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By Daniel Wolff
We called him "PH" down in the minors. He spells his name that way, you know: Stephen Thomas. It also stood for pinch hitter. Or puny hitter. When I first threw against himin New Haven, fourteen, maybe fifteen seasons, agohe couldn't hit the size of his hat.
That was a day game. Triple A. We won it 54. Got him out three times on curveballs. Curveballs set up by fastballsno problem.
He was just a kid, then. Maybe twenty. People say only his mother knows Thomas's real age. Of course, they say that about black ballplayers. I would have guessed twenty, twenty-two at the most. Tall, lanky, kind of slipped around inside his uniform. But even back then, scrawny as he was, he had a grown man's face. Body of a boy, face of a man. Deacon's face. And that weird swing.
Nowadays, a lot of younger hitters try to imitate it, but back thenNew Havenpeople laughed. As a pitcher, I don't laugh at any swing. Doesn't pay. But I can't say I was particularly worried. Looked to me like he came up there with two strikes on him. For one, he had a really slow bat. Molasses. It was like you could see him think about swinging, and then, a moment later, the bat would actually move. For another, he had that step toward the pitcherturning his toe, almost a hitch. Way he still does. We figured he had "PH" written all over him.
A year later, he came up to the bigs. You got the stats. Cardinals needed a first baseman; Thomas was big, left-handed, worked hard. The position was open, and I think the Cardinals figured he'd do till they could trade for something better.
I only faced him once that year, 'cause I didn't get that much playing time myself, and he was being platooned with Sizemore. But you don't forget pitching against Thomas.
I remember even before he stepped up, when he'd just come out on deck and was kneeling there. You know how most men take a couple swings? Hell, these days, they got polyurethane weights and special velcro wrist stabilizers and who knows what all isometric this and that. Batters get all the help. Technology. Pitchers just got their arm. And whatever we can hide in our caps.
Anyway, that afternoon in St. Louis, Thomas walked to the on-deck circle, kneeled down, and then just stared at me. Does it to everyone. He'll watch every pitch, every movement you make. If he's the first man up, he'll watch your warm-up throws. Never moves, never swings: just watches.
When he finally got to the plate, I threw him three pitches. Two fastballs that he took: ball and a strike. Then, 'cause I recalled New Haven, I fed him the curve. I thought I had him set up, but he was waiting on it. Hit it pretty good down the right field line. Double.
After he'd slid into second, he took off his batting glove and started into staring, again. I'd never seen him on base before, so I didn't know what to make of it. First, I thought it was one of those "I-hit-you" stares. But Thomas on base does the same thing he does on deck. He studies your motion, your pitch selection, the way you hold the ball before you throw a sinker. It's weird. You can feel him check you out. Slowly. Top to bottom. Like being a woman. A good-looking woman. Like having him undress you with his eyes.
I guess it must have tookwhat?three seasons for him to start hitting. You got the stats. A lot of times, a rookie comes up, and he'll tear through the leaguehit .350 his first time around. Then, we'll figure him out. Can't see the split finger or loves chasing outside and low. Whatever. He'll settle back to being just another ballplayer. But Thomas was the opposite. First time around, we were getting him out on anything and everything: fastballs, curveballs. I bet he didn't average more than .210, .215 that first year. Am I right? PH.
During that winter, the Cardinals tried to make a trade. Not to unload Thomas (no one wanted him) but to find a real first baseman. Well, there weren't many, and Schmansky, the owner, never would put out any money. So, come the spring, there was Thomas again. That deacon's face, that slow swing. They hit him seventh or eighth in the order, and no one expected much.
Hell, I don't need to go season by season; you know what happened. Two seventy-five, .280 that second year. Up another ten points the season after that. And he hasn't hit under .300 now in nearly a decade. What was it year before last? Three sixty-five? No one ever noticed much. Because he was playing in St. Louis, for one, and because Thomas never looked like a hitter. But we knew; the pitchers knew. Pitchers hate Steve Thomas.
Which is why we stole his book. Actually, I think two things led up to that. One was the start he got this year. A month into the season, he's hitting .455. A month later, he's still at .440 something. At the All-Star break in July, he's a good thirty-five points over .400, and no end in sight. That was one thing: nobody likes to be showed up by a pigeon-toed, molasses-handed, stone-faced left-hander.
The other thing was, he went high tech. Every batter worth his salt keeps a book, and the pitchers do too. For ten years, Thomas was like all the rest of us. Sat in front of his locker after the game and scribbled down whatever he saw in a notebook, then studied it back at the hotel. The way he stared at you was specialand what he did with it, I guessbut the fact that he wrote it down was standard.
Then, last year, he got one of those laptops. We noticed it right off, first day of spring training. Down in Florida, you know, everyone's looser. Crowds are smaller; right fielder can talk to the shortstop without raising his voice. Well, we're playing pepper, joking around, when over there in the Cardinals dugout, we hear this tap, tap, tap. It's Thomas, typing away at this keyboard he's got, the sound echoing off the empty seats. There was something about itand the look of it too: this cold little unit with one of those quartz screensmade you crazy. Nothing human, nothing baseball about it.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2003 issue.
DANIEL WOLFF's fiction has appeared in Three Penny Review, his
poetry in the Paris Review and Partisan Review, and he's the
author, most recently, of The Memphis Blues Again, the music photographs
of Ernest C. Withers (Viking Studio).
© 2003 Daniel Wolff
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