Whoosh! Smack! Each hurl of the ball ripped through the air like the sound of faraway firecrackers, cracking in the wind. There was no mistaking five ounces of high-velocity leather snapping into a catcher’s mitt.
“What’s the speed on that last one?” Nicky asked, removing his cap.
“97!” the assistant called back as he looked again at the number on the speed gun.
“Damn! That’s fast!” Nicky scratched his head. He spat a wad of tobacco on the ground and then slipped a tin of chew from his training jacket. He placed another pinch inside his cheek. “Play some college ball, Son?”
“No, Sir,” I replied, shaking my head. “I did play in high school, though...”
“Pitcher?” he quizzed.
“Nope,” I gestured, thumb down, digging my foot into the bright red clay behind the rubber.
“That’s hard to believe. Who could have missed you...and a Lefty too?” He continued muttering. “Impossible, I would have dragged you...”
Nicky was still shaking his head when my throw interrupted him mid-sentence. Whack! The echo signaled that it was fast.
“That was 99!” the assistant called out.
“Bo Garrett, right?” Nicky asked, checking his clipboard. “You’re a local kid?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Portland, ninety miles up the road.”
“I love Maine,” he said. “The seafood, the microbrews; you know we’ve got Double-A?”
I nodded. “Sure do, the Sea Dogs, Mr. Cantor.”
“Kid, my dad was Mr. Cantor, call me Nicky. None of our scouts ever took a look at you?”
I shook my head. “They came by, watched our games, but I didn’t play much. I guess I was easy to miss, Nicky.” It was tough calling the great pitching coach by his first name.
“Well, you’re high and outside,” he hedged. “Unorthodox style.”
“I’ll take anything as a compliment,” I thought as I stepped back to the mound.
Nicky squinted. “Do you think you could settle down? I’d like to see you pitch to a live hitter.”
“You’ve got plenty of raw speed,” he reeled off. “No mechanics, but plenty of speed.” He scratched his thoughts onto the paper clamped on his clipboard.
“Alright,” I agreed.
Nicky motioned to a batter who was warming up near the dugout. The catcher ripped off his mask and ran up to me.
“You don’t have to rush. Take your time,” he said.
“He wants me to pitch to that?” I motioned to the big man in the circle. He was swinging the bat as though he wanted to kill something with it.
“It’s Bo, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah, you’re Billy Gaines. I feel like I know you.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, television - ain’t it something?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I answered with a wide-eyed nod.
“Listen to me Bo, you’ve got a weird spin on the ball he ain’t going to like, trust me.”
Nicky’s back was to us as Billy continued, “We’re not in a game right now. There’s no runner on base. It’s all about him, understand?”
He motioned his chin toward the batter. “You’re off balance. Stand tall and take a full windup, then step bigger toward the plate.”
“What if I hit him?”
“He’s sized you up. You’re fast, but wild. Use it to your advantage.”
“Got any other tips for me?”
“Take your time. Square up and aim for the outside.”
“I’ll try, Billy.”
“Don’t worry. Just let it rip. I’ll catch it,” he spoke with the confidence of a three-time golden glove known for hitting home runs.
Billy tapped my glove. “Bo, be sure to keep your head still, take a long stride toward me, and then release, fingers on the top of the ball. Throw through me, man!” He finished and placed the ball into my hand before returning to home plate.
That spin, he won’t like it. Billy’s words stuck with me as he got into position and shot a look at the batter stepping into the box.
Nicky’s son had spotted me at the Fryeburg Fair. He insisted he wouldn’t let me out of his sight until his dad saw me throw. It was the end of a perfect day, dusk, when we turned off food row onto the darkening midway – strings of flickering bulbs lit the wood shaved path.
We were munching Kettle corn when a carnival barker hollered out. ‘Win one for the pretty lady.’
Sally wandered over, turning to encourage me. I motioned for her to come back, but her enthusiastic smile gave me no choice but to follow.
“Bo, I love turtles, try!” she pleaded.
“One of those?” I teased, pointing to the overstuffed green smiley faces with ET eyes.
She nodded. “Yes.” Beaming, she pulled her blond hair back into a ponytail and twisted half way around. “Win me one.” She encouraged me, waving her hand to motion for me to play the game.