I remember first the land. It was flat. Between it and the sky there was nothing—no buildings, no trees, no hills, no shadows, nothing but the sun and sky and never-ending fields of wheat and corn and alfalfa. It was a land of horizons. Here a narrow black road parted the fields. The road went straight for miles. There was nothing on either side but the fields. As the road stretched ahead the fields grew closer together until they converged at a point on the horizon. It was an illusory point that never was reached. It remained always the same distance ahead. Approaching it, all progress felt illusory, too. Only the fields moved, flashing by like scenery in a cheaply made movie. Finally the illusion was broken by some scraggy trees growing beside a water hole. A cow, standing motionless in the shade of the trees, gazed blankly at the road. Another cow lay alongside, its tail twitching off flies. Beyond the water hole was a dirt road that led through the fields to a red barn and conical silo. Almost a mile from the paved road was the farmhouse. It was small, white and cellarless. Each corner rested on cinder blocks. From the highway a passerby, if he chanced to look, could see the thin line of blue horizon underneath the farmhouse.
I had been sitting in the back of the taxi for two hours and had seen nothing but an occasional farm and the fields and had begun to lose all sense of place and direction, of where I'd come from and was going to, had become almost transfixed by the monotony of the land when I saw a sign, MCCOOK CITY LIMITS, and another, POP. 7,687, and one after another the WELCOME TO MCCOOK invitations put out by the Chamber of Commerce and the Masonic Lodge and the Kiwanis and Lions and Elks and Eagles and Rotary Clubs, and then nothing for a while until the cemetery and the drive-in theater, and then a little way on the A & W Root Beer stand, the Phillips 66 station and, quickly now, the wood-fronted pool hall, the bar, the M and E Diner and, turning onto Main Street, the city of McCook. It was built on a hill, seemingly the only rise for miles around.
There was nothing distinctive about the town, really—a few stores, churches, schools, houses, the McCook Braves ball park—certainly nothing one couldn't find in dozens of other towns throughout the country. Over the next few years I would live and pitch in several such towns—Eau Claire, Waycross, Palatka, Bradenton—and for longer periods of time than the two months I spent in McCook, Neb. And yet I remember none of them with the clarity of detail I do McCook. Possibly it is because McCook was the smallest town in which I would ever play baseball. Since I had no car, I walked everywhere, and within two months I got to know every street and store. No matter where I walked, I came quickly to the town's limits. There was so much openness beyond those limits, and always the horizons, almost suffocating in their possibilities. The horizons had intimidated the townspeople. There was too much out there for them to grasp. They saw nothing beyond their town, nothing to do, no place to go, except—after a two-hour drive across the plains—another town exactly like the one they had left. At times I felt bound by the limits of McCook. But only at times. Those horizons still had meaning for me, indicated direction. McCook was the first point on the map of my career. It would be a small but important part of my life and destiny, which would be fulfilled someplace else. I was as positive of this as only a self-absorbed, 18-year-old could be. I was right, although for reasons other than those I'd anticipated. McCook was a very important part of my life. It still is. In fact, its importance grows in my mind as I write.
It was the first place I lived alone. The life I built there was solely my responsibility. I was confronted each day with myriad possibilities—when to eat, what to do, whom to befriend. For a brief time I looked to my past for choices. I tried to remember what had been expected of me in similar situations. Sometimes the situations in McCook were new. Nothing from the past applied. Increasingly, however, I refused to accept that which in another time and place had been acceptable. I turned, out of desire and necessity, to my own inclinations. What did I think? What did I feel? What did I want? I began to see things—myself and others—through my own eyes. What I saw and what I was is still clear to me today. Much of it is what I am today. But the person I was in McCook bore little resemblance to the one I had been under the watchful and-protective eyes of my parents. And yet that new person, whether I liked it or not, was more consistent with my nature than the other ever had been.
June 10, 1973
It was a warm night, my first in McCook. From the top row of the stands behind home plate I watched the McCook Braves run onto the field and the first batter for the North Platte Indians emerged from the dugout, trailed by his shadow. There was a smattering of applause from the 800 fans who filled nearly every seat in the park this Tuesday evening in the first week of July. Tomorrow I would be a part of all this. But right now no one knew I was in town. Surrounded by strangers, I found my anonymity was exciting. It allowed me to watch the game with an objectivity that would be denied me once I became a part of the team. Sitting on the plank in front of me was a farmer in bib overalls. He wore a stiff straw hat with a tightly curled brim. Through the crown I could see the curve of his head. Beside him sat his wife and two young sons, their hair dampened and flattened by their mother's hand. She wore a white sleeveless blouse and a long cotton skirt that was fluffed out by crinolines and rested high in her lap. Every so often she would place her hands in her lap and press down gently. In the stands were many such families and teen-age girls in Bermuda shorts and teen-age boys in Levi's and football jerseys and prosperous-looking merchants dressed in white shirts and ties and pointy-toed cowboy boots. Throughout the game the fans gossiped and the teen-agers flirted in the shadows behind the stands, and occasionally someone clapped at a fine play on the field or shouted an epithet at the umpire, to the delight of his friends.
In the fifth inning the Braves were losing 8-6. It was a typical Class D game, filled with energetic but erratic play. Shortstops charged ground balls and kicked them past the pitcher's mound, then followed with diving catches of line drives. Outfielders went down on a knee to field ground-ball singles and then turned around and ran wildly toward the outfield fence to retrieve the balls that had rolled through their legs. On the next play one of these outfielders might catch a line drive over his shoulder so deep in centerfield, 420 feet away, that he was beyond the range of the lights. He would disappear into the darkness, and the fans had to wait until the umpire, who had run into the darkness with him, emerged with his fist in the air before they could applaud the catch.
The pitchers on both sides were wild and none, I noted with satisfaction, threw as hard as I did. When the Braves tied the game in the sixth inning the fans cheered lustily. In the seventh I felt a cool breeze and heard the sound of gears changing in the parking lot. Some fans already had left and others were gathering their children, who had been playing underneath the stands, and were herding them toward the parking lot. The breeze grew cold and more forceful, and with it came the sibilant hiss of gas escaping from a stove. The hissing came from the nearby fairgrounds and was, I realized, only the rustling of tall grass in the wind. I looked out and saw on the plains a dark swirling mass rising like a horn of plenty into the sky. The sky was a translucent purple and the swirling mass was solid and black against it and seemed to be growing larger as it moved toward us. By the time it hit, the stands were all but deserted. The players' uniforms rippled and dust swirled everywhere. Batters stepped out of the box and turned their backs to it. Infielders flattened their gloves against their faces and peeked through spread fingers until a split second before the pitcher delivered the ball. At one point a pitcher reared back to throw and a gust blew him off the mound. The two managers charged out from the dugouts toward the home-plate umpire and an argument ensued as to whether or not the pitcher should be charged with a balk. Such incidents must not have been rare in the Nebraska State League because the umpire rendered a decision promptly, and the game resumed amid wind and dust that did not stop even when the rain fell. It came in big, heavy, widely spaced drops that hit the deserted planks in front of me with such force I could hear the splat and see dark splotches in the wood. In the ninth inning, with the score still tied, I heard a gunshot, and another, and then others coming quickly, and it wasn't until I heard the tinkling of broken glass and saw thin ribbons of smoke unraveling from the light poles that I realized the bulbs were exploding. The growing number of black spaces in the rows of lights resembled missing teeth in huge mouths, and each time a tooth was pulled there was a flash and a pop and smoke. On the field players looked quickly to the ground and shrugged their shoulders up about their ears so as not to be cut by falling glass. By the 10th inning the field had darkened considerably, and in the darkness the Braves managed to push across the winning run and the game was over.
It wasn't until the following afternoon when I saw Cibola Stadium, as it was called, in the light of day that its shabbiness disheartened me. It was beneath me, I thought. I arrived at the park at noon, having walked almost a mile from town. The sun was high and my teammates were in the middle of a workout. The pitchers were playing catch along the third-base line while the other players were taking part in fielding drills on the diamond. They all wore Milwaukee Brave uniforms. Six years before, those uniforms had probably been worn by players on the major-league club, and five years before by players on the Toledo Braves of the Triple A American Association, and four years before by players on the Atlanta Braves of the Double A Southern Association, and three years before by players on the Jacksonville Braves of the Class A Sally League, and so on down the line until finally they had settled, the thinned and yellowed residue of the system, on the backs of the McCook Braves. The uniforms were patched where someone from Toledo or Jacksonville or maybe even Milwaukee had broken up a double play or made a diving catch. Many of the tomahawks and numerals had been torn off and not replaced. All that remained to indicate a player's number was a dark shadow on his shirt where the numeral had been. Still, they were major-league uniforms. Inside the waistband of each pair of pants and on the tail of each shirt were stitched the name and number of the man who had first worn them—Spahn, 21; Mathews, 41. Minor-league players always fought for the uniform of the major-leaguer they most admired. It did not matter whether or not some 18-year-old third baseman was a 40 extra long and his idol, Eddie Mathews, a 46 stocky. The minor-leaguer would tolerate the uniform's ill fit for the sake of all the talent it still possessed. It was impossible for Mathews to wear the uniform without some of his talent remaining in it, possibly in those dark sweat stains that could never be laundered out. I was the last of the players to arrive in McCook and I would discover later, when I was given my uniform, that someone had mistakenly given Warren Spahn's uniform to a skinny pitcher named Dennis Overby. Vernon Bick-ford's uniform had been saved for me. It was in better condition than the others. It was almost new and fit perfectly.
I stood by the dugout for a while, conscious of my teammates' curious glances, and watched the manager, Bill Steinecke, hit ground balls to the infielders. When Steinecke finished he waddled out to a spot between second base and the pitcher's mound and began hitting flyballs to his outfielders. When he finished those drills he dismissed everyone but the pitchers. Of the 10 there that day, four were starters (I would be the fifth), and each had received a bonus of between $30,000 and $40,000. The least impressive looking and yet the one who would be most successful during the season was Overby, an 18-year-old with a milky complexion and a seriousness beyond his years. A lefthander, he delivered a baseball with such nonchalance it seemed to be thrown only by the force of his pulse. Because most of the bonus pitchers threw harder, we would watch in disbelief as Overby struck out batter after batter, achieving by savvy and control what none of us could achieve by simply closing our eyes and firing the ball with all our strength. I envied Overby. It was not fair, I thought, as I sat in the corner of the dugout and watched him coast from one win to another, all of which he treated with indifference, as one might regard inherited wealth. Because I hungered for his successes, I threw harder and harder, but wins came infrequently, and even when they did come they were muted in comparison to his. Secretly I began to root against him. I believed that every victory he achieved, every strikeout, had been snatched from my preordained allotment. Those were my successes! He was stealing them! I consoled myself with the knowledge that one day justice would prevail, things would right themselves as I'd been taught they always did. And they did—for both of us.
The righting began the following spring. I had been assigned to the Braves' minor-league training camp at Way-cross, Ga., while Dennis had been invited to the major-league camp at Bradenton. Each week I would pick up The Sporting News to read of his progress. In one intersquad game he struck out Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock in succession. He was the sensation of that spring, and before the camp closed he was voted the Braves' most-likely successor to Warren Spahn by the sportswriters who had seen him pitch. He was given a watch. Then one cold day after a heavy rain he slipped on a muddy mound and hurt his left arm. The doctors who examined him said he would never pitch again. But because the Braves had given him a bonus, the payments of which were spread over four years, they refused to let him go. If he quit before his contract expired he would lose his bonus money. Each spring Dennis would be assigned to Waycross and immediately put on the disabled list. While the rest of us worked out with various teams in the system, Dennis remained teamless. His shirt bore no number. Often as I warmed up to start a game I would see him on some empty diamond running wind sprints in the outfield. He ran them in a halfhearted way, sensing, I'm sure, the idiocy of keeping himself in shape for a game he would never pitch. Sometimes I would see him throwing a baseball against a screen. Not throwing, actually, but pushing the ball in that funny, straining way a shotputter does, his ear inclining toward his left shoulder as if to hear the pain.
During the 1959 season 20 pitchers would appear in a McCook Braves uniform, although never more than 10 at any one time. Only one, Phil Niekro, a 20-year-old knuckleballer from Blaine, Ohio, would ever have a major-league career. In 1969 Niekro won 23 games for the Atlanta Braves and became the first knuckleball pitcher to win that many games in 55 years. He is still a starter on the Atlanta staff. In 1959, however, the Braves had given him $500 and sent him to McCook as the 10th pitcher on the staff. At first he appeared only in the final innings of hopelessly lost games. He was ineffective because he could not throw his knuckleball over the plate and preferred instead to use one of his other pitches, all of which were deficient. In fact, he seemed deficient. He was tall, blond and affected a deferential slouch. I dismissed him as a timid man. Years later I would realize that what I had mistaken for timidity was actually a simplicity of nature. Phil Niekro was the least complex man I had ever met. He devoted his life to the mastering of a pitch. He had been taught that pitch by his father when he was six years old and had still not mastered it when he reached McCook. It is a capricious pitch. It has no logic. Even its name is illogical, since knuckles have nothing to do with its performance. To throw one a pitcher digs the nails of his first two fingers into the seams of the baseball and then pushes the ball to the plate with the same motion he would use to close a door. Once released, the ball has no spin. It is caught immediately by invisible currents of air. (A spinning ball cuts through the currents and takes a direction of its own.) The vagaries of the currents may cause a knuckleball to rise or dip or flutter left and right, or maybe all of those things, or maybe just some of them, or maybe none at all. It may just float lazily plateward. Its flight pattern is as erratic as a hummingbird's. A pitcher has no control over the pitch. He imposes nothing on the ball, simply surrenders to its will. To be successful a knuckleball pitcher must recognize this fact and then decide that his destiny lies only with the pitch and that he will throw it constantly no matter where it leads him. It was in McCook that Phil Niekro first surrendered his will to the whims of his knuckleball and, thereafter, his success began. It is a surrender a more complex man could never make, but one that eventually brought Phil Niekro a success none of his teammates at McCook ever approached.
I stayed to myself at first. I lived in a room at the Keystone Hotel. In the afternoons I walked to the armory. I dressed with my teammates and then sat in the backseat of one of their cars for the short ride to Cibola. I stared out the window and said nothing. Until I pitched my first game (and awed my teammates with my talent) I would not feel a part of the team. After the games I returned to town and sat on the bench in front of the Keystone until midnight. I was fascinated by the cars "dragging Main." It was a ritual I'd never seen back home in Fairfield, Conn. and which, I learned, was indigenous to small isolated towns like McCook. The cars were mostly older rectangular Chevy Nomads and boxy Ford coupes and, occasionally, a low-slung and ponderous black Mercury with a narrow windshield and humped back that crawled up Main Street looking as sinister as an alligator. The teen-agers beeped their horns and gunned their motors and, hanging halfway out of the windows, shouted to passing cars filled with their friends.
One night I was standing on the curb in front of the hotel when I saw Ron Hunt, then an 18-year-old third baseman, now the second baseman of the Montreal Expos, walking up the hill toward me. As he approached, a car filled with girls drove by. I waved. They waved back and the car continued down the hill. Hunt noticed my gesture and came over to talk. He was shy and earnest with a very short crew cut that made his large ears look even larger. He was the first of my teammates with whom I'd had a conversation. We talked about our hometowns and our ambitions and hinted at the size of our bonuses. He seemed reticent to reveal the amount of his but eager to discover mine. I told him offhandedly it was a lot more than $20,000 (actually it was $45,000). "Gosh!" he said.
When Ron Hunt asked me to be his roommate that night, I gladly accepted. I moved in the following morning. We lived in a gray house a few blocks north of the hotel. It was owned by a tiny stooped lady with steel-gray hair. Ron introduced her as "Mom," which momentarily confused me. Then I realized she was not actually his mother. She charged us $8 a week to sleep in a single room with two cots and one bureau. For another dollar she would serve us breakfast and allow us to watch television with her at night. I declined the latter offer but Ron didn't, although I'm sure she never got around to charging him that extra dollar. When I woke each morning I would hear them in the kitchen. "Have another piece of toast, son," she would say. He would laugh and tell her she treated him better than his own mother did. I always waited until she left the kitchen before slipping out the door and walking downtown to eat my breakfast. After the games at night I continued to spend my time in front of the Keystone Hotel. I would stay there until I knew both Ron and Mom had finished watching television and gone to bed.
I envied the intimacy they shared. I was alone and would have been pleased to find in McCook some familial warmth. But I could never call her Mom. It embarrassed me. Their intimacy seemed too easily acquired, like a new glove broken in by someone else. No matter how comfortably it fit the contours of your hand it would never feel quite right. It was someone else's glove. The oils that had softened and molded it had come from someone else's palm. Its comfort, then, was unearned. The ability to deal intimately with strangers was something I did not have nor think worth acquiring. I chose distance instead. I never spoke more than a few perfunctory words to Mom as I entered or left her house. She told Ron I was aloof, unfriendly. I do not remember what she was, other than an old woman in whose house I once slept for $8 a week.
Ten days after I arrived in McCook Bill Steinecke told me I would pitch the second game of a night doubleheader against the Holdrege White Sox in Holdrege. The first game went 15 innings. In the 11th inning Steinecke told me that if the game did not end soon there would be no second game. A town ordinance prohibited any game from starting after 11:50 p.m., and it was already 10:30. "You'll get your start some other day," he said. In the 12th inning the White Sox got a runner on third and I prayed they would score him. They didn't. In the following half-inning I prayed that the Braves would score a run, but they didn't. My allegiance skipped back and forth between the teams until finally the Braves won in the 15th. It was 11:30 p.m. "We'll start as soon as you're warmed up," Steinecke said. My warmup catcher was Elrod Hendricks, who had caught all 15 innings of the first game and would sit out the second. He had just unbuckled his shin guards and sat back in the dugout when I told him I had to warm up.
"Oh, mon! Got plenty time," he said in the calypso lilt of his native Virgin Islands.
"I gotta start now," I said, and walked down to the bullpen. He followed, shaking his head. He was very black, and in the dimly lighted bullpen I could barely make out his face. I began to throw hard almost from the first pitch. He was standing and catching the ball with a carefree snap of his glove. Before he returned each pitch he spoke to the fans standing alongside the fence. I could see his white teeth as he smiled. "Hurry up," I shouted, but he seemed not to hear me. He lobbed the ball back in a lazy arc. He was still standing a few minutes later when I began to throw full speed. I motioned for him to get down in a crouch and give me a target. He did, slowly, as if with great pain, and I heard the fans laughing. I fired the next pitch over his head. He made a halfhearted swipe at it with his glove. The ball rolled to the dugout.
"You coulda had that!" I kicked the dirt in front of me. "Jeez, hurry up!"
I saw his teeth again. "You don" like it, mon, get 'nother catcher."
"I will, damn it!" I ran down to the dugout and got Joe Shields. When Hendricks saw me return with Shields he said, "Why you won' do thot, mon? Make Elrod look bod to monager. Shouldn't do thot. We talk 'bout it in McCook, eh?" He was shaking his head as he spoke, yet I could see his teeth, so he must have been smiling, too.
My performance in that game, my first professional one, would typify my career. It was brief and resolved nothing. I pitched 2‚Öì innings before Steinecke took me out of the game with the score tied 2-2. I proved I had great talent (i.e., potential) by striking out four of the seven batters I retired, and proved that that talent was undisciplined by walking five batters in less than three innings. I surrendered no hits and, in fact, refused to let the White Sox batters make contact with the ball. In the third inning I struck out one man and walked two in succession before Steinecke trotted to the mound.
"You're trying to throw the—ball by everyone," he said. "Relax, let them hit it. We'll help you." He looked over his shoulder at the next batter, a skinny, spectacled infielder named Al Weis. He would star for the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series, the same Series in which Elrod Hendricks would catch for the Baltimore Orioles.
"This so-and-so is gonna bunt the runners over," Steinecke said. "You let him. If he bunts toward first base you go to first with the ball, but if he bunts down to third, try to nail the lead runner. You understand?" I nodded, but as soon as he left the mound I decided to strike out Weis. I walked him on four pitches and then walked the next batter on four pitches to force in a run.
"That's it," Steinecke said, waddling to the mound.
"They're not hitting me," I said.
"No, they're not," he said with a maniacal smile of glee.
"But you're not gettin' the——out either." He spit tobacco juice on my shoes and wiped the excess from his chin. "No siree, podner, you are not getting them out, are you?"
I walked off the mound and sat in the dugout. I didn't know what I was supposed to feel at that moment. I had expected to strike out 18 batters and pitch a two-hit shutout or maybe get hit unmercifully. I would have understood that, too. But this? It confused me. It was so inconclusive. What did it mean? I was still sitting there stunned when my teammates came in from the field at the end of the inning. I heard Ron Hunt say, "Man, my roomie really throws bullets, don't he?" Then he lowered his voice and said, "He got a big bonus, you know. Really big!"
I relaxed considerably. It hadn't been a total loss after all. Now, thanks to my roomie, they all knew. That was enough to satisfy me for the time being and, in fact, probably gave me as much satisfaction as a victory would have. At the time I preferred those pure, transitory moments of success—points proved—that could be gotten quickly and stood out clearly (I threw that hard!). They did not require the drudgery that a more substantial success demanded.
The following morning I was sitting in front of the Keystone Hotel reading a newspaper when I heard a voice say, "Heh, mon, been looking for you." I looked over the paper to see Elrod smiling down at me.
"What for?" I said. He hit me on the side of the head and I fell off the bench. I landed in a sitting position on the sidewalk, my legs spread out in front of me. I was still holding the newspaper. I was more dazed than hurt. Then I remembered the night before, but was still not sure that was why Elrod had hit me. It was not enough, I thought, not enough for me to hit someone. There must be more. I had been shoved into this melodrama without having played the first scene. And he was still smiling at me! I got up and he swung again. This time I blocked the punch with my arm. We circled warily. To the death? I wondered. But I wasn't even angry. I just wished he would put down his arms and walk away. But he didn't. I thought of my career. Two and one-third innings. Would that be it?
Once the excitement of my arrival in McCook and the start of my career had worn off, I discovered it was a dull life. The mornings and afternoons were free, and endless. Only the hours from six to 11 p.m., when the games were played, held any excitement. Those games were our only reality. Our lives were lived primarily within nine innings and were greatly affected by what took place during them. The rest was nothing but dead time to be filled somehow. There was a pool hall that opened at noon and a bar that served those over 21. There were two movie theaters, the drive-in and the Fox, both of which opened at seven p.m. and closed at midnight. At best, after a night game we could rush to see the final minutes of the same movie two weeks running. We had only ourselves to alleviate the boredom. Often I would sit by myself for long periods of time in the old band shelter in the small park across from the hotel. Most of the players drifted into cliques. They shared the boredom as if it were a weight that could be lessened in proportion to the number of shoulders that bore it.
One night, walking home from the armory, I passed the town bar. Through the window I could see several of the older players. The room was dimly lit but their faces were illumined in an eerie way by the colored lights of a pinball machine around which they stood. They held bottles of beer, and every so often one would raise a bottle to his lips, tip his head back and take a long swallow. They took turns playing the machine. As the silver balls ricocheted underneath the glass they laughed and pointed at the flickering scoreboard. I watched for a while, not daring to go inside and suffer the humiliation of being denied service because I was under 21. Besides, I had not yet acquired a taste for beer, nor for pinball machines, though I definitely did desire the camaraderie the older players seemed to share.
A few nights later I got up the nerve to walk over to their house after a game. They were sitting around in their underwear, talking, swearing and drinking beer. They offered me a beer, too, and I sat down with them. I said very little at first, but after a few sips began to talk loudly and slur my words. I was not drunk really, just showing off, and it wasn't until I saw the disgusted looks on their faces that I realized I had done the wrong thing.
I lacked something, I decided. But what? I gave up my efforts to befriend the older players. Still, I did not spend much lime with Ron Hunt, either. I had grown estranged from him over the weeks. We had little in common. I was restless, preferring to spend my free time downtown, while Ron would rather have stayed home with Mom. One afternoon I returned to our house to find Ron standing on the front lawn with one arm around a middle-aged man in a business suit and the other around a woman with a corsage pinned to her dress. Mom—that is, the woman in whose house we slept—was peering at the three of them through a Brownie camera. After she snapped the picture, Ron introduced the man to me as "my dad," and the woman as "my mom." A few weeks later I returned home another afternoon to find the same scene being played out. Ron, smiling, his arms around a man and a woman. Only they were different people. Mom snapped their picture. Ron called me over. "I want you to meet my dad," he said. "And this is my mom." I later learned that his parents had been divorced and had each remarried, so he had two sets of them, of moms and dads, not counting any others who befriended him along the way. It was a source of comfort to him.
Most of the younger players lived together in a house. I went there once and found little to interest me. They spent their time writing to mothers and girl friends. The former always seemed to be sending cookies and the latter pictures of themselves. The players treated the snapshots of one another's girl friend with great reverence no matter how unpretty that girl might be. Each player was faithful to his snapshot and, in fact, made as great a production of his faithfulness as a reformed alcoholic does of his sobriety ("It's been 32 days since I last saw her"). Dennis Overby went so far as to bring his girl friend to McCook. One night while she was there he struck out 17 batters and the next day they were seen at 11 o'clock Mass. Afterward she flew back to Fond du Lac.
I had a girl friend back home, also. She is now my wife, has been these past 13 years. She says I sent few letters from McCook. They were never more than a few lines, scrawled in large letters across one side of a piece of note-paper. She kept one:
I miss you so much. I love you an awful lot. I can't wait to see you again. How are you? Fine, I hope. I have a terrific roommate. His name is Ron Hunt. He has a girl friend back home, too, and all we do is talk about each of you. He's a swell guy and I wish you could meet him. I pitched yesterday but was wild. My arm didn't feel real good. But I still throw harder than anyone on the club. And I'm learning lots about pitching and lots of other things. Love and kisses, Pat.
P.S. Please don't worry about my arm!
Why, of all people, did I become friendly with Julius French? I often wonder. Neither of us fit in on the team, and so we gravitated toward each other. But that is a shaky foundation on which to build a friendship—one that turned out to consist primarily of sullen silences. At best we shared a common moodiness, a dissatisfaction, but with what we did not know. French was regarded as a troublemaker, and most people avoided him. He said he had signed a contingent bonus contract with the Braves and had been promised $10,000 if he remained on the McCook roster 60 days.
We met every day at the pool hall and played throughout the afternoon. Our games began jovially enough, but always turned sour. We fought each other across the table, took out our private frustrations in those games. The day's loser stalked out of the pool hall determined never again to speak to the winner. Those resolutions lasted a few hours, sometimes even a day, but never longer. We were parted and reunited by our murky dissatisfactions and the grudging admission that we needed someone with whom to share them. Our friendship was neither forced nor intimate.
Julius and I watched home games from the bullpen in the left-field corner. We sat on a picnic bench and chewed tobacco. We stretched out our legs in front of us, dug the heels of our spikes into the ground and pushed back slightly so that the bench tottered and our backs rested against the wire fence that separated us from the fans behind us. We held this pose for innings, hats pulled down over our eyes, hands folded on our stomachs, stirring ourselves only to spit tobacco juice high into the air, part our legs quickly and close them again before we lost our balance. The bullpen was in the shadows and so far from home plate that we could see the ball in the catcher's glove a split second before we heard its crack. We watched the games with faint interest. They were being played by someone else and so affected their careers, not ours. We rarely found ourselves a part of those games, and only by accident. One night a base hit skipped over the foul line and hooked under our bench. We were so surprised at this intrusion into our solitude that we didn't move until we heard the puffing and cursing and pounding feet of the opposing team's leftfielder. We dove oft' the bench just before he grabbed the ball and fired it to third base. Julius dusted himself off with mock solemnity and said, "Damn, fella, show some manners!" The fans in the stands laughed and we righted our bench and resumed our pose.
More often the closest we came to the action was when Phil Niekro sprinted to the bullpen to warm up before going in to save yet another game. Most of the time we just sat there chewing tobacco and cursing Overby's luck as he struck out batter after batter. To help pass the time there were always a few young boys rattling the fence behind us. They pleaded with us to show them our gloves. Like prisoners they reached their hands through the fence and tried the gloves on. They pounded their fists into the gloves and shouted, "Fire it to me, babe!" When we turned our backs they tried to pull the gloves through the fence, but the openings were too small. They would lose interest in the gloves and ask us to give them a baseball. Often we did, but only in return for a hot dog or a hamburger, which we ate behind our raised gloves so that Steinecke could not see us from his spot in the third-base-coach box.
It was difficult to sustain enthusiasm when we were not pitching, and even more so considering the number of games we played in only two months. We had no scheduled days off, not even for travel, because none of the league's six towns was farther than a three-hour bus ride from any other league town. Our road trips were one-night stands. We arrived in time for batting practice, played the game, ate supper at midnight and returned to McCook at around four a.m. Because we never stayed overnight in these towns, I have retained no sense of them. I remember only that to reach Hastings and Holdrege and Kearney and North Platte and Grand Island we had to pass through miles of flatland that smelled sweetly of alfalfa and occasionally through a town like Funk or Indianola or Wellfleet or Juniata or Arapahoe that was only a block long.
I remember specifically only one afternoon. We had stopped to eat at a roadside café outside of Holdrege. It began to rain and the drops splattered the plate glass window. Soon hailstones were bouncing off the window. They grew larger and larger, until they were the size of a book. They were flat, jagged chunks of ice that looked as if they were torn from an iceberg and were being hurled against the window by some savage god. The ice hit the window with a clang, and the window buckled and rippled like a transparent sheet of aluminum. Everyone in the café huddled against the far wall away from the window. We stared at it in disbelief and waited for it to shatter. But the hail stopped as suddenly as it had begun and seconds later the sun was shining. The sun grew hot now and quickly melted the hailstones. Outside, we searched for the larger pieces we had seen hit the window but could find none. We had begun to doubt their size when one of the waitresses pointed to the used-car lot across the street and we saw cars with shattered windshields and pockmarked bodies.
The sun stayed out for the rest of the afternoon and that night we played a doubleheader against the Holdrege White Sox, although how those games turned out I cannot remember. I do not remember much of any of the games we played on the road other than those in which I pitched. I remember in detail, for instance, a game I started in Grand Island in mid-July. I defeated the Grand Island Athletics 1-0 for my first victory in professional baseball. My mound opponent was Jose Santiago, a tall Puerto Rican with stiletto sideburns. Santiago would one day become a successful pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, for whom he started two games in the 1967 World Series. That night in 1959 I was a better pitcher than he by a slight margin. I threw harder. We matched each other's serves for eight innings before Ron Hunt scored from third on a fly ball to shallow center. He dove headfirst past the lunging catcher. I hugged him when he entered the dugout. I ended the game by striking out the last batter on three pitches. In nine innings I had struck out 11, walked three and surrendered two singles. It was the kind of performance that would hound me throughout my career. I would produce such games once in every four starts. After them, my manager would say, "It shows you can do it." But I could never summon those games and, in fact, the harder I tried to duplicate them the more elusive they became. In my next three starts I failed to last beyond the fourth inning. Then, when I was about to despair, it all returned in a whoosh—speed, curve, control, savvy, even luck—and I pitched a game of blinding and maddening brilliance.
I remember the first game I pitched after my two-hitter in Grand Island. It was my first appearance at Cibola Stadium. The McCook Gazette carried an article about me. It described me as one of the brightest of the McCook Braves' pitching prospects. It mentioned that I was a bonus baby. I was very nervous before the game and determined to impress the fans with at least a repeat of my performance against Grand Island. I walked the first three batters and then struck out one. The fans cheered. I saw myself striking out the side with all those runners on base. I walked the next batter and the next, and when Steinecke came out to the mound and I saw Niekro walking from the bullpen I made no attempt to dispute Steinecke's decision. I escaped to the dugout. When the inning was over Steinecke told me I could return to the armory and take a shower. "You're through for the night," he said. I stepped out of the dugout and walked through the fence into the parking lot.
I felt my second game at Cibola Stadium would be a chance to redeem myself. But I did not pitch much better than I had the game before. I lasted a few innings before the other team got two hits off me and I began firing the ball like a madman. Finally Steinecke came out to the mound. "What an exhibition!" he snapped. "Go take a shower!"
I stormed off the mound. I kept on walking past the dugout, into the parking lot and beyond to the road that led to the armory. I was in a rage, and only when I'd walked for a few minutes in the darkness did I realize what a long walk was ahead. I could see the low, flat silhouette of the armory far in the distance. I passed a few houses, my spikes clicking against the sidewalk, and then the sidewalk ended and I was walking on the dirt shoulder alongside the road with only the sound of the crickets for company. My rage became despair and finally self-pity.
I was fascinated by Bill Steinecke from the first moment I'd met him. I introduced myself to him and said, "You must be my coach."
"Coach, my ass," he said. "That jerk who put flowers in your hair in high school was your coach. I am your manager. Your skipper. Skip. Steinecke. Steiny. Bill. Anything but your coach." And he walked away.
He was right, of course. He was nothing like any coach I'd ever had. My high school coach led us in prayer before each game. We knelt on the ground in a circle, lowered our heads, put our hands on top of one another's in the center of that circle and prayed to St. Jude for victory. Steiny did not lead us in prayer.
I came to worship Bill Steinecke. I spent hours learning how to chew tobacco without getting sick. I cursed the umpires, called Julius "podner" in imitation of Steinecke, would do anything he asked. But he asked nothing. He demanded nothing, explained nothing. He assumed all. When I became aware of his reason for starting me every five days despite my poor performances—my bonus—he did not congratulate me on my perception. I should have realized sooner. An adult would have. He was the first adult ever to treat me as an equal. Whether I was or not seemed of no concern to him. That was my problem.
Julius French was given his unconditional release in August, a few days before the $10,000 contingent bonus was due him. He had pitched sporadically and indifferently. He seemed to be a major-league prospect, but to the Braves was not worth the money they would have to pay to find out for certain. Julius did not get a cent in bonus money, receiving only what he had been paid as a salary. I learned of his release when I arrived at the armory one afternoon. He had left McCook without saying goodby. I was glad. I did not like goodbys, never have. I distrust the emotions that rise from them, that are magnified and distorted by them. That was the basis for much of our brief friendship. We both distrusted emotion, saw in its external show hints of false sentiments.
I never heard from Julius again and saw his name only once—on the roster of a Triple-A team in the Cleveland Indian organization.
Without Julius during those final weeks I was left to my solitary devices—pool and the bench in front of the Keystone Hotel. I saw my teammates only during the games and occasionally, by accident, downtown. Ron Hunt and I seldom spoke anymore. We passed each other with faint nods as we entered or left Mom's house.
I spent a lot of time in those weeks drinking coffee in drugstores. I often hit two or three drugstores in one morning. I liked to sit at the long Formica counters, sipping coffee and watching the waitresses. They were farm girls with thick bodies that strained against their nylon uniforms as they reached and stooped. The sound of those moving bodies, nylon slips and stockings rustling against nylon uniforms, never failed to excite me, still does. I was fascinated by the offhand way they glided through their routine—tapped huge steel urns, balanced cups and saucers halfway up each arm, cleaned a counter with a swipe of the cloth, pocketing their tips in the same motion. And upon seeing a familiar face enter the store, they had a cup of coffee ready for the customer before he reached the counter. I wondered if one day I would walk through that door and before I'd swung my leg over the stool there would be a cup of coffee waiting for me, too.
I stayed in those drugstores for hours, nursing my coffee and waiting for midmorning when businessmen and farmers and housewives and secretaries would pour in and the counter grew crowded and noisy around me. I liked the feeling of being in the middle of such a crowd, in the middle of people moving through familiar lives, meeting familiar faces, while my life at the time was so unfamiliar and all the faces in it those of strangers. Sitting there, eavesdropping, I shared in their lives. But I never once abandoned my anonymity, never once turned left or right and reached into one of those lives. I just took comfort from their presence and poured more milk into my coffee until it was nothing but milk. My anonymity gave me freedom and a certain distance from those lives which, if entered, I might discover to be oppressively familiar in a way I did not care to see. They could never escape them as I could, by simply standing up and walking outside into the sunlight of my own unknown and myriad possibilities.
I finished my summer at McCook with a 3-3 record and a 3.54 earned run average. I gave up 41 hits in 56 innings. I walked 55 batters and struck out 56. I have obtained those statistics from a back copy of The Sporting News. I'd forgotten them. I have forgotten much from those games, which at the time were so important. Small fragments, like the hailstones in Holdrege, they have dissolved in my memory. There are some, however, that have not melted, that have surfaced hard and cold and sharp from my subconscious. They seldom concern the games ("my only reality"), but rather deal with the dead time I passed in McCook. They float about, banging into one another in a disturbing way until finally they hit a piece with which they fit and form a larger piece and, repeating that process, a still larger one until they have taken a shape I now can recognize.