Ray of Sunshine
As soon as the ball left the bat, I thought it might be trouble; and not only because it was going to be tough to catch. I was worried because the person with the best chance to get it was Mitchell. Mitchell was a great centerfielder, one of the best in the league, when he wanted to be, when he actually cared about earning his 7.5 million a year. So I knew he could catch the ball, I was just worried he would choose not to.
When I saw Palmer talking to reporters a few days earlier, I knew it was a bad sign, especially after what he had said in Pittsburgh last week after another loss, that “certain players on the team might not be thinking about baseball as much as they should be.”
Of course he could have told the reporters that things would be worked out internally and that he was just frustrated after another shaky outing. But that wasn’t Gary Palmer’s style. So when one reporter from the News asked him to elaborate on his previous comments, he came right out and said it, just one sentence I knew was going to create problems: “I just hope Mitchell listened to what I said and we can move forward.”
This wasn’t the first time someone had an issue with Mitchell; he’d had run-ins with about half the team, including the coaching staff. I never really had a problem with him; being a rookie, I pretty much stayed out of his way.
The good news was that Raymond Mitchell or “Ray of Sunshine” as he recently began calling himself, rarely, if ever, followed the media coverage of the team and himself specifically. Several years ago when he was playing for Baltimore, he claimed he had been misquoted when he allegedly called his manager a “dumb fuck.” Since then he didn’t given interviews anymore. Plus, he was still upset about the bad reviews his two rap albums had gotten.
I actually thought the whole thing might blow over. Nobody liked losing and we were all a little on edge after losing eight of ten on the road trip.
How wrong I was.
No one knew who put the newspaper on the bench in front of his locker. At first I thought it was Pablo Martinez, our first baseman and Mitchell’s best friend on the team. But I quickly realized that Martinez was one of the most competitive guys on the team and wouldn’t do anything that might cause trouble.
Most people thought it was Mike Jacobs, the bench coach. Everyone knew he was gunning for the manager spot and maybe he thought a little strife would create a lot more losing and he’d get the nod to move up the bench.
The headline read “Palmer to ‘Sunshine’: Just Play Ball.” Overall, it wasn’t really the most incendiary headline, but it was enough.
“Hey, Palmer!” Mitchell yelled across the locker room when he saw it. “You got something to tell me?”
Palmer, who was getting his arm worked on by a trainer, looked up. “What are you talking about, Mitchell?”
“I’m talking about this! What the fuck is this?”
Palmer reached into a bag and pulled out a pair of glasses. He put the glasses on and squinted. “It looks like a newspaper to me.”
Mitchell threw the paper down and started walking towards him. Martinez quickly stepped in front of him.
“Easy there, Ray. Just take it easy. He probably didn’t mean anything by it, you know how these reporters can get, they’re always looking to stir things up.”
Mitchell looked over Martinez’ shoulder. “Is that true, Palmer, did they make this shit up?”
Palmer rolled his eyes. “I think that’s good, Greg,” he said to the trainer. “Unlike some people,” he said to Mitchell as he got up, “I don’t get misquoted.” He grabbed a bag and headed out to the field.
Mitchell made a sound like a growl and tried to get past Martinez. I once saw Martinez lift 400 pounds, so Mitchell wasn’t going anywhere.
“C’mon, Ray. Forget about it. We got a game to play.”
Mitchell glared after Palmer but after a moment reluctantly went back to his locker.
The rest of the day Palmer and Mitchell avoided each other. Palmer wasn’t scheduled to pitch until the next day so he stayed in the bullpen most of the game.
It was our first home game in a while and we won, thank God, or more specifically, thank that three run bomb by Martinez in the eighth. It felt so good to finally win one; everyone was relaxed and happy for a change.
It didn’t last long.
The next day Mitchell arrived to the clubhouse a couple hours before the game, an hour after everyone else had gotten there of course. He was smiling broadly and the silver chain around his neck with the large diamond-covered dollar sign was swinging as he headed for his locker. A four for five game was certainly great for the ego.
“Hey, Pablo! What’s happening?!” He tossed his bag down. “Hey, Walker,” he said to me, “how’s it hanging?!”
Everyone smiled as he went around talking and joking. We all could breathe a little easier when Mitchell was in a good mood. Unfortunately, as it often did, that mood changed quickly.
“Hey, Palmer, you get a good look at that double I hit in the third?”
Palmer was sitting in front of his locker reading Newsweek, his customary ritual before he pitched. “Yup,” he said, not looking up from the magazine.
“How about that triple in the sixth?”
“I saw that too.”
“You gonna stop bad-mouthin’ me to the papers now?”
He said it with a smile but everyone in the area stopped what they were doing and looked at him.
Palmer looked up. “It was just one game, Ray.”
Mitchell’s smile disappeared instantly. This time Martinez didn’t react fast enough and in a flash Mitchell was across the room. He tackled Palmer in his chair and they both went flying into some empty lockers.
Thankfully most of Mitchell’s wild punches missed and he was quickly pulled off by Martinez and the catcher, Cliff Bulger.
“What the hell is going on in here?!”
We all turned to see our manager, 85-year-old Joe Williams standing in his office doorway. He slowly walked over to the group.
“Palmer what happened to you?” he asked, pointing to a cut on his head.
Palmer glanced at Mitchell. “Just an accident, Joe.”
“An accident huh?” He looked around at all of us. “Well, let’s not have anymore accidents, okay? Now that we’ve actually won a game, we don’t need anybody getting hurt. Everybody out on the field for BP.” He shuffled back to his office.
Gary straightened his uniform and headed for the field.
“Hey, Palmer,” Mitchell called after him. “Watch your back. Next time there might not be so many people around.”
Gary felt no ill effects from the scuffle and he threw a one-two-three first. While we batted, he and Mitchell stayed as far away from each other in the dugout as they could get.
Mitchell was having another nice day — he had two hits in his first two at-bats. But the story of the game was Palmer. He might have been the ace of our staff but overall he was kind of a mediocre pitcher and his best years were probably behind him. But occasionally he’d throw a gem. And today was one of those days.
He pitched another one-two-three first, and then another one in the third. Bulger told me he got up to 96 — about 5 mph more than usual — on the last one he threw that inning.
When I looked up at the scoreboard after the sixth inning, I was surprised to see that in the Hits column over our “6” was “0”. I knew Palmer hadn’t walked anyone and there hadn’t been any errors. He was pitching a perfect game.
Baseball players by nature are a superstitious bunch. I roomed with a guy in the minors who believed that his bowel movements corresponded with his success that day. The bigger the deposit, the better day he’d have, he reasoned. Needless to say, he ate a lot of Taco Bell that season.
But no one on a team is more superstitious than a pitcher. I noticed between innings that Palmer made sure to step on the same steps going in and out of the dugout. He also sat in the same spot he had been sitting from the first inning.
Of course no one was talking about it; you’d have to be a fool to mention a no-hitter or perfect game when it was happening. And we all gave him plenty of space in the dugout.
Palmer pitched another flawless seventh and, after shortstop Eddie Rojas made a great play on a liner up the middle, a perfect eighth.
By then the crowd was aware of what was happening and the buzz was tangible. When we took the field in the ninth with a four-run lead, the crowd erupted. I glanced at Palmer as I ran past him into leftfield. Even though he was pitching the game of his career, the game of his life even, he looked completely calm.
He got the first batter on a called strike three. The second batter hit a pop-up to Martinez at first. The noise from the crowd was deafening, I couldn’t remember the last time it had been this loud. I started cheering Palmer on but couldn’t even hear myself.
The next batter stepped in and looked at a strike. He fouled off the next one. Everyone in the crowd rose to their feet.
Palmer wound up and delivered. It was high and inside—it looked like it got away from him a little. The batter took a big swing and hit a drive to left-center. I saw Mitchell glance at the ball but he didn’t move. That’s when I got worried.
Did I really think he would intentionally misplay the ball so Palmer wouldn’t get his perfect game? Well, I wasn’t certain either way so I immediately started sprinting towards center.
The ball wasn’t hit hard enough to get out and it was definitely playable. I wasn’t quite sure I could get there in time but I knew I had to try. By then Mitchell had started jogging to his right in his typical nonchalant fashion.
I tried calling him off but it was way too loud. Just as the ball arrived, we collided; Mitchell’s shoulder smashed into the side of my head. I felt the ball bounce off the heel of my glove as we both fell to the ground.
I was a little dazed but quickly scrambled to my knees. The ball was still in the air and I tried to dive for it, but was too far away. Suddenly, just as it was about to hit the ground, Mitchell stuck out his bare left hand and the ball dropped into it. He bobbled it for a second but then squeezed it tightly.
The umpire running towards us saw the ball in Mitchell’s hand and declared an out and the game over. There was a huge roar from the crowd. Mitchell quickly stood up and, with a big smile on his face, proudly held up the ball.
I was a little stunned as we ran towards the infield. I tried to say something to Mitchell but he was too busy waving to the crowd. Palmer was waiting by second base. When Mitchell approached, Palmer held out his hand. Mitchell handed him the ball. Palmer took it, stared at it for a second, and then threw his arms around him. Mitchell looked surprised but hugged him back. Suddenly Martinez howled and tackled both of them. The rest of us jumped on the pile.
After the game and our locker room celebration, Mitchell did something he hadn’t done in years: he talked to the media. Once Palmer was done with his brief comments, Mitchell talked at length about the catch and how special it was. He said he had no more hard feelings for any teammates and wanted to stay on the team for the rest of his career. He said he was tired of doing other things and just wanted to focus on baseball.
The front page of every paper the next day had the photo of him making the catch. Later, the same picture was used on the cover of his video game and on the posters for his new reality show.
And, from what he said at his press conference a few months later, that catch really helped him get his new $60 million contract, which he signed with another team.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED