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Authors: Mike Lupica

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BOOK: The Batboy
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Brian knew that in the old days, before the steroids era, 500 home runs really was one of baseball’s magic numbers, and used to make you a lock for the Hall of Fame. But things had changed now. It had started with Mark McGwire.
Even though McGwire had never tested positive for any baseball drug and never officially admitted to ever
taking
baseball drugs, everybody assumed that he had because of that appearance he’d made before Congress. That was the day he’d said, “I’m not here to talk about the past,” and the whole world had taken that as a full confession. Since then he had come up for election to the Hall of Fame a bunch of times and had never even come close to getting in. Then Alex Rodriguez admitted he’d used drugs, baseball drugs, when
he
was with the Texas Rangers. It came out that Sammy Sosa had tested positive. Manny Ramirez got suspended for 50 games when he got to the Dodgers. On and on it went.
The first day back with the Tigers, Hank Bishop had said this:
“Guys, I’m not going to defend my life every single day till the season is over. I’ll just say there are a lot of things in my life that I wish I could go back and do over. And a lot of things I’m sorry for. I’m sure a lot of players from this era feel the same way. But I can’t go back and change things any more than baseball can. What happened happened. And again, I’m sorry. I’m just trying to move forward now with my life and my career and hope y’all will let me do that. Let my bat speak for me from now on.”
Trouble was, Hank’s bat had grown awfully silent.
Lately, he was lucky to get his name written into Davey’s batting order a couple of days a week.
Maybe that was why at two o’clock in the afternoon of the first game of the Royals series Hank was out on the field, despite the fact that the temperature was trying hard to get to 100 degrees today, having Rudy Tavarez throw him early batting practice.
Brian was at Comerica early. He had gotten into his pregame outfit, Mr. S. telling him shorts were allowed today, and decided to get a jump on his pregame chores. So he brought the towels up and stacked them neatly in the dugout, brought the trays of gum and the bags of sunflower seeds, the rosin bags, rolled the bat cart up the runway and organized the bats in the rack, wanting to have all of that done before Finn arrived.
It was all part of Brian’s plan.
Brian was sweating like crazy by the time he finished organizing the helmets, so he took a seat in the corner of the dugout and watched Hank work with Rudy. Hank had already sweated through his gray Tigers T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, his batting-practice cap so wet it looked as if he had taken a shower in it.
Every once in a while he would stop to towel off and take a quick swig of Gatorade from the bottle he’d tossed in the grass. Mostly he worked. One of the Tigers’ young middle relievers, Nick O’Meara, was shagging the balls in the outfield, throwing them back in. When Rudy and Hank would go through a bucket, they’d just start again. Hank hit some balls hard, even jacking one into the seats. But mostly he was pressing the way he had been in games for the past few weeks, even against a coach trying to groove pitches for him, a coach who wanted to get taken out of the yard.
Finally Rudy said, “You want to stop?”
“No.”
“We could take a break, ’fore you pass out from the heat.”
“No.”
“Well, at least let’s slow down the pace a little here. I’m about to pass out. Besides, it’s no good to just keep beating balls into submission without thinking about what we’re trying to do.”
Brian felt as if he were eavesdropping, like somehow he shouldn’t be listening to this, so he slid himself closer to the end of the bench, out of sight from home plate.
Hank, his voice loud in the empty park, said, “Rudy,
thinking
isn’t my problem. That’s one thing I can still do as well as I ever did. Maybe the only thing.”
“Hank, my brother, you
got
to find a way to relax.”
“Rudy, you don’t understand!”
Now Hank’s voice was so loud it was as if it were coming out of the PA system.
“I’m running out of time here!”
He was still in his stance, looking uncomfortable, Brian able to see how hard he was gripping the bat, the muscles in his forearms stretched so tightly they reminded Brian of a rubber band about to snap.
The way Hank Bishop had just snapped. It was as if he knew that now, had heard himself in Comerica.
“Few more,” Hank said, lowering his voice.
He took a huge swing at the next pitch Rudy threw, what Coach Johnson called a come-out-your-shoes swing, and popped the ball up behind second.
Amazing, Brian thought.
A guy with 499 home runs in the big leagues and he’s as messed up as I was.
They finished up a few pitches later when Hank finally managed to hit one over the wall out to left.
“Let’s stop on that one,” he said, and Rudy looked relieved. Hank’s blue Franklin batting gloves were dripping wet. He took them off, along with his cap, and he and Rudy sat down in the grass next to home plate. Rudy did most of the talking, occasionally standing up and taking his stance, pointing to his front shoulder, sitting back down.
They finally got up and Rudy told Hank he’d pick up the rest of the balls in the infield, that Hank should get out of the sun now. Hank started walking back toward the dugout. Brian had brought a bottle of Gatorade for himself, but now he came out of the shadows and up the steps and handed it to Hank.
“Thanks,” he said, as if he was almost too worn out to say that.
“Hey,” Brian said, “I never got to thank
you
.”
“For what?”
“That night in the cage.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.”
Brian grabbed him a towel now from the stack behind the bench, handed it to him. Hank wiped himself off.
“Because, see, the thing is, the lesson worked,” Brian said. “That’s what I really wanted to thank you for. Got four hits right after that, nearly hit for the cycle, as a matter of fact.”
“I’m sorry,” Hank said.
“What?”
“You gave me some pointers,” Brian said, thinking he just hadn’t heard, “and one of my next games, last time up, needing a home run for the cycle, the ball I hit just caught the top of the fence. . . .”
Hank brushed by him now, on his way down the steps, saying, “Not today, kid.”
“I didn’t mean to bother you,” Brian said. “But I just wanted you to know. . . .”
Then Hank was as loud as he had been with Rudy Tavarez, slamming his bat into the bat rack so hard Brian was afraid he might break it.
“What part of
not today
aren’t you getting?” he said. Then he disappeared down the runway.
CHAPTER 25
T
he next afternoon Brian and Willie Vazquez were in Equipment Room No. 3 after Brian had made his daily run to McDonald’s.
The Tigers had won the night before, but Hank had sat on the bench, his average sitting with him at .218. Davey Schofield had just posted his lineup for tonight’s game and Brian saw that Hank wouldn’t be playing again, even though the Royals had a righty going.
“Ask you something?” Brian said to Willie.
Finn was helping out over on the visitors’ side, one of the guys having called in sick. So it was just Brian and Willie, no other players having gotten in on today’s order.
Willie smiled, his second Big Mac halfway to his mouth.
“You’re my burger connection,” Willie said. “Ask me anything.”
Brian said, “Why do you think Hank did it?”
Willie put his burger down on the chair he had pulled up next to him and took a sip of Coke.
“Why he did what?” he said.
“You know what I mean,” Brian said. “Why do you think he took the steroids?”
Willie took his time, wiping his hands with a napkin. Taking another sip of Coke. Smiling at Brian now, as if you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face even if the subject was baseball drugs.
“Now, technically,” Willie said, “the Bishop never actually admitted he
did
do them drugs.”
Brian said, “But not only did Hank test positive, he tested positive after he knew he could get suspended for that. If the test was wrong, if it was one of those false positives, wouldn’t he have said it was all a big mistake?”
Willie said, “You know what’s amazing, little man? How much you got to talk about steroids in this game whether you did anything or not. I always thought that was the worst thing of all, how the innocent got thrown in there with the guilty. How everybody got turned into a suspect. Like it wasn’t guilty or innocent after a while, like it was ‘caught or not caught,’ least in the eyes of the fans.”
Brian said, “You ever try the stuff?”
Willie shook his head. “Nope.”
“Think about it?”
“Everybody
thought
about it, little man. But I had a big brother got his life all messed up on other kinds of drugs, the worst kind, when I was little. Ended up in jail, even though where they should have sent him was to one of those rehab hospitals. Lordy, when I was growing up, my momma made me more afraid of drugs than of the devil. So I tried to do like the great Hammerin’ Henry Aaron, the real all-time home run champ of the game of baseball.”
“What?”
Willie smiled again and said, “Strongest thing I ever take is chewin’ gum. And these burgers.”
Brian said, “But there was a lot of it going on when you first came up.”
“Course there was.” Willie serious, as serious as Brian had ever seen him. Not smiling now. “I got eyes. I’d see guys who weighed 175 at the end of one season come back and be 225 and look like the Incredible Hulk
.
And this was even after the real testing kicked in. I’d just say to myself, Now there’s a boy found a way to stay one step ahead of the testers. Or he just found something they got no test for.
Yet.

“But Hank had it all going for him.”
“Let me ask
you
something,” Willie said. “Alex Rodriguez
didn’t
have it all going for him? Barry Bonds?”
“That’s my point—guys like that didn’t need it!” Brian said, the force of his voice surprising him.
“See, that’s the thing, though,” Willie said. “They thought they did. Barry Bonds, he thought he had to do it to go past McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Then A-Rod, he must’ve looked at Bonds and said, I got to get past him someday, I better do what he was doing when he hit out 73 that one season. And all of them using that junk must’ve thought nobody would ever present them with no bill.”
Willie picked up his Big Mac again, took a big bite. “I’m just speculating, mind you.”
“You think he can ever be good again without it? Hank, I mean.”
“You don’t give up, do you?”
Brian shook his head. No.
Willie sighed. “I still think Hank Bishop’s got it, somewhere inside him. Question is whether he’s gonna find it before it’s too late.”
Willie got up now, thanked Brian for the food, and said, “Since we quoting all-time greats today, you know what Yogi Berra said one time, right?”
“What?”
“Yogi said it sure gets late early around here,” Willie Vazquez said.
“I wish there was something I could do to help,” Brian said.
Because he did want to help.
“You want to help that man even the way he treats you.”
“Yeah,” Brian said. “I do.”
Willie was at the door. He came back, put his arm around Brian. “You a good man, little man.”
Brian wondered if he had the courage to back up that claim, knowing what he now knew. Having seen what he was sure he had seen earlier today.
The Tigers won the last game of the Royals series, completing a sweep, 10-2. Davey had thrown Hank out there in the fifth inning, maybe thinking that on a night when everybody was hitting, it might be contagious. But even against a scrub reliever, Hank struck out twice—the second time looking.
Brian was worried that Hank might break another bat after that one, could see how red his face was after the home-plate ump rung him up on a close pitch for strike three. Even now, though, his season and maybe even his career slipping away, it was as if he knew you couldn’t pitch a fit in a blowout game like this, especially one your team was winning.
So he just walked back to the dugout, handed his bat to Brian, went to the far end of the bench, and sat there alone until the game was over. And when it was over, when all the other players and coaches and Davey Schofield were gone, he went back to work, alone this time, in the indoor batting cage.
Not facing Iron Mike the way Brian had.
Just beating one ball after another off a tee.
Finn was gone by then. Brian’s mom was his ride home tonight and she had already texted him to say she’d be leaving work at the usual time and would meet him outside.
It was when Brian was on his way back from making one last sweep of the dugout that he heard the sounds from the cage and discovered it was Hank. So he hung back out of sight and watched while he went through a bucket of balls.
BOOK: The Batboy
12.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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