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FICTION

Knowing the Signs
By Dan Spencer

 

Tap nose, tap nose, swipe belly, tug right ear, tug left ear, touch left shoulder, tap nose, clap once, clap twice.

Whitaker wondered why there was no hit-and-run sign. The snub made him twitch. Before June, it was even money that he'd make contact, especially if the pitcher was consistent to the plate. Harry Lord had lost faith in him, pure and simple. Too many strikeouts, too much flailing away without even scuffing the cowhide, and too many Blues stranded on base.

"Look at them old fellers," Clem Clemens said. Whitaker followed the catcher's gaze to four cigar-chomping, red-nosed men in the front row directly behind the Buffalo dugout. One portly gentleman fanned his pasty face with his hat. The walrus beside him with the gray mustache pointed at various spots throughout Weeghman Park. "You'd think they'd take a little interest in what we're all a-doing down here."

"You can't expect fascination for a team that's about to fold," Whitaker said.

"I reckon not, but them men paid us no attention the whole game." Clemens crouched down behind the plate. He was a jabber jaw, always trying to foil a hitter's concentration. A backup catcher wasn't going to trick Whitaker, though. Let him yack. "Chicago folks don't know how lucky they got it. Three pro clubs and this brand-new ballpark. Why, it's baseball heaven. Wouldn't you say, Whit?"

"Unh-huh."

"Hard to believe we might never play here again."

"Try out for the Cubs," said Cushman the umpire. "Rumor has it that they're itching to leave the West Side Grounds. They might take this diamond next season."

"Yeah. Maybe they can fill the place. I hear you fellers ain't drawing so good in Buffalo, neither, Whit."

"Nope."

Whitaker bent over, scooped a handful of rust-colored dirt, and smothered his palms. He then spit into his calloused hands, letting the saliva form a sticky, grimy coat. Spikes scratched at red earth, digging divots and wiping away the faint remains of white chalk that formed the batter's box. As habit, he tugged up the left sleeve of his dark blue uniform, a sadistic color for a muggy midsummer afternoon, and took two practice swings. Pain shot up his arm each time. Don't flinch! Finally, he was prepared. The umpire signaled to Hendrix and knelt down behind Clemens.

"Grab a seat, old man!" someone shouted from the Chicago Whales dugout. It sounded like Dutch Zwilling, but Whitaker couldn't be certain. No matter. He ignored the slur.

The bat felt as heavy as a telegraph pole in Whitaker's hands, so he let it rest on his right shoulder. Concentration eluded him. Whitaker had played through pain before, but the throbbing in his left wrist demanded attention like a wailing child. He disregarded it, just as he refused to acknowledge the deep bruise in his right shin or the dull ache in his lower back. He had suffered worse ailments, like the broken toe he endured in his third season with the Reds. The wrist was more of a bother, though, because it caused a few throwing gaffes in the field. He wouldn't gripe. There was no caving in to pain.

Look dead red and lay off the sinkball. Claude Hendrix could locate his fastball up and down, in and out, but patience was the key. He'd make a mistake in the middle of the plate.

Hendrix's arm was a catapult hurling a round blur at the plate. The filthy ball was almost black, so Whitaker could barely see it out of the pitcher's grasp. A fastball on the inside corner. Now! Whitaker cocked his arms and swung evenly. The bat cut through empty air a split second after the ball exploded into the catcher's mitt.

"Streeeeeeeeeeek!"

"Inside?" Whitaker asked.

Cushman glared at him.

"What was the location?"

"It was a strike," the umpire grumbled.

Jack Cushman was a bum. The umpire would be out of work by season's end, and his chances of being hired back into a major league were slim to none. A bad reputation shadowed him for crooked dealings with high rollers. No criminal activities were ever proven, but his banishment to the Federal League was as good as a conviction. With the Federals now crumbling into bankruptcy after only two seasons, Cushman might wind up on the dole or maybe fall back in with his oily cohorts. Good riddance, Whitaker thought.

"I hear you work off-season for some airplane comp'ny in Buffalo," Clemens said. He hurled the ball back to Hendrix.

"Yeah, with Curtiss."

"Good for you. At least you got something to do when this league goes belly-up."

"Oh, I'll get back in the pro game."

"You think? I figured you for retirement."

The rude assumption made Whitaker grimace. Age wasn't a detriment, not for him. Sure, he was thirty-four, but that was only three and a half years beyond the major league average. "They'll have to cart me off the field on a stretcher," he said.

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

—EFQ

 

DAN SPENCER is a screenwriter and the author of Four Wheels Good, a novel about the first transcontinental auto race. He and his wife, Rebecca, are diehard San Francisco Giants fans.

© 2003 Dan Spencer

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