Clink caught on his knees to protect his toenails from foul tips. That gave Artie a nice, low target, and he was at his best when he kept the ball down. He retired the Picadors in order.
The boys were in high spirits as they tiptoed off the diamond. They yelled encouragement to Mulvaney as he picked his favorite bat from the rack and headed for the plate. Now, you can get Joe out if you keep the ball up and in. Add to that the fact that Riley thought we were throwing at his boys last time we played and I was hoping Joe had his helmet screwed on tight.
But it wasn’t Joe’s head they went after. Those big feet were too inviting a target. Joe danced like a man begging for mercy in a western saloon, but in no time at all, four balls had him gingerly making his way to first base.
Left fielder Leadfoot Barnes was next. When he grounded to short, I resigned myself to an easy double play. The second baseman took the throw, but instead of stepping on the bag, he tried to stomp Mulvaney’s shoeless feet. It was his bad luck that Joe slid head first. The second sacker came down on Joe’s helmet, twisted his ankle, and had to be helped from the field. Both base runners walked home when Chick Harley hit one down the line that rattled around the left field corner.
The game went along like that. The more the Picadors tried to take advantage of our lack of footwear, the more they shot themselves in the foot, so to speak. I was enjoying myself. It was a pleasure to sit on the bench, my toes tickled by every breeze that wandered into the dugout. After all, a manager has to be in uniform too.
Mulvaney led off the last inning, and we were still ahead by those two fluky runs we’d scored in the second. I was speculating about the Terre Haute Tigers–the team we’d face if we made the playoffs. That’s when disaster struck.
Joe fouled a pitch straight down. I heard the thwock as ball met bone on top of his foot. Joe was writhing in the dirt, spinning on his back, clutching his throbbing puppy with both hands. Years later when I saw some inner city kid break dancing, I wondered if he’d been in the stands that day, and found inspiration.
We carried Joe to the dugout, then dragged Splinter out to first base to pinch run. He was doubled off on a line drive, and before Joe had stopped whimpering, we were on the field for the last of the ninth.
The first Picador hit an easy fly ball to center. I cheered loud enough to drown out Mulvaney’s moans. If we could keep the ball away from Splinter for two more outs, we’d be all right.
The next batter grounded an easy one right back to the originator. Artie played it perfectly, trotting halfway to first base, the ball held out in front of him so Splinter could see it. His toss was chest high and gentle. The ball leaked out of Splinter’s mitt. Artie walked the next man. The Picador fans exploded as they realized the winning run was coming to the plate in the person of their best hitter, Hammerin’ Harmon Horrowitz.
Clink went out to talk to Artie. The way they kept glaring over at first base, it looked more like they were planning the revenge they would take on Splinter if this game got away than deciding how to pitch to Horrowitz. I waved my outfielders back to the warning track out of respect for his power.
Ace Riley, the Picador manager, caught me by surprise. He sent the runners on the first pitch. Artie threw a gem, in on the fists where Horrowitz could only get the thin part of the bat on it. He shattered his stick, blooping the ball down the right field line. Trouble was, with the right fielder playing deep and the second baseman covering the bag, there was only one person left to try and catch the ball.
Splinter backpedaled, wheeling his arms and screaming, “Mine! Mine!” The runners skidded to a halt and reversed direction. Splinter’s mitt lurched upward. The sound of ball striking bone echoed through the ballpark as he fell to the ground. I stubbed my toe scrambling to the top step of the dugout, but I couldn’t see the baseball anywhere. The crowd hushed. The base runners froze. Umpire Finley hustled over to check Splinter’s mitt.
An empty gloved Splinter scrambled to his feet, turned his back to the infield, and took two steps toward the right field corner. The runners, convinced the ball was loose, bolted. Splinter let them ’round second and third, and then trotted to first base. When he reached the bag, he unbuttoned his jersey, reached inside, and produced the baseball. That fly ball had gone right up his sleeve! He daintily tagged the base with his stockinged foot, doubling off the runner. The game was over!
Oh, Ace Riley fumed and spat, claiming that Splinter had substituted a ball for the one that Horrowitz had hit. But when he was asked where the original baseball had gone, he had no explanation. The umpires ruled in our favor.
Our boys limped off the field, hugging and slapping each other on the back. My mistake was joining the victory celebration. Someone stomped one of my corns so hard that I saw stars.
On the bus, I sat opposite Mulvaney. We each hogged a whole seat, and had our respective sore foot stretched out beside us.
Joe said, “Hey, Skip, now I know what they were talking about on that Wide World of Sports TV show.”
My eyebrows lowered in confusion.
“You know,” Joe insisted, “the thrill of victory and the agony of the feet!”