A BUBBLE OFF PLUMB

A BUBBLE OFF PLUMB is an excerpt from WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING… which may be purchased through Amazon at the following link: http://goo.gl/UE2LPW

“With the thoughts you’d be thinkin’
you could be another Lincoln
if you only had a brain…”
“If I Only Had a Brain”-Ray Bolger and July Garland

My relationship with pitchers was at best tenuous. It was a strange and wonderful relationship. They were strange while, and despite what my exes say, I was wonderful. That being said, I love their strangeness, the pitchers not my exes. I embrace their oddities because that was what set them apart from the people I normally get along with: the position players. I never was, nor claimed to be a pitching coach or psychologist. Pitching coach and psychologist should be synonymous. Luckily, most of the young men that pitched for me were position players when they did not pitch. At least I understood them part of the time. An exception would be Michael Douty.

Douty was a big rawboned kid, good looking in a Howdy Doody kind of way. Like Howdy and Buffalo Bob, he was always looking to laugh or make someone laugh. “TO A FAULT!” said I through gritted teeth. When interviewed, I would say Michael kept the team loose. That was a nice way of saying he pisses me off so badly I almost want to give him the boot, but not so much that I actually did. Do not assume he was a bad kid; he was a great kid, just goofy. He was a pitcher by trade with an above average fastball and slow looping curve. Unfortunately Michael was also a right fielder by necessity. A good fielder most of the time, Michael sometimes suffered from bouts of mental gas or if I must be crude and I do, the brain fart. A lapse in judgment cost us a game against a rival high school when he committed the no-no of diving for a fly ball as it twisted away from him toward the foul line. The ball was not in foul territory, something that as a coach I had preached against repeatedly. A right or left fielder does not dive for a ball toward the foul line that isn’t foul unless he is sure he can catch it. There is no one to back you up if you miss. With the bases loaded and two outs, he committed the travesty of diving for the ball and not coming up with it. It rolled its way into an inside the park grand slam home run. When taken to task over this, he simply said, “They moved the foul line.” Seriously? I hope Michael meant that he confused the foul line with the out of play line but we’ll never know for sure. What I do know for sure was the outcome. We lost by a run.

At a practice, after throwing a thirty pitch simulated game in the bullpen, he must have been plum tuckered out. When taking his outfield position during batting practice, Michael lay down, pulling his hat down over his eyes in order to catch forty winks. I began to hit fly balls at him with the long and thin fungo bat that coaches use, coming closer and closer until I dropped one right on top of him. It hit nothing important, just his head. I made a point; everyone laughed and got a kick out of it. Most importantly, I did not get sued.

The last time Michael played for me was in an Upper State Championship game against Dutch Fork High School. In this winner-take-all game he came in to pitch and we both became frustrated with our inability to get anyone out. When I went out to make a pitching change, Michael purposely dropped the ball on the ground at my feet, and I reacted by purposely putting him on the bench. It was an eighteen-year-old’s reaction to frustration and a forty-something-year old’s belief that he had to teach a lesson. I wish we had both reacted differently.

We never had an opportunity to mend fences. Later that year, Michael drowned while trying to save a friend’s life. It was an unnecessary death, as if any death involving teenagers are necessary. The young lady he was attempting to save did not need saving and survived the ordeal of being sucked into a storm culvert. Michael didn’t know this and heroically dove in after her and drowned. That next year we put his number thirteen on our hats and began the tradition of praying before games at the flag pole and plaque which was donated and erected in his memory.

In 1999 we played Georgetown for the state championship. As the game moved into the later innings and it appeared we were going to win, I felt a presence behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw my wife, Linda Gail, with an old blue and red cap. With tears flowing down her face, she was pointing at the number thirteen on the back. I was already emotional and felt the tears then, and still feel them today when I think about it. We won the state championship, but more importantly, that memory of Michael Douty, laid back in the outfield, legs crossed and hat pulled down over his eyes, will always be a memory that will be burned into my brain. Somewhere I am sure Douty was laughing at our tears and cracking up with the angels.

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