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  • March 5th, 2015

Knucklehead

By Joel M. Vance
The old Soo Line rails didn’t see as many trains as they once did, but still enough to keep a station agent in place. Rusty Adams had been the agent until he got drafted and subsequently lost an arm in Korea.
I suppose I could blame Rusty for part of my impressive track record of misdeeds, but it wasn’t his fault that I was too apt as a pupil-—better with a baseball than with the little Martin guitar he’d bequeathed to me. Because of the knuckleball that he taught me I managed to hit my coach in the throat and become a star. I’m not sure which I was more pleased by.
The Soo was as much a part of Birch Lake as the veneer mill and the lumberyard and the Bluegill Bar. The trains were as regular as the sun in their comings and goings. Trains passed through, four or five a day, heading north from the Twin Cities to Superior and back south again.
The trains passed a quarter-mile behind our house, across a pasture. If the air was still and the night quiet and I happened to be awake I’d hear a freight clattering over the sagging rail junctions, then moaning hoarsely at the town crossing. And then it would be gone and I’d hear only the sound of a whippoorwill and I’d swallow hard with sudden night fear as moonlight spilled through the window.
There were occasional passenger trains. My cousin Hal and I would stand along the tracks and wave at the passengers who looked impassively back at us. When we grew older we began giving them the finger, but that got no reaction either, except once from a little girl who looked to be maybe five or six who solemnly returned the gesture.
I put a penny on the tracks when I was nine. Just as the train came around the bend and it was too late to dart out and retrieve it I had a horrible prevision of the penny derailing the locomotive which would plow into the mill woodlot, killing everyone on board.
And it would be my fault. As the steam screamed from the ruptured engine, mingling with the shrieks of the maimed, the bloody engineer would stagger over to the town constable, old Elmer Blosser, and gasp, “I was a penny. One uh them goddam kids put it there! I saw it just before I hit it! Oh God!” and he would quiver like a shot rabbit and keel over dead.
And Elmer, whose gut was about one million times larger than his brain, would draw his rusty old pistol and come looking for a terror benumbed nine-year-old kid.
I knew it would happen. I was having one of those frightful experiences I’d read about in Reader’s Digest (“I Saw Death’s Terrible Face”) where someone has a prevision of disaster. I shut my eyes and waited for the crash, my nerves singing. But the train went past just as it had done for all my life, and I got weakly to my feet and looked for the penny.
It had been jostled off the track by the train’s approach and hadn’t been touched. I never tried that trick again. It was bad enough to do the stupid things I often did unintentionally without setting out to wreck a train.
Baseball season was short, crammed into spring after it got warm and before school let out for the summer. I was Scuz Olsen’s catcher. Catching is the most unglamorous and painful job in baseball. You’re sandwiched between a batter and an umpire, imperiled by the wild swings of inept batters and the wild fastballs of inept pitchers of whom Scuz Olsen was the epitome. Your fingers belong to anyone who can break them, but your knees belong to you…which is painfully apparent every time you struggle out of the crouch. Burly baserunners do their best to body check you into eternity or shred you with their spikes. Every fielding play is tougher than anyone else’s—have you ever tried to catch a ball hit straight up.
Scuz Olsen, that unlovable loudmouth sleazeball whose weakest muscle was between his ears, was our pitcher. He was strong enough to throw the ball through a brick wall but he couldn’t put a wrinkle on a ball to save his life. Accordingly he either grooved pitches for fastball hitters or threw wild pitches somewhere in the vicinity of the Pleiades. Coach K, a corpulent and crude older version of Scuz, loved his erratic pitcher.
After Scuz hit six straight batters trying to throw a curve, Coach K ordered him to stick to the hummer. He Dutch rubbed Scuz’s unruly crewcut and said affectionately, “Quit tryin’ to be cute and just throw the damn thing.”
My problem was to convince Coach K that I had a secret weapon to win ball games. That wouldn’t be easy. He considered me a tribulation in comparison with which Job’s plague of boils as no more than a mild eruption of adolescent pimples.
“Coach, let me pitch batting practice,” I said. “You don’t want Scuz hurting his magic arm.” Coach K was inclined to refuse on general principles, but he was too lazy to throw practice himself and he certainly didn’t want to risk the Scuz. Nobody else could get the ball over the plate, assuming Scuz ever did.
He chewed it over, like tough meat. “Okay,” he said finally. “But no funny stuff.”
“Like what, Coach?”
“How the hell do I know? You just got a history of funny stuff.”
I took a couple of baseballs and strode to the mound, king of my heaped-up domain. Perhaps winning a presidential election or being named the Supreme Allied Commander is as gratifying as facing a batter from that slight promontory, but I would have to be convinced. I was born to pitch, no doubt of it. I threw a few straight pitches, a la Scuz Olsen until Coach K’s interest shifted to the outfield where he fungoed fly balls.
Then I threw a knuckler to Hunk Dayland. It was a beauty that floated in like a barrage balloon then dipped sharply as if it had suddenly gotten tired. Hunk swung with everything he had, missed the ball like a foot, and the bat flew out of his hand and skittered toward second base.
“What the hell was that!” he shouted. Hal trotted over and picked up the bat and flipped it toward the plate.
Coach K whirled around when Hunk shouted and he echoed, “What the hell is going on?”
“He threw something funny, Coach,” Hunk said.
“Did not!” I said. After all, there was nothing funny about a knuckleball.
“He’s got somethin’ on the ball—spit or somthin’.”
“Lemme see that ball!” Coach K snarled and I had one of those inspirations that is so blinding at the time that the possible ramifications are obscured. All I could see was opportunity. I did not see the absolute disaster that was imminent.
Coach K was wearing a glove to field the throws coming in from the outfield and I figured if he had a glove he knew how to use it. I took a deep breath, dug my fingernails into the ball…and threw the best knuckler of my short career.
Coach K stuck a hand out for the big floating baseball and it darted up his arm and hit him smack in the Adam’s apple. If I had wanted to make a dramatic statement I’d certainly done it. He staggered around like the Mummy of horror film fame, making strange sounds and I wished that I had been abducted as a baby by Gypsies to Romany where they don’t throw knuckleballs that assault their coaches. The team looked at me in shock and fear. I’d created harm on a teacher—not just any teacher, but Coach K, the Attila the Hun of the faculty.
Coach K was unable to scream outrage at the team for a couple of days, which was a blessing, but it gave him time to refine his glower, mostly directly at me. I continued to catch and Scuz continued to pitch.
We played the Edgewater Tigers at their field in mid-August. Any athletic contest with Edgewater was a grudge match and baseball games were the worst. There usually was a substantial fight, either on the field or in the stands when the two teams got together. Once the umpire, a Birch Laker, charged into the stands and assaulted the Edgewater town constable who had shouted that the umpire had “the eyes of a mole in a manure pile.
And yeah, ya eat worms too, yah dumb bohunk!” I thought it was kind of funny, but the umpire threw off his mask, fumbled his thick glasses on so he could see and went after the constable. That wasn’t a smart move in Edgewater and the umpire spent the night in the Edgewater town jail and was replaced in the game by a local who called every Birch Lake pitch a ball and every Edgewater pitch a strike, including one that bounced in the dirt six feet in front of the plate, skipped over the catcher’s shoulder and hit the ump in the crotch.
Naturally our bench cheered loudly. It’s always fun to see someone who has been decked by a crotch shot clutch at his knee or ankle because he doesn’t want to grab his balls in front of a crowd. Unless of course it is you who has been hit. Scuz Olsen was ejected when he went inquired solicitously of the umpire, “Hey, how’s yer knee? Ever gonna be able to pee with it again?”
So, here we were again at Edgewater for another game. “Like goin’ home for you ain’t it?” Scuz said to me. “You gonna catch for both teams?” He was referring to the unfortunate incident the basketball season before when I scored for Edgewater after being unsettled by the twin cheerleaders cheering for me because they thought I was cute.
I, likewise, thought they were cute also, especially the one who had apologized. I sometimes had daydreams about us getting together, despite the social pressures against such a liaison from our respective home towns. Remember the Capulets and the Amulets or whoever they were. And the Hatfields and McCoys.
Janette (or was it Annette) was in the stands along the third base line and my heart jumped. My heart belonged to Debbie Miller, but she was away at a Girl Scout camp and Annette (or was it Janette) wasn’t. I still had the occasional fantasies straight from the steaming pages of a Mickey Spillane novel.
I waddled suavely over to the stands in my catching gear and said, “Hi, remember me?”
“Sure,” she said. “How could I forget?”
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I’m Janette,” she said.
“You’re the one who likes me,” I said.
“Well…did…” she said. “I mean I still do, but….” She didn’t need to say anymore. I’d insulted her terribly at the track meet and never did figure out how to apologize. I cursed myself for being a churlish fool. Ask her for a date! I thought. Make a silly, improvisational speech about love and infatuation (which, at that time, were synonymous). Tell her we were fated for each other…maybe to run away to far and exotic lands…..
She interrupted my reverie. “This is my boyfriend, Arnie.”
Arnie looked like a human storm cloud. He was about six-four with muscles on top of his muscles. He looked as happy to see me as if I’d just killed his dog. I gulped and muttered something about how glad I was to meet him (yeah, and you, too, Mr. Hitler) and hastily retreated to the infield, stumbling over my spikes. So much for fantasy. He who hesitates is lost, I remembered and also. The moving finger, having writ, moves on. If it had writ for me, the words were, “So long, sucker.” And with the middle finger, too.
“You’re doing it again,” Coach K growled at me in the dugout. He jerked his head toward the twin. He already had seen me with them in basketball and track and now I was consorting with the enemy, albeit an enemy as cute as enemies can get.
“We’re old friends,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “They got you in the Edgewater Sports Hall of Fame yet?” I opened my mouth and shut it again.
The two towns had agreed to alternate home plate umpires after the fracas between the umpire and the constable and it was Edgewater’s turn. The umpire was florid faced and sweating. Judging from his breath he had indulged in a heated pre-game warmup at the Edgewater Tap, the town’s equivalent to the Bluegill Bar. As he draped his chin over my left shoulder to see the first pitch I nearly fainted. It was a combination of Bruenig’s Lager and world class halitosis and it hung in the air like a mushroom cloud. Yet another reason to take up anything but catching.
Edgewater got out to a four-run lead and then we cut it in half with a couple of runs. For Scuz it was a pitcher’s battle. He was keeping his straight arrows low enough that the batters couldn’t get under them and only hit screaming line drives and hot grounders, some of which we flagged down for outs.
I even contributed by tagging a man out at the plate. He came down the line like a Soo Line locomotive. I clutched the ball to my chest like a spinster having caught a bride’s bouquet and gritted my teeth. The collision sent me flying a dozen feet behind home plate, but I held on to the ball. I counted my bones, hoping none of them were in more pieces than issued and decided I was still alive. “Way to go!” Coach K shouted, clapping. I saluted him smartly and took a bow. He shook his head and quit clapping.
In the third inning I singled up the middle and took a sizable lead off first base. The pitcher lobbed a throw over to keep me honest, so leisurely that I didn’t need to slide back in. The first baseman ritually slapped me with the glove and I said, “Only about an hour late.”
“Get you next time, Dick Breath,” he said pleasantly.
I took my lead again, rocking back and forth, looking toward Coach K. No steal sign but that surely was an oversight. I knew I could steal on the Edgewater pitcher, a gangling farm kid with an elaborate stretch that seemed to take forever. They say you steal on pitchers, not catchers (which is a fiction propounded by catchers to absolve themselves of responsibility).
Coach K must not have his head in the game I thought. I’ll save him from himself. So I took off with the pitch…or what I thought was the pitch. It turned out that the Edgewater pitcher had the most deceptive move to first of any pitcher in the history of baseball. It was an obvious balk, but not to the umpire who was both from Edgewater and legally blind. He signaled no balk and I was caught in a rundown that ended with an ignominious tag between the shoulder blades that nearly broke my spine.
I trudged back to the dugout, my head down, expecting humiliation. I was not disappointed. “Boys, all together now: what is the steal sign?” Coach K asked the question in a voice guaranteed to catch the attention of Aleuts on the polar ice cap.
Scuz raised his hand as if he had the answer to a difficult math problem. “Forget it, Olsen!” snarled Coach K. “I’m asking a rhetorical question.”
“But coach I know the answer!” Scuz exclaimed. It was possibly the first time in his life a teacher had asked a question that he knew the answer to. “It’s when you touch your cap brim,” he said. Coach K noticed the Edgewater third base coach leaning toward us, listening.
“Oh, great!” he snarled. “Now the whole world knows.” He glared at me. “It’s all your fault.” I had the feeling that if Coach K got a dose of clap he’d somehow blame me for it.
I led off the sixth inning with us still trailing 4-2 and got around late on a fast ball and dribbled a single between first and second. The first baseman played off the bag and I took a lead just beyond him.
Coach K, being childish, had refused to devise a new steal sign since Scuz had loose-lipped our old one. “What the hell difference does it make,” Coach K growled. “You don’t pay any attention to it anyway.”
I glanced toward the dugout and saw Coach K slowly shaking his head from side to side. I suspected he meant “No, don’t steal” but I thought perhaps he was being bothered by a pesky deer fly. It was a risk to try a second steal but I figured that the element of surprise was in my favor and besides when you’re already in a manure pile a little more shit won’t make much difference. I took off on the second pitch and this time I caught the pitcher napping. But not the catcher who had been waiting the entire game to demonstrate that he had an arm like a recoilless rifle. I was out by six feet.
As I trudged once again back to the dugout I could see Coach K searching the bench in fury, looking for a substitute. But it was haying season and several players were bucking bales instead of playing baseball and we were down to nine players. I’m sure he was considering playing with eight, leaving right field wide open, just so he could have the joy of plunking my ass on the bench but he decided against it, perhaps hoping that if I continued to play lighting would come out of the blue sky and turn me to a pillar of ash. Maybe he knew how toxic the umpire’s breath was and hoped I’d be asphyxiated.
Aside from a continuing low growl, like a sound from an engine with a bad bearing, he said nothing. And then Scuz stepped on his own hand. It was on a dribbling ball his by the Edgewater third baseman to Scuz’s right. Scuz sprang toward it, reached down for a bare-handed grab…and stomped on his pitching hand with his left foot.
He did a somersault and came up howling. No bones were broken but he had several cleat gouges in his hand and obviously couldn’t pitch. Coach K looked skyward. “Why me?” he asked. “I’ve tried to be good.”
I cleared my throat. “Coach, how about letting me pitch the rest of the game?” He looked at me as if I were a lab specimen that had gone out of control. He raised his eyes again and repeated, “Why me?” Then he gestured feebly toward the mound and I assumed this meant I was to take over as the Bobcat pitcher.
Hunk Dayland came in to catch. Scuz went to right field where we hoped he would languish, unbothered by fly balls. We shifted position until we had nine players more or less where they were supposed to be and I strode to the mound. What a proud moment! I was master of all I surveyed. It was a heady feeling like when I was a little kid playing King of the Hill on a dirt mound and gained the summit and defended it against the other little boys scrambling up the slopes.
My first warmup pitch was about four feet over the catcher’s head. It clinked off the screen. It takes practice to learn to pitch downhill. Gradually I brought my delivery down and by the time the first batter stepped in I was in the strike zone. My first pitch was right at his head and he toppled out of the way and leaped up, shouting at me. I picked up the rosin bag and fluffed it. You don’t apologize for throwing a knockdown pitch, even if it was an accident.
I glanced toward the Edgewater stand and saw Janette and her boyfriend laughing together….at me. She was making gestures and it took no expert at Pantomime Quiz to figure that she was recreating the basketball game episode for Mr. Muscle Beach. She pumped her arms, like a cheerleader, then mimicked dribbling and watching the ball bounce into the stands. Arnie, the Man Mountain, guffawed. She made an idiot face, slackjawed and vacant. Supposed to be me, no doubt. Arnie whooped. My face flamed and I actually felt tears well. Tears of anger. I gritted my teeth and gripped the baseball as if I were trying to squeeze blood out of it.
I was fed up with being the butt of everyone’s cheap shots—Coach K, Scuz Olsen, Arnie, Janette (or was it Annette)—the hell with the whole damn bunch of ‘em. My next pitch was right down the pipe and it popped in Hunk Dayland’s glove like a rifle shot. He wasn’t much of a catcher, but he was big and tough and if he couldn’t stop pitches with the glove, he’d do it with his body.
I threw another fast ball past the Edgewater batter, pretending Hunk’s glove was Arnie’s face. Strike two. Then I threw the knuckler. It ambled along, looking like the moon, and the batter nearly dislocated himself swinging at it. He missed it a foot.
“Goddam illegal pitch!” he shouted at the umpire. “He’s throwin’ a spit ball!”
“I’m throwing a knuckleball, you meathead!” I shouted back. “And there’s nothing illegal about it!” “Lemme see that ball,” ordered the umpire. Snarling, I threw him the best knuckler ever. It did a commendable boogie-woogie, darted under his outstretched hand, and boomed off his chest protector like a bass drum. “Jesus!” he exclaimed. “You’re outa here!”
Coach K erupted from the bench, heading for home plate. “You leave my pitcher alone!” he shouted. My pitcher! It had a ring to it. He and the umpire stood jaw to jaw, yammering while I wandered around the mound, kicking at dirt and feeling very satisfied with myself. I glanced to the stands and saw Janette and Arnie with what I interpreted as glum expressions, although they probably were simply bored.
Finally the two men finished examining each other’s ancestry and the umpire grudgingly admitted that the knuckle ball was legal. I was still seething and proceeded to pitch a no-hitter the rest of the way. I stuck out seven of the 11 batters I faced, six on knuckleballs. We won 8-4 and the game ended on a piddling popup that I caught barehanded.
I wanted to throw the ball at Arnie and shout at Janette, “Souvenir for you and your lunkhead boyfriend,” but I didn’t because I knew Arnie would use the ball on me as a suppository. I juggled the ball for a moment, then dropped it on the mound and walked toward my old pickup truck. My arm was numb, as if I’d pulled every ligament, tendon and muscle in it, which I probably had. I suspected I’d just left my pitching career on that untidy heap of dirt behind me, but I didn’t care.
“Nice game.” It was Coach K and he was smiling at me. It took a long moment to recognize him without his usual scowl. I checked behind me to make sure he wasn’t talking to Scuz, but, no, it was me.
I nodded. Lose a girlfriend, win a coach.
That’s life.

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