Chapter III

Billy-Rancher-1981-proof-11small—Kind of a high sky today

Old Herb sat shelling peanuts and popping them into his mouth, watching the Madison High Senators come up to bat in the top of the ninth inning of the State Championship baseball game at Civic Stadium in Portland. The Madison team was behind the North Eugene Emeralds, eight-to-six.

Herb and his companion, Bud, were stringers for major league teams—he for the Braves and Bud for the Angels. They would run into each other every few years or so, scouting kids in the towns all over the Northwest. They sat chatting in the front box seats behind the backstop, directly above home plate.

—Yeah it’s bright out there today, alright—but there’s a coupla angels up there.

Muttering, Bud eyed the faint white puffs of clouds, which broke the sun-glinted blue plane of the Oregon May afternoon sky.

Thinking he detected one of Bud’s typical talking points, Herb prodded.

—You’n angels. You manage to sneak them into every conversation, don’t ya’? What? Do they give ya’ a dime every time ya’ say the word? Hell, you’d be a rich, man, if they did.

Hoping to change the subject, Bud scowled, and squinted toward the stump shaped boy standing in the batter’s box.

—This guy Neiger’s been on a coupla times today.

—Aw, but the kid’s too slow in the field. No instincts.

Bud sat, slowly nodding his head.

The two gray-haired men shared a chuckle as Neiger immediately slapped a single up the middle, over second base.

Anxious to hear, Herb resumed his interrogation.

—So? What about the Angels?

With a profound sense of resignation, Bud sighed.

—Well, I’ve been in the organization fifteen years now, since the beginning, actually; they’ve always treated me real right. More’n I can say for the way the Pirates treated you, snatchin’ that Matt St. John kid away from you like that—then dumpin’ ya’. Man, that was cold!

Herb shivered at the point made.

—Aw the Pirates said they knew about that kid all along, y’know—that they’d been trackin’ him since junior high or some such horseshit. I don’t know if that’s the truth or not. There’s no arguin’ with the front office though, y’know?

Nodding at the familiar tale of men in the backwaters of professional baseball, Bud scanned the stands for any familiar faces. Herb was not finished.

—I followed him for his three years on varsity in high school and I never saw anybody else from the Pirates or any other team at the games. Maybe they were all sittin’ in their cars or somethin’. The Braves have been real straight with me though.

Distracted, grizzled old Bud caught a brief glimpse of an athletic looking middle-aged man, seated in the box directly behind him and Herb. The old fellow queried.

—Say. Aren’t you Plowman Granger?

The man indicated yes with a slight shrug, his sky blue eyes modestly averted toward his shoes.

—Hey, Herb, it’s Plowman Granger! I almost signed him to the Cards back in fifty-five. Signed with the Dodgers. You were up at the show a few times, right?

Herb craned around in his seat to better engage the man behind him. The crowd, comprised primarily of parents and Madison High students, drew a collective breath as Mak Poppin, the Senators’ catcher, was hit by a pitch—moving Neiger to second base.

Regarding the two old geezers benignly, Pierce Granger had become quite accustomed to telling the tale. It was almost as if he were talking about someone else. The emotion and disappointment had been wrung from his recollection many years earlier. He absently watched the game, replying.

—Yeah, after I got out of college, I signed with the Dodgers for a ten thousand dollar bonus, which was pretty good money in those days. It was sure the most I’d ever had to my name. I ended up in Spokane, with the old Pacific Coast League, for two-and-a-half years.

Leaning back, Pierce folded his arms behind his head.

—I started out as a third baseman. They converted me to left field. And I hit two eighty-seven with fifteen dingers, for Bobby Bragan at Spokane, when they called me up, mid-season fifty-nine. The Dodgers ended up winning the pennant that year, but I wasn’t eligible to play with the team against the White Sox in the series. I’d left my wife and daughter and the boys back in Spokane, so I was anxious to get back to them anyway.

He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder, eastward. Herb and Bud sat silent, reverent in their rapt attent to the Plowman.

—I rode the bench the whole time I was up that year.

Pierce gazed into the sky remotely, a coat of sixteen years wrapped securely around the memories he recounted.

—Walter Alston hardly ever spoke to me. Wally Moon was the regular left fielder—had a career season that year. All-star. Hitting those Moonshots over the leftfield screen. He was the man. Duke Snider was still in center with Carl Furillo spelling him in those days. And Ron Fairly was platooning with Chuck Essegian in right. They had Frank Howard, you remember Hondo, down in Spokane. He hit thirty homers or so that year and was playing right field.

Bud and Herb sat silently, hanging on Pierce’s every word.

—So I was never sure why they had me up there in the first place. It almost seemed to me like they wanted me out of circulation. I think I got up fifty-three times the rest of the summer. Hit two-twenty something, I think. I hit a couple over the screen on Little League fly balls. That was a real porch there.

Rob Conroy struck out on a tough curve. Bud ventured a notion.

—Y’know, they were probably were keepin’ you out of commission—to keep ya’ off the radar screen of the expansion teams, who was it? The Mets and the Astros—or what the hell were they called at first? The Colt Forty-Fives. The Colts. We saw that happen a lot with us and the Senators, in sixty-one when I was workin’ with the Angels. Some of the real prospects for some teams just seemed to sort of disappear.

Pierce raised his eyebrows in surprise at a theory he had never before heard proposed.

—Well, I was back down in Spokane in sixty and Frank Howard was up with the Dodgers full time—so they musta changed their mind about something. I played out the season in Spokane. They had me playing centerfield there, which was a little out of position for me. Hit two seventy-three and nineteen homers. And they brought me up for another look. They almost kept me after spring training in sixty-one, Duke and Carl Furrillo had retired by then and it looked pretty good for a while. But they ended up going with Willie Davis in center instead, and they sent me back down to Spokane. That was my third option, so I knew I’d probably be moving somewhere else.

Herb and Bud nodded at the familiar saga of a ballplayer just a step away from making it to the major leagues.

—It was the beginning of August when I ran into that wall. Bob Dipietro of the Beavers hit one out to deep left-center, out there, back when it was still called Multnomah Stadium.

Pierce gestured toward the high green wall in left and centerfields.

—And that was pretty much all she wrote. Broken bone in my neck. I was completely paralyzed for over a month. The doc told me to hang ‘em up—one wrong move and I’d be a quadraplegic for life. I couldn’t take that chance with Ingrid and the kids needing a dad and all. So, I hung ‘em up. I got my contractor’s license and I’ve been doing landscaping for the past ten years.

The Civic Stadium PA announcer broadcast the name of Bill Granger over the system, as the lean, lanky blond boy strode to the plate to bat. Herb concisely concluded.

—So, Bill and Dennis must be your boys, then.

Pierce smiled proudly, as Bill took the first pitch low and outside. Bud began his critique.

—That boy’s got a lot of ability. He’s got good range at short and he’s a helluva hitter. Kind of reminds me of Ronnie Hansen with the Orioles, back in your days, or Mark Belanger. Same height, tall. Same range and arm. You don’t see the taller shortstops that often. Marty Marion, when I was a kid, played with the Cards.

Bill swung and missed at a wicked slider, which bit hard into the dirt, low and outside, almost getting past North Eugene’s catcher.

—He’s taller and rangier than you were, Plowman. You mighta had more power to the opposite field.

Bill drove the next pitch on a line drive over the right-centerfield wall for a three-run home run and a nine-to-eight lead for the Senators.

—Well, if I had a hat I’d eat it. That just goes to show ya’, we don’t know jack shit about these kids.

Living out his son’s home run, Pierce rose to his feet—as Bill slowly circled the bases with a big toothy grin planted on his face. His teammates ran from the dugout to greet their hero, smacking him on the butt and haphazardly slapping his hands. Herb advised.

—That boy of yours has all the tools, Plowman. He could make it. He looks real good out there.

Saying nothing, Pierce instead grinned broadly in the direction of his son, who was being ushered back to the dugout by his teammates. Denny was the next hitter. He grounded sharply to second base on the first pitch. The three men sat back down in their seats. As the teams exchanged sides, Herb inquired.

—Y’know, Plowman, I always wondered how ya’ came by yer handle. I know they called ya’ that when you were a fullback at OSU, but how’d ya’ get it anyway?

Bemused by another question he had heard asked too many times, Pierce Granger replied

—Well, it’s kind of complex, actually. See, I grew up outside of Scio out there in hay country. My freshman year at OSU, me and my buddy Mark Kliewer were taking English lit and we had to read that old play, Piers Plowman. Then, during football practice, Mark started calling me Plowman. Everybody kinda thought that suited me—since I was a plowboy named Pierce, going to an agricultural college where I was fullback on the football team. It all seemed to fit, y’know?

The two old men stared at him numbly, having received far more of an explanation than they had anticipated, more than they could truly assimilate in the moment. Herb remarked.

—Well, I always wondered…

In the bottom of the ninth, pitcher Scott Skillings hit the first Emeralds batsman and walked the next on four pitches. Bill Granger called time and ran from his position at shortstop to Scott on the mound.

—Hey we’re out here too, Scotty. You don’t need to be aiming the ball. Make ‘em hit it. We’ll take care of the rest.

He gingerly spanked the pitcher and jogged back into position, chattering at his teammates with spirited shouts of encouragement. Bud observed.

—Like to see that in a young kid, calmin’ his pitcher down. Shows a lot of character.

Bud turned in his seat and smiled back at Pierce, who pretended not to hear.

Skillings tossed a quick strike to the next hitter. First baseman Dennis Granger called time and ran toward the mound, motioning catcher Mak Poppin to join the meeting with Skillings. Mak asked.

—What’s up?

—I think we can pick this guy off on first.

—Naw, Denny! Scotty’s move’s not that good!

—Not him, Doughboy! You can pick him off on a pitchout.

Poppin momentarily glared at Denny for invoking one of the two nicknames he hated most. Then his mind wandered back to the task at hand.

—Okay, Denny, we can try it, if you think it’ll work.

—I know it’ll work. That guy’s asleep comin’ back to the bag.

The three players returned to their positions, secure in the details of their plan. Skillings took his stretch, giving the runner on first a long look, before he delivered a fastball, wide of the plate.

With the pitch, Mak Poppin sprung up from his haunches, positioning himself as the ball approached. In one motion he caught the ball and whipped it to Denny at first. The runner saw the play too late to react, his feet frozen to the dirt by his surprise. Denny grabbed the ball and tagged-out the helpless runner. The Senators’ fans erupted into cheers and screams of appreciative anticipation. Two outs to go and the state championship would be theirs.

Buoyed by the turn of events, Skillings fired consecutive fastballs to the outside corner of the plate—for two quick called strikes. For the following pitch, Poppin called for a curve ball, low and on the outside corner. Skillings snapped off a treacherous pitch.

The Emeralds’ hitter swung wildly at the ball, as it skipped in the dirt, skidding past Mak’s backhanded stab. The ball continued rolling toward the backstop, as the hitter sprinted to first base on the dropped strike three. Mak ripped off his mask, tossing it behind him in disgust, as he ran to retrieve the errant pitch.

When at last he recovered the ball, he looked up to see Emeralds runners on first and third base—his teammates all looking down at their shoes, wearing discouraged frowns. He threw the ball back to Skillings and picked up his mask, knocking the dirt out of it with a hard smack against his shin guard. Dejectedly, he cried out.

—C’mon now, Scotty, double play and we’re outta here. Let’s get this guy.

Skillings delivered a wild toss, high and outside, nearly eluding Poppin. Mak nabbed the pitch with an awkward jerk of his arm and slung the ball back to his pitcher.

—Bear down now, Scotty. It only takes one pitch. ‘Mon now.

Mak squatted down behind the plate, flashing the signal for a curve ball. Skillings again hurled another sharp breaking pitch. The Emeralds hitter swung just as the ball sank into the dirt. This time, Poppin expertly blocked the pitch, keeping the loose ball in front of him, which prevented the base runners from advancing.

He snatched the ball up with a certain grim satisfaction, tinged with regret at not having handled the earlier situation as successfully. He flicked the ball back to his battery-mate and re-gathered himself into place.

He signaled for one more curve.

Skillings snapped off another with the same flair and dexterity as the previous pitches. But the ball did not break. It hung in the air, shoulder high, right over the middle of the plate.

The Eugene hitter reacted to the pitch as would a hungry snake to a disoriented mouse and uncoiled his bat toward the pitch with great ferocity, his entire body in motion behind the swing.

Bill did not even turn around as the ball sailed high over his head. He knew just by the sound of the contact that the ball was out of the park, that the Senators had lost. Dejectedly, he squinted into the stands toward the suddenly saddened face of his father.

Stunned, the Senators slowly walked from the field as the Eugene players gathered at home plate, chaotically celebrating as they awaited their hero, who was rounding third base in a slow, triumphant trot.

As the team left the field Denny was shouting.

—It’s all your fault, Doughboy, you dumbfuck. Catch that ball in the dirt and that’s us out there! Take a hard look, Doughboy. You screwed your whole fuckin’ team. Nice goin’!

Poppin’s cookie face crinkled in an anguished wince at Denny’s vicious words. Humiliated, he trudged toward the dugout. Third baseman Joe Neiger trotted past the disheartened catcher, smacking him on the back of the head with his mitt, muttering,

—Way to go, dipshit! I always knew you’d blow the big play someday, Doughboy. I knew it. I always knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.

Mak shook his head slowly. In the dugout, Denny and Joe continued to taunt the cowed and cowering catcher. Billy hopped down the dugout steps and threw his mitt at the bench.

—Hey, Denny, shut the fuck up! The team wins the game. The team loses it.

—Yeah, maybe so, but some losers can drag a whole team of innocent bystanders right down with ‘em.

Billy grabbed the front of his brother’s jersey, sneering.

—Shut the fuck up, Denny. He threw the guy out at first. He got on three times and scored twice—would have been three times if you would have driven him in. You’re the one who went oh-for-four.

Denny swatted his brother’s fist away from his jersey, tweaking the bill of his cap, knocking it from his head.

—Eat shit, Billy! You’re just pissed ‘cuz you lost your chance to be the big hero.

Denny swung to punch Billy in the arm. Billy intercepted, grabbing Denny by the wrist. He squeezed down hard and glared at Denny with a look of menace and authority.

Relaxing his arm, Denny pulled away from his brother’s grasp and stomped toward the other end of the dugout. Mak and Billy shrugged


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