Nobody on base, one out. The Tucson pitcher, Daryl Ryan, who'd been nearly perfect, throws an inside slider to our 17 year old Rey Marcos. Rey jumps out of the way, getting pretty dirty, then gets right back into the box. Ryan does it again, knocking Rey down. 2 and 0 count. Now I know Rey pretty well by now, and he's got this competitive fire inside that's hard to duplicate. You either have it or you don't. He's got it. He dug in once more in the box. A third pitch, way inside, hits Rey on his right shin. (Daryl pitches from the right side, Rey bats from both.) After some gentle prodding from his teammates and the home Tucson crowd that had been becoming less gentle ever since the first brushback pitch, Rey took the advice of someone and charged the mound.
I don't want to take full credit. Partial is fine. A week or so ago I explained to Rey, who calls himself my prodigy son, that he's going to be a target this year, and for a number of years, because of his youth and incredible skill. Lots of guys, both on his team and all the other teams, are going to be jealous/envious of him. And he's going to have to fight back every time. Don't take it, I said. But don't dish it out unless you absolutely need to.
Rey didn't take it last night.
He reached Daryl Ryan in front of the mound and, since this is the minor leagues, they had a moment to really go at it before anyone attempted to break it up. When the dust, and there was a lot of it, settled, Daryl had to leave the game - his first no-hitter! - with an injury to his foot (from trying to kick Rey in the same shin he'd thrown at) and Rey was booted. No big deal for us. A pinch runner took over for Rey at first base. Me.
So Ryan made the first bad call of the night, to pitch inside one too many times to our fiery rookie and future mainstay of the New York infield. The second bad call was coming up.
I took my lead off of first (I'm neither a very fast or very smart baserunner, but manager Dusty Graves had utilized nearly every bench option due to two players having the flu, two being too sore to play, and the rest already being used.) and dove back on what I thought was a throw over by the new Tucson pitcher. Of course, he didn't throw over. He just stepped off the rubber to tie his shoe. I made a couple of thousand people laugh. Always lovely to be the butt of a good joke.
I took another lead. This guy's first pitch is wild. I take off for second and make it without a throw. It's not a stolen base (I've never had one) but I pretend it is by pulling the base oout of the ground and hoisting it up over my head. The crowd loves the move. Dusty is more than upset. We're trying to win the game and I'm fooling around. He yells something at me from the dugout, something that most newspapers wouldn't print, and an umpire tells me to settle down. I feel like I'm in kindergarten all over again.
The base back in its place, resting comfortably on the ground, I take my lead off of second. A pitch and ground ball to the right side send me with no throw over to third. Two outs. Still a no-hitter. We're still losing 1-0.
Third base coach Willie Fernandez, who you remember from his 40 HR season for us three years ago (and now 40 like me and out of the game for his second season due to two knees that will need to be replaced before he turns 50), pats me on the butt and calls me an idiot for lifting up 2nd base. He chatters to me about my lead. Don't be too conservative, he says. I take another step. C'mon, a little more, he says. I look at the bag, which is about six inches away, and realize a little more aggression won't hurt anybody. Two feet, three feet, four feet, five feet. Now I've got a decent, but still conservative lead.
The pitcher (I don't know all the guys down here at AAA) looks over and with the speed of some superhuman slips his right foot off the rubber and whips the ball over to the third baseman. I dive back and get my hand back under the tag. After a timeout for me to brush off my once sparkling gray road uniform and some unkind, unprintable words from Willie, I take my lead again.
Since I've hardly ever run the bases (my lifetime batting avg. is .141) and really haven't at all since September of 2006, I was a little rusty. But the pitcher in me got the wheels in my head churning. If I was protecting a one-run lead with two outs in the ninth and a not-so-good runner on third base, what would I do? I figured I'd concentrate on the batter and not the runner. At worst, the runner could score and tie the game. At best, the batter makes an out. Since between 7 and 8 times out of 10 a batter does make an out, the odds are nearly always on the pitcher's side (that's how I like to look at it, at least).
Thus, the pitcher does what I think he's going to do and starts to completely ignore me. My lead grows. Five feet. Six feet. He doesn't even look over. Seven feet. Eight feet. Willie tries to whisper as loud as possible that I'm getting into "stupid" territory and should stop. Nine feet. The guy goes into his windup, throws and...
The ball gets away from the catcher. I run. I run hard. The ball doesn't bounce away, nor does it roll very far. It kind of trickles away, not far, but far enough for me to make the play at home close. The pitcher races me to the plate. The catcher, realizing he's close enough to get me, ignores the pitcher (second time in seconds a pitcher had been ignored) and lunges for me just as I slide in, feet first. I completely miss the plate with my feet and feel the Thud! of a big leather catcher's glove slap my chest just as my left hand gets close enough to the plate to make it a photo finish. The umpire, in horrible position (which is why he's a minor league ump and not in a larger stadium with ten times as many people earning ten times the salary), calls me safe.
Our dugout goes wild. We've tied the game and still not gotten a hit. I slowly get up - had the wind knocked out of me from a 235 pound man slamming his glove onto my lungs - and am embraced by a bunch of very happy boys (most of them are still boys in AAA, especially when a 40 year old like me is telling the story).
Dusty gives me a bear hug and tells me I was out "by a country mile." I don't ask what the difference is between a country mile and an urban mile, but figure suburban sprawl has something to do with it. He tells me I'm a lucky man I didn't get hurt and orders me to drink some Gatorade and loosen up because I'm going to pitch the ninth.
So the umpire made the second bad call of the inning, the score is tied, and the game's karma is totally changed. We go on to suddenly knock the ball all over the place. By the end of the inning, we're winning 5-1 and the Tucson crowd is throwing things onto the field. Since it's Cactus Night at the stadium, hundreds of cacti are tossed. The game is delayed while the grounds crew, made up of teachers and off duty pharmacy clerks, tries to pick up the pointy plants. It takes a while because it hurts to get stuck with a cactus thorn. But they get it done, I come out for the bottom of the 9th and get three quick outs. Game over. Visiting Nashville Hounds win 5-1.
In the joyous clubhouse after the game, I got a phone call. It was Rick Churches, my NY manager who's been good to not speak to me since the end of spring training. He said plans have been changed. Our closer, Billy Weston, who's had finger problems on his pitching hand for almost a month, is being placed on the DL. I'm being called up and am to meet the team in Los Angeles, where the Vets are playing a 3-game series. I'm going to be the closer while Billy heals up.
Wow, is all I can think. I'm going to make it back. I'm going to make it back for real right away. No more waiting. I'm ready and the call, this one a good one, has been made.
I go into Dusty's visiting manager's office and tell him. He nods and said he'd just heard. He shakes my hand and asks me to wait for a second. I sit down while he leaves the office. Two minutes later, he calls my name. I go into the heart of the clubhouse to a standing ovation. The players, my teammates for the last 6 weeks, are applauding me. Then Dusty presents a gift. It's second base, the base I'd held up not too long before. I accept and hold it up high, smiling. My minor league career is over. I'm back to the bigs.
See you in LA!