my fault. If he were an organization man I could take a chance. Often that is the only reason they have a job in the first place, because we can do things with them that we would never do with a prospect. This makes it easier on them, too, because they know they are not getting paid for batting averages or ERAs. If Huyke is hitting .230 it does not bother him. He knows he helps the team in other ways. If an organization man has any personal success it is reflected in the team's success. That is why I would rather have eight organization men on the field any day. They take the pressure off a manager while prospects definitely put it on. And the older men are usually better all-around ballplayers, which makes you wonder why they never made it. Maybe they never got the breaks. Who is to say."
Davis became a minor league manager in 1949. The year before, he had married Estelle Nicholas of Dallas, a girl he met along the way. Since her marriage, Estelle Nicholas Davis has lived in more than 15 cities from Oregon to Connecticut while waiting for her husband to be offered the major league job that has never come. Like so many baseball wives, Mrs. Davis finds it impossible after so many seasons to let her conversation stray far from talk of her husband's profession. One night after a home game, she stood in the darkened runway underneath the Waterbury stands, waiting for her husband to emerge from the locker room. At close to midnight, only a few scouts and three players' wives remained. Mrs. Davis smiled at the three wives and continued her conversation with a friend who was keeping her company, a tall, tweedy man, ex-major-leaguer Buddy Kerr.
"Oh, yes," she was saying in a Blanche DuBois voice, "I root for all of Red's old boys. I've rooted for McCovey and little Marichal ever since Red had them." After a while Mrs. Davis asked, "Did you notice the crowd tonight? Do you think they'll draw here? I do hope they draw, or else they'll have to pack up and move elsewhere." When her husband emerged from the locker room Estelle Davis took his arm, said good night to Buddy Kerr and the three wives and left the ball park.
Of the players' wives, one was a heavily-made-up blonde clutching a gray toy poodle, another was a well-built brunette in a lavender pants suit and the third was a slender, athletic-looking girl in a plain green dress. The blonde and the brunette were in their early 20s and the athletic-looking girl close to 30, although she actually appeared younger than the others because of her short, boyish haircut and because she wore no cosmetics to mar her fine straight features. The blonde and the brunette were talking animatedly to each other about the poodle, whom they referred to as "Baby" and who seemed quite used to being the topic of conversation. The girl in the green dress said little. She stood slightly apart from the others and only smiled faintly now and then, as if she were used to her role—the third person in a two-party conversation. Not only did it appear not to cause her any discomfort, it seemed actually much to her preference. Three years ago the girl in green had become Mrs. El wood Bernard Huyke, and in that short span she had adjusted nicely to being the wife of a perennial minor league player.
"A baseball wife is very important to an organization man's career," Huyke once said. "They can make life miserable if they are always nagging him to quit. But my wife and I are very compatible. She encourages me to play. I knew I would stay in baseball all my life; I explained to her before we were married that baseball was everything to me. She accepted that."
When Ann Marie Huyke was 12 and combining wheat on her father's farm in Gardner, N. Dak. she used to dream of marrying an athlete. She was tall and slim even then, and in a small town she naturally gravitated to sports, and to basketball in particular. Often she competed against the boys on equal terms, and she played on a girls' high school team that won the state championship three years. "All through high school I only dated athletes," she says. "I was sure I would marry someone athletically inclined. After college I worked as a bank teller in Fargo."
One winter Ann Marie took her first real vacation, flying to Puerto Rico. Almost the first thing she did in San Juan was to board a bus for an hour's ride to Arecibo to watch a Winter League game. She met Woody Huyke that day, and they were married two years later.
"I don't mind the traveling much after living in Fargo and Gardner most of my life." she says. "I admit, though that I still carry a picture of the house I would like to settle down in someday. But I have nothing to be disappointed about. I knew what Woody was when I married him. He made that perfectly clear. But sometimes it's difficult to explain it to others. To the wives of prospects, for instance. They are always making comments about when their husbands get to Pittsburgh. When they talk like that, what am I supposed to say? You hate to have people think you do not have faith in your husband just because you know he will never make the majors. But you have to salt your inner feelings with an honest evaluation of what he is. People are always asking me when he is going back to college. I know what they are hinting at, it's certainly obvious, but I just give them a blank look. I would like to say, 'Look, my husband could have been a doctor but he gave it all up to play baseball. This is what he loves. It's his job, and one day he is going to fade into another position in baseball and that is all there is to it.' But I never do."
In the bottom of the second inning Bruce Kison walks the first batter, retires two and then gives up a single. The single comes off a slow, hanging curve ball. After the pitch Huyke walks halfway out to the mound and tells Kison to "put something on the damn ball." Red Davis has again moved to the top step of the dugout. He says something to Huyke as he gets down in his crouch. Woody nods. Davis turns immediately to the bullpen and signals for Cordiero to begin throwing.
Kison throws all fastballs to the next batter and gets him to hit a grounder to second base. As the second baseman fields the ball, it rolls off his glove and back into the dirt. Bases loaded. Kison works the next batter to 2 and 2. A hard, sharp curveball that the batter hits for a soft fly retires the side. As he walks off the mound there is a faint smile on Bruce Kison's lips.
In the third inning he gets two outs on fastballs and one on a hard curve. In the fourth he cuts loose on fastballs and curves and strikes out all three batters. He is throwing considerably harder, mixing almost an equal number of fastballs and curves on each batter. After each strike Huyke bounces out of his crouch, fires the ball back and shouts encouragement. After the third strikeout the catcher remarks out loud, to no one in particular, "That kid is throwing some kind of heat."
Huyke walks over and sits down on a small chair outside the dugout as is his custom. It is even cooler now, and he wraps his hand in a towel. "My fingers get numb," Woody explains, holding up his throwing hand. The fingers are fat and discolored. The blood vessels have been broken so many times and the circulation is poor. Huyke tries to warm the hand. Sitting there, he seems only partially occupied with the scoreless game in progress. He turns often to talk with the fans and seems particularly amused by a very fat woman with whom he has been carrying on a running dialogue each half-inning. The woman has neatly lined up 10 empty beer containers on the dugout roof in front of her.
"Hey, cutie, talk to me some more," the woman says to Huyke. He shakes his head and laughs. "Isn't he a cute one," the woman says.
"You know, you remind me of Buddy Hackett," Huyke says. He turns to the other fans. "Really, doesn't she look like Buddy Hackett?" Everyone, including the woman, laughs.
"It is part of my job to be nice to fans," says Huyke. "If they like you, they come to see you play. When I was young like Bruce I was too embarrassed to talk to them, but as an organization man I had to learn otherwise. I had to learn a lot of new things.
"When I was young I never understood the things that happened to me, but now I know where I am and where I am going and what I have to do to get there. I have no concerns. The only complaint I have in this league is that some of the parks are bad; take Pawtucket, R.I., there they have terrible lights. You can get damaged for life under bad lights. When you are young, who worries about playing conditions? And if you get hurt, the organization takes care of you. If you are older and you get hurt and can't play, maybe you don't have a job anymore."
Kison retires the side in the fifth, but in the sixth he gives up two singles with one out. He gets the fourth batter to pop out to third base and then he fires two quick strikes past the potential third out. Huyke crouches behind the right-handed batter and sticks two fingers beneath his glove. Kison flicks his glove fingers. Huyke responds with one finger and Kison nods slightly. Woody then hunches over the outside corner, but before he can set himself Kison flicks his glove again. Huyke shifts to the inside corner and places his glove at a level with the batter's knees. Again Kison flicks his glove. The catcher raises his target until it rests inches from the batter's chin. Kison goes into his motion and fires a fastball directly at the spot where the batter's head would have been if he had not fallen to the dirt. The count is now 1 and 2.
"Woody does not like to call for knockdowns," says Kison. "He knows a lot of these guys and he is afraid I might hurt someone. That doesn't bother me. I hit seven guys in one game, and we won it. I can't afford to feel like him or I will never get anywhere. I always thought the older guys would be tougher but they are more conscious of injuries than anyone. How can they ever expect to get anywhere unless they take chances? But I guess they have to protect themselves because they don't have anything else. There are three or four directions my life can take outside of baseball. I can play it a little looser as long as I keep those possibilities open."
With the bases loaded and the count 1 and 2 Kison throws, and again the batter, who has hunched slightly forward in expectation of a curveball, hits the dirt. This time he does not get up so quickly. He looks back at Huyke and then out to the mound, as if some rule has just been broken and he had not been informed.
With the count 2 and 2 Kison goes into his motion. The ball is headed for the batter's body, waist high, and he jerks his hips away from the plate just as the ball breaks sharply over the outside corner for a called third strike. The batter stands flat-footed as Huyke rolls the ball out to the mound which has just been vacated by Kison. Huyke shakes his head and says, "Man, that Bruce is too tough for me. But I like him. He battles. He only gets bad when a few guys hit him. I told him he can't pitch a perfect game all the time. He says he knows it, but then, two hits and he wants to throw at everybody. He has never seen a guy's career ruined by a beanball. I have. It is a terrible thing. But he is learning to control himself, and now when he throws at someone it isn't to get even, it is because he has an idea. That's what makes him different from most guys. He is smarter."
"I get along good with all the older players," says Kison, "although I don't let myself get too close because you never know when you will have to push one of them for a job. I respect Woody most of all. He has helped me a lot. But I still cannot understand what he is doing here when he could be a doctor. I don't have much to say to his wife or the others, either. I mean, what am I supposed to say? I can't understand why they are here. And the fans! They are something else, I don't bother with them at all. Guys like Woody are nice because they want some friends if they ever have to come back. I don't plan on ever coming back to Waterbury...."
In the top of the seventh, in a still scoreless game, Huyke steps into the batter's box with the bases loaded. He chokes up on his thick-handled bat and hunches over the plate. His feet are close together and his swing is nothing more than a little push emanating from his chest outward. Twelve years ago at Hastings he stood spread-legged, his heavy bat cocked far back from his right shoulder.
Woody works the pitcher to a 3-2 count and then fouls off three straight pitches. He is thinking that if only he can foul off enough balls the pitcher will walk him and force in the winning run. But the pitcher throws another strike, and Woody hits a high foul ball to the catcher. Without even waiting to see if it is caught, he walks back to the dugout and begins buckling on his shin guards. The ball is caught and the side is retired.
"Man, one of these days I'm gonna kill a cloud," he says. "I don't understand it. I read some of Ted Williams' book, and he said swing up. I swing up, but nothing." He is smiling as he grabs his mask. "Maybe it is because I am not Ted Williams, eh? You think that could be it?"
With two out in the bottom of the seventh, an Elmira batter lays down a perfect bunt. Huyke pounces on the ball and throws him out. Then he hands the bat to the Elmira bat boy and walks back to his dugout. "Extra innings," he says. "We're gonna get them now. I can feel it. Man, I love this. What else could I do that I love so much? This is a beautiful game."
In the top of the eighth inning of this scheduled seven-inning game. Woody Huyke's prophecy is fulfilled. The Pirates score the first run of the game, and in the Elmira eighth Bruce Kison retires three batters on seven pitches to preserve his fifth victory of the year against four losses. As he walks off the mound he meets Huyke at the dugout and they shake hands. Woody says, "Bruce, I had a dream I would catch two shutouts today. No kidding! I dreamt it last night."
•The Waterbury Pirates won the Eastern League championship in 1970, and much of the credit went to Bruce Kison, who won all his starts after the Elmira game and finished the season with a 10-4 record and a 2.28 ERA—which is ironic because those were the same numbers as Woody Huyke's batting average, .228. In 1971 Kison is playing for the Pirates' top minor-league club, Charleston (W.Va.). He has started the season well, winning five out of six. Woody Huyke remains in Waterbury.