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By John Doble
The first time I seen Lefty, I knew he was special. It was six years ago this May, a game between St. Steve's and Bishop Pierce. I go to tons of games. I'm always on the lookoutyou gotta throw a lot of stones before you kill a bird.
I've been in baseball all my life. Spent three years at Double A, which is the second highest minor league, and one in Triple A. Twice went to spring training. But I never made the bigs, not even for coffee. All the teams got guys like mebird dogs, guys who, for beer money and tickets, keep a eye out for talent. Then, if I do sign a kid, I get a bonus. Not much, something. But money's not why we do it. We love the game and scouting's a way to stay in it. And to be honest, you're a big kind of fish. Everybody knows you: the coaches, players, guys from the paper. Parents'll whisper when you're in the stands. It tickles me when they're watching, trying to see what I'm writing, because sometimes I'm making out my grocery list.
I signed a half-dozen kids before Lefty but only one makes it and he don't make it big. He was the Cubs' backup catcher for a couple years. My others are like nineteen out of twentythey top out somewhere in the minors, stay with it 'til they're sick of living on what you make flipping burgers. That's how baseball is: when it rains, it's a downpour. The ones who make it, make it big. But most guys in the gamethe scouts, the minor leaguers, even some of the ones in the front officeget paid like flunkies and work like a husky.
Anyways, back to Lefty. He's fifteen, a sophomore at Bishop Pierce, the Pirates of Bishop Pierce. It's a Tuesday. It's funny how you remember little things. I'm late 'cause I have to work some OT. Joey DiSteffano's sick and I have to cover part of his route. I drive a bread truck. I drive from four until noon. But that day I don't quit 'til almost three. So by the time I get there, it's bottom of the first. St. Steve's got a southpaw too, a little kid with a curveball. But the Pirates are hitting him; they score three in their half. Then it's top of the second and out comes this tall, skinny, dark-brown string bean of a kid with his game-face on. He's over six feet but weighs one forty, one forty-five tops. Gawky, he's grown so fast, his body's not coordinated; it ain't caught up to the rest of him. And he don't know a thing about pitching. He's a slingerherky-jerky, all arms and legs and elbows and feet. But can he bring it! Just hearing him makes me sit up. Wham-O! I don't have my radar gun but just by the sound, I know he's in the eighties. When he's fifteen! When he fills out and with good mechanics, he'll be in the nineties easy, maybe the high nineties. Which is what we clocked him at once: ninety-nine miles an hour. And he was still growing.
You can teach a kid a lot about baseball: about hitting, pitching, how to play the game. But you can't teach three things: to hit for power, to run fast, or to throw hard. Those are gifts from the Lord. You either get 'em or you don't.
Speaking of fast, I remember a guy used to be with the Phillies. When he was a kid, a scout gives him a questionnaire. It's something they give all their prospects to see what they know about the game. Questions like: "Men on first and second and one out, where should the left fielder throw the ball on a single?" Stuff like that. Anyway, the kid looks at the test, then at the scout, then at the test, then at the scout. Hands it back; he can't make sense of it. Turns out the kid can't read. But he bends down, takes off his shoes and socks, and starts running. The kid can fly! I mean like an Olympics guy. Speed is something you can never have too much of. The scout signs him on the spot.
Anyway, I go behind the backstop. SH-H-H-H-O-O-P! The ball makes that no-doubt-about-it, sweet-as-Cracker-Jacks sound, saying: "Here, my friend, comes a real, honest-to-gosh, major league fastball." THWOP! goes the catcher's glove. I glance at Father Marty, Marty Russo, the coach at Bishop Pierce, a pudgy little guy who's shaped like a calzone. He looks at me with a you-know-what-eating grin on his face. He knows what I'm thinking. I yell, "I want to talk to you after the game." He nods and his grin gets bigger.
The funny thing is, Lefty don't pitch good that day. At least by ordinary reckoning. He walks six and hits a couple before Marty takes him out. But us scouts have our own way of evaluating a player. We don't look at what a kid does; we look for what he might do when he's, say, twenty-six or twenty-seven. We look for what you call potential. And by that way of figuring, Lefty looks great. He fans two an inning, and no one hits a ball hard. Not evn a foul.
After the game, I learn he's from Mississippi, the Delta. His mom died so he came north to live with his aunt. Don't have no father, at least none he knows of. He's sixth in a family of nine. When his mom passed, his brothers and sisters got scattered all over, and Lefty moved in with his Aunt Pearl who lives in the projects. She has three of her own, else she'd taken in more than him; that's what she said the first time I went for dinner. She works in a hospital, a nurse's aide. Her man died, or ran out, or God knows what. She's like most of usgood folks, doing the best she can.
Besides having no mom, Lefty's got other problems. For starters, he's bowlegged, which is probably because of rickets. If kids don't get enough vitamins and stuff when they're growing up, their bones don't grow right. Not hard and solid like they ought to. A lot of players have bad knees. They're bowlegged and in their twenties, they get tendinitis. Or worse. Four times out of five, it's a colored guy or a Puerto Rican who had rickets as a kid.
Which reminds me of something that's beside the point but I'll mention it anyway. You don't know what to call a guy today, a colored guy I mean. When I was playing, we called 'em colored guys. You didn't use the "nword." Only a troublemaker'd do that. But somewhere along the line, they decide you oughta say "Negro" instead of colored. Then "black" instead of Negro. Now what do I know? I'm just a stump of an ex-catcher who never finished high school, a bread-truck-driving hillbilly with who-knows-who-all's blood in my veins. But that don't make sense to me. Cause in the first place, they're brown! The only thing black about 'em is their hair. Lefty's dark all right, somewhere between a Mounds and an Almond Joy. But that's brown! Brown, brown, brown! Anyway, now you're supposed to say "African American" which, except for being a mouthful, is fine with me cause that's where their people came from. I mean, we call Marty "Italian" and the closest he's been to Italy was Godfather III. But for now, I call 'em what I always did.
The next day I go to practice to watch him throw. Then Marty brings him over and introduces him. Any other kid, I want to see some more. Baseball's the hardest game there is. On a given day even the best player can look like a bum. Baseball can humble you quicker than life itself. But with Lefty, I don't have to see him again. With Lefty I know.
I got a little spiel I use with kids: how they gotta work their tail off, not get mixed up with drugs or booze, that kinda stuff. But with him being such a talent, I want to say it just right. So I tell him I scout for the Yankees, which he knows, and that I seen him pitch the day before, which he also knows. Then I get to the point.
"You got a shot," I say. "There's only a couple hundred guys in the Bigs, and they come from all over the world: Puerto Rico, the Dominican, Venezuela, even Australia. It's like a club that's hard to get into. Real hard. And once you get in, it's hard to stay there. To stay, you gotta do the job. Not be able to do the job. Not try to do the job. Do it! Then and there, no matter what. Under the weather? So what! A sick kid? Your wife run off? Nobody cares. Maybe you get one game to prove it, maybe you get ten. Here's your chance, buddy boy, do it now or go home and sell shoes!
"Then, if you do it, you gotta do it tomorrow. And the day after that. And as soon as you stopwham-o! You're out on your ears. It'll end faster than a balloon going pop. There's only two things they want to know: ëCan you do the job today?' And, ëHow's about tomorrow?'"
I go on and on, saying how making the Bigs is one tough tow-road and that besides talent, you gotta want it so bad you'll do whatever it takes. Which means giving everything you gotand that's for openers. I tell him how raw he is, how he don't know squat about pitching. Then I say the other stuff: how drugs or booze or the wrong kind of girl can take you down faster than you can say Jack Robinson. But I end by building him up. I say he's one of the best fifteen-year-olds I ever seen. (I don't say he's the bestwhich he is. Or that I think he's got the potential to be a left-handed Gibson, a colored Steve Carlton. I got plenty of time to build up his confidence. Now I tell him how hard it'll be.)
I tell him if he busts his butt, keeps his head on straight, and don't do nothing dumb, he's got a shot. And that maybe someday I'll sign him to a contract with the Yankees. Then I shut up. It was some dandy little speechifying, if I do say so myself. So I'm standing there, chomping my gum, watching him, trying to figure out what he's thinking. But his face is like a poker; it don't show a thing. So I ask what he thinks.
"I want to make it," he says, real calm and quiet. "I want to pitch for the Yankees." He lowers his head and the next thing is, I know, coming from Marty. But that's okay because it's coming from him too. "Will you help me?" he says, all soft and serious. "Teach me what you know?"
In the whole world, there's one thing true about every big-kind-of-fish guy who ever was: we like being recognized. We like being known for who we are and what we done. It may be little, Buster Brown, but this here pond is where I swim. So, like some just-off-the-bus blockhead, I let the kid turn my head. But I don't want him thinking I'm a jelly doughnut.
"Maybe," I go. "Maybe I will. I want to watch you some more, make sure you're worth my time."
He grins a great big, goofy-ass grin, just like Marty's grin the day before. It's going around, I think. The priest's got something contagious; now the kid's got it too. But he's got me pegged. He knows my "maybe" means yes. He shakes my hand, still grinning like a doofus, then runs to take his shower. I watch him go, loping like a colt. He don't even look like he's going hard 'til you realize how much ground he's covering. And I realize that he's got the same fluid stride of a Bernie Williams or an Aaron, even DiMagguys who, even when they're busting it, are so smooth they look like they're not even trying.
The next day I go to practice again. When he ain't pitching, he's shagging flies. Afterwards, he jogs over to say hello. I tell him okay, I'll teach him about pitching. But on my terms. He's gotta meet me on Saturday mornings at seven o'clock. Which, for me, is sleeping in. But I read about a basketball coach in Philly who holds practice at sunup. Now that, I thought, is a way to separate the weeds from the shaft.
That first Saturday, I warm him up and give him pointers. He asks can he bring his buddies, Bumper and Chuckie T., who are on the team too. Why not? When I met them, they're regular kids. Oh, Chuckie liked to spend money. And Bumper had a short fuseif he didn't like something you said, he might sit down on first base, take a rest in the middle of practice. Like he's testing you, to see what you'll do. One day after fanning a couple times, he hammers the backstop with his bat. Maybe they weren't all serious and levelheaded like Lefty, but they weren't bad kids. At least not then.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2002 issue.
JOHN DOBLE is a baseball fan who also writes short stories and plays.
He heads a public-interest research firm and lives in New York City with his
wife, partner, muse, and best friend, Elizabeth, and their dog, Bear. "Lefty"
was first published in The South Carolina Review.
© 2002 John Doble
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