This entry, and some to follow, is a portion of Chapter 1 of a novel I’ve worked on over the years. I’m not saying how many years, but it’s more than two or three. At any rate, I am considering one more attempt to wrap the thing up, and would appreciate comments from readers. Here we go . . .
Ivan Ricker spat tobacco juice onto the top of his left shoe. Then he stood motionless on the mound, gazing intently at his pal Whitey, the catcher. Ivan wasn’t watching signals. He was letting the batter ripen, waiting for that perfect moment when he should be gathered. The ball was in Ivan’s glove, behind his back. Ivan moved his shoulder slightly, as if to shake off dust. He wiped his sleeve across his forehead, pushing sweat away from his eyes.
His shoe, sodden with brown slime, pushed through the powdery dirt when he started his windup. Cranking his arm around several times, with Whitey bracing himself for the coming volley, Ivan whispered an oath as he released the ball and lunged forward. The ball, glazed with sweat, sizzled through the thick atmosphere, past the hapless batter, and smack! into Whitey’s tattered glove, square into the unpadded pocket. Whitey winced, his hand absorbing the full force of the ball’s kinetic energy. The batter, a young fellow who prayed often and never swore, didn’t see the ball. He was praying when Ivan was in his windup, and failed to open his eyes until the ball was halfway to the plate. By then it was too late. He was out, for the second time that day, and he’d never lifted the bat from his shoulder. Not once.
The umpire, the Rev. Randolph T. Whitlock, said “Out” softly enough not to embarrass the boy but loud enough so that the official scorer would register it in the scorebook. Ivan, leaning toward the batter from the front of the mound, spit again and nodded at Whitey. Whitey nodded back, in pain but in admiration. The boy, standing rigid, lowered his bat and his head, then walked slowly toward the Deer Lake bench. His teammates greeted him with silence and with deference. It was the sixth inning, and each of them save one had suffered the same fate. Some were braver than others. Some were more attentive. Some had even swung at the ball. And all, except one, had failed to hit any of Ivan’s pitches into fair territory.
I was at third base, standing near the bag and chewing the lacing of my glove as I had done for most of the game. It was the first real baseball game that most of us had ever played in. We were ahead, two to nothing. Our runs had come when Ivan, batting third, had doubled and Whitey, batting fourth, had homered in the third inning. The rest of us had either struck out or grounded out. None of us had hit the ball in the air, except for a couple of foul balls. I thought about this a lot, and knew that Ivan and Whitey had given us the game. They were our team, and the rest of us didn’t even have to be there.
When Peach Wiggins, Stillwater High School principal, decided to put together a baseball team, it didn’t take long before we realized we didn’t have a pitcher or a catcher attending Stillwater High. After committing our team to a game with Deer Lake, Peach decided to enlist the help of Ivan and Ivan’s partner Whitey. Ivan, our hometown athletic hero, was the best pitcher in northern Indiana, and perhaps in the rest of it too. He was also the best and fastest football player alive in 1912. Our game was not a regular high school function, so acquiring the services of outside help was not deemed inappropriate, at least by the players and fans in Stillwater.
The next batter, another boy who looked much like the last one, made his way to the plate. Some of the Deer Lake crowd shouted support for him. “C’mon, John. Show ’em your stuff. Show ’em you can do it.” Or “You can do it John. We’re for you, John. Swing at it, John. Give it a shot.” Or “Now’s the time, John. We’re counting on you. Hit it a good one.” None of the shouts were very loud, though. None of them were enthusiastic. Ivan had taken the spirit out of everyone on the Deer Lake side. Our side, the Stillwater side, didn’t say anything. We were, somehow, embarrassed about Ivan’s performance. He wasn’t one of us, you see. And we couldn’t really get behind him, if you know what I mean. Sure, we enjoyed watching him work, but he didn’t act like one of us. He was skillful, clever, and haughty. The rest of us were novices. Ivan was in a different league. He didn’t need our shouts or chatter. He didn’t need us.
John, the new batter, took his place in front of Whitey. John was more observant than the previous boy. Ivan knew it, and so spent more time preparing for his windup. He took his glove off and rubbed the ball, grinding his sweat into it as if he were rubbing magic potion deep into its hide. He looked at the ball and turned it around, admiring its shape and its structure. He tested the ball’s weight by tossing it up with his left hand and catching it with his right. He wiped his brow with his shoulder, shaking his head a bit and talking to himself. John, at the plate, watched Ivan’s every move. He was hypnotized, as if Ivan were a cobra swaying and hissing. Ivan put his glove back on and placed his foot against the rubber, which on our field was a chunk of oak timber. Ivan looked at Whitey and waited for a few seconds for something, but not a signal. Whitey didn’t even bother giving signals. Ivan just threw fastballs, and most of them were over dead center. Ivan, with the fans on both sides in total silence, started his windup.
John the batter heard his fans talking to him, and saw Ivan winding the ball in the air as if cranking an automobile. By the time Ivan let go of it, John was stepping back from the plate and swinging in self-defense. The ball zipped over the plate into its target. John’s bat, in a half-hearted arc, fell short of the plate by a foot. The Deer Lake fans groaned. John, looking at them, shook his head and walked back into the batter’s box. Whitey threw the ball back to Ivan. This time Ivan wasted no time. Within three seconds he threw another without a windup. John swung, but not until after the ball entered Whitey’s glove. More groans. John didn’t bother to step out of the box. The ball went back to Ivan and he immediately stepped on the rubber and threw the ball underhand, slowly and with a high arc. John, surprised by this maneuver, swung way too soon and, losing his balance, fell to the ground. The bat still in his hands, he jumped up and spun around to look at the umpire.
“Strike three,” Rev. Whitlock said.
John, not only embarrassed but also angry, didn’t agree. “What kind of pitch was that?” he asked. “That’s against the rules!”
“No, son, I’m afraid not. The pitch was all right. It was legal.”
“Aw, jeesh,” John whined. He kicked dirt, then turned away and stomped back to the Deer Lake bench. His teammates stood to greet him. His fans booed. Not at John, but at Ivan.
“Throw him out!” someone screamed. “Kill the bum!”