High and Tight
from Spitball – the literary baseball magazine
Sarge Martin looked around his hotel room, running down a mental checklist, nearly ready to head for the lobby. He grabbed the small duffle bag he had packed and was on his way to the door when the phone rang.
“Hi, Sarge, it’s Shelley Goldstein.”
“Hi, Mrs. Goldstein. I was just heading out to meet Barry. We’re gonna share a cab to the ballpark. Looks like a great day for a ballgame.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Sarge. Do you think…are you sure Barry is ready?”
“Absolutely, ma’am. You know I’ve been with him all the way, from Arizona on, through A and Double A ball, and believe me, he’s ready.” He hoped his voice didn’t betray any of the doubts.
“It’s just…well, you know, Sarge, if he ever got hit again…”
“We’ve spent hours on that, Mrs. Goldstein. You’ve just got to trust it now. And we’ve got the helmet I had made for him with the extension that covers his cheekbone. He’s gonna be fine.”
“I know, I know. You’ve been a godsend, Sarge. I don’t think Barry would even have tried if you weren’t there with him. You’re a real mensch.”
“Now, you know I’m just a coach, Mrs. Goldstein, just a batting coach. I say, ‘do this, try that.’ Barry had to do all the work.”
“Sarge, after all this time, can’t you please call me Shelley?”
“Uh…yes, ma’am.” That made her laugh and he laughed along with her. But he had something more to say, something he needed to tell her, if he could find the words. “You know…Shelley…I don’t have any kids. I was never blessed with any of my own. But if I had a son, I’d want him to be the kind of man that Barry is. And if I had a daughter, Barry is the guy I’d want her to bring home. Barry is the mensch.”
“Oh, Sarge…” she said, and he heard her blow her nose softly.
They said their goodbyes and he hung up the phone and headed for the lobby. He had coached Barry Goldstein on his way through the minor leagues the first time around, and there was just something special about the young man. He was glad he was able to tell Shelley how he felt about her son. And he meant every word.
Barry stood in front of the mirror, the bath towel fastened snugly around his waist, waiting for the steam to clear. As his face came into focus, he leaned forward and looked closely at his left eye. Kudos to the doctors, he said to himself, admiring their work. His cheekbone looked fairly normal now, the left side almost a twin to the right, and the scars from the surgeries were fading nicely. You had to be close and know what to look for to understand what he’d been through.
He wasn’t worried about the scars. He’d wear them like a warrior. It was his vision that had been the real battle. For many months, his left eye had provided nothing more than a blur, and that’s why it had taken so long to reach this day. You can’t hit a baseball, not at the pro level, with only one good eye. At least Barry Goldstein couldn’t do it.
Next week would mark the two-year anniversary, though there’d be no celebration. You don’t celebrate being stupid. All he had to do was turn with the ball, turn his left side and his left shoulder in, roll with the pitch, take it off his shoulder, or at worst off the back of his helmet. It’s one of the first things his father taught him, when he was barely big enough to swing a bat. Turn in with the pitch, turn hard and quick if you have to, get down and hit the dirt. The last thing you want to do is open up, open your face and your chest and your cojones to a fastball. But that’s exactly what he’d done. The ball caught him flush on the left cheekbone, and then the world went black. When he tried to open his eyes, only the right one seemed to work, and the red sticky stuff all over his face and uniform he soon realized was his own blood.
His season ended right there, a season that began with such promise, with talk about an All-Star Game selection and possible Rookie of the Year honors. Then came the surgeries and the battle to save his left eye, and with it the realization that he might lose more than his rookie season. He could lose an eye. More than likely, he would lose his career.
Barry looked in the mirror again, clear-eyed and confident. It had been a long, hard road, and he wasn’t all the way back, but he was damn close. Today would be his first game since the promotion to Triple A. He was one step away.
Bonnie came into the bathroom, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, wearing one of his long T-shirts with a faded team logo across the chest. “Hey, you,” she said, “everything okay?” She moved in close behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest. He could feel her head nestled between his shoulder blades and her long, lean body pressed against his backside.
“I’m good,” he said. “You sleep okay?”
“Hmmm,” she said, rocking gently against him.
Some people said he was unlucky, that he’d caught a bad break. How could they say that when this amazing woman was in his life, loving him unconditionally and oh so well? It didn’t matter if he played ball or sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door, Bonnie was there for him and she always would be. He turned to face her and gathered her in his arms.
“Oh, my,” she said, “I take it you’re glad to see me.”
“Uh huh. Do we have enough time?”
“Nooo…you’ve got to meet Sarge in the lobby in a few minutes. But keep that thought…for after the game.”
“Is that a promise?”
“You got it. And you’d better bring your ‘A’ game, Buster. Now can I please have the room? I gotta pee.”
Sarge stood behind the batting cage, watching the familiar progression of batting practice. Barry was slated to bat sixth in the lineup today, so his group of three would be hitting next. Sarge loved BP: the batting cage and the heavy tarp to protect the infield near home plate; the L-screen to protect the pitcher; coaches on either side of the cage, hitting fungos to the infielders and outfielders; players roaming the outfield, shagging balls and tossing them into a large screen behind second base; pitchers running along the warning track in the outfield, getting in their off-day work. It was a busy scene and Sarge was in his element.
“Well, if it isn’t Ernest J. Martin, otherwise known as Sarge!”
Sarge turned to greet Billy Condon, a baseball writer who’d covered the game for three decades. “My God, Billy! Still at it after all these years?” They clasped hands firmly and Sarge tightened his grip until Billy cried uncle. Billy shook the pain from his hand and they shared a good laugh.
“So, I hear Barry G is back, and you’re the man that got him here. All true?”
“Well, it’s a big step for him, Billy. We’ll know in a few days, maybe a few weeks, if he’s back or not.” He saw Billy scribbling notes on his pad. “Oh geez, are you gonna quote me on this?”
“Yep. I’m counting on you to fill up my notebook, Sarge. You know Buzz Adams is starting today. Should be a good test for the kid.”
“Buzz and I go way back. I hear he’s got a new pitch, gonna make another run at The Show.”
“Yeah, he says it’s part slider and part cutter. So, it’s a slutter. He just calls it ‘The Slut.’ I’ve seen him throw. He’s been hot lately. And what about you, Sarge? Gonna make another run at The Show?”
“What, me? Nah, Billy, you know it’s a young man’s game today. I’m a dinosaur. Look at me in this damn uniform. I look like ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag.” He saw Billy writing furiously. “Come on, Billy, don’t write that down.”
Billy laughed and completed his notes. “It would help though, wouldn’t it, Sarge? A couple of years and you’d have your full pension.”
“Got me there, Billy, but it ain’t gonna happen.”
Barry’s group was moving into the cage now, gathering balls and loading them into the ball bag for their BP pitcher. Sarge’s face grew serious, his eyes concentrated on the activity in front of him. Condon’s interview with Sarge Martin was over until after his pupil was through hitting.
The pitcher was ready and Barry hustled into the cage. He bunted the first pitch down the third base line, bunted the second pitch down the first base line, and then hit the next two pitches hard on the ground toward right field, as though advancing a runner, just as he’d been taught. Now he was ready to swing away.
Sarge watched and listened, paying little attention to where the ball went. He looked for the coil of the hips, weight loaded on the back foot, the short smooth stride and the quick hands as Barry uncoiled into the pitches. He could tell from the sound of the bat exactly how well the swing had been executed, and the sound was sweet music to his ears. He believed that hitting a round ball with a round bat, and hitting it squarely, was the most difficult skill in all of sports. He felt a tingle run through his body. Even now, at sixty-six, he never tired of watching a great swing, and Barry Goldstein had one of the best right-handed swings he’d seen, certainly the best he’d ever coached.
Sarge Martin had a theory about hitting. Great swings are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. The trick was to know what a hitter was doing when he was hot, and then put him back onto it when things went bad. With a good film library, you could show a hitter the contrast between then and now, hot and cold. As Roy Campanella used to say, “A slump starts in your swing, goes to your head, and winds up in your gut.” Sarge could fix the swing, talk it out of a guy’s head and undo the knot in his gut. But it seemed that this was old school thinking, a theory that had gone out of style. They all looked at him now as though he’d passed away and didn’t know it. It’s definitely a young man’s game.
Billy strolled back to where Sarge was standing. “The kid looks good. Now let’s see if he can hit The Slut.”
Barry sat in the dugout, bat in hand, batting helmet firmly planted on his head. He would bat third this inning. As Buzz Adams took his warmup pitches, Barry let his mind drift back to that spring day when he had placed the phone call to the general manager of the big club, telling him that he was ready to play, or at least ready to give it a try. Terry Hines, a veteran GM and former ballplayer, listened carefully and responded with enthusiasm. It was great to hear that his former prized rookie was fully mended and ready to get back on the horse.
Barry had one request: could Terry bring in Sarge Martin to work with him on the road back? He knew that Sarge was retired and living somewhere in the Phoenix area. Nobody knew his swing the way Sarge did.
Within a few days, it had been arranged. Barry would meet Sarge at the club’s training site in Arizona and they’d go to work. That was mid-April and the season was already underway. Everyone understood it was a long shot, knew that the odds against Barry making it back to the majors were very long. But Terry remembered Barry’s rookie year, and he’d been in the press box when the ball made contact with his left eye. The thought of it still made him sick to his stomach. He had to give the kid a chance.
And so it began, in the hot desert air: hours of banging balls into a net, first from a tee and then from soft toss. Then it was into the cage with a pitching machine, sweat pouring from his body, hitting until his hands were blistered and raw. In between these sessions, Sarge rigged a pitching machine to fire tennis balls at his body so that he could practice spinning out of the way, protecting his head, relearning the lesson he’d learned so long ago from his father. Then came the endless hours of batting practice with a corps of hired pitchers. And finally, the day when Sarge told him he was ready to play and they headed off for an assignment in short-season A-ball. Barry wore out the A-level pitching and within a month, it was on to Double A where the results were much the same. And now, in late June, nearly two years since his eye socket had been shattered, he was about to take his first Triple A at bat.
Buzz Adams appeared to have plans for spoiling the party. He’d put the Solons down 1-2-3 in the first inning, including two impressive strikeouts, and he got their number-four hitter on a weak popup to begin the next inning. That brought Barry out to the on-deck circle. He glanced up into the stands where he knew Bonnie and his parents were sitting and nodded quickly to them. Then he went to work, wiping the handle of his bat with the pine tar rag and sliding the weighted donut down onto the barrel. He took a few easy practice swings and studied Buzz’s pitches. It was clear that his new pitch, whatever he called it, was his best weapon today. The batter was called out on a sharp breaking ball and Barry made his way toward the batter’s box.
Barry looked to the third base coach for a sign, though he knew there’d be no play on with two outs and nobody on base. It was time to hit away. He planted his right foot, stepped into the box, and immediately began to recite the mantra his father had taught him in Little League: A balanced stance tension free / Feet shoulder width with bended knee. He’d done this through his entire playing career and it always helped him relax. A little movement keeps you loose / Now you’re ready for the juice. Buzz started his windup and Barry continued his ritual. Bat back, weight back / Ready to stride. Now Buzz was uncoiling, striding toward the plate, and Barry saw the ball clearly as it left his hand. Now drive your weight to the pitcher’s side…
Suddenly, Barry was spinning away from the pitch, diving back and away from the plate, the bat launched from his hands as the ball flew within inches of his head. He landed on his chest, his hands bracing his fall, and without a second of hesitation, he was up, grabbing the bat, planting his right foot back in the batter’s box, not even pausing to brush the dirt from his uniform.
The crowd gasped at the sight of the near bean ball and the Solon’s bench erupted in shouts directed at Buzz Adams and at the umpire, demanding a warning—or an ejection. Joe Bettini, the veteran umpire, stepped out from behind the plate and ripped off his mask, glaring at Buzz Adams. He let loose a stream of expletives that began and ended with “sonofabitch.” Buzz shrugged his shoulders and motioned that the pitch had slipped out of his hand. Bettini stepped across the plate, his back to the mound, and brushed the surface clean. “Tony,” he said, addressing the catcher, “if you’re throwing at this kid, I’m gonna run the both of youse…and see to it that you get fined. Got it?”
“Hey, blue, it wasn’t me. Nobody called it. Just a slip, that’s all.” Tony didn’t sound very convincing.
All the while, Barry was standing in the box, ready to hit, staring at Buzz Adams and mouthing the words kush mir in tuchas.
The shouting died down and Buzz went back to the mound, ready for the next pitch. He went into his windup, kicked his leg high, and again uncoiled toward the plate. The ball flew straight and hard toward Barry’s left shoulder, the seams rotating tightly, biting the air for traction, finally breaking sharply down and toward the inside corner. The crack of the bat told the whole story, that and the fact that the outfielders barely moved before the ball disappeared beyond the left-center field fence. Barry rounded the bases, touching them all, and was greeted at the plate by his teammates, shaking his hand and pounding his back.
Sarge saw it all, from the second the pitch left Buzz’s hand, watched Barry coil with that sweet smooth motion, watched the short glide and plant of the left foot, watched as the left shoulder stayed closed and firm, watched as the swing released in the lovely fluid motion that was Barry Goldstein’s snowflake. And then the sound, that beautiful sound when the ball meets the sweet spot on a Louisville Slugger.
Now Barry was coming down the steps and into the dugout, greeted by more happy teammates. As he approached, Sarge reached out his hand. Barry ignored it and threw his arms around the old man’s neck.
“Thanks, Sarge. For everything.” He moved on down the dugout, leaving Sarge speechless—but very proud.
As it turned out, it was the only run the Solons scored. They lost three to one, and Buzz Adams earned his fourth straight victory. None of that mattered to Sarge Martin. He’d seen everything he needed to see.
Joe Barty’s saloon was just down Broadway from the ballpark. It was a popular hangout for the baseball crowd, fans and players alike. The walls were lined with pictures dating back to the early days of the local franchise. Sarge scanned the framed pictures for guys he knew, stopping to smile at more than a few of the yellowing images. He slid into a booth near the rear of the bar and sat facing the door, waiting for his guest to arrive. It was quiet this particular evening because it was getaway day. Both teams would be leaving town, the Solons for an extended road trip and the Oaks heading home to the Bay Area. Sarge called to the bartender for a pitcher of beer and a couple of glasses just as the door swung open and Buzz Adams walked in. Sarge waved to him and he headed toward the booth.
“Buzz! Great game today! That new pitch is gonna take you back to the bigs.” Sarge reached out his hand and Buzz shook it firmly.
“Thanks, Sarge. I think your guy Barry had the only two solid hits all day.”
The young bartender brought the beer and the glasses and placed them on the table between them. “Here you go, Mr. Martin…hey, great game today, Mr. Adams.” He turned and walked away.
“How ‘bout that? Out there,” Buzz said, motioning toward the street, “we’re just a couple of mugs. But at Joe Barty’s, it’s Mr. Martin and Mr. Adams. Is this a great game or what?” Both men laughed out loud.
“Listen, Buzz, thanks for what you did today. I really appreciate it. I owe you one.”
“Well, tell you what, Sarge, it’s the first time in my career that a coach asked me to throw at one of his own players.” He laughed again and shook his head.
“I knew somebody would come high and tight to him sooner or later, Buzz. I had to see how he’d react. I wanted it to be somebody I trusted, somebody who knows what he’s doing. Thanks again.”
“Don’t mention it. And, hey, did you see what he did to my slutter? I thought sure he’d jelly-leg after I buzzed him. But he hung right in there. And hit the snot out of it, I might add. Frickin’ outfielders didn’t even move!”
Sarge liked Buzz Adams; he always had. He was a real pro, and a great guy to share a beer and a few laughs with. They told war stories and drained the pitcher. Sarge started to order a refill but Buzz begged off.
They slid out of the booth and were on their way to the door when the bartender called out to them. “Phone call, Mr. Martin.” Buzz waved and continued out the door while Sarge went to the corner of the bar where the young man had placed the phone.
“Sarge, it’s Terry Hines. You weren’t in your room, so I figured you’d be at Barty’s. Listen, I got several things to hit you with.”
He could picture Terry in his office at the stadium back east, the only light still burning in the entire place. He glanced at his watch and saw it was near midnight back there. As usual, Terry was in a hurry, like his hair was on fire.
“Okay, I spoke to Skip and he told me about the kid’s game. I got Shankman down with a broken ankle and I need an outfielder. I’m thinking about bringing Barry up. Whataya think?”
Sarge paused, but only for a second, just long enough to let the grin break across his face. “Go for it, Terry. He’s ready.”
“Okay, and I also got this. We’re making a change at hitting coach. The job is yours if you want it. Sarge?…Hello?…Are you still there?”
“What? I could barely hear you.”
Sarge cleared his throat. “I said, ‘yes.’ I’ll take the job.”
“Okay, great. We’re making all the arrangements now. I’ll call you at the hotel tomorrow and we’ll work out the details. Congrats, Sarge. And welcome back to The Show.” With that he hung up.
Sarge stood still for a few seconds, staring at the phone, until it became a blur as his eyes welled. He reached across the bar and grabbed a few cocktail napkins, dabbing his eyes quickly, hoping no one had noticed. He drew a mental picture of himself wearing a Sox uniform.
“Damn,” he said, just under his breath. “I’m gonna have to drop a few pounds.”