Area Scouts

Tommy Vollman knew he couldn’t do it. Soon, the area scouts would figure it out, too. Maybe they already had. Anxiety clawed at him, feelings that had progressively worsened over the course of the last month or so. To deal with them, Tommy recited names. But not just any names. When he felt anxious, Tommy Vollman recited the names of baseball players. He whispered them quietly when he was alone, and when he wasn’t, he’d just let those names tumble through his mind, silently, accompanied by their pictures—the ones that were on the baseball cards he sorted as a kid. Tommy Vollman never recited the names of stars. He only chose players from his common stacks; they worked better. He had to think about them, really get in there. Anybody could recall someone like Reggie Jackson or George Brett, but players like Claudell Washington and Ivan DeJesus took work. These were people, Tommy figured—players like Washington and DeJesus—who knew better than most what it was like to get right up to the precipice and stare deep into the pool of one’s own dreams but then only ever be able to dip in to the waist. Tommy Vollman figured somebody like Claudell Washington never quite got fully submerged, never really dunked down in that pool and thought, Damn, man, this is it. This is everything.

And that was Tommy Vollman’s worst fear—to be nearly there but not quite.

Of course, back then Tommy thought going all-in was everything. Anything less than everything was really nothing; that’s what he thought back then.

But, Tommy often considered, Claudell Washington and Ivan DeJesus made it to the majors. Maybe they did know what it was like to go all-in. Still, it had to be something to be good enough to make it to the show but not quite good enough to be a star—to be the best but not quite the best of the best or even one of the greats among the really, really, really good.

See, Tommy Vollman had a serious problem: He couldn’t fully admit to himself that he wasn’t ever going to be a major leaguer. Admitting that felt the same as giving up, the same as quitting. If he wasn’t going to make the show, why should he even continue to bother? And worse, what had the past ten years been all about? What were the late nights, the cages after games, the film sessions, scout work, all the extra training? What were they but a waste of time, effort, and money? He still played, day-in, day-out, but it was all getting to be a bit much. It wasn’t the work that was the problem; Tommy Vollman loved everything about baseball. The problem was that possibly not making it to the majors and continuing to do what he did was incongruent, unsustainable. He was living a life of halfwayness, and it was eating him alive. The names worked now, but he wondered for how long?

Sometimes, he thought maybe it didn’t have to be everything or nothing. Maybe things could just be what they were. Maybe, if he wasn’t drafted, he could sign one of the Independent League contracts he’d already been offered. Maybe he’d work his way up, become one of those people who had a story: undrafted, independent ball, almost walked away, rookie ball or single A on to double, then triple A, then to the show. It’d be a magnificent story. Or, maybe he could just walk away. Maybe, there was really no shame in that, after all. He was good, really good. He just wasn’t good enough. It would have been quite something for him to recognize that his chance hadn’t actually come and gone; his chance just hadn’t been what he thought.

  Walking away from baseball scared Tommy Vollman to death. If he walked away, how could he be certain, really certain, that he might not have made it after all? How could he really be sure that the independent club contract wouldn’t lead to single A then on to double, triple A, then to the show?

Any of that, though, would be predicated upon him being able to consistently—day-in, day-out—hit a curveball, which he hadn’t been able to do, consistently. And because of that, he knew he’d never be a major leaguer, which broke his heart wide open.

Tommy Vollman glanced around. There were 60, 70, maybe a hundred people—maybe more—scattered through the stands. His hands were easy, at home on the dirty, grey leather grip of the bat that rested on his shoulder. Everything smelled like pine tar and clay, and the air was thicker than it should have been. The breeze, which had through the first and second innings blown graciously out to left-center, was gone. All of them—the fans, the area scouts, the kids, coaches and players—were locked in irons.

Tommy Vollman stared out at the hill, out at the pitcher, a burly right-hander that everybody called Big Horse. Horse, whose real name Tommy wasn’t even sure he knew, looked about ten feet tall atop the mound and had thrown well through six. His pitch count, Tommy figured, was no more than 70.

He was methodical, Horse was, and Tommy desperately wanted to smash that rhythm. Tommy knew Big Horse had three, maybe four solid pitches including a curve that could slice a block of cheddar—12-6—clean.

It was the top of the seventh with one on, one out. The score was knotted tight at three and had been since the bottom of the third.

Tommy took a few practice swings as Granger—the tall, long-haired third baseman—stared at a called strike on a pitch that painted the outside corner. A soft, birdlike chatter tumbled out of the stands, stands now nearly completely devoured by the shadows that crept up the first-base line and angled for the right-field corner.

It was hot and humid as hell, and the sweat that gathered on his neck and forehead caused Tommy Vollman think about the ocean. Granger was down 0-2, and Tommy thought fastball, but he knew Granger would be looking for something off-speed, which was why Granger’d been buried in the number-nine hole and was hitting only a buck ninety-three through almost two dozen games. Big Horse loved to throw his off-speed numbers, but up 0-2 to the bottom of the order, there was no way in hell he’d throw anything but a fastball.

Straight heat, Tommy said to himself, as if his thoughts could permeate Granger’s helmet and push him out of his slump. Tommy knew, though, that if he’d have been at bat instead of Granger, he’d have been able to get on top of that heater and drive it to the gap. A double, if it sat just right, would knock in Russell—who could flat out fly—from first.

Tommy Vollman shifted his feet and imagined he was up there instead of Amous Granger. He thought about how Big Horse would check Russell at first to try to keep him somewhat close, never really considering a move that way, then how he’d take the sign and probably shake off something down and away in favor of full heat on the inside corner. Then, Tommy thought about how Big Horse would rock back and serve the pitch from that spot right behind his ear. Tommy imagined how the ball would look as it came flying in, how all that force and effort backed by Big Horse’s massive leg kick would screw the seams up on each other as if somebody had secretly painted two dozen red stripes on an otherwise snow-white baseball. Tommy thought about his own feet and a nice smooth ninety; his stride so easy and free, much different than that of Big Horse. He imagined how his front shoulder would stay connected to that invisible fulcrum that extended upward, off the inside of the plate, and how his eyes would get a centimeter-and-a-half bigger as his bat cut at and then connected with the ball just below the equatorial divide where the stamp sat and how he’d force his wrists to stay patient even though they’d get greedy and try to snap too quick and tug at the bat handle. Tommy Vollman imagined all of this as Granger struck out, a decade behind a 95 mile-an-hour fastball that Big Horse hurled low and inside.

It was a hell of a pitch, and Granger probably couldn’t have hit it even if he‘d have known it was coming.

As Tommy strolled up to the plate, he knew Horse would only serve off-speed junk his way. Tommy wouldn’t see that heater that blew Granger away, not in a million years. About all Tommy Vollman could hope for was a hanger, a mistake by Big Horse that he could jump on. But Tommy knew that Big Horse would know that, too, so he’d do his damnedest not to make a mistake; he’d work like hell to make sure that Tommy Vollman wouldn’t—couldn’t—make him pay.

And so as Tommy approached the dish, he tried not to think about the guys in the stands with clipboards and stopwatches, the ones operating the JUG guns and watching the game from the inside-out. He tried not to think about the area scouts, the ones who looked haggard and road worn, the ones whose faces had melted into the sunglasses they wore, whose minds were forever occupied, calculating and figuring the next two years and the five after that. He tried not to think about any of those guys, the ones who could almost certainly tell in a single at-bat whether a 17 year-old was worth another look or if an 18 year-old was worth a pick and a few thousand bucks a month. They were the ones who’d ultimately make the decision for Tommy, and he was trying like hell to be okay with that.

Tommy Vollman called time and wiped away what remained of the bottom of the batter’s box, as Big Horse paced behind the mound. Russell would run, Tommy figured, on the first or second pitch; Horse couldn’t afford to mess around with him anymore, not with two out and the game tied up.

Tommy dug in, and Big Horse took the sign, nodded, reared, and fired. Tommy, who was taking all the way, stood stone-still as a spiraling slider cut low and too far inside.

The home plate umpire barely made a sound as the count jumped to 1-0.

Tommy gathered his signs from third and climbed back in the box. The area guys were there; he couldn’t help but think about them. They’d been coming around more and more these past few weeks. Tommy had gathered a bit of noise, and that worried him, which worried him even more.

The sun, so prideful and relentless an hour earlier, had drifted aimlessly toward the horizon and suspended itself just above the scoreboard in right-center.

Tommy took Horse’s second offering low and away to bounce ahead 2-0. Both pitches kicked poorly, and it was easy for Tommy to lay off of them. Horse would have to come hard now, Tommy thought. 3-0 was a hole even Big Horse couldn’t afford.

He’d already signed with Atlanta, Horse had, but he still wanted strong outings every time. Horse was wired like that. He always wanted more. He wanted as much as he could possibly take. I suppose Tommy was probably jealous of him, though he’d never have admitted it. But it wasn’t Big Horse’s double-A assignment, his draft number, his contract, or any of that stuff that made Tommy Vollman jealous. Tommy Vollman was jealous of something he couldn’t—and to some extent still can’t—quite qualify. Tommy Vollman was jealous of that fact that Big Horse simply believed everything he wanted was there for his taking. And Tommy Vollman was really jealous of the fact that Big Horse always took what he wanted and didn’t think twice about it. Tommy would have killed for what Horse had–the contract and the assignment–but he wasn’t jealous of it. No, that wasn’t it at all. Tommy Vollman was jealous of that special something that Big Horse didn’t even know he had, that special something that allowed Horse to just take everything and anything whenever he wanted it. Tommy Vollman longed for that special something. And to some extent, he still does.

Big Horse’s third offering was a cutter that Tommy took for a called strike. Russell, who jumped the pitch, stole second standing up. Tommy didn’t cover with a swing. I suppose he missed the sign.

Tommy Vollman knew that was the pitch, the one he should have put in the gap. A cutter was as good as it was going to get from Horse. Tommy wondered, with Russell on the move, if he’d missed a sign. He wouldn’t see that pitch again unless Horse fucked up, and Horse didn’t really ever fuck up.

Tommy stood outside the box and twisted the bat in his hands. It’s handle felt so thin, so fragile. Everything from here on out would be junk.

He glanced into the bleachers again and wondered how many of them were even up there. He wondered what they thought—the area guys with their dark sunglasses and solid-color caps, collared shirts, and notebooks. He wondered what they’d write, what they’d pass forward after they watched him wave helplessly at the next couple of benders Horse would almost certainly deal.

Tommy Vollman was pretty sure he was going to be sick.

He stood in the box and let his bat sew lazy, looped stitches in the thick air just above his head. He thought about the names–Ron LeFlore, U.L. Washington, Duane Kuiper–but he wouldn’t let himself actually say them. He couldn’t—not even silently, to himself—not there, not in the batter’s box.  

Tommy brought his bat still as Horse reared and fired. Just as he feared, Tommy felt himself wave at a rolling breaking ball. His front shoulder flapped open–a torn sail–useless and totally impatient.

Tommy stepped out of the box, the count knotted at 2-2. He tapped the brim of his helmet with the barrel of his bat, and adjusted his gloves and jersey.

Horse walked behind the mound and gazed out to left. He removed his cap, wiped his forehead, and then, with one hand on the bill and one on the back, he carefully put the bright red Rouse Club hat back on his head. He kept his glove tucked tight in his armpit, the ball buried deep in the leather’s loose basket weave.

Tommy watched as Big Horse exhaled, climbed back on the hill, and dug in against the rubber.

Tommy Vollman wanted to think about Big Horse and what he was about to deal. He wanted to think about anything but the stream of names clattering through his mind. These names were awkward and uneasy, the vowels hard, consonants too crowded: Bob Brenley, Ron Oester, Mickey Klutts, Mike Pagliarulo. Tommy Vollman wanted to focus, to dial in on Horse’s 12-6 arm motion, to see the quick snap of his thick wrist and the tight spin of the ball as it parted his long fingers and bent toward the plate. He wanted to really concentrate on those things. And he tried; he really, really did. But it was no use. He could almost hear the restless pens scratching notes over hard, clipboard foundations.

Excellent speed, great glove. Switch hitter, better left. Good hands. Kills fastball in all counts, high, low, in and out. Okay for the change. Good split versus lefties and righties. Bat speed a touch slow, but great control to the opposite field. Hips and hands, mostly. Gets killed by the curve. Pass.

Tommy Vollman knew that’s what they’d write; he knew that’s what they were writing even as he stood there trying not to recite the names he’d managed not to forget. If the area scouts didn’t write those things today, they’d write them soon. And if, per chance, they didn’t write those things soon, they’d write them eventually.

But before he really had a chance to really wonder what it was he could or should have done, Horse’s pitch bent and buckled right through the corner of the strike zone. Nobody, he thought, really had anywhere to hide anything, and nothing of any importance could be ignored (at least effectively) forever.

         And so Tommy Vollman strolled back to the dugout, pulled off his helmet, and nodded as Dontrell Lewis handed him his glove and hat and told him not to worry about it, to just shake it off. Then, he jogged out to center, unable to look up at the area scouts who surely scribbled their notes, shuffled the papers with his name to the backs of their piles, then readjusted their metal binders or three-rings or whatever it was that held everything together. 

Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. In 2016, Tommy’s short story, “Jimmy” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2017, his story “Boots” was nominated for the “Best of the Net” Sundress anthology. He has stories set to publish in upcoming issues of The Southwest Review and IO Lit. Recently, he’s had stories appear in Two Cities Review, Palaver, Pithead Chapel, Gris-Gris, and Per Contra. Tommy has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms, and he really likes A. Moonlight Graham, Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He’s working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling. Tommy released a record, These Ghosts, in November of 2016 and has a follow-up slated for early-2019. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts.