All it really takes to know spring is fast upon you is to take a look at a calendar. Just because he didn't finish high school, that didn't mean Binky Monroe didn't know how to read a calendar. You can also get a hint of winter's impending demise when you look outside after supper and twilight hasn't completely faded. But the real clue, the sign that triggered for Binky that annual yearning for short-sleeved shirts, cold beer, and evenings spent outdoors under huge electric lights, was the first daffodil of the year. Binky's sister had given him daffodil bulbs every Christmas, which he'd planted around his modest house until the Binky Monroe residence looked in later winter like a scene out of that poem by Wordsworth. Yessir, Binky could make it through most of the winter without so much as looking at a sports page, but when that first yellow bud popped open in the brisk morning sunlight, Binky could hear it as clearly as a fastball popping a catcher's mitt. Binky was caught in a rundown, and spring was about to claim another victim.
Binky sat in a traffic jam, humming a few bars of that Wordsworth ditty. How odd, he thought, to be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. Oh, if only he were a cloud and could float above this mess. Then again, were he a cloud, all the baseball fans would hate him, so maybe 'twere best to sit this traffic jam out.
You might be wondering why Binky continues to put himself through it. Certainly not for the riches. Binky's going to be retired soon enough, and he'll be making a little pension from the job he's held for more than thirty years, and his house is all paid for, so he'll manage fine enough without striking it rich. Besides which, if you beat the bushes for nigh onto twenty years and you haven't found the blue chipper yet, the odds aren't good. And if he does dig one up, the kid's going to sign for his million, split it with his agent, and all Binky's going to get out of it is an invitation to have a cup of coffee with him on opening day. No, there's got to be something else to it.
Why does Binky Monroe spend his time fighting rush hour traffic on his way to a high school baseball park? He does it for the love of the game.
Binky had tried his hand at playing baseball when he was a younger man. He was good enough to make it to the big leagues during the war, when manpower was scarce, but only just good enough. He lasted twelve games, during which he had two hits in fourteen at bats. Binky's biggest claim to fame was his attempt to throw out Steeple Schultz, as Schultz tried to score from first on a double down the short right-field line in old Ebbets Field. "All the Way, Monroe!" the cutoff man yelled, and Binky had uncorked a prodigious throw. Unfortunately, Binky threw the ball to third, a base which Schultz had long since rounded. It was actually a more impressive throw than it would have been to the plate, as the peg from the right field corner covered thirteen extra feet to reach third. The cry "All the Way, Monroe!" can still, however, be heard on the sandlots as would-be stars encourage long throws.
When the team gave Binky his walking papers, he begged them to keep him on in some capacity, any capacity, so the club gave him a whirl as a scout. But Binky never turned up any prospects, so his scouting duties were cut back, until finally he was relegated to keeping an eye out for hopeful local high school players. Binky had picked out three good prospects over the last couple of decades. The first one is still missing in Vietnam. The second was signed by another organization. The most recent is doing time for selling cocaine.
Binky is stuck in traffic on his way to see the worst of the worst. The home-town Archdale Aviators play on a field built right next to what was an airstrip. Now, the airstrip is a regional airport. Jumbo jetliners zoom right over the field with a roar that makes the U.S. Open Tennis Championships sound like a chess tournament being played in a mortuary. During night games, approaching planes zoom straight in from over the center field fence with their headlights aimed directly at home plate. The only way for a batter to get on base, being unable to see the pitch coming, is to swing three times and take off for first, a ploy that works well enough since the catcher can't see the pitches, either, and must hope the ball lodges in his mitt.
Archdale is a victim of its own growth, witness the traffic jam that seems to be moving backwards. The town, along with its neighboring communities, has benefitted from a suburban boom, curious in this particular instance due to there being no serious urban center around which the suburbs can grow. But the weather is fairly nice, labor is cheap, resources are plentiful, and consequently service industries have flocked to the area. The roads just have not kept up with the pace. You can get hung up in traffic to the extent that sometimes you might as well be headed toward work in the afternoon in order to get there the next morning.
The manager of the Aviators, Horace Waterman, is, to Binky Monroe's mind, a real character. A gray-headed old man, older even than Binky, Horace never played organized baseball in his life, but, winding up a geography teacher in an integrated high school after twenty years in the Klan, he sucked up his indignation and took over a failing baseball program, which had lost its previous manager because he refused to let black kids play, a position of which the state did not approve. Horace Waterman keeps a big wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek and never stops talking. Every spring, Horace gives Binky a call to tell him of his latest prospect _ always somebody who looks like a former Major League great, whose number the kid invariably wears, in case you weren't sure. Last year, it was Sandy Koufax. Binky had discovered upon driving to the ballpark that, sure enough, there was a striking resemblance, even beyond the 32: like Koufax, the left-hander did not yield a hit _ unfortunately, the kid never left the bench. Also like Koufax, he had a sore elbow. The previous season it had been a dead ringer for Mickey Mantle _ a kid with bad knees.
Then there was the Lou Brock type, a burner on the base paths who had just one drawback. When Binky had handed him a bat and asked to see what kind of hitter he was, the kid had responded by asking, "What's this?" A three-flat thirty-yard dash won't do you much good if you can't swing a stick. Another hitless wonder had shown he could cover center field practically from foul pole to foul pole, and looking out at the 24 racing away from the plate to pull in an over-the-head basket catch might have made you think it really was another Willie Mays, until, once again, he took his place at the plate.
One right fielder Binky had watched surely did resemble old number 44. "Looks kind of slow," Binky had said.
"You know how deceiving Hank was," Horace said. "Always looked like he was loafing." But in the case of this 44, the kid really was loafing. And the line drives Horace had bragged on, like the shots Aaron hit that were still rising when they cleared the fence, well, this line drive hitter's shots were still rising when they were fielded waist-high by the infielders.
Occasionally Horace Waterman would call to mind an old timer. There was the pitcher who was a threat to Cy Young. Horace let him start every game on the schedule, and if there had been enough games, there was no doubt but that one of Young's untouchable records would have been in jeopardy _ not the 511 wins, but the one for 313 career losses. Another outfielder was likened to Ty Cobb, because he couldn't play nine innings without getting into a fight. Or the left-handed batter, crouching with his feet together, who was a dead ringer for Stan the Man, and who stood there and stood there and stood there...
Why did Binky Monroe keep coming back? Why not? This year, Horace had finally pulled out all the stops, and Binky figured it didn't matter how presumptuous you were, you had to be onto something in order to compare a kid with the greatest of them all _ the Babe. "The kid loves to play," Horace had raved over the phone. "I can't decide whether to let him pitch or play in the outfield. His bat's too good to take out of the lineup." Horace chuckled. "Kid's name's even George."
When Binky finally reached the ballpark, Horace was standing at home plate hitting fungoes to the outfield. A catcher was stationed near him to chase down the throws as they came back in from the outfield, most of which required him to scramble anywhere between the dugouts. Binky sauntered up to the backstop as Horace drilled a shot off the leftfield fence. The fielder nonchalantly picked up the ball and lobbed a throw toward the infield which hit third base on the fly and caromed across the diamond. Horace noticed Binky behind the backstop. "That's George," he said, gesturing with his bat toward left field. The coach slapped a line drive down the left field line. George drifted over to the fence and picked up the ball with his bare right hand.
"All the way, Monroe!" the catcher yelled. George let fly the ball, which came on a perfect line straight to the plate.
"Pretty good arm," Binky said.
"You ain't seen nothing yet," Horace said. "Come on in, George," he yelled, "and hit a few."
Horace arranged a few players on the field, plus a pitcher and catcher, and George took his place on the first-base side of the plate. The batter took mighty swings at the first three pitches but missed all three. "Strikes out a lot, does he?" Binky said.
"Babe Ruth struck out 1330 times," Horace said.
George took a prodigious swing at the next pitch and connected, launching the baseball on a high-arching flight into the right-center light pole. Through the course of his turn at the plate, George either hit towering flyballs, some of which cleared the fence, some of which floated down to the outfielders whose chances of making catches were strictly random, or else he whiffed.
"You say this kid can pitch, too?" Binky asked. His interest was definitely aroused.
"Wait'll you see," Horace said. He then ordered George to take the mound.
George ducked into the dugout to pick up a glove _ this one to fit over his right hand. "I thought he was right handed," Binky said. "Didn't he throw that ball in from the outfield with his right hand?"
"That's right," Horace nodded, chuckling.
George walked back to the plate, took the ball from the catcher, and headed to the mound. He wound up and fired a fastball, southpaw, straight across the plate. The catcher trotted to the mound, said a few words, and handed George the ball.
"I figure," Horace said, "if he plays the outfield right handed and pitches left handed, why, he can play every day. We don't have to give up his pitching or his hitting."
George threw a curveball, which had a sharp, downward break to it. The catcher again took him the ball.
"How long has he been throwing with both hands?" Binky asked. "All his life, I reckon," Horace said. "I don't think he could ever make up his mind." Just then, an airplane took off from the airport, and the roar swallowed up all the sounds of the ballpark, including whatever Horace was saying. Binky watched Horace's lips move, having no idea what he was saying, but when he punctuated his statement by shooting to the ground a stream of tobacco juice and grinning, Binky grinned back. George fired another fastball, and you could hear it pop the catcher's mitt above the roar of the airplane. The catcher took off his mitt and shook his hand, then walked the ball back to the pitcher.
When the airplane had flown far enough away to permit conversation, Binky said, "I'd like to catch a few."
"Sure," said Horace.
Binky took the catcher's mitt and squatted behind the plate. George fired a fastball, and Binky felt the sting when it hit its target. Then Binky tossed the ball back to the mound. The pitcher covered his face with his glove and his hand, and the ball sailed beyond him to second base. An infielder scooped it up and carried it to the mound. George threw another strike, a curveball, but when Binky tossed the ball back to George he ducked out of the way again.
Binky stood up and handed the mitt to Horace. "He's got a little problem with the glove, huh," he said. "Is he any better right handed?" "Worse, I'm afraid," Horace said.
Binky didn't think it possible for him to be any worse, but he abstained from requesting a demonstration. He had seen enough.
Binky Monroe took his place in the concession stand. He readied things for the crowd that would soon be on hand, then he lost himself in his thoughts. He wondered what kind of prospect Horace would have for him next year: A Grover Cleveland Alexander, drunk before every game; perhaps a Shoeless Joe Jackson, willing to lose for the right price; or Satch Paige, 55 years old and still in high school. But as for the next Babe Ruth, well, there just isn't much demand for designated hitters in the National League. Binky chuckled to himself _ maybe he'd learned to throw with both hands because he was afraid to catch with either one. And if George were somehow to make it, Binky could imagine the listing on his baseball card: Bats left, throws both, fields neither.
"Lemme have a hot dog."
The first customer was at the concession stand window, shaking Binky from his reverie. Binky looked at the face. It was one of the boys Binky had watched play years ago for the Aviators, grown up now and on hand to cheer on his own son. Binky couldn't remember the name, but he could see the lust for the game still burned in his eyes, too.
Binky slid a hot dog into a bun and held it up. "How do you want that hot dog, Son?"
The customer, who remembered Binky from bygone days, appreciated being called "Son" because it reminded him of being young, smiled and said, "All the way, Monroe."