“If you step back this time, you’re going to land right on your butt”, Dennis Brand yelled at Andy. Some of the players laughed at hearing the word ‘butt’ while others feared that just hearing such a word would cause them to spend eternity in hell. The rest of the boys just began to worry more about taking their turn at bat.
In all respects, Coach Dennis Brand was hard on his players, even if they were 8 and under. In the last three years of fall ball, travel ball, and the “regular season”, Coach Brand’s teams had made it to 9 championship games and brought home 8 championship trophies. The only game his team lost followed a late night semifinal game that was called in the fifth inning according to the league’s mercy rule. The mercy rule was designed to save teams from utter humiliation by ending any game in the fifth inning in which one team was ahead by ten or more runs. Coach Brand’s team was ahead by 12 runs at the end of the fifth inning, but he felt their play was sloppy and sluggish, so after the game he made them run. And run. And run. His team was so tired at the start of the championship game the following morning that they were no match for the other team. Coach Brand’s team was declared losers by the mercy rule, less than 12 hours after imposing the rule on another team.
Though several parents disagreed with his methods, few complained of the results.
One of Coach Brand’s methods of teaching players to stand firm in the batter’s box, instead of stepping out of the batters box out of fear of being struck, was to place bats behind the batter’s feet. If the batter tried to dance out of the way, then the young man found himself trying to dance on rolling aluminum bats. Very few players had mastered this skill.
“Hold on!” Coach Brand yelled at Miles Torrance, his assistant coach and operator of the pitching machine. Coach Torrance turned off the machine for a moment.
For those few players that had perfected Coach Brand’s aluminum bat two-step, Coach Brand would place bats behind that batter and make him stand in a surplus military duffel bag that served as the team’s equipment bag. He saved this for his most extreme cases.
Today, Andy was an extreme case.
Eight-year-old Andy Watts was in his second year of little league baseball. He was an average player, a better fielder than hitter, who worked hard and never missed practice. He was the son of supportive parents who, despite their hectic schedules, rarely missed a practice and never missed a game. Andy had earned a good reputation among coaches in the league. He was not the best athlete on the field, but he worked hard and followed instructions. He was described more than once as “just solid”, though he was having trouble today. Andy’s practice performance, like that of many little league players in South Fork, Georgia, could be attributed in part to the town’s antiquated pitching machine.
While other nearby towns and schools had replaced their pitching machines with the newer two-wheel model, South Fork still used an ancient model designed to replicate the motion of a pitcher’s arm.
The machine that South Fork continued to use consisted of a generator fed motor that wound tight a large spring that was attached to a long, metal arm. The machine’s arm moved in a circle on the right side of the machine, like a harsh, ugly one-paddle windmill. Balls were fed from the holding basket to the collection area through a hole that was just larger than the baseball.
As the arm passed the collection area, it picked up the ball and carried it in its ‘hand’ until, near the top of the rotation, the spring would release causing the metal arm to hurl the ball toward home plate. The machine resembled a medieval trebuchet, only twice as noisy and far less accurate.
The batter had to shake off the surprise of the metal robot’s quick release, block out the sound of metal clashing against metal, focus on the pitch and start his swing in less than a second.
Andy was determined to stay in the batter’s box. If for no other reason than to prove to himself that he could do it. He wasn’t concerned about the bag he was standing in, the bats behind his feet, or even making contact with his swing. He just wanted to stand in the box as the ball approached the plate.
When Coach Brand was satisfied with his work on Andy, he nodded toward the pitcher’s mound. Coach Torrance turned the machine back on. The generator in the distance growled as the motor began to tighten the spring on the pitching machine.
Andy adjusted his stance as his hands lightly gripped the handle of the bat. Elbow up, he reminded himself as he watched the arm pass the collection spot and pick up the next ball. The arm seemed to move slower than normal as it approached the top. Andy’s left foot, acting almost on instinct, tried to move backward. Andy held his foot firm until…WHAM!…the spring released, the arm flew forward, the ball left the metal hand and was hurled toward home plate. Don’t move, don’t move, stay in the box Andy said to himself while the moment of surprise subsided and the noise echoed. He was able to find the ball halfway between the pitching machine and home plate. Don’t move, don’t move….
The sound of ball meeting flesh startled Lizzie Franks, a team mother who was working feverishly to fill cups with Kool-aid and arrange Oreos on the tailgate of Coach Brand’s truck.
“STOP THE MACHINE, MILES! STOP!!!” Lizzie heard Coach Brand yell. She looked up to see Dennis and Miles running toward homeplate where Andy was on the ground. She saw the blood on Andy’s face when Miles rolled the child over.
“CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT! HURRY!!!” Coach Brand screamed to someone, anyone. Lizzie glanced up at him and realized he was yelling to her. Lizzie ran to the home across the street and began knocking on the front door.
Less than one mile from where Andy Watts lay crying at homeplate, his mother Mary Ellen Watts watched as her daughter practiced tumbling at the South Fork Cheernastics Academy with a dozen other local 8-year old girls. Pass after pass, the girls crisscrossed the old foam mat that protected them from the unforgiving concrete floor of the converted five and dime.
Mary Ellen didn’t see who the other girl was, it happened too fast. All she saw was the other girl’s feet come over and hit her daughter right below her left eye. Kelly Watts instantly fell to the floor. Her cry brought to a halt all other activity in the gym.