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April 30, 2015 | BASEBALL, Nonfiction

A Brush with the Bigs

Steve Smith

A Brush with the Bigs photo

I was nineteen the summer of 1956 when the Baseball Fairy tapped me with her wand and almost sent me into orbit. The El Paso Times, my hometown newspaper, announced that the St. Louis Cardinals were holding an open tryout at Las Cruces, some forty miles away, and curious to see how I matched up with my peers, I joined the other hopefulls swarming into the sleepy New Mexico town.

Since high school I had grown two inches and put on twenty pounds, and suddenly possessed that rare gift, a whip-like right arm that unleashed baseballs from the mound with effortless snap and ease. Though I had never pitched in an organized venue, I was surprised after the intensive two-day session to be chosen by the Cardinal scouts as the top prospect. But as no Cardinal farm teams had roster openings available, I opted  to play a season of semi-pro ball and then attend the Card's minor league camp the following Spring.

I spent the summer pitching for the El Paso Merchants, a traveling semi-pro team, giddily optimistic that my right arm would be my entree into the exclusive world of professional baseball. So I dreamed on, floating on a cloud of airy belief that I possessed a calling, a special dispensation in my genetic makeup that allowed me to loose baseballs that bruised the air in passing.

Then I collided with Norman Dalton Cash, "Stormin'" Norman as he was to be labeled in coming years while playing first base for the Detroit Tigers. In July the Merchants played  the Alpine Cowboys, a team from Alpine, Texas. Cash, due to hammer American League pitching a few years hence, was batting clean-up for the Cowboys.

Five-eleven and 190 pounds of corded muscle, he wristed a thirty-six ounce bat of equal length as if it was balsa wood. In the four times that I faced him, the left-handed Cash hit everything I threw him with casual ease, twice smacking 320-foot line-drives against the right-field fence. Lacking effective off-speed pitches to upset his timing, I tried to walk him by throwing a half-foot outside, but he reached out and hit even those pitches down the right-field line foul. For a player of Cash's caliber, I was merely batting practice. It was a daunting experience. But knowing I still had some growth ahead of me kept my lacerated hopes from fading entirely.

I managed to win my share of games during the rest of the season, capping it off by throwing a three-hitter and striking out sixteen in a Southwestern Semi-pro Tournament game. So far this was my personal best and I began thinking ahead to the Cardinal's minor league camp the next spring in Albany, Georgia. The savor of my sixteen K's was of short duration, however. I was about to pitch and bat against someone who would let the remaining air out of my balloon.

Our final game of the season pitted us against the Fort Bliss Falcons, the post team from the vast Army base on the outskirts of El Paso. The game was a tune-up game for the Falcons, who were playing in the All-Army Championship Tournament the following week. We were over-matched and knew it; the Falcons were one of the top military teams in the country. The reason for that, I discovered, was largely due to their pitching staff. One pitcher in particular.

The sun had set and we arrived at Falcon Field just as the lights blared on around the rim of the field. A stocky six-foot right-hander was throwing batting practice for the Falcons. Rather than the usual half-speed stuff that passed for batting practice tosses, this guy was throwing hard.

"That’s Jack Sanford," said our manager, Charlie Smith, a local legend and fine hitter/ pitcher in his own right. "He’s going up to the Phillies in a week or two."

The Phillies? I thought incredulously. We're playing a team with a big leaguer on their roster?

While studying Sanford's compact, powerful delivery, I figured with some relief that if he was pitching batting practice he wouldn’t be on the mound this evening. My experience with most pitchers were that they regarded their arms as delicate membranes requiring tender care and nursing between outings.

This notion was quashed with Charlie's next remark. "He throws hard like that every day. Trying to toughen up his arm."

Every day? I was digesting this and feeling somewhat subdued by the sheer determination driving Sanford, clearly missing in my makeup, when Charlie continued, "He’ll probably pitch against us this evening. Against you, Smitty. You’re starting tonight."

Something clutched in my abdomen. My God, if he throws that hard in batting practice, what will he be like in the game. Sensing that I was about to experience heat lightning up close and personal, I said, "Bat me tenth, will you," and jogged off to find a warm-up catcher.

I came to bat in the third with two away. Sanford had so far struck out four and retired four on pop-ups and ground balls. I understood why when his first pitch hissed by me. It cut the heart of the plate close to the belt and arrived as if fired from a bazooka. My eyes failed to register anything until it was past. The pitch must have been somewhere in the high eighties or low nineties. I even had the sense that the ball accelerated as it neared home plate, but couldn’t be sure. Between release and its explosive contact with the catcher’s mitt it was a gray blur.

I glanced at the catcher to verify that he hadn’t slapped his fist into the glove to simulate a caught ball. He grinned at me and tossed the ball back to the mound. I felt my ears grow warm as I took a couple of preparatory half swings.

The second pitch bore in like an express train roaring out of an alpine tunnel, again across the center of the plate. I was still befuddled from the effects of the first pitch and didn’t react beyond a sort of systemic twitch when the ball hit the catcher's mitt. But I did catch an encouraging glimpse of white just before it passed by. This told me my eyes were catching up.

My inner timer, unaccustomed to speeds in this range, had awakened and was recalibra-ting the response time needed for my bat to intersect the pitch’s trajectory. Maybe I’d be able to pick up the ball's flight soon enough to swing at it.

The grandstand crowd, including my Dad, was beginning to appreciate the scenario. Most of the laughter, however, seemed to come from my bench. My teammates were having a good time with my discomfiture and yelled suggestions, one of which actually made sense.

"Smitty," yelled Bill White, our third baseman. "Take your stride on his windup and swing the second he lets it go." Laughter followed this novel idea, but in part it made sense.

I stepped in planting my left foot where my stride would place it. Now all I had to do was time the pitch, open my hips and drive the bat through with my arms. Easy.

Sanford worked with an abbreviated windup. I tracked his arm motion and when it released the ball, I uncoiled at the hips and swung on a flat arc through the plane traversed by the previous pitches. At the point where I should have felt a sweet connection and then watched the ball streaking fence-ward I felt only air resistance. The ump informed me what I already knew. I strolled back to the bench, trying not to appear as self-conscious as I felt. My teammates told me I was a foot low and a yard behind.

We were down 2-0 in the sixth with one out and a man on when I came up again. I set my elongated stance and waited. Sanford uncoiled. His arm whipped down across his body. I made a tentative nudge toward the ball in an attempt to time it but it was by me so fast that I backed out of the box to collect myself. Six innings into the game and he was throwing even harder. What would he be like in the ninth?

And he seemed to throw what is called a heavy ball: something in the release and spin of the ball creates kinetic force that acts as weight or resistance upon contact with the bat. If you’re unfortunate to connect with such a pitch anywhere except the bat's sweet spot, the resulting sensation is like hitting a hydrant. Your arms go numb and you vibrate all the way to the bench.

Still, machismo rallied. I had two pitches to redeem myself. I was going to get at least a foul out of this at-bat. I went through the motions of setting myself for the pitch, digging in my rear foot, tapping the bat on the plate when movement on the mound arrested my attention—Sanford was about to deliver and I wasn't ready.

Back out, I thought. Call time!

The glove’s whap echoed from the center field fence and brought embarrassment and a suffusion of heat to my face. He had caught me processing when I should have been focused and quick-pitched me without a windup, the sonofabitch. And the ball had been even faster this time. It had crossed the intervening space between mound and plate in a hummingbird’s heart-beat. There was an instant where I swear I saw blue light tail from the streaking ball, as if it had pushed the air ahead of it so swiftly that the friction of its collision behind the ball caused the air to ignite.

I scarcely had time to dwell on this phenomenon because the ump bellowed, "Strike three! You’re outta there!"

Three? said a voice in my head. Waid a minit. That’s only two.

Grinning, the catcher casually flipped the ball toward the mound and jogged toward his bench. Another voice in my head said calmly. Don’t fight it. You want more of this?

This was sound advice. I thanked the voice for its sagacity, spun and left the box, hearing a familiar guffaw from the stands. I looked up and say my Dad rocking back and forth, shaking his head. Everyone in the ballpark, except maybe the ump, knew what had just happened. My teammates showed a mixture of droll and overt mockery when I strolled back to the bench.

"Didja see the last one, Smitty?"

"You shoulda swung when he was getting the sign from the catcher."

"You shoulda swung last week."

Bill White was giving his bat some practice swings when I trudged back to the dugout. "Am I wrong, or did he throw just two pitches to you?"

"Possibly," I said. "But my horoscope advised me not to disagree with authority figures today."

I glanced around. My critics were shaking their heads, their faces creased with grins. "If it’s any consolation," Bill said. "I’m not eager to go up there again either." 

A pinch-hitter took my last at bat and bounced out, second to first. We lost 2—0. I struck out Sanford once.

 

Historical footnote: Jack Sanford went up to the Phillies a few weeks later and pitched in one game, which he won. Traded to the Giants in the off season, he compiled a 19-8 record the next year, leading the National League in strikeouts, a performance that won him the Rookie of the Year award, but should have won the Cy Young Award as well. Lacking Sanford's forceful self-confidence, resolute will and implacable drive, his opponent in the game described above went on to a brief and undistinguished career in semi-pro ball, except for a bright season in the Army.

You won't find it in a record book anywhere, but the author owns the singular if unenviable distinction of being the only batter in history to be struck out by a major league hurler on only two pitches.

image: Aaron Burch


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