Hoyt Wilhelm, Joe and Phil Niekro, Tom Candiotti were my patterns, models, players to study and copy. When they played in the majors, they were known for their knuckleballs. I wanted some day to throw one as well.
My Granddad C. J. had schooled me in this aspect of the game. His friend, J. J. “Smoke” Leffingwell, pitched in the minor leagues and twice nearly made it to the “show.” “Smoke” would come by both the Jarrett house in Texas and the youth baseball practices and offer his advice to us who aspired toward pitching.
“Well,” said “Smoke” of the knuckleball: “It’s not a common pitch, but the boy has quite a large hand––bigger than most. Good control, excellent mechanics. I’d say he should try it. This is a league where y’ try things and learn.”
“You should try it, lad,” said C. J. “If y’ get good with it, well, maybe there’s a college career with the thing, maybe even a shot at the majors. Knuckleballers have a long career because it doesn’t wear your arm down.”
I took the mound for my third inning and looked toward the Kinkades and my maternal grandparents watching me. Thus far, I had held the hard-hitting Eagles scoreless. The knuckler had them buffaloed for now. Granddad C. J. pumped a vigorous thumbs up when I put the side out, one-two-three.
Fourth inning and down they went again on a single, a double play, and a strikeout. Now it was our turn at the plate. Jules Alphonse donned his batting helmet and told us: “I think the Eagles are gettin’ plucked tonight. I see tail feathers falling all over the place.”
Our bats woke up in the fourth inning and we scored three runs. Could it be? A little country mouse scampering past the “Screaming Eagles” as they called themselves? Fifth inning and my first sign of trouble.
After the first Eagle grounded out, the second reached first on an error, and then I gave up a blooper single that fell into short left field. Mister Mac came to the mound and told me and Carmine: “Now, we’re in good shape here. Claude, if you feel comfortable throwing the heater you’ve been working on, this might be the place.”
Up came their number three batter and then the cleanup man, the very ones who stared at us insolently during warm ups. I threw the heater––to their surprise––and got ahead in the count on both. Then a combination of the knuckler, a couple sinkers, and then another fastball, and they both whiffed. This time my gramps stood and pumped both thumbs up, danced a little jig, and applauded.
No question he and I belonged to each other. We were of the knuckleball fraternity.
We faced a new pitcher in the fifth but we stuck to the fundamentals learned in the batting barn and Nathe’s instructional version of “move up.” We added two more runs and were threatening with a third when it happened.
I stood on second base with a double. Tim’s job was to bunt me over to third. He laid down his trademark beautiful drag bunt along the first base side and tore down the line to beat it out. It became one of those times in life when we humans just stand in wonder.
In the course of his furious flight toward first base, Tim’s helmet came ajar and whether he knocked it away or it bounced loose of its own accord, no one can be sure. I didn’t see Tim fall.
Folks later described the pitcher’s throw to first as a rocket and how they cringed when they saw the ball fly skyward from its contact with the back of Tim’s skull. When I turned at third to see where the play now stood, I found Tim in a heap on the first base bag.
Mister Mac waved me to come with him and we tore across the mound. The umpire, correctly, grabbed me and shouted, “All players back, all players stand back!”
“This kid’s deaf,” barked Mac, retrieving me, “and he’s our signer.”
“All right, all right. Everyone else, stay back. Give us some room here.”
By the time Mac, Nathe, and I knelt by Tim’s side, he had rolled off the bag and was looking straight into the sky.
He looked so gone.
I bit my lip for I felt the tears welling. Was I looking into the sightless eyes of my friend? I thrust my hands directly in front of his face and signed and repeated what Nathe and Mac told me: “Lie still. Lie very still. Do not move.” I wiped my tears for Tim’s face was now a blur.
He had not stirred.
I took hold of Tim’s jaw as Mister Mac directed so he wouldn’t turn left or right, while my Grandmother Ronnie ran up and stood over us and signed away. Mac told her to sign for Tim to remain still. Nathe left to get the first aid kit, ice, and blankets. Tim looked listless.
He began to fade.
My grandmother signed away. Could he even see her? She bent over him and I felt her hair brush mine as she signed: “Do not move your head.” Then she asked me, “Does he read lips, Claude?”
“Yes,” I told her, “a bit.” I looked into those dark eyes, urging them silently to not go sightless. Ronnie knelt even closer to where Tim could see only three faces I’m sure: hers, mine in the middle, and Mac’s. Tim’s gaze seemed to narrow, and I wondered if he were slipping away from us now with no way to slow the slide.
Then I heard Mister Mac say: “Jack! Good! Move back, Claude. We got an EMT here.” I eased away from Tim and released his jaw. Then I saw that gaze squint, hinting an approaching grin, the grin I now knew so well. Jack, the emergency tech, had crawled to where he could check Tim’s pulse. Tim did as he was told, lying still as death. But it was the eyes.
No longer sightless, no longer listless. His gaze, moving from my grandmother, to me, finally resting on Mac standing behind the EMT and looking down. The grin broadened into a full-on smile. Tim raised his arm and pointed toward his coach and said, “I . . . hear . . . yhou.”