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July 08, 2024

Rightfield

By Ralph Bland

Rightfield, being the position where a fellow tends to end up when there’s no other place to put him where he can do his team too much harm, was the landing spot I found myself in those long-ago days of neighborhood baseball. I could catch a fly ball if I didn’t have to chase one down too far, and if a ball happened to be hit my way on the ground, I could knock it down and had a strong enough arm to get a throw back to home plate or the infield in a timely enough manner to keep runners from advancing or to stop a run from scoring. So, at eleven years old, rightfield became my position, a lonely, forgotten place where the action seldom was, and that was fine by me.

See, not many balls were ever hit to rightfield. In my neighborhood lefthanded hitters were few and scarce, and some of the boys who’d took up switch-hitting weren’t accomplished enough to get all the way around on their swing and pull the ball to right, and if they did, hardly any of them managed to put enough power into that swing to lift the ball on a fly all the way to where I, the rightfielder, was positioned, so I had a lot of time to stand in my spot with my glove watching the action taking place on the faraway diamond without getting very involved. I’d cram a whole dill pickle in my cheek so it would look like I was chewing tobacco, and stand and look at my glove and spit out pickle juice in the summer sun waiting for three outs to be recorded so I could come in and sit in the shade on the third base side in peace where the trees and the creek ran and not be subject to abject terror and fear of failure for a while, or at least until it was my time to come to bat.

(It’s about this time when I always wake up, and there I am, a man in his seventies dreaming of a long past time. In this dream I feel the grass of rightfield beneath my sneakers and taste the dill pickle lodged in my cheek. A game is underway and I can see the batter at home plate swing and miss. I know I’ll awake soon and all this will be gone, but it is nice reliving this moment again even if I am years away from it now, and so I close my eyes once more and slip back inside the dream.)

We played three-inning games on those summer days, doubleheaders, one in the morning before we’d break for lunch, and then we’d meet back at the field two hours later for the second game in the afternoon. Sometimes there would be eighteen boys, sometimes not, in which case we’d eliminate the catcher and go on with the game that way. In my dream it is always the afternoon game. The score is tied and it is the bottom half of the third. If the other team scores, they will win the game. There is a man on second. Two men are out. I am watching the action closely, hoping not to be the one to mess up and make my team lose.

“You need to be on your toes,” a voice tells me. “You have to be ready to go get the ball if it’s hit this way. If you can’t catch it on the fly you’ve got to cut it off before it gets by and get the throw home as fast as you can. You can’t let that runner score if you can help it.”

I look over to where the voice is coming from. Rocky Colavito stands three feet away, dressed in his Detroit Tigers uniform.

“When I was with the Indians, I always played leftfield,” he explains. He points to the Old English insignia on his cap. “Then when I got traded to the Tigers, they put me in right.”

This statement seems logical to me, since here we are, Rocky and I standing in rightfield together. I don’t stop and question why Rocky Colavito is here with me. He is, after all, my favorite player, and he was always with me in one way or another, so his being with me in rightfield now makes perfect sense, and him being a Tiger is on the money too. I’d deserted the Indians the year Rocky got traded for Harvey Kuenn, and since Rocky was on the Tigers now, that automatically made the Tigers my favorite team.

“If the ball gets hit down the line and you can’t get to it to catch it on the fly, you’ve got to position yourself to where you can field it on a bounce while you’re heading toward the infield,” he tells me. “That way you can put all your arm into the throw because you’re moving in that direction. You throw with your feet and legs, you know, as much as you do with your arm. You have to have all three of them working together to make a strong throw.”

“I read once that when you were in the Pacific Coast League you stood at home plate and threw a ball 436 feet over the centerfield fence. You must have had to get a running start to do that.”

“No. I just had a stronger arm than anybody else.”

“You hit four home runs in one game. You went a whole season without making an error. The Indians haven’t been the same since you left. They got Harvey Kuenn, and the Tigers got you. It wasn’t a very even trade.”

“Maybe you’re right. You know, after a while I made more money than Al Kaline did. Mr. Tiger, they called him.” Rocky smiles. “People forget, back in those days I was more popular than Kaline was.” He joins his hands together behind his neck and stretches, the same way he always did with his bat before he stepped into the box. “We better stop talking and pay attention to what’s going on,” he says. “We’re liable to be out here jabbering away and a ball could be coming right at you before you know it. You’ve got to always make sure you’re ready for anything.”

I look in toward the infield and see the batter foul off a pitch. That made it strike two. I started hoping maybe he would strike out and I could go in and be safe for a while, or at least until the next inning. It was always during the last innings of close games when I’d start worrying if I was going to be the one who messed up. There was a reason, I knew, that I was always the last one chosen when sides were being picked. It was like I worried so much and tried so hard that I constantly goofed up. This kept me from being anywhere near as good as the other boys; I was constantly shaking in the pit of my stomach thinking everybody was going to hate me for being bad and striking out with runners on base or making an error that let somebody score and caused us to lose. Maybe such terrible things hadn’t really ever happened that much, but I still worried about it. I played those scenarios over in my head nearly every night.

The sun is high in the summer sky and shining on my face. It is ninety out in rightfield, and the pickle in my cheek is no longer cool and secreting cold juice but a shriveled shell with the life sucked out of it. I realize I’ve been so tense I’d drawn out the dill liquid breathing in and out, setting my jaw, gnashing my teeth. I ask Rocky if he has ever felt this way, tense and worried and expecting the worst to happen, or if he’d always kept a smile on his face, was just that relaxed handsome guy I remembered him as being, that fellow who enjoyed being out there in the field or coming up to bat with the game on the line, day after day.

“How did you do it?”

“It wasn’t as easy as it looked,” he says. “There was always a lot expected out of me. You could hit four home runs one day, and then get booed the next time when you struck out with the bases loaded.”

“But the fans all loved you.”

“They always love you until you don’t do what they want you to do. If you single up the middle they wonder why you didn’t swing for the fences. If you make a throw to keep a runner from advancing they wonder why you didn’t throw behind him and catch him off base. After a while you learn that in the game of baseball you fail more than you succeed. Once you understand that, you’re okay. You know it’s impossible to live up to everybody’s expectations and you don’t hear the jeers so much anymore. You go into a slump and everybody boos you, and then the next at bat comes and you wallop one way over the flagpole in centerfield. You round the bases and you hear the applause and the cheers and it’s like none of the bad stuff ever happened. That’s just the way it goes.”

“I’ll never hit a home run,” I tell him. “I’m too little and skinny. I don’t have the power.”

“You’ll fill out,” he says, looking me over. “You’re not going to be a shrimp all your life.” He holds two hands up and shows them to me. “It’s not so much muscles you need. It’s in the wrists. The wrists are what does it. Look at Hank Aaron.” He wiggles his fingers and moves his hands from side to side. “Anyway,” he says, “you’ve at least got a good arm. I’ve seen you throw. We can start with that and then move on to the other stuff later.”

“Do you mean you think I’ll be a ballplayer? Do you think someday I’ll be like you and go to the major leagues?”

“Maybe,” he says. “There’s always a chance. You never know.”

The batter swings and I hear the crack of the bat and see how the ball is on a line over the second baseman’s head, not traveling to left or center but directly in front of me and sinking fast. I have only a micro-second to decide how I want to play the ball. Do I want to sprint as fast as I can and try to dive and catch it for the third out? Or do I want to run in and field the ball on a bounce and on the run make the throw to home to beat the runner there before he scores? Is my arm strong enough? Can I dive for the ball and actually come up with it? I could be a hero or I could lose the game—I have only a heartbeat to make up my mind.

Do I have time to ask Rocky? He’ll tell me if there is time enough.

This is when I wake up. I lay in bed and it’s all so real and it’s like it just happened and wasn’t a dream at all. But before I’m completely awake and have to step into the uninspiring reality of who I am and where I am, what day this is and how I’m not that kid out in rightfield anymore, I close my eyes and revel in a moment of the past that may or may not have happened, real or imaginary, whatever the case may be.

I can’t say I ever made a diving catch to save a game. I can’t remember throwing out a runner at home with a strong throw that got there so fast and on the mark, a throw that had made the crowd gasp in astonishment. So much of what went on in my boyhood was hard to distinguish between actually happening or simply manifesting in my head and transpiring into a vision of the way I wanted things to be.

But I do remember pegging the ball on a line from rightfield once so long and hard and accurate that it made everyone playing for a split moment look at me differently. I also remember stepping up to the plate one golden at bat and clouting a ball on the sweet fat barrel of my Louisville Slugger with Rocky Colavito’s autograph etched on it over the leftfielder’s head and traveling like a rocket over the makeshift sawhorses with rope tied between them we used as markers for an automatic home run in those days, just so we could be like big leaguers there on our field in the hot summertime, on that field where we’d made bases from old tee shirts and raised a mound from dirt and sprinkled sand around the batter’s box, and trot around the bases after a home run like we were players on the Game of the Week. I saw that ball climb and soar and the leftfielder stop and watch it clear the sawhorse, and for a tick in time I was allowed the thrill of jogging leisurely around the bases and coming down the third base line knowing there was no throw coming to beat me at home, to tag me out, because this was automatic, this was what a fellow got to do when he launched a long ball.

And somehow I knew that Rocky was watching right then and that he was smiling and proud of me.

I was a ballplayer.

Well, I grew up like all boys do and got interested in girls and cars, went to college and got a sheepskin, and now I’m this old guy with a wife and grownup children and grandkids and a house in the suburbs. I don’t have to worry about who’s better than me anymore. I don’t have to call on illusions and phantoms to help me get by and I accept myself for the person life has had me become.

Yet sometimes I pass by a park or a field where kids are playing ball. They always seem so serious and intent, and I somehow sense what’s going on in their heads. I know they are walking that fine line of happiness and dejection, of success and failure, of wanting to prove somehow that they belong with these other kids around them, that they are ballplayers too.

And I always look over in rightfield and seek out that one lonesome soul who’s out there by himself. I wonder if there’s a friendly spirit out there with him right then, telling him what to do next, assuring him that in the end everything is going to turn out okay. And as I drive by and the game disappears, I think of Rocky and smile all the way home.





* As of this writing, Rocky Colavito is still alive and resides in a small town outside Cleveland, Ohio. He is represented in this work by his spirit and memory of lost days gone but not forgotten.

Thanks, Rocky!




Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-07-17
Image(s) are public domain.
3 Reader Comments
Bernie
07/17/2023
05:31:46 PM
As usual Ralph, you're spot-on with imagery. I can remember when everyone else was better at everything that mattered to kids as your story beautifully portrays. And today, which coincidentally is my 70th birthday, I am indeed comfortable with "the person life has had me become."

Perhaps as I sit down to write again, I'll imagine you sitting across the desk from me, and I'll ask "do you think I can write this?"

"There's always a chance," you'll say. "You never know."

Thanks for the birthday gift, Ralph.
Harvey
07/18/2023
02:46:59 PM
Nicely done.
Jim Hartley
08/09/2023
09:42:46 AM
Enjoyed the article. Glad to have heard about it and called it up. I'm out of the Nashville loop so I don't hear much about your writing.
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