Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Most Dangerous Pitch by BJ Neblett

The Most Dangerous Pitch
by BJ Neblett
© 2007

             Blood dripped onto the hard, cracked, sun dried earth, creating puddles of crimson mud. This was the first time I’d been hit and unable to complete a play. That’s what made me the maddest; that and the fact that we were ahead, winning. I was pitching a shutout into the fourth inning: no walks; a couple of strike outs. The nine guys behind me were doing a great job of handling the ball. And our opponents, a team made up of tough, young Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, were no slouches in the field.
            I was still standing when the first player reached me. I think it was Jose from the other team. He’d been on second base. Bent over, my blood pooling at my feet, I felt the comforting touch of his strong hand on my back.
            “Easy, take it easy.”
            My hand cradled my swollen right eye. It felt as if it would pop from its socket. Adrenalin still surged in my body as my good left eye desperately searched the infield around me. “Where’s the ball… where’s the damn ball?”
            Someone hollered to stop the play. “He’s hurt,” they shouted, “It’s a ground rule double.”
            A double, which would mean Jose would score. I cursed silently and then caught myself, asking for God’s forgiveness; and to save my sight. By now my eye throbbed, swollen shut, swelling to nearly the size of the softball that struck it.
            “Damn,” I repeated out loud as my team mates began to crowd around. Shock and concern showed through their troubled cries of, “Oh, God,” and “Wow!” Then again, head and face wounds do tend to bleed a lot. You’d have thought someone spilt a quart of red ink into the parched dirt just behind the pitcher’s mound.

             As a pitcher, you have an invisible target painted on your chest. You are fair game for every line shot, bouncing drive, and screaming grounder that burns its way up the middle. On the mound you have two responsibilities: pitch the ball, and get set. Or, better put, catch the ball without getting killed in the process. In baseball, you are sixty feet, six inches away from the batter, and raised ten inches. Softball plants you on the same plain as the hitter, some forty seven to fifty feet from home plate. And the extra feet can make all the difference, the difference between a hit and an out; between a bad bruise and a career ending injury.

            Baseball rookie for the Cleveland Indians, Herb Score led the American League in strike outs each of his first two seasons. In 1957, during a game against arch rival New York, Score was struck in the eye by a line drive off the bat of Yankee Gil McDouglas. His comeback lasted five frustrating seasons. But the one time overpowering pitcher never again posted a winning record.1
            While waving to a relative during warm ups at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, Julius ‘Moose’ Solters was struck in the face by a thrown ball. The veteran American League outfielder fought back from the injury, but it eventually caused him to go blind.2
            Being known as possibly the first and only person ever blinded during a softball game was not a distinction I was interested in carrying.

             No one intentionally tries to hit the pitcher. That would be stupid. Chances are you’d be thrown out at first; maybe out of the game if your intentions are known. It just happens, more often than many people realize. Hairline shin fractures, battered knee caps and dislocated fingers are a part of a pitcher’s life. I should have known better. I have the experience, and the scars, to prove my point.
           In slow pitch softball, after release, there is an easy two and a half to three seconds before the ball reaches the plate. There’s plenty of time for a hitter to adjust himself in the batter’s box, and more than enough time for the pitcher to get set. Freak accidents do happen. But there is no excuse for any player not to be ready.
            Getting sloppy on the mound can shorten your career considerably. A combination of recent victories, plus having avoided being seriously hit for some time, conspired to make me careless. Instead of watching the travel of the ball, estimating where the hit ball would travel, and getting set, I found myself remaining planted on the rubber, no better than a spectator, after the pitch.
            To compound matters, I’d been working on a new pitch. The past couple of weeks, while honing my curve ball, I discovered a sharp downward breaking ball. During batting practice, the new pitch proved devastating to right handed hitters, and frustrating for lefties. Cutting sharply inside and dropping with a wild spin, no one seemed to be able to strike the ball squarely. The best efforts of some of the most skillful hitters resulted in a bouncing hard grounder or a low line drive. A few were able to get the ball in the air. When they did, it usually went straight up for a short pop fly.
            Because of the propensity of even pull hitters to send the pitch back up the middle of the infield, I jokingly dubbed my new weapon my ‘come back pitch.’ During practice I threw out several surprised opponents at first base. My come back, often as not, came back right into my waiting glove.
            I worked on perfecting my new pitch. Slow pitch softball is far from an exact science. Tossing the oversized sphere at the proper height and arc, the ball falls victim to the slightest breeze. Sometimes you can make the wind work for you, bending an outside lob right into the face of an unsuspecting hitter, or cutting the edge of the plate. That is, if you are lucky. Otherwise, the best you can hope for is a corner plate strike. Knuckle balls, spinners and curve balls can also be used to thwart hitters, but are difficult to master. My ‘come back’ pitch had the added advantage of a fast, tight spin, making it extra difficult to place squarely on the bat.

             One of my heroes of the old time players is a pitcher for the hapless Washington Senators, nicked named ‘the Big Train.’ From around 1900 through the ‘20’s, Walter Johnson terrorized hitters with what most consider to be the fastest fast ball in the major leagues, then and since.
            How fast was Johnson’s fast ball?
            Consider Ray Chapman.
            Chapman once took first one, then a second blazing fast ball from the Big Train, Johnson. Stepping out of the batter’s box, the stunned hitter headed towards the dugout only to be reminded by the umpire he had another strike coming. Chapman continued on his way, calmly calling back over his shoulder, “Keep it. I don’t want it.”
            Perhaps the ill-fated Chapman should have taken the event as an omen. On October 10, 1920, while up at bat, Ray Chapman was struck and killed by a fast ball from pitcher Carl Mays.3

             We jumped out to a quick two run lead our first at bat. I managed to set down three of the four batters I faced in the bottom of the first, including a strike out. Our team went three up, three down, as did the opposition, in an uneventful second inning. We went up four to nothing with two more runs scored in the third off of left fielder Ron’s triple. The last of the third started off innocently enough with a routine pop fly. Then the bottom fell out. A single up the middle, a misplayed grounder followed by a line shot, and the bases were loaded. And the top of their lineup was coming to bat.
           It was time for some fancy arm work.
            It was time to try out the ‘come back.’
            The first pitch caught Alfredo, a good hitter, by surprise. Looking at first like it would fall short and outside, the ball veered sharply inside, slicing the edge of the plate. The look on his face was priceless.
            Ok… strike one…
            So far, so good...
            I gave him two junk pitches to think about, then another come back. It tipped off the edge of his bat and rolled harmlessly towards the mound, right to me. A quick throw home for the force and there were two outs.
            Franco wouldn’t be so easy. After a couple of called balls and a come back called strike, I gave him a sharply curving breaking pitch, thanks to a friendly cross breeze. He swung hard. But the backspin sent the ball straight up. It was caught by the catcher. Out number three and we were out of the inning. The come back had done its job.
            Our fourth inning produced a couple of hits but no runs. Then it was their turn again. And their three best sluggers were coming to bat.
            Jimmy is a strong pull hitter. He had managed a double and a triple off of me in other games. He wouldn’t bite on a short lob which fell ineffectually in front of the plate. My second pitch, a come back, he sent past me to my right. Our short stop bobbled the hard hit bouncing grounder, but managed to throw Jimmy out at first.
            Next was Jose, the team’s cleanup hitter and a threat to send one out anytime at bat. He’d gotten a deep dangerous fly off of me in the first inning which thankfully turned into a long out. I toyed with him best I could, giving him nothing to swing at until the count was three and two. Then he saw my come back. He not only saw it, but lined it like a rocket past me, the short stop and the infield for a double. My come back was earning its name. Those two shots should have told me something. They didn’t. I was still standing flat foot on the rubber.
            Bugara hits the ball probably as hard as humanly possible. His drives jump to the outfield before anyone has a chance to react. He once hit three tape measure homers over center field in three consecutive at bats in one game. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to foll around with him. Not with Jose at second and only one out. Even a sacrifice fly to the outfield would result in a run scoring. I took a deep breath, let it out, and tossed a come back.
            And it did…
            As best I can figure, the ball came off his bat and tipped off my glove in about half a second. That works out to something like 75 or 80 miles per hour.
            And there I stood.
            I raised my glove, but not quickly enough, not far enough.
            Victims of automobile accidents often report that at the moment of impact time seems to move in slow motion. I now understand what they experience. For one protracted fraction of a second time stood still. The din of the spectators faded to a distant thunder in my ears. My gloved hand crept skywards. It paused motionless in front of me about nose level. The dull white leather clad ball balanced precariously on the edge of the mitt’s webbing, frozen in space. One thought replayed in my mind over and over, like a stuck 45 RPM record: I’m not going to catch this.
            And then someone hit fast forward.
            The speeding projectile tipped off my glove, mercifully slowed slightly. It slammed into my face, catching the cheek bone and upper eye socket squarely with a brain jarring, sickening thud.

             I was helped off the field, still holding the bloody wad of tissue someone provided, against my eye brow. It is interesting and strange to note that I never experienced any major pain, especially considering the seriousness of the injury. At the time of the impact, I felt as if punched by a gloved boxer, more surprising than painful. After, a dull, achy throb and a feeling of pressure against the eye ball were the main discomforts. By morning, and for several weeks, the entire orbit around my right eye remained extremely tender, swollen and sore.
           It’s never a good sign when your attending physician grimaces at your injury. The swelling and discoloration were severe. For others it made looking at the damages more painful than the actual experience. After tolerating an hour of ice, the gash just below my eye brow was cleaned and stitched. A comprehensive exam commenced including x-rays and a lot of discomforting prodding and poking. The doc said keeping the badly swollen and bruised eye socket well iced may have helped saved my sight. I was released with anti-biotic and strict orders to keep my eye iced constantly for the next twenty four hours. Two days later an optimistic optometrist said he could find no permanent damage, thank God. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. He told me it would be weeks, maybe more, before the long term affects of such an injury could be determined.

             In the ‘60’s, Tony Conigliaro was well on his way to a hall of fame career. Joining the Boston Red Sox in 1964, in just a few seasons, the twenty two year old right fielder hit an amazing 104 home runs, running up 294 RBIs, with a .276 average.
            On August 18, 1967, Tony C came to bat in the fifth inning against California Angel’s pitcher Jack Hamilton. A fast ball, estimated near 100 MPH, struck Conigliaro in the left cheek bone. The impact shattered his eye socket and permanently damaged his left eye.
            Conigliaro was carried off the field on a stretcher. It wasn’t immediately known if he would survive the injury. Tony survived and returned to the Red Sox in 1969, moving to the Angel’s in 1971. After three disappointing seasons, it was evident the damage done on that August night on 1967 was too great, and he retired.
            Tony C suffered a massive heart attack and stroke in 1982 which left him in a vegetative state. The one time Cooperstown bound slugger passed away shortly after his 45th birthday in 1990.4

             Sunday, October 14th. It was too soon. I knew it was too soon. The days were growing short, the air chilly. Softball would be ending. I wasn’t about to spend the winter wondering how it would feel; wondering if I would pitch again; if I could pitch again.
           Outwardly, my eye was healing quickly. All that remained was some discoloration and a forming scar where the stitching of the ball cut me.
            But that was on the outside.
            The pressure on my eyeball subsided, returning from time to time. And my depth perception was nearly normal. At least that’s what I told myself. But I was starting to be bothered by sparks of light, flashes they are called, and they can be harbingers of more serious problems to come.
            Still, I was determined; stubborn.
            For the first time in my life, nervousness and doubt accompanied me to the mound. Doing my best to shake the feeling, I steeled up some counterfeit courage and took my warm up pitches.
            Not bad…
            Not good either…
            Then again, a four week layoff will rust up anybody’s arm. Even without a batter to face, I found myself purposely avoiding the pitch that had nearly blinded me. It’s too soon I rationalized. Just stick with the basics.
            It did little to easy my churning stomach.
            The first hitter of the game dug into the batter’s box. A familiar, reassuring voice reached me from left field. It was my friend Ron. “Give ‘em the old ‘come back,’ Billy!”
            And so I did.

1. Cahan, Richard and Jacob, Mark, The Game That Was, p. 230
2. Cahan, Richard and Jacob, Mark, The Game That Was, p. 231
3. Cahan, Richard and Jacob, Mark, The Game That Was, pp. 24, 138
4. David Eisenthal,



Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ice Cream Camelot Now Available!

My new historical memoir Ice Cream Camelot about my growing up during the Kennedy administration is now available as an Ebook through Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, etc. Brighton Publishing will be releasing it as a paperback in a few weeks. Thanks to everyone for their help and support, comments and encouragement. Watch this site for updates and for information about release parties and signings. Below is the Amazon write up for Ice Cream Camelot.

Disc jockey BJ “Billy James” Neblett reminisces about his boyhood in this Kennedy era memoir. Spanning the years 1961 to 1965, Neblett describes in vivid detail his first meaningful encounters with girls, alcohol, and rock ’n’ roll.
Billy Neblett enters fifth grade at St. Pius X Catholic Grade School at a disadvantage. He’s been held back a year, and everyone he knows has gone on to sixth grade. In the course of making new friends, his circle expands to include a hazel-eyed beauty named Amy—who will become Billy’s first crush.
As Neblett chronicles his coming of age, he addresses the changing political climate, exciting scientific achievements, and exploding impact of the new music genres of the early ’60s. From Kennedy to Khrushchev, from Sputnik to Friendship 7, from Buddy Holly to the Beatles, Neblett deftly interweaves his own story with the national and international scenes. In showing how personally the news affected the youth as well as the adults, Neblett draws the reader in to a more innocent time, and to an American society beginning to lose its naiveté.
Neblett pulls no punches about his own youthful struggles with substance abuse and his brushes with juvenile delinquency. He and his friends hold drinking parties that eventually escalate to drug use. An accident claims his best friend’s life, leaving Billy to not only feel survivor’s guilt, but to also question whether he was responsible. Another incident results in serious burns to several of his friends. Hot-wiring cars brings Billy an exhilarating sense of freedom—as well as the real fear of arrest and jail time. And Billy discovers the joys and agonies of young love in his first sexual encounters with girls.
Perhaps most telling, Neblett relates how the gift of a transistor radio and the early ’60s rise of rock ’n’ roll set him on the path that will define his life. He regularly cuts school to sit on the steps of his favorite radio station, WIBG or “Wibbage,” hoping to meet his idols—its on-air DJs. His persistent fascination turns into a legitimate internship at the famous Philadelphia station, and, encouraged by his mentors during the unpaid summer dream job, he learns to spin records himself.
Return to a simpler time, in the early days of JFK’s Camelot, the space race, and Bandstand, as seen through the eyes of a boy who later built a career across the U.S. as popular radio DJ Billy James.

Monday, March 11, 2013

George (Part Three)

George (Part Three)
by BJ Neblett
© 2009

            George thought and planned all week long, while resting on the torn leather of his abandoned Chrysler home, running over in his mind each step, each detail. The young people who populated the old blue house weren’t bad kids. Most were just misguided and misunderstood, distrustful of the world around them; giving into peer pressure, wanting to fit in, be accepted. It was up to George to help them anyway he could. He owed it to the lonely girl on the second floor.
            His mind made up, George exited the Chrysler, making his way through the maze of cars. The Mercedes sat alone, unattended. The evening was cool and dark and quiet, save for the din of the party. Slipping stealthily beneath the big sedan, George wedged his way forward. His target came in sight. He took a deep breath. The night disappeared around him. George smiled to himself. He reached out with the only tool available to him.
            George lashed out with all his strength.
            The neoprene brake hose stretched but didn’t give.
            He tried again…
            Again nothing…
            Holding as best he could, George wiggled the stubborn part: back and forth, back and forth. He batted at it fiercely: back and forth.
            An eternity later a small drop of fluid surfaced. George’s smile grew.
            He continued to wiggle and bat at the hose. A minute slit appeared. As he worked, the tear widened. Fluid now seeped slowly but steadily.
            Satisfied, George made his way back to the Chrysler. There was one more thing left to do.
            Next door to the old blue house was an auto body repair shop. George had discovered an opening in the back of the building. Sometimes on cold, windy nights he’d sleep on the hard cement floor, wrapped in a discarded pair of work overalls.
            Now George squeezed through the breach. His eyes quickly adjusted themselves to the dark. Ignoring his usual careful path when he visited the closed shop, George strode boldly through the building. There were small plastic devices tucked into two corners of the ceiling. A steel box on the wall ahead sported a round glowing green light. As George walked around, the green light blinked off. A bright red light next to it began to flash, screaming its urgent, silent warning. By the time George returned to the Chrysler, wailing sirens could be heard just blocks away.
            The party disbanded in a wild mass of scrambling bodies and screeching tires. As a police cruiser rounded the corner, the silver-grey Mercedes sedan shot out, nearly clipping the squad car. Seconds later, the pair sped up the deserted avenue.

            George lay curled up in the lap of the girl from the second floor, purring softly. She stroked his thick orange fur, as they sat on the comfortable sofa in the cozy rear apartment. It felt good to be clean, and full, and safe, and warm…
            …and loved...
            George looked up at the pretty, plain blonde, with soft, loving green eyes.
            From the TV, a mellow voiced announcer spoke of a high speed police chase which had ended with a violent crash, killing the three occupants of an expensive Mercedes sedan. One of the victims was a well known, high profile drug dealer.

                                                                                                Seattle, Washington
                                                                                                July, 2009

Sunday, March 3, 2013

George (Part Two)

George (Part Two)
by BJ Neblett
© 2009

            Another loud crash startled George. It came from within the yard and rattled the fragile wooden privacy fence. A cacophony of rising voices filled the night air. George could see most of the crowd was already gone. The remaining party goers had moved outside from the stuffy house. Now people were shouting and arguing. Through the gaps in the slats of the rotting fence, George saw his friend, the girl from the second floor, sitting in a corner.
            She was crying.
            “Get up!” a rough voice barked. “Get the hell up and do as you were told!”
            The girl looked up, wiping a tear. “Please, you know how I feel about…”
            Her words were cut off as a massive fist clamped around her thin bicep, viciously yanking her to her feet. “And you know I don’t give a shit! Now get inside!”
            The girl from the second floor was half dragged to the open rear door and shoved through. Her assailant spun around glowering at the small stunned audience. The man stood six foot two inches, and was sharply dressed in black, with heavy gold jewelry. The sleeves of his stiff collared shirt did little to conceal bulging muscles. They were the kind of muscles that result from illimitable hours in the weight pit, trying to relieve the mind numbing tedium of prison life.
            George recognized the burning malevolent sneer and cruel dark eyes. He knew the man, knew him well.
            One Sunday afternoon, while napping in the shade of a friendly tree, George felt the sting of a pointed shoe against his ribs. “Freakin’ worthless bum…”
            George jumped and found himself staring deep into a pair of dark, unforgiving eyes. The sight made George shiver. Since then, the unfriendly muscular man returned to the old blue house many times. He often traveled in the company of scary, serious looking men; scantily clad women, and obnoxious, vulgar music. George quickly learned to give him, and his companions, a wide berth.
            “Hey, man, take it easy. Chill out,” a strained, high pitched voice called.
            The muscular man took a threatening step forward. “You got a freakin’ problem, sonny?”
            There was no reply.
            He glanced around, dismissing the others with a curt wave of his arm and a harsh expletive. “You mama’s boys are polite enough when you want what I got, ain’t you?” He gestured with his head, beyond the wooden gate. “But out there, on the streets, you ass holes wouldn’t stop to piss on me if I were on fire.” Laughing out loud, he turned to his two buddies, “Self righteous bastards, with their college education and their yuppie attitudes. Yeah… but who’s driving the C-5 and flashin’ the bling, huh? C’mon… let’s blow.”
            The inimical trio burst through the wooden gate, climbed into the waiting Mercedes and were gone. George watched the remaining visitors file pass him, unaware of his presence, to their cars. The stunned residents wandered back into the old blue house in silence.
            With a sad heart, George glanced up. The light in the second floor rear apartment winked out.

            The following Friday it was business as usual at the old blue house. People had been arriving since sun down, and George heard talk of a big end of semester blow out. It was spring, school was over, and the people of the old blue house were ready to party hard. George knew that could mean trouble.
            Earlier in the week, he’d seen the girl from the second floor briefly as she emptied the trash. She looked sad and preoccupied. George tried to get her attention but she didn’t notice him. Despite the carefully applied make-up, he could see her bruised and swollen eye. Her right arm wore ugly purple rings from the steel grasp of the muscular man in the Mercedes.
            Around midnight the party was at full volume, bigger, louder and more rowdy than ever. It spilled into the small back yard and beyond the wooden gate, to the street. The girl from the second floor was nowhere to be found, the lights of her apartment dimmed. At one AM the silver-grey Mercedes sedan rolled up to the old blue house, discharging the muscular man and a pair of tough looking thugs. He carried with him a small leather case and was greeted with all the revelry of a celebrity.
            George knew what he had to do.

                                                                                    Seattle, WA
                                                                                    July, 2009