Thomas Healy

 

Overseas

 

i

     “A good thief must be as smart as he is quick.  He cannot rely only on his speed or he’ll be caught nearly every time.  He must figure out in his brain pan the right time to make his move.”

     Abruptly, for an instant, Cliff Rader turned his head and spit out a long stream of tobacco juice.

     “Now, are there any questions?”

     There were none so he slapped his hands together and motioned for the ball players to queue up along the first base line to practice base stealing.  He didn’t always remember their names so he addressed them as “squires,” a moniker often used by Barney Simmons, the first year manager of the London Lancers baseball team.

     “Remember now, squires, keep your eyes on the pitcher,” Rader reminded the players as he walked over to third base where he would give the sign to steal.  “Always look at his shoulders to find out what his intentions are.  If his shoulder is turned to you, he’s probably going to throw over to the bag so this would not be a good time to attempt to steal.”

     The first runner he flashed the steal sign to was picked off by the pitcher by a good foot and a half but the next two runners managed to execute their steals.  Then one after another was picked off or thrown out, often because they shuffled their feet when they started their steal.  He was not discouraged, though, because he knew the game of baseball was as strange to these young men as nearly everything in London was to him.

     “Run as if your hair’s on fire!” he shouted across the diamond at one lumbering runner.  “As if you really are a thief running from the police!”

     This was only his second week in London so he was still trying to teach the rudimentary skills of base stealing to the English players.  He had little doubt most of them had the innate speed to steal bases but they lacked the technique and judgment and he knew a savvy pitcher would easily pick them off one by one.  Sliding, in particular, was a skill that was difficult for them to execute.  A few went in head first, despite his warning of the increased risk of injury, but most slid as if they had slipped on a wet spot and lost their balance and sprawled across the bases.

     “Do not slide on your side,” he said repeatedly as he taught them the conventional hook slide, “but on your rear end with your hands in the air so you catch the outside of the bag with your bent left leg.”

     He had the players practice sliding in the grass so they could see the stains on their pants.  If they were on the side of their legs, it meant they were not sliding correctly.  And, at first, nearly all the stains were on the sides but gradually they disappeared as he stressed the importance of executing a proper hook slide.

     “You steal second base you can be as much of a hero of a game as someone who hits a home run,” he told them.  “Not only do you eliminate the easy double play but you can score on almost any ball hit out of the infield.  Believe me, squires, a good thief is a very valuable person to have on a baseball team.”

 

*

 

     Cliff Rader was an outstanding high school baseball player, earned second team All State honors his senior year, and was offered a partial scholarship to play for a community college outside Baltimore.  He had even a higher batting average there than he did in high school and signed a contract with the Orioles organization soon after his team was eliminated from the playoffs that year.  He was assigned to their Single A club in Frederick where he hit just a shade under three hundred.  The next season, after playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, he moved up another classification and by the middle of the season was playing on the Triple A club in Norfolk where he met Barney Simmons who was the hitting instructor for the ball club.  Once a top prospect in the organization, Simmons spent only a season and a half on the Orioles roster then had to retire before he was twenty-four because of a chronically sore left shoulder that prevented him from getting the bat around quickly enough to get decent wood on the ball.

     “I wasn’t even around long enough to be considered a has-been,” he said more than once to him in a caustic tone.

     Rader, who had trouble hitting breaking balls thrown at the Triple A level, spent a lot of time with Simmons trying to improve his swing, and, as a result, they became quite close with Simmons serving as something of a mentor to him in professional baseball.  They often went out for beers after a game, just the two of them, talking as much about their families as they did about baseball, and even after Rader was called up to the parent club he stayed in contact with Simmons whom he thought of as the older brother he never had.  Not only did he seek his advice about hitting but about all sorts of matters that had nothing to do with baseball.  One matter he didn’t discuss with him, though, was gambling because he knew how opposed he was to ball players gambling away their hard earned money.  He believed it made about as much sense as tossing a paycheck into an incinerator and sternly cautioned him against it the first time he heard him and some others in the clubhouse boast about all the money they had won the previous night at the dog track.

     “Long, long ago a relative of mine, who gambled away all he had a couple of times in his life, offered me some very sound advice,” he relayed to Rader, “which is that the only sure advantage in gambling is not to play at all.”

     “Not everyone who gambles loses everything.”

     “No, not everyone, but a fair share do and I don’t want to see you be one of them.”

     “I just do it for fun, Barney.  It’s something that relaxes me.”

     “There are a hell of a lot better ways to relax than throwing away your money but that’s up to you, kid.  You’re old enough to make up your own mind.”

 

*

 

     Not surprisingly, Rader continued to have trouble hitting breaking balls after he joined the Orioles but he was kept on the roster because of his defensive skills in the outfield and, even more, because of his blazing speed on the base paths.  Often he was inserted in games to steal a base, which more often than not he was able to do, and sometimes late in games he was put in to steal home.  That, by far, was the most difficult base of all to steal and seldom was he successful.  The first time he tried he was so nervous his heart was in his throat because the manager called for a “suicide squeeze” so that he had to start running to the plate as soon as the pitcher began to throw the pitch.  The run he scored won the game and he was so elated that afterward he rolled dice for a couple of hours in the clubhouse with some of the attendants.  He lost nearly $400 but he didn’t mind because that night he was the star of the game.

     He was making so much money as a big league ball player that $400 seemed little more than pocket change and regularly he won and lost a lot more than that at the track.  Big Ollie, an uncle of his, trained greyhounds and often as a youngster he accompanied him to the track to watch his dogs race.  Always his uncle gave him a handful of quarters to bet on the races, and though he lost more often than he won, the thrill of having a stake in the outcome of the races was enormous.  And because he craved that rush of excitement so much he continued to bet on dogs and horses and all kinds of other competitions.  He never regarded himself as someone with a gambling problem because he believed he was always in control of his decisions and could stop whenever he wished.

     He never really made any serious money until he got to the big leagues so it was then that he started making some pretty hefty bets on everything from bicycle races to beauty pageants.  About the only competition he didn’t wager on was baseball, mindful of the strict prohibition against betting on games established by the commissioner after the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  Indeed, the Draconian Rule 21 was posted in every clubhouse in the league.

     “You break that rule you’re out of the game pretty much for good,” Simmons reminded him just before he left for Baltimore.

     By the end of his second season with the Orioles his betting had got way out of hand, with his losses amounting to thousands of dollars some weekends.  And when he failed to cover some of them he received threats of physical injury from some of the people he owed money so he was compelled to borrow money from friends and family members and other players.  Always he was confident with a few good bets he could turn things around but he never won enough to dig himself out of debt.  Then, as the losses soared and he could no longer find anyone to borrow from, he started to write bad checks to satisfy his creditors.

     The following season, in the middle of spring training, he was arrested by Florida police officers as he stepped out of the batting cage and subsequently, after a bench trial, was convicted and fined $1,000 and sentenced to thirty-six months in prison.  Immediately, upon his conviction, he was given his unconditional release by the Orioles, which didn’t really surprise him since he had clearly embarrassed the organization.  Still, after he served his sentence, which was reduced to eighteen months for good behavior, he expected other clubs to offer him a contract, since there was never any suggestion that he bet on baseball games, but he didn’t hear from a single team.  Not even from a minor league club not affiliated with a big league team.  He was incredulous, thought for sure some team could use his services as a base runner at least.  He was one of the fastest players in the American League, able to steal a base as well as anyone he believed.

     “You let too many people down,” his agent told him the morning he called to terminate their association.  “You stole their trust almost as easily you use to steal second base and now they don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore.  As far as they’re concerned, you’re history … ancient history.”

 

ii

 

     Three players crouched in front of Rader, their vintage Spalding gloves looking as worn as their jerseys, waiting for him to hit another ground ball.  Behind them, in the outfield, other players were catching fly balls hit by Simmons.  Then, abruptly, Rader chopped a soft grounder between the two Bedford brothers and, at once, Colin stepped in front of his older brother, Simon, and caught it in the web of his glove.  Quickly he threw it back and Rader hit it toward the team’s first baseman, Jibrail Salaam, who fielded it easily and tossed it back and Rader hit it right back to him with a huge grin.

     Ever since he learned to play pepper in Little League, he had enjoyed the traditional baseball drill because it sharpened his reflexes both as a hitter and a fielder.  Never much of a practice player, this was one drill he genuinely enjoyed and for several minutes before a game would go back and forth at it with teammates, sometimes even using two balls at once, so that one had to stay alert if he didn’t want to get hit by one of the balls.  He was so fond of the drill that he even taught some of the inmates he got to know in prison how to play it, which they initially did with rocks until a guard found them a couple of bald softballs.

     “If my reflexes were half as sharp as they are now,” one inmate told him after a week of playing pepper, “I might never have been arrested.”

     Still smiling, as he slapped the ball back between the Bedfords, he realized how good it was to be playing baseball again, even in cold, damp, dreary England.  He almost wanted to cry in jubilation he felt so good after being out of the game for nearly four years.  And, even though he hated to admit it, he had pretty much figured he was out of baseball for good until Simmons called a couple of months ago to ask if he would be interested in becoming a coach with the London Lancers.  He was stunned, not only by the offer but to hear from his old friend after more than a year.

     “And who are the London Lancers, Barney?”

     “A professional baseball team, God willing.”

     He then explained that he had been hired by the Director of Major League Baseball in Europe to manage one of six teams in the United Kingdom in an effort to promote interest in the game in other countries.  Besides the United Kingdom, leagues were sponsored in the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany.  The caliber of play, he admitted, was pretty modest, not much better than what would be found on a mediocre high school team, but claimed the enthusiasm of the players was outstanding.

     Rader was skeptical about the project.  “Do you really expect to find talent in countries that don’t know anything about the game, Barney?”

     “Well, there’s always that hope of finding a diamond in the rough,” he answered, “but, between you and me, I think it’s mainly a marketing ploy to sell some merchandise overseas.”

     “Yeah, that makes some sense, I guess.”

     “So, my friend, are you interested or not in joining me in this undertaking?” he pressed him after they reminisced a few minutes about their time together in the Orioles organization.  “It’s an opportunity to get yourself back in the game even if it’s about the lowest level imaginable.”

     “I suppose beggars can’t be choosers, can they?”

     “No, I suppose not.”

     “Of course I’d like to help you out,” he said excitedly.  “The only time I ever get to touch a bat and a ball nowadays is when I’m trying to sell one of them at the sporting goods store where I’ve worked since I got out of the graybar hotel.”

     “Maybe I’m out of line for mentioning this, Cliff, but I feel I need to warn you that there are bookies everywhere in London, known as “turf accountants,” who’ll take bets on just about anything.  And if you cross them they make sure you never do it again.”

     “You don’t have to worry about me placing any bets,” he assured him.  “I learned my lesson the hard way and haven’t bet so much as a quarter since I got out.”

     “That’s good to hear.”

     “I may be as poor as a church mouse but I’m not in debt to anyone.”

 

*

 

     As a ball player, whenever Rader visited a city for the first time, he always made an effort to walk around a little in order to get to know the place better.  So, a couple of mornings after he arrived in London, he rode a double-decker bus from the bed and breakfast where he was staying to Piccadilly Circus, a bustling area in the heart of the city.  For a moment, after he got off the bus, he paused against a lamppost and looked all around, still not quite believing he was in another country thousands and thousands of miles from home.  Then, after pulling down the brim of an old Orioles cap, he strolled past the Eros statue where several young people who appeared as out of place as he did sat, strumming guitars and sharing cigarettes.

     Heading north, he was amazed by all the people on the sidewalk, suspected if he paused to tie a shoelace he would be trampled by them they were in such a rush.  They spoke almost as rapidly as they walked, too, often in languages he didn’t understand.  Men in bowler hats hurried by, women in high boots and long, flowing skirts.  Up ahead, striding toward him, was a constable who had on the distinctive black conical custodian helmet that Rader associated with all the old Sherlock Holmes films he used to watch as a youngster on rainy Saturday afternoons.  Uncontrollably he smiled to himself as he walked past the stern young policeman.

     “Elementary,” he said in silence as he started up Regent Street.  “It’s all elementary, my dear Watson.”

     As he passed one elegant store after another, sometimes pausing in front of their elaborate display windows, all he could think of were his days in the Show when he earned plenty of money so that he could afford to shop at such places.  Not now, though, not for quite a while.  And certainly he would not be earning any big paychecks coaching for some semi-professional team in London but he hoped that if he did a good enough job he might get hired by a big league club again.

     Minutes later, after leaving Regent Street, he spotted a betting shop in the middle of the block and slowly approached it, knowing that before he was arrested he would have rushed to enter the place.  He knew what he promised Simmons before he arrived in England, knew he should walk on by, but before he realized it he was inside the crowded little shop.  Bettors, known as “punters” in England, were lined up in front of the cashier to place their bets while those who already had stood in front of the enormous television screen in the corner.  On it horses were being led to the starting gate at some track in Ireland that was ankle-deep in mud.  Rader was tempted to watch the race but was afraid, if he did, he might be inclined to stay a while and maybe place a bet on the next race.  So, almost as quickly as he entered the shop, he left, thoroughly pleased with himself that he had resisted the temptation.

     “You win anything, governor?” a scrawny man in a flat tweed cap asked as he stepped by Rader to enter the shop.

     “No, not today,” he answered, “but I didn’t lose, either.”

     The man grinned.  “Well, guv, I guess you’re still walking on the sunny side of the street then, aren’t you?”

     He nodded, still heading north, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his baseball jacket.  A light mist began to fall but he didn’t mind and continued on, eager to explore as much of the city as he could this morning.  At moments, he felt right at home, recognizing familiar sights and scents, but most of the time he felt as if he were not only in another country but in another time.

     All of a sudden, as he approached a busy crosswalk, he heard a woman scream and wheeled around and saw her pointing at a man racing across the street.

     “That man’s a thief!” she shouted furiously.  “He took my purse!”

     At once, Rader took off after him, dodging past an ice cream vendor.  He bumped into one person after another but didn’t stop, not for an instant, and charged ahead, as if he were trying to steal a base.  His legs felt strong, his arms too, and gradually he was gaining on the thief when the guy suddenly tossed the purse in the street and jumped aboard a bus.  Breathing heavily, Rader picked up the purse and took it back to the frantic woman, feeling as pleased with himself as he had in a long time.

 

*

 

     A few nights later, still exploring the strange city, Rader walked along part of the Embankment then crossed Waterloo Bridge and headed toward Leicester Square where his landlady told him there were plenty of inexpensive places to get a bite to eat.  He moved slowly, his legs still not adjusted to the change in time zones.  Back in Baltimore he would be sound asleep now, he knew, probably for a couple of hours already.  

     Nearly every other step he took a deep breath, trying to shake off the sluggishness he felt in his legs.  “You’ve got on concrete galoshes,” he remembered a coach telling him once after he got thrown out trying to steal third base.  Smiling, he definitely felt as if he were wearing such footwear tonight as he trudged down a narrow stone paved street.

     It rained earlier that afternoon so puddles were everywhere, bright as medallions in the moonlight.  Carefully he stepped around them, not wanting to get his new walking shoes wet.  He had almost reached the end of the street when a yellow cat suddenly appeared, her back arched, and hissed at him and immediately he stamped his foot but she didn’t budge an inch.

     You know where you belong all right, he thought, not sure if he did, and stepped past her and headed down another narrow street.

     Soon he saw the bright lights of the Square and was relieved he was going in the right direction.  He thought he was but wasn’t entirely certain because he had been lost a couple of times already in the week he had been in the city.  Just the other morning he boarded a bus that he thought would take him back to his bed sitting room when he suddenly started to have doubts and had to ask several other passengers before he found one who assured him he was on the right bus.

     “You got something for me, mate?” a ragged figure in the doorway of a pub asked as Rader approached the establishment.

     “Pardon me?”

     “You’re not from here I bet, are you?”

     “Nope.”

     “Nope,” he repeated, snickering.  “You sound like Gary Cooper.  You from the States?  Is that where you’re from, Mr. Cooper?”

     Rader did not answer him but continued on, lengthening his stride a little.

     “Hey, lads,” the guy muttered to some others in the pub, “this bloke from the States won’t talk to me.  Thinks he’s too goddamn good to talk to the likes of me.”

     Jerk, he thought to himself, as he walked past the pub.

     All of a sudden something, probably a rock, maybe an ashtray, struck him in the back of the neck.  He was tempted to turn around to see who threw it but, instead, kept walking, not wanting to get in a confrontation his first week in London.  Something else then grazed his left shoulder then the back of his neck again.

     “Son of a bitch!”

     At once, despite how sluggish he felt, he started to run and splashed through one puddle after another.  His arms churning, he raced past an overturned bench, past someone else in a doorway, past heaps and heaps of garbage.  He was sure whoever threw those things at him was far back, if he even came after him, but he didn’t look around and ran as hard as he could until he got to Leicester Square which was as crowded as a supermarket.  Not having any idea where to go, he ducked into a dingy pub and ordered a pint and sat down at a table that allowed him a clear view of all who entered the place.

     Still breathing heavily, he was absolutely exhausted and sat with his legs sticking straight out from his chair.  His shirt was so soaked with sweat it stuck to his back.  He had put on at least fifteen pounds since his playing days but he still was pretty fast in short spurts.  He was not surprised even though he hadn’t run that hard since he was a ball player.  One thing he could always do was run fast.  As a kid, he was faster than anyone, and all through his baseball career he was the fastest one on the team.

     Grinning, he recalled the times during intervals between races at the dog track when his uncle entertained the crowd by having him race after the mechanical rabbit that the dogs pursued.  He never got close to the damn thing, which made the crowd roar with laughter, but he was sure no one else his age could have got any closer than he did.

 

*

     Jibrail slashed a slider over the head of the first baseman, who made a futile attempt to get his glove on it, and as the ball rolled into the corner of right field the runner on second base rounded third and headed home.  The right fielder made a strong throw to the plate, which forced the runner to slide.  His hands up, he hooked his left leg as he was taught and, just barely, avoided being tagged out.  It was the first run the Lancers had scored in the game.  Immediately the entire team erupted from the dugout and huddled around the runner, including Rader who was especially pleased by his near perfect execution of a hook slide.

     “You couldn’t have done it any better, squire,” he shouted, slapping the youngster on the shoulders.  “Goddamn outstanding!”

     “I had a good teacher.”

     Rader laughed, as ecstatic as if he were the one who scored.

  

THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS

© 2015 by William Ray