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What a boy wants.

The boy was about 15. He was reasonably tall for his age--about 5'10"--but he was very thin and wore thick, siler-rimmed glasses. Even under his full-length sleeves, the skinniness of his arms could be sensed. He was so preoccupied that he didn't notice the Jordan autommobile that stopped at the crub beside the lot, much less the man behind the wheel who was watching him with a mixture of curiosity and pity.

The boy had just regathered a dozen baseballs beside a wooden slab that was a rough approximation of a pitching rubber. Five of the dozen balls had long ago lost their covers and were bound with heavy, black bicycle tape. The seven others were in various stage of disrepair, ranging from heavily scuffed to a couple of balls actually flapping at a seam.

He was throwing at a curious contrivance. It was a wire frame mounted over a heavily pitted home plate, long abandoned by some amateur team finally able to afford a new one. The frame itself was just about the dimensions of the average strike zone. Within this major frame was an adjustable small one, about six inches square. Just behind the plate, about where the catcher might have been, was the blank brick wall of a factory building.

Working very deliberately, the boy was trying to pitch through the six-inch-square frame. Of the dozen balls, he got two through it, and his last pitch hit the wire of the smaller frame and bent it out of shape.

If the boy had been able to be impervious to the man in the Jordan, he could not very well ignore the well-set-up young man who had stopped on the sidewalk and had watched with amusement his last few pitches. This young man, all of 16 despite his six feet and 180 pounds, asked amusedly, "What're you doing, Randy--getting ready for the White Sox?"

Randy turned and answered, "Sure--or the Cubs, whichever want me first."

The other boy, Mel Baker, snickered and said, "I wouldn't want to stand on my head waiting for that to happen."

Randy stood looking resentfully after the departing Mel, who was tabbed as Traymont High's probable next All-City at football, basketball and baseball. Then he went methodically around the lot to retrieve the balls, which had caromed off the bricks in several different directions and distances, depending on their condition.

While Randy was doing this, the man in the Jordan got out and walked into the lot. He was very tall, perhaps as much as 6'4", but in spite of near middle age was still quite slender. He felt a compassion for the boy, because this was Chicago in the early '20s, and there was no Little League, Pony League or American Legion League. There were only the unorganized sandlots.

"Son," the man said kindly, "just exactly what are you getting ready for?"

Randy looked behind him, startlet, then said, "Only to try out for a high-school team, sir--Traymond High."

"A little early for that, isn't it?" the man asked dryly. It was an early August evening, and a hot one at that.

"Well," Randy said, reassured by the man's kindly manner, "I have a lot to make up for. I'll have to work harder and longer than anyone else."

"As a matter of fact," the man said, looking Randy over appraisingly, "you don't look much like an athlete. Do you play any other sports?"

"No, sir," Randy answered, adding honestly, "I'm too light for football and too clumsy and slow for basketball."

The man said, "Let me tell you something, son. Most pitchers aren't athletes. They're just specialized freaks who can't bat, play the outfield or infield or do any good t any other sport. all they can do while they're young is just pitch that ball up there very fast or very accurately." His eyes twinkled. "I ought to know. My name's Jimmy Lennon, by the way."

Randy gulped and, behind the thick lenses of his glasses, his eyes protruded. He finally gasped, "You mean Jimmy Lennon who pitched for Detroit and Cleveland?"

"And a few other places on the way up," Jimmy Lennon said. "What's your name?"

Randy gasped, "Randy Johnson," as Lennon took his hand.

"Well, Randy," Lennon said, "I'll be by tomorrow night at about the same time if you'll be here."

"Boy!" Randy said fervently. "Will I be here!"

When Lennon drove up in his Jordan the next evening, Randy was there all right. Lennon got out of the car and carried with him a catcher's mitt and a baseball. It wasn't a completely new baseball, but it was the newest that Randy ever had handled, bearing only a few minor scuffs and abrasions.

The first thing Lennon did after handing Randy the ball was to remove the wire frame, which already had been set up. Lennon said, "Son, you've had a good idea here. You're never going to have a big fast ball, so you figured you'd be able to pitch the ball where you want it. That's all right, but in a game they don't give you a wire frame around the strike zone. You shoot for this." He put on the mitt and pounded the pocket with his right fist. "Now warm up for a while."

Randy did. After a while, Lennon walked out to him and said, "You haven't got a bad natural motion, but it can be better. Like I told you, you're never going to have a real hot fast ball, but you can get it faster than it is. Now look, you're a fairly tall kid with long legs, but you're not using them. You're not stepping out enough. You're not following through on your delivery. Watch this."

Lennon, without ball, demonstrated with a beautifully fluid motion. He went through it a couple of more times, then went back behind the plate, put on his mitt and said, "Now you try it."

Randy tried it and after a few pitches started to get the hang of it.

Lennon said, "Now let's see your curve. Have you got one?"

"A little one," Randy admitted.

He threw it. It was a little curve, but it definitely bent. Furthermore, it was natural. He didn't have to think about snapping his wrist or anything. He just had to throw with his natural motion, releasing the ball between his thumb and his index finger, and it curved.

Lennon said, "O.K., son. The curve will get a little better when you get just a little faster. It's going to be your big pitch." He put his glove just over the outside corner of the plate, about knee-high. "Now put that curve in here. Just imaging that the little square of wire is a little ahead of the mitt."

Lennon didn't move his mitt, and Randy hit it right in the pocket. Lennon looked pleased. He said, "When you get a real curve and can do that, you're in. Most of the right-handed batters you'll ever face for a long time can't hit that one. Now let's say it's left-handed batter." He threw the ball back and gave as a target the same position on the other corner of the plate. This time Lennon had to move his mitt a little, but not much.

August ran into September, and school started, but Randy continued to work out on the lot with Jimmy Lennon at least three or four times a week. His fast ball improved, but, as Lennon had said, he would never overpower batters with it.

"You'll use it as your change of pace," Lennon told him. "It will look relatively fast beside the other stuff you're throwing." Starting to work on the knuckle ball, Lennon said, "I'm going to teach you pitches that a fast-ball thrower wouldn't be learning until he was 30."

When the cold winds of October came, they moved inside to a small gym in the neighborhood, where they worked out all winter. Sometimes Randy had Mr. Lennon--he always thought of him and addressed him as "Mr. Lennon"--over to the house for dinner. In a neighborhood already sprouting with apartment houses, Randy Johnson's folks still maintained a large, old, comfortable house, in which the elder Johnson had a room them known as a "den."

It was utside this room that Randy, on one of the dinner occasions, eavesdropped. He didn't mean to--but who can resist listening when the subject of the conversation is himself?

His father, a thick, muscular man who had been a pretty good athlete, asked, "But don't you think, Lennon, that you're giving the boy false hopes? To my mind he's just not built for it, and he's in for a bad letdown."

There was a clink of bottle on glass before Lennon answered, "Johnson, there's no telling where a boy who wants something that much might go." Pause. "I'll admit he hasn't got the physical equipment, but he does have a brain. What he wants is right now. I think he has a chance of making his high-school squad next spring. After that, if he goes on to college, he might even play a little college ball. but the boy gets good marks in school, and by that time he may have decided to be an engineer or something. At any rate, not harm done."

Randy turned around blindly in the darkened hallway, tears streaming bechind his thick glasses, and ran to his room. He didn't hear Lennon continuing, "Even so, I think he has a sort of talent for pitching, a sense for it. He'll never break any of Alexander's records, but he's got something--and he's learning."

Randy didn't show up at the gym the next day, but the day after that he did, with a mumbled apology to Lennon about some extra school chores. That day he worked harder than ever, with a certain grimness that puzzled Lennon.

On a cold day in April, that, in Chicago, could easily have been mistaken for one of the midler days of February or March, the Traymont High School baseball team came out for its first practice. In the dim, moldy, 40-year-old locker room Randy was issued an old uniform too short for him, but also too full.

A bitter wind whipped across the scraggly, rocky old playing field, which was used only for practice, football or baseball. No self-respecting opponent would have played on that surface.

Things started out badly almost immediately. The coach, Corny Huggins, scattered some boys in the rockstrewn outfield. Randy, shivering in the cold, happened to be standing nearest to him. Huggins, a short, squat man, had once got up as far as Moline, in the Three-I League. His face was hard and wore a perpetual expression of bitter disappointment, perhaps because at an early age he had reached the backwater of Traymont High instead of the line-up of the Yankees.

Huggins suddenly tossed a fungo bat to Randy, who promptly fumbled it. Looking at him doubtfully, Huggins said, "Hit out some fungoes." He tossed Randy a ball, which was also fumbled. Trembling with embarrassment and nervousness, Randy tossed the ball in the air, took a mighty swing--and missed the ball. Now, in a complete panic, he missed again and, on the third try, topped the ball and hit a trickling roller that came to rest about halfway to the fielders.

Huggins merely looked at him as if he'd crawled out of a wall, took the bat away from him and gave it to another boy. This fellow promptly hit a towering fly, and the coach walked away.

Well, Randy thought, I'm a pitcher. I'm not supposed to be an expert with the fungo bat.

After a coupled of days things started to sort out. Positions were assigned, truncated games were played. Randy felt very good. He had put on a little weight, and he had been throwing indoors all winter. His arm felt good, and he was ready to go. But no one asked him to. Most of the time he couldn't even get one of the catchers to receive him. More often than not he threw to a neglected first baseman or outfielder. Two or three times he pitched batting practice, but with no umpire to call strikes, the batters just stood there and ignored his low stuff until he laid in something they liked.

He realized he was being ignored, but he could see he was better than the other pitcher candidates, and he was sure that one day Coach Corny Huggings would discover him.

It was on Friday after practice that Huggins called them all together in the locker room. He had a list in his hand and intoned, "Those on the following list report as usual Monday. If your name isn't on the list, turn in your suit and better luck next year."

The list was read, and Randy's name wasn't on it. He stood there in stunned increadulity, trying to prevent the tears from formign in his eyes. He sat down and kept his head low so that no one could see his face. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turning reluctantly, his tear-drowned eyes perceived Mr. Grimslaw, the principal. Mr. Grimslaw was a sports fan who attended all school contests and as many practice sessions as he could.

"Don't take it so hard, Johnson," the principal said. "As the coach remarked, you have another year."

"Mr. Grimslaw," Randy said bitterly, "I wouldn't play under Coach Huggins if it meant I never played baseball again."

Huggins, who was passing by and heard this, said, "Gee, that'll be tough for the team. And here I'd been figuring on another championship next year."

Randy didn't answer. He finished undressing, took his shower and dressed. He turned in his uniform and shoved into his briefcase the special pair of pitcher's baseball shoes with the toe plate and the glove his parents had given him at Christmastime.

Once at home Randy locked himself in his room and tossed the glove and the spikes on a top closet shelf with other old junk he didn't expect to be using in the future. Then he lay on the bed and let the tears and sobs come. Finally he lay quiet and eventually dozed.

He was awakened by a knocking at his door. His mother's voice said, "Randy, Mr. Lennon is here to see you."

Randy didn't fell like seeing anyone, but he was a normally polite boy and he eventually said, "All right, ask him to come in here."

He tried to wipe away evidences that he had been crying, then unlocked the door. Jimmy Lennon entered the room, closed the door behind him and looked at Randy carefully. Lennon finally said, "Your mother told me you brought your spikes and glove home with you."

Randy said shortly, "I was cut."

"Why?"

"You tell me." Randy's voice was bitter. "I never pitched to a better in a practice game. The coach never saw me pitch at all. He never even stood behind me while I threw to a catcher."

Lennon murmured, "Doesn't seem very fair, does it?"

"No!" Randy was having a hard time keeping the tears from coming back to his eyes, and he looked resentfully at Lennon. Wasn't this the man who had caused him to work like a dog, who had buoyed his hopes?

"Look, Randy," Lennon finally said, "I've taken over the management of a team a little west of here. The fellows are a little older than you, but if you'd like to work out with us, you can."

"Work out for what?" Randy asked.

Lennon shrugged. "Maybe we can see exactly how good you are. Then, depending how it comes out, maybe we can find a place for you--or else you can hang up your spikes for good." He patted Randy on the shoulder. "Be out at Pilot Field at about 12:30 Saturday."

He left the room, and Randy stared after him, puzzled.

Randy was amazed at Pilot Field. To begin with, it had covered wooden stands that extended down both foul lines almost to the outfield fences and seated almost 10,000 people. The infield had grass inside the skinned base paths, and the outfield looked smooth and green. There was a real pitcher's mound, instead of the unraised slab that Randy had been used to, and home plate looked new and white.

Under the stands was the clubhouse, and there Lennon got Randy a uniform that fitted fairly well. Then, before going out on the field, Lennon told him, "Randy, the Pilots are a semipro team. We play the big industrial teams from Racine, Kenosha and Beloit, as well as other semipro teams here in Chicago. We also play teams from the Negro League, like the Kansas City Monarchs and the American Giants. Some of the fellows on the squad make more money playing than they would in Class C organized ball, although they all have other jobs. Beginning soon we play every Saturday and Sunday, and around June we start playing in the Twilight League on Tuesday and Thursday evenings." As Randy blinked behind his thick glasses, Lennon added, "I'm telling you this now, Randy, so you won't expect too much of yourself. A couple of the fellows have been in the majors, and a few more have played Double-A ball. There are others, younger ones, who could step onto a Class-B team right now."

That day Randy just threw idly to a succession of catchers, while the rest of the squad engaged in infield practice, shagged fly balls and took batting practice.

However, the next day, Sunday, Lennon had enough men out so that, loosely speaking, he was able to get two teams together. He said to Randy, "You're pitching for the outs. Samson will be your catcher. Get your signals worked out with him."

As Randy finished warming up and walked out to the mound he felt dizzy and light-headed. Lennon was umpiring from behind the pitcher's box. "Remember," he told Randy, "keep your strikes low and outside."

But Randy had never thrown from an elevated mound before, and his pitches kept coming in too high. He was nervous, and the balls he was throwing up there were too fat, catching too much of the plate. The first five batters all nearly tore the cover off the ball, and Randy, badly shaken, finally retired the side only by virtue of three long line drives pulled down after heroic runs by outfielders. Four runs had poured across the plate.

It wasn't much of a game. Except for two or three men who had been playing basketball, the players were favoring winter-stiffened muscles. After the first inning Randy did somewhat better, but not enough to evaporate his feeling of discouragement. After five innings the game was called.

As he undressed, Randy was surprised when Lennon said to him, "Be back next Saturday, same time." Noting the look of astonishment on Randy's face, Lennon added, "You didn't do bad at all, considering. The next time, just keep thinking of that wire frame you used to practice with."

Randy did better than think of the frame. He got it out, and during the next week he went every evening to the vacant lot and practiced with it. He could still lay the ball through that little six-inch square of wire more often than not, but he now knew, from sore experience, that pitching to batters was a totally different thing, the notable difference being that the wire frame couldn't drive the ball to left center for two bases.

On the following Saturday, as Randy and the regular Pilots are suiting up in the clubhouse, Lennon said, "Fellows, wehre going to play a game today. It shouldn't extend you very much, but maybe it'll be fun."

"How much?" an old pro asked.

"For free," Lennon answered. "The other team are amateurs, and there won't be any box office." He turned to Randy and said, "Boy, you're going to pitch. Let's shave that plate thin and keep the ball low. I want you to warm up way out in the left-field corner. Don't come in until the team takes the field."

The players looke curiously at Randy and puzzledly at each other. It was customary at Pilot Field for the home starting pitcher to warm up on the sidelines between home and third base.

Before the other team came onto the field, Randy already was down in the left-field corner with his catcher, Samson, a burly, older man who once had been up with the Washington Senators for a year. Randy produced from his glove a ball heavily wrapped with black bicycle tape. He lobbed it easily to Samson, who exclaimed, "What the devil is this?"

"It's a taped ball," Randy said carefully. "Furthermore, I've had it soaking in a bucket of water all week."

"What's the idea?" Samson asked.

Randy answered firmly, "The same principle as a batter walking up to the plate swinging two bats. By the time I get a real baseball in my hand, it will feel like a feather."

"I thought I'd been everything," Samson shrugged, "but this is the first time I ever saw a pitcher warm up by shot putting."

He threw the ball back to Randy, and it landed with a heavy, wet plunk in his glove. Randy threw it back, and the warm-up went on. It was an unseasonably warm day for Chicago in April, a month that has brought blizzards to the city. The good, warm sweat began to trickle down Randy's back and pitching arm. It felt fine, like a benevolent lubricant.

The bell finally rang, just as in a big-league park. Randy threw one final pitch to Samson, then turned toward the diamond for the first time since he'd started to warm up. Samson joined him, mumbling, "Something's screwy here. I didn't get any batting practice."

As he got out to the mound, the second-string catcher rolled him the ball from behind the plate and filled in while Samson donned his tools of ignorance. It was a brand-new ball, the first such that Randy ever had handled in his life. Jubilantly he weighed it. Beside the black-taped monstrosity he'd been throwing, it felt like a tennis ball, only smoother. Carefully he tried three curves. Then, through sheer joy, he used his last two warm-up pitches throwing hard ones over the heart of the plate. He felt as if he could have thrown the ball clear through the backstop.

As the first batter approached the plate, Randy was looking at him only with the detached interest of a pitcher sizing up a hitter he'd never faced before. It was only a delayed reaction that telegraphed to his mind the letters on the batter's shirt. They read, "Traymont." The second mind telegram told him the batter was Wally Trumbo, a senior who had made the All-City team as a junior.

Startled, Randy looked toward the first-base dugout. There he saw "Traymont" on many shirt fronts--and kneeling in front of the dugout was Coach Corny Huggins. All of them were staring out at him with mixed expressions of astonishment and amusement.

Randy returned his attention to the batter, Trumbo, who had now stepped into the box. Trumbo's expression was one of supercilious merriment. Randy, feeling very calm, peered near-sightedly at his catcher and caught the sign for a curve. Without a windup Randy threw it in there, knee-high and just over the outside corner. The properly blue-clad umpire threw up his right hand--"Strike!"

The next sign was for a fast ball. Randy aimed it for approximately the bill of Trumbo's cap, and Trumbo sat down. "Ball." The next call was for a curve again, and once more Randy broke it low over the outside corner. Trumbo hesitated, then swung wildly, missing by a foot. One and two.

Another fast ball called for, Randy knew he ought to drive Trumbo back again; but, with supreme confidence, he blew the ball over the inside corner, just above the knees. Trumbo took it and was called out.

The next man went down without ever taking the bat off his shoulder. Third man up was the same Mel Baker who had teased him so often as he practiced in the vacant lot. Baker let two curve balls over the outside corner go by for strikes and then went down swinging on a knuckle ball that actually bouned on the plate. Randy walked into the dugout feeling confident and good.

The game was called in the fifth inning, with the Pilots still batting. The score was a horrendous 23-0. Randy's happiness was somewhat marred by the fact that he felt a little sorry for the sheepish, disgusted Traymont team.

As he walked in from second base, where he had been stationed as the result of an unexpected base-clearing double, he passed Lennon, who had stopped to talk to Corny Huggins. He heard Lennon saying to Huggins, "You might be all right with pros, but you ought never to coach boys. You don't even know what a boy wants."

"And what does a boy want?" Huggins snarled.

"A chance," Lennon said quietly. "Just a chance."

Before he could pass into the dugout and through into the clubhouse, Randy was intercepted by Mr. Grimslaw, the principal of Traymont High. "Well, Johnson," Mr. Grimslaw said, "revenge is sweet, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," Randy answered honestly.

The principal smiled and said, "If you were to come out for the Traymont team again, I believe that Coach Huggins would look on you with new eyes."

"Thank you, sir," Randy said earnestly, "but that won't be possible. You see, sir, the Pilots are a semi-professional team, and I wouldn't be eligible for interscholastic activities now."

"Quite right," Mr. Grimslaw murmured. "I'd forgotten that for the moment. Godd luck, Johnson."

Mr. Grimslaw walked away, and Randy ducked through the tunnel door that led into the clubhouse. Randy undressed and took a leisurely shower. Standing there with the hot water sluicing down his body, he thought that he'd never felt better. He'd had a glorious moment such as few boys his age would ever know.

Back in front of his locker he dressed slowly and methodically. When he had finished combing his hair in front of the cracked wall mirror, he took his spikes and his glove from his locker and turned to go. He faced into Lennon. "Thank you very much, Mr. Lennon," he said. "But I still don't see how you set it up."

"That was easy," Lennon said, shrugging. "At the risk of sounding vain, I'll say that Huggins was flattered that I'd look him up. Secondly, he was glad for his boys to play in a real ball park instead of those piles of cinders they usually play on."

"Well," Randy said, "thank you anyway. It made a big minute for me."

He extended his hand, but Lennon refused it. "Where are you taking that glove and those spiks?" Lennon asked.

surprised, Randy answered, "Home."

"What for?" Lennon demanded gruffly. "You'll be needing them here tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Randy asked blankly.

"Yes, tomorrow. We start to work on teaching you to field your position so you won't be bunted silly--so that when you should be backing up third base, you won't be standing out there on the mound with your teeth hanging out. Twelve o'clock." He started away, then turned back smiling. "By July, if you keep learning, I may start using you in relief. By September you might even start a game." He put his hand on Randy's shoulder and said softly, "There aren't many pitchers who can throw a ball through a six-inch square of wire."

As Lennon walked off, Randy found himself trying to blink back those awful tears, which so often threatened his dignity. Only this time they were happy tears.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Macaulay, Richard
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1985
Words:4662
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