- M.C. Thomas
Short Story Saturday
This isn't a sports blog, but I wanted to celebrate my Cincinnati Reds clinching a playoff spot last night. This is the story of Johnny Cruise, a hot-shot outfielder who wants to step out of the shadow of his father, who holds an unusual (and painful) Major League record...
A Record-Setting Hit
My father set a Major League Baseball record that has stood for decades now. It's a painful record. One I hope to avoid now that I'm in the majors myself.
In 1990, Billy "The Bruise" Cruise set an all-time record by getting hit by a pitch for the 300th time. He'd been brutalized by baseballs just about everywhere: Arms, legs, ribs, in the helmet, and even in the...well, let's just say it's a good thing he always wore a protective cup.
My name is Johnny Cruise, center fielder for the Cincinnati Reds. I don't have a nickname yet, but I am on pace to set the rookie record for home runs in a season. Hopefully that gets me a better moniker than "The Bruise." Maybe they'll call me "The Natural" or "Luxury" (y'know, since my last name is Cruise).
I haven't been hit by a pitch all season. Oh, there have been some close calls. The pitchers in the league don't care for me much (something to do with my cocky attitude, I guess), so they've thrown at me plenty. But the same reflexes that help me hit home runs also help me avoid rogue baseballs. I'm like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix.
As I left the dugout, I grabbed my bat, a thirty-six ounce maple beauty that I called Mary Maple. I didn't think about getting hit. My mind was on winning this game. The evening sky was a palette of pink and orange and the sunset reflected off the Ohio River. Over 40,000 hollering fans filled the stadium. The cool October air bracing my bare arms told me that playoff time was near. The bases were loaded and we needed just one more run to win the game and the division.
Before I could walk to home plate, someone grabbed my arm. I spun around to see my father, who also happened to be my team's hitting coach. His face was covered in wrinkles and scars, though he did his best to hide them with his graying beard. The scar near his left eye was from a Roger Clemens slider that got away from him in '85. The chipped tooth was from a Nolan Ryan fastball in '88.
"Remember to crowd the plate, Johnny," he said in his deep, gruff voice. "All we need is for you to get on base."
I knew where he was going with this. "I ain't getting myself hit, Pop," I told him. "I got a home run record to break."
My dad folded his arms and furrowed his thick brows. "Not the way you're swinging the bat today," he said. "You've struck out three times already." He glanced toward the pitcher's mound. "Lewis is looking flustered right now. If you crowd the plate, he'll get nervous and wild. If he hits you, we win the game."
My heart raced and sweat gathered in my gloved hands. I hated to admit it, but my dad was right. Chicago Cubs pitcher Lanky Lewis (hell of a name, right?) was known for throwing the ball harder than anyone in the league. But he was also known to lose control of his pitches.
Rumor says that in a minor league game years ago, Lanky Lewis threw a wild pitch that went over the protective net and dozens of rows deep into the crowd. Another rumor claims an errant fastball hit a flying pigeon, causing an explosion of feathers. There's no video evidence to prove either of those events, but I believed them.
I walked to the plate and tipped the brim of my helmet to the crowd, who erupted in applause as the PA speaker announced my name. I set my feet in the middle of the box, tightly gripped the bat handle, and faced the pitcher's mound.
Lanky Lewis lived up to his name, standing six-and-a-half feet tall but only weighing a buck-fifty. He wound up, kicked his long leg high in the air, and used his orangutan-like arm to fire the first pitch. It headed right down the middle. Just the way I like it.
Salivating, I took the biggest hack I could muster. The spinning baseball dove down at the last second. Mary Maple hit nothing but air. My swing was so mighty, it spun me 180 degrees and dropped me to my knee.
The catcher, crouched just a few feet behind me, chuckled at my misfortune. As much as I wanted to fire back at him, I didn't have a leg to stand on. Literally.
I stood up and glanced at my father, who leaned against the dugout fence. He didn't say anything, nor did he give any hand signals. He simply nodded.
I sighed and stepped into the batter's box, but this time I inched closer to the plate. Closer to the line of fire.
Lanky raised an eyebrow and tilted his head, probably wondering if I was crazy. I was wondering the same thing. He wound up, kicked, and threw his second pitch. This one looked high, but I was a tall guy. The spin on this pitch suggested fastball. I always feast on high fastballs. And I was feeling hungry.
I took another rip with Mary Maple, hoping she would knock the ball into the river with a record-setting homer. But she failed me again. The ball hummed past me like an angry hornet and smacked into the catcher's mitt with a loud pop. I had never heard 40,000 people groan at once until now.
"Johnny!" my father shouted.
I stepped out of the batter's box and turned to him. He waved his hand toward home plate.
"Scoot closer," he mouthed.
Gnashing my teeth, I held Mary Maple in front of me and looked at her. She and I weren't on the same page today. I haven't hit a baseball all game. So maybe it was time for the baseball to hit me. I was gonna make my dad proud. I stepped back into the box and as close to home plate as the ump would allow.
Lanky Lewis placed his hands on his hips. His lips and eyes twitched and sweat drizzled down his face. Clearly, no one else was brave enough to crowd the plate against him. At least not since he killed that pigeon. Lanky swallowed, wiped his pitching hand against his pants, and gripped the ball.
I took a deep breath as he wound up. Here goes nothing.
The ball hurdled toward my head. Normally, I'd be quick enough to dodge it, but Lanky's fastball had too much power behind it. It slammed against the jaw protector on my helmet, plastic shards soared through the air, and I blacked out.
I opened my eyes and squinted as the fluorescent lights nearly blinded me. I sat upright in a hospital bed surrounded by a few of my teammates and my father.
A sharp pain burned through my jaw when I tried opening my mouth to speak.
"This is the longest he's ever gone without talking," one of my teammates said. Everyone else in the room chortled, including the doctor.
The doctor was a short, balding man with a thick mustache. "Thankfully, you won't need surgery," he said. "Just some stitches and rest. We'll get you back to talking in a day or two."
I looked around the room and my eyebrows lifted. My dad knew what I was trying to ask. "We won the division," he said. "Your first hit-by-pitch won us the division." He winked. "Only two-hundred and ninety nine left to tie my record."
I couldn't speak, but I could still roll my eyes and groan.
"We appreciate you taking one for the team, Jaws," my teammate said.
I chuckled to myself and nodded in approval. Jaws. Not a bad nickname.