tagRomanceCatching Colleen

Catching Colleen


Catching Colleen Ch. 01 Rounding Third and Heading for Home

It was my last game. The wear and tear on my knees caused sharp, nagging pain, and my doctor said stop or live the rest of my life as a cripple. I thought of the ache in my arm, how hard it got to lift that arm as the season and seasons went on--and how I somehow managed to make good throws anyway. I took foul tips into the forearm, the thighs, a hand, almost every game. Torment. But even then it was not an easy decision to stop. I loved that game.

But it was always a game, just a game. I never thought it was important to society or democracy. I saved some money, invested conservatively on good advice and built up some savings. I made a living--a lot compared to plumbers and teachers and carpenters--but that wasn't it for me. I loved that game. Kinsella called it the thrill of the grass, that feeling of expectancy and nature and playing a game on green grass and dirt. For me it was the grit of the dirt. I got dirty catching. I got it in my mouth, the creases of my elbows, the angle of my jaw, and sometimes between my teeth. I got it in scrapes on my elbows and hands and knees. When I was 15 and pimply I almost quit because of the mask and the sand and my skin. Then I'd throw a stealer out at second, or call the right pitch to get a strike out, or block someone who thought he could make home, or I'd even make an error. There is nothing like it: Baseball. Great.

In the last of the third some guy was yelling at me from just where the backstop ends, near the home dugout. One was out. A pitch came outside, not where I'd called for it, with no one on. (Trouble with your release point, eh Pitch?) The batter swung, nipping the ball almost straight back into me, hitting my mask and caroming about 12 feet into the air, heading for the corner of the backstop. I threw off my mask, treating it like a real foul pop up (because it is since it didn't go to my hands, first) and dove to catch the ball but it hit the brick just as I got to it. I had it, but just a little late on the rebound, and I heard some guffaws and then claps. I came up laughing with the ball and Art signalled safe because it was a foul ball when it hit the brick.

"Fuckin' asshole, you've sucked your whole career, Kowalsh!" I heard. "It's not a popup when it hits off you, Idiot." How do you turn off your hearing? I always heard what was yelled. And I remembered a lot of those constructive comments. This one being incorrect (if I'd caught it the guy would have been out), I did not disabuse him since I'd missed the catch. Mostly I looked away, but this time I looked over. It was a guy maybe 38, my age, with a 10 year old boy on one side and a nice-looking, dark-haired woman on the other. She looked at me with a funny expression, embarrassed, acting like she hoped I hadn't heard. Her husband had his lower lip sticking out and a beer in his hand.

I pulled the ball out of my mitt and started to toss it to the ball boy, but then I held up. I looked at the guy's kid, dark-haired like his mother, thin, looking a little like he wished his pop would shut up. I turned to the kid and jogged two or three steps to get to the edge of the backstop net. I looked up at the kid.

"Here, kid," I said as I reached around the backstop and tossed him the ball. I looked at his dad as the kid caught the ball. "Welcome." I smiled at the guy and ran back to home.

The ump was Art Nichols and he handed me my mask. I shook my head. "I ain't gonna miss that, you know?" I said. He smiled and nodded, said, "Know what you mean. It was a good try. Almost got him. I hate to see you go, Serge." He and I went way back; he'd called some of my games in the minors. I'd had a drink with him once or twice, heard about his kids and ex-wife. He put his hand on my shoulder as I crouched for the next pitch, an unusual thing for an ump.

I didn't notice a direct response from the guy in the stands, but he was quieter after that. I didn't notice any more criticism of me. I kinda wish he'd yelled some more. His wife was attractive. Man, I like women: pretty, kind of pretty, and nearly pretty.

And that's all of them.

I went 2 for 4 in losing and called it a game, a season, and a career. I had a lifetime average of .252, never hit over 270 or under 241. I went two years with only 18 passed balls, which got me into the record books. I led the league in throw outs at second some years, at third for several others, and made the all star team twice. Not bad for a sore arm pedestrian. I hit a few homers, though not enough to raise many eyebrows. I usually batted around seventh, once second but that team was not so good. Never made it to the Series. First in division one year, within a few outs of the league pennant. I knocked around different teams. I'd put on a little weight over the last few years. 38 is old, especially for a catcher. Crouching was comfortable, standing was comfortable, but going from one to the other was creaky, very creaky. And my arm hurt.

I don't think I ever threw a ball after February that my arm didn't hurt. I made every dugout smell of mint from the BenGay and anything else that might take the pain down. Aspirin, naproxen sodium, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, whatever. Occasionally a cortisone shot in the shoulder. Nothing illegal for me, though. I watched McMann go from slim to simian and that was not my style. No way, as Trip would have said back in the day.

Catching just hurt, that was part of the game, and it hurt from the time I lifted my arm the second week of camp until my knees throbbed in September. I wished I was one of those easy throwers who don't hurt, but I never was. It was pain that got in the way of perfection, all part of a great thing. I don't think baseball is just fun: I think it's why we should live, it's so fun. Okay, I know, that doesn't go with the part about it's only a game. If you want consistent philosophy you should turn to Kierkegaard or Kant, not Kowalsh. It works for me, and I don't care about the inconsistency.

I didn't go to college before I went to the minors. I went when I had time: between seasons, in the evenings, and one minor league season in mornings. Baseball was life because it paid my way. It cost me, too, but any career costs. Baseball hurt and I loved it. I guess lots of careers are like that. Lawyers have to work after hours and policemen work early and overnight. Nurses too. Doctors. Plumbers have to get the job done when it needs doing. Baseball wasn't so bad. Yeah, my arm hurt. And I probably have a torn rotator cuff or bone spurs in my elbow. No pain, no value added, as economists say.

I picked up a degree in American literature along the way. I played a lot in the Carolina League off and on and East Carolina U. had an off campus program that minimized my required time on campus. I joined in, and it took me close to a decade but I got the bachelor's degree. I took lots of courses early on with Marines from Camp Lejeune, for whom the program was actually designed. I could read, I had time on the buses and planes, in the motels at odd hours, and I could write. Study was my yoga. I liked some poets, but I particularly liked the American novels of the 1950s and 1960s--Styron was my favorite. I read his books between Wilmington and Winston-Salem and every other place in the Carolina League. (I remember a game between the Blue Rocks and the Mudcats and...) Oh, I studied between some of the cities in the American League, too.

His books were more than people thought, more than some of my teachers thought. I stand by "The Confessions of Nat Turner," which I think got twisted in petulant racial politics and was tortured for no reason relating to author or book. I thought it showed the humanity and deprecation of racial animosity; Nat was smart and fully human--a characteristic white people needed to admit in 1960s America.

But "Sophie's Choice" was uneven, ultimately; Stingo was not common or normal or regular. Weird in a book about weirder ones--that was Sophie's Stingo. Sophie went crazy because she had to choose one of her children to live; Stingo seemed desperate to have a girlfriend, even a paranoid, schizophrenic one. Nat Turner just wanted to love like a man could, regardless of race. That was powerful, that was right, and that was human.

The ones who should have embraced Styron turned on him; he wrote the first politically incorrect novel about Nat, he said. So ultimately I think Styron will be pushed aside by political correctness and his tactic of going after our greatest prejudices; the greatest writer America produced in the last half of the 20th century lost because we can't talk without hating white people or loving black. Confessions is about the way we are, black or white. "Sophie" is about evil's ability to overwhelm by corrupting all that is best in humanity. Styron was so good. So close. Irony: instead we read Irving.

We didn't talk much lit in the locker rooms. Others chewed some quid, whatever that noxious and obnoxious concoction of tobacco and bubble gum was. Some guys were doing steroids or hgh, not openly when I was around. But there was not much deep talk. Senseless banter and adolescent joking were the norm. I never found anyone who read Styron. Most didn't know who he was. As I grew older and they younger they left me alone, mostly. I had no enemies, it was just I was the old guy who'd been to college. Most didn't read for enjoyment, anyway. In the minors they'd sleep on the bus or stare out the windows. A few read newspapers. Once the Ipods and stuff came around they listened to music with earphones. They seemed to avoid thinking about things. They self-distracted. "Set This House on Fire" never came up. I wished I'd found one Crash Davis (the "Bull Durham" movie character--not the real guy). There must be some. But Styron was only mine, minors and majors.

I had a pitcher who went to college and some infielders over the years, more as the seasons passed. None of them said they learned much. I was disappointed, and I wondered if it meant anything. My manager at St. Louis had a law degree, but I was only there one season. It was before my degree, after I'd started classes in North Carolina, but we never talked about it. I missed classes and due dates in September. Never in October, too bad for me. I missed other things because of the game.

I got married when I was a rookie major leaguer, but there were too many trips back to the minors, too many planes to far away, and too little home. It was hard, and our relationship suffered as she studied law and I picked up a class here and there. We finally called it quits over the phone.

She finished her law degree just after the divorce, and I did not mind paying for it because she demanded nothing of the settlement and I was finally making a decent salary. She thought the whole thing was mournful, and so it was. She was good. She just wanted to finish her degree and earn her own living. She found work in New York, before things went to pieces for her. I liked Carol. Loved her, and never really got over her. I liked her mom and dad, too.

We all leave things behind, I guess, and I left her when she left me. It's no life for families, not really, in baseball majors or minors. Maybe if I'd been a star... Some of the guys were married, divorced, remarried, or confirmed bachelors. Long bus rides destroy feelings in the minors. Groupies and planes mess up relations in the majors. Baseball is just bad for marriage. She probably wanted it behind her, me behind her, our marriage behind her, until things became tragic.

So I called it a career. I was dirty and the dirt was all over. In the creases of my right hand; in the inside creases of my elbows, my neck, my face. My arm needed rehab. 13,000 in the stands. My knees just wanted to stay straight, and suddenly I didn't have to run or wish I were running or ice a shoulder or arm. I didn't have to worry. I had a pension that would tide me over until I had something, and my savings. I was not rich in the modern sense but I was in the practical one. I had solid investments and a good bank account. I could last maybe the rest of my life if I was frugal.

I picked up the mask and shook hands with my team and suffered their congratulations, those who knew I was through. The coaches said things, and I nodded. I appreciated but it was just a career, mediocre and common and just a little longer than some. To me, just another game done. Dirty, hot, dry, sore, a loss. I thought of the kid I gave the ball, eyes happy at the gift and the rarity, I guess. I thought of his dad so mean and vocal, his mom more sympathetic or at least seeing the rudeness and wishing it were gone. My last game.

"It was a good game," Joe said. Joe was my manager for the last few years. He would probably be gone soon, after another losing season, but he would surface safe and sound. No one expected him to take a team to the Series, although I am sure they hoped. But he was a journeyman coach, moving from rebuilding team to slumping team as they searched for winners. Joe knew baseball and talent, but he never seemed to get enough of the latter to make a run. He was a cheaper alternative. A good guy, but a sub-500 baseball coach. Until you find someone better, Joe's the man. Joe and I had a lot in common: no one expected us to be there in late October, and they were right. "Yeah, a good game," I said. I held his hand longer than the usual, and he was looking at me. I guess he wanted to know what was next for me.

"I think I'll take some time. Fish. Hike. I don't really have anybody, not anymore..." I said, drifting in my stream of consciousness. Joe knew about Carol. I didn't keep it secret even if I didn't blab. He was nodding, nodding with his eyes down, then looking me in the eye.

"You wanna coach?" he said, as if there were options. I didn't think there were options, but for this conversation I'd pretend.

"Sure," I pretended aloud. "Maybe if something comes up?" I said. Joe nodded, nodded longer than usual for this sort of thing.

He said, "Okay, I'll see what's around." And we let go hands. No commitments. Another long career fading out.

There was no Carol to go home to, not for some years, so I didn't hurry from the locker room. But I rarely hurried. Lots of people get away from their careers. I guess it's that they didn't get elected or that they did. They didn't write the great novel, become superintendent of schools, or head librarian. They just go by, thinking they were competent, and for the most part, they were. Nothing to be ashamed of. They don't harken back to the start when they had hope and maybe promise, promise of more. Some failures, some compromises, some disappointments along the way and they felt mediocre. They were okay. Just okay, wishing there were a but. But okay was okay. Even Styron had to accept that others supplanted him. I was more or less content with it. Well, not really.

I was cleaned and shaven and had my stuff in a big duffel. I was walking out the tunnel of the stadium, alone, a bit later than the others. I was often last. I liked it. After all, I liked reading long novels and I think that's a sign. The tunnel was poorly lit, but lit, and there was a street light at the end. The gate was open, and there was a stadium guy waiting for me so he could close up. It was symbolic, a rebirth--every time I left late, and this would be the last late.

"Last time for me, Binx," I said. The duffel was slung over my shoulder. Binx was older, black, grey, and he needed dentures, but he was always there and that says something about common people, too. We are there, usually on time for work, usually good enough.

He grinned in the wan light. "Yeah, you gonna miss it?" he asked. I smiled and shifted my bag from right to left hand and held out my palm. "Already do," I said, smiling back. He grabbed my hand. "Gonna miss ya," he said.

"Thanks. Better go." We nodded at each other and I passed through the gate, the end of the tunnel.

A woman's voice to my left said, "Serge? Mr. Kowalsh?" It stopped me in my tracks. Carol? I stared down at the pavement a moment. Close but wrong voice. Too bad. It was a dark-haired woman who looked familiar, but not close, I'd seen her, but I'd seen gazillions in every stadium and half the bars in America, so I couldn't place her. She was small, white, black-haired, about my age or a little younger. Maybe 35. I stopped and looked at her.

"Ma'am?" I said. "Yes? Do I know you?"

"You gave a ball to my boy today. After my husband cussed at you," she said. Hesitation.

"Yeah, hey," I said.

"My husband...he drinks..." she said.

"Me, too," I said.

She seemed to shake it off. "You made his day. Victor's, I mean, my boy. He couldn't stop talking about how you made a point of giving him the ball." She was not beautiful. Not ugly. Just a normal wife with a kid who somehow got good seats at a game once a year--when the local team was out of it and winning or losing didn't seem to matter anymore.

"His name is Victor?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. She paused, seemed to have more to say.

"Is that why you're here? Because I gave a kid a ball?"

"Well, we're spending the night right across the highway. It was the names, the coincidence of it. My husband is asleep in our room, and you were kind. I wanted away for a few minutes, and I saw the players coming out of here. It was...generous of you, considering," she said. She alluded to her husband a lot, as if she were apologizing without saying sorry every other word.

"The names?" I asked.

"Your name is Serge. And Victor Serge was a revolutionary I studied in school," she said.

"Ah, I get it. He wrote some novels. I've never read anything by Serge," I said, "But maybe I will now. Serge is really short for Sergei, you know."

She nodded. "I know. I just wanted to say thanks. I have to go. We leave in the morning to go home. We just came in for the weekend and we drive back to Dayton tomorrow. Vic couldn't stop about the ball."

I smiled at the uncommonness of this meeting. "He's welcome. And I hope your husband forgives me my career, too."

"I was so embarrassed he said that. He gets mean sometimes. He doesn't see people like you, baseball players or entertainers or famous people, like real guys, you know? You understand you're not real to him? You're only one thing in his mind. He doesn't feel...real, equal. He puts people down where it's safe for him."

I did understand. It happened a lot, and not just to me. To every player and umpire and referee and athlete who ever collected an audience. It was always open season on people performing. Especially playing a game everyone played at 7.

"It's okay. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't matter or didn't hurt or anything. But thanks for saying it. Um, who are you? Victor's mom doesn't sound right."

"Doesn't matter," she said holding out her hand. She was not pretty, a little round, a little cute, a little short and normal. A mom. A fan, in a lukewarm sense. "Thanks for being better than you had to be," she said shaking my hand, and I thought for a second she meant my ball playing. She collected her hand, that I held a little longer than necessary. Then she turned and started walking away.

"Uh, Mrs. Victor's mom?" I asked. She stopped and turned, maybe twenty feet away.

I said, "Tell the kid his dad loves him. He wants his kid to respect him, in his way."

"I will. Thanks, Mr. Kowalsh. You always hustled, my husband said. I think he is not so bad as you saw today. I hope you believe that."

"You've given me some hope, Ma'am," I said. She left in her direction.

I wished I knew who she was, but there you go. There she went. One of many women I'd met who were more than the sum, who I'd never know better, who were committed or alienated or disillusioned or beyond me in some way. She had class, manners, and savvy. It was too bad about her husband. Maybe he wasn't so bad.

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