Bush-League Finish

 

©1992 by Jay Braiman

 

 

“…over to Murphy for the out, and that retires the side. We go to the bottom of the ninth here at Quentin field, the Amarillo Armadillos lead the San Antonio Slammers two to one. You’re listening to KSAS, San Antonio’s sports voice, now here’s a word from Budweiser…”

 

*

 

The 248 fans in the stands at San Antonio’s Quentin Field made a feeble attempt at “the wave” as the hometown Slammers, the only team in the Class B Rio Grande League with fewer than thirty wins on the season, hurried into the dugout after retiring Amarillo in the top of the ninth. The Armadillos were a half-game out of first place behind the Waco Whackers with six to play, and the old manual scoreboard in left-center field indicated that the Whackers were leading the Galveston Gauchos 3-1 in the eighth.

San Antonio hadn’t beaten Amarillo all year; in fact, they hadn’t been able to hold the Armadillos under ten runs. Today, however, they got a strong performance from lefthander Toby Melontree, who gave up only three hits and one earned run, and San Antonio had a chance to win going into the bottom of the inning.

Rookie Buck Childress sat uneasily in the Slammers’ dugout, watching his 72-year-old manager Deke McAlary mull over the lineup card with a pained expression on his face. Then again, Old Deke always looked pained. Buck was the only position player who hadn’t gotten into the game – not just today; he hadn’t seen the field since early July. Maybe Old Deke had forgotten about him. The old man was getting a little senile. Come to think of it, Buck thought, the guy hasn’t talked to me in weeks. But with no re-entry rule in the Rio Grande League, and the pitcher die to bat fifth in the inning…

“Hey! Bucky! Wake up!” shouted Vinny DeNunzio, Buck’s best friend on the team and the Slammers’ regular shortstop, as he noisily dropped himself onto the bench next to the rookie, slamming his back into the flimsy wooden surface that formed the rear of the dugout. Most of the team called him “Dago,” since he was the only player of Italian descent on a team of native Texans. His deep, sharp Brooklyn accent contrasted sharply with the southwestern drawl of his teammates.

“Quit that racket, dag goneit!” old Deke shouted gruffly.

Vinny waved his hand in front of Buck’s face. “Yo, Bucky! Hello?” It didn’t matter; he already had the rookie’s attention.

“What? What?!”

The shortstop grinned smugly, tobacco nearly falling out of his mouth. “I’m leadin’ off.”

“So?” blurted Buck, a little repelled by the chaw.

“Hey, forget about it. Toby comes up, you’re gonna pinch-hit.”

“Yeah, right. He ain’t comin’ up. I ain’t gonna play. I may as well go back to Sears and sell Lady Kenmores.”

Another voice called from the end of the dugout. “Lookin’ for tips from the rook there, Dago?”

Vinny turned around and saw first baseman Gil Murphy laughing as he drew his bat from the rack. The shortstop shouted, “Hey,” sent a projectile of spit to the ground at Murphy’s feet, and added in Italian, “va fa’n culo!” Murphy replied with a gesture to the same effect and headed for the on-deck circle.

“What’s his problem?” inquired Buck.

“Nothin’,” Vinny shook his head. “My brother-in-law works hard at bein’ an asshole; it just comes natural to Murphy.”

The conversation was interrupted by Old Deke’s loud, scratchy voice. “Allright, you maggots, let’s go, dag goneit! I ain’t payin’ ya fer nothin’! What’s the score anyway?”

“Two-one, Deke,” replied Curtis Van Horn as he rubbed his bat with a pine-tar rag.

“Who’s winning?”

Vinny glanced at Buck and rolled his eyes. “They are, Deke.”

“What inning is it?”

Buck looked up at his manager eagerly. “It’s the bottom of the ninth, sir.”

Old Deke did a double-take. “Who the hell are you?!”

Nervously, Buck replied, “I’m…uh… I’m Buck Childress, sir.”

“Oh,” said the manager indifferently, shrugging his shoulders. “Well, sit down and shut up.”

As Old Deke turned back to the lineup card, Vinny burst out laughing. “Hey,” he said to Buck, “at least he remembered you play for him. Gotta go!” He stood up slowly, taking care not to hit his head on the low ceiling of the dugout.

Buck sat back and watched his friend walk up to the batters’ box, certain that the Slammers would go down one-two-three and the ballgame would be over. He found himself almost hoping for it. As a player, one was not supposed to hope for a loss, but today Buck would rather just pack it in and go home, like he’d done every day since early July. He wasn’t sure he wanted to play today.

 

*

 

“Now it’s a two-two count to DeNunzio…Riley looks in…here’s the pitch…swung on and hit deep to left center field! It’s going, Scuttle goes back to the track, to the wall, it’s outta here! Home run, Vinny DeNunzio, and the game is tied at two!”

 

*

 

The rest of the Slammers stood up and cheered wildly, high-fiving the ecstatic Brooklyn native as he got back to the dugout. Murphy called it a lucky shot and Vinny responded by shedding doubt on the virtues of Murphy’s mother.

Buck sat uneasily in his seat, toying with his bat. Uh-oh, he thought, we may have extra innings, unless somebody else scores. If they don’t, I still might have to pinch-hit. Come on, Murph, hit one out…

No such luck; Murphy went down swinging on an 0-2 curveball. Damn, Buck thought, one away. Curt’s up next; he ain’t had a hit in weeks.

Van Horn didn’t need one here, however, as Riley walked him with a low slider on a 3-1 count. Shit, thought Buck, Toby’s on deck. Old Deke still hadn’t signaled a pinch-hitter; the rag-armed southpaw knelt in the on-deck circle waiting for word. Meanwhile, on a 2-1 pitch to Jiggs, Van Horn took off for second and beat the throw by half a hair. Little chance for a double-play now, thought Buck, unless they walk him intentionally…

“O’Connell!” Old Deke shouted, his voice sandpapering the ears of everyone who heard it. “You’re hittin’ for Melontree! Git out there!”

From his position on the bench on the opposite side of the dugout, O’Connell spoke up apologetically, “I already played, Deke.”

“What?!”

“I said I already played! We all played ‘cept Bucky.”

“Who?!”

“Bucky Childress.”

Buck raised his hand. “Me, sir.”

The old manager glared angrily at the rookie, not sure if he recognized him. “Allright, dag goneit, git yer butt out there, greenhorn, whatever yer name is.”

Nervous and excited, Buck stood up abruptly and banged his head on a beam, dropping his bat to the ground. The players laughed loudly and Old Deke shook his head as the rookie cowered in pain for a few moments before regaining his composure and walking out toward home plate. OK, he thought, we can win this…

“Yo, Bucky!” called a shrill Brooklyn voice from behind. Startled, Buck whirled around sharply and lost the grip on his back, sending it hurtling into the fence alongside the dugout. Standing nearby with one hand on his hip, Vinny shook his head and held out Buck’s batting helmet. “Forget something?”

Jiggs had been walked intentionally, so runners stood at first and second as the P.A. announcer spoke. “Now batting for San Antonio, pinch-hitting for Toby Melontree, number 49, Buck Childress.”

Wow, Buck thought, I haven’t heard that in a while. The crowd was on its feet in the stands, cheering as loudly as 248 people could. Buck looked apprehensively down to third for the sign, saw that nothing was on, and stepped into the batters’ box.

Riley went to the stretch. The young righthander kicked up his leg and fired a fastball so hard that Buck didn’t even see it.

“Heeeeeeriiiiiiike!”

Yikes, Buck thought, this guy throws hard. He looked to third for the sign: bunt. OK, I can do that, he thought. Move the runners over; let Pete knock ‘em home. But wait a second, I haven’t bunted since June. What do I…whoa, here goes…

Riley kicked and fired again; this time, a slider. Buck squared to bunt, but not before the ball rested securely in the catcher’s mitt. The sound startled Buck and he dropped the bat.

“Heeeeeeriiiiiiike two!”

Buck timidly picked up the bat amidst the laughs of the fans, then stepped out of the box and took off his helmet, wiping his brow and rubbing his hands together. He looked for the sign as he stepped in – bunt again…wait, is that a bunt or a hit-and-run? Uh-oh, if the runners are breaking and I bunt, it could be a double play. If not, and I’m supposed to swing away, Van Horn doesn’t score from second. Either way, I’ve got to make contact…

Riley began his motion. The runners took off. The first and third basemen moved in as Buck squared to bunt. Riley’s arm reached back to uncork another fastball, and in a split second, Buck lifted the bat back up to swing away. The ball zoomed toward the plate and he flailed ahead clumsily with the bat, barely making contact and looping the ball toward third. The hard-charging third baseman stopped short and leapt at the ball, but it was too far over his head and he fell backward, the ball falling dead at the edge of the infield dirt as Van Horn chugged around third and headed for home. The shortstop, out of position behind second base, charged the ball as Buck turned on the steam toward first. Van Horn closed in on the plate as the shortstop picked up the ball with his bare hand and flung it toward the catcher blocking the plate, but Van Horn got there first, knocking the catcher flat on his back; the ball, still in flight, soared unimpeded directly into the umpire’s groin.

The crowd let out a collective “Ooh!” as the umpire fell. Van Horn and the catcher looked at each other for a moment, then  saw the ball lying in the dirt. Van Horn dove for the plate and the catcher lunged for the ball as a cloud of dirt rose up around them; by the time it had cleared, Van Horn had his hand on the plate and the catcher had applied the tag. A few fans cheered, but most of the crowd didn’t know what to do.

Buck stumbled over the first base bag and fell to the dirt, crawling back to the base on his hands and knees. He looked up, waving the dust from in front of his face and hacking it out of his throat until he could clearly see what was going on. Trouble was, he wasn’t sure just what he was seeing. Did I do it? he wondered. My first base hit? My first RBI? Hey, what’s Old Deke screamin’ about?

The plate umpire was in no position, or condition, to make the call. The field umpire hadn’t seen the play. Old Deke was out of the dugout shouting at the stricken umpire, then the Armadillos’ manager came out and started shouting at Old Deke. Then the players got in on it. Van Horn kept his hand securely on home plate. Buck stood up and waited on first base, watching in silence.

Finally, after the field umpire got things under control, the whole place fell silent. The umpire slowly stood up and walked around home plate a few times, with the whole stadium, all 248 fans, watching in anticipation.

Old Deke broke the silence. “Make the call, will ya?”

“You cain’t make that call!” the Amarillo manager protested, “you didn’t see nothin’!”

As the loud ruckus resumed, the umpire looked down wearily at Van Horn and the catcher. He couldn’t call a play he hadn’t seen. He couldn’t have the play done over. He couldn’t call him safe and he couldn’t send him back to third. The field umpire brought out the rule book, but they could find nothing in its pages to remedy the situation.  There was only one thing the ump could do. He waved his arms in the air and said weakly, “This game is called…on account of pain,” then passed out cold right behind home plate.

Buck ripped off his helmet and threw it to the ground. Damn, he thought, I had it. Vinny came over to console him, but it was no use. “My one chance,” the rookie lamented, “my one chance, and look what happened.”

“Well,” said Vinny, “I never seen a ballgame end like that. It’s gotta be worth a page in somebody’s book.”

Buck shook his head. “Yeah, right. The only tie game in the history of the Rio Grande League. Sporting News, here we come. I’m sure they’ll put an asterisk next to my career RBI’s: zero.”

“Hey,” Vinny assured his friend, “don’t worry. Maybe you’ll get one next year.”

 

*

 

“There’s the call, ladies and gentlemen, the game is called! The game is called by the umpire! And there you have it. So the final score is…well…there is no final score! Dang, that was the darnedest thing I ever seen in 32 years of baseball! This is T.R. Jessop for KSAS radio, San Antonio…”

 

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