October 24, 2017

A View from the Cheap Seats

Dow Diamond, in Midland, MI

Dow Diamond’s back gates were unlocked and since this wasn’t Yankee Stadium or any stadium in the big leagues, I invited myself inside and took a walk around the stadium. The Great Lakes Loons are an A ball team for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Here is where the ballplayer has better odds of making The Show as a scout than as an active player. No one expressed any concern that I shouldn’t be there. I went into a party store for work and the owner demanded to know if I was from the state liquor commission. If so, he was going to “throw my ass out.” His little store was in a neighborhood that you make doubly certain the car doors are locked. I forget to lock the doors at Dow Diamond but it didn’t matter. I didn’t get a negative kind of reception inside Dow Diamond. I didn’t get any reception at all. I had the whole ballpark to myself. For a little while, it was my Show.

Clint Eastwood’s baseball movie “Trouble with the Curve” is going to be released in September on the same day “Moneyball” was released one year ago. Clint Eastwood is said to dislike “Moneyball” and made his movie in response to it. The old scout with bad eyes has more faith in flesh and blood analysis than statistical analysis.

The best managers, scouts, and leaders in other arenas, as well as writers, have spent important time in the cheap seats, absorbing the drama of success and failure and trying to make sense of it.

More from my story The Coach Killers, written from the cheap seats:

Willie reached for a raindrop. He had never seen raindrops so big. “Raining big as baseballs, Coach,” Willie said. Willie sat on the porch and watched the rain clouds swirl overhead. “Ms. Butler coming back?”

“When she’s ready,” Coach Hawkins said.

“Ms. Butler returning in time for school?”

“Yes, Willie.”

“I have a play to perform,” Willie said, hesitating. He didn’t feel comfortable talking to Coach Hawkins about something other than baseball.

“Lucy Butler will be back in time for you to star as Paul Bunyan, Willie.” Hawkins read the letter a second time, unable to believe the content of it was really true.

The letter was soon followed by a couple of phone calls. A meeting was arranged for the steakhouse twenty miles east of Sleeping Bear. Hawkins knew it well. It was a favorite for the baseball scouts.

Hawkins sat in his car and watched the freight train grind metal. He was stuck at the tracks. Cars behind him were turning around for an alternative route. He watched the windshield wipers hit the big rain drops like a fungo bat. He turned on the car radio as a group of kids on bikes weaved between the stuck cars. Then he heard the news. Alan Perkins of the Perkins Group was dead. The old tycoon and journeyman second baseman was dead of a stroke. His surreal vision of teamwork died with him. Bankers, lawyers, and shareholders would fight over his legacy. At the birthplace of the Perkins empire the stadium lights were turned off and the children of the streets wept in silence.

A green Toyota lurched from traffic and struck one of the kids on a bike, sending him into the ditch. The kid bounced up, covered in mud, and laughed in the rain. Hawkins sat lost in thought, not realizing the freight train had gone on to Grand Rapids. He was late for a meeting with the Detroit Tigers.

Hawkins thought he heard a stopwatch click when he entered the steakhouse and went to the old scout’s table. The old scout’s notepad was marked in precise penmanship. His face was browned as old bacon from years of sitting in the sun.

“Hawkins, you still act like a pitcher, sauntering in here late. Was that how you went to the pitcher’s mound? Walking to it like going in your favorite restaurant? I never was good with pitchers like you,” the old scout said. “Didn’t trust them. A bunch of nonconformists wanting to stretch the strike zone.”

“I heard you signed Mark Fidrych,” Hawkins said.

“Never signed a pitcher. Couldn’t find one I liked. Denny McLain was another bad one. Good pitching is a bad sign for this country, Hawkins. It means people aren’t comfortable with the strike zone. The ballclub wants to find some good pitchers now. This country is going to hell. That’s why they’re interested in you working as a scout. It won’t be an easy job. The motels won’t be the nice ones.”

“I can live cheap,” Hawkins said.

“You won’t get rich. Do you have any leads?”

“Yes,” Hawkins said. “I got a name.”

The old scout leaned over the table. A crackle of thunder whipped the storm clouds off the Great Lake. A waitress with a hacking cough dropped a plate in the kitchen.

“His name is Hank Patterson,” Hawkins said.

The old scout wrote down the name in his precise penmanship. “You got a philosophy, Hawkins? A special way of looking at things? What’s your vision, Hawkins? Why do you get up in the morning, Hawkins?”

“I believe a team and the country are only as good as the pitchers,” Hawkins said, a smile as wide as the Great Lake.

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