I stood before Coach Shover, melting under his uncomprehending glare. It was as if I had just asked him the capitol of the republic of Kyrgyzstan, which of course did not yet exist, this being 1975 and the U.S.S.R. still holding its vice-like grip over central Asia. Kind of like the one-handed claw grip I was expecting around the base of my neck in a few seconds.
“What?” he blurted.
“I can’t come to the game on Saturday,” I repeated. “Our band has a job in Mount Joy, and I can’t change it. We have a contract.”
He pondered my response, looking at the blackboard for guidance, his wiry physique and close-cut brown hair reminiscent of a wrestler or a wrangler. “Well, if you don’t come to the game, you’re off the team. All varsity players have to come to every game.”
“But I don’t start…”
“It doesn’t matter. This is a team, and you’re part of the team. If you’re not there, you’re off the team. That’s it.”
Trying to hide the sudden volcanic churning inside my gut, I replied as flatly as I could muster, “Then I guess I’m off the team.”
I abandoned further rebuttal and wandered lamely to my seat, stunned at the illogic of Coach’s decision. I never started, because the starting catcher, my classmate Mark McCauslin, was by far a better hitter. It’s not like they needed me. I was the back-up catcher, and it would always be that way, since Mark and I were in the same grade. The team would function without my half-inning contribution. And we were playing one of the better teams, like Shippensburg or Biglerville, or Northern, so I was working with a guaranteed bench spot. I don’t exactly remember which teams were good and who we were scheduled to play that particular spring Saturday. Our opponent was irrelevant. I had and would continue to spend most games perfecting my tobacco-spitting skills. Yes, it was a different time, when a 15-year-old could walk into Rea & Derick drug store and buy some Red Man or Mail Pouch, slap a big plug of tobacco in the cheek, and then proceed to get dizzy while running base paths, looking like a pro baseball player crossed with a chipmunk.
“No problem. I understand. It’s only one game.” That’s how I thought Coach Shover would have responded, calmly, rationally. But my request—just one Saturday—slammed those principles of team cohesiveness and singular commitment that ruled in Coach Shover’s mind, as they probably did in every coach’s mind. I don’t know…had not my total dedication to the Camp Hill Lions Varsity Baseball Team been thoroughly demonstrated in my faithful attendance to daily practices and my strong performance in the four and one-half innings spanning my Camp Hill baseball career so far? But this Saturday presented a conflict. My commitment to my bandmates Shea Quinn and Dave Hershey was unbreakable, as sacred as a Marine’s loyalty to his squad.
So, I figured my baseball career was finished. The next few days at practice were gloomy, knowing they were my last on the field. Through the waning week, Coach remained silent.
Yet the God of Tenth Grade Rock Stars, who must look like Bowie on the Aladdin Sane album cover--snow white tan, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo--came to my rescue. Or was it St. Woody, patron saint of us benchwarmers? At any rate, that fateful Saturday dawned humid and gray, and by late morning it had started pouring rain. By one o’clock, the game was in serious jeopardy. As we packed up gear in the drizzle before the Mount Joy job, Shea’s brother Shawn, a fellow member of the Tobacco Targetshooters Club, passed the band the word that the game had been postponed. Oddly, it cleared up for our gig. I felt extra hip that night, having repudiated baseball for rock…and forty dollars.
Monday rolled around with the regular routine and a nagging question: was I still a Lion? My varsity baseball limbo permeated the crawl of classes until Shover’s Social Studies at 2:05. Coach was stationed at his desk, reading something.
He looked up at me with a strangely placid gaze.
“I was wondering if I was still on the team, since we didn’t play.”
His Zen-like expression broke slightly, the trace of a smirk smearing slowly into an illuminated, all-knowing grin. He spoke with deliberate pleasure. “I have decided that, since it took about an hour for us to suit up and just to wait on the bus, that you can stay on the team, but you have to run a wind sprint for every minute late. Fair enough?” He was, after all, only invoking the standard punishment for tardiness to practice.
I thought it through. I calculated needlessly aloud, “That’s sixty wind sprints.” I spoke not in protest, but in honest relief.
That strange, self-illuminated smile was the only response.
“OK, thanks Coach.” But as I turned to my desk, the relief slowly gave way to a growing image of certain pain on the sixtieth wind sprint, and I understood the depth of that grin.
Yale Avenue was the artery leading from school to the practice field. It was the worn route of every fair weather team: baseball, football, field hockey. Many a gym class had also traveled that short, pleasant route to College Park, so named because the streets that dead-end at the field were named for various Ivys…Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton…even Dickenson, the famous Carlisle Ivy. That Monday, the crisp sidewalk crunch of fifteen pairs of metal cleats walking up Yale Avenue echoed off the neat houses lining the street. It was a beautiful spring day, sunny and clear, simply a great day for baseball, but not so great for running a ninety-foot base path sixty times. Really, there is never a good day to do sixty wind sprints. I calculated the distance as we marched along to the field: 5400 feet, a little more than a mile. Who can sprint for a mile?
As the rest of the team warmed up, I loaded up with some Mail Pouch, not a pinch, but a solid chew. I tossed my glove down and strolled to the grassy area along the first base line, trying to look nonchalant. For some reason I don’t recall, Chip Hoffmeister had also received the same punishment of sixty wind sprints. And as George Forbes would say, Chip was a “speedster,” so our pace would be, well, speedy.
We ran together, in front of the rest of the team, like sinful Pilgrims pilloried in the town square. In spite of the humiliation, our first ten or fifteen sprints were truly Olympic in form and speed, paralleling the first base line with geometric accuracy. Assistant Coach Stoner monitored our progress, but soon lost interest when he started hitting fly balls to the outfielders with his favorite fungo bat. At twenty-five sprints, it struck me that the nausea punctuating my shortness of breath might be due to the toxic effects of swallowed tobacco juice. I jettisoned the plug of tobacco like I was spitting out a monstrous watermelon seed.
But it was too late. By thirty or thirty-five sprints, our form had degenerated to a fast jog of maybe seventy feet. I stopped counting in earnest, distracted by the symptoms of ingested nicotine. Before the fifty level, I was dizzy and loudly humming the Beatle’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” straight off of the Sgt. Pepper’s album--somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly. I think by then I had kaleidoscope eyes, too.
Out of breath, Chip and I walked off the last few rounds. Nobody was paying any attention to us anyway, since practice had started. Sufficiently sweaty to at least evoke the image of sixty wind sprints, we stopped at the mutual estimation that we were at least close to sixty. Our penance done, we rejoined the team to no fanfare. I knew enough not to expect a welcome-back ceremony, but Coach Shover never even acknowledged the completion of the punishment. It was the level of attention a delinquent benchwarmer could expect.
I didn’t play for the team for the rest of my high school years, since I could visualize a career doomed to late inning substitutions in games where the Lions were either way ahead, or way behind. If Mark ever moved, I would reconsider. But that season, and through the intervention of the Gods of Rock, the Saints of Second String Athletes, and the Lords of the Tobacco Targetshooters Club, I learned a lesson that held true for the rest of my life: remain loyal to what you really want, and things will work out. And I was cured of chewing tobacco.