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Bottom Of The Ninth
By: Wayne Brown
“Charge!” roars the crowd as keyboardist blasts his musical call-to-duty from the scoreboard speakers. Standing here in the home team dugout on the losing side is not the best position to be in at the moment.
The scoreboard shows the hometown favorites down by two in the bottom of the ninth and there are already two outs. This is the last go round; what it all comes down to so often in this game of baseball. It’s finally "nut-cuttin’ time" as they say in the locker room. The visitors have their cleanup stationed on the pitchers’ mound fresh and ready to shutdown production so they can head home a winner. The hometown crowd is restless. They are like a hungry jungle cat after its raw meat. They want a playoff berth and this is the ticket.
The crack of the bat signals success as a low line drive bullets between short and second and rolls into shallow left field. Jennings is standing on the first base bag glad to slip in at this late hour. You grab your favorite bat and move to the on-deck circle. Smithers walks to the plate, kicks a little dirt around and steps into the box nervously eyeing the relief pitcher.
Charlie “Night-Train” Williams is on the mound doing clean up duties tonight. Ol’ Charlie is a pretty decent guy who you played AA ball with way back when. They call him “Night-Train” because when he brings the heat, it’s usually the express run and it doesn’t slowdown for crossings. Charlie has sent his share back to the dugout empty-handed cursing his name in mumbled breath. He’s earned his spot on this mound and the way the scoreboard looks, he’s earning his paycheck tonight.
Smithers passes on the first pitch for a ball and gets ahead in the count. The ritualistic first pitch is out of the way now. Smithers is ready to hit and “Night-Train” is plotting to rob his dreams. Smithers lets it go for a strike. The dance has begun with both tasting blood. You tap the bat against your right cleat and knock out some dirt that is not there. According to the ritual of the on-deck, you know you need to do some spitting, scratching, and swinging before your turn comes. The crowd expects it. Smithers lays down a bunt ball on the third pitch that twists down along the first baseline almost tangled in his running feet. The catcher struggles from his squat hurriedly trying to get his hand to the ball. He connects spins and throws to second in an attempt to head off the lead runner. Too late, Jennings is safe standing up at second.
The keyboardist is at it again and the crowd is fired up. They sense a recovery for the home team. The elements are in place now. The runs needed to tie it up are standing on the bags. You represent the win as you stride toward the plate. No pressure you think. The whole damn thing is now riding on my head. Regardless of what other mistakes were made in these nine innings of baseball, it all now comes down to your turn at bat. In a matter of seconds, you can become a hero or be well on your way to achieving permanent “bum” status if you go down for the count and leave those runs on the bags. No, there’s no pressure here.
You hold clear of the box and take a couple of swings then glance out at Charlie Williams on the mound. He stands on the rubber studying the seams on the ball patiently waiting his round with you. You think how nice it would be to get into Charlie’s head right now and see his plan. Pitchers study hitters and try to work their weak sides. You wonder what Charlie thinks your weak side is today. Charlie looks up and glances your way indicating that he is ready. You look him straight in the eye, adjust the batting helmet one more time and step in the box.
A quick glance down the line to the coach indicates that you will take the first pitch, let it go. On the first pitch, that’s about a given in this game so there is no surprise when you see the sign. Charlie winds up here it comes. A curve ball, no a slider and a damn good one too you think as the umpire yells “Strikkke!” and does his little dance. Damn you, Charlie, if they didn’t have me under contract, I would have taken a cut at that one you think as you ready for the second pitch.
With runners on base, Williams works from the stretch wind up. He takes his first motion of the stretch, checks the runners and then fires a throw to second. Jennings gets back to the bag in time but he’s been warned. In your mind, you know the throw to second had nothing to do with Jennings, it was all about getting into your head and breaking up your rhythm. Charlie was not pitching to a fool. You step out of the box as a countermeasure. Baseball is a battle of wits.
The umpire gives you a look and says, “Let’s play ball.” Yeah, you think, let’s do. You step back in the box and Charlie Williams delivers the mail. It’s a high rambler and you feel the urge to go after it. You always feel that way when you see those high ones. They joke about you in the locker room saying that you have a drinking problem. Yeah, you can’t lay off of those “high balls”. But you check yourself on this one and the umpire makes the “ball” call just like you predicted.
One and one is the count; you and ol’ Charlie are even up now. Here he comes with the next pitch. It’s the slider again. You wait and see that it will find the zone. You swing only to hear the ball snap into the catcher’s mitt. “Strike Two!” the umpire roars. The umpire signals you out of the box. He wants to brush the dirt off the plate; do a bit of house-keeping. His interruption plays to someone’s strategy, maybe yours, maybe Charlie’s; only time will tell. The umpire nods and takes his position and you step back in the box and set your feet readying yourself for yet another pitch. The noise from the crowd is gone now. Your world is silent. It’s just you and ol’ Charlie out there on the mound and both of you know that it’s gettin’down to nut-cuttin’ time.
What’s in your head Charlie? you wonder as you gaze out at him taking his time shaking off the catcher’s signals. You check down the line to the coach for the signal. “Hit away” he signs to you. The wheels are turning in your head rapidly. Charlie has you down in a 2 and 1 count. He is ahead of you and you are only one pitch away from his day being over if you figure him correctly. Charlie could hold back on this one and throw a change up; take a chance on a ball or two and still be alive. On the other hand, he could also serve up the heat and send that night-train fast ball blasting past you while you stood in place. Yeah, you think, come on Charlie, bring the heat, bring it! You are ready to go for broke and stop the drama.
Williams goes into his familiar stretch, checks the runners, and hurls the pitch with an audible groan. The night-train is on its way once again coming down the gut at blinding speed. It’s all you can do to just keep the ball in sight as it blasts toward the plate. You set your feet, shift your weight, and unconsciously pull back on the bat a bit and then swing. The crack of the wood making contact with the speeding ball pierces your ears before any of your senses tell you that you have hit the ball.
The stitched orb rockets on a rising arch toward center field gaining height, speed and distance. Time seems to almost come to a standstill. The center fielder is moving in a run back toward the wall. The elements are taking shape. The ball continues on its path well above the top of the wall and far from the outstretched hands of the center fielder. It careens into the center field bleacher seats and fans go diving for the precious souvenir. You watch with satisfaction and relief. You trot off toward first base for your victory run around the bags. As you head down the line you glance out toward the mound and catch Charlie William’s eye. He grins and winks. “Night-Train” knows you’re a sucker for a fastball.