The Catcher-Marc Johnson

Essay: He is the only one of nine who sees all the game facing forward. If the object is to get home, that is where he plays.

He goes by many names: the backstop, the battery mate, the receiver. Nicknames proliferate: no one other than their mothers called Yogi “Lawrence” or Pudge “Ivan.”

It’s the only game where the defense controls the ball, and he controls the defense. The centerfielder is shading too far to left. He’ll see it and fix it. That runner at first is leaning. That runner better be careful. The pitcher is missing the zone. He’ll make the walk and have the talk.

He has the closest relationship with an umpire. Not close, as in let’s have a beer after the game close, but the ump will often place a hand gently on his back as if to say, “remember, I’m back here and you know what’s coming and I don’t.” And when the umpire takes a foul tip straight on his mask, he’ll stall and give blue a moment to recover. There is mutual respect in the dust behind the dish.

In a game that prizes speed and agility, he’s probably the slowest guy on the field. In a game played vertically on green grass, he spends most of the contest squatting in the dirt. Your knees would hurt, too, what with all that up and down. He needs more gear than the other eight – “the tools of ignorance” they say, ironic because he’s usually the smartest guy on the field.

If you’re keeping score at home, he’s #2. Pitchers always get top billing, but he tells them what to throw and when to go slow and when to pitch out, when to bring the heat and when to dust ‘em off.  In a game with a manager, he’s the shop foreman.

He’s susceptible to injury. Foul balls. Split fingers. Some jerk barreling down from third. He falls into dugouts or leaps into seats to make an out. If it works, it’s all in the game. If it fails, and it often fails, there will be a moan from the crowd and some guy will slug his beer and pronounce, “he shoulda had that.” Yah, right, you try it. It ain’t as easy as it looks. It’s the hardest position. Period.

He’s gotta have a cannon, of course, or they’ll steal him blind. Actually, that’s a bum rap. Bases get stolen on pitchers.

There have been and are a lot of great outfielders. Lots of pitchers make the Hall. But only five percent of the greatest players of the greatest game have worn the tools. The really great ones you can count on a few crooked fingers. In the old days, Dickey and Cochrane and Lawrence Peter Berra. Don’t forget Campy. Certainly, Bench of the Big Red Machine, and Pudge and Fisk and Carter. Piazza, too. And perhaps the greatest of all, Josh Gibson, a black man from Georgia who never got a chance to prove that he could hit it farther than Ruth.

The next time you watch a game don’t stare at the pitcher. That’s boring and predictable. What you want to do is watch the guy running the show. He’s the one in the dirty pants, behind the plate, in the squat looking at everything unfolding before him.

 

Marc Johnson is a resident of Neahkahnie, having adopted the North Coast as home after decades in the high desert of southwestern Idaho. He is a writer, columnist, historian of American politics and reader of all manner of things.

Grand Slam-Vera Wildauer

Memoir:  I was a rather oblivious mom when it came to my son’s sports events. Especially when it came to Little League.

Mainly it was because both the practices and the games themselves were interminably long.  Most of the batters were walked.  And if someone did hit a ball, the outfielders would be startled out of their dandelion reverie as the ball went bouncing past them.  On each team there were one or two players that had natural talent. Or someone who played catch with them every night and took them to batting cages. Mostly it was like watching puppies with too-big paws, while volunteer coach dads tried to keep their cool.

Which made them the best kinds of games.  Because then I could read my book, while keeping one eye on the action.  Unlike soccer, where I shivered wet and bedraggled on the sidelines worrying about twisted ankles and bronchitis, or basketball where I whispered “pass the ball” any time he had the ball. My kid at age nine was built for things other than sports. A little bit chubby because he liked his mother’s cooking, with orthotics in his oversized clunky off-brand sneakers (or soccer shoes, or baseball shoes), to correct his flat feet, he was better at quiet, methodical things, like discussions about Pogs and Pokemon.

Except for one glorious moment that will never be forgotten.

It was a gray Saturday, clouds fat and drooping with wet potential.  I was bundled in a sweatshirt and a fleece and a raincoat slouched in a folding lawn chair I’d brought just in case this field didn’t have those cold metal bleachers I usually had to endure during practice. I sat a little apart from the sporty moms and dads with their “batter-batter-batter” patter and pointed advice, who mainly disregarded the umpire’s “be respectful” statement before every game.  I watched my boy in line with all the other wiggly boys in their bright orange shirts and black sweats—they were the Orioles—waiting for their turn at bat.  He nudged and goofed and it did my heart good that he had that sort of camaraderie, a sort of general cheerfulness to keep him buoyed, even though he seemed to strike out more than he ever made it on base.

It was somewhere in the middle of the game—I have no idea what inning and whether it was the bottom or the top, which I never understood anyway—when it was his turn to step up to the plate.  The bases were loaded and maybe there was one out.  I made some encouraging noises, my voice likely lost in the shouts of his teammates and their parents.  He likely swung and missed once and had been thrown a ball or two.  I was hoping he’d hit one somewhere just out of reach, so that he’d at least get on first base and, if the stars aligned, bring the kid on third base home.

But then the most unlikely, impossibly wonderful baseball miracle occurred.

My son’s bat connected with the ball. The metallic ringing sliced through all our voices, like that particular tone might have opened a portal into another dimension where sound disappeared.  The ball soared higher and higher, and farther and farther, with all our eyes riveted: all the fielders with their arms extended and the kids on base poised to run and the basemen with mitts ready to tag them out, and the two volunteer dad coaches and our team’s parents and their team’s parents and most of all, my son and I, mesmerized by its arcing flight as it made its final descent and landed on—I kid you not—the other side of the fence. The OTHER side of the fence, bouncing once and rolling away to eventually rest in the shaggy grass outside the playfield.

And then we all took one big breath.

And then we were all yelling and jumping, even I was, even the other team’s parents because, oh my god, had we ever seen such a thing all season?  My kid, his face bright red, glanced around sheepishly at his teammates as they screamed, and started his slightly shuffling jog from base to base. For once it didn’t matter that his shoes were too heavy and he didn’t have Joey’s wiry energy or Evan’s long muscled legs.  He had brought three players home, and himself as well, to jump up and down with his teammates while they hugged him and bonked him on his helmet in sheer ecstasy of this amazing, impossible moment.

I don’t remember if the Orioles ended up winning the game or not, but who cares. As far as I was concerned my kid had won the day. I still have his bat.

 

Vera Wildauer has lived in Manzanita since 2006, after her son graduated and went to college. He grew out of his awkward puppy stage, biked the Seattle-to-Portland when he was fifteen, and still rides his bike all over London. He’s teaching his son early—football (what he calls soccer now that he’s there.)

Crazed Baseball Moms-Karen West

Memoir:  You know the type. That overbearing baseball mom who shouts through the fence: are you kidding me? when the umpire calls strike three on her precious boy. Or the meddlesome mom who interrupts the coach’s family dinner to complain about not playing her son. Or the know-it-all mom who coaches her kid from the sidelines: The play’s at third Robby!.

I am not one of those crazed baseball moms.  I don’t brag about my All-Star son, Matthew, even though he really is the best kid on the team. I am the nurturing mom who provides PP&Js, and purple Gatorades and crafts felt pennant flags with each player’s name shining through glittery gold and blue.

I admit, I have fallen off the good-mom wagon more than once during 10 years of nail-biting close plays, bad calls, terrible coaching and super slumps in Little League, High School and Club teams.

But I usually stake out my own private game suite deep in the outfield, where I can jump up and down, curse in peace and go unnoticed when I stick needles in my umpire voodoo dolls.

Little League was my downfall more than once. Matthew is up to bat and he drills the ball over a chain-link fence that looks as tall as the Empire State Building and as far away as New York. My vision enters a tunnel of euphoria and I let out a shriek of joy as soon as I hear a thunk, then the crunching of a shattered windshield.

I ignore the stink eye I’m getting from parents and let out another guttural burst of sheer delight. I’m focused on the Babe-Ruth moment as my boy circles the bases on his victory lap, ending at home plate to a flurry of fist bumps from his nine-year-old teammates. High on endorphins, the players smother Matthew in a jumping circle as if they just won the World Series.

Oh, crap. That was coach’s truck, one of the dads says.

He doesn’t know it yet, but coach has just experienced a Spring rite of passage – the same baseball baptism that happened to us years later during a playoff game. I made my husband circle the school’s lot three times before settling on a spot that I guaranteed would be safe for our Subaru Outback. But seconds after we got out of the car, a foul ball curved its way 100 yards over the fence and onto our windshield. That’s the last time you pick the parking spot, my husband tells me through clenched teeth.

We win the Little League game, 2-1, but coach gives me a disapproving glare as he approaches his disfigured truck. Matthew’s homerun ball bounced near a blackberry bush after forming a meandering spider web of glass that stretched from end to end before breaking into a dozen pieces.

Don’t worry, we will pay to get it fixed, I tell him. But I’m keeping the ball.

It is scuffed up and dirty but feels like a shiny gold nugget I panned out of a Yukon River. Another treasure to add to my collection of Matthew’s home-run balls – all dated and signed. They live in a wood-framed display case along with autographs of professional baseball players.

I am not proud of how I scored a few of those famous signatures. Like the time I took Matthew to a Mariner’s game for his 10th birthday. They were playing the Yankees, so we arrived early to get an autograph of his hero, Mariano Rivera. Mom, there he is, Matthew says pointing to the legendary Yankees pitcher, who is standing a half mile away between us and 20 rows of eager kids. We got here too late, Matthew says as if I had just flushed his birthday celebration down the toilet.

I go into aggressive baseball mom mode and barrel my way to the front of the line, elbowing several kids along the way. I hold out a baseball a few inches from Rivera’s face. It’s my son’s birthday today. He thinks you’re the greatest.

I avoid eye contact with angry parents as I head back to Matthew, clutching my prized possession like a Seahawks wide receiver guarding his catch.

It wasn’t the first time I left my scruples at home. After interviewing former Mariner’s pitcher Jamie Moyer for a newspaper article, I asked him to sign his picture that I conveniently had in my purse. His wife scolded me, saying it was unprofessional, but Jamie didn’t mind and snuck me the autograph when his wife left the room.

Baseball ran in my family long before Matthew started playing. As a kid, I spent every summer weekend at the Little League field a few blocks from our Los Angeles home. We were the quintessential baseball family, hosting weekend team pool parties, Dad coaching my three brothers and mom overseeing the snack bar. I can still taste those gooey poor boy sandwiches — crispy French bread, slathered with ham and melted Swiss cheese. A heart attack waiting to happen but so comforting to a six-year-old.

Back then, the innocence of baseball showed in the scruffy faces of the rag-tag teams who had dads instead of high-paid coaches and hand-me down bats instead of $500 Louisville Sluggers.

Even with today’s intense club teams and one-upmanship, I marvel at how Matthew managed to remain down to earth while maintaining his passion for the sport. He transformed from an immature, awkward, shy, Little Leaguer to a skilled and mature captain of the high school baseball team who is in his element behind home plate.

I can still see Matthew taking command of the field as the team’s ace catcher and flawlessly executing his famous “snap throw.’’  He crouches into a low, athletic squat, nodding to his pitcher as if to say, You got this. He stares down the runner at first, as if daring him to try the steal. The pitcher winds up. Matthew catches the ball and immediately shoots up like a rocket and hurls it 127 feet directly to second in plenty of time to pick off the runner.

Woo, hoo! Way to show ‘em who’s boss! I shout from my outfield safety zone.

I guess I am a crazed baseball mom after all. Crazy for my son.

 

Karen West once left Manzanita at the crack of dawn to make it to Yakima in time for her son’s championship baseball game. That was just one of many times that baseball playoffs interfered with the family’s 15-year tradition of Manzanita summer vacations. But it was worth it.

Shea Metski-Robert Liebler

Fiction:

Chapter 1

Twice upon two times, magic would dramatically alter the fortunes of baseball’s New York Mets.

First, there was 1969.

The Mets phoenixed from last place to win the World Series.

The “Cinderella Team,” they were dubbed. It was pure magic.

The second time would be 1983.

Shea Metski would celebrate his twenty-first year. Same as the Mets.

Shea what?

Well, better than delve into the complexities of cultures as yet unimagined, let’s just say that Shea Metski is something like a misguided gremlin. That is, where other gremlins take naturally to chaos and havoc, Shea Metski, naturally, creates order.

Who do you think created the batting order in 1969?

Think again.

If Shea is treated kindly—with dignity and sensitivity—his magic waxes enchantingly.

But trammel his sensibilities and Shea will put a batter “out of order.” “Not working.” Know what I mean?

It all depends on his state of self. If Shea is not feeling up to snuff, his magic could get upset, much as a manager’s stomach in the midst of a losing streak. But ah, if he’s feeling strong and loved, as he did when he was seven, watch out—his magic becomes mythical and takes on a winning way.

Shea Metski was seven in 1969.

Same age as the Mets.

 

Chapter 2

Shea lived in a condominium under second base at Shea Stadium. “Chez Shea,” he called it. His neighbors were a potpourri of unimaginable magical creatures. Each was possessed of unique mischievous talents. One, “Gourock,” as he was called, could capture bits of cosmic dust and in the crack of a bat, fashion a pebble and place it to get a ground ball to run amuck.

Another, Maeldrang, could literally talk up a storm, thus creating violent air currents that could make the flight of a fly ball as inconsistent as a myopic, home-plate umpire’s calls.

And there was Horsehid who could make a baseball vanish, in the sun or in the lights or right under your very nose.

And Laimarm who could take a strong pitching staff and, with his patented “bullpen blast,” render their flippers flaccid.

And Calide who’d polarized players negatively and positively, then zap the field magnetically. Ouch!

You name the weird flaws inherent in the goings-on on a baseball diamond and you’ll know how many cohorts Shea had for each and every facet.

 

Chapter 3

Shea Metski was miffed. And he had been so for a dozen years. If you put your ear to the ground directly beneath second base, you would have heard his chant. “Mutter and stew, mutter and stew, no gold nor ring; what are we gremlins to do?”

It wasn’t as though they didn’t need it and hadn’t earned it.

As President of the Gremlin Tenants Association, Shea had waged a six-year campaign to raise money to upgrade the condominium’s heating system. When he got the inspiration to use their magic to win the Mets World Series, he called a special meeting of the G.T.A. He addressed them thusly: “If you’ll help me win the World Series for the Mets, we’ll take the World Series gold and make our condo all toasty warm when upstairs it gets cold. This winter when the cruel winds toss and churn us, we’ll be basking in the glow of our brand new furnace.

Shea’s eloquence won the day. Gurock, Maeldrang, Horsehid, Laimarm, and Calide, to a gremlin, agreed to reverse their magic and give seven-year-old Mets a World Series win. And they did, in 1969.

The share was never allotted. The gold, never paid. And the months melted away. And the years tumbled. While Shea Metski, cold and haunted, cussed, muttered and grumbled.

 

Chapter 4

Shea’s past grumblings were strictly bush-league compared to his own reaction upon hearing that “The Magic is Back” was to be the promotional theme for the Mets’ 1982 season.

He didn’t hit the ceiling; he creamed it. Second base registered 6.9 on the Richter scale.

Hackles, ganders and feathers stood up and ruffled. With clenched mitt and in a frenzied fit, he spit out these words. “It’s tragic, so tragic, that mortals think they can make magic.”

Once again, the G.T.A. was convened. Shea took the rostrum. “They’ve done it this time, they’ve gone too far.” It’s time to show the Mets’ management just who and what we are. Okay, gremlins, go be yourselves. It’s time to take our mayhem off those dusty shelves. And until they decide that they are going to pay us, we’ll wreak oodles of havoc and batches of chaos. They won’t know what hit them, their misfortunes will soar. We’ll leave them twenty-seven games out and flat on the cellar floor. We’ll leave glow-notes to tell them exactly what’s in store. Their hitters will hatch goose eggs; their pitcher’s wings wax sore.”

The G.T.A. meeting exploded into a hubbub of affirmative manifestation as the gremlins carried Shea Metski on their shoulders out into the Spring night.

 

Chapter 5

Pete Flynn, Head Groundskeeper for the New York Mets found the first glow-note. He had been raking the mound in preparation for the Friday, July 28th night game between the Mets and the Pirates.

It was a little piece of folded stuff wedged betwixt the rubber and the mound. It looked like fat paper but glowed and felt warm and like tingly but inside you. There were no words on it, but the tingle went right to your brain and you know what the message was. Just like that.

When Pete brought the thing to John P. McCarthy, the Shea Stadium Manager, they both knew the message simultaneously. It went like this:

A stiff-armed flinger will win tonight

Cause we’ll charm his arm to be peppy and light.

And all you’ll get is one lonely run

But also eight big K’s.

That should show ya who we are and that

We always mean what we says.

The glow-note quickly went from McCarthy to Cashen to Thompson. Frank Cashen was the Mets’ General Manager and Laurel Thompson Executive Secretary to the man they stood before, Nelson Doubleday, Publisher and too, Chairman of the Board of the New York Mets. A hasty meeting prompted these decisions. To keep the existence of the glow-notes strictly intra-Mets, no press, no police; to find out what the hell this stuff is made of; and to find out, for sure, who this joker is.

After the game, that night, George Bamberger, the Mets’ Manager, had this to say, “I can’t say much about tonight’s game. I thought we played alright. It was just a matter of Robinson.”

He was talking about Don Robinson, the Pirate right hander who had limited the Mets to seven hits and struck out eight.

“I felt a little stiff and sore in the first inning but after that I felt great,” said Robinson who had undergone three operations on his pitching shoulder in the last four years. Actually, Robinson couldn’t quite believe what had happened to him in the first inning. He had been sitting in the dugout, massaging his shoulder. “Suddenly,” he said, “my arm felt like it was bathed in a warm bath of well-being and strength. That’s the only way I can describe it. It was over in a moment, but when I returned to the mound, my arm had a life of its own. I mean my curve was a combination of sarsaparilla and sunshine.”

It was no wonder. Laimarm had simply given Robinson a retro-bullpen blast.

 

Chapter 6

The glow-notes kept appearing intermittently and the Mets kept losing consistently. On the morning of August 1, Pete Flynn found another one.

For the first five innings,

Mark our word,

No New York Met will get past third.

For the next five innings

We’ll lead you on

Then Madlock will mash one…

Going, going, gone.

That afternoon the Mets were 13½ games out of first. They had won only six of their last 24 games. They had left 11 men on base, 10 in the first five innings. None of those had advanced past second. The Mets lost in the 10th on a Madlock homerun.

On August 3, another.

Three, you’ll get both outs and hits

And a bird will drop you deeper in the pits

And only one ball will be hit with enough sass

To make it through the outfield grass.

That afternoon, the Mets lost their 32nd game out of their last 50, 5-0 to Chicago. In one rare moment of precision baseball, the Mets made their first triple play in 16 years, Bailor to Backman to Kingman. They got three hits off Doug Bird. All were singles and only one got past the infield. Only five games separated the Mets and the cellar-dwelling Cubs.

 

Chapter 7

The dog days of summer nipped at the Mets’ heels, driving them deeper into the nether regions of the standings. They lost 24 out of 29 games in August. Injuries were almost an everyday occurrence. Collisions, both on the base paths and in the field, became commonplace. Ground balls darted away from defensive Mets, and fly balls continuously sliced way from the fleetest feet, the stickiest mitt. Mets’ Management became believers. But they were determined to keep the story from the press and police. They had no choice. Who would believe them? The glow-notes totally, mystifyingly evaporated, leaving not a trace, whenever someone outside the Mets family came close enough to seek to witness their existence. Videotape and film failed to capture an image. There was no other way. Mets’ Management, to a man, voted to call in the Baseball Intelligence Agency.

Although well intentioned, the B.I.A. could do little to unravel the mysteries.

Spiritualists, seers and mediums also failed. Pete Flynn pointed out that he had been carefully grooming the mound since the first note was found. “There are no footprints. How can that be?” he pleaded.

On October 3, the last day of the regular season, another glow-note appeared.

The Carlton arm is really buzzin’

The Mets will whiff, a baker’s dozen,

No regular .300 hitter in their dugout sits

With all that Flushing power, we’ll grant you just four hits.

The Mets, who opened the season last April by beating Steve Carlton, closed it today by losing to Carlton and the Phillies, 4-1. It was the 23rd victory for Carlton, who pitched a four-hitter and struck out thirteen batters for a season total of 286, the most in the National League.

The Mets finished last with 65 victories and 97 defeats, their poorest record since 1979.

Only one pitcher won over 10 games. The defense made 175 errors. George Foster hit only 13 home runs. Dave Kingman batted .204 and struck out 156 times. The Mets made two triple plays. And lost both games.

 

Chapter 8

Late on that same day, Pete Flynn spied the familiar glow at the pitcher’s mound.

As soon as the Mets Management meeting was called to order, the glow-note made its meaning clear.

Now you know how the ’69 magic came to be.

You left us no share

So, here’s a bill for our fee.

Leave eighteen thousand, three hundred and thirty-eight dollars and eighteen cents in gold all shiny and new

Or Shea’s Metski’s magic will continue to raise havoc

And ’83 will be more tragic than ’82.

Also, the golden ring is rightfully mine.

Place both on the pitcher’s mound by midnight of October nine.

After much discussion centering mostly on whether grown men and women could believe even what they’ve witnessed with their very eyes, the Mets’ Management, by a voice vote, decided to capitulate. Measures were implemented to leave a ’69 World Series ring and $18,338.18 in gold on the pitcher’s mound. Yes, the gold would be in place and so would 100 B.I.A. agents… waiting in the stands. They’d catch this joker red-handed.

 

Chapter 9

At a quarter to midnight on October 9, Pete Flynn strode to the pitcher’s mound and placed the gold and the ring thereon. He retreated hurriedly to the stands where over a hundred B.I.A agents were strategically deployed. The entire Mets family were there, too. As the seconds snowballed into minutes, the soft Fall air became infused with expectation. Palms moistened with anticipation. Infrared binoculared eyes focused on the mound.

The scoreboard clock ticked toward twelve.

At midnight precisely, the pitcher’s rubber, as though hinged at its narrowest dimension, swung silently skyward. A mitted hand emerged from the maw, grasped the trove and returned from whence it had come.

It was over in a moment.

The stands erupted into a flurry of action as B.I.A agents stormed the mound.

But before even the fleetest rounded first base, the pitcher’s mound came to life in a whirr of dust and fire. It lifted, flying-sauceresque, hovered for a moment, then winged its way out of sight.

As the mortals stood transfixed, there in the space saucer’s wake was an afterglow-note, emblazoned in the autumnal sky.

“The Magic is Back” was strictly hack.

That’s no way to acquire winning ways.

Skill and will and spirit and pluck

That’s all you need to change your luck.

And now that you’ve relented and paid our fee

The cellar-swell-spell has been removed by me

And in its place “Real Magic” for the Mets in ’83.

Shea Metski

President, G.T.A

 

Robert Liebler originally wrote this story in 1983. Born in Brooklyn, Liebler, now 88, lives in a century-old home in Wheeler with sweeping views of Onion Peak and Neahkahnie  Mountain and Nehalem Bay. He’s lived there for more than 20 years. Over the course of his long and varied career, he has worked in the fields of journalism, advertising, and fashion.

While this story exceeds our word limit, we are posting it on Opening Day – so letting it go extra innings.

The Longest Out-Dan Haag

Nonfiction:  I love baseball. It offers a sense of order in an often chaotic, messy world. There is poetry in its movements and strategy. Unlike other sports, where the main goal is often hitting other people as hard and as often as you can, baseball demands discipline and awareness.

That being said, when it comes to swinging a bat or catching a ball, I am about as athletic as a cinder block. I’m less George Brett and more George Costanza. It’s been a lifelong affliction.

When I was in the 5th grade, a group of older kids would gather every afternoon at the ball field behind Kennedy Elementary School in St. Joseph, Minnesota for a pick-up game. It was springtime tradition and outsiders weren’t allowed. Younger kids who tried sneaking in were unceremoniously chased off. If you were lucky enough to be friends with an older kid, they could bring you along to play. Those invites were rare, kind of like being asked to sit with Tom Hanks at the Oscars. That year I was friends with a 6th grader named Joe Stong. I was growing fast and was taller than most older kids, so Joe likely mistook my physique as athleticism. But I was a clumsy, awkward kid. When I wasn’t tripping over my own feet, my big mouth was getting me in trouble. I never knew when to stop lobbing clever, profane insults at older kids, which had made me the recipient of several wedgies and placed me on the 6th grade hit list.

Walking onto that ball field felt a little like being the new inmate getting off the prison bus. Angry faces pressed against chain link fences and promised me all manner of retribution. Still, I had Joe’s protection and I planned on launching a baseball to the moon which, according to grade school logic, would make me everybody’s friend.

The game moved along and they skipped my first turn at bat. Then my second. I was getting a little nervous. I wanted to hit. I wanted to make the 6th graders like me. Joe demanded they let me hit and they acquiesced.

I strode to the plate with the confidence of Babe Ruth, the menace of Willy Stargell, the swagger of Reggie Jackson. The opposing pitcher was Jason Gangel, a particularly mean-spirited kid who enjoyed pelting younger kids with snowballs in the winter and spit balls in the summer. I’d called him a neanderthal once and he’d rewarded me with a bloody nose.

When he saw me step to the plate he grinned wolfishly. He turned to his team and said “Haag can’t hit, everybody move up.” Let me be clear: in the cutthroat world of grade school sports in the 70’s and 80’s, there was no greater insult than having another team move up when it was your turn. It meant you couldn’t hit and weren’t worth worrying about.

I bristled, but honestly Jason was right. He’d seen me play baseball in gym class. Because I had a habit of closing my eyes when I swung the bat, I either lost my grip on it or fell over. Classmates and teachers knew to seek cover and alert the school nurse when it was my turn to hit. But that didn’t stop me from standing in against him that day. I’d prove him wrong.

And I did. He lobbed me a slow pity pitch and I swung. Eyes shut, I felt contact. I peeked to witness a glorious sight: the ball soaring skyward over the drawn-in defenders. My mouth fell open. Jason Gangel’s mouth fell open. An entire legion of 6th graders stood there, mouths open. I cheered. I hollered. I danced. I waited for everyone to mob me with congratulations.

What I didn’t do was run. One of the most crucial aspects of the game of baseball is that once a batter hits a ball, his next job is to run. Caught up in the moment, I skipped that important step. In fact, I was still celebrating at home plate when the ball was retrieved from the outfield and relayed to Jason Gangel, who stomped up to me and tagged me so hard I still have the bruise.

“You’re out!” he crowed.

That was the end of my baseball career, but I’d had my moment. I may not have a case full of baseball trophies but I eventually learned I was the holder of a rather interesting record: the longest out ever recorded at Kennedy Elementary. It brings to mind the words of baseball sage, Bob Uecker: “I set records that will never be equaled. In fact, I hope 90 percent of them don’t even get printed.”

 

Dan Haag has lived on the North Oregon Coast for 30 years, the last 20 of which have been in Nehalem. He has been the manager of the Manzanita Visitors Center since 2013.

America’s Sport-Laura Bailey

Nonfiction:  I’m not a nationalist, but I’ll accept the label of patriot.  I get teary as somebody (not me) hits the high note in the Star Spangled Banner. During our small-town parade when the fire truck comes by. When Amanda Gorman’s words sing out ‘Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.’  One grandfather a fireman, the other a pilot; father a soldier, both brothers too.  Lived all over the country, growing secondary roots far beyond the southern California sunshine that is my birthright. American as apple pie.

So it’s obviously a problem that I’m not a baseball fan.

Wow, I’m nervous even typing those words, like the ump will lean over my shoulder any minute and sneer ‘you’re ouuuuut!’, and they’ll revoke my passport.

In my defense, it was baseball that broke up with me, not the other way around.  I sat through my share of Little League and high school games, where the attraction was middle-school gossip and boys in tight pants, respectively.  My college wasn’t much for fielding serious sports teams (although we made serious investments in Ultimate Frisbee, and Greg Popovich turned around our basketball program during the six years he coached for us before he went to the big leagues, so that ain’t nothin’) but I recall an occasional seventh-inning-stretch in the sun. With beer.

But then I moved to Boston, and along with lobster and the bone-cracking chill of wet winter mornings, I was introduced to the Red Sox. Now this is neither the time nor the place for discourse on history or legendary players or feuds with teams from That Other City—suffice it to say Sox fans possess certain characteristics, amongst which is a superior sort of pity for newcomers, and a willingness to instruct us on the finer points of the sport.  Which is how I came to be glued to the TV when Billy Buckner let that damn ball roll between his legs in the tenth inning of Game 6 against the Mets.  And boom! just like that, the flame of our fledgling attraction was snuffed out.

Fifteen years later, baseball made a play to rekindle the affair, like a high school sweetie at a reunion where your nametags have to carry your yearbook picture as well as your name, just so everyone is equally uncomfortable.  The setting for this attempt at détente was a late August minor league game in Durham.  My younger brother was getting married, and their version of a rehearsal dinner was a block of first base seats in the North Carolina sunshine at the jewel of a park where the Bulls play.

It was everything a baseball game should be:  decent plays, a goofy mascot, the crowd singing and spelling out Y-M-C-A at the stretch. One of the home team even hit a dinger, so the giant wooden bull looming over the left field wall got busy: eyes lightin’ up red, tail waggin’, puffs of smoke spewin’ from his nostrils.  The game was heading into the bottom of the eighth when my dad signaled that it was my turn to make the trek out to the concession stand and buy a round of beer, so off I go.  A medium-long line, and this is before smartphones so the only entertainment available while waiting was people-watching.  Slim pickings, so I was pleased when it was my turn to order the six large drafts required, but my smile turned upside down when the skinny guy behind the counter stopped in mid-pour and surprised himself with a sudden insight. “Sorry, I need to check your ID.  You know—to see if you’re old enough ….”

Now I was 34 about to turn 35, and while I’ve always carried my age well, there was absolutely no way a rational adult would think I was underage.  My flattered laughter soured quick enough when I saw this compliment was doing double duty as an insult, since he insisted that I did indeed need to produce identification, which of course was safely stashed back at my seat.

“That damn kid—and he definitely was a youngster, I’m surprised he’s even old enough to sell beer legally—he carded me!” I harrumphed as I snaked my way back to my seat, dug my purse out from underneath, fished out my wallet, and wiggled back to the aisle.

My Dad had moved from his end seat to let me pass, but as I brushed by to head up the stairs, he touched my arm, and said, with a straight face but a glint in his eye:

“Well, Laura Belle….” he drawled, “I sure hope you proposed to the man.”

 

Laura Bailey writes creative nonfiction, dabbles in flash fiction, and is at work on a novel that grew out of a short story she wrote during a Hoffman Center writing workshop. Laura believes that Manzanita is a magical place for writers, and enjoys volunteering for the Hoffman Center programs to help make that magic accessible for everyone in our community.

Parallel Universe–Leigh Arevalo

Fiction:

“NOBLAAAAAWWWCK!!!” The obnoxious yell whizzed past her right ear toward the baseball diamond.

What did he say? He sounded like the duck from the AFLAC commercials.

“NOBLAAAWWWCK!” Yes. Definitely the duck from AFLAC.

“My ten-year-old nephew throws better than you!”

She scanned the field to see at whom he was bellowing. Locating his target… #11. Scanning the roster, she spied the name and photo positioned under number eleven. Chuck Knoblauch. 2nd Baseman for the Minnesota Twins.

Oh! It’s ‘Knoblauch, not ‘Noblaaawwwck’. Got it.

Lesley enjoyed watching baseball and going to Major League baseball games on occasion.  Only if it was the Mariners, and especially if Randy Johnson was pitching. It was not because she was impressed with his pitching skills, (she was), nor that she found humor in his nickname, “The Big Unit”, (she did).  It was because her mother coincidentally worked retail with his mother in an upscale Seattle department store. She embraced an odd sense of loyalty and familial pride, though, in reality, they were not related, nor did he even know she existed.

Seattle Mariners against the Minnesota Twins. This was a company outing. Lesley had worked for a fledgling software startup for the past three years. The pay wasn’t great, but her bosses treated their team fairly, providing bonuses when possible, Friday afternoon video game challenges, and a fridge stocked with Jones Soda.  Everyone worked under the Musketeers “All for One/One for All” spirit.

This outing was kind of a big deal. Celebrating a new contract signed. A contract that guaranteed employment for everyone for the rest of the year.  The bosses provided pocket money to cover whatever sustenance each employee might desire that evening.

Lesley settled with her brat and beer and had just taken a bite when the shrieks and taunts from the person behind her flung forward. Initially charming, quickly replaced with annoying.

She tried to ignore him. She tried to focus on the game. She tried to enjoy the hot dog she knew her body would not appreciate later that evening. But, ugh, that voice! That grating tone causing chills to run up and down her spine, like the nails on a blackboard!

A shock of awareness zapped her brain. Internally, a picture formed and she realized she recognized that voice!

Turning around, she inquired, “Drew?… Drew Vaughan?”

A pair of uncomprehending gray-blue eyes she’d recognize anywhere stared back at her. It was him. No doubt about it.  It had been nine years since she last saw him in their senior biology class in high school.

“Drew, it’s me, Lesley, from Westwood High.” Her words tumbled out quickly and ran over each other. “We were in Mrs. Moore’s science class together. I remember you standing up and telling everyone that there was a parallel universe containing clones of all of us, living their lives, looking exactly like us.”

Silence from Drew. Snickers and guffaws from the two buddies flanking his sides. One of them snorted his beer, causing foam to christen the co-worker next to her.

An immediate internal rebuke began…” oh, Lesley, you did it again! Think before you speak, woman! What kind of statement was that?! Parallel universe? Clones? Seriously?! How in the world will I get out of this one?” She shrunk in her seat.

Then, smack! The sound of wood and leather joining speed and power drew everyone’s attention to the game. The ball sailed over the infield Twins, the outfield Twins, hit the back wall and ricocheted to the ground. Picked up and thrown toward home plate. Not a home run for the Mariners, but a solid third base one. With some of the Mariner’s strongest hitters on deck, the rest of the inning promised to be exciting.

The home game win was everything a home-fan would hope for. Hits. Runs. Homeruns. Slides. Catches. Thrills. Chills.

Two unexpected bonuses happened that evening…

Randy Johnson recorded his 1,000 career strikeout against Chuck Knoblauch.  That’s one…

The game was over. Fairweather fans had already left the building to beat the traffic.  All of Lesley’s coworkers stayed to the end and were discussing where and how to extend the victory celebration.

Lesley was about to stand when a soft, gentle voice whispered into her right ear…

“I remember you, Lesley with an ‘ey’; not ‘ie’. I can’t ask you out because of current commitments I have in this universe, but I am confident my clone is asking your clone out for a post-game beer right now.” As he pulled back, his lips oh so slightly grazed her ear, causing a different kind of chill to run through her spine.

She did not get a date that evening, but her clone in a parallel universe did. Win/win.

 

Leigh Arevalo is trying to break her habit of using the excuse, “I’m resourceful, not creative…”. She spent her first 50 years honing her left brain and now plans on spending her next 50 honing her right. She lives part-time in Manzanita with her husband, two teen boys, and two teacup Yorkies.

Bye Bye, Baby!–Ellis Conklin

Fiction:  “Now listen fellas, you gotta be pretty lousy to lose a hundred games. You gotta really stink up the joint, and that’s what we did. We stunk up the joint.

“We couldn’t hit, couldn’t field. Couldn’t do nothing right. The only thing we were good at was fighting. We sure were good at that. Down in Tacoma, we heard the stories about our guys brawling in hotel lobbies, beating the shit out of each other in the dugout.

“And, oh boy, the freak injuries we had.

“Our star reliever, Minton was his name, Greg Minton, hurt himself shoeing a damn horse – and hell’s bells, spring training hadn’t even started.

“Then old Chuck Hiller, our third-base coach – remember his four-bagger in the ’62 series? – got himself hit in the neck with a line drive down in Phoenix. He had surgery that March, I remember, and never put on a Giants uniform again.

“Yeah, fellas, the 1985 season was a bloody nightmare. It got so bad that I got the September call-up. Packed my bags in Tacoma and Roger Craig, the skipper, put me in at third the day I arrived. I guess they figured anything was better than Joel Youngblood.

“Ya see, even a ball as big as goddamned bowling ball got through Joel’s legs. Nice guy, but a freaking butcher at the hot corner. And here I am, 34 by then, a damn minor league lifer.”

“Maybe they felt sorry for you Billy,” cracked Jack Ortmeyer.

“Maybe they did, Jack. Or maybe they’d just given up.

“And so, they put me out there in windy-ass Candlestick – God, I loved that park – and the peanut bags are blowing around, and a deep drive to Jeffrey Leonard in left ended up a pop fly to Johnnie LeMaster at short, and you had Shag Crawford out there calling strikes on anything close to get the game over with.”

Billy Jensen drank back his beer and the bar was quiet, except for the tick-ticking of the rain splashing the greasy windows at Vera’s. A soft breeze rattled the row of plastic trout that dangled from a rusty rod.

It was late October, 2008. The Phillies owned the World Series and Obama was cruising and Billy had turned 58 the night before. And his legs felt good and he was glad about that. He spent his birthday on the Nestucca and had hooked two handsome steelhead.

“You know, I remember one day when the season was almost over. Hardly a soul in the stands, as usual. Guys in the dugout were fighting and grab-assing.

“Our best pitcher, Mike Krukow came up to me and he says to me, ‘Billy, if you want your time in the big leagues to last longer, be on a last-place club. Because it’s an eternity to get through the season.’”

A small appreciate chuckle rippled across the barroom.

Someone asked then, “So, Mayor Jensen, what was it like, to play your first game in the majors after all those years in the minors?”

Billy smiled at that. He was the most popular man in Rainy Springs, certainly its most eligible bachelor. He discovered this windswept hamlet on a fishing trip on the Nehalem back in ’75. He vowed to himself he’d be back when his playing days were over.

“It was like what old Churchill said when asked what it was like to meet FDR for the first time. He said it was like your first glass of Champagne.

“It was September 17, a Monday day game against the Padres. It was warm. Hardly a breeze. We were probably a million games out of first by then.”

Billy sipped his beer. No one said a word. He’d never before talked so much about baseball and the young life he gave with all his heart to the game.

“So, I’m trotting out to third, and I look up into the stands. And my father is there. He used to get box seats at the Marines Club, always Section 12, and that’s where he was that day.

“And I’m out there at third, and I’m remembering that first time he took me to the ballpark. It was 1958. The Giants had just moved from New York and were playing at Seals Stadium while they were building Candlestick.

Billy’s eyes filled with tears.

“I had this leg disease as a little kid. I never went to kindergarten or first grade. I had to wear a built-up shoe and a brace that weighed a ton.”

“My father carried me down the steps into the park. And it was so green and beautiful. I loved it. And there was Mays and Cepeda and Jimmy Davenport, and the organist was playing the Giants fight song – ‘Every time the chips are down, it’s bye bye, baby!’

“I just loved it.”

 

Ellis is a longtime journalist who worked primarily as a political reporter at the Anchorage Times, UPI, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He retired several years ago and, after decades of vacationing on the Oregon coast, finally settled in Manzanita with his wife Lynn and Piper, their ocean-loving Australian Shepherd.

 

Butterflies–Karen West

Nonfiction:

Like a nervous teenager about to meet her high school crush, I checked my makeup for the third time, popped an Altoid and anxiously paced the restaurant lobby. My stomach fluttered as he greeted me, flashing his handsome Italian smile.

Years ago, I remember being impressed by his swanky first-date choice of Moonshadows, a trendy ocean-front hangout for the “in-crowd.” It soon became our go-to spot for Sunday brunch, where we sipped Bloody Marys and super sleuthed our way through the morning with out-of-town guests spying for Malibu movie stars. It’s where we celebrated our five wedding anniversaries, always in the same window-seat booth. The sun never failed to welcome us back by showing off its spectacular red-and-orange glow before flashing its goodnight green.

I could still feel those early romance butterflies as we ordered chardonnay and my usual – crab cakes with orange salad, Gary’s go-to steak and potatoes. I hadn’t seen him since he left to stay with “a friend” a few days earlier after we argued about my long work hours and reluctance to start a family. My no-kids-for-five-years timeline had expired but I still wasn’t ready to share my budding journalism career with a newborn.

“He just needs time to blow off steam,’’ I had told a girlfriend nonchalantly. “He’ll be back tomorrow.’’ Two days later he invited me to dinner at our romantic haunt. I bought a silky, slightly clingy, blue dress, anticipating a make-up date.

“What are we celebrating tonight?’’ the waiter asked as he placed a basket of steaming sourdough bread on our candle-lit table. “A new beginning,” I told myself as Gary took my hands in his, stared right through me and smiled.

“I don’t love you anymore and I want a divorce,’’ he blurted out, as if he had casually commented on the weather.

The bricks came down hard. I couldn’t breathe. My body floated away but I could see Gary’s face becoming blurry and distorted below me. His voice broke through the dizzy haze: “I have a lawyer and he can represent you, too.’’ Then going in for the kill, he added: “But, we can still be friends,’’

Like a drunken patron, I stumbled to the bathroom and threw up. Slumping onto the stall’s cold, tile floor, I sobbed uncontrollably — those gut-wrenching, salty tears that sting your eyes and leave them puffed shut the next day.

“Blindsided” didn’t begin to describe my emotional whiplash. Didn’t we just buy our first house together? Weren’t we just here, at this very restaurant toasting our anniversary?

As I analyzed our marriage over the next several days, I realized I had been oblivious to the red flags that had been flying all along: the sudden appearance of a new motorcycle. Weekends with his “golf buddies.” A dry spell in the bedroom.

“How could I have been so naïve?” I asked myself after finding out he had been cheating on me.

Like the scorned woman I was, I swore off men and declared love to be grossly overrated.

So, several months later, when a colleague invited me to her party with the enticement that “I have the perfect guy for you’’ I was reluctant.

“I’m only staying for an hour,’’ I told her begrudgingly. I changed my tune as soon as I saw my blind date sauntering – in a Fabio sort of way – toward me. Gorgeous, chiseled body, piercing brown eyes. Environmentalist, writer, dabbles in poetry.

But after 20 minutes of incessant, self-indulgent chatter, his McDreamy façade devolved into a vapid love story to himself.

“I’m going to get a drink,” I said, escaping to the kitchen with no intention of returning.

I was about to sneak out the side door, when I was greeted with an exuberant, “hi, I’m Mike.’’ He, too, had been invited to the party with the promise that “I have the perfect girl for you.” She was a blond, skinny, architect. The perfect Barbie to my tree-hugging Ken.

His wide smile, gregarious charm and unpretentiousness drew me in like a spiritual magnet. He was balding and dressed like a city planner, but he smiled with his sea-blue eyes and his sincere ease of conversation transformed my contempt for men to an overwhelming sense of calm and peace.

Not love at first sight. Better.

We talked for the next two hours as if I had traveled down memory lane with someone I’ve known my entire life.

From that day forward, it was “Adventures with Spence’’ – each sprinkled with stimulating conversation and his “I-have-to-kiss-you-in-beautiful-places” declarations.

After 25 years together, we have seen the good, bad and ugly of each other. But we have also shared a genuine, unspoken understanding of one another, respect and unconditional love.

I’ll take that over butterflies any day.

Karen West and her family have vacationed annually with friends in Manzanita for at least 15 years. Her children grew up boogie-boarding, beach biking, horse-back riding, rolling down sand dunes, and exploring tide pools. Karen’s slice of heaven is an early morning walk along Manzanita’s deserted coastline.

A New House–Lynn Steinberg

Fiction:

Sylvie was in love with her adopted home of Seattle – with the moody, gray skies, the rain, the emerald green landscape. She loved the hum of the city, the coffee shops on every corner, the ferries she rode across Puget Sound. But most of all, she loved her house, a 1928 brick Tudor that she and her husband David bought 15 years earlier, shortly after they were married. The place captured her heart the moment she saw it, with its high, coved ceilings, wood-burning fireplace and gleaming oak floors trimmed in mahogany. Its garden, fragrant with roses, mock orange and lilac. And neighbors, so warm and welcoming.

So, when David came home early one January evening and asked what she thought about moving halfway across the country, to St. Louis, she was certain he’d lost his mind. Images of graffiti, blocks of abandoned buildings and urban decay leapt to mind.

They had good jobs in Seattle. Their daughter Natalie, then 9, walked two blocks to a wonderful school. They had friends in the city. Family. And this lovely house. What was David thinking?

Sure, he acknowledged, things were good. But wouldn’t an adventure be swell? He told Sylvie about the work he was offered at a thriving newspaper in the heart of the city. The opportunity to shape the coverage, nurture budding writers, make an impact. It would be a new challenge, a new place to explore, the kind of opportunity that wouldn’t come their way again. It didn’t have to be forever, he said, a couple of years. They could keep the house in Seattle, find a renter, and return when the time was right.

So Sylvie agreed to consider it. She went to visit. Once in January, then again the following month. David could hardly contain his excitement. He even got Natalie on board. So finally, on Easter Sunday, after touring more than 50 homes (none of which, in Sylvie’s opinion, held a candle to their place in Seattle) she and David made an offer on a house in Webster Groves, just outside St. Louis. It was a brick Colonial, built in 1932, in a neighborhood with sprawling green lawns and rows of old Maple trees lining the streets. They made the move when Natalie’s classes ended in June.

The Webster Groves house had fallen on hard times; a contractor bought it cheap, made the necessary repairs and flipped it. There were some rough edges, so Sylvie and David hired a local Bosnian man, Amir Petrovic, who had built houses in his native country before he and his family fled the war. Amir was a master craftsman, meticulous in his work. He spoke virtually no English, so he and Sylvie resorted to pointing and nodding. Amir would fix Sylvie’s eyes with his, raise his shaggy brow, then lift his hand toward the offending issue, uttering the two English words he seemed to have mastered: BEEEEEG PROBLEM!

Over the next month, Amir turned up alone at the crack of dawn each day, and worked late into the afternoon, smoothing the rough edges from the house, shaking his head in disgust with each new problem he discovered.

Meanwhile, with the din of Amir’s tools in the background, Sylvie and Natalie spent hot summer afternoons curled up on the screened-in porch, laughing and talking, eating chocolate ice cream or sipping lemonade. And as summer slowly drew to a close, it dawned on Sylvie that those lazy afternoons she would forever treasure had nothing to do with any particular house or city. They would have been just as glorious had they unfolded anywhere in the world.

Lynn Steinberg has worked as a high-school teacher, journalist and communications executive over the course of a long and varied career. After years of city life up and down the West Coast, she recently retired from The Boeing Company and moved to Manzanita full-time with her husband Ellis.