DFA: A BLOG ABOUT LIFE ON THE BASEBALL MARGINS: January 5, 2008
DFA, part 6: Pitching to Chavez
A Note from Ric’s Attorney, Randy “Perp Walk” Simoleon
The headline that preceded my client Ric Grieff’s last post on the Baseball Library website stated: “Ric Grieff of Jim Gerard's DFA Reports From Somewhere in Caracas (Or So He Claims...).” This was clearly not written by Ric but by an editor at Baseball Library. In so doing, this editor has made several scurrilous accusations about Ric and the accuracy of his blog. First, he attributes the blog to one Jim Gerard and insinuates that Ric is merely a fictional creation of the latter. Let me unequivocally state that neither Ric nor myself have ever heard of Jim Gerard, and Ric has reassured me that he is no way a fictional character but very much an actual, living creature with a lifetime minor league batting average of .239. Ric also has proven to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is the sole author of the blog and that if it was written by a professional writer, as the BL editor implies, it would read much better than it does. Second, by tacking on the phrase “or so he claims,” to the dateline “Caracas,” the editor is suggesting that Ric filed a post claiming to be from Caracas when in fact he was elsewhere. In other words, the editor is accusing Ric of being what is known in the literary trade as an “unreliable narrator,” such as Huck Finn, that kid from The Sound and the Fury and Bud Selig.
I can assure you that my client is of sound mind and has no known psychic dysfunctions (other than ADD, OCD and BCS – Backup Catcher Syndrome), that he is unbiased to the best of his ability, that his intention is to convey the reality of his life’s events and not to deceive the reader in any way and that he has been and continues to be in Caracas and is not pulling a James Frey and making all this s—t up from the cozy confines of an Upper West Side atelier.
Ric Grieff is as much of a reliable narrator as I am an attorney.
Spanky’s Bail Bonds
“You Ring, We Spring”
I knew Chavez was a baseball fan, but to show up at a tryout? Dude, that beats the Bleacher Creatures for dedication any day.
For the next hour or so, the hopefuls became the hopeless, trudging back into the locker room looking like they’d just s—t their pants in front of God himself. A few mumbled curses, but mostly they undressed quietly.
The guy who was running the tryout, name of Oswaldo (whose mom named him after Lee Harvey Oswald, no s—t), in his mid-30s with five o’clock shadow over his entire body, called my name.
I got up and followed him through the catacombs to the stadium. It’s hard to believe that twenty-five thousand rabid fans could make a deathly silence, but they did. Then I saw that they were all looking at El Jefe, waiting for their cues. He started applauding us, and the fans followed, with bells, whistles and a local band that stood behind first base, between the boxes and the mezzanine. They had trumpets, maracas, tambourines and a guy dressed like an Indian chief who didn’t stop beating on this thunderous tom-tom – and this wasn’t even a game!
Chavez stood behind the third base dugout, wearing a Microbios jersey under his generalissimo garb. Oswaldo told me in broken Spanglish that first they’d run a drill where the pitchers were scouted on their ability to hold a runner on, the runners timed from first to second, and us catchers judged on our footwork, release point, arm strength and accuracy throwing out the runners.
Now over the years I had busted my tail forging a pretty fluid motion coming up out of my crouch, and I had a pretty decent percentage of runners thrown out. (Full disclosure: That’s because I called for more pitchouts than any catcher in pro ball. If the pitcher objected, I would give him a pep talk about how he was so good, he could stake a guy to 3-0 and still get him out, and a fanny pat. If that didn’t work, I would take a baseball card from my back pants pocket – it was a 1989 Don Slaught Yankee card, as nobody, not even Just Minors, had ever asked me to be on one – and make like it was a Ric Grieff card and I was reading some stats from the back of it. Stuff like “Grieff’s lifetime percentage of throwing out runners is sixty-one point five percent.” I threw in the point five to make it sound more real.)
If the manager got on my case, I’d blame the pitcher. If the pitcher chimed in, I’d blame the manager for tipping the pitchout.
Today, though, I was in a groove. I didn’t need any pitchouts. I was gunning ‘em down like it was a video game and I was … well, Captain Video. Of course, it helped that most of these guys either couldn’t run or didn’t know how to take a proper lead, or were running in huaraches, or all of the above.
The crowd started really getting into it. The stands were full of commotion, which I thought was cheering for my skillful performance. Turned out that they were taking action on whether each runner would steal or not. (Venezuelans love to gamble. One day, after I started playing for the Microbios and during a blowout, our relievers staged a cockfight in the bullpen.)
When that part of the tryout was over, a line of players with bats formed in the on-deck circle. The first guy strutted up to the plate and I figured out that we would be doing a simulated batting practice for the pitchers to show their stuff. But I soon discovered, when a foul tip smacked me in the cup, that the batters wouldn’t be acting like department store dummies but would be whaling away. Dude, I was Double-Duty Grieff, the human backstop, warming up pitchers and catching batting practice.
The last shred of my nerves disappeared with the throbbing pain in my groin and, after it subsided, I was focused on catching this bunch of jittery-wild kids who grew up playing from dawn to sundown with a taped-up ball of yarn and a broomstick in a back alley full of broken glass and empty Coke cans, who might never have had a baseball lesson in their life and who needed a GPS to know where their pitchers were going, and equally amped-up hitters who were trying to impress not only the scouts but their own president by trying to hit the ball from here to Havana. You could see their desperation pass across their eyes, and I wondered why I didn’t feel their fire. I mean, I had a chance to catch the eye of big league scouts, dignitaries, several firing squad’s worth of soldiers and Hugo Chavez himself. A chance to maybe persuade the Yankee scout to tell his boss to tell his boss to tell his boss to tell Mark Newman or even Brian Cashman that why not toss this Grieff kid an NRI to spring training? Maybe even sign him to a minor-league contract.
I’ll tell you why: The chance was a thousand to one that I’d even get invited to Tampa, and a million to one that I ever set foot in Monument Park, unless some drunken fan pushed me out of the bleachers. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that hope is the devil. You can’t care too much or life will shatter you like a cutter in on the hands.
Now you’re probably wondering why if I have no hope, do I even go on? Well, the other side of it is that I also have no … anti-hope, if there is such a thing. Because life is too strange, and stuff happens that can't possibly happen, to bet heavy either way. So I just move from day to day, trying not to do my best but also not my worst. That way, I always have some hope -- as well as some anti-hope -- in reserve.
And that day, in Estadio Universitario, with the mountains towering behind the outfield fence, I’ve gotta say I did pretty well. Must’ve blocked a couple dozen pitches and kept most of them in front of me. But then, “D” has always been my game. It has to be if you ever want to make the BCU (Backup Catchers Union).
The last hitter in line stepped up and on his first swing hit what had to be the highest foul pop I’d ever had to camp under. I lost it in the ozone layer for what seemed like an entire season, then saw it coming down along the third-base box, headed right for Chavez. He also must’ve lost sight of it, because suddenly a whole bunch of his security force pointed up and started shouting “Alli es!” and “En la niebla espesa con humo!” and the next thing I knew, maybe a dozen soldiers opened fire on the ball. Twenty-five thousand people and a couple hundred players ducked. Heading for the stands, I tried to duck, too, but tripped and slammed into the seats, ending up right above Chavez, my left hand blindly outstretched, where the foul ball, a bullet hole through its center, happened to plop.
I was dazed for a couple seconds, then instinctively grabbed the ball with my bare hand and held it out, signaling to the ump that I’d made the catch. Only today the ump’s name was Hugo Chavez. It didn’t take him but a few seconds to regain his composure – hell, the guy was used to getting shot at – and he started applauding me. This signaled everyone else in the stadium to do the same. A shower of applause I’d never experienced in my dorkiest fantasies. Chavez reached out to shake my hand and instead of my hand I handed him the ball.
“You are … a receptor magnifico!”
I didn’t know that “receptor” meant “catcher,” but figured that “magnifico” was a compliment.
“Muchas gracias, el Senor Presidente.”
“You are a player for the Yankees?” He pronounced it “Yunkees.”
“Uh, no. I’m a free agent.”
Chavez turned to one of his aides and asked him what I said.
“El es un persona independiente,” the aide translated.
“Ah, un persona independiente!” Chavez said and kept shaking my hand. “I am appointing you to be my receptor.”
I kept smiling and scanning the faces of his aides for any sign of what the hell he was talking about. Did he want to sign me for the Microbios? One aide, a young, well-gelled guy who dressed and spoke like he went to Harvard and who wore one of those Tag Heuer watches that has, like, sixteen little watches inside it and looks as if it belonged on a NASCAR instrument panel said to me, “The president wants to throw a few balls to you.”
“On the field?”
“Is this part of the tryout?”
“Are you suggesting that El Presidente doesn’t govern by the will of the people?”
“No, no. I’m sure he does.” My palms started leaking sweat like a balled-up sponge.
“The tryout will continue afterward,” the Harvard aide said.
Chavez, surrounded by his aides, climbed down to the first row and kind of clumsily heaved his body over the barrier and onto the field. The aides got some new baseballs from one of the Microbios officials. Chavez took off his jacket and flashed his Microbios jersey to the fans, most of whom were Tiburones fans but either were proud that their leader was in good enough shape to throw to a real minor-league American catcher, not stupid enough to boo, or too drunk to care either way.
Chavez indicated that he wanted live batters to stand in against him and boy, I didn’t envy those guys one iota, having to bat against their president. If they tocked one good, they might be arrested; if they went in the tank, they might end up in a tank. At least that’s the impression I got.
The butterflies were skittering around in my old gullet, too. For one thing, I had no scouting report on any of these guys. For a second thing, I had no idea what kind of stuff Chavez had – although I realized he couldn’t be much worse than the pitchers I’d caught already that day.
I approached a short-ish guy with Manny Ramirez dreadlocks wearing a Microbios uni, one I’d overheard speaking English.
“Excuse me, but … what does he throw, El Presidente?”
“Whatever he wants,” replied the man, and grimaced.
I started a slow walk to the mound as Chavez acknowledged a thunderous ovation with a kind of false false modesty. When I got to the mound, I had to shout to even hear myself. Chavez kept smiling and finally outstretched his arms to hush the crowd. There was a microphone in a stand a few feet behind the mound. This was a new one on me. Was El Presidente going to do his own play-by-play, too?
“Los New York Yankees,” he shouted into it, pointing at me and flapping his arms to the crowd in a “give-it-up” sign. Just as quickly, he brought his arms down to hush them again and looked at me as if he expected me to make a speech. I motioned for him to step away from the mike.
“Mr. President, as your personal catcher, I need to know something.”
“What kind of pitches do you throw?”
He didn’t seem to get me and looked to his right, toward the third-base coach’s box. Four armed bodyguards approached and flanked him, two on each side. I figured this was a new infield strategy whose intent was to catch a comebacker for their president. From what I had picked up from people here, there were a lot of rich Venezuelans, and American politicians and oil execs who would’ve danced a … whatever the hell they dance here if a hot smash put Chavez permanently out of commission.
I held up my index finger, hoping he’d associate it with “fastball.” The crowd grew restless, and Chavez looked at me like he wanted to crack my head with his mestizo skull. His bodyguards drew closer – they thought I was flipping their leader the bird.
“No, no finger,” I protested, and quickly held up a second finger, than a third. “One, fastball, two, curve, three, change-up?”
“Ah!” His face widened into a wary, grim grin – the only kind he seemed to have – and he beckoned me back behind the plate. I had no clue if he understood me.
The first batter, a wiry, right-handed kid no older than eighteen who had to be pushed into the batter’s box by his coach, bowed toward Chavez and then toward me, like the Jap players do to the umpires there. I just pushed my mask down and silently wished both of us good luck.
Chavez stared intently in, as did his bodyguards, as I put down one finger. He went into his windup, leaning way back awkwardly as if he was about to fall backward, and lifting his leg up, reminding me of Juan Marichal in a senior beer league game. Then he bounced a 70 m.p.h. grass-cutter three feet to my left. This is the toughest pitch to block, the one behind the batter, because he momentarily obscures it. I sort of crab-walked toward a spot where I thought the ball might be and luckily, it hit my left foot and bounced straight up in the air, where I snatched it with my glove.
“Strike one,” I heard Chavez’s voice boom over the P.A. system.
I knew the hitters were in deep s--t.
Long story short – which by the way could be the title of my love life…either that or Armageddon, but more about that in some other post -- everyone – Chavez (who retired the side on nine called strikes), the Yankee scout, the manager of the Microbios – thought that I did a nifty job at the tryout. In the clubhouse afterward, I was interviewed by some Venezuelan reporters. They asked me how it felt to be Hugo Chavez’s receptor personal and how did I get to get so good that I could make plays like catching that pop-up shot down by the president’s bodyguards. I knew it would be more impressive if I responded in Spanish, but I wasn’t used to being interviewed, period, and public speaking bollixes me up enough in English. So I ended up blurting out something in my best robotic U.S. athlete voice. I don’t remember what I said; it was as if someone else was talking and I was tuning it out like some lame TV show.
It was only when I picked up El Universal (which had an English section) the next day did I read my words, which were in humongous type on the back page: “Grieff: My Agresidavo Has Been the Key!”
I also got a call from the Microbios’ G.M., who told me that the president personally suggested to him that the team put me on the roster for the remainder of the regular Winter League season.
I was a Germ. If only my dad could see me now. He’d sneeze.