It was his funky delivery that did him in. When he released the pitch, as always, he fell off towards third base, for a second turning the back of his head to the plate.
He sensed the ball coming, but he did not have time to react.
When the ball ricocheted off his head and bounced out towards shortstop, he went face first into the dirt of the mound. The batter stopped running to first. The runner on second could not later remember it he touched third base.
Not that the game mattered any more.
Beau Rudenfels, Veteran Southpaw of Raccoon, Iowa
He was never offered a professional baseball contract. Nor was he ever on any scout’s list. Nor had he or anyone else claimed he had been offered a minor league contract. But he did have a contract to grow peas for the cannery, which he was not thinking about as he walked through the field. Instead his mind was on the game that night against Crousetown.
Maybe he would start the game, but he would never get through five innings to get the win, what with his 31-year-old arm about worn out from throwing all those good curveballs since the age of 14, when he first started pitching, despite his father’s objections, his father not being a fan of sports, all a waste of time and muscle power as far as the old man was concerned, his father having sold out to Beau and gone west to find work that did not require him to fret about the weather.
Beau had added a screwball seven years ago, which became his out pitch, except it put more strain on his shoulder.
It was town ball. A prairie tradition.
Friday night at dusk with the lights just turned on, with the smell of popcorn, with the secure feeling of his cup, and with all those kids playing behind the backstop proving this was a small town family event, but especially the popcorn—all that was worth thinking about, especially since he had little to think about except farming and baseball. Feeder hogs, machinery breakdowns, fastballs, corn, curveballs, beans, market prices, screwballs, peas, ERA, herbicides, pesticides, net profit, rain and sun, wins and losses. And popcorn.
Friday night with the sun setting over the elevator as the lights came on made his week, which was about all there was now that he and Holly had split up. His Hollyberry, who was from Crousetown, but baseball had nothing to do with how they met. Or why they split up.
With pride his teammates described Beau as tricky because he never threw the pitch the batter expected. Psychic was how the opposing players described him because it was as if he were inside their heads. Not that he could get his unexpected pitches over the plate as much anymore. And his changeup was now often faster than his fastball. His fastball was often slower than his changeup.
Not that he was too old for town ball. There were a few around in their 40’s, some of them even throwing a dozen pitches every now and then to jack up the crowd and entertain their wives and teenage children. Old guys in uniforms. Kids running around. It was all perfect.
The peas were coming along nicely, which he realized, now having looked down at them. Rain had been just about perfect so far. A bad hailstorm had blown in from the southwest but died out into a soft rain before it hit his fields, which made him sorry for those whose crops were damaged. A few fields were lost, which could have happened to him.
Hollyberry wouldn’t be at the game tonight. The bleachers were uncomfortable, she said, for her “skinny 33-year-old hiney.” And the only thing farmers talked about this time of the year was weather. All that the women her age talked about was babies and toddlers, not that she was envious. Well, they also talked about which players’ had cute butts, which she admired herself.
“All people talk about around here is sports and growing things,” Holly told herself as she made a vegetarian sandwich. She did not want anything growing inside of her, thank you. It would be all right to see Beau, she thought, but his uniform always stank. She swore she could smell popcorn in the seats of his otherwise clean pickup. The reek of stale buttered popcorn made her retch. Just for fun and for getting out and about, Beau grew an acre of popcorn and sold it in the farmers market over in Waterloo. That was all right. The kernels didn’t smell.
Holly had a a good job teaching over in Dryeford. Teaching math. She commuted from Crousetown, where she rented an apartment, one of the new ones on the north side of town with a dishwasher and washer/dryer right in the apartment, which she never once offered to use to wash Beau’s uniform.
She was drifting, caught in Beau’s slow wake. She knew it. The pickings for men in Garland County were slim, especially men in their thirties, like Beau. Not that she was out to catch herself a man.
Holly put on her walking outfit—baggy shorts and a loose t-shirt, one Beau had given her. A large, too small for him, from the Whyte Implement Dealership. The Iowa-ish idea of printing the name in white over pale yellow had not stood up yo many washings. After eating half the sandwich and leaving the rest in the fridge, she headed out for her walk. Every evening she walked instead of watching the news. Rain or shine, without noticing what was around her, she strode through Crousetown’s residential neighborhoods, despite the absence of sidewalks, the only sidewalks in town being in the waning business area.
Holly may have been drifting, but her walking did not show it. Her steps were quick and self- assured, despite never planning a route. She did look as if she was going somewhere, despite the fact that she was going nowhere. Math and education were what drove her purposeful strides tonight. Why, she pondered, had she become a math education major? Cowardice. Not wanting to leave the safety of rural Iowa. The largest town in which she applied for her first job had only 3700 people. Crousetown was 3400. Dryeford 1742 at the west end of town in the 1990 census.1841 at the east end, which must have been the 1980 census count.
Cowardice. She had not wanted to invade the male world of graduate school math. But she still could, of course. Of course she could. If she found the guts to do it.
She taught algebra I and eighth grade math, a slot in which she was stuck. The two teachers who taught the higher math courses were only in their late forties. Men, of course.
She was a good math teacher for students who did their homework and basically got it. It was the students who didn’t get it who she didn’t get. Why can’t a 14-year-old get computation? And what does a teacher do when they don’t get it? The geometry and grade seven math teacher said it’s simple. First you say it. If they don’t get it, you say it louder and slower. If they still don’t get it, you say it very loud and very slowly. It they still don’t get it, you give them a D and let them graduate to become farmers or waitresses or housewives or hired hands. Or mechanics, if they can at least figure out which end of the wrench is which.
Beau, to Holly’s frustration, didn’t get math either. Yet he farmed quite successfully, meaning he did a lot of math well enough to make a living, a pretty decent living as far as she could tell. When she asked him about math and farming, he didn’t understand the question. It was farming; it wasn’t math class.
It was rather charming, she admitted to herself, his disarming ignorance of his own abilities. Charming, but not romantic. Nothing about Beau was romantic. Even she craved a bit of romance.
The sweat ran down her spine. She did not mind the Iowa heat. She often left the AC off. She did mind the flatness of Crousetown. Some Iowa towns had a decent hill to challenge a person’s legs and lungs. Raccoon had a couple hills, albeit Iowa hills.
Yes. Tomorrow she would drive to Ames and pick up an application for graduate school. Or maybe Iowa City. Come to think of it, Beau’s non-textbook math was quite uncharming. That was one way to think about it. What would the English teachers call it? A metaphor. His backhanded way of succeeding was what had made her break it off. It was the same way he courted her, if it could be called courtship. He didn’t farm or play baseball backhanded. But then it was old-fashioned to think the burden of courtship fall all on the man; she knew that and knew she was old-fashioned about some things.
But, then, why had she—or they—broken it off? It had not been a dramatic scene. Just a mutual agreement that neither was getting what they wanted out of the relationship, whatever it was that either wanted.
Well, now! Here she was at the ballpark, which had not been the purpose of her aimless purposeful strides. But she was thirsty. She could stand a beer. Checking in the pockets of her comfortable shorts, she found two twenties. Now, when and why had she put money in her pocket? She was careful with her money and her cash.
She paid the $1.00 admission price, children under 15 free, and walked to the concession stand. She was supposed to have her ID to buy beer, but her cousin sold her a beer without asking. She took a few napkins to wipe the sweat from arms and face and quickly walked past the popcorn machine.
She stood beside the third base dugout, the visitors’ dugout. The game had started. The Raccoons had a couple men on base, neither of whom was Beau. Nor was he at bat or on deck. Maybe he was the pitcher, but sometimes he DH-ed in spots five or six when he was not pitching. He hit for a decent average but no power, not even over the short right field fence in Raccoon. Despite being slow, he could fake a convincing threat to steal, which now and then drew a throwing error from a younger pitcher, the older ones knowing he wasn’t going anywhere.
The batter struck out, flailing at a pitch in the dirt. One out, said the scoreboard, but no one trusted the scoreboard, or rather the scoreboard operator, a hardware store owner, who often deserted his post to get another beer, or to deliver the result of the beer to the toilet. Input and output.
The next batter, a wooden-fisted moose of kid playing first base, stepped to the plate. Bat in hand, Beau came out of the dugout and looked back at her, as if expecting her to be there, as if to prove how predictable she was. Or a teammate might have told him. He smiled pleasantly at her, the same pleasant smile he gave everyone.
On an 0-2 count the Moose unwound a mighty upper-cut swing aimed a the deep left field fence. The ball blooped over the first baseman’s head and landed on the line, at least as called by the home plate umpire, a retired dentist. The runner scored from second; the other runner took third standing up. The Moose was satisfied to plant his bulk on first. A brief confab ensued between the two umpires and the Crousetown manager, a young Catholic priest known to drop a mild oath at his players, never at an umpire. “Umpires are next door to God,” he joked too often. Had either umpire seen the ball clearly? No, but they both said it was their best guess; after all, one was from Raccoon and one from Crousetown. The Crousetown first baseman settled it. Yep, right on the line and then kicked twenty yards into foul ground.
One out. One run in. A decent runner on third; the big kid at first. Beau at bat.
Beau looked at Hollyberry as he knocked the dirt from his cleats. Leaning back against the cement block of the dugout, she smiled back in encouragement for his plate appearance, not encouragement for any romance, although perhaps she should have, but then she doubted he would know the difference. By pondering the question she missed some pitches. The scoreboard gave the count as 0-1. She knew the count was higher than that. Then Beau swung hard, going for the sac fly. The ball elevated over the high backstop and landed on the roof of a Cadillac. The Raccoon fans groaned for the missed opportunity. The Crousetown fans groaned for the Caddy, which they knew belonged to a handicapped old woman who came to every game.
Now the scoreboard gave the count as 3-2. When the Crousetown fans hollered at their hardware dealer, he hoisted a beer to them and changed it to 2-2. The next pitch, a fastball low and inside, did not tempt Beau, as it would most left-handed batters. The priest/manager shouted out to the mound and to the crowd, “Grove one to him; the odds are on your side.” Everyone laughed.
Beau turned and gave the priest a thumbs up and a dopey grin, as if to say, “Aren’t we having fun.”
The pitcher threw a hook that was headed outside until Beau reached out and punched it over the third baseman’s head. Another run in. Seeing the third baseman and the shortstop go out to field the ball, the Moose tried for third. The pitcher made a nice tag. The next man up popped it up to the pitcher on the first pitch.
First half inning over. Score 2-0.
Holly applauded for both teams. Refreshed from her beer, Holly turned to leave the field. Her younger sister, whose husband played left field, stepped in front of her and asked her to sit with her and her four kids up in the bleachers behind first base. Holly could not say no. Those four kids! She could not strand his sister.
By the fourth inning Holly’s skinny hiney was protesting about the wooden bleachers. Crousetown led 5-4, thanks to an error by the Moose, two errors really, a missed throw from second followed by a wild toss to home plate. The official scorer, a woman who wrote loans at the bank, was reluctant to assign errors, compensation, people joked with her, for turning down loan applications.
Sitting in the dugout, Beau watched Hollyberry walking in foul territory along right field, giving her skinny hiney a rest, he knew. He thought she had gone home. Was there a meaning in her hanging around? After the game he would try to find out. Maybe. You never know. Maybe. Unlike farming and baseball, women and weather were a mystery to Beau. He suspected it was his lack of commitment that made her decommit. It did not occur to him to just ask. I mean, if you can’t be committed, you can’t be assertive either. The next inning he watched her heading back up to the bleachers. Her sister was there with her four kids, who could be a big handful, which explained why Hollyberry had hung around.
Maybe he wouldn’t talk to her after the game. But maybe. Women and weather.
In the seventh inning Beau had another up with runners on. The score was 7-5 for Crousetown. One out, a strikeout by the Moose on a 0-2 count at a pitch in the dirt, which bounded off the catcher’s mitt, allowing the runners to advance to second and third. Both runners had been walked by the young starting pitcher, whose arm was wearing out. Six plus innings with a lead was a fine job in town ball. The second pitcher, a southpaw a little younger than Beau, had a good changeup, the pitch that got the Moose. Beau and the pitcher touched their cap brims to each other, signaling a mutual respect and years of fun battling each other. The pitcher was one of the few dairy farmers left in the area. He had always been a reliever because he got to the games only after he finished milking.
Beau was sorry he was a left-handed batter, not because of the southpaw pitcher but because Hollyberry was behind him in the stands. He was reluctant to turn around to look. I mean if you’re not assertive, you’re not going to turn around.
Her sister had to tell her Beau was at bat. Holly had been thinking Beau might make a good husband after all. His slow pace made him a kind man. Beau had said he would be fine with not having kids. Holly’s sisters kids, good enough kids, but four them for Pete’s sake, proved to Holly she did not want children, not that she needed convincing.
Not the Iowa way, Holly knew, not to want children. Beau’s house would need some updating and repair, which the two of them could do themselves. Holly was good with a hammer and a skill saw. And there was a decent hill on the road by Beau’s farm. They could honeymoon up in Minnesota, up along Lake Superior. She liked it there. Lots of hills. Not a cow, a cornstalk, or a soybean in sight.
Holly stood up to rest her skinny hiney while she watched Beau take his ups. She knew he and the pitcher would both work the count. Beau faked holding up on the first pitch, which missed low and inside. The changeup, Holly guessed. Beau and the pitcher touched their caps, as they did on the next three pitchers, all three on the corners, two in the strike zone. Beau did not flinch on any pitch. Count 2-2, which the hardware dealer had right. One out, runners on second and third.
Beau and the pitcher both knew the rule of pitching: what you would throw at 3 and 2 is what you should throw at 2 and 2. So the pitch would be a fastball. But since Beau would be expecting the fastball, the pitcher would throw the changeup, but up in the strike zone and not in the dirt. Except Beau was right with him. Beau lined it softly down the third base line, giving the runner on second a good read on the ball allowing him to make it home. The left fielder threw the ball hard towards home plate. The third baseman cut it off and fired to second. Beau was standing on first base, one foot on the bag, not biting on the fake. Score 7-7. The third baseman and the pitcher doffed their caps to Beau. He did not see them. He and Holly were exchanging knowing looks, meaning knowing they would meet after the game and go to her apartment, not necessarily knowing yet if marriage would follow, at least Beau didn’t yet know.
Beau did his fake-steal dance off of first, which the pitcher did not believe for a second. In fact he did not even look over at Beau. When the count was 1-2 with that Raccoons’ poor-hitting catcher at bat, the pitcher saw Beau and Holly exchange happy smiles, meaningful smiles, smiles he knew how to interpret. He waited until Beau started to take his fake lead and then fired to first and caught Beau wrong-footed. Two outs. They shook hands as Beau crossed to his dugout. No, Beau could not meet him for a beer after the game. The pitcher laughed and nodded up towards Holly. Next time, he said, Beau would have to buy the first two rounds.
You know how it goes; the light-hitting catcher hit a home run. Score 8-7 Raccoon’s.
The bottom half of the seventh Crousetown got the first two runners on, a five pitch walk and another error by the Moose, who at least knocked down the ball, keeping the runners at second and first. The Raccoon manager, a retired high school coach of cross country, wrestling, and baseball, had told Beau to warm up after he was thrown out. The league had several relaxed rules, one of them allowing the DH to move into the defense and having another player take the DH spot.
Beau took the mound. No outs. Runners at second and first. First batter a lefty, then a righty, then two lefties. The first batter was a big kid. Beau did not know him but guessed he would swing for the short right field fence, which he did. He was gone on three four-seam fastballs, all of them off the plate, low and inside.
The more veteran righty worked the count full and then expected a fastball despite his bench yelling out to look for Beau’s big hook. Strike three on Beau’s screwball, which almost crossed up the catcher, who was expecting the changeup, having forgotten to call for the screwball. Not willing to give anything away, Beau had not wanted to call the catcher out to tell him.
Beau, expecting good things after the game, was on form. The next batter bounced back to him on the fifth straight curve ball.
The manager asked Beau if he was up to facing a batter or two in the eighth. “Sure, why not,” he answered. While he sat on the bench, his mind drifted back to where every farmer’s mind goes in the summer: crops and the weather.
The Raccoons went three up and three down.
The first batter, well aware of Beau’s tricks, laid off his changeup and fastballs. Beau could not get his curve ball over. A walk. The next batter tapped a slow fastball down the first base line. Beau ran to cover the bag. When the runner intentionally drifted onto the infield to run right past the Moose, the ball clunked off the his big mitt. He did jump on the ball fast enough to hold the runner on second. With a red face he handed the ball to Beau, who asked him, “You’re still having fun, right?”
“No. I’ve had I don’t know how many errors!”
” I’m having fun. You got a girlfriend in the stands?”
“A serious thing?”
“Well, kinda . . . I guess? We’re just kids, you know.”
“Does she care how many errors you got?”
The home plate umpire hollered out, “Let’s pick it up then, Beau.”
Beau patted the kid’s big shoulder. “Nobody will remember if we lose the game or not.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“In another ten years are so.”
The Moose laughed.
Beau missed with two curveballs before he noticed the small batter, looking for a big hit no doubt, was gripping the bat too hard. His next curveball threatened to catch the top of the strike zone. The batter swung wildly. Next he swung too late at an eye-level fastball. Now the batter was dead meat. He watched the screwball cut back into the zone for strike three.
The manager yelled out, “One more batter, Beau. Get this lefty out.”
Beau knew this player well. A good man with the stick. Not many holes in his swing. One more batter. The manager would pull him as a hitter, too. He would go sit with Hollyberry; then he could avoid expectations that he’d hit the bar with the guys after the game. So he’d pitch this guy backwards, starting with the screwball, which nobody would expect him to do. It took the catcher five tries to realize what sign to put down. Beau hoped the batter assumed they were just trying to mess with his head.
Throwing the screwball cranked his body a little more, turning his head another inch away from the plate. First, as he let the pitch go, he knew his arm was about done, and not just for the game or season. Second, he knew he had released the ball early and it was going to drop right into the guy’s wheelhouse. Third, he sensed the ball coming back at him.
When the ball ricocheted off his head, the man on second took a few steps to third and then ran to Beau’s crumbled body. The man on first ran head-down to second and wondered why nobody was covering the bag. The batter took five steps down the line and then ran to the heap that had been Beau. The Moose was frozen in place. Everybody else on both teams ran to the mound.
Holly ran down the steps two at a time. At the baseline she jerked to a halt, almost falling over the chalk line. Later she remembered how scuffed up was the chalk; well, it was the eighth inning. She stood and stared at Beau, who she could see between the legs of everyone standing around him, a rag doll crumbled on the slope of the mound. She knew what everyone else knew. She turned. Her purposeful strides headed her towards home.
She would apply to both, but Iowa City was her preference. Who would take care of Beau’s farm? Somebody should bring in the crops. Even the popcorn. Especially the popcorn. Why was this town so damn flat? Instead of going to the funeral, she would drive up the Lake Superior. No. She had better go to the funeral. Which would be awkward, weird in fact, his family not getting along. Did they even know about her? Probably not. So did the game end 7-6? Was that how the official scorer recorded it? Did they play on? No, course not. She would go north but stay in Duluth to be around lots of people, but not in crowds. Did Duluth have a mall? It must. Just to walk among people, not buy anything. She was careful with her money. She would spend lots of time down by that bridge where the ships came in. There were always people there.
Why hadn’t she crossed the chalk line? It was a male world out there on the diamond. Beau’s world. If she’d been a wife or a fiancée or a committed girlfriend. If. And everyone knew, of course, that they had broken up.
She was home.
She walked into the dark apartment. Unlocked, of course. This was Crousetown. She went to the door behind which was hidden the washer/dryer and yanked the t-shirt over her head and threw it in the washer. All faded and stretched out, it could be a dust cloth. She stripped off the rest of her sweaty clothes and threw them in. She should do a whole load. She dumped in an unmeasured amount of soap and turned on the machine, not sure in the dark what was the setting. The lid clanked shot.
The blinds were open. But it was dark. Under the shower she scrubbed herself clean. Shampooed her hair. Noticed the smell of the soap and shampoo—sickly sweet tonight. Did it always smell that way?. Tomorrow she would buy unscented products. They would put up a plaque for Beau in some field. Crousetown? Raccoon? His popcorn field?
She stepped out of the shower and barely toweled off. Her hair was short but thick. In this humidity with the AC off it would take hours to dry. To turn on the AC she would have to turn on the lights to the see the controls. At least she had left all the two bedroom windows open, except there was no wind outside.
She crawled into bed, sopping hair and wet body, and pulled a sheet over herself. She would not curl up in a fetal position. She would not. She spread herself flat on her back. She should take someone north with her. She should not be alone. No one came to mind except her sister, who would not come without those four kids. Holly was not going to be around them. She would rather be alone. It was going to take hours to fall asleep tonight in the sticky heat and the AC off. The cannery must have some stipulation in the contract about what happened with his peas.
The crowd had been cheering at that moment when the ball hit off his head. She had not heard the sound.
Iowa City, not Ames. She would focus on statistics and probability.
What was the probability of a southpaw Iowa town ball pitcher dying from a killer line drive off a hanging screwball?
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017