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Authors: James Bennett

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BOOK: Plunking Reggie Jackson
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The guys were listening, more or less. But they didn't like losing five games in a row, never mind the particular conditions, and anyway, they were thinking ahead to beach time and another pizza party back at the hotel.

The next day they would be back in Tampa for another twin bill. On the way to the bus Coach Mason asked Coley if he wanted to pitch the first game or the second.

“I don't care. Why?”

“I got a call from a couple of White Sox scouts. They want to come out.”

Coley shrugged. Pitching in front of major-league scouts was nothing new to him. “I don't care, Coach. Whatever you say.”

“Okay, then, I want you to go in the first game again. Maybe we can get a mental edge, which'll help Kuchenberg in the second one. You think you're ready to go the distance?”

“You want me to pitch all seven innings?”

“If you think you're ready, I do.”

“I'm ready. I'll be ready.”

Coley pitched seven scoreless innings against Gulf Coast West. They won the game 3-0, to bring their record on the trip to 2-5. He felt strong and loose and grooved in the 88-degree sun. Gulf Coast had two hits, one a solid single through the hole, and the other a pop-up to short left, which Louie Stallings lost in the sun.

Coley struck out sixteen batters and walked two. In a word, he was overpowering. As soon as the game was over, the Gulf Coast coach came over to talk to him. “You're as good as advertised, kid. You're a helluva pitcher.”

“Thanks.” Coley was toweling the sweat from his face and neck, but hot had never felt better. Coley didn't know the man's name, but the Gulf Coast coach was a dumpy guy with a big wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek. He needed a shave. Brown dribbles ran down his chin among the gray stubble.

“You just blew us away. You picked a good day to do it too.”

“What d'you mean?” Coley asked.

“Easterbrook and O'Connel were here from the White Sox. Sittin' right over there behind third base.”

“Oh, yeah?” Coley didn't know the O'Connel name, but he remembered from lots of correspondence that Easterbrook was director of player personnel for the Chicago team. It would be something he could tell the old man when he got home, something that would occupy his mind. In the meantime, he needed to get away from this coach; the guy was gross.

They had to pack their things early the next morning. They were playing two games against another high school in Clearwater, but their flight home was early in the evening, which meant they would be squeezed for time.

Coley hit a home run in the first game, but they lost anyway, 10-2. The homer came in the fourth inning, and he got all of it. The ball elevated quickly, then sailed on out over the Cyclone fence and the row of palm trees, eventually landing in a 7-Eleven parking lot. It traveled at least 420 feet. One of the Clearwater coaches said it was the longest homer he'd ever witnessed on this field. Coley didn't get much of a rush from it; the team was still losing.

The Clearwater team pitched a left-hander in the second game, so he had to sit out. One of his father's rules, and one in which Coach Mason was thoroughly schooled, was that Coley was not allowed to bat right-handed under any circumstances. As a right-handed batter he was nearly as good as he was from the left side, but it exposed his left arm.

Quintero got another chance on the mound. Because he had worked three strong innings, the game was tied 1-1 heading into the fourth. “He's gonna be a helluva pitcher one day,” said Coach Spears.

Coley, who was squirming on the bench nearby, agreed. “Oh, yeah. For sure.”

But the fourth inning was a rocky one for the freshman. A couple of walks, a wild pitch, an error, a solid double down the line, and they were behind 5-1. Quintero slammed his glove in the dugout after the third out. He commenced some angry pacing and a lot of cursing under his breath so Coach wouldn't hear. When he finally took his seat on the bench, it was next to Coley.

“When there's runners on and you come to the set position,” Coley said, “you're pitchin' too quick.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. You're gonna get called for a balk. Hold the set position at least one more count. Say ‘a thousand one' to yourself, then take a deep breath in and out.”

“Okay.”

“It'll freeze the runner all the way, and it'll put you in a comfort zone before you throw.”

“Okay, Coley.”

In the fifth, Kershaw doubled to left, and so did Kuchenberg. It was Kershaw's third hit and Kuchenberg's second. “We're startin' to hit,” said Coach Mason. “We're startin' to get comfortable at the plate.”

It was true, but Coley knew it was also a sales pitch.
Don't worry about winning and losing
.
We came to Florida because it's an opportunity to get better, and that's what's happening
. “We're still losin',” said Coley quietly, without looking in the coach's direction.

“All of this will pay off later in the spring.”

“Right.”

Lovell and Ingram were finding the groove as well. They both homered in the sixth, Lovell's coming with a man on. Suddenly the game was tied 6-6 with one inning to go. Spirits soared in the dugout, where Lovell and Ingram were getting pounded on the back. There was a lot of indiscriminate chest thumping, and Coley found himself on board all the way. The game was still tied in the top of the seventh when he talked Coach Mason into letting him bat. It wasn't easy. “This guy's a left-hander, Coley. If I let you bat right-handed, your dad would skin me alive.”

“He doesn't have to know about it.”

“Oh, please.”

“We've got runners on second and third and only one out, Coach; all I have to do is hit a long fly.”

“You think I'm blind here? Maybe you'd like to explain the infield-fly rule to me in words of two syllables or less.”

“Sorry.”

“If you bat right-handed, it exposes your pitching arm.”

“But this guy's got nothin', Coach. Especially now that he's tired. I've gotta hit.
Please
let me hit.”

“Let him hit, Coach,” said Quintero. “All we need is one run.”

“You stay out of this. This guy is wild, Coley. He's got five walks already, plus two wild pitches. If he tries to come inside, he could plunk you right on the elbow.”

“This guy can't hit my arm or anything else. He's got nothin'.”

“Let him hit, Coach.” This time it was Rico speaking up; as a senior cocaptain he was a more persuasive lobbyist than any freshman. “The bottom line is, we can win the game.”

Coach Mason was staring out at center field, clearly tempted, but just as clearly on the horns of a dilemma. The umpire was approaching the dugout, impatient for a decision. “Have you got a hitter, or what?” he asked.

The coach turned to Coley. He spoke quietly. “You'd have to wear Lovell's arm guard.”

“I don't care,” he lied. He hated the idea of wearing the arm guard, which was like a soft cast with a flexible hinge, covered by hard plastic. Because it was stiff and cumbersome, it would limit his range of motion when swinging the bat. But he knew better than to press his luck. “Whatever you say, Coach.”

“Because I'm not letting you hit unless you wear it.”

“You're the boss,” said Coley with a smile.

“Am I really?” Mason didn't wait for an answer. He turned to the restless umpire to give him Coley's name as a pinch hitter.

Coley strapped on the arm guard as he approached the plate slowly. He took several ballistic swings with the heaviest bat in the collection to try to feel loose with a restricted left elbow.

“Okay, let's go.” The ump was long out of patience.

“You the man, Coley!” he could hear Quintero shouting. “You the
man
!”

Coley just watched the first two pitches to see what the Clearwater lefty had. It wasn't much. The second pitch was a strike on a dinky curve about letter high.

Throw me that curve one more time
, he thought to himself as he dug in for the next pitch. The next pitch was the same one, a hanging curve up in the strike zone. Coley mashed it, immensely high and far to straightaway center. He had gotten under it just a touch, so it wasn't going to clear the fence, but it would back the center fielder up as far as he could go.

Coley was jogging halfway between first and second when the catch was made. He began unstrapping the arm guard while the center fielder was still waiting for the ball to come down. Kershaw, who was the runner at third, scored easily. It was Coley's turn to take a pounding between the shoulder blades from his teammates.

He was ready to pitch the bottom half of the inning if needed, but it wasn't necessary. His teammates held on for the win.

Chapter Five

Coley pitched the first home game of the season against Peoria Richwoods the following week. He didn't have his best stuff, but he was more than Richwoods could handle. He walked too many batters—six—but he also recorded eleven strikeouts. He only allowed two hits, both singles and both on the infield. They won the game, 9-1.

It was a blustery day with dirt blowing around and the temperature no higher than the middle fifties. Chilly conditions usually affected Coley's control. Today he was wild high, but not by much. His high hard one, particularly when it was out of the strike zone but not above the armpits, was an effective strikeout pitch. Between innings he bundled up with a towel around his neck, stuffed inside the collar of his letter jacket. He couldn't help thinking glumly of Tampa and Clearwater, and the warm sunshine.

The sixth inning typified his shaky dominance. After walking the first two batters, he gave up one of the two hits, a chopper to his left that Lovell, the second baseman, couldn't flag down in time. Then he threw a wild pitch in the dirt, which allowed a run to score. He struck out the next three batters to end the inning.

His father wasn't there for the whole game but had arrived in time to watch the last three innings. When the game was over, he approached Coley near the dugout. “When you're wild high like that, what does it mean?”

“It means I'm gonna walk too many people,” Coley replied. “Except for the guys who can't lay off the high one.”

“Now, don't be a smart-ass. You know what I'm asking. If you're wild high, what does that tell you?”

Coley's left arm and shoulder were wrapped in a big, fluffy towel. He was struggling to get his jacket on over the bulk. “Give it a rest, huh? You know my control is down when it's cold.”

“This isn't cold, this is in the fifties.”

“Yeah, well, it's cold when you're tryin' to throw strikes.”

His father's reply came in sentences as crisp as burning leaves: “Excuses are all of equal value. They make us cowards. They deliver us from mental toughness.”

“You think I'm makin' excuses.”

“I
know
you're makin' excuses. The weather's the same for you as it is for everybody else.”

The one thing Coley knew for sure was that his father wouldn't let go of this until he got the right answer. “What you want me to say is my right shoulder was flyin' open.”

“It's not what I want you to say that matters. It's what you can learn that will help you improve.”

“Okay, my right shoulder was flyin' open. The next time, I'll concentrate on it.”

“The cold weather's only the excuse, yeah? It's the excuse to lose concentration. To lose mental toughness.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“What makes great pitchers is their concentration. They don't lose track of their mechanics even under adverse conditions. Besides which, it's not even cold out here.”

“Yeah, okay, it's not cold.” Coley was distracted as soon as he saw Bree Madison approaching the fence. She was wearing sunglasses. Her hair looked great, the way it blew in the breeze and radiated deep red color in the sun.

Now his father was asking him, “What about the times you had to cover first?”

“What?”

“Two times you covered first but you didn't follow the J route. You ran right at the bag as straight as a string.”

“I got there, didn't I? I got the outs.”

“Sometimes people get hits when they swing with their eyes closed,” Ben Burke countered. “But you wouldn't expect them to do it consistently. Consistency comes from doing things the right way.”

“Yeah, okay.”

His father couldn't help noticing that he didn't have Coley's undivided attention. “I don't know who she is, but you suppose you could pay attention here for one more minute?”

Coley turned his gaze from Bree back to his dad. Ben Burke definitely knew the game. But these were old lectures and Coley wasn't in the mood to reprise them. “Did you notice I won the game?” he asked.

“Of course I noticed. I saw how you dominated Peoria Rich woods.” When he said the words
Peoria Richwoods
, Ben's contempt was so evident he might have been talking about the girls' softball team.

“I dominated them without my good stuff,” Coley added.

“Okay, you dominated them without your good stuff. Some people will be impressed by that, but it won't be you or me. That's not the next level.”

“Okay, okay,” said Coley, turning away. He saw Bree still waiting nearby, by herself. “I've got to go now.”

“You go now. We can talk later.”

Now, there's something to look forward to
, Coley thought. He approached Bree so he could speak to her through the Cyclone fence. “How are you?” he asked her.

“I'm fine.” She was smiling. “You were awesome.”

“Nah. I didn't even have my good stuff.”

“You were still awesome, though. They couldn't even get any hits.”

“They had a couple. I'll have my good stuff when it gets hot, you wait and see. Are you a baseball fan?”

BOOK: Plunking Reggie Jackson
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