Every now and then I’ll tell my girlfriend something from my past I think she’ll find amusing and every now and then I’ll add, “There’s a story there somewhere but I’m not sure what it is.” I guess I’ve told one too many of these tales and my girlfriend has finally had enough. She said, “You’re so stupid; that IS the story.” So this is the first of who knows how many incidental short stories. Each is, to me, incomplete yet I suppose each also says something relevant about me and the things that have stayed in my mind throughout my life.
Billy Lockyer was a great kid but he didn’t look much like a catcher. He was lean and wiry with a crew cut right out of the 50s. His father, Bill, had a matching haircut but little else in common with his only child. He was loud, uninformed and trending toward the boorish, even compared to other American Legion Baseball coaches. Don’t get me wrong, Billy wasn’t soft. He was was a very tough kid and a solid catcher. He didn’t have the strongest arm but he made very few mistakes behind the plate and backed his pitchers all the way. Pitchers just love catchers who back them up no matter how well (or badly) they’re throwing that day.
But wait, I need to describe our home field. It was all dirt. Well, not exactly dirt but it was certainly all earth and no grass. Heck, we didn’t even have any weeds. The field had been cut by earth-movers out of what had been a working flood control basin. The backstop was typical chain link but the was no outfield fence. We didn’t need one. The field had been cut into the earth so instead of a fence we had a five-foot solid wall of earth surrounding the outfield. The first time I saw it I remember saying that the entire field looked like it belonged on Mars.
The playing surface was pool table-flat and very fast. Visiting teams had a very hard time adjusting to just how fast and that usually worked to our advantage. The surface of the field was hell on baseballs. Ground balls resulted in scuffs and fly balls that hit the field before being played ended up with little flat spots from the impact. Each game started with a dozen new balls and the plate umpires did their best to rotate-out balls that were obviously damaged but even still as the games wore on, so did the balls. The most obvious result was a lot of breaking balls and a lot of balls in the dirt.
We played a lot of double-headers and Billy would frequently catch all 18 innings. One day his mom bought along bathroom scale. She’d warned Bill that her boy was losing too much weight and sure enough the kid had sweated-out 10 pounds by the end of the second game. All Billy’s old man had to say was, “Well, make him a sandwich when we get home.”
Ours was a team of hard-nosed white guys with one token black kid and, me, a token half-latino-half-German. What we lacked in size and speed we tried to make up for with what I would call a tough & crafty style of play. While we were fairly tough to outplay we were virtually impossible to intimidate.
One weekend found us playing a team of what Bill Lockyer called thoroughbreds. They were regarded to be the class of the division and had a number of very good players. A couple of their guys were big hitters who were also very fast on the bases and you don’t see that combination all that often in American Legion, or anywhere else for that matter. Early in the second game of the day, one of their guys hit a slicing drive into right field with one of those big fast guys on second base. Our right fielder was a little slow getting to the ball and his throw to the plate was a little weak and up the first base line. Billy stepped up the first base line to field the ball on a good hop so he could hold the hitter to a very long single. Suddenly the runner coming to the plate stumbled slightly and Billy took a late slap at him with his gloved hand. The umpire was right on top of it and rightly called the runner safe.
I could see Bill kicking at the dugout’s chainlink fence and yelling Billy’s name. Billy’s gaze went back and forth from me to his father so I called time and had Billy come out toward the mound. I knew we’d only have about 10 seconds before his old man and the plate umpire would want to know what the hell was going on. Billy ran out toward me, looking nervously over at his father as he did. I didn’t have anything to say to him. I just wanted to make sure he was with me. We had two outs and a guy on first and I wanted to make sure he knew what was up. When I finally caught his eyes I said, “No breaking balls; let’s work him away instead of down.” Billy smiled and looked relieved, “10-4!”
I sat the batter down on four pitches, each on the outside and we got out of the inning cheaply enough in my view. Billy’s father saw things very differently. He walked up to his son and bellowed at him after he sat down on the dugout bench.
“You know better than that. I taught you better! Get your ass in front of that plate. Guard it! Why the hell did you let that guy by you?
Just then, the right fielder, Steve Cortez stepped up and said, “Coach, that was on me. I slipped when I made the throw. It was way off line.” Bill just kept staring at his son. By then Mrs. Lockyer was looking from the stands toward the dugout. The expression on her face said it all. She was used to this and so was her son.
“Next time a runner is rounding second I want you up that god damn line. I don’t give a good god damn if you have the ball or not. You make sure you block that plate or I will have your ass, you hear me?”
“Yes, sir..I will.”
Billy’s face had been red before all of the commotion. We were all hot and sunburned and tired and getting beat by a stronger and better team. But, mixed in with the heat and sun and fatigue on Billy’s face was pure dread.
Baseball is the closest thing to an analogy for life wrapped in a game that has ever been invented. It has it all. It has stillness. It has motion. It has drama. It has boredom. There’s also something of Greek tragedy and drama in baseball. I’m sure Sophocles would have loved baseball. As the game and the day wound down there was a sudden flurry of action from the other team’s offense. They got a runner to first and their best hitter at the plate. The runner, of course, was the very same player who had scored around Steve’s errant throw earlier in the game.
You could actually feel what was coming before it came. A shot was lined into right center and both the right and center fielders converged on the ball. The lead runner had gone on the pitch and was hauling serious ass around second base as the ball got to the outfielders. Billy stepped up the third base line early and without the ball, just as his father had told him and waited, the runner hurtling toward him. The ball bounced just short of the plate and slightly to Billy’s right. In one way it was a perfect throw and in another the hardest possible ball for Billy to field and still have time to take a solid defensive position and ready himself for the impact. He caught the ball cleanly and in a split second turned back to his left.
The runner was in full stride when he hit Billy. The thought of sliding had never entered his mind. He had the speed and he had the angle and he knew it. After all these years I can still see and hear the impact. First was the crack of the top of the runner’s helmet into Billy’s face mask, which he had thankfully not had time the time to pull off after the ball was hit. Then there was the sight of the mask and his blue helmet tumbling through the air. As the main force of the runner’s body hit Billy I could actually hear the air whoosh out of Billy’s lungs right before he fell backwards onto the plate. He’d been so far up the third base line that the back of Billy’s head actually hit the plate when he fell. When Billy’s mitt came off of his hand, the ball tumbled to the ground.
In the dusty silence after the impact I remember Billy’s mother coming onto the field and the umpire looking down at his crumpled body. As he lay there, unmoving, Billy suddenly looked more like a little boy than a 17 year old. My guess is the player who leveled Billy outweighed him by at least 50 pounds and he had managed to impart every bit of that weight advantage into Billy in that sickening crack of a collision. It seemed like Billy was silent for such a long time, but I’m sure it was less than 30 seconds before he put his head up and asked, “Did I hang onto the ball?”
In that moment I wanted to be Billy’s best friend forever. He wasn’t mad at anyone. He just wanted to know if he had succeeded; if his best, if his sacrifice, had been enough. Billy had double-vision for the rest of the day and got to take a nice ride in an ambulance, but he was OK. There was exactly one good thing that came out of it. It made Billy’s father ashen-faced and speechless for the first and only time I ever witnessed.
Bill Lockyer continued to be wrongly and stupidly hard on his son for the rest of the season and his son Billy continued to be one of the nicest kids I ever knew & the toughest catcher I ever played with.