Episode 49 — Chapter 55
The radio announcers for the Braves were aghast at the expanding numbers filling the stadium. Following the sold-out home opener, the attendance at the following home game with the Nationals had been disappointing. Now it was difficult to locate an empty seat in the house.
“There’s more tension and excitement here than we had on opening day, Stan.”
“Bolt’s a certifiable genius! Rumor has it that he’s been grooming this guy in Korea… waiting for just the right moment to spring him in the majors. But, Ty Cobb? Come on!”
“The publicity stunt is sure working. Look at this place!”
“Dave, this should delight the fans. Just been informed that Cobb is batting second… in the starting lineup. Rhodes can’t be too happy about that. We’ll soon see if this guy can play ball or if Bolt’s public circus goes up in flames.”
“Fans… you can almost taste the excitement in the air. The Braves will be going for their first victory of the season after losing the opening two-game series to the Washington Nationals. For the play-by-play, my good friend, Stan Scales.”
“Thanks, Dave. The first batter to face Kevin Scott is Jamie Gill, the Reds’ second sacker. Gill hit .287 last year, with 35 stolen bases. And here’s the first pitch…”
On the fourth offering from Scott, Gill grounded a single through the left side of the infield.
The second batter popped up, bringing Grant Moore to the plate.
“Scott delivers. Low and outside. 1 and 0 to Moore.”
“…Scott isn’t doing too good a job holding Gill on. He’s got some good speed…”
“I guess he doesn’t figure him to go, with Franklin Rice and his forty-two home runs from last season coming up next. The Reds sure don’t want Rice leading off an inning…” Gill broke from first with the next pitch.
“Got a good jump. Permak’s throw to second… is high and wide, into centerfield…” Cobb had been keeping a watchful eye on the runner at first base. Anticipating a steal, he had taken a couple of steps toward the plate as Scott went into his wind-up, and bolted in toward second the instant Gill took off.
“Cobb’s charging the ball… Gill’s heading for third… There’s the throw from Cobb… It’s right on the mark… He is out’a there!”
Savannah and Calvin were on their feet, yelling loudly, and the crowd showered the stadium with their delight for the sparkling play.
“Didja see that cannon, Stan?”
“Fans, that sure does look like Ty Cobb in centerfield.”
“H-o-o-l-y cow, Stan! Did you see where Cobb was when he plucked that baby off the turf? He must’a been off with the pitch…”
“Two down. 1 and 1 to Moore…”
Moore struck out several pitches later on a swinging curve. The teams switched sides to healthy applause.
Going past the pitcher as he came in from centerfield, Cobb heard a second friendly word, “Helluva throw, rookie.” Cobb flashed a brief smile before walking over to the batting rack.
“First batter for the Braves… the right fielder, Anthony Adams. He’s had a hard time getting untracked this year. He’s stepping in against the Dominican, Alberto Loya. Adams hit .271 last year and led the team in runs scored and stolen bases. Looking for his first hit of the season. Loya wheels and deals. Called strike.
“Loya’s first start for the Reds. A ten-game winner with twelve losses last year for the second-place team. Seemed to have problems all year long. Ever since that rotator cuff surgery, Dave, he’s been struggling…”
In the on-deck circle for his first major league plate appearance, Cobb began warming up. Foregoing a leaded bat or weighted donut, he grabbed three bats and began swinging them in tandem. He then dropped two of the bats and twirled the remaining one over his head, before picking up a second bat and finally swinging all three again in a faster motion. He reflected on the locker room brawl, the charging Karras and others who had cursed or turned their noses up at him. In his own mystical way, Cobb redirected his anger to the pitcher on the mound. He envisioned the pitcher trying to humiliate and embarrass him in front of the packed house. With cold-blooded determination, Cobb dedicated himself to the task of ramming the ball down the pitcher’s throat.
“… still has a pretty good fastball, Dave, but his out pitch nowadays seems to be the slider…” With the count full, Adams grounded weakly to the mound.
Cobb discarded two of the bats he’d been swinging and, with an air of defiance, advanced to the plate. The crowd suddenly became hushed as everyone strained for a look at the mystery man.
Savannah gripped Calvin’s arm, eyes closed. “I can’t look.”
“Oh, you gotta see this, sis’. He looks like he’s been doing this all his life.”
The Braves’ radio announcer’s voice spiked up with excitement: “Here’s what you’ve been waiting for, fans. The man Bolt claims is T-y-y-y Cobb, batting from the left side.”
“Seems only fitting, Stan, that Ty Cobb should make his first appearance right here in Cobb County.”
“For sure. So, will Bolt’s stunt blow up in his face or will this guy show he can play?”
At the plate, Cobb stood forward in the box and near the plate with his feet close together. There was no noticeable bend in his knees, but he tilted his upper torso toward the plate, his hands forward. He choked up on the bat, two inches from the bottom and his hands were split four inches apart. His stance seemed foreign to other major league batters.
“Look at that unorthodox grip, and no batting gloves. There’s a big space between his hands.”
“Ever see anything like that before, Stan?”
“Never, in all my years.”
As the first pitch came to the plate, Cobb took a wide stride forward, but checked the bat, as the ball came in high.
“Do you think this guy can actually hit the ball?”
“Here’s the wind-up and the pitch. In the dirt. Ball Two. Well, we won’t find out unless Loya throws him a strike.”
“That’s a pretty good-sized bat he’s swinging, Dave.”
“Fast-ball splits the outside corner for a strike. Two and One.”
From pitch to pitch, Cobb changed his position in the box, trying to get a sense for a comfortable location. But unlike the vast majority of players, he stayed in the box between pitches, though taking practice swings between throws.
“So, what’ll happen when they find out who he really is?”
“Send him back to the psych ward,” Dave laughed.
Don’t come home a failure, Cobb repeated the words his father had told him the day he left home to embark on his baseball career; it had been his mantra every at bat since. He felt his father’s presence, watching from above. Cobb readied for the next offering from Loya. As the ball approached the plate, Cobb took a long stride toward the pitch, whipping the bat forward.
The ball rocketed into the gap in right-center.
Savannah leaped into the air the moment the ball left the bat.
“…it’s a line shot. Looks like it will split the alley… Look at Cobb go! He’s going to try for three!” Passing second, Cobb glanced over his shoulder as he charged toward third base. He made split-second eye contact with the third base coach, who was demonstrating slide. Cobb knew it was going to be close. He could tell the throw was coming directly at the bag as he went airborne with his cleats high.
The throw reached Al Sampson’s glove a fraction of a second ahead of Cobb. Cobb’s right foot slammed hard into the wrist of Sampson’s glove hand, spinning him around as Cobb collapsed on the bag. Sampson juggled the ball … and then dropped it as the umpire, on his haunches, extended both hands wide signaling Safe. The stadium erupted in a chorus of “Ty Cobb! Ty Cobb! Ty Cobb!…”
Savannah and Calvin embraced in ecstasy as Cobb dusted himself off, and they joined with the crowd’s chorus, yelling Cobb’s name.
“I can’t believe it! A triple in his first at bat!” Savannah gushed.
“This must be a dream!” Calvin chimed in.
Sampson flung away his glove, grabbing at his pained wrist, at the same time mouthing obscenities towards his attacker. With droplets of blood gathering below where Sampson stood, the Reds’ trainer scampered out, applied a spray and put some gauze and a bandage on the wound. Sampson replaced the glove on his hand while seething inside, wishing there was not a packed house of witnesses preventing him from returning the favor.
“Stan, that’s a pretty dangerous brand of baseball Cobb plays. I have a feeling he’ll be taken to task, if he keeps it up. But, man-oh-man, what a start! General Cobb marching to the rescue…”
As Loya took the mound to face the slugger, DeMarcus Gates, Sampson glared at Cobb. “You’ll pay for that, you son-of-a-bitch!”
Seconds later, Gates lofted a flyball to right field. Cobb tagged and easily beat the throw home, giving the Braves the first marker.
Passing the Braves clean-up hitter Ham Permak in the on-deck circle, Cobb was ignored. Entering the dugout, he received a pat on the derriere from the uninitiated bat boy and a handshake from a smiling Kevin Scott. But that was the extent of the plaudits.
Carpenter scowled at him as he passed by, “That’s not the way we play the game up here, prima donna. You hurt them, they hurt us!” and walked away.
If this is still baseball, Cobb thought, the base runner has the right-of-way on the base paths and anyone who gets in his way does so at his peril.
The Reds scored a run in the top of the second inning to tie the score.
Coming to bat in the bottom of the third with one out and no one on, Cobb was the next scheduled hitter.
Confidence was everything! Not just confidence—arrogance! It showed in his eyes, the way he held his head, the stance he took at the plate, the way he brandished the bat.
Walking from the on-deck circle to the plate, Cobb reflected on the lifetime he had spent perfecting his cocksurestrut. It was a swagger that made the statement: I am the best damned player you have ever seen!
The first pitch from Loya was high and outside. Loya nodded almost imperceptibly at Sampson over at third and went into his windup. He let go of his best fastball… aimed directly at the skull of the batter.
With catlike reflexes, Cobb collapsed to the ground just missing the speeding missile. The crowd thundered its disapproval with a cascade of boos while Cobb picked himself up and dusted off his uniform.
The fire in his eyes burned even brighter.
Loya picked out the signal, kicked and delivered another fastball. This time, the projectile was far inside, heading for Cobb’s shins. Cobb leaped awkwardly over the pitch, flipping his bat behind. Regaining his balance, he took a couple of steps toward the mound, his angry curses drowned by the crowd’s thundering displeasure.
The umpire leaped forward, restraining Cobb and then the arbiter charged the mound. “All right, Loya, consider yourself warned. One more pitch like that and you’re outta here!” The umpire then hustled to both dugouts, informing the managers that any more headhunting would result in the ejection of not just the pitcher, but them as well.
With order restored, Cobb popped up the next pitch near the first base line for the second out of the inning. He was livid! The game hadn’t really changed all that much in a hundred years. Being thrown at had been a way of life early in his career, until opposing pitchers found out that Cobb sought and obtained revenge. They would also learn that here, soon enough.
In the bottom of the fifth, Cobb’s third time up, he grounded to second. A short time later, Permak’s solo homer put the Braves back on top.
Scoring twice more in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Braves’ lead grew to 4 to 1. Loya was replaced by Thurman Kitter on the mound. Meantime, Cobb caught a couple of fly balls and fielded cleanly a grounder.
In the top of the seventh inning, the Reds scored twice and with two outs had two runners aboard with wall-banger Franklin Rice striding to the plate. On the first pitch, Rice mashed the pellet into deep center. Cobb turned his back and gave chase at full speed toward the fence. At the last possible instant, Cobb leaped high in the air; higher, it seemed, than he had ever jumped before—maybe it was the lighter uniform, the lighter cleats, the thin night air—and at full extension his glove snared the ball as he crashed into the centerfield fence. The impact from the fence caused him to spin completely around, losing his balance as he fell to the ground.
The ball remained in his glove and the whole stadium erupted in applause.
Savannah sprang to her feet at the sparkling play and gave her brother a hug. “The fans adore him,” she said.
“Stan, that’s the greatest catch I’ve seen here since Floyd Bellows robbed Gates of a home run a couple years ago…” The crowd remained in delirium as Cobb lumbered toward the dugout with a noticeable limp.
The crowd noise did not let up even while Cobb began swinging his three bats, preparing to step up to the plate as the first scheduled batter in the bottom half of the inning.
For maybe the thousandth time, baseball fans heard the familiar adage, “Seems to happen a lot, Dave. The guy who makes the great play in the field is the first one up the next inning…”
Digging into the plate, now near the rear of the batter’s box, Cobb’s intense glare toward the mound was noticed by the Red’s third pitcher, Chris Noonan; there was something different about this man. Cobb knew that once a pitcher started fearing the batter, he was waging war on his terms. On a one-and-one curve ball, Cobb slid his left hand down the barrel of the bat. It appeared Cobb was on his way to first in full stride before the bat even met the ball, rolling slowly towards third. Cobb was a quarter of the way down the line by the time Sampson began his charge to field the bunt. Sampson’s late throw pulled the first baseman off the bag. Cobb had his second base hit.
From her seat above the first base dugout, Savannah saw the righthander Noonan glaring over at Cobb. Cobb began kicking the bag at first base. Savannah remembered reading about Cobb’s ritual of kicking the bag toward second, hoping it would give him an inch or two advantage in taking a lead toward second. Bags were no longer fastened with belts, but were secured with a long rectangular metal extension into the ground. Cobb soon stopped kicking the bag, apparently realizing it wasn’t going to budge.
“So, are we going to see the great Cobb try to steal a base, Stan?”
“Of course, everyone knows that not only was he the greatest hitter of his time, maybe ever, but also the greatest base-stealer of the dead-ball era. Rumor has it he used to take leads of fifteen to twenty feet off first base!”
“That’s ridiculous; the average today is around eleven.”
Cobb felt quicker than ever before, with the light uniform and cleats. He initially decided to take a somewhat restrained lead until he gained some familiarity with Noonan’s pick-off move.
“According to Statcast, he’s only at twelve feet or so. That’s nothing to write home about.”
Noonan threw over to first base a couple of times, but seemed to have greater interest in the batter, Gates. With each pitch to the plate and toss over to first, Cobb began feeling more confident. With the count two balls and two strikes, Cobb was surprised to see the steal sign from the third base coach. He gradually increased his lead from the bag. Staying low on the balls of his feet, Cobb continued waving his arms back and forth across his body, trying to create some momentum when he was ready to go. Noonan came to a stretch, began his leg kick, and Cobb was off to the races. A perfectly executed hook slide away from a reasonably accurate throw met with a rush of cheers as Cobb dusted himself off with his first stolen base.
“Holy cow, Stan. Statcast had Cobb’s lead at seventeen feet on that pitch.”
“I don’t know of any baserunners, other than Jeffries, that ever ventures that far off the bag.”
Moments later, Gates connected solidly, clearing the left field fence by twenty feet for his second home run of the young season. After touching home plate, Cobb continued into the dugout.
“Stan, I don’t know if the Ty Cobb from the last century would even know about the etiquette of waiting at home to congratulate the batter after a home run.”
“Fence-clearers were awful rare back then. I doubt he would.”
“It must be him then… the Detroit superstar from yesteryear,” Dave said with a smirk.
Gates’s home run iced the victory and the Braves went on to win 6 to 4.
After the game, Cobb was besieged by reporters with a barrage of questions in the Braves’ dressing room, each trying to find some chink in his story. Gates, who had been the face of the franchise for years and whose home run had provided the margin of victory, was largely ignored by the press, as were the other Braves’ players. Most of the players had dressed and departed the locker room by the time Cobb made his way into the shower.
It was past midnight when Cobb finally returned to his hotel room. As he opened the door, there was a beautiful crystal vase full of dark blue, yellow and white chrysanthemums, matching the Braves’ colors. Cobb smiled as he glanced at the card.
Congratulations on your rousing debut!
What a performance! Billy Bolton would have been proud.
The flowers and thoughtful remarks gave Cobb a warm feeling inside. For a brief moment, Cobb longed to see Savannah’s face, smell her perfume and hear her voice. He considered giving her a call, but realized the lateness of the hour.
It had been a bittersweet night. The revelry of fan’s cheers for his exploits during the game had been muted by his new teammates conspicuous resentment.
I’ve lived through that nightmare before, he thought to himself as he lay in bed. If I have to fight every damn one of ‘em, I will.