How many fingers am I holding up?
By Jim Moriarty
Eons ago my college baseball team elected to forgo the pleasures of Spring Break in favor of a trip to North Carolina to play other small colleges. I have a black and white picture of us standing outside the barely seaworthy bus that spewed diesel smoke from northern Ohio to North Carolina and back. We looked more like a rock band than a baseball team. That was fitting since we had more honest-to-God musicians among us than honest-to-God ballplayers. We didn’t win a single a game on that trip. The most exciting thing that happened was when our third baseman was bitten by a goose.
Our first baseman was a cellist in the music conservatory. Our right fielder was a quote machine — obscure baseball quotes he unearthed scouring old issues of The New York Times when he was supposed to be studying Plato’s ideal state. What did Don Larsen say he did the night before he pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series? “I had a few beers and went to bed around midnight like I always do.”
Spring was the traditional planting season, which is to say I was the one being planted. There is a reason why they call catcher’s equipment the tools of ignorance. In one game after a particularly violent play at the plate that featured me rather prominently on the losing end, I finished the game though I have no independent recollection of it. Those were the days when the entire battery of tests comprising the concussion protocol was whether or not you could stand up. I’m quite certain I set a galaxy-wide record for passed balls that afternoon. If the pitch didn’t hit me, it went to the back stop.
It would please me if I could say that was the only occasion when I experienced an unfortunate collision, but that would be a lie. In the very last game I ever played, on a lovely day at the end of May, I got my nose broken. While the bridge was spared, the cartilage was randomly pushed hither and yon and, to be honest, never made the return trip.
The pitcher that day, who remains a good friend, was nicknamed Ragu. The moniker was hung on him by our right fielder, of course, who found him bafflingly unhittable because, he claimed, the ball had so much spaghetti sauce on it.
Ragu induced one of their hitters to pop the ball up in foul territory well down the third base line. This is ordinarily the third baseman’s play. As the ball comes down, it will curve and, in this case, curve, more or less toward the third baseman. Naturally, the catcher chases the play, too, in case something untoward happens. Heck, the guy could get bitten by a goose, right?
So, I threw my mask clear and trotted along, keeping an eye skyward and pretty much minding my own business waiting to hear the third baseman yell, “I got it!” Crickets. In the absence of detecting the third baseman’s voice, I expected to hear something from Ragu. More crickets.
Gravity being what it is, the ball’s not going to stay up there forever, so I figure my third baseman has run afowl (apologies all around) of something and I was going to have to make the play. I pick up speed, to the extent to which such a thing was possible. “Mine!” I yell, prayerfully. The ball was dropping and curving. I dive, which sounds more impressive than it would have looked on instant replay. The ball is about to drop right in my glove when I see the third baseman’s mitt passing over my outstretched arms, catching the ball, and slamming straight into my nose.
This is not the way they draw this play up.
Fortunately, there was no immediately discernible brain damage. There was, however, a great deal of blood. The extent of our team’s training kit was pretty much confined to a jar of Atomic Balm, a couple of Band-Aids, and some gauze. So, I started stuffing gauze into my nostrils and Ragu returned to the mound.
Here, I confess, things become a little indelicate. The gauze began to unravel. I had a long white string dangling from each nostril, giving the appearance of having treated my injury with, well, need I say more? This was embarrassing enough but, to make matters worse, Ragu couldn’t contain his laughter through even a single windup. His curve ball cackled. His slider chortled.
I would like to say we won the game, but we didn’t. And I didn’t even get a T-shirt out of it, just this lousy nose. PS