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Jon Sindell

Ryan's Catch

Tonight in Madison I made a diving catch of a sinking liner to center by Teddy Blackman with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the tying run on third, and the winning run on second. I broke in right away, not thinking about where the ball would go, but knowing where it would, 'cause I had to know; but I admit, my heart leaped into my throat when the ball took air halfway to the outfield and disappeared into the low bank of lights behind home plate. But the top-spin brought the ball down from the lights, and man what a feeling, sliding on my belly on the glistening grass with the ball in my glove! After the play everyone mobbed me, and not one guy asked “How could you reach the ball?” with those short arms of mine; and our pitcher, Frankie Pearl–my roomie, the first I’ve ever had–told me to keep the ball. Ordered me to keep it, actually. But the ball was Frankie’s. He was the one that had gutted out a complete game on a muggy August night, and he was the one that crossed-up that big Blackman with a 2-2 change and the game on the line. And we needed that win big-time, `cause we'd already lost three in a row, and Madison was threatening to run away with the division. Damned Muskeys. They're the A's Midwest League affiliate, and I'll tell you, there are some future Cansecos and Lansfords on that team, and Teddy Blackman's a dead ringer for Mark McGwire. Seriously, if these guys are as good as I think they are, in a few years The A's could have their best teams since the McGwire-Canseco-Eckersley A's of my Little League days.

I also have to admit, the catch came at a great time from a personal standpoint, since Jefferson Kasmer was in the stands; I’d spotted his straw hat behind home plate in the first. Kazzie's a roving scout for the Brewers, and he was in town to look at our players and give a report to the front office in Milwaukee. He talked to me afterwards, and from the questions he asked, I think I have a shot at moving up to Stockton. He said I'm really coming around, and that I just have to work hard to move up through the ranks. He meant it, I think; but the whole time he was talking to me–actually, I did most of the talking, I guess–he kept casting glances at Frankie, like a guy stuck on a date with the wrong girl. Whatever. I’ve been an afterthought before, and it hasn’t stopped me yet. I told Kazzie, I don't even think of playing ball as "work." He looked at me cockeyed, like I was putting on some kind of act to impress him. But it wasn't an act. I love the game, and I’m not too cool to admit it.

Naturally, Frankie and I couldn’t sleep. Frankie’s our ace, no doubt–the win improved him to 10 and 4. They can use him in Stockton, and Frankie would love to be closer to his family in Frisco (which is what I call it to get on his nerves). Some guys see Frankie’s wiry body and glasses, and watch him throw that easy fastball of his, and wonder how he can get anyone out. They should ask me, `cause Frankie's explained his pitching theories to me a thousand times–at least–usually when I'm trying to sleep. I don't mind listening, though. Frankie just can't sleep until he's explained, in minute detail, exactly how he’s pitched to every batter he’s faced that night. The thing is, Frankie has a deep voice, and an easy way of talking that's very hypnotic; and I was starting to nod off despite my excitement, as Frankie told me how he’d discovered a deep nick in the ball in the bottom of the fifth, and how he’d used it to get Felix Rodriguez out, which was “radically important,” he told me, because he wanted to face Elijah Trane, Madison's leadoff man and best hitter, with no one on to start the Sixth.

"Dude," I yawned, "weren't there any other plays in the game worth mentioning? I mean, it's important to get Rodriguez, but get real–every out’s crucial, to hear you talk.”

"We'll get to the ninth inning highlights soon enough," Frankie said. "Now, can I just finish telling the tale of the game?"

Well, The Pearl’s got a commanding presence, whether it's on the mound, in the dugout, or in a bar, chatting up girls, so I just laid back and stared at the ceiling as Frankie told me how he'd noticed Rodriguez standing with his foot in the bucket, and how he knew the nick in the ball would let him throw a hard-biting curve away after setting him up with heat up and in. Sure enough, Felix chased a curve away for strike three.

"It was a beautiful pitch," I said. You get a great view from center, and I've enjoyed watching Frankie tease hitters all season long. He’s way ahead of our league, mentally–but what do you expect from a guy whose favorite pitcher growing up was John Tudor?

"Thank you," said Frankie. Frankie’s not vain, he’s an artist–and like any artist, he craves understanding. So I let him talk me through the rest of the game with his typical thoroughness while I struggled to stay awake. You have to be a world class listener if you want to room with a pitcher. Especially one like The Pearl.

"Now then," Frankie said, leaning towards my bed and sticking a make-believe mike in my face, "about the Ninth." Frankie was doing his killer Vin Scully impersonation, with a pitch-perfect silvery twang. "That was a great catch, Ryan, certainly one of the finest catches we've seen all year–and what a year it's been, from the heartbreaking loss to Clinton on Opening Day, to the exhilaration of a doubleheader sweep in Madison on a warm June night–not to mention the thrill of learning the Madison Muskey cheer from two fair young flowers of that beautiful Midwestern town–and what I’d like to ask is, what with the bright lights and the white shirts in the stands on this humid Wisconsin night–" now he furrowed his brow and lowered his voice like Scully, conjuring for me all the childhood years I’d spent listening to Vinnie in the dark when I should have been sleeping–"did you know that you had the ball all the way?"

I felt a little silly talking into Frankie's hand, but the truth is, I'd interviewed myself thousands of times as a kid after imaginary game-saving catches and game-winning homers. "Well, Vinny," I said, "I knew it was hit hard, but I just had a feeling it was going to sink. What worried me most was the lights."

"Did you see the ball all the way?" Frankie asked with the Scullied brow.

"Well, Vinny, I lost it for a second when it went above the lights, but I just kept running to where I thought it would end up, and when it came out of the lights, I was lucky enough to make the play."

"I see," Frankie said, just like Vin. "And of course, Ryan Stein, you've made so many fine catches in your young career, and it's so hard to pick just one catch above all the rest–but if a man came up to you with a thousand dollars–and it could be any man, whether a shirt-sleeved denizen of Dodger Stadium, or a parka-clad patron of Candlestick Park–and said that you could have one thousand dollars for naming the greatest catch you've ever made–what would you say?"

Frankie was humoring me, obviously, but that's hard to answer. I mean, the best catch I've ever made? It's not that I've made so many great catches, but just this morning at the IHOP, I was trying to figure out how many catches I've made in my life–that’s the sort of thing you do to kill time on the road–and I figured, if you add up all the balls I caught as a kid on the lawn and out on the street all summer long growing up, and in Little League, and high school, and two years of junior college, and almost a year of pro ball, I must have caught over fifty thousand fly balls. "Well, Vinny, I don't know about a single best catch, but the catch tonight was a catch that a pro centerfielder should make," I said. "I'm just glad I could save it for Frankie Pearl."

"Well Ryan Stein, it was a great catch, an absolute dandy–one sure to earn you the everlasting gratitude of the baseball-loving citizens of Beloit."

"Thank you, Vinnie."

Frankie and I laid back and savored our triumph. I closed my eyes and thought about how the ball looked like a shining white streak as it fell out of the lights, and how the grass was so wet and cool as I slid on the grass with the ball in my glove, and how blades of grass stuck to my arms–and how the itchiness from the grass felt good now, a reminder of my moment of glory. I thought about Frankie grinning that wide grin of his and slapping me five when he met me halfway to centerfield, and ordering me to keep the game ball, and I thought about how much I'd miss Frankie if he went up to Stockton, and whether Jeff Kasmer was just blowing smoke when he said I might move up, too. I was still thinking about the catch when I drifted off to sleep, when the catch blended into another catch I'd made at eleven, in L.A., for the McClellan Park Pirates, against the Orioles–the scourge of the league. They were 13 and 1, and our sorry bunch was 1 and 13. They had a pitcher named Greg Sparks, a tall twelve year-old with a great fastball, and good control for a Little Leaguer. And as if that wasn't bad enough, he also threw a sharp curve, which is just not fair–it's hard enough for kids that age to hit fastballs.

I started the Orioles game in left–“left out,” as one of the kids called it–and I remember charging out to my position in the first inning and standing there alone in the outfield, waiting for the other outfielders to reach their positions. Randy Burke called me a hot dog once because I ran all the time, but I wasn't trying to show off by hustling. I just loved to run, and I loved to play–and I wanted to get out there fast. Still, the fact that my Uncle Gary was in the stands may have caused me to hustle a bit more that day. Gary was twelve years older than me, and when he was a kid he had played at McClellan Park, too, and was an All-Star every year. Then he went on to play third for UCLA. Best of all, he was a great guy, too. One great thing about him was that he'd play catch with me all the time, even though he was a college ballplayer and I was a little squirt. He'd take me to the park and throw to me for an hour at a time, throwing flies that were just out of reach, or that were catchable only with a long run and a dive. He'd run me like a dog, and that was fine with me, since I had the energy and enthusiasm of a dog. Of course, Gary was quite a ballplayer. We'd play catch at a distance of about a hundred-and-twenty feet, and he'd throw the ball hard and on target–no small feat, since a kid's a pretty small target at that distance, especially a kid like me. I actually liked catching Gary's hard throws more than I liked catching the cream-puff tosses of the kids on our team. I remember playing catch with Uncle Gary early one night that summer and noticing that he was throwing the ball harder with each throw. I realized he was testing me. I kept catching everything he threw my way until he was throwing really hard, almost as hard as he would in a game of catch with his college teammates. I'll tell you, it really boosts a kid's confidence to realize he can play a hard game of catch with a guy who could throw like Uncle Gary.

Our sacrificial lamb that day–in other words, our starting pitcher–was Brandon Breen, an eleven year-old who'd just started pitching. His dad, our manager, made him pitch. Brandon could throw hard, but he had a lot of trouble throwing strikes, which is probably true of just about every Little League pitcher who ever threw. Brandon would get discouraged at times because we never won, and because he was walking a lot of batters and giving up bunches of runs. Plus, his dad would get really upset when Brandon did poorly. Once my dad took Brandon and me to a Dodgers game and told us that Orel Hershiser wasn't very good during his first couple of years with the Dodgers, either. I knew that wasn't true, because I collected baseball cards and knew that Hershiser had an 11 and 8 record and a 2.66 ERA in his rookie season; but Dad thought it was true, and Brandon believed him.

For some reason, Brandon started the game throwing strikes; and to everyone’s amazement, the Orioles didn't score in the first. To everyone's further amazement, we scored against Greg Sparks in the bottom of the first. Our leadoff man was Johnny Elsberry, a speedy chatterbox who was always in overdrive. Sparks walked him, and kicked the dirt as Johnny charged down the line. Sparks took it out on Calvin Barry, blowing three fastballs by him. But then Sander Benjamin, the best hitter on our team, lined an outside fastball to right for a single. That brought up Jackson Brooks, a big redheaded kid who struck out a lot and batted clean-up because he was the biggest kid on the team, and just plain looked like a clean-up hitter. Sparks threw a fastball that Jackson ripped high in the air to deep left-center. It hit the chain-like fence on the fly, and Johnny and Sander scored while Jackson puffed into second. It was the biggest hit of the season by far, and we were all going nuts–and so were our folks, chanting, "Jack-son! Jack-son!" the way fans would yell "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" at Reggie Jackson. But Jackson didn't acknowledge the cheers, he just stood there on second fiddling with his batting gloves with a serious look on his face, like he’d seen so many times on t.v.. We stranded him, but we were beating the Orioles, two-zip.

I carried Jackson's first baseman's glove to him as I raced out to left start the second. Jackson liked to look and act like a big leaguer–I think he liked the gear and the rituals as much as the game–and I think he got a bang out of having his glove delivered to him. He took the glove and gave me a high five; and standing close to him, I could see how glad he was to have gotten the hit, even if he didn't show any emotion when he was standing on second with the parents cheering. I couldn’t blame him, though, `cause some of them hadn’t cheered much for him that year, and a couple had said some things about Jackson’s weight that they weren’t very careful to keep him from hearing.

Brandon threw strikes again in the second, and again the Orioles didn't score. But Sparks was himself again in the second, so we started the third still leading 2 - 0. That’s when the Orioles struck. They loaded the bases with just one out, on two walks by Brandon and an error by Jackson. Brandon started getting upset, partly because of Jackson's error, but mostly because his dad was standing against the fence yelling, "Throw strikes, Brandon!" As if he was trying not to! Then Brandon threw a fat one to Big Baron Millar, who lined it towards me in left. I came charging in, praying, and caught the ball at my right shoulder. I knew the runner on third would be tagging, so as soon as I caught it I planted my left foot and threw home. The ball headed on a line towards the plate, and the only question was whether the ball would take a true hop. Luckily it took a perfect hop, looking like a big snowball as it skipped into Benny Wong’s mitt! Benny caught the ball at his belt and dropped down to tag the sliding runner. The ump yelled "Safe!", which caused a few of the parents to go berserk, and caused Mr. Breen to promise to get the guy fired: “First thing Monday morning!” Gary told me after the inning that he'd seen the play well, and that the runner had slid under the tag; but he congratulated me anyway for making a great throw. Brandon popped the next guy out, and after two-and-a-half we were still leading, 2 to 1.

I was a little embarrassed when I came to bat at the start of the third because some of the parents were cheering me for my throw (“Where’d that arm come from?” someone asked). I was trying to concentrate on hitting, and when you're hitting .033, you don't want much attention, especially since a couple of the dads were famous for getting really mad if a kid messed up–which only proved it was a long time since they'd played the game. Anyway, as I walked to the plate, Johnny Elsberry was doing his Vin Scully impersonation in the on-deck circle, saying, "As is so often the case, the player who makes a great play in the field leads off the next inning at the plate." I swear, I think every kid who ever grew up in L.A. does a Vin Scully impression!

I'll admit I was afraid of Greg Sparks. He was tall and right-handed, and he threw those great fastballs from three-quarters, with arms so long that we called him "Ape Man"–though not so loud that he’d hear us, of course. And you really had to concentrate up there if you wanted to have a chance. You couldn’t be up there thinking about impressing your Uncle Gary, or how you didn't want to get yelled at by Brandon's dad, or how you didn’t want to get hit by the ball. I don't care whether you're in Little League or the majors, the only thing you should have on your mind when you're at the plate is seeing the ball.

Sparks threw me a fastball that I saw just fine, but it was by me before I could think. He threw another, and at least I got the bat off my shoulder. Then he struck me out on a curve that undressed me. And that's what I mean about curves. They should be illegal in Little League, and I wouldn't mind seeing them banned from pro ball, either. Just kidding ... sort of. Anyway, I walked back to the dugout mad at myself `cause I'd let the team down. When I walked past the bleachers I looked up and saw Brandon’s dad making a disgusted face, and I heard him mutter to one of the dads, "Stupid rule says everybody hits." Thanks, Mr. Breen. Then I heard Uncle Gary yelling, "Good cuts, Ryan!" in that strong, clear voice of his. That sure sounded better than what Mr. Breen was serving up. Later that day we went to Grandma's for dinner, and when she asked me how I did at the plate, I just shrugged and told her I'd had some `good cuts’."

"He struck out twice," my big sister added helpfully. "But he looked like a little Pete Rose doing it.” You could always count on Lisa to call me a "little" something. Still, it was nice of her to compare me to Pete Rose, and it was nice that she remembered he was one of my heroes, along with Ron Cey.

"And here’s what he did on defense," Uncle Gary said, sounding as excited as I was. "It was the top of the Fifth, and the Pirates were leading, 3 to 1." It was always fun to talk to Uncle Gary after my games, because he'd remember all sorts of little things that everyone else had either forgotten, or hadn't even noticed in the first place. "The Orioles had the bases loaded and their number two batter at the plate. There were two out, so the runners would be going on anything. The Pirates had to get this batter out."

You could tell Gary was telling the story well because the whole family was listening, which was no small feat–especially with two boxer dogs running around the table. Even Lisa seemed to be listening intently; though, to tell the truth, I think she just liked staring at Uncle Gary.

"The batter hit a high fly to left, and the Oriole runners all took off. Ryan got a great jump, and was racing towards the line as the ball came down. He dove and went into a slide”–here Uncle Gary paused for dramatic effect–“and caught the ball while sliding on his butt! It was an incredible catch that saved two runs, and the game."

It may have saved the game, like Gary said, but technically it may not have, since we scored two more runs in our half of the fifth and wound up winning 5 to 1. Still, if I hadn't made the catch, the Orioles would have scored two runs for sure, and maybe a third, and they had their two best hitters coming up. On the other hand, Brandon might have gotten out of trouble even if I hadn't caught the ball–as a matter of fact, he did get the Orioles out easily in the Sixth, and the lowly Pirates had beaten the best team in the league. They went to 13 and 2, while we improved to 2 and 13.

Mr. Breen gave the game ball to Brandon, and he deserved it for holding the best team in the league to one run. But Mr. Breen was also nice enough to point out that Brandon had gotten a lot of help–especially Jackson Brooks’s big double, and Ryan Stein’s `unbelievable catch.’

There are two things I remember most vividly about that catch. First, when the ball was hit, I knew instinctively where it was going, and that's why I got such a great jump. If you stop to think about where the ball's going, you freeze. The second thing is, I remember to this day how white the ball looked as it fell from the sky, and the sweet hollow thwock it made when it fell into my glove.

They gave Frankie Pearl the call today. He'll be making his first start as a Stockton Port in just two days. I know Frankie well, and it wouldn't surprise me if he were a Milwaukee Brewer before too long, and I don’t care what the scouts say about his fastball. Frankie and I had breakfast together at the IHOP, and Frankie celebrated with a huge stack of pancakes–he always packs carbs two days before he pitches. Then we walked over to a dirt lot near the highway for one last game of catch. We started about forty feet apart, then gradually drew further apart until we stood about a hundred-and-fifty feet from one another. The sun was brimming, and Frankie's arm was warm soon. Then he started really airing it out, leading me with the ball like a quarterback. I went streaking across the lot and Frankie let the ball fly, and I noticed for the first time how he throws the ball overhand with plenty of wrist-snap, just like Uncle Gary–whom I decided to call as soon as I get promoted to Stockton, to meet me and Frankie and have a catch.

©2010 by Jon Sindell

Jon Sindell is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has recently appeared in New South, Hobart, Many Mountains Moving, Word Catalyst, Prick of the Spindle, and Word Riot (in print and read on iTunes). A former pitcher in the Men's Senior Baseball League, and the uncle of Brian, a fine ballplayer on whom "Ryan's Catch" was based, he thinks the great thing about baseball is that a thousand sentences begin “The great thing about baseball is...” Communications regarding writing or baseball gladly received by email.

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