by Paul C. Binotto
Ffff-ump! “Ball!” “Atta boy, get her up a little!” Ffff-ump! “Strike one!” “That’s the way to throw it!” Ffff-ump! “Ball Two!” “That’s OK, put a lil more heat on it, I can hear his heart poundin!” Ffff-ump! “Strike two!” “Ha-ha, he never even seen it comin!” Ffff-ump! Clunk! “Foul ball!” “There’s one for his Momma to take home, she catches better than he hits!” Ffff-ump! “Ball three!” “OK, OK, quit ‘ur toyin, put a rocket on the next one!” Ffff-ump! “Striiiiiii-ke three, you’re out, batter!”
Even at twenty-two, Clay was considered to be the best “Closer” in the National League, certainly the Central Division. He had only come up from “Triple A” last spring, but he had already gained national attention for his fast ball. Clocked at 108 mph, “and some change”, his rookie year playing for the Colorado Pinetars, no other pitcher could come close, and few batters could connect a pitch when he was on speed and on target. And, he always was.
But, Clay didn’t start out as a pitcher. He started behind the plate. His “Pee-wee” coaches would marvel how the “timid, little, shy kid who never said a word” would always race to be the first to put on the cage-mask, padded bib, knee bumpers and fry-pan mitt!
He was fearless back there, what the young pitchers lacked in speed they made up for in wild-pitches! Clay grabbed them all. It didn’t matter. He could just as easily fall on his right knee, sending up a cloud of dust and chalk, to trap the “way low and outsides” as to stretch the limits of his tightly knotted shoe-laces to snag the “out-of-reach high and insides”. He’d take ‘em on the brow and on the ankle without so much as a wince. “Atta boy, Atta boy, skin the batter’s knees with the next one”, he would yell, “Make ‘em pee his pants”; his normally barely perceptible whisper-voice now loudly amplified,
tauntingly through the wire catcher’s mask into the batter’s ear.
So loud and angry was he, to see and hear him scream you would swear it wasn’t the batter he was yelling at, but instead some invisible someone he was trying to out shout.
It was this constant verbal assault, that made Clay’s coach, for everyone’s sake, think Clay should trade his catcher’s mitt for the pitcher’s mound. “If he can just direct some of that anger from his mouth into his arm”, thought the coach, “he may turn out to be one heck of a pitcher.”
And, boy, did that he – some would say, the best ever!
“What’s your secret Champ?” “How do you maintain such a consistent fast-ball?” “Who taught you to throw like that?”
There was always someone asking these questions for one Sportscast or another, some Newspaper, even McKelvey at Sports Illustrated wanted to know. Clay’s answer would always be the same, “My dad taught me the power of the fast ball. He’d always pitch to me in the backyard.”
And then, before finishing his remark, he would become silent for a moment, thinking back about playing ball with his dad:
Ff-ump. “Easy one.” Fff-ump! “Why the face?” Ffff-ump! “Hell, boy, get your glove up!” Ffff-ump! “Ha-ha; The way I throw it sting a little?” Ffff-ump! “Do I have to put a lil more heat on it to get your heart poundin?!” Ffff-ump! “You little shit, you never seen it comin!” Ffff-ump! Go inside with your mother if you can’t take it!” Ffff-ump! “You missed it! You go get it!” Ffff-ump! Clunk! “Fool, boy! Your Momma catches better ‘an you!” Ffff-ump! “Stop your cryin, or I’ll knock it outta you!” Ffff-ump! “Get outta here, you’ll never be a catcher!”
“No one could throw a fast ball better ‘an my Old Man!” “‘Cept me, that is.”