It just so happens that the signup deadline for the August/September league is two days later. Billy’s ulteriors could not be more obvious: having gotten his music back, he now wants his softball back. The wholly unexpected development is the interest of David’s sons. Pablo was headed for the junior varsity until he discovered girls and pizza (or, as he likes to put it, “tail and retail”). David has pegged him for left field, which would go a long way toward patching the hole in his father’s heart. Derek’s experience is limited to his career as a bookmaker, but David is not about to ask questions. Besides, he’s an excellent scorekeeper.
The men of the house are gathered at the kitchen table, wolfing down toaster waffles, when Elena enters, wrapped in a navy blue robe.
“You’ve all taken newspaper routes? How sweet!”
“We are baseball men!” Pablo barks. “We wake up early and grunt and sweat and knock the stuffing out of spherical objects. Arrgh!”
“The team’s back? Fantastic!”
“Billy’s idea,” says David.
Elena clucks her tongue. “My family is run by a homeless jazz singer.”
“He’s our mystery man,” says Derek. “Our Shoeless Joe Jackson.”
“And until recently,” adds Pablo, “he actually was shoeless.”
David stands and carries his dishes to the sink. “All right, comedians. Let’s roll.”
The two of them conduct an orange-juice chug, then grab their equipment bags and head for the garage.
Elena waits till the door clicks and says, “Derek?”
“I have no idea,” says David.
Elena gives him a kiss and pats him on the butt. He’s not sure, but she might be flirting.
“I’ll try to keep them from breaking any bones.”
“You just do that.”
He enters the garage with a head full of questions. It’s been a month; she has lost not an ounce. But she seems happy, so he is not about to mess with it. It’s just like Billy said: he needs to get to a place where his only job is to loft a ball toward home plate. He enters the truck to a familiar debate: Pablo asserts that any sudden improvement in a big-leaguer’s performance indicates steroid use, whereas Derek’s flair for jurisprudence demands concrete, proveable evidence.
Given that normal people work on Tuesday mornings, their practice roster is limited. The only regulars are Merzy, who works nighttime security at the casino, and Oscar, who cashed in on an early retirement at Microsoft. The situation has “batting practice” written all over it. Pablo goes first, conducting savage attacks on David’s pitches, all with the same result: long, soaring flies along the left-field line, half of them foul. Billy joins Merzy in center, while Derek runs himself ragged.
A few pitches later, Billy jogs toward the infield. The historian/detective notes the half-and-half of Billy’s outfit, brand-new Cardinals cap and jersey matched with worn cleats and grass-stained pants.
“Can you call time in a batting practice?”
“Like to have a word with your eldest,” says Billy, and proceeds to the batter’s box.
“Greetings, young Falter,” he says, and offers the trendy knuckle-bump. “I’d like to propose an idea, one which may save you a lot of trouble. In ancient days, I came to my first slow-pitch team with great ambition and a swing just like yours. Problem is, suddenly the ball is floating in like a free steak dinner and that baseball swing will only get you long, impressive outs to left. I hit .250 that season. I want you and those youthful legs to be on base much more often.
“So here’s the idea. I want you to wait for a pitch on the outside corner and drive it to right. This will force you to hold back for a split second longer, will keep your shoulders and hips from flying out, will keep your eyes focused on the ball, and will help you to hit line drives instead of fly balls. Tell you what: just try it out for today, for the rest of your at-bat, and see what you think.”
David watches the weather fronts drifting over Pablo’s face: initial annoyance (who is this guy?) followed by increasing levels of interest and acceptance. The capper is Billy’s final note: it’s perfectly optional.
Billy returns to right, David targets his pitches for the outside corner, and Pablo produces five garbage swings: a weak fly to Oscar at second, two pathetic grounders, a foul ball and one complete miss. But number six is a low drive down the line, and seven is a hard grounder up the middle. And so it continues, as Billy greets each success with cries of “Yes!” and “Awesome!”
David is paying equal attention to Derek, who was actually doing a pretty good job tracking Pablo’s deep drives. His style falls into a distinct type: a fielder who looks extremely shaky but who manages nonetheless to catch most everything hit his way. (One of these cases, in fact, was his late friend, whose early nickname was “Scary Larry.”)
With a bat, Derek is as raw as a plate of sushi. He’s got a solid approach – even stance, bat cocked over his shoulder – and he makes consistent contact, but the results are profoundly mediocre: weak rollers, pop-ups to the pitcher, foul balls. Still, he seems happy, so David keeps pitching. Oscar keeps gathering the refuse, and the outfielders stay in their spots, since crowding the infield would be insulting.
Days later, on his first attendance at the mini-bottle break, Billy is asked why he offered advice to Pablo but not Derek.
“A good coach sticks to adjustments. Derek has nothing to adjust; he hasn’t developed a batting style. Screwing with a swing this early in the process just ruins it. Hey, and don’t think he can’t become a good player. One of the best teammates I ever had started playing at age forty.”
And who was this forty-year-old? thinks David. And where did this team play? Writing the Billy Redman biography was going to be a long process.
David is a connoisseur of softball fundamentals, and finds watching Billy play to be extremely entertaining. In the second inning, he strokes a single to right center and runs to first, rounding the bag. When the outfielder bobbles the ball, he sprints for second. Even though he’s far ahead of the throw, he performs a pop-up slide, as smooth as icing on a cake. In a sport where most players would rather eat glass than slide, Billy does it because it’s the best way to stop.
The next batter walks; the batter after that hits a grounder to the pitcher. The pitcher throws to third, and Billy does something that David has never seen: he performs a takeout slide – nothing dirty, just hard and through the bag – to make sure the third baseman can’t throw to first for the double play.
He also notes the effect that Billy is having on Pablo. On a grounder through the infield, with no one else on base, Billy drops to a knee to field the ball. An inning later, Pablo does the same in left. On a base hit toward the line, Billy fields the ball and fires it to second, even though the runner shows no intention of going for the extra base. It’s what you might call a demonstration throw, and the message is clear: I’m going to do that all night, so don’t even try it. Pablo performs the same quick throw on his next four chances.
David’s team has found a sparkplug. Larry was a sparkplug, too, but a different kind: a talker, encouraging, prodding, slapping backs. Billy doesn’t talk much, but his play is so sharp it’s impossible to ignore. The balls come off of his bat low, hard and to the right; the results are so impressive that even the sloppiest of David’s batters are swinging for liners and grounders. David has to smile, recalling the uncountable times he has shouted the words “low and hard!” to little effect.
The new approach has his team keeping up with last season’s champs. Come the bottom of the seventh they’re tied up, one out with the bases loaded and Billy at the plate. He waits out a ball and a strike, then lifts a lazy fly to center. David tags at third and scores the winning run.
Naturally, the student is not about to let the teacher off the hook.
“Hey! What’s with that weak-ass fly ball?”
Billy laughs and gives Pablo a knuckle-bump. “Okay, tell me this: what’s the worst ball you could hit in that situation?”
Pablo gives it a thought. “Grounder to the pitcher, to home, to first. Double play.”
“Yes. And several other double-play combinations, all of which take place in the infield. So if you have a flyball swing in your arsenal – and I do – why not avoid the whole issue?”
“So what you’re also saying,” says Pablo, “is that my left-field flyball swing might actually come in handy.”
Billy stops and smiles. “Okay, you got me. From now on, three left-field bombs per batting practice.”
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” says Pablo.
The traditional early-August rainstorm has killed business at the hotel, leading Roger to let the musicians off early. They all stick around regardless, David and Isaiah at the bar, Billy and Abbey in their regular booth.
“How come you never played ball?” asks David. “You’d…”
“Make a great first baseman. No. I would make a huge target – a target that could more readily translate ancient Sufi texts than catch a thrown object. Besides, I wouldn’t want to imperil these golden fingers.”
“So how are the boys doing?”
“I think Derek gets the deal. He’s still got to work a little before I can put him in there. But he seems perfectly happy to hang out, and he keeps a beautiful scorebook. He’s also going to give us a weekly printout of our stats. Players love that shit.”
“Especially when they’re playing well.”
“Yep. As for Pablo – The Natural, as we call him – that’s a little trickier. He asked me why he was batting tenth, and I told him flat-out, politics. Some of these guys have been on the team five years, and they’re very comfortable in their spots. Batting my own son tenth is a good way to show respect for the veterans and simultaneously put those speedy legs right before the leadoff hitter.
“The scary thing is, that leaves me chasing my own son around the bases, and he is definitely pulling away.”
“Hey, most men your age are playing shuffleboard.”
“Thanks a lot.” He touches his longneck to Isaiah’s, a toast to all things good. “So. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”
Isaiah grins. “I have begun to suspect that Billy’s ancestors were slaveholders, and that one o’ them Scarlett O’Haras had a taste for dark meat.”
“Shocking! Would explain a lot, though. He ain’t Satchmo, but he certainly captures it.”
A burst of sound rises from the back booth. Billy is painting the room with his high laugh, as Abbey covers her mouth, scandalized by some joke.
Isaiah smiles. “You have transformed that man.”
“And vice-versa. My sons worship him.”
“So what’s this thing with Abbey?”
“Ya got me. It’s not a May-December thing, but it’s not a just-friends thing. Something deeper.”
“Maybe he gave her a mission when she was tired of being the patient. Didn’t he show up right after the accident?”
“Yeah,” says David. “Maybe.”
Photo by MJV