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BASEBALL FICTION

From the Stretch
By Andrew Bomback

On Wednesday, Frank Healy, the pitching coach, can't get his car to start, so he asks Brad Strahan for a ride to the ballpark. They live in the same apartment house.

"Thanks, Strahan," Healy says in the car. "I really owe you one for this."

"It's no sweat, coach," Brad says. "It just means I get to the park an hour early. I could use the extra time to work on some of my mechanics anyway."

"Yeah, but don't wear yourself out now; you've got a big game Friday night. What the fuck is this?" Healy turns the radio off. "What the fuck were we listening to?"

"That's a good band, coach. Those are some buddies of mine from college."

"It sounds like shit."

Frank Healy readjusts himself in the passenger's seat. He looks out the window and then down at his fingernails. Brad can't help but watch his coach; the man frightens him but also holds the key to his future—his potential future—as a major league pitcher. One of the first things Greg Wigham, the oldest pitcher on the Deacon Beach Bulldogs staff, told Brad was that pitching is just part of the formula. "Don't get me wrong," Greg said, "you need to be able to throw, but there's lots of guys down here who can throw. The real deal is, you got to convince the coaches that you're worth their investment, and that means you got to kiss a little ass, listen to their advice even if it sucks, do what they say, and then, if they like you, they'll get you moving up to Double A."

"You miss the good old days of college, Strahan?" Healy says.

"Yeah, I guess I do," Brad says. "It was a nice life up there. I had my girlfriend around all the time, parties every—"

"I meant, you miss pitching to guys who couldn't hit?" Healy says, looking again out the window, at the flat Florida land passing by the car. "You know, the key to making it as a ballplayer is to always think about baseball. I wasn't asking you if you missed getting laid."

Brad grinds his teeth, hating himself for blowing a golden opportunity to get on Frank Healy's good side. Instead, this car ride has only confirmed Brad's suspicion that his pitching coach thinks he has no shot at becoming a major leaguer, that he'll always be a college boy who doesn't have the stuff to get the real world out. "What do you think is screwing up my slider when I go from the stretch?" Brad says.

"You want to talk about your pitching, we can talk about your pitching," Healy says. "Mechanics is one thing. Your mechanics are off, but you know that, smart college kid like you. The problem with you is that you don't have a big-time pitcher's courage. That's why you can't throw the slider as well from the stretch as from the windup. The mechanics are off but it's also in your head a bit too, is wha—" Frank Healy stops his speech suddenly. "Pull into that McDonald's, would you, Strahan. I want to get some orange juice. I'll buy you one."

Brad obeys, turning the car into the McDonald's parking lot. "Should we go in or do drive through?"

"Drive through," Healy says. "Now, what was I saying, oh yeah, you've got a frightened look on your face sometimes. It's not even just when you're pitching, although it really comes out whenever there's someone on base." Again, the words stop, and Brad waits patiently for what will come next. "Well, son, aren't you going to order?"

"Oh, yeah," Brad says, and he calls out their order to the large microphone that protrudes from the center of an outdoor menu. He pulls the car up, gets the orange juice, and waits for Frank Healy to fish around in his pockets for the $1.94.

Back on the road, Healy picks up his speech. "Do you know what I'm talking about when I talk about that look on your face, that nervous look like you're all confused or something?"

"Yeah, but that's just the look I get when I'm thinking, coach."

"Who told you to think? Just pitch."

"My college coach told me you should always plan ahead, think things out, create a fantasy of what you want to happen. You know, like visualize something and it will come true. Picture the strike and then it's easier to—"

"That's a load of crap," Healy interrupts Brad. "Maybe that kind of thing works in college, but here you just have to put that shit aside. All you need to do is throw a good pitch. Don't worry about anything else but one pitch."

"I'll try to do that," Brad says. I will try, he tells himself.

"Look, this is a shitty life, I know," Healy goes on. "It sucks to be a minor leaguer; it sucks even more to be on the bottom rung of a goddamned big ladder—and that's what Single A is; don't let anyone fool you into thinking you can just springboard from here into the big show. And it sucks having to do all this in a shitty town like Deacon Beach. You know all this, don't you? Don't make me think I'm breaking the news to you about all this. I'm not, am I?"

"No, no, you're not. The guy next door to me—you know him, don't you, Mr. Pollard—he got robbed last week. And we live in a nice part of town."

"You see, Strahan, that's the thing I'm talking about though. You're a professional ballplayer, for Christ's sake. You can't sound scared like that shit that just came out of your mouth. You need to be tough. You need to take control of this place, become master of Deacon Beach, and I bet you if you can do that, you won't be here much longer. You'll be in Manhasset. And you know what's there, don't you?"

Of course he knows. Manhasset is the home of the Manhasset Stingrays, the Double A team, the next step on the journey. This car ride has taught Brad enough to be quiet, let Healy's beautiful question fill the humid air of his car, let the sound of his glorious future—even if it is in question—resonate a bit longer.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2001 issue.

—EFQ

ANDREW BOMBACK is currently a medical student at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. His stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, Panic Attack, and Humanism in Medicine. He was a finalist for the 2001 Raymond Carver Short Story Award at the University of Washington.

© 2001 Andrew Bomback

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