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MILES AND MILES OF GUTS – by RF Brown

This short story was first published in SPITBALL Literary Baseball Magazine, Fall 2018, No. 83. http://www.spitballmag.com/

[Orlando, FL] Marco Firehydrant Flores tells me another story in third person. “There was this movie on in Flores’ Hotel room, Damn Yankees. Kinda gay, Flores watching a musical, ay? But these baseball players dance pretty good around the locker room. And they sing how you gotta have heart to be a hero? Flores calls bullshit. To be a winner in the bigs, you gotta have inmenso guts. Miles and miles of guts! You know what Flores is saying?”

Flores, veteran catcher and player co-captain for the Orlando Rebels, was not known before as one who spends an away evening up in his room. The roster’s notoriety for subpar baseball is preceded by its reputation as a police lineup of brawlers, boozers and skirt chasers. Tall tales from Firehydrant’s bar-vaulting shenanigans over the years would make Babe Ruth say Guy’s a douchebag.

Today Flores, dressed in cargo shorts and a billowing pink-hibiscus print shirt, welcomes me at the front door of his dignified but disheveled Kissimmee, FL townhouse. He invites me into the family kitchen despite having no memory of this interview being prearranged between the Rebels and Athletis.net. I am assigned to shadow him from home, to practice, to game.

By appearance, Flores had an official Rebels post-game night that probably did not end until a couple of hours before my morning arrival. The orange dyed spikes in his fauxhawk are snarled and his eyes look like a pair of carelessly stuffed duffle bags. His dark beard is fresh and his deodorant is sleeping in. But he vaults over the kitchen counter and pulls a toddler’s crayon drawing from a pile of toys. While Flores talks without interruption, Fauxhawk Jr. runs in and out of our interviewing kitchen like a gerbil. In that child’s neo-expressionist drawing, the figure of a man about Firehydrant’s stout body type might be vomiting into a toilet, or pushing a lawn mower that blows clippings back into his face. Flores sets the paper down on the linoleum near the refrigerator dubbing me the pitcher and the crayoned Basquiat as, “Home plate!”

“This is pitch framing, Flores style,” Flores says. He grabs a catcher’s mitt off the kitchen counter and squats low on the balls of his feet behind the drawing, his imposing butt sticking out. The six four, two hundred fifty pound man really does fold himself to the height and likeness of a firehydrant. Between his hulky thighs the leather mitt appears a half-foot from the floor. His left elbow is hinged to his thigh and his arm swings slow in inches left and right, like the smooth graphing needle on a lie detector. “Just be a low target with soft hands, mano,” he says. “Home in Denver, my pee wee coaches never said framing. They called it catching the ball in the right place. Now, all you reporters want to know about the same mierda Flores’s been doing for years.”

I do not argue with Flores¾­­he hardly gives me the chance to squeak a word in¾but frankly I am assigned here to try and figure out why this year he is remarkably not the same. I am here to find out how a thirty-six-year-old journeyman catcher, with his sixth team in thirteen years, almost single handed has pushed the perennial last Rebels up to first in their division during what was prognosticated to be, yet another, building year.

I am told Orlando sports radio jocks have been merciless to Flores since the day he was traded here about both his defensive performance and offensive output. During the first two years with Orlando, Flores’s numbers ranked at or near bottom of the National League among catchers in Extra Strikes. Yet this year, without an admitted change in his training routine, Flores is doing things better than younger and more ambitious league counterparts¾all things better.

Last year Flores’s total extra called strike statistic was -22. April through June of this year he has already turned 195 borderline pitches into stolen strikes. And Flores’s Lefty O’Doulian late bloom is not only flowering in the crouch. His numbers standing up at the plate this season are also paranormal. His batting average last season was .220. This year he is hitting .358! Last year he hit four home runs. Today, a week before the All-Star break, Firehydrant has gone yard thirty-three times. Did I mention he has been voted an All-Star for the first time in fifteen pro seasons?

Back at Athletis.net in New York, our own team on the baseball desk watched Flores catch in slo-mo, and compared video from last season. We wanted to see just how good he suddenly is at making outside pitches look like strikes. Last year we saw a catcher whose mitt flopped around. His body position changed from pitch to pitch, down on one knee, then moving up high. This year, Flores perches with the stillness of a darter bird, low behind the plate, opening up the range of the strike zone in the umpire’s vision. He makes pitches four or five inches below the zone look like they are right down the middle, as if influencing the trajectory of the ball with flicks of telekinesis. We all agreed, Flores is the best anybody remembered at catching borderline pitches and tricking umpires into thinking they have seen a strike. But how in Hell is he doing it? And why is he doing it so well so late in his professional career?

Sitting on a kitchen stool, I ask him direct, “What’s changed, Marco? It’s no secret most catchers’s knees are shot by thirty-six and they’re on the trailer, either to Triple A or the glue factory.”

“Like I told you, ese, my whole career I just tried to set up in the right position and catch the ball. Then there was this night in April, last of our opening series down in Houston. Rebels lost. Still, in the visitor locker room after there was a big ice tub of Bud Light waiting. Bud Light after showers. Bud Light on the bus. Bud Light on the plane to Orlando. Next day we’re supposed to be at our park for BP at, like, pinche noon. Flores woke up with a hangover that felt like I had ten shitty minutes to live. I was sitting on the toilet and looking through the bathroom cupboard for some Suero. All we had in the house was this medicine my wife gives to Little Flores when his stomach gets the chorros. You know?”

Flores reaches his bowling pin forearm across the kitchen counter and picks up a pudgy plastic bottle that could have been designed from a mold of his coiled body demonstrated a minute earlier. The bottle is half full with a dayglow light blue liquid, a bubble-font label reads Baby-Aid.

“That morning when I chugged one of these Baby-Aid bottles my hangover was gone in five minutes. Then I drove out to the park, on time for BP, and starting hitting lightning bolts. It was loco. When I got under the plate to catch that day, ay, I could make pitches go wherever I wanted them to go, just by thinking about it.”

So, here is a grown man and seasoned baseball player confessing to me, in his palooka lisp, that the secret to his sudden professional awakening is not steroids, growth hormones, or amphetamines but an over-the-counter substance¾his toddler’s blue diarrhea medicine. Do not ask me if it is cheating. I am speechless.

“You say I’m shitting you? Ride out to the ballpark with me, cabrón.”

Firehydrant walks me out to the townhouse driveway and his yellow-on-black Camaro with a child booster seat snugged in the back. He brushes a layer of cracker crumbs off the passenger side and drives me the fourteen miles over to Apalachee Energy Park in the peanut butter smelling racecar.

Holding the steering like the pommel of a saddle in one hand, in the other he holds the Baby-Aid bottle, drawing from it like a moonshine jar. I will leave to your imagination the adherence to speed limit laws and common safety rules exhibited by a millionaire athlete on the Florida expressway. Taxi drivers in Mumbai are probably more courteous. However, toward me, inbetween cutting off short buses and flipping off retirees, Flores is an ever-chatty and entertaining coachman. He regales me with scandalous stories of wild parties at afterhours New York nightclubs I never heard of, and shares off-the-record erotica about women baseball groupies from (of course) times before he was married.

This year Flores’s Sabermetrics are ascending and he’s going to make the All-Star team, but folks are saying has also become a sweeter guy. This is an important part of my story, because the players around him have not given up their off-field carousing or on-field bad attitudes. As our expressway odyssey closes in on the ballpark, I am the one breaking the news about an Orlando Rebels press release emailed this morning. Marco Flores does not know yet he is nominated to receive a Musial Award.

“A musical award?” Flores asks me. “Like Damn Yankees?”

“No, Musial as in baseball legend Stan Musial,” I explain. “It’s an award honoring sportsmanship. Last year they gave one to Lebron when he told that referee during the NBA finals to reverse an out of bounds call so that it went against Lebron’s team.”

“Flores never heard of Stan Musial,” he says. His inky eyebrows shoot up. “Ay, shit. Bros on the team are going to bust my cocos.” Indeed, several inspiring game incidents this season have led to the endangerment of Flores’s cocos.

In May, during a game against the Giants, Flores hit a high drive to deep left field that landed just fair close to the foul line, then bounced into the seats. Third-base umpire, Mike Martinez, ruled the ball foul incorrectly and unreviewably. Firehydrant Flores of previous seasons would have gone ballistic. This year, the new less-combative Firehydrant was heard hurrahing to the inaccurate ump, “Es la vida, Martinez. Flores’ll try it again!” BTW, while Rebels teammates were still scratching their knuckleheads, the next pitch came and Flores hit the ball out to the same spot a foot further inside the line. The ball was called a double on an identical bounce out.

A few weeks later, Flores was playing position when an opposing catcher from the Phillies named Nguyen raced against a long throw from center to home and crashed into Flores protecting the plate. Neither player was injured, but it sure looked like Nguyen had perpetrated an aggressive, deliberate collision. Still he was called safe. During the Rebels frame, Flores came to the plate and was heard saying to Nguyen, now at catcher position, “Don’t worry, hermono. Flores, he’s alright. Let’s both be more careful.” Flores even shook the rival catcher’s hand in a show of voluntary forgiveness. The Philadelphia crowd was impressed. In the Rebels dugout, disapproving teammates booed their own guy.

“I guess your fellow Rebels don’t honor sportsmanship?”

“No mames! Most of them Rebels pendejos probably think good sportsmanship means like not pissing in the visitor’s dugout before a game.”

“If you don’t mind me saying, your reputation has never been to be the Christian Gentleman of the diamond. Until this year.”

“Nope. Never ‘til-,” Flores finished his sentence by tapping his Baby-Aid bottle against the steering wheel. “Yo, you’re right though. This year Flores is telling the ball where to go out of the pitcher’s release. And I’m hitting like a vato¾the man. You know? Ever since I started on the blue hechizo every day, I’ve been feeling like I want to be a friendly dude during games. Flores got no other explanation. I think it’s side effects from drinking this diarrhea shit.”

“But isn’t drinking that blue junk like cheating?” I ask.

“How can it be cheating if it makes me a better dude?”

We arrive at the ballpark three hours before the day’s game. Out on the field Flores and teammates are dressed in Orlando Rebels orange practice unis that remind me of prison jumpsuits. Rebels management is allowing Athletis.net unusual imbedded access to the dugout and player meetings. Maybe management is glad they have a positive story to get out about one of their players.

Out in the bullpen I sit watching Flores drill with Rebels pitchers. Revived from his hangover, he is also a resilient target for mockery from teammates over the Musial Award. Particularly vicious is the other Rebels cocaptain, the long-tenured closing pitcher and white southerner Thatch Bossier. He has a wide, rectangular body like a backstop and a disproportionate small head that’s puny like a Skittle.

“Awww, Flores,” Bossier heckles in a to-the-bayou-born drawl, “make sure they save you name on that trophy, yeah, or police’ll think you some wetback gone stole it. Yeah, ol’ Firehydrant’s fixin’ to have us proud eatin’ them Mexican refried beans at that Musial ‘Ward celebration.”

Being an enlightened liberal New Yorker, I am inclined to indict Bossier and others for their lame, racist jokes, but Flores is just as offensive cracking about white-trash stupidity or calling the African-American players lazy. I gather insensitivity is a quaint fixture in Rebels esprit de corps. All the players participate in taunting each other with homophobic innuendos, pulling asinine pranks on the equipment crew, swearing like Tarantino characters at coaches, and whistling at front office women professionals. They will not mind me printing it¾Rebels are a team of All-Star jerks.

During the game that afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds I sit behind the Rebels in the back of their dugout. From the first Rebels pitch, catcher Flores is supernatural in framing the ball for strikes. He sets up lower than a sea cucumber behind home plate flashing finger signs at the dilettante pitcher for corner sinkers or outside changeups. If the pitches are a few inches or a foot off, it does not matter. Flores grabs everything and holds the balls an extra half-second to get (in the umpire’s eye) called strikes. Any pitch within eyeshot of the plate Flores snaps up like a Venus flytrap. Yet, I can barely see his arm move. His mitt appears to have its own gravitational field. Cincinnati’s best hitters, used to stretching at bats with fouls to drive up depreciation on the starting pitcher’s arm, are out on strikes almost before they realize it.

As for his own at bats, Flores is every bit as freakish. He hits 4-for-5 this day: two doubles, two homers, and the fifth they intentional walk him. At one point, after he jogs through another gauntlet of teammate high fives, ass swats, and Great job, Wetback acclamations I ask him, “How is it you’re bringing that bat to almost every pitch?”

“I ain’t,” he explains, “Flores is bringing the pitch to the bat. All I gotta do is think hard enough about how I want the ball to come in and it does.” He winks at me and leans close. “Blue juice, ese.” Yet, Flores’s contributions on both sides of the plate are not even the headline of the day.

It happens between the 8th and 9th innings. Cincy is losing 2-4, up next for their last three outs, when their Pavarotti-sized manager stomps out for a word with the chief umpire. Soon the rest of the umpires come around home plate, and the Rebels hangdog manager is called into the conference as well. Those of us sitting in the dugout struggle to ascertain what is in dispute. Things get more mysterious when the Reds manager leads the entire umpiring crew out to the Rebels bullpen. During an interminable delay, info finally trickles back the Reds are alleging Thatch Bossier has been seen in possession of binoculars. The implication being that Flores, the sole and unbelievable Rebel hitter of the day, is being aided by his team’s relief pitchers stealing signs from the Reds catcher. However, if Rebels relievers have some illegal, long-distance spying device, no evidence is found. The umpires return to their bases and the ninth inning begins. Guilty or not, Bossier does not appreciate the accusation.

Being brought in to close the game, Bossier pitches a couple of pop-up outs, but seems more concerned with throwing brushbacks than strikes, and unnecessarily walks a batter on balls. The Reds are at their last out of the game when a young pinch hitter named Rahim comes to the plate in his first appearance up from the minors. On the first pitch, Bossier wallops him in the helmet, and Rahim goes down to the dirt. Several angry Reds stalking the mound are held back by Pavarotti and the umpires, but I gather Bossier’s beanball does not sit right with Flores behind home plate either. While the Reds trainers help Rahim off the field, Flores trots out to the mound and has a quarrel with his pitcher. The Reds get to put a pinch runner at first, giving their team two men on with a winning run at the plate. Flores returns to his firehydrant-form squat. What happens next requires some speculation.

According to the Rebels third baseman, there is a silent but contentious flutter of catcher signs and pitcher head shrugs. According to a couple Rebels in the dugout, upon the pitch they swear they hear Flores warning the Reds batter, “Fastball. High-outside.” True or not, the batter takes a high swing and pulls a three-run homer over the left field wall, earning the Reds the lead. The Rebels with their lineup (other than Flores) under-delivering all afternoon end up losing 4-5 to a division rival.

That evening after the game the mood in the Rebels clubhouse is quietly tense. Players still dressed in dirty orange uniforms sit by their lockers silent as piglets-at-the-teat as they sip Bud Lights and listen to their manager’s post-game tantrum. He is a bald relic with the weight of lifelong mediocrity on his declining shoulders. Furious with his team, and perhaps not following the recent comment thread, he screams about how without Flores’s offensive effort, the Rebels would not have scored at all. The players seem to bristle at praise of their teammate. I assume they are sore at Flores over the rumor of him giving over the game in a twisted act of fair play. After the manager is done trying to pull the hair out of his bald head, cocaptain Thatch Bossier tells the team to stay put.

“Y’all, come see for a damn minute!” Bossier orders, and the players sustain their bench loafing and their Bud Light-ing. “We havin’ an emergency only players meetin’. Yeah, some of us been talkin’ ‘bout a certain player, yeah. He been a real angel out there, huh, and guys is sick-sick of it. Helpin’ out the other team? Yeah, this good sport shit got to end. We all shamed the way people talkin’ ‘bout our team.” Bossier points his baseball glove at Flores. “We want ole Firehydrant back, him. If you don’t put up whatever you doin’ that turned you into a lil’ masisi, I’m fixin’ to see we got votes to have you down from cocaptain.”

“Cocaptain?” Flores throws back at Bossier. “Think Flores gives a pinche about that, redneck? Flores is gonna do Flores.”

“Awww, well, then Flores is fixin’ to get scratched as far as our after-game fêtes, yeah. No more rodier ‘round the town, huh, no more poker parties, no more fais-dodo back at the hotel with the putain girls. And you be out-out as my roommate on the road, Wetback? Comprend? So, watch it being too good-good boy, yeah, or you can pass up a good time and go drinkin’ by you self.”

I walk out of the ballpark that night next to Flores. He is dressed again in his pink hibiscus print civvies. I think it is the first time all day I have heard him not talking. Tonight an unusual cool breeze is on the Florida summer air, and the stars remind me that all things are possible in the vast universe. He stands near a trash barrel and lights a cigarette.

“Say it ain’t so, Marco. Did you tell the batter what pitch was coming?”

“Does it matter, ese? If he thought we were cheating, and then we put down their new player with a golpe on the head, that batter was going to get the winning homer somehow. The new Firehydrant stands by what’s fair.”

Watching the flatus of cigarette smoke waft up to the high-pressure sodium lights over the parking lot, it finally clicks for me what really happened in the locker room. Flores is not under threat of being blackballed by his teammates because he caused the loss of a winnable game; they are pissed that his drunkenness on decency is ruining the team’s cultivated bad reputation.

“You’ve got a tough choice, Marco.”

“Ay, keep playing like a champion, or give up the blue bottle so I can win back the respect of my hermonos.” He drops a full bottle of Baby-Aid into the barrel. “That song I was telling you about before, from Damn Yankees? The ballplayers sing how it takes miles of heart to be a vato. But to be a proud loser you gotta have guts too. You know what Flores is saying?”