We all boarded the bus with our gear and fast food breakfasts. The sophomores headed to the back seats while the freshman filled in where they could, such was the hierarchy of the junior varsity baseball team. I was a freshmen splitting time at first base and trying to get used to not playing all the time. I still had hopes of being able to play in college, but I didn’t think my life was all about baseball. I thought that I was willing to do whatever it took to win, but looking back as an old timer now, I didn’t take the game nearly as seriously as some of the other guys.
One of those guys was named Pete. He was a sophomore and might be described as scrappy or a fire plug. He was crazy confident, shared his excitement of all things readily, and generally led with boisterousness. The back seat was his throne and the boom box was his staff. Besides being a team leader, Pete was also the self-appointed DJ, which meant a steady diet of classic and southern styled rock.
On this morning we were making the trip to Hampton High School. Late April can bring the hazy, hot, and humid in Tidewater and this day was no different. The grass held every bit of moisture that could not hang in the air and the intense sun was a sure sign that the ride home would be a smelly affair. We got on the bus and headed down Longhill Road for I-64.
With all of the windows down there was little use in talking. The ride was going quietly until we got to Lee Hall. That’s when Pete got himself all jacked up on Skoal and started his pregame ritual.
“Where are the tunes?” he said. “I gotta have some tunes if I’m gonna be my best.”
He got his box fired up and hit play. For once there was something current-ish, the Police with Message In a Bottle. I perked up a bit, but only to be disappointed as Pete shut that down nearly as fast as it started.
“Ah, no, get that shit outta here. Can’t hit a baseball that. Gotta have some Top. Gimme some Top and I’ll go 4-4-4,” he said accompanied with the hand gestures to boot.
We had heard this before. “Gimme Top, Gimmie Skynard, Gimmie some Hank” and always the same result, no feast only famine. But the team indulged Pete and his motivational histrionics because if nothing else it was funny. Today, though, his box did him wrong. Just as the Texas trio was about to bust out Cheap Sunglasses, the tape got eaten. There was no saving the cassette or Pete’s mood. He was devastated and looked as though he might be out of the game mentally. So it is as a superstitious adolescent.
“Put the Police back on,” I said.
Pete did rewound the tape to the beginning with so little excitement that I feared his soul might drain the batteries. He was sucking the life out of this long, hot bus ride. And then the music hit, “Just a cast away an island lost at sea-o/ Another lonely day, no one here but me-o/ More loneliness than any man could bear/ Rescue me before I fall into despair-o…” And with that I got lost in the music and forgot all about Pete getting four hits.
We got to the field only to find a few rotten crabs sprinkled around the dugout. The “Crabbers” had gone easy on us with the stinky shell fish this year. We went through our warm-ups and the game began right on time. Pete, who had been unusually quiet during infield, half heartedly stepped up to the plate. The pitcher delivered the first pitch which Pete promptly smacked into left center for a double. He then stole third and scored on a passed ball. We were up 1-0 and less than ten pitches had been thrown.
Since I was sitting the bench on this warm Saturday, I decided to get involved with the country cousins, John and Sean. These guys were country cool and all out fun. They also loved their chewing tobacco. Being the serious athlete, I stayed away from such vices, but on this day, boredom and peer pressure would get the best of me. The cousins were trying to see who could spit closest to the center of a circle drawn in the dirt. The key was to have a glopping mouth full tobacco spit. I decided to go with John and the Levi Garrett thinking the leaf tobacco would be better than the finely chopped Skoal.
Boy was I wrong. I packed my cheek tight and nibbled on the ball of tobacco and really couldn’t manage all of the juice in a competitive way. I did, however, succumb to the trippy effects of the tobacco and began to get a buzz. A couple of innings passed and Pete was back up to bat. Another single, he was two for two.
I kept chewing. The cousins began to notice that I was not moving much and started spitting sunflower seeds at me. I couldn’t even get up to move out of their range. Sean had a high pitched girl laugh that normally drove me crazy. Today it just added to the spins. Before I knew it Pete was up again and got his third hit of the day.
Somehow I missed out on most of the game. Going into the last inning we were trailing by two runs. The first two guys grounded out. Then we got a single and two walks. Pete was to be the next batter.
“Brad, get loose,” said Coach Frasier. “When Pete gets on you’re hitting. Don’t forget to tell the ump.”
Stop it. Really? He was putting me in today? The day I started (and ended) my tobacco chewing experience… There was no way I could hit the ball. Out in left field the telephone poles were swaying like they were in a hurricane, only the wind wasn’t blowing. Thank goodness Hampton was changing pitchers. At least I would have a little time to clear my head.
Pete stood in the on-deck circle with me. He could tell I was out of sorts. “Tobacco?” he asked.
“Don’t worry about it, this game is over.”
For the game to be over Pete was going to have to get a hit off of Cedric Brown. This guy threw wicked heat and three years later signed a minor league deal with the Cincinnati Reds. He stood on the mound and threw the fastest ball I had ever seen or not seen as was the predicament being caused by Mr. Garrett’s product.
Pete stepped out the box and nodded approval at the called strike. Then I thought I heard him singing. I could have sworn he was singing Le Grange by ZZ Top, “Have mercy./ A haw, haw, haw, haw, a haw./ A haw, haw, haw. Cedric must have heard too because he chuckled. Then he really threw the fastest ball I’d ever seen.
Pete hit that ball about as hard as any ball has ever been hit. He took off for first while the outfielders took after the ball that finally stopped out by the telephone poles. Jim and Troy scored easily, but Joe was not so fast. He turned around third and in a moment of clarity I told him to slide. He didn’t and managed to step over the tag putting us up by one run.
At least now I could hit with no pressure. That was a blessing and I fouled the first ball by the grace of a Dali inspired magic moment. The next pitch was a dribbler to the shortstop for the third out. The bottom of the inning was routine with John, the country boy, striking out the side.
The next week we got on the bus for an equally long trip to Warwick High. We all took the same seats as was the ritual. Somewhere around Lee Hall, Pete could take the silence no more and began his pre-game ritual.
“Gimme some Police and I’m 4-4-4…”