Chapter 8 The Dreamers
The practices all week seem to just fly by. All of the players seemed
tremendously dedicated to improving upon last years dismal showing in the
league. Red, Mario, and even Gus said they felt a somber, serious air on the field and in the clubhouse. All of the work on the field was performed crisply, with great intensity. Even in our district and state finals I had never experienced such a playing environment. Red felt that many of the players grew up last year and rid themselves of the “animal house” lack of commitment and discipline. Mario was not sure what had changed, but felt if we could sustain this level of concentration and commitment we might turn out to be a good baseball team.
Friday, the day of our first game, had arrived. The starting time for the game was 7:30pm with a little pre-game ceremony including comments from the Mayor and other “politicos” from the community indicating how glad they were that “their” efforts were instrumental in keeping the Monarchs in Madison. Most of the players had shown up by 5:30pm to get ready for batting practice. There seemed to be only a little tension in the clubhouse. After all, most of the players were here last year and used to opening game jitters. I was nervous, but tried not to show it. Red had posted the lineup card on the bulletin board:
Ross Jones, CF
Mike Adams 2B
Bill Alan 3B
Reggie Bond RF
Jon Tavy 1B
Scott Andrews SS
Chris Miller LF
Dave Bolton C
Jack Meyers P
I was starting and also hitting third in the lineup. Hitting third made me more nervous than anything, but I knew that I would be seeing some good pitches to hit with Reggie batting behind me. But it made me feel good that Red had enough confidence in me this early on. I guess he wanted to see right away if I had the stuff to make it in this league. I had a great week of practices both hitting and fielding. If Jack Meyer could just keep the ball down and in the ballpark, we could have a chance.
As we were dressing in the locker room, Red along with Gus and Mario came to talk to us briefly before we took the field.
“Gentlemen”, Red began, “we’ve had the best week of practices since I’ve been here. I’m not sure how that will translate into tonight’s efforts, or on into the season for that matter. I personally think that this team is starting to mature and take this “kids game” as a serious profession. I hope so. I do not want you to take is so seriously that you tighten up and aren’t able to play freely. Try to remain serious about your work in terms of mental preparation, but on the field try to relax and let your God-given natural ability take over. When you are on defense try and recreate in your mind what might happen next so if the ball is hit to you, react naturally and make the play. When you’re hitting don’t guess! Take what the pitcher gives you. Twenty singles can produce a lot of runs and place tremendous pressure on the Pirate defense. We will be aggressive on the bases tonight. Jones and Miller you have the green light to run when ever you want, just make sure you have a good jump and the count is right and with less than two outs. Alan, you look for the steal sign, as you will be running as well. Everyone in the first two innings is taking a strike so let’s see what the pitcher has tonight. Reggie you have the 3 and O green light all night. Just make sure he gives you a good pitch to hit. Men on base all the time is what we are after. Meyers, I want you to work with Bolton, keep the ball down and on the black part of the plate tonight. Keep it in the park and we’ll win! Men, let’s have some fun and go win ourselves a ballgame. Is everybody ready?”
The room was filled with a chorus of, “Ya, let’s go”; “You bet coach,” and “We’re ready coach”. The players, full of excitement, rushed to the doors to the tunnel leading to the playing field. We were psyched for this game.
As I stepped onto the field I could see people had already made there way into the stadium to get the best seats. As I was scanning the stadium Gus came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a big squeeze.
“There’ll be over 5,000 fans here tonight,” stated Gus. “Always a big opening day crowd due to cheap seats, little leaguers on hand hollering their lungs out, and others chanting. Ever give out an autograph before, Bill”?
“No Gus, I haven’t’,” I replied
“You will tonight,” he said with a smile. “You will tonight. Have fun with it as it means so much to these little kids here tonight. Just don’t let it become a distraction.”
“OK Gus, I’ll take your advice,” I said with a kind of sheepish grin. “Me, a celebrity? Who’d a thunk it”!
“Get used to hit, kid, there’ll be a lot more demanded of you in the future, “Gus added. “You’d better get used to it right off.”
I thought for a moment about what Gus had just said. It would be important to improve at every level in the minor leagues, but also to learn to handle the pressure that comes with being a professional baseball player and the notoriety that comes with it. It is a game, but also big business these days, and entertainment to the fans who come to watch us play a game they grew up playing in some vacant lot next door with a taped-up ball and bat. What a game, I thought as I looked out onto a perfectly manicured baseball field of deep green and brown. It doesn’t get any better than this. Reality is, it does get much better in the Show.
The game started off much like Red thought it would. The Pirate’s pitcher, Conklin, tried to be too fine with Jones and walked him on four pitches. Mike Adams squared around to bunt on the second pitch to him, but took it low and away for ball two. Ross Jones took off on the third pitch and stole second easily. Man, was he fast! Adams hit the next pitch for a soft single to left with Jones stopping at third.
Now it was my turn. I moved from the on-deck circle with the crowd going crazy. It was all Red could do to get my attention from the 3rd base coach’s box.
“Alan, Alan,” he yelled as I looked up and strolled half way between home and 3rd. “Don’t forget, take the first pitch even if it is a strike. Don’t worry; you’re going to see lots of fast balls with Bond behind you. Just find a pitch you can drive and we’ll take the lead.” Red gave me a pat on the back as I headed toward the plate.
Jones had started with a short lead off 3rd in foul ground. I heard the PA announcer introduce me to the crowd: “Now batting…for the Yankees….number 10….the third baseman…Bill-lee…Alan,” stated Mel Smith slowly with great bravado in his voice. The fans got even louder.
I took the bat and hit the heel of my cleats to get the dirt loose. I tapped the catcher lightly on his shin-guards with my bat. I smoothed out the dirt in the batters box and moved my foot to just inside the back line about the middle of the box. I got settled in and waved my bat across the plate a few times. I took a deep breath and looked out to the mound where Conklin was bent over looking in to get his sign. I took the first pitch for a called strike. It was the sharpest breaking curveball I’d ever seen. From the left-handed Conklin it started over the left-handed batter’s box chest high and broke right over the middle of the plate, knee high. I hoped he didn’t throw me that pitch again. He didn’t. The second pitch was a mistake of a belt high fast ball that I picked up right away as it left his hand. Adams took off with the pitch, but it didn’t matter as I got all of it, hitting it as hard as I have ever hit a baseball before. The ball seemed to never get more than 15 feet off the ground, landing on a grassy knoll beyond the left-centerfield fence more that 450 feet from the plate.
I sprinted out of the batter’s box and looked toward the left fielder as I approached the first base bag. He never took his hands from his knees; he just looked over his left shoulder into the night. I was in heaven. The dugout emptied out toward home plate. Red was jumping up and down clapping his hands, then pumping his fist into the air above his head. As I rounded third, Red slapped me on the behind. I spotted Gus standing on the top step of the dugout with a big Cheshire cat grin on his face. As I got to home plate I jumped into the air and landed with both feet on the plate with my teammates mobbing me as I made my way to the dugout.
“How’s anybody else going to get some runs bated in when you do that, Alan,” said Reggie with a smile?
I didn’t know what to say. “Come on Reggie, keep it alive,” I said with a big grin.
On the second pitch Reggie lines a screaming double to right center, something he never did all last year…take the ball hard the other way. The crowd continued to yell and scream, “Reggie, Reggie, Reggie, Reggie,” they yelled. It was already 3 to 0 with a man on second and no one out. What a great beginning.
The Pirate manager called time and came out of the dugout to the mound. He walked slowly as he had no one up in the bull pen. The crown chanted, “Leave him in, let the fun begin: Leave him in let the fun begin”! They talked for a moment until the umpire made them break it up. Conklin stays in the game to pitch to the left-handed Tavy, our next batter. Gus makes his way down the dugout and gives me a great big bear-hug. Tears are streaming down his face. “Way to go, Billy, I knew you could do it,” he stated with a warm smile.
Jon Tavy takes the first two pitches for balls and swings so hard at the next pitch he almost cork-screws himself into the ground.
“Come on, Tavy, relax,” shouts Red in encouragement. Red claps his hands and tells Jon, “Nice easy swings, just like BP,” continues Red.
Tavy steps out of the batters box, wrings the bat handle and steps back in. He swings the bat a couple of times over the plate. He intently looks out to the mound as he gets set for the next pitch, cocking the bat over his left shoulder. The next pitch is a fastball, low and inside that Jon goes down and gets all of. The ball rockets straight over the right fielder’s head, over the light tower behind the fence and lands on the softball field behind our ballpark. It had to have traveled over 500 feet! The crown already going crazy was now lifting the roof off the place as Tavy rounded the bases. You would have thought this was the playoffs or even the World Series with all the noise. Now it was 5 to 0 and the Pirate manager was making his way to the mound for the second time, motioning to the bullpen for a new pitcher.
The new Pirate pitcher shut us down the rest of the inning, but this game belonged to the Monarchs. Reggie Bond hit a Grand Slam in the fifth, Tavy hit two doubles and ended up with 5 runs bated in. Even Bolton and got into the act with a pair of singles apiece. Ross Jones had 4 walks and a single for a perfect night and scored 5 runs, also stealing 3 bases. I added a single in the seventh. The final score: Yankees 14, Pirates 0. Jack Meyer may have been the real hero in the game giving up only three hits over 7 innings of work. Hub Martin gave up no hits in the eighth, and Moose Riley pitched a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts. Chris Miller made two great catches in left field in the third and fifth innings to save runs, plus our infield turned in four double plays. It was truly a great first game.
In the locker room the mood was festive to say the least. Coolers full of beer and soft drinks were set up along with a cold cut platter with all kinds of salads. The players were mingling around in their shorts and undershirts, talking and congratulating each other. Red moved into the center of the room asking for quiet.
“Boys, I don’t want to stop your fun, but I want to say a few words to you,” Red began. “You played a great game tonight. We played well, were selective at the plate, ran the bases aggressively and intelligently, played great defense, and Meyer may have even found himself out there on the mound tonight. You and Bolton were great. But, this is only one game out of 132 to be played. Enjoy your success, but temper it as the season is long and hard. Play like this and you will not sneak up on any one as the word will get around that the Monarchs might just be a solid team. Remember last year we started out pretty well and finished lousy. I do not what to repeat last year. I doubt you do either. I think this team has the potential to be the best team I have ever coached. We have two more games with the Pirates and they will be thinking long and hard about tonight. Thanks for a great effort, but don’t party too long and get some good sleep tonight and lets do it again tomorrow,” said a proud and happy Red Dodge as he clapped his hands for a game well played.
“Don’t worry coach,” said Ross Jones. “None of us is forgettin last year. We came out smoking tonight and that’s the way this team is going to play all year. I can feel it. Our goal is to win 100 games…99 to go!”
The team started hooting and hollering as Jones finished his remarks. Andrews started pouring beer over Jones head. The place erupted with laughter.
Red waved his hands into the air trying to get our attention again.
“Yes, that is a great goal,” said Red. “I would love to see that happen as we may need to win that many games to overtake the Reds who came in second last year, but are really stocked with great, young talent. The Pittsfield Cubs are improved as well. I just want us to maintain our level of concentration and dedication and not party ourselves out of contention after our first win. I want all of you in before midnight tonight! Understood?”