Saturday, October 13th, 2008
Jefferson Last was beside himself. His son, who the team affectionately referred to as Flash, just gave up ten runs in the last two innings as a pitcher for the Little Nats of Woodbridge, Virginia. To top it off, he was hitless the entire season. With only three games left, Jefferson knew that drastic measures were in order, so he packed his bags and headed north to see the only one who could fix this conundrum: The Oracle at Philadelphi.
How could he not do this for his son? After the last game, Flash left the field and threw his bat and glove into the car, slammed the car door, and hollered, “I hate this game! I’m never playing baseball again!” Jefferson couldn’t let this happen, because he knew Flash was the best player on the team and one hell of a shortstop. Without him, the Little Nats were doomed, and the playoffs were just around the corner.
Jefferson pushed through the crowded restaurant and ordered a cheesesteak with extras onions, and a Coke then grabbed a seat and waited. Hours later, his table was visited by a bow-legged octogenarian. He had snow-white hair and mustache and spoke slowly, enunciating every syllable.
“What do you need, friend?” asked the delivery man.
“Thank god, you came!” Jefferson exhaled with great relief.
“Of course, I came. I’m here to bus your table. You’ve been sittin’ here and stewin’ for hours. Management wants you to order something or leave.”
“Aren’t you the Oracle of Philadelphi?” Jefferson queried.
“Shhh! Not so loud! You’ll blow my cover. You’ll have every gambler within miles comin’ to know the next Kentucky Derby winner. Now, what do you need, friend?”
“Don’t you know? You ARE the Oracle of Philadelpi, aren’t you?” Jonathon wondered aloud.
“Yup, but I’m old, and I enjoy conversation. Go ahead and unburden yourself,” stated the oracle.
Jefferson relieved himself of all his pent-up frustrations, “My son has stunk this year as a little leaguer. He’s amazing as a shortstop. However, as a pitcher, he can’t find the strike zone even if it was as big as China, and he couldn’t hit a fastball if it were a watermelon! He is actually playing today but watching him suffering was just too much to bear. That is why I am here.”
“I thought the object of sports was to teach the youth humility. That sounds to me like it’s workin’,” stated the oracle. “He has success at shortstop and needs to make improves in other areas of his game through practice. Success will come. Just give it time.”
“Yes, but now he needs some success. He is beginning to get so frustrated that the game is not fun anymore. I don’t want him to quit. Can you help me?” begged Jefferson.
The oracle continued to wipe down tables around Jefferson. He collected soiled napkins and half-eaten desserts all the while maintaining the conversation by peering slyly out of the corner of his eye.
“Yay, but you ain’t going to like what I’m gonna say, friend,” responded the oracle as he placed new placemats and sets of silverware on a freshly bussed table.
“I’ll do anything!
“First, dump the nickname, Flash. From a now on, he’ll be known as Uncle Coco,” announced the oracle.
Jefferson sat slack-jawed, “But he loves that nickname. It has so much pizazz.”
“Umm, have you been paying attention? Humility. Uncle Coco sounds like a has-been, a player past his prime, or even a cagey veteran.”
The oracle left Jefferson to ponder this and returned with a steaming cup of coffee and a large slice of apple pie ala mode. He placed the offerings in front of Jefferson.
“I didn’t order this?”
“If you want to keep sitting here and continuing this conversation, you did. Management, remember.” The oracle continued, “Next, you must journey to New Jersey to Bubba’s Batting Cages and Dry Cleaning. You must don a batting helmet and bat and step into the Cage of Doom. It’s a cage that hurls 100 miles per hour [mph] random pitches – fastballs, sliders, and curveballs. It’s called the Cage of Doom because the machine is so old that its mechanical arm has gotten loose. Sometimes its curveball doesn’t break, and you’d better pray you have a battin’ helmet that passed recertification.”
“No problem.” Jefferson exhaled and began mentally calculating how long it would take to complete the task in New Jersey and make it back home before his wife noticed his absence and started her usual presumptuous grilling about his day.
“You think this is going to be easy? You haven’t been paying attention, friend. I hope your insurance policy is valid.” Perturbed, the oracle threw down fresh napkins onto the table.
“Piece of cake. I played college baseball. This won’t be my first rodeo in a batting cage.”
“Your son is not the only one needing a refresher course on humility.”
“I’ve got this covered.”
“Wait. I’m a not finished yet.” Quipped the Oracle. “You’ll stay in the cage ‘til you face a beanball. If you survive, the curse upon your son will be broken.”
“You can’t be serious?!” Jefferson gasped.
“Oh, but I am. And, if you survive, remember that you can’t rub it. You rub it, and the curse will remain on your son forever.” The oracle stressed.
The oracle stooped to pick up a straw wrapper off the floor, rose, and turned toward Jefferson. He bowed and then extended his arms in front of his chest. He waited silently.
“Thank you for praying for me, Oracle,” Jonathan said after a minute of silence.
“Prayin’? I was waitin’ for you to pay the bill, and don’t forget da 20% tip.”
The trip to New Jersey was arduous due to the amount of traffic on I-95, but it was worth it. Any amount of discomfort was worth it if it ended his son’s slump.
The Cage of Doom was aptly named. It was old and worn, and cobwebs hung from every corner. Jefferson gave the cage door a hefty shove to force it free from years of decline and squeezed himself inside.
“Damn. That cage door needs some WD40,” he muttered as the rusty hinges screeched to a halt, and he abandoned any notion of closing the latch behind him.
Jefferson looked around. The bats, the batting helmets, the old baseballs littering the floor – everything was covered with dust. He found the batting helmets, selected the largest one, and dusted it off.
“A-choo!” he sneezed as dust billowed off the helmet, revealing chipped red paint and a fading MLB insignia.
Next, he inspected the line of aluminum bats and selected one that was nearly his size.
He looked towards the ball dispenser and mused, “That arm looks all rusted, but it had better function. Oracle, this better not be a wild goose chase.”
He took some warm-up swings then walked to the pitching machine and gingerly pressed the “ON” button. Next, Jefferson settled his feet beside the plate and extended the bat and tapped the plate for luck. He gripped his bat a bit tighter and steeled his eyes toward the machine while waiting for the first pitch. The pitching machine groaned, and smoke began to billow, but the pitching arm did not move.
“Nothing. I might have known this was a -“
CREAAAK! The arm shuddered and slowly began to move forward.
Jefferson didn’t even get the bat off his shoulder as a fastball pounded the padded wall behind him. It had to have shot past him at least 100 mph, and it missed his left shoulder because he bailed out at the last possible moment.
The arm shuddered again, but this time Jefferson dug in his heels and steeled his eyes. He resolved to go down fighting for his son if it was the last thing he did.
WIFFF! He swung and missed as a breaking ball disappeared before his eyes.
BAM! The ball pounded the padding behind him.
Jefferson spit into the worn turf of the cage, gripped the bat tighter, and squatted down lower in preparation for the next pitch.
The pitch came in belt-high across the center of the plate, and Jefferson swung with all his might.
PING! He fouled it off, but he had gotten a piece of it.
Now it was on. Jefferson Last had forgotten all about why he had gone searching for the mysterious oracle, battled the New Jersey Turnpike, and walked himself into his death trap with the threat of being pummeled by ghostly pitches. He narrowed his thoughts to only the ball and bat, swung it up behind his shoulder, and stared down the pitching machine with as much ferocity as he’d ever felt in his entire life. As he waited for the pitch, he repeated all the advice he had given his son over the years of playing baseball: Watch the bat hit the ball, keep your head in tight, keep your head down as you make contact, choke up on two strikes and protect the plate, stay inside on the ball for greater bat speed, bat speed equals power, load up as the pitcher releases the ball, and chicks dig the long ball.
Jefferson watched as the arm shuddered again. Every fiber of his being was focused on the ball being released from the pitching machine.
BING! The ball dribbled three feet in front of him.
“Yes! Fair ball!
As his bravado grew, lines from his favorite baseball movies flooded into his thoughts.
From Major League, “I run like Hayes and hit like Mays!”
From The Bad News Bears, “Listen, Lupus, you didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.”
Jefferson, who was now clearly in the zone, gripped the bat so tightly that his knuckles cracked. As he hunkered down into the batter’s box, Jefferson knew he was about to bash this ball into kingdom come!
Jefferson stood as a statue as the arm moved forward.
CRACK! Jonathan hammered the fastball up the middle.
“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die!” Jefferson shouted the iconic line from The Sandlot.
He was so much in the zone that he didn’t hear the creaking of the pitching machine anymore. Jefferson had become one with the machine.
CRACK! Jonathan smashed a slider up the middle that careened off the old pitching machine.
“Man, that ball got outta here in a hurry. I mean anything travels that far oughta have a damn stewardess on it,” Jonathan, as a large smile spread across his face, quoted the line from Bull Durham.
Again, Jefferson dug himself into the batter’s box and prepared himself for the next pitch.
THUD! As Jonathan swung for the fences, the 100-mph screwball didn’t break and smacked him squarely in the ribs, cracking at least one and knocking the wind out of him.
He crumpled to his knees. Eyes wide with wonder, he tried to catch his breath.
“You’re killing me, Smalls,” he whispered through clenched teeth as he staggered up to one knee.
CREAAAK! Again, the arm shuddered and move forward. Jefferson, now out of the zone, heard everything.
WHOOOOOOSH! Jefferson snapped his head towards the machine as he heard the ball release.
BANG! The 100-mph fastball hit Jefferson on the crown of his batting helmet. Immediately, he had a concussion. Seeing nothing but stars, Jefferson Last fell flat on his face. He was in such bad shape that he failed to brace himself and broke his nose on the concrete floor.
CREAAAK! Though Jefferson was down and out, the machine had one pitch remaining.
THUD! To add insult to injury, the curveball hit him right in the ass.
Before losing consciousness, Jefferson’s last thought was from Trouble with the Curve, “What do you say now Jackass? That’s known as Trouble with the curve.”
At that very moment, four states away, Jefferson’s son was at the plate praying that he’d hit the ball. His team, down by one run, needed him to get on base.
“Let’s get a hit, Uncle Coco!” a heckler in the stands yelled as the pitcher hurled the ball.
Uncle Coco swung with all his might. CRACK! It sliced up the middle for a solid single, but Uncle Coco hustled and turned it into a double. Uncle Coco screeched to a stop on second base, raised his fist to the sky, and shouted at the universe, “How do you like them apples?!”
They’d done it!
Three days later, the oracle found Jefferson still lying unconscious in the Cage of Doom. The oracle waved some smelling salts under Jefferson’s nose, and Jefferson’s eyes fluttered open.
“What’s your name, kid?” the oracle asks.
“Roy Hobbs?” Jefferson mumbles before uttering the line from The Natural, “Pick me out a winner, Bobby.”
“Kid, I already did,” laughs the oracle as he helps Jefferson to his feet and out of the Cage of Doom towards the open doors of a waiting ambulance. “I do hope your insurance policy is valid.”