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FICTION

The Catcher
By Andrew Bomback

My first serious girlfriend was a blond-haired, blue-eyed white girl named Michelle. We met at Harvard, in a freshman seminar on the history of baseball. I took the class because the professor was known as an easy grader, especially when it came to athletes. Michelle took the class because her father had been a classmate of the professor's, and that, too, seemed like a way to secure a successful semester. Looking back, I think that's what drew me to Michelle; she was one of the few people at Harvard who seemed to know that she didn't really belong there. I was an outsider too—the jock who could hit home runs in the spring and who got sympathetic looks from the teaching assistants during the fall as I struggled to get through the week's assignments. On the surface, Michelle didn't present herself as an outsider. She came from a top boarding school, entered Harvard with a firmly established clique of wealthy and attractive peers, and somehow managed to convert her dorm room into a leather-bound den that was the most popular after-hours place during our freshman year. But in private, when we lay in bed or sat across from each other in a restaurant, she would often tell me that she would have never gotten anything in life—including Harvard—without her father's money.

I met Michelle's parents on Easter Sunday of our freshman year. Michelle told me that her parents were excited to meet me, and when I asked her if she had told them that I was Japanese, she answered with a smile and a soft, reassuring kiss. It turns out that she hadn't told them. I had suspected earlier in the year that part of Michelle's interest in me was that I was an easy piece of rebellion. I wasn't white, but I was on track to be a Harvard graduate in four years. I was the kind of risk that she—and her family—could both appreciate and stomach. There were nights during our freshman year when Michelle seemed to go out of her way to kiss me in public, as if she had to prove to someone—herself, her boarding school friends, the Harvard community, someone—that she really did like me. That Easter Sunday visit to her family's home only reaffirmed my earlier hunches. But I've never been one to ignore my own intentions, and I knew that it would be hypocritical for me to be angry at Michelle for using me when I was also very excited by the idea that my girlfriend had blond hair and blue eyes.

Michelle's and my reasons for staying together for four years of college are, I suspect, meant to be the subject of another story. I only mention Michelle because I was with her when I learned that the New York Mets had drafted me in the eleventh round of the 1999 amateur draft. It was the spring of our senior year, one week from graduation, and we were sitting by the Charles River, eating ice cream and passing a bottle of red wine back and forth, silently watching other people walking by us. Michelle's cell phone rang, and when she passed me the phone and told me that it was my mother, I suspected something disastrous, like a death in the family or my father being arrested again. I was not expecting to hear anything good, and least of all to hear that I had been given the chance to become a professional baseball player.

 

My full name is Thurman Jackson Nodoka, but I've always gone by Jack. My father came to America in 1964 and started a small printing shop in Manhattan's Lower East Side. He was a fan of baseball in Japan, and he quickly adopted the New York Yankees as his favorite American team. I was born in 1977, and instead of giving me a traditional Japanese name, like my cousins, or even a common American name, like all of my friends, my father named me after his two favorite Yankees—Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. Two years after I was born, Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, and my father decided to raise me as a catcher in tribute. By the time I was in elementary school, I had played so much baseball with my father, with him throwing fastballs that popped into my mitt and made my palms red for hours afterward, that I was dubbed a natural by all my Little League coaches. I was the best player on my baseball teams through high school, and when the Harvard coach told me after my junior year of high school that he was going to help me get into the best school in the country, I only thought of how proud my father was going to be. And he was.

My last name is a Japanese word for "quiet." That isn't a perfect translation; someone who is nodoka is quiet because he realizes that speaking out is usually pointless. My mother often tells me that I am the only male in my family who actually deserves the Nodoka name, and I've never known whether that is meant to be a compliment. After I got off the phone with my mother that June night, after I kissed Michelle hard on the lips and told her that I was going to be a New York Met, I waited for her to congratulate me, kiss me back, and tell me that she was proud of me. Instead she sat still. She coughed, and then she sighed. Finally she said, "Do you really think this is a good idea? What about the job at Lehman Brothers?" I thought about answering her, saying something like, "I never wanted that job. I don't want to be a banker. I'm not smart enough to be a banker, and I'm also not boring enough to be a banker. I accepted that job because your father was nice enough to arrange it and I had nothing else to do next year, but now I've been given a chance to do something special, something that every kid dreams about. Do you know that if you pick up the phone book and look through every name in there, not one of them is a major league ballplayer? Can't you see how amazing an opportunity this is?"

But I said nothing, perhaps because I sensed that Michelle needed to speak or perhaps because I knew that no matter what I said to her that night, she wasn't going to share my excitement. So I listened to her talk about how she wasn't going to be able to follow me down to whatever minor league town I'd be sent to, and how she wasn't sure that she could commit herself to someone whose future was so tenuous, and how the past four years were fun, weren't they, but we both knew that someday this would all end; we'd move into the real world where you can't just sit by a river and eat ice cream and drink red wine. She started crying, and I leaned over to take her in my arms, but she moved away. She stood up, and she said through her tears, "This is a mistake, Jack. You weren't even the best player here. Think about whether you really should do this." I stayed quiet and listened to her walk away. Looking back, I can see that Michelle probably wasn't trying to hurt me, that she might even have been making a last-ditch attempt to keep us together. But at the time, I was only able to look out at the Charles River and think about playing in Shea Stadium, with Michelle sitting in the stands, eating her words.

 

Two weeks later I was a Harvard graduate and on a plane to Florida to join the Single A St. Lucie Mets. I was too nervous to eat any of the airline food or sleep or pay attention to the movie showing on the screen above my head. All I could think about was how badly I wanted to hit a home run in my first at bat, even if it only came in batting practice or an intra-squad scrimmage. I suspected that the other players and even the coaches would be skeptical about me—a college player, an eleventh-round pick, a Harvard graduate, a Japanese man. I needed to make a good impression.

Unfortunately, I didn't have much faith in my hitting ability. Michelle was wrong; I was the best player on the Harvard team, but that was due solely to my catching ability. In high school, I rarely went a game without hitting a home run. In college, however, the pitches became more unpredictable, and whenever I did hit something deep, I always felt lucky, never knowing what exactly I had done right on that particular swing. Professional hitting was going to be even more of a challenge, I knew, but I also felt that the Mets had probably drafted me because of my defensive skills. My offensive numbers wouldn't attract any scout's eyes, but if a scout saw me behind the plate—the way I called a game, handled the most inexperienced pitchers, vacuumed up any ball in my remote vicinity, and threw down to second with such zip that no runner ever tried to steal on me twice—then he'd know that my kind of catching was rare, was Thurman MunsonŮlike, and that his team needed me behind the plate. That's what the Mets must have seen in me, I reassured myself, as the plane's wheels crunched onto the Florida runway. But still, I knew that it would be nice to hit a home run with my first swing.

 

The St. Lucie Mets had told me that someone would be picking me up at the airport, but they didn't say that it was going to be Carl Exner, the team's manager, and Pablo Troyal, his pitching coach. They welcomed me, shook my hand, asked me how my flight was, and then told me that they'd be taking me to breakfast, where we'd get better acquainted. Nothing much was said for the next twenty minutes until we were seated in a Denny's restaurant, looking at our menus, when Exner said to me, "Order anything you want, son. Pablo's taking care of breakfast today." They both laughed, and I did too, and the sense of dread that had been building up since meeting these two finally began to subside.

"Son," Exner said, "let me be honest with you right off the bat, okay? The Mets didn't draft you to play baseball for them."

Troyal looked at Exner and then at me. He smiled and said, "The waitress is coming. Let's order, and then we'll talk some more."

I didn't know what to think: Was I being traded? Released without even given a chance to prove my worth? I waited for Exner and Troyal to order, and then I told the waitress that I just wanted a cup of tea. I felt as if I was going to be sick.

"So," Troyal said, smiling, "you like tea. Do most Japanese people drink tea for breakfast?"

"Some do, I guess," I said. "I usually drink coffee, but I'm not feeling great right now, you know, with the plane trip and being in a new place. And now I hear that I'm not going to be a Met."

"Let me explain that," Exner said. His voice was scratchy, a labored effort that was probably due to years of smoking, drinking, and yelling at his players. He was just as I had pictured my first minor league manager, except I didn't expect him to be sitting across from me at a Denny's, telling me that I wasn't going to be playing for his team. "Your numbers in college weren't great, you know that. My guess is that you were surprised to hear that you were drafted, weren't you?"

"Sure," I said. "I mean, I wasn't expecting it, and you're right, my offensive numbers weren't that great, but I thought that maybe my defensive—"

"Look, you seem like a nice kid, and an honest kid, so I'll get straight to the point." Exner looked over at Troyal, nodded, and then turned back to me. "You see, we drafted you because you're a catcher, you went to Harvard, and you speak Japanese. We need your help with a player. Maybe you've heard of him. His name is . . ." Exner stopped, scrunched up his face in thought, and said, "Jesus, Pablo, I keep forgetting the kid's name."

"His name is Takatsuki Oroyama," Troyal said, still smiling. "Have you heard of him?"

"No," I said.

"He's the top pitching prospect in Japan right now. He's got a fastball that's high nineties and three other outpitches too. And the Mets have paid a lot for his rights." The waitress brought over three glasses of water and Troyal sipped from his. "He's only nineteen and knows about three or four words of English."

"He knows the word Žstrikeout,' though," Exner chimed in.

"That's true," Troyal said. He looked directly into my eyes. "The New York office doesn't think he's ready for the big leagues yet, and they want him to be a bit more mature, and American, when he gets there. What we want from you is some help guiding this kid. He's only going to be playing a year of minor league ball, maybe less if he really wows us, and we want you to be his personal catcher during that time."

"You're a smart kid, so I know there's not much explaining for us to do here," Exner said, punctuating his sentence with a series of coughs. "You'll get a one-year contract; you'll only play every fifth game; and we expect you to spend all of your time down here teaching this kid as much English as you can, especially baseball English."

The waitress returned, bringing Exner and Troyal their food. She looked at me with such sympathy that I almost believed that she had been listening to our conversation. "Hon," she said, "you sure you don't want anything to go with that tea?"

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2003 issue.

—EFQ

 

ANDREW BOMBACK lives in New York, where he is a medical student. His stories have recently appeared in Pindeldyboz, Crab Orchard Review, Sensations Magazine, Medlennium, Carve Magazine, and Diagram. He will never stop rooting for the Mets.

© 2003 Andrew Bomback

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