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Authors: Mike Lupica

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BOOK: The Batboy
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And each time, it was as if he was seeing all that green for the first time. Seeing how perfect the infield dirt looked after it had just been raked, and the dirt around the pitcher’s mound, and around home plate.
He’d look at the signs in the outfield and the skyline of the city and up to where the announcers’ booths were, look around at all the empty seats as if this were the first day that baseball was ever going to be played.
And every day he would go and stand right in front of the Tigers’ dugout and count the rows back to the twentieth row where he and his dad used to sit.
Sometimes he would close his eyes and imagine the two of them sitting there, see himself at nine or ten eating popcorn or a hot dog with one hand, his glove on the other.
Brian had the best seat in the house now, he knew that.
But those two seats had once seemed like the best in the world.
CHAPTER 3
T
hey were in Kenny Griffin’s backyard, at his house on Yar-mouth Road, playing Home Run Derby with a Wiffle ball. Kenny had just taken a break to run into the house and get them a couple of Gatorades.
When he came back outside, he said to Brian, “This just went from being a good day to a great day. Like an instant national sports holiday, practically.”
“Why?” Brian said, taking one of the plastic bottles from him. “Did you figure out a way to hit a six-run homer while you were taking so long inside?”
“No, it’s not that,” Kenny said. “It’s because I finally know something about baseball that you don’t.”
“I would put that down as dubious,” Brian said.
It was Saturday afternoon, two days after the Tigers had beaten the Indians in the ninth. Baseball practice was over, but Brian and Kenny weren’t baseballed out because they never were. So they were using Home Run Derby, a marathon game, to kill time before the Tigers played the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Fox’s
Saturday Game of the Week.
It was the beginning of a ten-game road trip for the Tigers. Batboys didn’t travel with the team, though Brian had heard from Mr. Schenkel that rules like that sometimes had a way of changing if they made the playoffs. But for now Brian’s team was in Boston and he was behind Kenny Griffin’s house trying to hit balls over the pool fence and into the water.
Already he felt funny, like he’d been cut loose from something now that the Tigers were away, like the circus had up and left town without him.
“Let me get this straight,” Brian said, plastic bat in hand. “You’re saying you now have a baseball fact that you didn’t have before you went inside?”
“Correct.”
“A stat?”
“No, Stat Boy. Not one of Brian Dudley’s fun facts.”
“So are you planning on telling me? Or do I have to beat it out of you with a Wiffle bat?”
“Well,” Kenny said, “since you’re asking so nicely . . . when I checked my computer, guess what I saw on
ESPN.com
?”
“Not a clue.”
“Only this,” Kenny said. “The Detroit Tigers,
our
Detroit Tigers, just added some power to their lineup. Announced in Boston about an hour ago.”
Brian could always tell when his best bud was busting his chops and when he was being serious, because he was generally easier to read than a text message.
He was being serious now.
“Tell me,” Brian said, “or I
will
beat you.”
Kenny, the best pitcher on their team, the Bloomfield Sting, smiled as if he’d just struck out the side.
“Hank Bishop,” he said.
“No . . . stinking . . . way,” Brian said.
“Way,” Kenny said. “Way back, from like the dead, practically.”
Hank Bishop had been out of baseball for a year and a half, first because of a fifty-game steroids suspension, then because no club in either league had signed him this spring when he was eligible to play again. He was thirty-five now, about to turn thirty-six on the Fourth of July. Brian knew that the way he knew everything there was to know about Hank Bishop.
But now the Tigers, who needed a right-handed bat to come off the bench and act as a designated hitter occasionally, had brought him back to Detroit, given him one last chance to be something close to what he was.
“This is really happening?” Brian said. “No joke?”
“You think I would joke with
you
?” Kenny said. “About
him
?”
“Excellent point.”
“Your boy’s back,” Kenny said. “Back on the batboy’s team.”
And wearing the same uniform, Brian thought.
It was all in there, everything that Brian already knew about the way Hank Bishop’s career had started out, and the way it had ended, with him ten home runs short of the magic number of 500.
Only the Tigers had changed all that in Boston.
“We’re not asking him to be what he was,” Davey Schofield was quoted as saying. “But from what I saw in batting practice this morning, there’s a place for him on this baseball team.”
If Hank Bishop hadn’t been the best player in baseball by the time he’d been in the big leagues three seasons, he was, as Brian’s dad liked to say, in the conversation.
He was MVP in the American League the year he turned twenty-five, still playing shortstop that year. From then until he turned thirty, he hit between thirty-five and forty-five home runs every season, knocked in at least a hundred, and scored at least a hundred. He kept hitting even after his first knee operation, and there wasn’t a baseball fan in Detroit or anywhere else who wasn’t sure he was on his way to the Hall of Fame.
The sportswriters in Detroit started out calling him the Bishop of Baseball in Detroit. That was long before the first real trouble he got into, when he got arrested for a fight outside a bar and spent the night in jail and one of the papers ran the headline “Hank in the Tank.”
But there was much worse trouble to come, only nobody knew it at the time and everybody was willing to forgive him—starting with Brian—because he just kept hitting.
“The only way they stop forgiving you in sports,” Brian’s dad once said, “is when you stop producing.”
Hank kept producing. Even after that arrest, even after the first knee operation, even after his move over to third base. The Tigers weren’t making the playoffs in those years, and so there were seasons when he was the best reason to keep watching, or keep going to the ballpark.
But then the trouble began multiplying. It wasn’t just a fight in a bar. Hank Bishop seemed to fight with everybody—his teammates and his manager and sportswriters and talk show hosts, and finally there were two straight years when he didn’t get to thirty home runs and didn’t come close to knocking in a hundred and that was it as far as Detroit was concerned. The Tigers traded him away to the Angels. That was when he had his first positive test for steroids and got suspended, even though he blamed it on some shot he said he’d gotten from one of his teammates.
He ended up in the National League after that, with the Rockies, and then came his second positive test, the one that got him suspended for fifty games, the rules tougher by then. He served it out last season and then wasn’t even offered an invitation to spring training. That’s when Brian realized just how right his dad had been. Now that Hank Bishop couldn’t hit the ball out of sight anymore, everyone had stopped forgiving him. In the minds of most baseball fans, Hank Bishop had committed the two worst possible sins:
Not only had he used steroids, he’d gotten
caught
using them.
Brian had never wanted to forgive him on either count, because he loved baseball too much not to see what guys using those drugs had done to the records and the record books in his lifetime. But he couldn’t help it: He never stopped rooting for Hank Bishop, even when he was off playing for other teams, and he knew why:
Hank was the first guy in sports who made him want to watch and, even more important than that, he was the first guy to make him care.
He watched the first five innings of the game at Kenny’s, by which time the Tigers were ahead 6-0 behind their best starter, Ben Dillon. But that didn’t mean Brian was going to put this one in the books or stop watching, because this was still Fenway Park, where bad things could happen to big leads. It was something Brian had always loved about baseball, that you couldn’t run out the clock, that you had to find a way to get twenty-seven outs.
Kenny asked if he wanted to stay for dinner and then sleep over, since sleepovers were usually the rule on weekends, either here or at Brian’s house. But Brian’s mom had made a point of asking him to be home for dinner tonight, just the two of them, and Brian was pretty sure he knew why:
This was the sixteenth wedding anniversary for her and his dad, even though his dad was long gone.
Brian wasn’t sure why this date was one more stat he knew, but he did.
He didn’t explain why he couldn’t stay, just told Kenny his mom had planned a special dinner and that he was going to bounce.
“If I leave now, I can be home by the time we finish batting in the top of the sixth,” Brian said.
“Boy, that’s a big load off,” Kenny said. “I don’t think Dillon could get through the heart of the order without you watching.”
“You still don’t believe I can directly influence the outcome of these games, do you?” Brian said.
“As long as you believe, Bri, bro, that’s all that matters.”
“I bet they get Hank right in there tomorrow,” Brian said. “He always had huge numbers at Fenway, and the Sox have a lefty going.”
“Can I ask you something before you go?” Kenny said. “I get why Bishop
was
your guy when he was with the Tigers the first time. But how can he still be now? You know, like after everything that’s happened since he left?”
It was hard to understand, Brian knew that. And if he even tried to explain it now, he wasn’t going to make it home by the time the Red Sox came to bat in the bottom of the sixth at Fenway.
So he just tossed a line at his friend over his shoulder as he headed off to get his bike, gave him enough of an honest answer to get him by.
“At least Hank came back,” Brian said.
CHAPTER 4
L
iz Dudley had no use for baseball. She went to as many of Brian’s games as she could, and he knew how much she wanted him to do well. Yet he knew she wanted to be somewhere else—
anywhere
else—except a ballgame.
Baseball to his mom was like some foreign language she’d had to learn in school and then never wanted to use again.
She had met her future husband at a charity dinner in Detroit the first winter after she’d graduated from the University of Michigan. He was thirty and had already been in the majors for five years, and she was twenty-two, interning at the ESPN radio station in Detroit—not because she was a sports fan, but just because she wanted to get into radio. A friend who actually was a baseball fan introduced them, and they got married a year later.
A year after that Brian was born.
Cole Dudley never lasted more than a season or two with one team. And Liz Dudley finally announced she wasn’t going to tour the American and National Leagues anymore, not with a baby. She moved back to the Detroit area, first to her hometown of Perrysburg, Ohio, about an hour away from Detroit, and then to Bloomfield Hills after she got her current radio job.
By the time Brian was old enough to go to school, the only time he saw his dad was between the end of the season in October and the beginning of spring training for pitchers and catchers in February.
“For most of our marriage,” Brian’s mom said to him one time, “I looked at baseball as the other woman.”
“You know what I really felt when he finally left?” she’d said that day. “Relieved. Because I didn’t have to compete with baseball anymore.”
So now it was just the two of them, the table set permanently for two, Brian and his mom having dinner together on the unmentioned anniversary, his dad not calling her today because he never called her. He was in Japan now working as a pitching coach. Neither one of them had heard from him in months, not even on Brian’s birthday. The dad he knew was never coming back.
BOOK: The Batboy
4.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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