In Mike Lupica’s “The Batboy,” 14-year-old Brian lands his dream summer job: batboy for the Tigers. For Brian, though, it is more than just the chance to hang around his idols. Baseball was the job his father loved so much, in the end he chose it above everything else — including his own family. Now Brian sees it as the way to win back his father. An excerpt.
It was one of those moments when Brian felt as if baseball was close enough for him to reach out and touch. Like his hands were around the handle of a bat. Or like he was on the mound, his fingers making sure the seams of the ball felt just right.
One of those moments when he could close his eyes and imagine he was a big-leaguer himself.
One of those moments, really, when he realized why his dad loved the game the way he did. Loved it too much, according to his mom.
Loved it more than anything or anybody.
Bottom of the ninth inning at Comerica Park, the Tigers having just scored to tie the game, Willie Vazquez, their shortstop, standing on third and representing the winning run.
And now came the fun part for Brian Dudley, not just because the Tigers had this kind of shot at a walk-off win, but because Brian got to think right along with Davey Schofield, the Tigers’ manager, who was perched on the top step of the dugout near the bat rack, on the home side, the third-base side, of Comerica. This was when baseball felt like the greatest reality show in the world.
Willie, the fastest guy on the team and one of the fastest in the American League, was on third because the Tigers’ third baseman, Matt Holmes, had just singled him there, bringing home the tying run with the same swing of the bat.
Curtis Keller, the Tigers’ center fielder, was at the plate. Curtis could fly, too. And he had some major pop in his bat for a little guy — a good thing, because now all his team needed was a fly ball deep enough to score Willie to win it.
The scary part? For all of Curtis’ talent, and his ability to hit the ball hard from the right side against any kind of pitching, lefty or righty, he struck out a lot.
Willie Vazquez liked to joke that Curtis Keller’s strike zone had its own area code. “Sometimes Curtis swings and misses when I’m at the plate.”
If Curtis were to strike out here, then the Tigers would have two outs, the winning run still on third, a sacrifice fly no longer a possibility. And that would leave things up to Mike Parilli, the Tigers’ catcher, who was working on a seriously ugly 0-for-4 day.
So what would Davey do?
Brian knew all the stats on Curtis, inside and out, the way he knew the stats on all the Tigers players. Not because anybody had made him learn them. Not because it was some kind of course at school. Brian knew stats because he wanted to know. Because his head was full of the numbers of baseball, all the numbers that not only held the sport together, but connected one season to another, one era to another. Kenny Griffin, Brian’s best bud, liked to say that if you could ever crack Brian’s head open like a walnut, decimal points would come spilling out.
Now, sitting here at Comerica, feeling like he had the best seat in the house, Brian tried to put those numbers to use the way he knew Davey Schofield would.
They should squeeze, Brian decided.
All Tigers fans knew how much Davey liked to play “small ball,” liked to bunt and move runners and steal bases, especially because this year’s Tigers didn’t have the kind of home-run power they’d had in the past. The only problem with playing small ball right now — and it was a big problem, actually — was that Brian knew that even he was a better bunter than Curtis Keller.
More than two months into the season Curtis still didn’t have a single sacrifice bunt, even though he’d been batting number two in the order pretty much since Opening Day. He’d tried a few times. Six times to be exact, Brian knew, and he’d failed to advance the runner each time. Twice he’d even managed to strike out, which wasn’t easy when you were bunting.
Yet Brian was sure the bunt was still the right play, especially against the Indians’ big right-handed closer, Rafael Fuentes.
Because the other stat bouncing around inside Brian’s head like a pinball was that Curtis had never gotten a hit off Rafael Fuentes, was 0-for-14 lifetime. And Mike Parilli, kneeling there in the on-deck circle? He was 1-for-20 against the guy.
If Curtis didn’t get the run home, and get it right now, they were as good as in extra innings already.
“Lay one down,” Brian said out loud, almost like he couldn’t help himself.
From where he sat he had a perfect view of Davey going through all his signals. Those signals went to the Tigers’ third-base coach, Nate Vinton, who then flashed them to Curtis. Willie didn’t need the middleman; he was staring into the dugout at Davey the same as Nate was. More baseball stuff that Brian loved, the play having this kind of drama even before Rafael Fuentes delivered the ball to the plate.
Brian was never bored by any of it, whether he was at the ballpark or watching on television. He realized he wasn’t just thinking along with Davey, he was thinking along with the Indians’ manager at the same time as he brought his corner infielders in and left his shortstop and second baseman in their regular spots, knowing a ground-ball double play would get them out of the inning, provided they could double up a speed guy like Curtis.
It was the first midweek afternoon game since school had let out, and for Brian, this felt like the real start of summer, no matter what the calendar said. Summer was something you could hear and feel all around you at Comerica, filled with all this noise and all these possibilities and all this base-ball. Yeah, this was summer.
Curtis got into the batter’s box. Rafael Fuentes was ready to pitch. This close to the field, Fuentes, at 6 foot 4 and 245 pounds, looked as big to Brian as Shaquille O’Neal. Fuentes liked to pitch from the stretch and was doing so now, eyeballing Willie Vazquez as he juked around off third base. One more drama, Brian knew, this one between pitcher and base runner.
Fuentes stood there so long, as if frozen, that Curtis stepped out of the batter’s box and went through his whole routine of getting ready again — loosening and refastening his batting gloves, then taking a practice swing.
Brian knew that some people hated all the starts and stops of baseball, all the breaks in the action. Not Brian Dudley. He wasn’t ever going to be somebody who came to the ballpark and as soon as he got there acted as if he had somewhere else to be.
When he was at the ballpark, Brian was always where he wanted to be. Sometimes he felt more at home at Comerica than he did at his own home.
Curtis dug back in. Fuentes began his pitching motion, checked quickly one more time on Willie, then blew strike one right past Curtis, high heat, pure cheese, Curtis swinging right through it. The pitch measured 97 mph on the huge scoreboard towering over left field at Comerica.
Lay one down, Brian thought again.
The first and third basemen were still in at the corners, had to be, just to make sure. But they had seen Curtis swing from his heels the way everybody in the ballpark had, like he was trying to hit one all the way to Canada.
Fuentes’ right arm came forward again. Another fastball. But Curtis Keller had dropped the head of the bat.
Not the kind of bunt they taught you in Little League, where you squared for a straight sacrifice and practically made an announcement to the infielders that you were bunting. No, this was the way you bunted, even with the third baseman charging in, when you were bunting for a base hit, when you deadened the ball and came racing out of the batter’s box like a sprinter in track coming out of the blocks.
Curtis actually laid down a beauty, the ball dying like a toy car that had run out of batteries as Willie Vazquez, coming the other way, blew right past it.
Gus Howell, the Indians’ third baseman, made a great play on the ball, flung it sidearm, nearly underhanded, toward home plate. If the runner had been a slow one, the throw might have had a chance. But it was Willie who slid across home plate with the winning run and then bounced right up, clapping his hands, yelling, “Yeah! Yeah, baby!”
You had to be close to the field to hear him because all around, from every corner of the ballpark, came the happy roar of Comerica, the sound baseball made when your team won.
The Indians were already walking off the field. Game over. The Tigers in the dugout were pouring out onto the field. Even though it was only June, everybody already knew it was going to come down to the Tigers and the Indians in the American League Central this year. The Tigers had just swept the first series of the season between the two teams — their biggest wins of the young season.
Brian was on his feet now.
He saw Davey Schofield grinning at him from the other end of the dugout.
“Lay one down?” Davey said.
Brian said, “You heard?”
Davey said, “Man, I think the peanut vendors heard. Now I even got a kid knowing all my brilliant moves before I make ’em. Must be because your father played.”
“Must be,” Brian said, the sense of celebration suddenly leaving.
“Where’s he now?”
“Japan,” Brian said.
Davey motioned to Brian, letting him know that it was all right for him to join the celebration on the field.
“You wear the uniform, you’re part of the team now,” Davey said, putting an arm around Brian’s shoulders.
Brian walked that way with the Tigers’ manager toward home plate, picking up Curtis Keller’s bat when he got there. Doing his job.
As far as he was concerned, the best summer job ever invented by mortal minds.
Batboy for the Detroit Tigers.
He was part of the team now.
Excerpted from “The Batboy” by Mike Lupica. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Penguin Group.