In my thirties and early forties, I played adult baseball. Most of the people I played with were younger than me, which made it challenging, but for the most part I had a great time. Well, except for the torn cartilage, and the ruptured achilles, and a few other bummers. There were two comebacks, sort of similar to Jim Bouton’s career. I even learned to throw a knuckleball, as did Bouton, and in my last go-round wore his #56 as well.
You can’t play very much baseball for very long without seeing some humorous situations on and off the field. There was the time Frenchy, desperate for a toilet at Bellevue CC (which didn’t even have sani-cans), climbed atop a stack of old tires and had a particularly disappointing bowel movement in them. The league almost got kicked off using BCC’s field. There was Riggs, an old fellow and a great baseball mind who looked a little bit like Burleigh Grimes, especially when his face got all red and he complained to umpires. We would all be in the dugout making the Riggs complaint face and laughing. There was the time I got my very first print credit in a book, and told my team at practice. A couple of them spat sunflower seeds or chew, and I think one muttered, “Will it help you hit a good curveball?” They didn’t care. This was a baseball dugout.
One funny story had a tragic coda, and I wouldn’t have laughed about it in the same way for years had I known. When I was on the Rattlers in my early forties, we had a kid named Andy Hyde. Andy was one of those unpredictable loose cannons, and was not especially popular. He had a way of saying things that stung, making petty complaints, ignoring direction. He once tailgated me most of the way home on his motorcycle, so close that I had to resist the temptation to tap the brakes. One time I was watching July 4 fireworks with our catcher, Josh Langlois, and some of his friends. As we were walking back, we saw someone on a motorcycle being arrested. It was Andy; for what offense, I never learned.
Andy resisted base coaching. I don’t mean that he listened, then did something else. I mean that he yelled at you to shut up, complaining that he couldn’t run the bases and listen to a base coach at the same time. Well, in baseball, you kind of have to accept some coaching. Now, in case you aren’t familiar with the rule, in baseball there’s an infield fly rule. If there are less than two out with a force play at third base, and the batter pops up a fair ball in the infield, an umpire bellows: “Infield fly! Batter’s out!” It doesn’t matter whether anyone catches the ball; the batter is out. No runners are forced. If someone does catch the ball, however, the runners may tag up and advance at their peril, just as with any caught fly ball. (If they let it drop, the runners don’t have to tag up.)
One day I was coaching third base, with someone on first and Andy on second. Thus, if our batter popped up in the infield, this rule would apply. In such a case, the runners should hold if a fielder even looks like he might catch the ball. Sure enough, our hitter popped one up to second. The umpire called the infield fly rule–but Andy had taken off for third base on contact. He got 3/4 of the way to third base before finally paying attention to my very colorful exhortations to return to second. While a speedy base runner, not even most major leaguers could have come that far and then gotten back to second in time. Their second baseman made the catch, flipped it to the shortstop covering second base. Andy was out by at least five feet. Double play! It was one of the dumbest plays I’d ever seen. Perhaps the very dumbest.
Andy didn’t stay with the Rattlers that long, and we didn’t hear much about him after that. A few years later, our self-adopted daughter called with some very sad news. Not too far from her home in Burbank, late at night, Andy had driven his car up to a fenced transformer. He’d scaled the fence, climbed over the inclined barbed wire at the top, walked over and grabbed the transformer. As I recall, she wasn’t the one who had found him, and gods be thanked for that. There was no other plausible explanation except suicide.
I hadn’t really considered Andy a friend, but I felt someone from the league should be at his funeral. I wore my jersey. I learned that he had been a star athlete in school, but had battled mental problems in young adulthood. He heard voices, did erratic things, perceived dangers that didn’t actually exist. He had gone into the Navy, and it had worsened his condition to the point where they discharged him. For years he had struggled to see the world with basic clarity, hold some form of employment, and avoid letting his demons lead him into trouble. As for whether he climbed into the transformer intent on suicide, or simply perceived it as something other than thousands of volts of live current, that we can’t ever know. We didn’t know the world his mind knew. His family grieved him, though years of trying to help him had worn on them. He had been just functional enough to get himself into serious predicaments, without the clarity to extricate himself. Nice family, compassionate people; one could not watch and hear them without feeling some of their pain.
In a way, it’s still funny, simply because of the preternatural dumbness of getting doubled up on a play where all one has to do is stay put. But it’s more unfunny than funny, because now I know why he couldn’t listen to base coaches. They were just more voices adding to his clamor. He lived in a world of pain and fear and confusion, one none of us could see.
I guess sometimes we only later come to grasp the rest of the story. What it has meant to me, I guess, is that I should generally try to hold a part of my judgment back. There may be another 2/3 of the story I never knew.