Fastball (Short Story)
by Jason C. McDonald
Lefty McCorsky was quite possibly the best pitcher in minor league baseball. In fact, he might be the best pitcher in the history of baseball altogether, but none of the statisticians were ever present at our games to prove it.
As popular legend has it around here, before a batter has a chance to react to one of Lefty’s pitches, his curveball has already come around and smacked them in the back of the head.
Lefty was really the only redeeming element of our local team, the Thompsonville Pluckers. We didn’t have any stats on our team because, as it turns out, a zero-win record makes for difficult number crunching. Apparently you can’t divide by zero – at least, according to the local bookkeeper, the only person in Thompsonville to remember anything from math past basic multiplication. Of course, there are the rumors that he’s just avoiding doing the math, because he’s part owner of the team, and looking at the numbers depresses him.
Skills aside, we were a baseball town. You could find us in the stands every Friday night. The hot peanuts were worth the humiliation of our perfect losing record, and anyway, there wasn’t much else to do on a Friday night.
This particular Friday was no exception. My job, as usual, was to hand bats, towels, and water to the players in the dugout. It wasn’t an especially grueling job, and it left me plenty of time to watch the visiting team mop the bases with our boys.
The first two innings were of absolutely no consequence. Lefty’s ability to strike out batters carried the entire game, as always. But as the third inning came to a close, a well-dressed man came into the dugout. He stopped Lefty McCorsky as our pitcher came in.
The man introduced himself. “My names is James Phelps, and I’m a recruiter for the major leagues. I’ve been watching you play so far this evening. You’ve got talent.”
Lefty tipped his hat. “Thank you kindly.”
“Normally I wait until after the game, but I wanted to be absolutely sure I caught you. How would you like to play in the big time?”
“Play in the majors?”
Lefty rubbed the back of his neck. “To be honest, sir, I’d need some time to think it over.”
“Well, here’s the problem – I’m only in town until tomorrow morning. You’ll have to let me know before then. Can you talk to your family before…”
“Oh, I don’t got no family here. Just me.” Lefty took a deep breath as his teammates began to stream into the dugout after another failed inning. “I’ll let you know by the end of the game.”
“Fair enough. I’ll come back then.” Phelps retreated to the stands.
Brink Andrews, our first baseman watched Phelps leave. “Who was that, Lefty?”
Lefty didn’t respond. He just stood there, back to the team, obviously deep in thought.
Henry Linkletter took a seat and removed his catcher’s mask. “Lefty?”
Lefty turned around real slow, sorta like they do in those scary movies. “I’ve been offered a spot in the majors.”
I half expected the team to burst into applause and “atta boys,” but instead, a shocked hush fell over the other eight players. I didn’t know what to say either.
Finally, Andy Winters, our shortstop, ventured the question on all of our minds. “You gonna take it?”
“I don’t know. Recruiters don’t usually come to Thompsonville. The majors pay pretty good…” Lefty’s voice trailed off. We could all fill in the blank ourselves – major league teams won every now and again, too.
Lefty took another deep breath. “What do ya’ll think I should do?”
Who could answer? None of us wanted the only good player on our team to leave, but asking him to stay was like asking a chick to stay in the egg.
Our beloved pitcher broke the silence for us. “I’ll tell you what. I’ve got to give an answer by the end of the game. If you can come up with one good reason to stay before then, I’ll stay.” Lefty snatched up a water bottle and left the dugout. We all watched him leave.
Third baseman Freddy Bowler shrugged. “What could we say? I don’t think we’ve ever won a game.”
“Lefty always thought we could,” observed Joe Curtis, our right fielder. “He was the only one on this team to believe we ever had a fighting chance.”
“Was? You’re talking like he’s already gone, Joe,” Brink snapped.
“He practically is,” added Frankie, Joe’s twin brother. “I can’t think of a single good reason why Lefty should stay. From what I can see in center field, we couldn’t win if the other team were blindfolded.”
Silence fell on the group again. All we could hear was the chatter of the crowd above and the peanut man’s call.
Finally, left fielder Clint Devin spoke up. “Maybe that’s the problem. We keep losing before we begin. Look at us! We all already have Lefty playing for the Yankees in our minds.” He pointed at Brink. “They could get a Jersey cow past you at first base.”
Brink recoiled. “Me? You’re usually sleeping in left field.”
Clint didn’t skip a beat. “You know, I usually am. Meanwhile, the Curtis boys are rarely paying attention to the game. Andy and Mitchell are always waiting for one another to tag a runner.” Clint started at Freddy. “And then you just let them through, all gentleman-like.”
“We’d better not even talk about our batting average,” Joe Curtis added.
“Maybe if we had a coach.” Henry muttered.
“What good would it do?” Brink replied. “The last three quit. Let’s face it. We really are the worst players in the history of baseball, and there is absolutely no reason for Lefty to stay.”
Clint threw his hat down. “Well, darn it, I’m not letting him go without a fight. If winning’s what it takes to keep Lefty McCorsky on the Thompsonville Pluckers, then I ain’t sleepin’ in left field tonight.”
“What the hey, it’s worth a shot,” Freddy Bowler replied. The rest of the team nodded their assent.
“No, we’re not doing some weak-hearted ‘what the hey’ tonight, boys. Either we pull out the first win in Thomsponville history, or there’s no point to our being out here!” Clint began pacing the dugout like an army general. “Brink, no one gets past you, ya’hear? No one. Andy, Mitchell, whoever’s got the ball goes for the tag. We’ve practiced enough times. And Freddy, darn it, stop being so conciliatory. Third base is your turf!”
Clint stopped in front of the Curtis boys. “And you two – wake up and get in the game!”
Henry dusted off his catcher’s mask. “I’ll keep doing what I can on my end. Lefty usually handles it pretty well…”
Clint turned on Henry. “Well, give him something more to work with! Don’t leave him guessing what pitch to make. You’re closer to the batter!”
He faced the entire team, minus Lefty. “Now, are we going to go out there and nap, or are we going to play some baseball?”
The cheer of agreement was considerably more enthusiastic, though I had my doubts. How could one quick pep-talk by our left fielder rally a team out of a slump that they had been in for?…well, never mind how long.
As the fourth inning began, I kept my eyes riveted on the field. For once, perhaps, Thompsonville would see some action.
The Foxwood Chippers, a team that had beat us more times than we could count, were first up to bat. As Lefty took his position, I spotted some movement from Henry. Lefty looked surprised – he rarely got cues from Henry – but he quickly recovered and threw a blazing fastball.
Another signal, and Lefty threw one of his famous curveballs, which thumped in Henry’s glove before the batter could even twitch.
The third pitch connected with the bat. CRACK! The ball flew straight into left field where, for the first time in years, Clint Devin was not sleeping. He caught it on a bounce and lateraled it to Mitchell on second, who tagged the baseman.
Out. For the first time since anyone could remember, the Thompsonville Pluckers had actually tagged out a runner, from Foxwood no less!
You could practically hear three hundred fans choking on their peanuts.
This was it. We were playing baseball.
When the team returned to the dugout after the fourth inning, the mood was quite different. We hadn’t scored a single run in this inning, but neither had the Chippers. Freddy Bowler hadn’t even had any visitors to third base for the whole inning.
I couldn’t hold it back. “This is the same team that was in here after the last inning, right?”
Clint laughed. “Nope. This here is a real live baseball team.”
Lefty smiled, but he didn’t say much. I hoped we had given him something to think about, but we all knew that it would take more than one inning to convince him to stay.
The fifth inning brought more of the same, and once again the Foxwood Chippers weren’t able to land anyone on a base. Freddy and Joe had even managed to pop a few flies when we were at bat.
During the sixth inning, something incredible happened, even more so than the miracle rally of the last two. Brink Andrews hit the ball, into outfield no less. The feat was commonplace at practice, but for some reason, he had never done it in a game. Now he stood on second base, grinning like a little boy who had just discovered the world’s best mud holler.
With Andy Winters up to bat, we all held our breath. Could the Thompsonville Pluckers score a run?
The first ball caught Andy by surprise.
Andy shook it off and took his position. The pitcher sent a fastball in his direction. A gratifying crack sounded, and the ball flew right over the first baseman’s head into far right field. Before the fielder could even cross his territory to intercept it, Andy had touched off first base and was well on his way to second. I had never seen such joy on his face, but no one else in the stands noticed it – they were all riveted on Brink Andrews, who had passed third and was heading home.
The right fielder threw the ball to the first baseman, who threw it to the catcher, but it was too late. Brink slid in to home.
The Thompsonville fans erupted into cheers. The Foxwood Chippers didn’t even know what had hit them. In the chaos, Andy had made it all the way to third.
By the time the ninth inning rolled around, we had scored five runs. Foxwood had to be content with the nine runs they had scored during the first three innings. Since then, only two of their runners had been lucky enough to get to second base, but before they could touch third, Freddy “Doorman” Bowler greeted them with a smile and a lightning-fast tag.
Yet, as the first half of the ninth inning closed out, it became clear that the Chippers weren’t so relaxed around us anymore. We had only managed one more run before the Chippers shut us down.
We gathered in the dugout, not quite certain how to feel. We had lost as usual, but for the first time, we were on the board. We made those Foxwood Chippers fight for their win this time.
Yet, we also knew that a 6-9 loss wasn’t enough to keep Lefty. As our dear pitcher stood before us, none of us knew quite what to say.
“Well?” Lefty stood, his arms crossed. “Can you give me a reason to stay?”
I spotted the recruiter, James Phelps, standing in the corner behind Lefty. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
After a moment, Frankie Curtis stepped forward and pointed to the scoreboard. “I can give you six.”
Lefty grinned. “Six is good enough for me.” He turned around. “I appreciate the opportunity, Mr. Phelps, but this is where I belong. Thompsonville is my home.”
“This chance may not come again, Mr. McCorsky,” Phelps warned.
“I understand. Thank you for considering me.”
As Phelps left the dugout, we crowded around Lefty.
The pitcher grinned. “So, you’re gonna make this up to me, right? We aren’t going back to sleep next Friday night?”
“You betcha, Lefty,” replied Clint. “We’re going to win a game yet, if it’s the last thing we do.”
* * *
The Thompsonville Pluckers were quite possibly the best team in minor league baseball. Since their unexpected rally last year, they took the pennant.
Henry “Mindreader” Linkletter could always cue Lefty of the batter’s weaknesses, and with his help, Lefty pitched five shutouts this year. Brink “Wall” Andrews and Freddy “Doorman” Bowler were considered the hardest baseman to get past in the entire region. Andy “Quickfoot” Winters could steal a base before you could blink. Mitchell “Skyrocket” Moore hit seven home runs, beat only by Clint “Cracked-Bat” Devin’s eight. The Curtis Twins, better known as “The Outfield Mirror,” became famous for catching even the wildest pop fly.
That recruiter hasn’t been back, but if he ever stops by Thompsonville again, Lefty won’t be the only one he’s looking to hire.
As for me, you can always find me in the dugout, handing out towels, bats, and water. That’s the only place I like to be on a Friday night.