Danny Cohen had the inside dope. Danny worked in the ticket sales office at Comiskey Park and back in February was one of the first to find out that the White Sox were going to hold a free-agent try-out. "You could maybe make the team," he said. I had not told Danny about my baseball experience. It consisted of three Little League games 16 years ago. I had quit because I got too hungry standing out in left field.
"They're looking for speed and throwing," Danny said. "If they see you do those things well, they might let you hit." One more thing. They were looking for youth. Well, perhaps I could do something about my age—28.
On a Tuesday several weeks later I line up with the other hopefuls along 35th Street outside Comiskey Park. They seem to range in age from 16 to the early 30s. They have on a variety of softball shirts, sweat pants and caps, and one of the guys is decked out in an exact replica of the Houston Astros uniform, except that it has the words FAMILY KITCHEN across the chest. Several of the players are wearing batting helmets, pushed down hard on their heads. Periodically, they take ferocious swings with imaginary bats.
I look at the players behind me. "Well, fellows," I say, "what kind of shot you think we've got today?" They shrug and fidget. "I heard Dan Driessen of the Reds made it at a free-agent tryout," one of them says, looking dreamily off in the general direction of Cincinnati. "It's a long shot. But you never can tell."
At the check-in desk a woman asks my position and age. "Outfield," I say, pulling my cap low on my forehead. "Eighteen." She gives me a number without looking up. If I make the team and they wonder how 10 years have been shaved off my age, I can blame it on her. Inside the park I run into a gray-haired man in a spotless White Sox uniform. One of the scouts. "Excuse me, Coach," I say. "But do guys ever make it from these tryouts?" He looks somewhat startled. "Not from this area too much," he says.
"Didn't Dan Driessen make it at a free-agent tryout?"
"That's what I hear."
We both ponder this a moment.
"Well, you never can tell," I say.
"No, you can't," he says.
Out on the field the grass is flawless, the sky deep blue, the infield tan and smooth. The pitchers and catchers had tried out earlier in the day. There had been so many, someone says, that they filled the entire field when they spread out to show their stuff.
The outfielders, perhaps 100 of us, are led to the warning track and, three at a time, we do 40-yard dashes. I win my heat and figure I'm still in the running for batting practice. Next we are directed to right field, where we are to make our throws to the plate. Because I am practically the only person who brought along a ball, I agree to play catch. No. 203 decides to throw me a high one. Back, back. Way back. The ball lands in the 10th row of the bleachers. "Sorry," he says, hanging his head.
"All right!" says a scout. "Line up and throw home." Each player gets three fun-goes to field and peg to the plate. Some of the throws dribble to the infield but a couple of the aspirants throw almost like big-leaguers.
My turn comes. "Hit the cutoff man," yells the scout. The ball arcs toward me. "Charge it! Charge it!" he screams. I scoop up the ball, feel a nice surge of power transferring up from the grass and into my arm. I throw one that lands within an arm's reach of the cutoff man. "Put it on a line," says the scout, without pleasure. "Rifle it." On the next fungo I rear back and whip the ball as hard as I can, on a line—50 feet short of the cutoff. A new sensation hits my arm—pain. It feels as if a dozen cattle prods have been applied from my elbow to my shoulder socket. My next throw is a joke. My right arm hangs useless at my side, three feet of mush. Now I'm afraid I won't get to hit.
After the throwing, there is a surprise for us. "Everybody gets to hit today," says the scout, to restrained cheering. "You get five balls against Mike over there." He gestures to the pitching machine on the mound. "Not five swings, five balls. Don't take pitches. Hit the ball. Sting it."
The players eagerly step in to take their cuts. But Mike is temperamental. For a while he throws knuckleballs, and then he goes for a few heads. He strikes out the tall batters and plays chin music on the shorties. When No. 236 finally drills one into the left field stands, the entire assemblage applauds vigorously.
Catchers, holdovers from the morning session, step in to receive Mike's deliveries. The first catcher goes down in a heap after a low foul tip. A new one comes in, but after a dozen or so batters he also takes a dive and crawls out of the batting cage. When a third catcher is decked, Mike is allowed to hum his stuff unobstructed to the screen.
When my turn comes, I find I can't get around on the ball, fouling off each pitch. Just as I decide to choke up a bit the coach shouts, "Next!"
I head for the exit. "Think you made it?" asks a player in the tunnel. I shrug and say, "I don't think anybody could make it at one of these things."
"I hear Dan Driessen did," he says.
"Yeah, well, that's what I hear, too."
We stand for a moment, listening to Mike flatten another batter.
"But I hear they had live pitchers at Cincinnati," says the player.
"Oh," I say, feeling suddenly that this is the stuff we athletes are made of. "No wonder."