Today I will be just sharing a story I wrote - I hope you enjoy it!
The manager stood with one foot on the second step of the dugout. He stared into that managerial abyss every man is his position knows well. Numbers and percentages and hitters and pitchers and matchups and the fact that he only had one arm left in the bullpen raced through his head. He looked down at his fingernails and thought, not one left with meat on it. Out of his front pocket he pulled out a toothpick and lodged it into his mouth. He had been using the toothpicks in a vain effort to quit gnawing at his hands. His fingernail obsession had started when he stopped smoking after his second season as manager. Whenever he looked down at the reddish skin outlining each of his ten digits he was reminded of the absolute hell he traveled through to beat that nasty habit.
The daunting inaction between pitches that can capture the attention of even the most casual fan had left the entire ballpark frozen in time. The count was two and one on a hitter that could turn this game around in a hurry. The Washington Nationals had a 3 – 2 lead on the St. Louis Cardinals in a game that would send one of them to the World Series. The famous roar of the St. Louis crowd had given the nail biting manager a headache.
There were runners at the corners with only one out. The National’s pitcher eyes both of the runners. The pitch. Bubba Watson, the man who’s homerun shots could be heard in Siberia, swings and misses.
The count: two and two.
The manager took off his cap and rubbed his receding hairline. We need a strikeout, he thought. Superstition prevented him from even considering the double play. “Gotta ask for it one out at a time.” he whispered to himself. He went back to his position and added a shake to his right leg. He closed his eyes and wondered, since he wasn’t really the church going type, if it would be bad luck to ask a favor from the Man upstairs. It would be more for his players than it would be for him.
“BAAAALLLLL!” the umpired screeched.
The count: three and two.
The starting pitcher put his head between his legs and screamed a few obscenities meant for the manager and the catcher and the reliever and the announcers and everyone else who thought it was the ‘right move’ to take him out of the ballgame.
The pitcher set - then checked the runners, and began his windup. He could see out of the corner of his eye the man on first take off. The slight blur caused him to release the ball just a split second early.
Ball four. Watson set down his bat, took off the guards and trotted down to first. The crowd was on its feet clapping and stomping to that beat echoing out from the digital scoreboard in centerfield that only seems annoying when you’re on the road.
The headache had Excedrin written all over it.
“Next up, number 23, Casey Martinez.” The words were greeted by a thunderous cry of nervous excitement.
Martinez had battled with cancer over the last two seasons. The southpaw hit just under .230 for the year but hadn’t lost the pop in his bat. The veteran catcher was a fan favorite and could call a game from behind the plate like no other.
A chopper up the middle, a seeing-eye single, a flair, a stinging line drive, or a dying quail would be the storied end for a man loved by everyone in baseball.
The National’s manager knew the baseball gods were lined up against him. He stepped onto the field, pointed to his left arm, and said, “Gimme Krump!”
“He had nothing left, boss.” The catcher told him. The manager had been given the nickname boss in his first year at the helm. One of the players that year had called him by his first name (Tracy) and boss went into a long diatribe on how the manager and the players should never be familiar and how respect was needed here and how after decades of losing a change in philosophy was surely needed.
The player responded, ‘yes sir, boss, sir,’ followed by a salute. He ended up on the bench for the first week of the season. It ended up being the defining moment in his managerial career and after that every player called him Boss… only without the sarcastic tone.
In the bullpen Billy Krump’s heart jumped a beat. He made his way onto the well manicured field and jogged towards the mound.
Boss placed the ball in his glove. Fear filled his eyes. Krump had not made one pitch in the seven game series. There was absolute disbelief when he had made the playoff roster. He had been used to eat up innings when a game had gotten out of hand. His ERA had been inflated by one of those this game is lost kid and you need to get the last out moments that seemed to last longer than a Francis Ford Coppola movie. Krump had grown up in Chicago loving the Cubs and all week had dreamed of being the one who finally beat those pesky Cardinals.
But this was not a dream.
“We need a groundball kid, preferably to Sanchez,” said Boss as he patted him on the bum and headed back to the dugout.
The catcher put on his mask and gave Krump a few tips about the batter; he couldn’t hear a word over the conflicting voices chatting in his head. When he saw the umpire head towards them he nodded. The catcher went back to his cave, pumped his first twice into his glove and motioned Krump to start his warm up.
The popping sound of his fastball in the cather’s glove was all he could hear.
I often wondered what happened during commercial breaks. He flashed back to his childhood and the thoughts he had sitting in the stands for the first time at historic Wrigley Field. Krump couldn’t believe it had survived the last attempt to tear it down and build a ‘real’ monument to the windy city. The outcry by the fans was overwhelming. In Krump’s mind he didn’t care if they built one of those corporate ballparks if it meant a trip to the World Series. He loved Wrigley but would tear it down himself if it meant the Cubs would start winning.
What is a National? he thought. Maybe it was a way to sell socialism through baseball. He often wondered why they didn’t go back to being called the Senators. Of course, a positive thought about any Senator was quite a stretch.
He opened his eyes and exhaled. He circled the elevated patch of dirt and picked up the bag of rosin. The bag jumped in and out of his hand a few times and fell lifeless in a puff of smoke back onto the mound. Krump stared down each of the runners on base blocking out every memory of each man and how they had contributed to beating his beloved Cubs over the years.
The catcher put up his target and Krump zeroed in. He looked around noticing the sea of red in the stands for the first time. Pounding his foot into the dirt and wiping his forehead he thanked the baseball gods for this moment. Many years ago when he was first signed to a Major League contract he promised himself to be grateful for every moment he spent in the show if ever he made it.
The set. The windup. The release. The crack of the bat. Krump could still see the spin of the ball as it traveled past him in the direction of the shortstop Sanchez. The shortstop makes the play and with grace flips the ball underhand to the second baseman that steps down for the out and jumps out of the way of the sliding Cardinal to throw a bullet to the first baseman. There is nothing more beautiful in sports than the perfectly turned double play.
Over forty thousand gasp in unison. A moment of silence settles over the Nationals as not one of them can grasp the enormity of what just happened. The catcher and Krump make eye contact. And as if it was planned the entire team erupts and sprints to the mound. Krump is mauled and slapped and jiggled and lifted. The stunned fans applaud both their Cardinals and Nationals in a spontaneous act of class.
The joy and excitement that filled the hearts of every National that day would be short-lived. That would be the last pitch Billy Krump would ever make.