Episode 43 — Chapter 49
The morning of April 6th continued a welcome succession of three clear days in a row. The sun had just risen over the left field stadium bleachers basking the infield in light, when Cobb and the Cains arrived to the ballpark. Cobb was dressed in a Braves’ sweatshirt and baseball pants, purchased by Savannah from a local sports outlet. Calvin had also packed Cobb’s cleats and glove, in the expectation that his friend would get a chance to display his talent.
Sitting ten rows back from home plate, Savannah felt her heart skip a beat as she watched her brother and friend walk onto the field together. She mouthed a silent prayer hoping Cobb would produce a worthy performance, because she knew the next thirty minutes would dictate his future. Was he just another talented hitter with minor league potential at best, or did he have the exceedingly rare gift to mingle with players at the top level of the game?
Cobb took in the view of the massive SunTrust Park structure for the first time from the playing field. It took his breath away. He noted with awe, the immaculate field with every blade of grass cut the same length; the infield dirt appeared silky smooth without blemish.
Already warming up on the field were four other Braves’ players. Savannah recognized two of them. One was the rookie phenom, righthander Blake Fournier, whose pitches often clocked in at three digits. He carried the hopes of the Braves’ franchise in his hands after compiling an 11-6 record with an 2.87 E.R.A. the year before, averaging eleven strikeouts per nine innings. However, his maiden start of the new season had been a major disappointment in the Braves’ home opener. Savannah also recognized fourteen-year veteran, Ramon Hernandez, a moderately effective spot starter and long reliever. His pitching had more to do with guile and deception than it did with smoke. The other two uniformed players were not familiar to Savannah. She guessed that they were first-year players, looking for a shot at stardom—one wore shin guards and was warming up Fournier behind the plate.
Cobb and Calvin started with some calisthenics and then soon began tossing a ball back and forth. Minutes later, while Fournier started warming up on the pitching mound, Savannah was distracted by a greeting from behind. Bolt introduced two of the men accompanying him and sat down next to Savannah. She didn’t know Emerson Simmers, the team’s General Manager, but she did recognize the Braves’ manager, Thud Carpenter. As a player, Carpenter had been a utility infielder of marginal talent, small stature and loud voice who had spent a couple of seasons, at the beginning of his career, playing under Billy Martin, a fact he always seemed to weave into idle conversation. Carpenter had inherited a strong Cincinnati club fifteen years before when first elevated to manager and had led the team to the League Championship Series. His currency with the Reds ran out a few years later after consecutive ninety-loss seasons amid widespread rumors of team dissension. Since then, he had bounced around from team to team as a base-coach. Bolt had hired him to lead the Braves a couple years earlier to spark an underperforming cast of characters, hoping for the Billy-Martin swagger to rub off onto them. Thus far, the results had been disappointing.
Leaning toward Savannah, Ben Bolt whispered, “I haven’t told them who he is yet. Don’t want to spoil the fun.” Savannah flashed back her attractive smile in an approving manner.
“Ben, what’s the big secret? Who the hell is this guy you dragged us out of bed to see?” Carpenter asked, clearly annoyed at the early morning summons.
“Thud’s right,” the senior Simmons chipped in. “I must know every decent minor league prospect around. This guy looks familiar, but I can’t place the face…”
“Gentlemen, this is my treat. Enjoy!”
For the first time, Bolt studied Cobb’s physique and size; he possessed the perfect dimensions for a ball player—tall, a bit wiry and seemingly fit. In street clothes the day before, Cobb had appeared somewhat uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. Now, in baseball dress, he seemed comfortable and relaxed, which surprised Bolt since so much was riding on the tryout. As Bolt observed Cobb warming up, he was intrigued by his torso-twisting throwing motion, which seemed so foreign from other major league players, yet Cobb’s tosses had plenty of zip.
Cobb grabbed some bats and began limbering up while the catcher’s glove was crackling from Fournier’s warm-up pitches. Watching him take practice swings, Bolt observed a fluidity and harmony of motion in Cobb’s swings.
He looks mighty good warming up, Bolt thought, but can he hit?
Stepping into the batters box, Bolt yelled to Fournier, “Start him with three-quarters speed first!”
Fournier nodded, but to Bolt’s surprise, Cobb shook his head and stepped out of the batter’s box glaring back, “I don’t need to be babied. Give me your best stuff!”
Fournier glanced back at Bolt for approval.
“You got it!” Bolt shrugged his shoulders.
Damn! This guy’s got some bravado!
From earlier discussions with Calvin, Cobb knew that Fournier was strictly a fastball pitcher—a smoker, with little finesse but decent control; a pitcher who typically got into trouble when he overthrew and the ball started climbing up in the strike zone. Cobb reasoned that his challenge to Fournier would result in some pitches in his wheel-house.
Fournier’s first pitch was a 95 mph fastball. Instead of swinging, Cobb squared and bunted the ball down the first base line.
“Ya gonna swing or not?” Fournier challenged from the mound.
“All in due time,” Cobb responded back. He squared again on the next pitch, but pulled back as it came in ankle high. He bunted several more pitches and then stepped out of the batter’s box to take some more practice swings.
“It’s time,” Cobb announced to Fournier.
Fournier decided it was time to dispense with this upstart in quick fashion. He wound up, kicked high and hit three digits. Familiar now with Fournier’s pitching motion, Cobb’s acute vision followed the blistering path of the chest-high fast ball. A split second later, the ball rocketed past the pitcher’s left ear.
Why, that lucky son-of-a-bitch, thought Fournier. Let’s see him do that again!
The next pitch, also chest-high, was scorched into the right-center field alley on a frozen rope. Fournier glared and grabbed some resin, picking up another ball from the basket next to the rubber. As soon as he launched another blazer, there was a thunderous crack as the pitch disappeared into the right field seats, nearly 400 feet from home plate.
“Holy cow!” Carpenter shouted. “Where’d you find this guy?”
“You won’t believe me when I tell you,” Bolt responded with a smirk, impatient to spill the beans.
Fournier decided to mix things up with a curve, although his breaking pitches were second-rate. Cobb fouled off the first pitch and passed on an outside pitch, but the next offering was smashed in the left-centerfield gap. Cobb’s assault on the spheroids continued; while not every swing resulted in a line drive, his hitting ability was clearly on display.
Bolt felt his emotions swelling within. The man has lightning reflexes, he thought. Careful to keep his outward excitement in check, his thoughts shifted to contract negotiations as he signaled Hernandez to relieve Fournier. The sophomore pitcher shook his head, cussing to himself as he stalked off the mound.
Ramon relished the opportunity of elevating his status with owner and manager. He had considerably more seasoning than his counterpart and knew how to fool and feign a batter with an array of motions, always nibbling at the corners and changing speed. He began attacking Cobb with a diet of off-speed pitches, throwing arms, legs, hips, shoulders and glove at the batter. The southpaw pitcher fared only marginally better than Fournier.
After ten minutes of shelling, Hernandez looked over at Bolt and confessed loudly with his thick Spanish accent, “Seen enough? Theese guy can heet!”
But the show wasn’t over yet. Calvin sauntered over near Bolt. “Got a stopwatch? Watch him leg out a bunt.”
Instructing Hernandez to throw another pitch, Cobb had been primed how to proceed. Executing a perfectly placed drag bunt just inside the foul line, he sprinted toward first base. Simmons checked his stopwatch in disbelief. Turning to Bolt, he said “Three point three seconds. That’s among the quickest three or four players in the game. With that speed and bat control…”
“Have him in the manager’s office in twenty minutes!” Bolt ordered. He didn’t need to see any more.