The Reveries of a Retired Shortstop
The rain wasn’t helping things. The dugout steps were slippery enough where you could’ve slid on your spikes and blew out an ankle, or gone stitches-over-seams splatting onto the concrete. Maybe your glove gets so it’s a bit waterlogged too, and so that could’ve been what the catcher’s saying out there, you know, when the ball maybe slips through and skitters away to Wrigley’s off-center, brick-wall backstop. Not that us ballplayers are ones to line up excuses for bad plays, but leather doesn’t take to wet well. Everyone knows that. But me, my cleats were high and dry in the dugout after I’d scoured the mud out of ’em between innings there, and I was in quite the mood for pondering, I guess. Might’ve been the lull of the game’s pace or something, but my mind it got to roaming.
There’s, too, a record that not everybody’s going to know about, being that it don’t happen much, and that’s where the pitcher gets four k’s in one inning. Think old Cannonball Crane was the first, a way back in 1880 or something. It’s a strange rule that allows it. The catcher’s got to actually catch the ball after a strikeout for it to be official. If he drops it or let’s the thing squib away behind him, well, then the batter can run on down to first and try to get there before the catcher finds that ball and fires it over to first before the batter gets there. There’s another thing though that makes this a bit less likely. There’s got to be less than two outs and first base can’t be already occupied. This, I guess, is because the catcher could drop the thing on purpose right there in front of him and then fire it to second, and maybe have a double play on his hands. Kind of like the infield fly rule. Catcher’s mostly hate 2-strike splitters for this reason, or any kind of junk pitch that might bounce or rattle around, or if they get crossed up. It might be a shit rule, but it makes for some excitement.
Anyways, the 4-strikeout inning is a record held by all kinds of people, but 5? That hasn’t happened in the Bigs, well, except for knuckling Joe Niekro who did it in Spring Training, so it doesn’t count. So, well, on the rainy days when the ump won’t call the thing off, well, you get to thinking, chewing sunflower seeds and staying dry in the home-half on the bench, maybe, with a strikeout guy on the bump, just maybe today’s the day for a fiver.
On this particular rainy day we were playing the Cubs, who most folks don’t recall were labeled the Chicago Orphans for the 1898 season because Cap Anson left ’em high and dry after becoming the first in baseball history to amass 3,000 hits. We had a day game there at Wrigley, which, by the way, is all they used to have there, day games that is, up until the mid eighties when they finally went ahead and modernized and installed lights so they could play at night, and it was drizzly that day but not enough to get the game delayed. Guys were wiping their bats off on their unies between pitches. The outfield was a bit mushy, and you’d get some grass and mud caught up in your spikes out there. It wasn’t anything to go bellyaching about. You played through it and didn’t whine because the other guys were playing on the same field, you know? You think it’s maybe the roughest on the two guys in the squat though, because being a catcher’s already doing the grunt work, and you’ve got to slosh around behind the plate and try to catch a wet ball. The conditions were pretty damn okay for dropped third strikes, that’s for sure. You get to thinking though, how about it if the catcher keeps dropping those third strikes? And what if the guy keeps making it to first afterwards? How many strikeouts could a guy get in an inning? There’s really no limit to it, if you think about it. But there is, too, a limit, because the inning’s got to end at some point. It’s just impossible to really know when. It’s not like it could go on forever. The final out would have to be made at some point, even if it’s way on down the line. There must be a third out. Just like the game must end at some point. It can’t go on forever. There’s just no way to know for sure when that point is going to come. You could estimate about it, sure, but there’s really no way to know for certain when it’s going to happen.
So, anyways, I’m spitting out sunflower seeds on the bench, and I’m noodling about such things, you know, how things have to end. Nothing lasts forever. Just simple stuff that everybody knows. But it just occurred to me, well, what if an inning never ended? But isn’t it the nature of an inning to end? It has to. A game’s got nine of them to get through. It can’t just go on an on. So, also, there’s really no limit to the number of k’s a guy could have in an inning. My head didn’t like that though. There’s got to be an end point. Swimming around in eternity can get a bit iffy, you know? So, it’s like the Fresno Raisin Eaters of 1906: it doesn’t last. And then you go on wondering whatever happened to that record you used to own called “Double Play!” that had the wonderful risqué picture of the quite possibly topless blonde in the Hollywood Stars hat on the cover. My mind’s off wondering, to the races, and I’m likely mumbling to myself too. Dragging the infield of my thoughts, you know — and it’ll take a dinger to knock me out of my gooey trance — I kept stumbling over this apparent antinomy of endless k’s. To my mind it’s that whole if-there’s-a-barber-who-shaves-only-and-all-who-don’t-shave-themselves-then-who-shaves-the-barber thing, and I can’t dance my bean around to the paradox of its music.
Sure enough, though, by the time I’m pondering the bench pressing of these rather heavy things, the ump calls a guy out on a close play at the plate, and we’re headed back out to the rain-sopped field for the bottom of the current inning. I grab my glove and start padding back out into the wet. It’s getting worse, the rain, and some of us are starting to think the game’s going to get called. But it’s only the third, and they like to get the game official most times if they can by giving it the old four-and-a-half, so we’re prepared to slosh through it. I’m out at short. There’s a lot of debris and mud holes out there. The seagulls are swarming a bit, maybe thrown off by the low attendance because of the inclement weather, and the day game’s atmosphere in general that just feels odd, especially when you’re out there on the not-so-well-groomed sienna, chucking away pebbles and fielding bad-hop grounders and basically just feeling lazy and worn and cold. The wind was doing little tornadoes here and there, picking up trash and dust in foul territory and in the outfield too, and it was fun to watch between batters or during huddles on the mound or when guy’s’d take their time between pitches.
My head goes from overflowing to empty pretty damn quick, and it was like that out there on the field, and I’d stopped thinking about the Eternal Inning for the time I was out there scratching doodles into the dirt with my cleats. Anyway, the Friendly Confines, in all of its brick and ivy glory, is getting soppy, and a lot of people have cleared out already, leaving a good amount of empty seats, as both teams we’re already mathematically eliminated, as they say, from post season at this point. The hush and steady murmur of the crowd’s a strange thing when the stadium’s kind of emptied out like that. It’s like you can hear individual shouts and distinct noises coming from the stands better. Sometimes I swear I catch little snatches of conversation going on out there. It’s strange. I don’t really know how to explain it right. It’s like the less people who are out there, well, sometimes it just seems louder for some reason. Like this one time at Fenway a few years back, when it was in the 14th inning and almost 2 in the morning, and cold and windy and awful out, and there were only a handful of diehard sox fans left in the stands, I swear I could hear every word of a group of guys in the upper deck singing Neil Diamond’s Cherry Cherry. It’s those types of things that make me scratch my bean and yawn because there’s no good that’s going to come from noodling all the whys of it. Life’s just a messy blur of crazed stitches sewn haphazardly into Time’s jersey. It’s better just to yawn about it all sometimes.
Anyways, I’m out at short, getting kind of drenched out there too by this point, and it’s starting to get swampy around the bag at second, so I’m playing pretty far back, almost to the grass, to the third-base side of things in general. Sure, I was giving away a lot up the middle, but the guy on the hill for us was a real Jim Kaat, and so I wasn’t too worried, and besides, I’ve always moved well to my left and was never afraid to get some dirt on my unie. Our guy toeing the slab had pretty good stuff that day. He was pounding the zone pretty good and was working quick, so there really wasn’t a whole lot of downtime to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, at least not too profoundly. He had a good sinker, and it was really on that day, so you had to be on your toes for grounders, which I was, and couldn’t let myself get too distracted by hypothetical conundrums or a group of fans shouting all in unison: “What’s the matter with Keller? He’s a bum!” Carney Keller was on the hot corner and was getting quite an earful from some rowdy fans in the seats above our dugout. It made me laugh, hearing stuff like this, but I didn’t want to laugh about it and have Keller see me so I hid my face in my glove, pretending like I was coughing into it. It’s not that Keller would’ve cared, but still, you’ve got to show team unity and all that, and it wouldn’t’ve looked so swell if the fans were riding the third baseman and the shortstop’s laughing at it. The Skip would’ve had me carrying luggage for that one for sure, and hell, I’d probably ended up in Kangaroo Court over it too.
So, I was keeping my game face on, you know, because I know how fragile people are when it comes down to it, even big-shot Major Leaguers like Carney Keller, and even if they don’t wear their frowns on the outside, well, I don’t like hurting people’s feelings, even if it’s just in fun. So, I was kind of keeping my full attention plate-wards, trying to keep my cleats from the muddier spots, and brushing my wet glove off on my pants so I wouldn’t have a gloveful of wet when I went to scoop up a grounder, or at least not as soaked of a glove. I’m a stickler for keeping to old habits, of which I’ve got a’ plenty, as most of us old ballplayers do, being such creatures of routine, always finding things that’ll keep us going through those consistent motions that make us successful over the course of a hundred and sixty two. It’s just a matter of finding a way to be good at something and then perfecting the art of doing that thing over and over until it’s really hard to do that thing any other way. This is especially true of ballplayers, you know us athletic sorts who’ve got to “go with the bones” without thinking at all about what we’re doing. It all has to be instinctual, something you learn to do from doing it so much that it becomes natural, like you’re teaching yourself new instincts, which I know sound like a bunch of hooey, you know, because instincts are supposed to be things you’re born with so how can you learn them, right? But it’s the way it is. At least I think so. Besides, the world we live in, you know, is changing so speedy, well, maybe our instincts for it have to be learned. Maybe after thousands of years we’ll be born with a whole new set of instincts that react to computers the same ways our ancestors reacted to, I don’t know, being attacked by saber-tooths. I don’t know. Anyway, all of this stuff makes us ballplayers a bit more susceptible to magical thinking and superstition. We had a leftfielder once who wouldn’t change his socks during a hitting streak. Luckily for us it only lasted 15 games, but let’s just say that during those weeks there weren’t many guys who wanted to get too close to his locker. We were all a bit thankful when he finally tossed those stinkers out, though we did appreciate the effort. Get good results. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and repeat until the results are always the same. A mantra, or at least the hope, for a ballplayer. This is probably why a lot of guys chew tobacco. Something about the constant rhythm of it, a steadying kind of thing, a constant motion. Me? Well, I’m partial to gum myself. But that day at Wrigley…you know, well, that’s a kind of gum I don’t really much care for, if truth be known — Wrigley’s that is. Just something thin and weak about it. Doesn’t go for long before you’ve got to shove another stick in there for flavor. I’m more of a Trident man myself. A stick of that stuff — peppermint’s tops to me — will get me through more innings than most middle relievers before it’s time for a change. But the stadium was named after the man, not the gum, so.
Any old way, I’m out there at short just biding time until what I think’s looking to be more and more like a rain-delay situation on the horizon. So, well, a lot of buzzing’s going on up in my dome, and I keep getting sidetracked by this question of the never-ending inning. But then a slow roller’s heading my way, and so I go a charging after it, as it just skips past the pitcher and is a bit easier for me to nab than Keller coming in from third. I get to it quick enough. The throw though is going to be a tough one, as I’m in an odd position there, and with the field being in anything but prime condition and the ball being at least somewhat slippery, well, there’s a lot there that can go wrong. I had sure hands and was good about getting in front of the ball. A real slick fielder for the most part, and I trusted my glove. I opt to not go with the barehand just for this reason, and I actually get a decent toss off to first, maybe not as much on it as I would’ve liked, but considering the circumstances, well, it should’ve been enough to get the guy, who wasn’t the fleetest of foot, as I remember it. That is if the throw had been on line. But it wasn’t. I pulled our first baseman Harlan off the bag. Give him credit though. He just about did the splits trying to get the out. I was pissed. I knew I should’ve had the guy. There’s just that part of you that’ll be critical over every little thing, and that was the part that was pissed. I had a bit more time than I’d figured. Should’ve got a more accurate throw off. But oh well, you know? What can you do. Just hobble back to your position and get ’em next time. But then I start thinking, ‘How many more next times could there be? Could this keep happening over and over.’ I mean, well, because really in baseball there’s really no time limit to the game. Guys could keep getting on base. We could never get another out. This game could go on and on. But also, well, the game had to end. It had to. It boggled my head up pretty good. The uncertainty of it. Nothing was going to happen for sure. We’d all just have to wait and see, even though we knew it had to end, well, there was no way to know absolutely for sure. That didn’t sit well with me. I shook my head and doodled in the dirt with my cleats. All I wanted right then was a weak little popup, a can of corn to sit under, waiting for it to come down and plop into my glove with that reassuring sound, making me feel like everything was okay, that all of this would end, at some point, and we’d all move on, grow older, and get on with our lives. I don’t know why this made me feel good; but it gave me hope. Maybe things are all pointless without an end to them? And maybe a person’s life is like that. Sort of like, what’s the meaning of all this if it just goes on and on? It’s got to stop. And with that thought in mind, well, that’s what makes it all worth it. The fact that there is an end out there, a finale, a time when all of this “who” that we’ve always known and always been will simply cease to be, and somehow that makes life seem more significant, like what we do matters more because one day we won’t ever be able to do it again.
Well, anyway, it made me feel pretty damn wonderful, and I stopped worrying about one long continuous inning that would just keep lasting and lasting eternally, and we got a guy looking, called out on strikes for the third out. Our catcher didn’t drop it, and the ump wound up and made a big theatrical deal about it, and we bounced from our positions and almost skipped back into the dugout where it was dry and warm, and where we knew we couldn’t stay for long, but for the while that we were there, well, we sat around and spit seeds and chewed gum and heckled the ump, shouting out things like, “You’re missing a great game, Blue!” And, well, in the short while that we were there we enjoyed it all as much as we could.