By Bill Vernon
What changed everything for Butch and me happened during our 2nd game of the season with Stevie Singleton’s team. After their first three hitters got on base, Mr. Philpot and Mr. Sergeant called time and met me and Butch at the mound. Mr. Philpot said, “Johnny, give your equipment to your brother and take his glove.” They wanted a switch, Butch to catch and me to pitch.
“Okay.” I started unbuckling my chest protector, but Butch threw a fit, basically saying in many, many words that he didn’t want to.
Mr. Sergeant said, “Look, Butch, Johnny can get it over the plate. We can’t afford to give ’em a bunch of runs right off. I told you that at practice. Never again!”
Butch said, “It’s my turn to pitch. I’ll get it over. I promise.”
“Son, we told you this would happen if you didn’t control yourself. We’ll try you again next game.”
As I was taking off my shin guards, the managers walked away, and Butch chased after them. The straps on those darn leg things slowed me down. They cut my skin in back of my knees and made sores that sometimes even bled. I had to be careful removing them.
I caught up with the coaches and Butch between third and home. Butch was pleading. “I promise to throw nothing but strikes. If I don’t, take me out THEN. Give me another chance.”
I held out the mask and chest protector to Butch. “Here’s the catcher’s stuff. I’ll go get my own fielder’s glove.”
Mr. Philpot said to me, “Damn! Hold on now, Johnny. Just wait a minute.” Then he looked at Mr. Sergeant. “What do you think, Amos? Butch never promised that before.”
Mr. Sergeant said to Butch, “If you can do that, why in hell haven’t you been doing it?”
Now we weren’t switching? I said, “I’m warmed up. I’m ready to pitch. Let Butch catch.”
Butch said to me, “Just shut up. It’s my turn.” He looked at the men. “I promise you nothing but strikes the rest of the inning, okay?”
Mr. Sergeant shook his head. “First ball you throw, Butch, we’re pulling you out, and I don’t want no crap from you when we do it.”
Mr. Philpot said, “Put your equipment back on, Johnny.”
I said, “Jesus, I’d rather pitch.”
Butch said, “Where’s the rosin bag? I need a dry hand to do it.”
You got to understand, the palm of my left hand got sore catching Butch despite the sponge I used for cushioning. I also got bruises all over where his pitches ricocheted off the ground and hit me. It wasn’t no fun catching him.
According to that year’s last May issue of the county’s weekly newspaper, William Brasfort, Butch everyone called him, was “a right-handed phenom.” He “has Superman’s arm and breaks bats with his fast ball.” The woman writer of the story about the league starting up in June must’ve thought she was a poet. Well, it was partially true. When Butch was 14, he could throw 90 mph, three years later over 100, but he’d already quit baseball by then.
Her story left out that he was wilder than hell. Butch mowed down the hitters in more ways than one. Whoever faced him with a bat in hand knew that his life was in danger. It could end right there in the dust he kicked up. Butch’s wildness came in streaks. So did his control. Sometimes he could go most of the game without hitting anyone or walking very many. Batters and nobody else knew when the streak he was on would go away and the other streak begin. I think his problem was that he went hyper in his mind and couldn’t think straight.
Batting against Butch, catching him too for that matter, involved a lot of uncertainty. The danger of his speed and lack of control would worry kids so much they froze and couldn’t swing their bat even if Butch lobbed the ball up there.
Imagining the danger got so bad for Stevie Singleton the first time we played his team, he jumped out of the box, hunched over with his back to the mound during Butch’s windup, and waited for the ball to pass him by. Looked like he might have been praying.
I walked back to home plate putting the mask on, and there Stevie was, swinging a bat beside the batter’s box. I noticed him but was trying to make the shin guards comfortable and didn’t really think about Stevie’s being there until Butch walked past squeezing the rosin bag.
Stevie said, “Hey, Butch, you still the pitcher?”
Butch said, “Hi, Stevie. Yeah, I am. How you doing?”
Stevie just shook his head.
Butch said, “What’s wrong? Are you batting now? You the clean-up man?”
“Yeah.” Stevie looked over where Mr. Rowe, his coach, was watching us. “Look, I don’t want to get hit. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t even like this game. My dad makes me do it.”
Butch stared at him. “Hey, I won’t throw at you. You’ll be okay.”
“I know you won’t hit me on purpose, but you already hit two batters and walked one.”
What was obvious to all three of us was that Stevie’s coach had put him fourth in the lineup because Stevie was so little and Butch was so wild. Stevie could hit the ball okay, but not very far. He was no slugger. So all three of us knew that Stevie’s job was to walk or, though his coach might not admit it, get hit.
Butch said, “I got to throw strikes. The managers said they’ll take me out if I don’t. So you shouldn’t worry.”
Stevie shook his head. “You ain’t even throwed one strike yet.”
“Yeah, but I’ll pitch a new way that I can control. Trust me.” Butch put a nice, dry hand on Stevie’s shoulder. “Okay?”
Just then Mr. Rowe yelled, “Get the show on the road. Come on.”
Fred Collett, the ump behind me, said, “Play ball, boys. Let’s go.”
Butch went to the mound, and when I squatted, Stevie said, “What’s his new way of pitching?”
I said, “I think he’s going submarine.”
“Batter up,” the ump yelled.
Butch put his right foot in the hole that four weeks of pitchers had dug in front of the rubber, leaned my way for a signal, and Stevie went into his stance. Butch stared in and stared in as if we could see my fingers. We only had 3 signals. He yelled, “Time!” and started toward me.
“Time.” Fred stretched his right hand out over my head so I bumped it, standing up. Then he said, “Butch, get back out there.”
“Just a minute, Fred. Look at how the kid’s standing. Stevie, straighten up.”
“Look, I know you’re trying to get your shoulders closer to your knees to shrink the strike zone, but get back in your stance and I’ll show you something. Go ahead.”
Stevie stood like he’d been, with his bat ready to swing.
Butch said, “Now look straight down at the ground. What do you see?”
Stevie looked, I looked, Fred looked over my shoulder, and Mr. Rowe came running up, “What’s going on?”
Butch said, “You’re looking at the plate, aren’t you?”
Butch said, “That means bending over like that, your head’s right above the strike zone. You’re putting your head right above where the pitcher’s trying to throw the ball. Understand? If a pitch gets away from him and comes in high, it’s coming toward your head. The head’s the worst place to get hit. So don’t bend over like that. Bending your knees is okay, but don’t bend over so your head’s out there unprotected.”
Mr. Rowe said, “Hey, I’ll handle his stance. I’m the coach. You pitch.”
Butch was cocky. “Well, Mr. Rowe, I’m sure you don’t want Stevie to get hurt either. And he just told me he was scared. Maybe you could tell him not to stick his head out like a turtle.”
Mr. Rowe said, “Maybe you should get back to the mound.”
Fred said, “Yeah, let’s cut out the talking. Play Ball!”
Butch said, “Can I have a few warm-up pitches?”
“Hell no,” Mr. Rowe said.
Fred said, “Not unless you’re gonna switch arms and throw left-handed from now on.”
Butch said, “Come here a minute, John.”
Mr. Rowe said, “What now?”
We went only ten feet away and with our backs to them Butch whispered that he didn’t want any batter to hit the ball into play. He didn’t think our fielders could handle ground balls or throws. I had to catch every pitch, no passed balls, and throw the ball right back to him and not to anyone else. I had to be real careful. Butch said that with Stevie, he’d pitch two slow strikes then a faster 3rd strike. He said Stevie wouldn’t swing until he had two strikes.
Butch was right, and what followed was a miracle. He struck out Stevie and the next two batters without one ball being called. The first two pitches to Stevie were as slow as you could throw it without an arc. On the third pitch, Stevie swung way behind, surprised by its speed. The next two batters were the two best hitters on Stevie’s team, but Butch was in a groove.
His submarine pitches seemed to come out of the mound instead of his hand. They rose up to knee level and curved to my left. An in-shoot we called it. And when Butch released the ball with his arm pointing straight down at the ground, that pitch dropped a little. All that with speed and his sweeping curve, which slowed the ball down, and the batters had no chance. Not one touched the ball with his Louisville Slugger. Not one got brushed back. Not one walked.
When we went into our dugout to bat in the bottom of the third, we were all joking and pushing each other around. We were up two runs and alive with energy. When Butch was on a wild streak, the guys had to watch while he walked one batter after another. It was boring. Today we all were into it. Butch’s potential was obvious. How could we lose? His pitches thumped into my mitt like a drum beat, like the whumping sound of our happy hearts.
I was so happy, I yelled, “Hey Butch, you got a no-hitter going.”
Swinging a bat before getting into the batter’s box, Butch looked around at me, then went to the plate and struck out. While he was up there, Mr. Philpot sat on the bench beside me, put an arm over my shoulders, and said, “Johnny, you trying to jinx us? Never mention no-hitters when your team’s got one going. It’s bad luck.”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I forgot.”
Butch limped, returning to the bench after striking out. Mr. Sergeant examined his bare right foot and, while the next two batters made outs, taped gauze around Butch’s ankle. Then he and Mr. Philpot went to the mound and watched Butch warm up. On his first toss, Butch made a face and pointed at where he’d stood. I followed Fred to the mound afraid that I’d jinxed my own brother.
Turned out the hole he’d been standing in while pitching was so deep, his ankle brushed the rubber on every pitch and so had become raw. But they couldn’t get the shovel out of the maintenance shed because it was locked and no one had the key. To fill the hole they figured that fetching a shovel, digging up, filling, and tamping dirt in the hole would take 30 minutes.
“Let me try something,” Butch said. “Go catch me, John.”
A pitcher’s foot had to be in contact with the rubber while he made a pitch. So Butch put his right foot on the farther-away side of the rubber, keeping a spike on the front and the back of his shoe on the rubber while he wound up and threw. He pivoted on that foot, twisted his hips right, raised his left leg, turned his back to the plate, coiling up. Then he bent his upper body right and down, uncoiled fast turning toward the plate, letting his body’s weight and left leg whip his right arm almost underhanded throwing the ball toward me.
It looked complicated slowed down as he’d done it, but Butch said, “Okay. I can do this.”
Mr. Sergeant said, “Try a couple more to be sure.”
Butch did, and except for being a bit slower, the pitches came in normal.
Everybody said fine and Fred yelled, “Play ball!”
It just so happened that Stevie was up, and he was all business, no talking this time, taking a straight-up stance. On Butch’s first pitch, Stevie smashed the ball just inside the third base line. The third basemen just gawked at it without moving, as surprised as I was. Stevie had himself at least a single, maybe a double, but the ball hit a pebble, hopped left over the bag and landed foul. I breathed again. We still had our no-hitter.
It seemed clear to me that if Stevie could get around on that pitch, it had been too slow. I pounded my mitt and yelled at Butch, “Put some heat on it!”
Butch nodded, went into his windup deliberately, more slowly than usual at the start coiling up, then more quickly than usual spun back around toward me so that I knew this would be the fastest one he’d thrown all day.
Just before he let loose, though, a hard gust of wind from right field blew dust across the diamond. Butch’s heel slipped a little on the hard rubber so he lurched too far right, and his arm came around more sidearm than submarine. The ball arrived a few inches outside, started in-shooting, caught the wind, crossed above the plate even with Stevie’s armpit, and soared up out of the strike zone inside and high.
Stevie pulled his chin down and turned it a little bit left before the ball hit him. Thunk! The sound rattled my nerves. It happened so fast, I didn’t see the ball actually hit him, nor the bat drop, nor him. The next thing I knew I was standing over him saying, “Stevie, you okay?’
Meanwhile Butch was running in from the mound screaming, “Stevie!”
I saw blood oozing from a scrape on Stevie’s forehead.
The coaches made me and Butch and both teams go to our dugouts. I leaned forward on the backstop with my fingers through the fencing and watched from a distance. Stevie’s parents knelt beside him, and Mrs. Claybourne, a nurse, left the stands and knelt by his head.
Someone pried my left hand loose and squeezed so hard it hurt. It was Butch, crying.
I told him, “Stevie’s gonna be all right. It’s not your fault.”
All that came back to me in Kentucky at Butch’s silver jubilee celebration. He broke his vow of silence to talk with me for an hour and by way of greeting said, “You’re the first one in years to call me Butch.” I do believe that was true.
We asked about the Stevie Singleton incident, and he said, “That had nothing to do with my vocation. I was choosing it a long time before that.” I don’t believe that was true.
Butch never pitched again. I pitched and he caught the rest of that season so that our team could finish out the schedule with our leading hitter and best catcher on the field. Then he never played the game again.
I said, “Do you mean that beaning Stevie didn’t make you feel guilty?”
He shook his head. “My guilt was from dreaming of playing for the Reds, of becoming famous and rich. I was ignoring what God wanted from me. I was also showing off, trying to pitch on a sore ankle. So Stevie did pay for my vanity. I am guilty of that.”
I said, “God gave you the ability to throw a baseball fast. That was his gift.”
“Johnny, Johnny,” he said as if he were my parent, “you got it all wrong again. Being able to throw hard was the devil’s temptation. God’s gift was showing me how badly I’d hurt people if my selfish ways continued. Luckily, I learned, and Stevie was all right.”
Butch nodded with a big smile, and that provoked me.
I said sarcastically, “So I guess you think beaning Stevie was God’s gift to him.”
“Yeah, maybe. Stevie didn’t even have a headache after it and also got his wish. His Dad felt so bad he let Stevie quit playing baseball.”
Actually, I’ve always suspected that the whole mess was my fault. Some people are a jinx and maybe I’m one of them.
To end an awkward little pause, I said, “Look what I have,” and threw him his old baseball glove from the bag of things I’d brought.
Would you believe underneath the long black and white monk’s outfit, he wore Levi’s and a tee shirt bearing a picture of the new Cincinnati ballpark and the word “REDLEGS.” I took my glove and a hardball from the bag, and we played catch. We didn’t try to burn each other out like we did as kids. Just two brothers laughing and talking, throwing a ball back and forth the same way we used to say the rosary. Then we lapsed back into silence.
Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town, and his poems, stories and nonfiction occasionally appear in a variety of magazines and anthologies.