Episode 33 — Chapter 38
The sun broke through the clouds early the next morning, hinting at spring’s promise. The early morning dew melted as a mystical haze settled over the cotton farm.
When he rose, Cobb was surprised to see a pair of baseball cleats and a right-hander’s glove with a baseball wedged inside. Cobb picked up the glove and ball and felt excited. The glove was enormous. He wasn’t sure he liked it; it wouldn’t convey the touch or control over the ball that he was accustomed to, but he could see the advantage of the over-sized fingers and thicker padding.
Cobb quickly dressed and examined the baseball cleats. The shoes had undergone a transformation as startling as the glove; they were incredibly light, yet firm. He was anxious to see if he could run faster than before.
Cobb became suddenly distracted by laughter and the repeated sounds of the familiar thud coming from outside. Peering through the window, Cobb saw Savannah playing catch with Calvin. The morning rays of sun deflected light from her long dark blond hair, her movements accentuating her pleasantly proportioned figure and Cobb was once against struck by her natural beauty.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been staring from the window when the spell was broken. “Come on out!” Savannah shouted, glancing up at Cobb. “We just started warming up.”
As Cobb exited the house, he felt the coolness of the outdoors, but the chill was lessened by the sun’s bright blaze.
“Mr. Cobb, let’s see if you can catch,” Savannah yelled, throwing the ball as hard as she could from seventy feet away. Sailing over his head, Cobb had to leap in full extension to snare the ball with his gloved hand.
“I owe you, Ty,” Calvin laughed. “You just saved us a broken window.”
Cobb transferred the ball to his right hand and flung it straight at Calvin.
“Not bad for a centenarian,” Savannah chimed in.
As they began warming up, Calvin found Cobb’s throwing motion unusual. He rotated his full torso back and forth as he caught and threw the ball. He’d never seen anything quite like it, but Cobb’s accuracy was not a problem. After tossing the ball back and forth a few minutes, Calvin suggested that Cobb grab a bat. Hearing the ruckus, Calvin’s other kids streamed outdoors, each carrying their own glove. Like a field general, Calvin ordered his brood to various corners of the field to retrieve batted balls.
There was a makeshift pitching mound by the west end of the barn, and a five-sided plank dug several inches into the dirt marking home plate precisely sixty feet and six inches away. Home plate was just eight feet in front of the barn door—the barn providing the dual purpose of housing the hay and farm animals and acting as a backstop for pitches. Savannah planted herself a hundred feet from the batter’s area in front of a persimmon tree.
Cobb looked at the selection of bats lying on the ground next to home plate. They were wet with dew in their usual resting spot. Small bats, long bats, wood and aluminum. Cobb picked up one of the longer wooden bats with a taped handle. He tried swinging it a few times.
“You got anything heavier than this?” Cobb asked.
Calvin approached and picked up the bat. “That should be a good one—it says here it weighs 33 ounces.”
“I like ‘em closer to 40 ounces,” their guest responded.
“Really! I don’t know anyone who swings a bat that heavy.”
“The heavier the bat, the better chance of getting a base hit,” Cobb checked out a few more bats.
“I never heard that before,” Cain shook his head. “That one you just picked up is probably the heaviest of the bunch, although a coupl’a them might be water-logged, and a tad heavier than normal. I’m sorry I don’t have any batting gloves. You know, being a pitcher…”
“Batting gloves? Why would I need gloves to hit?”
“You’re right,” Calvin walked toward the make-shift mound.
Cobb inspected some more bats, but ultimately retained the one he had first selected. He then added two more wooden bats, and began swinging all three to warm up.
“Ya sure ya need all three to hit the ball,” Savannah cried. Cobb smiled at her, and after a couple of minutes, discarded two of the bats. He took his stance on the right side of the plate.
“Hey, you bat lefty, just like the real Ty Cobb,” Savannah joked good-naturedly.
Calvin had retrieved a bucket of baseballs from just inside the barn and carried them to the mound. “I’ll go easy on you at first, old-timer.”
As Calvin got ready to throw, he was surprised by his friend’s batting stance. Cobb stood forward in the unmarked batter’s box and near the plate with his feet close together. He leaned a bit toward the plate with his hands forward, but there was no bend in his knees. The stance, far different than the customary crouch used by most big-leaguers, caused Calvin to wonder how much experience his friend had playing baseball.
I’ll go easy on him, Calvin decided. I’d hate to embarrass him.
Calvin toed the wooden rubber, rocked back and lofted a slow pitch over the center of the plate.
Instead of swinging at it, Cobb squared to bunt. The bat retreated just as the pitch arrived and fell seven feet in front of home plate.
“If you’re just gonna bunt the ball, I’m going to come in with a little more steam.”
The next pitches came in with increased velocity. Cobb bunted several more, all landing in different vectors a short distance from the plate.
Calvin wondered if his guest would ever take a full swing.
“I see you can bunt. But, do you know how to actually swing the bat?” Calvin hollered good-naturedly. Getting ready to make the next pitch, Cain noticed Cobb’s batting grip for the first time, and observed that Cobb had his hands split four inches apart. He had never seen anyone hold a bat like that in his lifetime of playing ball and Cain wondered if his guest had ever even played the game, since he obviously didn’t know how to hold a bat.
Maybe he doesn’t want to embarrass himself by swinging at the ball, Calvin surmised. Calvin remembered a pick-up basketball game in spring training from years ago. One of the rookies claimed he’d been a high school basketball star. When the rookie was finally goaded into playing, it took just a few seconds for Calvin to realize that the rookie was a complete novice—he could barely dribble the ball and when he finally shot the ball, after constantly passing it away, it was downright ugly! The poor kid never lived down the episode and his new nickname Bogus remained attached to him until he was cut from the team a short time later. Calvin feared a similar performance from his friend. Concerned that Cobb’s lack of baseball acumen would soon become evident, Calvin walked off the mound toward Cobb. He wanted to save his friend the humiliation.
Calvin spoke quietly so that Savannah couldn’t hear, “Hey, if you’re not in a frame of mind to hit today, we can do it some other time.”
Cobb gave a queer look. “What d’you mean?”
“I mean, it’s clear you don’t feel up to swinging at the ball. You’re a darn good bunter, though.”
“Get back out there, old-timer. I was just gettin’ warmed up.”
Okay. I gave him a chance to leave with some dignity. Calvin walked back to the mound and threw another pitch at three-quarters speed.
For the first time, Cobb took a full swing and hit a soft bounder to Savannah’s left. Calvin was disappointed; a high schooler would have been sheepish about hitting that grounder.
Too bad, Calvin thought. I was really hoping he might be the real deal. Oh well, it’s a beautiful winter day. I might as well keep the charade going a little longer.
Calvin reduced his speed on the next pitch, hoping to help his new friend save a little face. Sure enough, the next pitch was lined into right field. No surprise there.
Calvin threw another pitch. Instead of a full swing, Cobb appeared to just snap at the ball, poking to into left field.
“Your arm already tired?” Cobb shouted at Calvin. “Is that as hard as you can throw?”
Okay, maybe he does need a little humbling. Maybe I should burst his bubble… help him get over his delusion.
Calvin wound up and threw a heater. Instantly, it came scorching back through the box, missing Calvin by inches.
“Whoa! That’s a pretty good shot, considering the way you hold your bat. I’ve never seen a grip like that.”
Cobb ignored the comment and poised for the next pitch.
Gradually, Calvin increased his velocity and mixed up the pitch’s location, as balls began spraying all around. It intrigued Calvin how his friend would sometimes use just a snap swipe, usually when directing the ball to the left side, while other times he gave a full and powerful swing, spraying the ball in all directions. Savannah, Troy, Trevor and Caitlyn scampered over weeds, shrubs, rakes and fences trying to retrieve the spent missiles.
Cobb stepped away from the make-shift plate for a second. “These balls you’re throwin’… they’re jumpin’ off the bat. I’d love to be hittin’ these peas where I come from. You sure they use ‘em in the big leagues?”
“Sure do,” Savannah piped in. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but the time you played in is often referred to as the dead-ball era.”
“Is that so?” Cobb gave an amused expression. “I never thought of the ball we used as dead.”
Cobb returned to the plate and continued banging pitch after pitch.
Slowly, Calvin’s respect for his guest’s batting ability began to grow. For someone who hadn’t batted in months, it was obvious Cobb had played some baseball. More than that, Cobb showed an unusual talent to strike the balls effectively in a variety of ways. But, it was time now to throw his friend a curve—literally. Many a hitter could master the fast ball, but had trouble with breaking pitches. Calvin wound up on the next pitch, with his motion and movement showing fast ball, but as the pitch neared the plate it broke from right to left and dropped a foot and a half—Cain’s curve ball had always been his best pitch.
Calvin expected Cobb to miss the ball by a mile. Instead, Cobb exhibited excellent patience waiting on the pitch. Timing it perfectly, he lined it into left center.
Calvin tipped his cap to Cobb. “Not bad. I didn’t expect you to connect on that one.”
“Seen pitches like that a million times before.”
Calvin continued mixing his pitches. He wasn’t in mid-season form, but he was throwing the ball pretty hard, changing locations, and his curve and slider were breaking well. Most pitches resulted in a line drive or hard ground ball.
“Come on, Cannon! Throw one past him.” Savannah invoked a nickname that had been endowed on Calvin early in his career, though in later years it had gone into disuse. It dawned on Calvin that Cobb hadn’t yet whiffed on a single pitch.
“No wonder I’m out of baseball. I can’t even throw hard enough to get one past this geriatric batter.” To himself, he thought, This man can hit!
After a couple more fast balls, Calvin dug his fingernails into the ball. He wound up and let go of his first knuckle ball. The ball darted and dipped on its way to the batter. Cobb double-clutched, swatted at it awkwardly and missed making contact altogether.
“It’s about time you threw one past him!” Savannah yelled in glee.
Dropping the bat, Cobb looked hogtied. “What the hell was that!?”
Cobb walked over to where the ball lay and picked it up, half expecting to find some foreign substance on it.
“Let me introduce you to the knuckleball, Mr. Cobb. It was supposed to be my ticket back to the majors,” Calvin added with a resigned look. Cobb walked toward Calvin and inquired how he held and threw the pitch.
“Sure, I’ve seen it,” Cobb remarked. “Ed Summers throws it just like you, but I don’t have to face him since he’s on my team. Cicotte’s got a pretty good one, too… But, I damn sure never seen their pitches move the way yours does.”
Returning to the plate, Cobb asked Calvin to throw him a steady stream of knucklers. Occasionally, he connected well. Occasionally, he hit a weak grounder or popup. And every so often, he fanned on the pitch altogether.
“Don’t be too concerned,” Calvin grinned. “The good knuckleball pitchers… you can count ‘em on one hand.”
After several more minutes of hitting, Annabelle announced that breakfast was ready.
Walking toward the house, Calvin smiled as he put his arm around Cobb and said earnestly, “Mr. Cobb, coming from no less an authority than myself, you’ve got some real talent!”