He’d have never wanted anyone to know it, but, yeah, Jack Pinson was drinking, even though it wasn’t even noon on Tuesday, when he got a text message from Hank McGonigald. Hank wanted to get together and have lunch the next time Pinson swung through Atlanta.
I hate to fucking tell you, Hank, but I ain’t swung through Atlanta since the goddamned team fired me.
Of course, he didn’t text Hank that. It wasn’t his fault. What he texted instead was:
I don’t get down that way much no more, but I’ll be sure to let you know next time I’m around.
The reply: What say I meet you up your way Wednesday week. You meet me in Greenville at noon?
Wouldn’t miss it. See you then.
He checked his spelling carefully, but he hadn’t had but one swallow of vodka. Hence Jack had another.
The communication from McGonigald, the last ally he’d had, got Pinson’s hopes up. He went out the next day and took a long walk on the farm, which was a mistake because he couldn’t walk a mile without it hurting for a couple days anymore. He decided not to get out the fungo bat. Besides, they were already breaking camp in Florida. They hadn’t asked him to come down and work with the prospects. He was taboo, not because he’d done anything wrong but because they had.
Maybe Hank had come up with something. Pinson laid off the hard stuff, just nursed a few cold ones while the basketball games were on Friday and Saturday nights. A man of his age and experience couldn’t get drunk on beer.
Pinson told McGonigald to meet him at the O’Charley’s because he had a coupon for a free cherry pie. Since he’d been on his own, he’d gotten tight with his money because he was worried that eventually he wouldn’t have any. Hell, he’d even been on unemployment for six months. He’d applied for all kinds of jobs: recreation director, baseball coach, PR, yet he hadn’t been to college, wasn’t certified to teach and couldn’t type for shit. Most of them were geared toward candidates one third Jack’s age. In six months on the dole, he’d been called in for one interview. Three Hall of Famers wrote letters of recommendation. Jack read them and wished they’d just written that they thought he’d do a half-decent job for them. Instead, what they wrote would have helped him get the ambassadorship to Venezuela or the first-base coach of the Houston Astros but not the genius behind the scenes of the Ridgewood Little League.
Jack Pinson knows more hitting than anyone I’ve ever known. Ridgewood Little League needed someone who could order the right variety of shirt sizes.
Hank McGonigald had to have a reason to see him. Pinson just couldn’t imagine what it was.
McGonigald was undoubtedly going to pick up the tab, but Pinson hated it when guys used the likelihood of a free meal to order the most expensive item on the menu. Jack ordered a chicken pot pie from the lunch specials, and Hank, figuring it must be good if Jack ordered it, did so, too. Jack, of course, had never had it, but it was fine. He also ordered Diet Doctor Pepper to drink – Hank had water – and hoped it would be impressive that he passed up a beer.
Hank told a few stories about the player-development director, whom Jack didn’t like and had made no secret of it. Hank didn’t much care for him, either, but there was an obvious difference in that McGonigald’s place in the front office was secure and Jack’s was gone. Jack had managed the big-league club for two years, run the Triple-A club for three and had been Scouting Director, then just a scout, then nothing. “A long career spiral” had been the Athlon annual’s description, down among the ellipses at the bottom of their preview.
“Storebought ballplayers,” Jack said. “That’s what done me in, Hank.”
McGonigald wasn’t familiar with the term.
“Storebought,” Jack explained. “Daddy’s boys. Been watching videos and going to camp since they was old enough to run to first base. All of them do everything the same way – open stance, then step straight into the pitch, none of them wrong by no means, but a baseball swing is supposed to what a man naturally develops, by trial and error. Ain’t no trial and error. None of them learned how to play on sandlots. The only baseball any of them ever knew was organized play, coached by some lawyer who thinks he knows baseball because he watches the Braves on TV. Know what I’m saying?”
“Gotcha,” Hank said. The pot pies arrived. The waiter reminded Jack of one of those rappers. He couldn’t get the names straight. Jay-Z? That wasn’t it. Fifty Cent? Snoop Dogg? That was it. The young man’s skin was a little darker, but he was kind of a con man, kissing up to him and Hank because he was aiming for a good tip. No harm in that. It was what waiters did. Jack laughed to himself. At least he ain’t storebought.
Jack took a bite. Little hot. Quickly he sipped the Diet Dr. Pepper.
“Every kid, he lifts weights year around. None of them works as much on flexibility as he oughtta. They get to the minors and they’re musclebound. They hit the ball four hundred feet, that’s true, but all that muscle, nothing wrong with it by itself, but when something gives, there ain’t nowhere for it to go, if you know what I mean. That’s the reason they’re all so goddamned injury-prone.”
“And you would …”
“Look for poor kids, ones that ain’t got daddies with the money to put them through athletic charm school. The best players I ever knew all come up working, on farms, in the cotton mill. Shit, nowadays, a job at the drive-through window at McDonald’s, that’s work. There ain’t no cotton mill. A farm is just another rich man’s hobby.”
“You’re right,” Hank said. “I agree with everything you said, but what can you do about it? World’s changing, Jack.”
He didn’t have much to say to that. He bided a few moments with the pot pie, thinking.
“When’s the last time you saw Ricky?”
“No. Ricky Ricardo.”
“I saw him in Bradenton, talked with him behind the cage. Bat ain’t quite as quick, but, you know, he’s getting up in age. Man makes up for what he’s lost with what he’s learned. He ain’t nowhere near the end yet.”
“That’s good.” Jack took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully. “Ricky was a big football star, quarterback on a state-championship team. Couldn’t get in school nowhere. He was all set to go off to a junior college in Oklahoma when I watched him play baseball. It’s hard to believe, in this day and age, or even that one, nobody had even looked at him as a baseball player. Had a hitch in his swing, but I knew that could be fixed.
“You know why Ricky Battles played catcher?”
“Because catcher was the only position on the field where you didn’t have to have your own glove. Team provided a mitt. When I took him to work out, I had to find him a glove, borrowed one from a kid played shortstop for the A-Ball club in Greenwood. He could run like the wind, great throwing arm, and we didn’t even have to draft him. Three years later, and he was in the bigs.”
Jack took the last bite, scraped a little crust from around the edge of the bowl. “Ain’t no more like him out there. Maybe in Mexico or the Dominican. Not here in the States. The players are all rich kids. And the poor kids are dropping out. Smoking pot, I reckon.”
They lingered on, Jack telling stories about how, when he first signed with the Senators, Ted Williams was still managing the big club. Ted, Jack said, his problem was that he couldn’t relate to anyone who couldn’t hit like he could, which was pretty much everyone.
“Williams didn’t like me for shit,” Jack said. “I loved him. He was like a daddy I couldn’t please. ‘Course I had one of them, too, rest his soul.”
“You done all right,” Hank said. “What? Three hundred and eighteen home runs?”
“I didn’t even make it to the show till I was almost twenty-seven. I got cut by Texas and Cleveland before I latched on with Atlanta. Right here in Greenville’s where my career took off.”
“You making it all right?” Hank asked.
“Oh, yeah. When my unemployment ran out, I took out my pension. It gets me by.”
McGonigald paid the check. As they walked out, Pinson noticed Snoop Dogg looking satisfied. That’s when Jack realized he’d forgotten all about the cherry pie.
“Where you parked?”
“I’m around the corner,” Jack said.
McGonigald walked to the truck with him.
Ah. He wants a little privacy.
McGonigald didn’t. He just wanted to talk some more. He said he was looking to move on, too, couldn’t take working for Healey much longer. He said he’d keep in touch better, and they’d get together from time to time.
Pinson watched McGonigald walk away. It’s really over. Of course, it is, fool.
But Jack couldn’t be bitter. McGonigald hadn’t come to see him for a reason. He’d come just to eat lunch, tell some stories, and have a good time. Everything didn’t have to be for a professional, expense-account, tax-deductible, work-related purpose. As much as he’d like to get back out there and straighten out some mixed-up kid who hadn’t ever had to compete against anyone else as talented, Jack couldn’t help but get sentimental that Hank McGonigald had driven all the way from Atlanta just to see how he was doing. His eyes dampened, and Jack honestly couldn’t tell whether the tears were for joy or sorrow.
Pinson needed to get back home, but he needed to go somewhere and relax more. He drove to the mall a couple blocks away, found the cineplex, and tried to find a movie to watch. None of them struck his fancy, and the next one was more than an hour away. Hell with that. Yes, he thought about looking for a bar, but what he did was ride around, honing in almost subconsciously on the high schools he’d scouted at various times. He was just riding, but at the third school, a game was about to start. He pulled up and sat in the truck a while, not wanting to mingle. Then he found a notepad and a pen in the glove compartment. Far down the left-field line, there was a single bench up on a bank behind the visitor’s bullpen.
The home team had a good-looking little shortstop, Number Five. The kid made a good play on a bouncer behind the mound. He batted third in the bottom half and ripped a curve that had him fooled into right field for a base hit. Jack started scribbling.
Then, in the top of the third, Number Five turned a double play, which drew applause from the small crowd in the temporary bleachers behind the plate. Jack frowned. The kid took way too long to throw. Anybody could show off an arm taking that long to load. Watch him hit. Impressive. Covered ample ground. The first time anyone saw him around the bag, a contract was no can do. The only players who got signed with a flaw like that were generally related to the owner.
Jack Pinson got up, sighed, and made his way back to the truck. Number Five wasn’t going anywhere, and Jack didn’t have any place to take him, anyway.