Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Ray Rebmann
“Great day for a ball game.”
I think that’s what the guy said as he plopped into the seat beside me. He’d shoved half a hot sausage and pepper sandwich into his mouth. He spat out the words, along with quite a bot of food, between prodigious chomps.
He wanted to say more but he couldn’t until he finished gulping half the contents of a sixteen ounce plastic cup filled with beer.
Then, after a very loud, self satisfied belch, he proceeded.
“Stuff’s terrible for ya.” he suggested.
Whatever else he had to say was lost forever because, at that moment, my daughter joined me.
She’s been on a baseball kick lately. Or maybe it’s a bonding with dad kick?
We’d been fighting lately. Little stuff really. Small challenges to my parental authority.
Gearing up for big battles to come.
She climbed into the seat on the opposite side of me from the gourmand; her cap pulled down to keep the sun out of her eyes, her glove positioned, ready to catch any foul balls that might happen our way.
I didn’t tell her, but I prayed fervently that none would. I’d seen the adult male hyenas swarm aggressively whenever a ball came up into the stands. A poor kid didn’t stand a chance.
The guy on the other side eyed the glove and nodded, waiting for the rest of his sandwich to be sufficiently chewed to wash it down with another major league swallow of suds.
Apparently, he had more stimulating conversation to share along with his garlic and cheap beer breath.
“Nice day to bring your kid to a ball game.” He finally observed, gesturing at my daughter with his cup. He just barely avoided splashing the last of the beer on my shirt.
I nodded in agreement, hoping that he wasn’t a talker. I considered buying him another round of sausage and suds to keep his mouth busy.
“Looks like she’s set to get a ball.”
I smiled tightly.
“I ain’t missed a businessman’s special in 23 years.” He proudly informed me. “Nothing beats playin’ hookey from work to take in a ball game on a nice sunny afternoon.”
I wouldn’t know. I didn’t say that…I was trying hard not to say anything since anything would just encourage him. I wouldn’t know because I hadn’t been to a baseball game since my dad took me. I was just about my daughter’s age then.
I stopped talking to my dad shortly thereafter and as part of that break, shed all interest in things we might share, such as baseball.
I was only here today because my daughter had saved all summer and surprised me with the tickets.
“I seen a lot of great games over the years.” he went on. “Lot of great plays.”
I took a sudden serious interest in my program.
Seeing that I wasn’t much of a talker, he leaned over and addressed my daughter.
“You know, I used to coach in the minors.”
I glared at him now. To annoy me was one thing. But to blow hot air about his youthful sports exploits at my daughter…well, that was my job.
He must have caught a whiff of my fuming because he backed off. There was an empty seat beside him. So he turned to the young couple, sitting two seats down and sought to impose himself on them.
But they were busy necking. All eyes for each other and not interested in anything else. Slim pickings for a blow hard.
“Yessir.” He continued, turning back to us. “Saw a lot of great plays in my day.”
“What was the best catch you ever saw?” the kid suddenly asked.
Oh no, don’t encourage him, I thought. Good, here comes the beer vendor. Let me buy you the entire tray. Maybe you’ll drink yourself unconscious and we can watch the game in peace.
“That would be Bill Buckner, Boston Red Sox, 1st base. Sixth game of the ’86 series against the Mets.”
I was no baseball expert but even I knew that Buckner didn’t make that catch. I eyed him dubiously but he responded with a good natured wink.
“Great “catch” for me.” He guffawed. “I had a c-note on the Mets.”
He laughed appreciatively at his own joke. My daughter, who didn’t get it, stared at him.
I, who did get it, smiled painfully. But since the joke had fallen flat with us, I figured he was done.
He eyed us for a moment, sizing us up. Then he arrived at some sort of decision.
“Lemme see. Greatest catch I ever saw…”
I was disappointed with his decision. He was obviously going to continue talking to us.
The sides switched on the field but he was not distracted.
“That would be at a minor league game down in Atlantic City. Independent League.”
And he was off…
Stick Norcross. Had a .240 lifetime batting average. Stick was one of those guys who sprayed a lot of foul balls all over the place before popping out to second.
Real pain in the…you know what. He never beat ya but he’d ding up the pitcher, wear him out so when the real hitters came up…
Home team had a kid named Billy Hamer on the mound. A real hot prospect.
Billy could throw heat. Problem was, he threw nothin’ but heat. Had no breaking ball.
But he could throw the ball through a brick wall.
Stick steps in and starts doing his thing. Finally, he gets a hold of one and sends a liner over the first base side, right over the visiting team dugout.
I got a perfect vantage point from the steps of our dugout on the third base side. But I don’t wanna watch. I figure some poor schmuck sitting in the first row’s gonna need some dental work.
But I can’t help myself. So I follow the ball.
It’s a screamer, hardest hit ball of Stick’s illustrious career.
I see this old guy sitting in the third row. He’s chatting up a beautiful strawberry blonde.
He’s all eyes for her and not paying any attention to what’s happenin’ on the field.
Ball heads right at her. She spots it but, bein’ ignorant of the laws of physics and what not, doesn’t give it a second thought.
Meanwhile, he’s yappin’ away. Then, cool as a cucumber, he puts down the beverage he’d been enjoyin’…real careful so as not to spill a drop.
Then he reaches out and makes a barehanded catch of that cannon ball, just inches away from rearranging that pretty face beside him.
The crowd went wild.
They stopped the game. Showed a replay of his catch on the video screen in center field. Played it a few times. The fans went wild each time.
“’Sign him up.’ Wise guy Vinnie Guarini shouts from our bench. ‘We could use him at third.’ A not so thinly veiled commentary on the fielding inadequacies of the team’s current holder of that position.
The announcer tries 3-4 times to get the guy to stand up and take a bow but he don’t even let on that he heard the commotion. He nonchalantly put the ball in the mitt the babe had been holdin’. Then he picked up his cup and resumed blathering away.
Now, I’m what you might call an amateur social scientist. I’m always curious about the types of people that come to the games.
So I saunter over to the stands when our team came up to bat. I lean over the rail and ask the guy if he’d like me to get the team to autograph the ball for his girlfriend.
‘Girlfriend!’ he shouts, all indignant. ‘She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my daughter.’
And that’s how I met the current missus.
If you think I dropped the ball on that play, you’d be wrong. We’re still together. I quit baseball and went to work in an office…probably a lot like your daddy’s.
We have three kids, the mortgage, piano lessons.
The whole bit.
Grandpop comes by on weekends to play catch with the youngest.
He finally paused to inhale.
By then, the home team was down by four runs and the kid was growing bored with the slow pace of the game.
I was furious with this guy for wasting my rare free afternoon with my kid with his nonsense.
Probably not a word of it true. Probably a ticket scalper or gambling addict or one of those addled sports junkies who could never get past the glory days of their youth when they might have actually played the game. Probably…
“And here she is now!” he announced proudly.
He stood with a flourish and waved a still attractive strawberry blonde over to the empty seat beside him.
I felt bad of course. I was ready to do my penance and listen to the windbag for the rest of the game to make up for what I’d been thinking about him.
“I was just tellin’ these good folks about the greatest catch I ever saw.”
She looked at him warily.
You know. AC. Stick Norcross…”
“Not that stale old tale.” She said. “Switch seats with me for a minute, Coach.” She told him, placing an exaggerated emphasis on the nickname, suggesting to me that it was something of an inside joke.
“Don’t listen to a word of what he tells you.” she started, apologetically.
My former enmity toward Coach immediately returned, stronger than ever. So he was lying. My daughter was now snoring softly, cradled in her seat.
“Now the greatest catch we ever saw…” she started.
She was interrupted by the seventh inning stretch and a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.
As the game resumed, I sat down with a sigh and summoned the beer vendor, determined to drown the rest of that afternoon’s future memory.
Suddenly, the batter swung furiously cracked his bat, sending the head of the bat down the first base line. The ball sailed high over the batter’s box and sailed into the stands above us.
The ball caromed off the base of the tier above and ricocheted straight down into the seats three rows back. It clunked a spectator on top of the head and bounced again. Straight toward my daughter.
The ball lodged in her mitt without disturbing her in the least. I didn’t have time to be amazed. The barbarian horde converged upon us, rabid fans fueled with beer and capable of any sort of depravity to obtain a souvenir.
I jumped to my feet and stood over my daughter, fists raised, ready to take on the world.
And there was Coach, right beside me, just as grim faced and determined to protect.
“That ball has been caught!” he announced with a leather throated roar.
Discretion being the better part of valor, especially when there’s more beer to be swilled, the barbarians withdrew.
I summoned the vendor again. This time, I handed cold ones to Coach and the missus.
Just then, the kid woke up and discovered her new treasure.
“Look at what your dad caught for you while you were snoozing.” Coach said. “Hey, I still know a few people around here. After the game, I’ll take you down and get it signed.”
My daughter threw her arms around me.
“Daddy, this is the best day ever she said. I love you” she said.
We shared a long embrace..
“I think I’ll have to get Coach to update that story of his.” The missus confided to me in a whisper. “I think that catch we just saw was pretty great…especially that last part.”
As I basked in the glow of my daughter’s affection, the missus returned to the subject of great catches.
“A blind man and his guide dog came to a game. They were sitting in the bleachers out in left field and the batter hit a long fly ball.”
“Of course, the blind man didn’t see the ball coming, but just before the ball hit his face, the dog jumped up and snagged the ball in his mouth. Then he spat it back onto the field.”
“Should have been a homer.” She concluded. “But those blind umps ruled it a ground rule double.”