November 30, 2015
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Playing Catch in the Street
by Michael Price (short, PG)
Can you say ... "Automatic?"
Young Peter Froebel could catch the ball; that much was certain. Great glove the kid had -- lightning quick, flashy glove. Quick afoot, too. Not a bad arm, either, for his age. Didn't hit much until high school, but on any team he was a member, from the age of six, he played. You had to play him; his defense alone, always at shortstop -- a regular pint-sized Ozzie Smith with the leather, everybody said so -- could very well save you a couple runs per game.
Peter's father, Walter, was an ex-semi-pro, right-handed pitcher off the rurals of central Kansas. Generally reputed as a hard-nosed, ferocious competitor, Walter enjoyed every summer between his sophomore year in high school and junior year in college pimping himself to any town team within a hundred miles, give or take, that was willing to pay for the scariest, most feared pitcher in the state. Decades later, upon Walter's death, at his visitation, Peter's uncle Bill, from his mother's side of the family, would correctly speculate that "... I think your dad was a ringer...", who most assuredly could have signed with the Cardinals right out of high school, opting instead for the family life, mirroring his own father's life path, marrying at the still ripening age of nineteen. His only son, Peter, was born a little more than a year after the blessed ceremony.
Now, in our neighborhood, as I suspect is true of most suburban neighborhoods in this country, most under-ten-year-old kids played catch with their dads -- or each other--in their families' back yards once the weather cooperated.
Or at the neighborhood park -- across the street, perhaps.
At age six, Peter played T-Ball at tiny Adams Park twice a week, games at which he dominated, particularly in the field. The following year, his extraordinary glove work granted him the right to skip over Midgets and graduate straight to Junior Cub Ball, where he excelled the next two summers, his ongoing defensive improvement commensurate with his age. And when he was nine, Peter had ballgames three nights a week with the local Senior Cub team, the Yankees, in the age eleven through thirteen league.
On most non-game nights, all those years, Peter and his father were available for viewing playing catch in the street, directly in front of our families' houses, always after dinner, often until dusk.
I once asked him, "Why in the street?"
"But when you miss one ..."
"I try not to."
"But when ..."
"Run, boy!" his father would holler.
And run he did, as fast as his little legs would take him. He once told me that he made a game of it, made it fun, chasing after his misses. The object of the game was to run down the ball before it stopped rolling.
If it stopped, the rule was, he was dead.
"Not really," he said, stealthing a smile, my brow slowly unfurrowing.
Peter and I were the same age, always in the same class at school. I suppose I was his best friend, as well as his next door neighbor, growing up on Charles Street, suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. I say "suppose" because to determine that Peter was a bit of an odd duck, a shy, taciturn kid, would be the understatement of this essay; nice enough certainly, very polite, almost embarrassingly modest. The very definition of meek, one might conclude, with the eye-poppingly notable exception of his extraordinary aggressiveness and skill with a baseball glove extending from his left hand. At shortstop, the kid was an absolute animal, attacking any ball within his reach and some that weren't. But believe me, if anybody wished to have an actual conversation with him they most certainly would have had to initiate -- throw out the first pitch, if you will.
Charles Street was a block long residential street flanked on one end by Adams Park -- where Peter and his little buddies played pick-up games of all sports in the appropriate seasons -- and traffic-laden Rosewood Avenue on the other. Peter's family -- mom, dad, Peter, and his two twin little sisters -- lived on the corner, across from the park. I lived next door with my parents and Gunther, our three-year-old miniature dachshund. Continuing on the same side of the street, toward Rosewood, were the Jensens, a husband and wife high school teaching couple -- Algebra and Home Ec, respectively -- who, along with teen son, Paul, boasted the greenest, most weed free lawn in the neighborhood; Tom and Jerry (no kidding, Tom and Jerry -- I never knew their last names), a gay mid-twenties couple, the former a successful stock broker, the latter a stay-at-home dad, caring for an infant daughter, Regan; and old Mr. Smithson, an unfortunate, screw-loose Vietnam veteran dischargee and neighborhood watch paranoid, who liked to creep the crap out of us kids by getting drunk and showing off his vintage hand gun collection. The Wolcotts lived directly across the street from us and the Setzers next to them, both with two elementary school age girls, but I never really got to know either of their families very well (I don't think anybody did; they pretty much kept to themselves), or any of the other folks down the block, for that matter.
It was a relatively quiet block, growing up. Still, there were cars in every garage, every driveway, always a few on the street. I'll never forget the first time I saw Peter, chasing down a rare missed pitch from his father, nimbly sidestep an oblivious driver pulling away from the curb; Peter casually informed me that "... it happens more than you might think." At least a couple times, the nights Peter and his father played in the street, they were forced to yield to a solitary vehicle, step aside for a moment, take a break, which seemed to annoy Walter very much. Peter, too, after a time.
Again, the question leaps to mind: why not the backyard? Or even the front yard? I never got that.
Even into his mid to late twenties, Walter Froebel -- an admitted, guilty-as-charged junk baller -- still featured four bad-ass, intimidating pitches: a straight ball, of course (with each passing summer, it gained more and more velocity), which wasn't straight at all but rather sailed up and in to a right-handed batter, if there had been such a batter in the street; an "innie" and an "outie"--Walter's quaint, Kansas-spun nom de plumes -- more commonly referred to, in modern baseball vernacular, as a screwball and a curve ball, two pitches that looked exactly the same, and exactly like Walter's straight ball until the last split-second, the former figuratively but demonstrably dropping off the table down and a little in, the latter equally impressive, but down and sweeping away, and I do mean sweeping; and a knuckleball, a tricky pitch, to say the least, which floated anywhere and everywhere, totally unpredictable -- even to Walter -- a bitch of a pitch to catch.
Upon demand, Peter always threw straight balls back to his father, who was extra cautious when it came to the health of his young son's right arm, concerned about risking injury -- "... perhaps permanent," he sternly warned -- due to throwing too many curve balls and other "junk" or "stuff" in Peter's youth, before a young man's arm was sufficiently developed. As a result, Walter almost never had to run into the park after missed throws from his son because, not only could Peter throw the ball with some zip on it, he was also remarkably accurate for a boy his age.
After our family suppers, I often sat on our front lawn, in total enjoyment watching these exhibitions of pitch and catch. It seemed apparent -- even from this less than perfect side view, and even to me, no great shakes as a ballplayer at the time -- just how much Walter's pitches danced and darted. And how difficult they must have been to catch. I once asked Peter about that, too.
"Pop can make the ball do stuff," was the answer I got.
To be fair to his father, when Peter was very young -- six, seven years old -- Walter would alert his son as to what pitch was coming. "Innie," he'd call out, so Peter would be forewarned of the ball's potential movement, where it was going, and that he might have to flip his glove around at the last second to catch it. Or at least block it with his body, so he wouldn't have to run after it, rolling down the street, sometimes into one of his neighbors' yards, which he hated; he knew how much it distressed, even angered, his father when other neighborhood kids traipsed through their own yard. "Outie," Walter would yell, another pitch "... most effective when thrown in the dirt," he emphasized and re-emphasized. Dirt which, of course, was actually asphalt when one chose to play catch in the street. When his father didn't say anything, Peter knew a straight ball was coming, a pitch thrown much harder, which, more often than not, seemed to find its way into the meat-hand palm of Peter's glove.
"Ow!" he'd squeal, often dropping his glove, shaking his hand in pain.
For Peter's eighth birthday, his father presented him with a new glove, a bigger, full-sized mitt, which actually looked funny at first, I thought, extending so far beyond his still smallish hand. Now, it would be logical to assume that a glove a couple inches longer than the one to which he had become so accustomed might slow the kid's reflexes a bit, diminish his hand quickness in adjusting to the wickedest of his father's deliveries, but this was not the case with Peter. He very quickly became even more masterful with his new glove, his defensive reflexes seemingly every bit as keen, and he caught nearly everything his father threw at him, often intentionally in the extra webbing provided beyond his fingers in an effort to save on palm pain. He rarely had to run after missed deliveries. Peter loved his new glove, oiled it up well -- as per his father's direction -- and broke it in carefully.
The following summer, after three-in-a-row totally error free street sessions, his father decided that Peter was "... ready to fly solo," i.e., Walter stopped calling out his pitches in advance. Peter had seen literally hundreds and hundreds of his father's nasty deliveries the past three summers, learned to handle them with great proficiency, but now he wouldn't know for sure where the ball would be going as it neared the end of its path: up and in, down and in, down and away, etc. To further complicate matters, Walter also started lobbing up an occasional knuckleball -- "It's getting too easy for you, son," I heard him say one night -- which further challenged Peter's glove agility.
I heard Walter say that, too, more often that summer than ever before. Yet, with each ensuing session, Peter became more and more proficient at discerning, on his own, and catching -- or at least blocking with his lower body and over-sized glove -- his father's innies and outies. These pitches rarely eluded him anymore, even without notice, often on the short hop; he had the most colorful shins I had ever seen, but his sprints down the street became less frequent as the summer waned.
But every once in a while Walter would cross him up and throw his son a straight ball, which, again, looked almost exactly the same as the others, and which he was now throwing with noticeably more giddyup. In general, velocity didn't much faze Peter, one way or the other, but more than a few times, that summer between our third and fourth grade school years, Peter would guess wrong and wind up blocking a straight ball, now a legitimate fastball, often with his face.
"Ow!" he'd yelp.
But not once did I see him cry. Pretty sure I would have. Those suckers were comin.'
Predictably, by the end of that summer, Peter became much more adept at recognizing, and catching, what pitch his father was throwing, even the knuckleball; "It doesn't spin," he told me. "You can almost count the stitches."
"Still ..." I started, shaking my head.
"I know, I know," he said, not quite smiling. "No idea where it's going."
One night, late that summer or early fall -- it was three or four weeks after Peter's Senior Cub League season had ended and it was getting dark a lot earlier, I remember that -- when I was certain, absolutely positive, that Peter had developed sufficient confidence in his ability to successfully nab the nastiest of his father's deliveries, I mustered up enough guts to ask Peter if I could stand behind him in the street while they played catch, like an umpire, so I could get the best angle, so I could better judge for myself what I pretty much already knew: the difficulty in catching his father's wicked stuff.
"Sure," said Peter. "Hope I don't miss," he grinned sheepishly.
Walter's first pitch ... I couldn't believe it. "Wow!" I jaw-dropped. "That is the most incredible ...!"
It's one thing to watch a good junk baller's stuff from the side but there's a reason why the umpire stands behind the catcher; you can really see stuff, really get a good look at the movement of the ball. "That pitch just ... it just ... it went down so fast!"
"I know," ho-hummed Peter, smartly short-hopping a second straight innie.
Outie; shoestring catch this time, dropping sharply from Peter's waist, curving at least a foot at the last second.
"How can anybody possibly make a ball do that?"
"Pretty cool, huh?"
"And you swear you don't know what's coming?"
"C'mon ... no secret signals?"
Peter snared a straight ball -- fastball -- that was headed directly at my face. I bailed out, thought I was a goner, hit the asphalt on all fours. Peter looked down at me; he knew exactly what I was thinking. "I dunno," he shrugged, tossing the ball back to his father.
This went on for eight or ten minutes, Walter mixing up his pitches, Peter catching nearly everything and blocking everything else with various parts of his anatomy. And, to further complicate things -- certainly for Peter and, to a far lesser extent, me -- it was starting to get dark.
I'm not sure what I was most impressed with: Walter's magician-like prowess with a baseball or Peter's deftness at catching it.
Then Walter threw his first knuckleball, the first since I'd taken my position behind Peter. "What the ..." I started, nothing short of bug-eyed, after following the most peculiarly eccentric flight of a baseball I had ever seen. It tipped off the end of Peter's glove, sailed past my left ear, and rolled down the street toward Rosewood. I chuckled, "What ... what the heck was that?"
Peter flashed a faux-grimace. "Doggone knuckleball ..." Then, smiling broadly, "Race ya."
It wasn't much of a race, of course; Peter was one of the fastest kids in our class. I ran about fifty yards and stopped, in front of old man Smithson's place, watching after Peter, chasing the rolling baseball down the street. I saw him reach down and glove the ball just as it, and he, came perilously close to becoming Rosewood Avenue fender art.
"Did you at least get it before it stopped rolling?" I shouted with a smirk.
"Oh sure." He began jogging back, playing catch with himself.
Standing there, waiting for him, I turned slightly and found myself staring directly at a hazy view of Mr. Smithson standing behind his front screen door, which, in addition to the diminishing daylight, served to dull my focus. I couldn't make out much in the way of detail, especially from the neck down, but, somehow -- it was that time of night -- I could tell he was drunk.
"Well now, that wasn't very good, was it?" said Peter's father when we resumed our positions in the street.
"No sir," Peter answered.
"Whad'ya say we try a couple more of those before we shut 'er down for the night."
I seriously considered returning to my theretofore usual seat on our front lawn, just to be safe from another potential rogue knuckleball. But I had to see it again.
I had to see it again!
"Can ya count the stitches?" said Peter, snatching another floater out of the air at the last second.
"Unbelievable," was all I could muster, shaking my head, my eyes as big as the ball itself.
After that, Walter threw ten more consecutive knuckleballs, ten erratic floaters, all incredibly unpredictable in their flight. Still shaking my head, I muttered, "That has got to be impossible," astonished equally at both the pitching skills of the father and the catching skills of the son. To my mild amazement, Peter caught all ten deliveries -- just barely, in a few cases, usually at the last split-second, more of a reflexed snatch than a catch -- often in the very outer webbing of his glove.
"Last one," hollered Walter. "Gettin' too dark. Here it comes -- my best pitch."
"Oh boy," I muttered under my breath.
That final pitch, that last knuckleball, during its unparalleled, cockamamie flight--and I may be only slightly exaggerating -- first slid at least a foot to the right, on an invisible plane, then broke a good six inches to the left -- same plane--and finally nearly straight down, bouncing three feet in front of Peter, caroming high off his left shoulder and over mine, rolling down the side of the street.
I laughed my ass off. "Unbelievable!" I howled. "That is ridiculous! Yogi Berra couldn't have caught that!"
I only ran about twenty yards before doubling over; I couldn't help it, I was laughing so hard, it was hilarious. But Peter ran as hard as ever, following the ball's route with some difficulty in the dusk-lit night, as it bounced off a red pick-up parked in the street, settling a couple feet into Mr. Smithson's front yard.
I watched Peter wait by the curb of the old geezer's property for several seconds, staring alternately at the ball -- lying still in the grass -- then up at the house, where old man Smithson had anchored himself behind the screen door.
Anchored, yes, but swaying behind the screen door, according to Peter; he was closer, had a better angle than I did.
"Too bad the ball stopped, huh?" I joshed Peter.
"Cut it out."
Peter eventually tip-toed onto the front lawn, as if the grass would die if he stepped down too hard. At the exact moment he reached down to pick up the baseball, keeping a wary eye on Mr. Smithson, the screen door suddenly and violently swung open and the old man doddered onto the top step outside his front door.
"Trezpazzer!" he roared, slurring badly. "Trez-pazzer! Crim-i-mal!" I saw him slowly, unsteadily raise his right arm.
Peter stood up at the exact moment the street lights popped on, providing a perfect spotlight on him. Petrified with fear, he found himself gaping directly at Mr. Smithson and the business end of a .38 revolver.
"Wait! No!" He backpedaled onto the street, arms raised.
The old man fired one shot. Then he fell down.
He missed Peter, by a good foot-and-a-half, wide right.
It wasn't that dark yet; I could still see good enough. And I swear -- I swear -- I saw Peter's glove hand shoot straight out to his side in a flash -- the flash of the gunshot.
We never again saw old Mr. Smithson after the cops took him away that night.
"Didn't you feel anything?" asked the cop in charge.
"No sir," said Peter. "But I was kinda scared."
The following night, and for the rest of the season, father and son did not play catch in the street, because Peter Froebel had a hole in his glove.
Article © Michael Price. All rights reserved.
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