I thought, why not? I wasn't doing anything else at the time. It was only a four hour drive up to Seattle, where the Mariners were holding their tryout camp at the Kingdome, and we'd just put new tires on the car.
Didn't look like the players and owners would settle the strike in time for spring training, so the teams were all holding winter tryout camps. Sure, I was in my late forties, but they were talking about bringing back players older than that. I'd seen pictures in the paper of guys who looked as though they'd gained more weight since retiring than I weighed altogether, guys who had a lot more gray hair than I do under the 1911 New York Yankees cap my wife Meredith got me for Valentine's Day. Hell, I've had gray hair since I was 29, especially in my beard. I kept walking around the house singing that old Crosby, Stills and Nash song, what have I got to lose?
For the past six years, I'd been disabled by a rare neurological disorder, one of those diseases that's named after the physician who discovered it but died before he could figure out how to cure the thing. Still, it was something that could be controlled most of the time. As long as I didn't get too fatigued, and didn't try to do too much at any one time or for too long, and provided that I followed a few simple management procedures, most of the symptoms could be held in check. Sometimes my world listed a bit to the left, but I'd learned how to compensate for that. In the batter's box, hitting curve balls could be tricky, because they'd probably make me dizzy, but lots of guys can't hit curve balls. Out at second base, I might have trouble going back under a pop fly, especially if I put my arms out to the side while looking up at the ball the way I was trained to do, because then I'd simply fall down. Same thing if I had my feet together and closed my eyes, but once I got past the national anthem I couldn't imagine a time I'd do that during the game. There could also be some difficulty with the coach's signals, since my short-term memory is pretty erratic these days, or concentrating if the fans made too much noise. But I figured I could face those problems when I got to them. Besides, there probably wouldn't be too many fans anyway.
Look, I'll be honest, I could use the money. What I get from Social Security and from my former employer makes it so we eat a lot of tuna-helper after about the 23rd of the month. Plus, I used to play some ball, back before I got sick. Actually, back before I graduated from college, but the big league scouts were always around and I thought I had a shot until that one game where I struck out five times. Still. Meredith and I always went up to watch the Mariners play several times a season and I have to tell you I could play as well as some of those jokers. Meredith says so too, and she hasn't even seen me play. But she has seen me at the batting ranges, where I can still spray lines drives from both sides of the plate. I never lost the touch, even in the cages with the 80 mph machines. The way I figure it, there won't be too many guys throwing faster than that among the replacement players.
But it's not just the money, of course. Playing big-league ball is something I always dreamed of doing, ever since I was a kid in Brooklyn, New York, going to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers. I have very clear memories of being there in 1957, sitting just to the first base side of home plate, watching the Dodgers finish out their Brooklyn lives, Across the left field wall there were all those signs—The Brass Rail, Schaefer Beer, Luckies, Buy Tydol—and then Gino Cimoli or Sandy Amoros beside the 351 ft. sign against left handed batters. Yeah, I would be happy with just one game, one time at bat, one grounder cleanly fielded.
When we pulled into the Kingdome parking lot that morning, I thought, well I guess I'm not the only one. Meredith just laughed once, that wonderful guffaw of hers, then got hold of herself and wove her way through the crowded lot to the handicapped parking area right next to the entrance. She seemed as happy as I was.
"Maybe you'd better leave your cane in the car," she said.
This was something I'd already thought of myself. I mean, give me some credit. I zipped open my bag and checked everything one more time: mitt, shoes, batting gloves, new shoes, lucky tee shirt, the small crystal Meredith gave me for luck. I took a couple of my noon hour pills a little early, so no one would have to see me doing it inside, and we were ready to go. She leaned over to give me a kiss, then tugged down her Mariners cap, slipped on her Joe Carter mitt so she could catch foul balls, threw her sweater over her shoulders, and we got out. At the gate, she took out her camera and got a good shot of me heading down the ramp toward the clubhouse.
"Break a leg, Shooter." she shouted after me. Meredith used to be an actress and she doesn't know much about baseball, but that didn't stop her from giving me her full support. Or using the wrong nickname. On the ride up to Seattle, I'd confessed that in school my teammates called me Scooter.
Getting to the clubhouse was like passing through customs at the airport in Damascus. Once they were sure I didn't have any contraband in my bag, and once I'd spent a half hour filling out all their forms—no, I wouldn't sue the Mariners if I died as a result of the tryout—and trying not to exaggerate my baseball accomplishments, I was given number 49 to pin on my shirt and waved through to the inner sanctum. I don't think anyone saw me bump into the door jamb as I walked in.
The only thing that surprised me about the locker room was how small it seemed. I thought modern players had all these contractual agreements giving them a quarter mile of airspace between each other or something. Hot tubs and massage tables and a spate of nautilus machines. I thought there would be director's chairs or padded recliners by every locker.
I also thought there would be a more even distribution among the guys who were trying out. But most of them, a good 80 percent or more, were half my age, a few of them polite enough not to stare and then turn back to their lockers gagging down their laughter. But only a few. There seemed to be a grandfather's corner over by the coach's office, where I saw three guys who probably could remember Timothy Leary or knew Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers weren't a neighborhood gang. They were carefully pulling on their stirrup socks and lacing their shoes, none of which were as clean as mine.
"Hey, how you doing?" I said, trying to sound crusty. Also trying to keep my vocabulary simple enough so I wouldn't end up saying the wrong word. Earlier in the day, I'd generously informed Meredith that we were in the excerpts of Seattle instead of the outskirts.
One of the younger older guys knocked his bag off a stool and shoved the rickety three-legger over toward me. Another guy opened a locker next to the one he was using and took out his equipment so I could use the locker. The third member of the group looked familiar enough that I wondered if he was a retired player, somebody whose face I'd seen in The Sporting News a few years back.
"No," he said, before I asked. "I just look like the fella. Odell Jones. He played for six different teams in nine years and had the absolute worst season of his illustrious career right here in Seattle. The General Manager called me 'OdelP when he came by a few minutes ago and said he was glad to see me back. I just shook his hand and nodded—far be it from me to correct the man. Maybe I'll make the team if I keep my mouth shut around the coaching staff. Later they'll be too embarrassed to drop me."
"What did I miss so far?" I asked.
"Nothing," the guy who was not Odell Jones said. "No one said a thing to us all morning. Except the little old clubhouse guy keeps telling us not to throw anything on the floor and if we have the runs we should clean the throne ourselves. That notice over by the water cooler says tryouts begin at eleven."
I guessed I should be able to get my shoes tied in the next half hour, especially if I didn't try to talk at the same time, so I nodded and turned toward my locker. A few of the younger men were filing out and heading toward a passage that must have led onto the field. Within three minutes, the place was deserted except for the four of us geezers.
The one sitting next to me started talking as though we'd been having a conversation all morning. "So I told her you can come or you can stay, makes no difference to me, but I'm going to Seattle. You know what she does?" He looked at me, his socks dangling from both hands as though he wasn't sure whether to put them on or use them to strangle me.
I shook my head and started searching diligently for my Yankees cap.
"Only closes down the bank account, packs up and drives to her mother in Sacramento, that's all. I had to take the damn train up here and borrow a hundred bucks from my brother. How am I supposed to play major league quality ball when she does this to me? I don't make the team now, I know whose fault it is."
"Shoot," not-Odell Jones said. "My old lady doesn't know where I'm at. Probably thinks I took off for some meeting and forgot to leave her a note. She's cool."
"What do you do?" I asked, mostly as an excuse to turn away from my neighbor, who was still staring at me, maybe wondering if I had given his wife the idea about Sacramento.
"Software. I write those manuals tell you how to use a program. And play in the softball leagues around town. I hit 91 homers last summer."
"Was relaxed, I could hit me a few taters," my neighbor mumbled. "I could probably hit one clear out of this place. Say, any you guys got something help a person relax?"
Finally the oldest of us, the one who hadn't said anything yet, slammed his locker shut and turned to the rest of us. He had on an old Seattle Pilots hat and a purple University of Washington sweat suit, and his face was all grim lines and odd shadows, like a charcoal sketch of a cubist portrait. His high voice was a shock coming out of such a long, cowboy body.
"You know what this is?" He waited, a professor giving us adult ed students plenty of time to frame our answers, then sadly nodded as though he knew all along how dumb we really were. "Only the most important day of my life. I am not here to dink around, get cut and go back to Yakima so I can tell my drinking buddies about my grand adventure. This is no adolescent fantasy for me, so I don't want to hear any more talk about your fastballs and your home runs. I've had enough." He stalked out of the locker room, pounding a ball into his mitt, and we could still hear him talking as he disappeared from view.
Not-Odell Jones looked at my neighbor, who was tying his shoes, and then at me. He shrugged. "I hope they got a doctor on call."
I waited till the other two oldsters had left, saying I needed a couple minutes in private, and went over to the full length mirror by the showers. Hate to say this, but I really looked all right, if a little tired around the eyes. You'd never know I was brain-damaged, especially if I wasn't trying to copy your movements or follow complicated directions. Last month, to get me in shape for this, Meredith bought an exercise video and we popped it into the VCR. Here were these supple young kids hopping around behind a woman who looked a lot like not-Odell Jones, and she was hollering out directions, saying now turn left while turning to my right, saying right arm to left ankle like we're playing "Simon Says" but then dropping the arm that was on my left, till I just had to sit down on the couch and watch Meredith rock n' roll.
Anyway, I looked all right, so I picked up a bat that was leaning against the first locker by the door. I took my usual lefty batting stance and glared at an imaginary pitcher, then shifted my weight and took a smooth inside-out cut, the bat ending up in my right hand pointing toward the bathroom, a perfect swing. I was ready.
At the mouth of the stairway leading into the dugout, I practiced what my occupational therapist had taught me long ago. I stopped to get my bearings, noticing the layout before me, the obstacles in my path, and studied the steps up onto the field. Four short steps, I told myself. That way I would have a better chance of not falling on my face.
When I trotted out to the field, I could clearly hear Meredith screaming for me from behind the dugout. She was using one of those high-pitched calls like Middle Eastern women give out, her tongue flapping wildly against the roof of her mouth to make a little trilling sound. Maybe I'd stumbled into a belly dancing contest instead of a baseball tryout. I knew she was snapping pictures too. If I wasn't being so cool, I would have trotted over and given her a kiss of thanks for steady support.
As soon as I crossed into the outfield, not-Odell Jones tossed a ball to me. I caught it and threw it back before realizing that I was thinking about something else, about how hard the astroturf felt and how strangely sound moved down there on the playing field. Damn, I was lucky the ball didn't hit me in the face.
"Feeling all right?" I yelled to him. But he wouldn't answer. I'd forgotten that he didn't want to speak in front of the coaches. "Sorry."
They broke us into two groups of about 40 each, half moving toward the left field foul line and half toward right. These were the sprints. We had to run past these old guys with stopwatches, scouts or personnel staff or auditors, I don't know who they were.
I hadn't thought about having to race. Let me hit, fellas. Let me field some grounders. I used to be fast. I used to have all my hair, too, but those were qualities that I was losing before I got sick. Hey, 40 yards isn't that far, right?
When the whistle blew, I got a good start and simply refused to let myself look anywhere but at the ground right in front of me. Good thing Meredith and I had jogged together to the mailbox and back all month, an easy quarter mile, because my leg muscles were in fairly decent shape now and I didn't pull anything. Amazing: I got past the scouts in just under six seconds. Everybody who came in over six seconds had to run it again and after three tries was dismissed from the tryout, I immediately went to the center field wall and sat with my back against it, watching the action. Not-Odell Jones made it on his second try, as did the guy from Yakima. I saw my neighbor walking toward the dugout with his mitt on his head like a cap and was doubly thrilled not to be going to the locker room.
After the speed test, there were about 50 of us left. We had to throw to each other, one group standing at the outfield wall, the other standing just beyond the infield dirt. Twenty minutes later there were about 40 left.
I was getting very tired and hoped they'd let me hit while I could still stand. They split us into three groups this time, sending ten toward home plate for their turns at bat and splitting the rest into pitchers, who went to the bullpen with a coach, and fielders who had to catch whatever came their way. Fortunately, I was among the ten. The fielders had to concentrate not only on what we hit, but also on balls being hit to them by coaches. I didn't want to think about having to go out there after my turn at bat.
Suddenly I heard Meredith cheering for me again. She'd moved from behind the dugout to behind home plate. I hadn't heard a thing for the last half hour.
The guy from Yakima took his place in the batter's box. He looked good up there, the bat waggling high above his head, his knees slightly flexed. I was impressed, but the batting practice pitcher wasn't—the first pitch was very close to his head and sent him reeling backwards out of the box.
I could just imagine him saying "I've had enough." He dug in exactly where he'd been standing before and started waggling the bat again. The next pitch, a low fastball, he golfed into deep left field, a major league shot. He hit the next one directly back at the pitcher, who was protected by a screen but nevertheless ducked automatically, which set loose a round of friendly jeering from the coaches. Yakima was impressive; he drilled the next three pitches, one each to left, center and right. On his last swing, he gave it everything he had, the angriest and most ferocious cut I ever hope to see. The ball went straight up and seemed to get lost in the gray paint of the dome before reappearing as it came down behind third base. He stormed out of the box toward the outfield, cursing himself for overswinging, and made a wide loop around the coaches. I never saw him again.
When it was my turn to hit, I found myself both relaxed and fully focused. Better get through it before things start swirling on me. The pitcher was lefthanded, so I went over to hit righthanded, which was always my better side anyway. Things were falling into place. The first pitch went by so fast I didn't have time to notice anything except the hiss the ball made in the instant before it popped into the catcher's mitt. I stepped out to regain my composure, squeezed the bat between my hands, adjusted my batting gloves and stepped back in. The next pitch was a hard curve, which I could see fairly well but didn't even think about swinging at. As the ball broke downwards and out of the strike zone, I followed the flight with my eyes, almost staggering across the plate after it. If this was The Gong Show, I thought, I was about to get gonged. What was with this pitcher? Was he still mad at my friend from Yakima and taking it out on me?
His next pitch was a fastball, but slightly slower than the first one and I swung at it, fouling the pitch straight back. It looped directly toward the area where Meredith had been standing. I spun around to watch it, losing my balance and teetering toward third base, but could just see her reach up with her gloved hand and catch the ball before I hit the ground. Oh man, we got a souvenir, bless her sweet soul.
"Nice swing, 49," someone yelled from behind me. "Now straighten it out."
I dusted myself off and got ready to step back in. Suddenly I realized that, whatever else happened today, it didn't really matter. I was exhausted and dizzy, but I had done it. With Meredith's help, I'd come up to Seattle when it didn't seem like I'd ever be able to travel again. I'd made it most of the way through the tryouts, had gotten to hit and made contact with a good fastball. We had pictures and a ball to take home with us, but of course that wasn't really the point. The point was what was inside my head, along with the bizarre image now forming of the pitching mound as it drifted toward third base. Indeed, the entire field was beginning to rearrange itself in my vision, as fields do when I am tired, and I knew it was time to call it quits.
I looked out toward the center field stands, where Meredith and I preferred sitting so we could catch home runs during Mariners games, though we'd never actually managed to snag one. Then I took a deep breath and, using the bat as a cane, walked over the stands behind home plate. By the time I got there, Meredith had come down toward the field and was waiting for me, arms wide, tears in her eyes, her face open in an enormous smile.
I waved the next batter into the box, then made my way slowly into the locker room to shower and change. As I was drying myself, not-Odell Jones came in and slumped on the stool in front of his locker.
"Cat's out of the bag," he said. "Even with my mouth shut, they figured out I wasn't Odell Jones as soon as they saw I threw lefty."
"That's too bad."
"I told them I hit 91 homers last summer. But it was too late, man."
"Did you get to bat?"
"Yeah, but I left my stroke home. Hit nothing but air."
I took his phone number and promised to call sometime. His real name was Reese Morgan, and he lived less than an hour from us. I thought Meredith would like him. She was waiting for me at the main gate, popping the ball I'd hit into her glove and singing her favorite song, "Try a Little Tenderness." She didn't hear me coming because of the echo her voice made in the concrete hallway. I snatched the ball out of the air, backed up a step, bent at the knees and joined her in song: "You got to, you got to, you got to. . . ."