So there he was, on the dusty road. Nineteen years a major leaguer. Nineteen years squatting behind the plate. Over two thousand games. Six thousand plus at-bats. More than fifteen hundred hits. True, not a Hall of Fame career, but not a hand-me-down company car either. One hundred and ninety-two thousand miles. He wondered how many more miles would be clicked off before the day was done. With the road stretching blankly out before him as it did, he would not have been surprised if another hundred and ninety-two thousand miles showed up on the odometer. Bastards at the front office would probably make him pay for the mileage.
Nineteen years on the field for one team, and he had no more than a minor scouting position with them now. The last four years had been Hell, and he told his wife sometimes, “I can feel Evil growing in my heart.” Then she would check the gun cabinet, making sure it was locked and that she had the key.
The dusty road turned into no more than a dirt road. He was sure he had strayed into Nevada desert plain and simple but there were road signs that told him otherwise and not caring at the moment, gripping the steering wheel so hard it hurt at the moment, he accelerated, watching the cloud of dust forming in his rearview mirror.
Lo and behold, out of the desert sand, like a mirage, like the palace of some Arab sheik, a ranch shimmered in the distance.
“Well, that’s Jimmy alright,” he mumbled to himself.
From the dirt road he was on there was a dirt road leading to the gates of the ranch and from the gate to the home itself, there was a mile more of dirt road.
“Nineteen thousand acres. The bastard couldn’t possibly leave any acreage for other people to…”
He stopped himself, looking around as he drove. There was no one he could think of who would want to be stuck all the way out there in the land of scorpions and cacti. He tried to remind himself that Jimmy, after all, had never been a bad guy. In fact, hadn’t Jimmy offered him the car, the convertible they gave him in honor of his retirement?
And there was Jimmy, on the porch of his ranch, really just a front deck. He raised an arm into the air and waved from the elbow.
“Hey, Tom!” he shouted when the car was still a hundred yards away.
Tom steered toward a small arrangement of planted flowers circled with pebbles and ran over it and parked. Jimmy kept waving.
“Hey Tom! Tommy boy! Long time no see,” he said offering Tom the hand that had been waving.
“Yeah,” Tom said. “Long time no see.”
“Yep, definitely is long time no see. I didn’t know if you’d come. I didn’t think you’d be over today at least. I mean, I know you’ve got responsibilities and such. You’ve got a whole office and everything, ain’t you?”
Tom shared an office with an accountant who still had pimples and had never played ball. The accountant’s company car had seven thousand miles on it.
“Well, they told me you had something important to discuss with me so I…”
“Didn’t they tell you nothing else?” Jimmy asked.
“Well, Jimmy, they said something I thought sounded a little strange…”
“Why strange? Happens all the time, I think. Look at Sandberg.”
“But you’re what? Forty-two?”
“Fine but how long have you been out of the game?”
Jimmy’s head lowered with discouragement, and that was part of what Tom was there for. He looked up again.
“I’ve got a Juggs gun. I’m not just dreaming about all of this. Look here. I got you a mitt, chest protector, mask, everything. Come on, Tom. Just one more time. If I don’t got it, we’ll have a couple of beers and you go on back and tell them I ain’t got it. If I do got it, you know what that could mean?”
If Jimmy had it, the team could bring the most popular player in their history out of retirement. They could put a Hall of Fame caliber left handed pitcher on the mound. If he had anything left in his arm, the team might be able to climb out of the cellar. But there was nothing left in the arm. Team doctors don’t tell a player, especially a left-handed pitcher, that he’s washed up unless he’s washed up. There’s no profit in throwing away what’s still good.
“Your rotator cuff was worn out, Jim. You don’t come back from that, not at forty.”
“Just put the gear on. Could you do that for me? Can you just get the gear on? Let me throw you a dozen pitches. I got speed, I got location. I got movement on the ball. I’m not like I used to be. I’m not going to win the Cy Young, I’ll tell you that right now. I’m not conning anyone. I’ll tell you what though – I’m better than that Jackson kid you guys brought up. You brought him up too early. He’s not good, I can tell you that, but he will be. Give him two years and he’ll be good. Until then, I’m telling you, I can tide the team over. Will you put on the gear already?”
Jimmy tossed the bundle of catching gear at Tom’s chest. Tom took off his sports jacket and put on the black, plastic baseball helmet.
“What kind of speed you got in that arm?” he asked.
“High eighties, consistent. Figure in another two weeks I might hit ninety. Curve’s going too. Screwgie’s coming along, but I wouldn’t throw it to a batter yet. Just a matter of time.”
Jimmy put his cap on and his glove. He flexed the glove with his pitching hand a few times as Tom strapped himself into a chest protector that was a little more snug than he remembered. Tom put his face mask on and then his mitt.
“Alright. I’m ready to go. Ready as I’ll ever be, anyway.”
“Follow me,” Jimmy said and jogged away off towards the back of the house.
Tom followed at a walk. How long had it been since he jogged in gear, he wondered. Charity softball game a year ago. Not as long as he would have guessed.
Behind the home Jimmy had a garage almost the size of Tom’s home. In front of that there was a regulation height pitching mound complete with pitching rubber. On the garage door there was a bullseye painted crudely. There were smudges where the ball had hit on target. There were also a few smudges on the rest of the door where the ball had hit wildly off target. Off to one side there was a fifty-five gallon steel drum with a car tire tied onto it. This was another target.
“Now just set up and call a pitch, fastball, curve, change. Screwgie’s not so good, remember. I’m warmed up already, so you’ll get the best I can do, okay?”
Tom squatted in front of the garage door, in front of the bullseye. There was no point to any of this. The chances of a comeback for Jimmy were astronomical. Everyone at the office knew it. They wanted him to go away quietly, but he was the franchise. If he wanted to make a comeback, the fans would back him. Refusing him outright would be a public relations nightmare. Having him embarrass himself on the field would be no better.
“Humor him,” they told Tom. “Besides, you owe him,” they told him.
There he was in the hot Nevada Sun, melting in catcher’s gear and humoring the Great Jimmy Lind, a man who, if he left well enough alone, would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in a few years.
Tom thought about his pitch selection for a moment: it was an automatic response to the gear and the squatting. He thought how he would pitch to a batter but there was no specific batter in mind. He caught himself and flashed a single finger, looking for the fastball.
A second later, after a long windup that seemed to flow in a kind of time made of molasses, the fastball popped into his mitt. The pop was audible and the pitch found his glove like it belonged there. Tom looked at the ball, then his pitcher. Jimmy was doing his patented celebration – a double pump in the air – as though he had just struck someone out.
“I heard the pop,” Jimmy yelled out.
Tom tossed the ball back from his knees and resumed his squat.
He signaled another fastball, and again the ball popped its way into his glove. He called four more fastballs and each popped into his glove. Tom figured Jimmy was hitting maybe eighty-eight miles an hour, but that was just a guess. For all he knew, Jimmy really had nothing. The pop in the glove can be created at lower speeds. There was no evidence that the throws weren’t coming in at eighty, and eighty is not a fastball in the major leagues. In the major leagues, eighty is a homerun. He flashed two fingers for the curve.
A great curveball is an odd thing to catch. It looks like a fastball that is going to go over the umpire’s head. One has to have faith that it will break sharply in the last fraction of a second and drop into the glove. This curve dropped perfectly, and for some reason Tom thought of Jimmy’s first year in the majors when he was young and likable and everything went right for him. They were roommates – Tom was older by a year or two and more experienced and the manager said, “Take care of him. He’s the future of the team.”
Tom threw the ball back. He wiggled two fingers for the curve again. Then he shifted his position a little as though he were moving in on a right handed batter.
The pitch back to him was perfect. Not the perfection of a twenty year old; it was the perfection of age and cunning. Tom tried but couldn’t think of a single hitter who could have hit the ball well – the really good hitters would have laid off it completely.
He called for ten more fastballs and each one popped into place, proud of themselves. Tom took off his helmet and mask, tucked them under his arm and jogged out to the mound.
“I’m going out to cover first; try your pickoff move a few times, okay?”
“Sure, Tommy,” Jim replied. There was sweat covering his pitching arm and forehead just as there used to be when he was twenty-two. “How’m I doing?” There was a sparkle in his eye just as there used to be when he was twenty-two.
“Not bad for forty,” Tom said. There was no point in raising hopes just yet.
Four throws to first were enough to prove that his move was still his weakest point. But he had rarely needed it. He had led the league in strikeout four times in his career. Not too many ever got to first base anyway. Tom shouted from first base.
“How ‘bout those beers?”
Jimmy dropped his glove and ball and jogged into the house. “Meet you out front.” He said. When he came out, Tom was sitting on the front deck, his sports jacket draped across his knees, his shirtback soaked through with sweat.
Like a good host, Jimmy opened the bottles and handed one to his guest. The beer was icy cold and Tom rubbed the bottle across his forehead and on his neck in a way he had learned not to since his playing days had ended. Jimmy sat next to him, and they were silent through the first sip or two.
“How’d I do?” Jimmy asked after a moment. He looked away to the desert as though afraid of the response.
“You did pretty good. I’ll admit it, I didn’t think you would have that much. I mean after surgery and all…”
“I’ve been working out. Never stopped. I jog three miles everyday. I lift weights, I swim. I’m in shape. I swear to you – I don’t have the arm of a twenty year old, maybe, but I have a better arm than some thirty year olds. And I’d come cheap. Hell, they can pay me the minimum – What is that these days like a hundred thousand a season?”
“Do you need the money?” The worry in Tom’s voice was genuine.
Jimmy looked at him confused a moment.
“Money? No, I don’t need the money. I’ve got investments. I’ve got property. My accountant told me. I’ve got nine million, liquid. It’s not about money…”
“What’s it about then?” Tom asked, but he knew.
“It’s about the game, it’s about glory. It’s about finding that place in the world where you fit just right and getting applauded for being there…”
“You’re going to the Hall of Fame…”
“I have two hundred and seventy-eight major league victories under my belt. I want three hundred. I figure it’ll take me two…”
“You don’t have anything to prove, Jimmy. You’re the Great Jimmy Lind. Your number is being retired this season coming up. You’ll be in the Hall. People will talk about you for decades…”
“I’ve got more, Tommy. I know I have more. You can’t deny that pop. You can’t tell me your hand doesn’t sting a little. I got more, Tommy, that’s all there is to it. Nobody likes to walk away from any job while they got something to give. Not even a coal miner does that. You understand me?”
Tom paused before answering and took a swig from his bottle.
“We could both come back, Tommy. Remember how it was? You and me. Remember in ’91? They were gonna let you go. I told them I needed you as my personal catcher. They didn’t refuse me then. They won’t refuse now. I can bring you back to the game. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t love it…”
“I’m forty three years old…”
“So what? If I get the fourth starter’s role I’ll do thirty, thirty-five games. You can catch that, I know you can. You can fill in at first, you can come off the bench. Come on, Boone did it, Pudge did it…”
“I don’t know, Jimmy. You saw what happened in ’95.”
“Those bastards tricked me. They scared me. You know something? I didn’t know it, but I had all the cards. They said… They told me they wouldn’t take me back if I insisted on you being my catcher… I was afraid. I didn’t realize how few lefties there were on the market. I could have kept you in the game, I know I could have. I want to make that right for you, Tommy. I gave you up in ’95, but I can bring you back now.”
“I’ll think about…”
“Come on, Tommy. You know, I looked it up. You caught two thousand seven hundred and nine of my strikeouts. You caught two hundred and thirty-six of my wins. Come back with me.”
“I said I would think about it, Jimmy. Look. I gotta go, okay? I’m sure someone in the front office’ll call you about their decision either way, okay?”
Jimmy looked away to the desert and finished his beer with a final swig. He threw the bottle to the sand.
“Just tell them what you saw here. I got it. I can work out nice for them. I can tide them over ‘til that Jackson kid fills out. In fact, I could teach him a few pointers. I’ve got something to give, Tommy.”
Tom drove back to the office arriving as the bulk of the front office people were preparing to go home. The assistant general manager who had sent him out in the morning in response to Jimmy’s call met him in the hallway.
“Going to type up your report?” He asked.
“Yeah. Figured I’d get it over with so I can rest easy tonight. Going out to Michigan in the morning to see that kid, Grice. I’ll leave it on your desk…”
“Anything useful gonna be in it?”
“I… I don’t like to say…”
“Just give me a heads up here, if we can use him, I’d like to start talking to him. Does he have anything?”
“He… He throws without pain. I can say that much.”
“That’s it, huh? Throws without pain, no velocity, no location?”
“I was going to write that we should invite him to spring training. That will give him a few weeks to build up his strength, get into a grove…”
“Forget it. Leave that suggestion out. If he’s got no pop left in his arm, spring training ain’t the place to start looking for it. Anything else?”
“Well… I’ll tell you… He doesn’t like Jackson too much.”
“Badmouthing Jackson, huh? Well, forget him. I know you love Jimmy like a brother, but if he’s got no pop, and he’s badmouthing Jackson… He’s got no clue what the future of this team is going to look like…”
“Well… I mean…”
“Don’t think twice about it, Tommy. No pop, bad attitude. Probably wants a million dollars to pitch mop-up. Forget it. Don’t feel too bad about it. When he gave you up in ’95, he knew it was all about production and business. It’s not personal. Hell, he was my hero. He was great. Now he ain’t got it. I’ll let him know gently, it’s time to move on. Now you just type up your report and get some sleep. I hear this Grice kid can throw the ball through a brick wall.”