Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Joe Gensle's "The Battery"

See, that's what they call the combination of a pitcher and catcher in baseball. And that's what we were, a battery, going back to when we were little kids.
Tommy and I were 5 when our parents moved into brand new houses across the street from each other. I spotted him in his front yard one day, throwing a baseball into the air as high as he could and catching it. I walked over and said, "Hi, I'm David and we moved into that house," turning to point at what had been a model home. He said "Hi" back, and I asked him if I could get my mitt, if he wanted to play catch.
I bet we played catch or whiffle ball in his yard more than 350 days a year, ‘cuz it didn‘t rain much in the desert. All through elementary school and into freshman year, we were out in front with our gloves, throwing a ball back and forth, even doing grounders and stuff.
He's right-handed and I'm a leftie. He used to say that the arc in my natural curve could go through his front door, turn right, and sail down his hallway. I guess it could, because I actually had to concentrate to throw a straight fastball. Tommy said I was crazy if I didn't want to be a pitcher, and that if that's what I wanted, too, then he should be a catcher because who else could handle that curve, had more experience at it?
When we were about 13, my practice goal was to build-up my speed, and to learn how and when to throw a killer change-up. Tommy's older brother, Bob, told Tommy, early-on, "Catching isn't enough. You need a big swing!" And, boy, did he ever learn how to hit. Bob was already in college, and started taking Tommy to the batting range three or four times a week. It was Bob's idea for us to go to the high school field some weekends, and Bob would catch me while Tommy hit.
At first, Bob and I would laugh when I'd throw a real bender to the plate, and the frustrated look on Tommy's face when he swung and missed it by a mile doubled us over. Sure, it made Tommy madder, but it made him concentrate, more determined. I'd put my mitt over my face to keep Tommy from seeing me laugh--his temper boiling over to the point of quitting. But he wasn't a quitter. Ever.
By our sophomore year, Tommy and I made varsity, and we were starters. Junior and even senior girls began to acknowledge our existence, but we knew it was only because we had letter sweaters. Not only were we starters, I got five wins in six starts that year. And I wouldn't have lost that one if we hadn't had errors by the shortstop, second baseman, and a couple missed and dropped balls in the outfield.
I know nobody's perfect, but that kinda hurt, you know? You throw your best stuff and, for all time, have to see your name next to "Losing Pitcher" in the record books and articles.
That was the first year our high school ever made the division playoffs, and we made it to the final round. The team that beat us and made it to the state championship got some dumb luck. Our starter got blasted for a couple homers in the tie-breaker, and we had, again, suffered the ‘Curse of Oops" with our gloves, as Coach Brown called it. "Oops" meant, "Out Of Practice, Son!," and when so cursed at practice, Brown called us "Hone-Yocks," "Yoders." We never did figure out what that meant, but at least he didn't cuss us out like other teams' coaches did.
We won the state championship our junior year. I had a perfect season. Tommy hit .413, led our division in batting, set a record for doubles, and we both made All-State. It was cool seeing our names in the newspaper sometimes, and we clipped-out the pictures from the three times they featured us on the high schools' page. The sportswriter guy mentioned I might start getting attention from pro scouts as long as I didn't burn-out my arm or get hurt, and merely continued to develop as 16-year olds do. Jim Hawkins, the sportswriter, even wrote about Tommy, saying "Johansson may even have a better shot at the pros than Petrie, because catchers just don't wield the big stick like this kid can hit. You just don't see batting power like that in catchers anywhere in today's majors."
The morning after we won state, we made the front of the sports page: "Electric Battery Clinches Title for Washington High." My fastball had been on fire, my curve was baffling the Brophy squad, and the change-up I had perfected, according to the article, "Embarrassed Brophy's batters all the way back to the dugout in Petrie's dazzling 12-strikeouts, 4-hit, shut-out performance." It went on, "Tommy Johansson, the other half of the ‘Electric Battery,' scored 4 RBIs on two doubles and a home run that sailed over dead center field that is probably still rolling, smashed with power this writer has never witnessed in a solo shot."
In the season opener our senior year, I got the start because St. Mary's Catholic High stole lots of great players from all over town, giving them scholarships, and seemed to field an all-star team every year. They, like the all-boys Catholic high school (Brophy College Prep) recruited city-wide, always earned a slot in the playoffs, and were serious inter-division rivals.
Four innings in, electric-like pings started in my elbow. It didn't hurt, but sure didn't feel good. I found that if I adjusted my motion, it wasn't so bad. But, after about ten pitches with the change in my mechanics, all of a sudden it felt like someone hit the inside of my shoulder with a rubber sledge hammer. I shook my mitt off my right hand, and grabbed my shoulder. Tommy flung his mask down and charged the mound. Coach Brown screamed, "TIME! TIME OUT! TIME!" at the ump about a hundred times all the way to the mound. I told 'em I was okay, not that bad, but I couldn't finish.
We had a two-run lead, and Preston, who sometimes had control problems, was called to warm-up on the mound as I went to ‘ride the pines,' as Coach Brown called sitting on the bench. Mr. Sheets, the assistant coach, had a towel full of ice from the cooler ready to wrap my shoulder, numbing the pain.
Preston threw a few warm-ups, and Tommy kept looking over at me on the bench. I knew he was all weirded out, wondering how bad it was.
The first batter flied out. Then, this guy Danielson stepped-up. Tommy kept glancing over so many times I had to wave him off. Preston's first pitch to the right-handed batter was way outside, and Tommy had to lunge to snag it. Tommy's look to me said, "Oh crap, Preston's a wild!" the foreboding thought I shared.
The world went into slo-mo. Tommy was shooting me a look as Preston's fastball left his hand, heading inside. This guy Danielson stepped back so the barrel of the bat--not the handle--unleashing a vicious swing. As he did, Tommy, for whatever reason, stuck his head too far in and the bat clipped the edge of the Tommy's mask.
Two neck surgeries and three months later, Tommy was still hospitalized, in traction, paralyzed from the neck down. He'd be in a motorized wheelchair, forever. After school and practices and games…I visited every day. Lots of those days, all we said was "Hi," because he didn't feel like talking.
We won the College World series, and I was offered a pro contract after my junior year at Arizona State. Clipping after clipping compared me to the all-time great lefties, "The Next Juan Marichal" or Whitey Ford or Sandy Koufax.
I signed with the Giants, and wouldn't have signed with any team that had Spring Training outside of Arizona. I, not Danielson, put Tommy in that chair by hurting my shoulder and I owed him a life. Tommy never agreed.
Tommy went to every Spring Training game. I flew him to San Francisco, and arranged for him to be in the dugout for my first start as a major leaguer. We won, 1-0. Tommy was ecstatic when I ran off the field from teammate hugs and high-fives to hug Tommy in his chair.
He cried when I handed him the game ball of my first win. "We'll always be the ‘Electric Battery,' buddy, even if yours has to roll you into the cheap seats at my games," and we laughed as only lifelong friends can.

© Joe Gensle 2011

Joe Gensle lives in the Desert Southwest with his dog Coconut. He enjoys international travel, music composition, and is working on a novel. He frequently lurks at sixsentences.ning.com and at headseeds.blogspot.com

1 comment:

  1. I really, really liked this. I don't know why the paragraph things seem to work when the proofs appear normal, but not when published. Any editors willing to work cheap, please contact... Nah. Fagedabouddit.

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