“The Memory That Never Was.”
Ever have a memory, which is so vivid, so real and yet; you absolutely know that it never happened, could not have happened?
I suspect psychologists would say what I am calling a memory is really a fantasy and they are probably right but the fantasy has been around so long in my head, mind, it has gotten all tangled up with my real memories and has made itself a home there. In the end, it seems to me, it does it make any difference if it is a memory or fantasy, I like it either way.
I do wonder though, if over time, our minds fill up with memories, which we think are real but in actuality are just long-lived fantasies? Nevertheless, what follows below is one of my favorite “memories”.
I am a baseball pitcher in the minor league farm system of the New York Yankees and have been so for 3 years. I am not a bad pitcher and I do continue to improve but am not the best pitcher in the Yankee’s system either, or so I think. And thus my complete surprise and shock when my team manager calls me just after the farm league season has ended and tells me that the Yankees have called me up to join the team in New York. I knew the Yankees were in the World Series against the Atlanta Braves or would be so in a few days, but why call me up to join the team? “Kid” said my manager, “I have no idea why they want you. They did say they think they are short one relief pitcher with Winger injured and I guess they just chose you. Now don’t get your hopes up, as there is no way in hell you will ever pitch in the series and will probably only be up there for the series and then right back here with me!” When I hung up the phone, I was in total shock. I was going to be in the World Series with the New York Yankees and if they won the series, even if I never pitched one ball, I would still get a World Series ring just like all the other team players. I telephoned everyone I knew and even some folks I hardly knew, telling them the news and then I crammed a few things in a carryall bag and headed to the airport and New York.
The next day, I got to Yankee Stadium an hour before I was told to report. I was nervous and just wanted to take a look around the place before all the other players came in for practice. Walking out onto the field, I could not believe how huge the stadium was on the inside and I thought of all the incredible players that had played inside this park over the years. It was simply a dream I was having, had to be. And then, I heard my name being called and when I turned, there walking towards me was “Fish”, as he was called by everyone, Carlton, the manager of the Yankees. “You the new kid, the pitcher, I sent for?” he said, looking down at the perfectly maintained infield grass. “Yes, sir and I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity, I….”, but he interrupted. “Kid, I doubt you will throw one pitch during the series but I just could not go into the series short one relief pitcher. Besides, you will give all our catchers some practice and they need it. Go inside now and someone will get you a uniform and a locker and then get back out here. Practice starts in half an hour.” And with that, Fish turned around and head to the dugout.
That first practice with the team was pretty uncomfortable. Seemed like no one wanted to talk with me and I found it hard to even get a catcher to throw to, to loosen the arm. My guess was they were all resentful of me being on the team now, at the end, at the end of 180 game schedule and potentially getting a World Series Championship ring, just like them. Guess they felt I had not worked for it and in a way they were right but it was not they riding a crowded old bus from ball field to ball field and eating crappy food and paying for it yourself. The farm system was a slave labor system but some of these players had never been there and did not know what it was like. Anyway, I did manage to get some pitches thrown and overall felt happy with the first day of practice. The second day was similar to the first but some of the players actually began to talk to me and in the late afternoon, I become known as “The Kid” and that was fine with me.
Finally the World Series started with the first 2 games in New York, to be followed by 3 games in Atlanta and then a return to New York for the final 2 games, if needed.
From the dugout, I watched the New York Yankees just slaughter the Atlanta Braves in games 1 and 2 with our starting pitchers making it through the whole game without any relief at all. I would never play, I told myself, relaxed and just could not believe my luck on being there. "The series is going to be over in another 2 games as the Yankee hitters were too strong and the relief pitching too deep", I thought. But after a day of travel to Atlanta, as good as we had been in New York, we were as bad in Atlanta. Atlanta easily won the next 2 games and Fish threw pitcher after pitcher at the Braves, hoping to take at least one win back with the team to New York but it did not turn out that way.
The third game in Atlanta was close and we held our own for most of the way, but in the 9th, our relief pitcher threw a wild pitch and Atlanta scored the winning run.
3 games Atlanta, 2 games Yankees and back to New York.
Game 6 was a pitching duel with both teams going through pitcher after pitcher but in the 8th inning, we managed a rally and eventually won the game, tying the series, 3 games a piece. The World Series was going to a final, deciding, 7th game.
When I got to the stadium for the 7th game, the locker room was so quiet it scared me. Had the team’s confidence been shaken or were they just concentrating on what had to be done? No one said a word and it was a quiet walk out to the dugout and warm-up was spooky with not nearly a word being spoken, even among the usually talkative infield players.
Finally, “the” game began and we started out great with 4 runs in the first inning but then it stayed that way until the 7th when Atlanta staged their own rally and came up with 3 runs, so with 2 innings to go, we lead by a single run. In the bottom of the 7th, we managed to get one man on base but that was it and going into the 8th inning, the score remained Yankees 4, the Atlanta Braves 3.
After the Braves rally in the 7th, Fish yanked the starting pitcher and put in Ruddock, one of our best relief pitchers who had not thrown since game 3 and for a while, he looked sharp and struck out the first 2 batters of the 8th inning easily and quickly but then a hit, a walk and Ruddock was in trouble. Luckily for us, the next batter hit into an infield out and the inning ended with no additional runs for the Braves.
Our at bat in the 8th yielded nothing at all, as the Braves had switched pitchers too and we just could not connect to anything.
9th inning of the World Series, 4 to 3 Yankees. Just one more inning, just 3 more outs and the Yankees would win the Series.
When the 9th started, Ruddock was again on the mound, but from the start, he did not look good. He walked the first batter, putting the tying run on base and then came a single to left field. He got the next 2 batters on pop flies for 2 outs but he obviously was struggling with control. As I watched Ruddock standing nervously on the pitchers mound, all of a sudden my view was blocked and when I looked up, there was Fish standing in front of me. I stood up. “Kid”, Fish began. “I know this is a hell of a time to be sending you in, but Ruddock just doesn’t have his stuff right now and we are fresh out of relief and I have seen you in practice. You can do this. All I am asking for is just one out... Just one lousy out, kid.” And with that, he turned towards the dugout stairs and I followed him up the stairs and out onto the field. As he walked out on the field, he called “Time” and proceeded with me in tow to the pitcher’s mound. All this time, I had been focusing on the game so much I had not really been listening to the crowd but now there seemed to be this giant question of noise coming from everywhere. “What was Fish doing? Who this that kid? What is he doing putting in a kid now? Is he crazy?”
When we got to the mound, Ruddock looked relieved as he really had been struggling and he knew it. He took off his cap and mopped his brow. Fish began, “Look you know and I know you just don’t have it today and so thanks for the great effort but I just have to replace you.” Ruddock did not argue with Fish to stay in the game, like some pitchers do and handing me the ball, he simply said, “Good luck kid.” and then Ruddock and Fish walked to dugout and I was left alone. Alone on the pitcher’s mound in the middle of Yankee Stadium, 7th and deciding game of the World Series, 4 to 3 Yankees, the tying and winning runs on base, 2 outs, 9th inning and sweat dripping out of ever pore on my body. And my heart was pounding so loud I just knew everyone in that stadium could hear it. “Calm yourself. Calm yourself.” I thought but it really did not seem to help very much. Finger the ball, over and over, look out at centerfield; breathe.
Not ready to face home plate yet, I finger the ball in my hand and glove, wipe my forehead and try to dry my hands on my pants. Finally, I turn towards home plate and there, in the on-deck batter’s circle is the Brave's best hitter. With only 1 out to go, they have nothing to lose using the pinch hitter rule and so they have. Oh God, his bat looks monstrous and as he practice swings, after a while, he half swings and the bat comes to rest pointing right at me, as if to say, “Watch out kid, I am going to send one to you!”
I throw a few pitches to loosen up the arm and then the umpire calls out “Play Ball” and I again turn away from home plate. “Ok, I can do this” I say to myself. "I can do this”. I turn around and look for the sign from the catcher, McGill. It’s low and outside. He wants me to throw the first pitch, low and outside. Guess he does not trust me very much as he does not want me to give the batter anything he could really hit with any power and he might even swing at the low and away pitch and miss. I calm myself, put one foot on the pitcher’s mound rubber and wind up and throw. Low and away it is but too low and too away and the umpire calls out “Ball 1”. Immediately, McGill calls “time” and comes walking out to the pitcher’s mound. “Kid”, he says to me. “I know this is asking a lot of you but, ah, Kid, did you ever play any sandlot baseball? You know, just a bunch of kids playing the game for the fun of it. Did you kid? Well this here is just like that. Just think sandlot, kid, sandlot and you will be ok. Now when I go back there, you throw exactly what I tell you to. You can do this kid.” And with that he turned and walked back to home plate.
Sandlot. Sandlot. As sweat poured down my face and my heart pounded, sure did not feel like sandlot to me but then I remembered the time I had 3 striked the loud mouth of the neighborhood. Don’t think he ever forgot it and was not all that loud of the mouth ever again. Sandlot. Sandlot.
I check the bases to see if anyone is thinking about running on the pitch but they are hugging close to their bases. Once again, I look at home plate, and the sign from McGill is right across the plate and high. No, can’t be and I wag off the pitch with my head. Again, McGill flashes me the sign for right across the plate and high. I look towards Fish in the dugout but read nothing from him.
I wind it up and after I see the batter swing ever so hard, I see the ball find its home in McGill’s catcher’s mitt with a loud thud. “Strike 1” calls the umpire and the batter begins to swing his bat more furiously now, over and over and again, he half swings and points it at me.
Runners holding on bases and McGill signals a curve ball, low and away. I take my time and the sandlot loud mouth comes to mind. Sandlot. I bring the ball forward and this time, I can see the batter ready, he is going to smash this one out of the park, but at the last moment, it curves, just like it is supposed to and again smashes into McGill’s catcher’s mitt. “Strike 2” yells the ump. The crowd, which had been subdued, now is on their feet and screaming. Only one more out, just one out away from the Championship.
Sandlot, Sandlot, I keep repeating to myself and remember all the games, all the fun, all the lost balls, deciding who would be on which team and it not really mattering.
McGill gets back down into this stance and he signals another low and away while the batter continues to swing and swing his mighty bat. The last pitch must have scared McGill and maybe, just maybe I will hit the corner of the plate with low and away and still give the batter nothing to really hit. I compose, draw the ball and glove to my chest, and reach way back and throw it with all I have. Again, too low and away and the batter never even thinks about trying for it. “Ball 2” calls the umpire. McGill stands upright and shakes out the kinks in his knees and legs, giving me some time and then he is back down in his stance and he signals for sinker. A sinker? What if it hangs over the plate? What if the ball does not sink at the last moment like it is supposed to and this guy blasts the ball out of the park? I shake my head, “No!” but McGill again shows me the sign for a sinker.
I check first base and the runner is holding, I wind up and let it go. It looks good and then just over the plate, it falls like a rock and the ump yells “Ball 3”. Oh God, could this get any worse.
It is now Yankees 4 to 3 over the Atlanta Braves in the 7th game of the World Series, 9th inning, 2 out, 2 men on base, 3 balls and 2 strikes and there I am, a farm league team pitcher alone on the mound.
Sandlot, sandlot, like some mantra, over and over again, sandlot. sandlot.
I wipe my pitching hand on my pants and mope the sweat out of my eyes. “I can do this, I say to myself. I can do this.”
Then I once more face the Braves batter and check McGill for the sign for what I am supposed to throw. Low and away he signals. What? I have already thrown 2 of those and neither has been on the edge of the plate for a strike. What? Again, I shake my head to wave off what he wants me to throw but again; he flashes me low and away. And then for some reason, I will never be sure of why; I begin to focus on the eyes of the batter instead of home plate, where I am supposed to be throwing the ball. His eyes, they just seem to burn like glowing coals and for a moment there, I think I can see myself through his eyes.
Sandlot! sandlot! I put my foot on the pitcher’s mound rubber and drew back my arm.
I never heard the umpires call but I saw the dust fly out of McGill’s mitt when the ball hit and then the crowd going crazy and the whole team running out onto the field and surrounding me. It had been low and away but had just nipped the outside of home plate and the batter was left standing there as the umpire had called “Strike 3”.
Like nothing I have ever experienced before or since, the celebration parties lasted for 2 days and through it all, no resentment about “The Kid” getting a ring.
Finally, on the 3rd day after the end of the series, it came time for everyone to clean out their lockers and head home for the winter and as I was packing my bag, Fish came over to me. “Kid”, you did well, you really did, but 3 strikes don’t make a player in this league and I have to send you back down. Maybe next year kid, maybe next year.”
And so I returned home with my Championship ring and lots of memories but when spring training started for my farm league team, I told them I just could not play anymore. Nothing would ever be as good as my moment in the big leagues and I have never regretted my decision.
See what I mean about a memory? Seems strong and vivid like a memory although I have to admit it has some Walter Mitty to it but maybe that is why I like it so much and what is wrong with that?