Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folkdances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.
He reminded me of a goose, long necked and fat bodied with arms that reached out of long, wide sleeves as if his wings had fingers. Not my idea of what a pitcher looked like, but I'd heard he pitched for a semi-pro team in Cincinnati.
He arrived at our house to refinish the bedroom floors, parked his old van in the driveway, opened his door, and there I was, holding up two baseball gloves and a grass-stained baseball. "Will you show me how to throw a curve?"
He laughed. "Well, maybe the rudiments. I'm here to work."
I showed him the slat I'd cut and laid for the rubber, the cardboard square I'd pegged to the ground for home plate. He laughed again. "Boy, you're all ready all right!"
Mr. Fred Jackson! Five inches taller than me and I was afraid of his arm. He would've blown me away throwing hard, but he was all business. He placed my fingers half a dozen times in the correct position and showed me how to "snap" the ball when turning it loose. We tossed from a few feet and slowly backed away to the 60 feet six inches I'd measured off. "Throw them straight with that hold. Don't try to curve them. Get the feel of it first."
So I threw a few straight at medium speed until he said, "Now bend 'em in to papa."
My pitches were way off. When he finally snagged one, he took off his glove and folded it around the ball. "Am I working for you? I don't think so. Maybe later."
We both knew that Mom was inside, waiting. When she went to work and I had him all to myself, he said he had to get busy so, to speed up the process, I helped him move furniture out of the bedrooms into the hallway or downstairs. As he sanded, I swept up the messes he made. Whenever he shut off that screaming machine, I asked what pitches he threw, what he liked to throw best, how he set batters up for a pitch. By the time he sanded the master bedroom and the bedroom of my brothers, Tommy and John, I'd got him talking pretty good, and that enthused him. We threw for 15 more minutes.
The grip put the middle finger along a seam in the leather, thumb against a seam on the opposite side, the knuckle of the index finger bent under so the fingernail and the first knuckle were against the ball. The two other fingers wrapped around the ball, providing stability. Best of all, twisting the wrist and the middle finger at release resulted in a dramatic break I could actually see. Before Jackson, only wind and gravity had curved my pitches.
The tricky part was control. My pitches hit the ground in front of Jackson or sailed over his head or off to a side. "Slower," he chanted as balls bounced up and bruised him. I began to notice irritation in his voice. "Jesus H. Christ! Son, the idea is to get it over the plate." When the ball disappeared in the English ivy behind him for the fifth time, he threw his glove down. "You're wild as a monkey in the jungle. Let's eat."
I followed him inside. "I'll get better."
"That's the truth. You can't get no worse."
He may have felt guilty for that remark. He laid a hand on my shoulder and said I could be a good pitcher. With practice! I asked how he'd learned to pitch. "A wise old man taught me five years ago when I moved here to southern Ohio."
He meant in prison. Mom had told me her friend who'd introduced her to him was helping Mr. Jackson start up his business. He'd been locked up five years for larceny. So who cared? I didn't know what larceny was anyway.
I boiled myself two hot dogs and perked some coffee. From a lunch box he ate an apple, two cheese and ketchup on white bread sandwiches, and potato chips. Plus he drank my coffee. We never pitched together again, and he wouldn't talk no more baseball. "I'm going too slow on this job. I got to get with it. No more distractions, okay?"
I cleaned up after he sanded my room and watched when he coated all the floors with something that made them look good. He called it "sealing them." When he returned in two days and did it again, Mom wrote him a check. He shook her hand, then mine, and left. I followed him out to the van and thanked him for teaching me the curve.
He smiled. "Hang a heavy cloth like a rug over a clothesline and from just thirty feet, pitch into it until you know where the ball's going. Practice until you get control and back up 'til you reach the right distance. Something else. Hide the ball in your glove until the last minute. If the batter sees that knuckle sticking up, he'll know what's coming."
It was my first year to pitch, the first year for the town's Babe Ruth League, and I did okay: a 6-6 record, league leader in strikeouts. But I never did try Mr. Jackson's idea of throwing at a rug hung on a line. Maybe that's why I also led the league in walks, passed balls, and hit batters. Everybody hated to bat against me. Mr. Jackson developed his control better than I ever did. Within five years he had a fleet of vans doing his business, but I heard he'd also given up pitching. Maybe pitching was an outlet he didn't need any more.