Tuba City

by Joseph Scott Kierland

The road into the Navajo Nation runs circular through harsh open range. I'd been headed that way for hours, past clusters of mobile homes and modest ranch houses dotting the wide, stark landscape of chapparal and tumbleweed.

Signs of the modern world popped into view like rising bubbles. A McDonald's appeared, and then a Taco Bell, and I could see a Wells Fargo Bank tucked in among the large mounds of earth that stood like secluded sentinels on either side of the two lane blacktop. A hand-painted sign appeared advertising DINOSAUR TRACKS. It leaned precariously against the burned out shell of an old Ford pickup. Further on a smaller sign read, "GO WARRIORS," and then finally a highway sign came into view saying, Tuba City. A pale horse hung his head solemnly over an old wooden fence and stared out at me as I slowed down to let a pickup truck, filled with firewood, make a wide turn on a dirt road. The horse's eyes stayed with me as I passed and his steady gaze made me feel like an intruder that hadn't earned the right to see these simple things.

Usually these side trips ended with little accomplished except having done a favor for an old friend. The old friend in this case happened to be a man named Teddy Nighthorse who I'd met in Tucson years ago. I always associated Teddy with spring training and our love for baseball. We'd gotten into the habit of meeting in Tucson, at the end of a long winter, and making the rounds together. We'd usually run into each other at one of the morning batting practices. We'd lean against the mesh fence and watch the warm-weather ritual of men stepping into a crudely marked box to try and smash a speeding ball with one inch of a round bat.

As a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks my territory included southern California and an occasional trip up the coast to spy on the Giants. But there were months to go before spring training began so Teddy's sudden phone call surprised me. He'd asked me to come up and take a peek at a young pitcher, something he'd never done before, so I reluctantly agreed.

Looking at young prospects usually took place in the formal setting of a high school or college game. Baseball scouts showed up to study particular players in the faint hope that they'd be good enough to recruit. There'd be pages of statistics to go through before you arrived. Then you'd have to deal with the particular expectations of the young player and his coach. Isolated cases like Tuba City were less formal and usually you just encouraged the young player and then turned around and went home. So when I made the left on Moenave Street I had the feeling it would be just another turn around day.

I saw Teddy standing under the trees in the middle of the street. He waved me toward a dirt driveway and pointed to a parking place directly in front of a beatup dumpster. I began apologizing for being nearly an hour late but Teddy just smiled and said, "Did you bring the equipment?"

"Sure did," I said and opened the trunk to show him. The air had gotten colder, and the first thing I took out was my heavy leather jacket. A group of little Navajo boys surrounded us and stared into the trunk at my array of professional baseball equipment.

"This's just what we need," Teddy said as he picked up the catcher's equipment and opened a fresh box of baseballs. I reached in and grabbed one of the lighter bats and took my speed gun out of its leather case.

By the time I turned around Teddy had already started for the makeshift ball field behind us. I noticed how fit he looked for an older man. His straight white hair and leathery skin gave certain clues to his being somewhere in his sixties. Possibly early seventies. He moved slow and easy like an old cat and had probably been an athlete at one time. In all the years I'd known him we had never met outside the ballpark or talked about our past. I came out of the sandlots in the Bronx and Teddy had spent his life on an Indian reservation. That's all we knew about each other. We only talked about big league baseball and the approaching season. In fact, this was the first time I had ever ventured into what we both laughingly referred to as Teddy Country.

The group of nine-year-olds hung in close to us like a flock of colorful birds and helped Teddy carry the catcher's equipment to the broken-down backstop. On a signal from the old man one of the boys took off across Moenave Street and disappeared into a faded white building with a hand-painted sign over its front door that read First Presbyterian Church. I didn't know what the procedure would be but Teddy seemed to have everything under control.

"You did say the kid is left-handed...didn't you?" I asked while Teddy strapped on a chest protector and shin guards.

"Yeah, he's a southpaw and I'm waiting to see what he registers on that speed gun you brought," he said and punched the catcher's mitt.

I held out a shiny white baseball to see which dark-haired little kid would step up and throw the ball at him but they just giggled and backed away shyly.

"I sent one of the kids across the street to get him," Teddy said and I nodded as two of the boys picked up the box of baseballs and carried them out to the recently graded pitcher's mound. Teddy waddled over to the backstop to brush off homeplate and fill in the rain-rutted area around the batter's box with his cowboy boots. He seemed nervous and I could hear him telling the boys to stay out of the way.

I looked around at the few rows of stands, in need of paint, that ran the edge of the field along the baselines. I walked slowly across the infield and noticed a large patch of crab grass and weeds had been recently dug out and reseeded. I stepped around it, took out my measuring tape, and waved to one of the little boys to come over and hold the end of it at the top of the pitcher's mound while I slowly unravelled the sixty and a half feet to homeplate. I smiled over at Teddy still working on the batter's box and said, "This field may not look like much but it's got a perfect distance from the mound to homeplate."

"I didn't want the kid throwing the wrong distance so I measured and readjusted the whole thing," he said. "The height of the mound was a little trickier but I think we got that about right, too."

I rolled up the tape and glanced out at the school building behind the dumpsters. For the first time I noticed the windows were jammed with people. The left-handed kid had fans. The faces in the windows suddenly turned in unison to look at something through the leafless trees along Moenave Street, and I got a good look at the kid.

Large and lumbering and a bit overweight, he had a strong determination in his step as he headed directly for the backstop. His high cheekbones made his round face look even bigger, and a shock of black hair hung straight to his shoulders. He had on a bright red sweatshirt and blue jeans, and torn sneakers that were actually held together with pieces of string. Under his arm he carried an old, flat baseball glove that looked homemade and, as he went past the stands, he casually rubbed each boy's head for luck.

"This is Nick Costa. The man I told you about," Teddy said. When the kid extended his hand I could hardly grasp it all in mine. His handshake was gentle, almost weak, but his smile was big and strong. "This is Harold Bromley, the kid I wanted you to look at," Teddy said proudly from behind the catcher's mask.

"Everyone around here just calls me, Shoe," the kid said.

"That's short for Big Shoe," Teddy added.

"Shoe. That's just fine."

"I've already warmed up," he said.

"Great. Let's get started," I said and Teddy squatted down behind homeplate.

"How old are you?" I asked the kid as we walked out to the mound.

"Almost eighteen," he answered softly and bent over to take one of the new baseballs out of the box. I watched his every move to see if he had any kind of an injury or handicap, or might be physically compensating for anything, but he moved smoothly around the mound. He flipped the ball to the plate in an easy warm-up motion and when Teddy threw the ball back he caught it as if he'd been doing it his whole life. He threw in another pitch a little faster, and I watched his arm motion to see where he released the ball and where he ended up on the mound after the delivery.

"You gonna put the gun on my fast ball?" he said and smiled.

"Ever have that done before?"

"No," he said. "Should be fun."

I had never heard anyone refer to the speed gun as fun before. Usually you tried to hide the gun from a young kid or even a professional when their speed began to drop late in a game. Some of the big league ballparks had even begun to display the speed of each pitch on their scoreboards. That put more pressure on the pitcher and the batters. But this kid looked at the speed gun as fun. I liked his attitude.

It felt like a storm rolling in and I glanced up at the school building. The lights had been turned on making it easier to see the people watching us from the windows.

"Whenever you're ready just let me know," I said and pulled up the collar on my leather jacket.

"Guess I'm ready," the big kid said.

"Just relax and give me a straight fast ball."

"Want me to try an' hit the corner?" he said.

"Why not?" I said and set the speed gun.

The kid nodded at Teddy crouched behind the plate, and he gave him a target on the inside corner for a left-handed batter. The kid went into a short windup and came down hard off the mound. His arm came across his body like a whip, and I heard him grunt as he released the ball. It slammed into the catcher's mitt. When I looked down the gun read ninety-eight miles an hour. I got a chill just calculating what the kid might do with a good pair of shoes.

"What'd it read?" the kid asked.

"Oh, 'round ninety," I said.

"Did I really hit ninety?"

"Yeah, but you always want to be careful where you throw the ball. That's the important thing. You hung that one a little too far over the plate. You've got natural speed so you want to think about where you're throwing the ball rather than how fast."

The kid nodded slowly and said, "Yeah, I been working on location with Teddy. But it helps if I have a batter up there."

The kid definitely had the speed so I put down the gun. "I'll get up there for you," I said.

"Thanks," he said.

I walked slowly back down to where Teddy stood with the catcher's mitt and picked up a bat. "How fast did it read, Nick?" he asked.

` "Ninety-eight miles an hour," I said quietly.

"I knew it," he replied in a whisper.

I stood at the plate with the bat on my left shoulder and stared out at the kid. He looked big and impressive on the mound. Like a large truck with its doors open. I could feel Teddy crouch down along the inside corner just behind me. The big kid went into his windup and then exploded out of it. I picked up the ball about halfway down the chute and heard it smaaaack into the catcher's mitt. The pitch had good lateral movement on it and slammed in right under my hands across the inside corner.

Teddy flipped the ball back out to the kid and said, "That felt faster than the last one."

"How tall is he?" I asked.

"Almost six-five," Teddy said.

"And his weight?"

"That's a problem. Kid needs structure. A program. I can only do so much. Getting him to lay off the Big Macs and bend over and touch his toes is something else."

I nodded my understanding and looked out at the overweight kid on the mound in the red sweatshirt. Even with what I had just seen he'd be considered for some kind of a contract because we always looked for left-handers with speed. Throwing from the left side is preferred in the big leagues because the right field fences are usually shorter. With good speed and control it's that much harder to get around on the ball and pull it down the right field line into the stands. The kid also has the advantage of facing first base and keeping a runner close to the bag. That makes it harder to steal or even get a good lead. That means fewer stolen bases, more double plays, and less runs scored by the opposing team. The advantage of having a good left-handed pitcher out on the mound is enormous.

"Now I want you to throw the ball on the inside corner about knee-high with the same speed that you just gave me with the last one," I yelled out to him. Whether Shoe knew it or not I had asked for the pitch that either made the major league left-hander or broke him. The kid just smiled, went into his windup, and I tried to concentrate on when and where he released the ball. I never saw the ball until it got close to me and cut in at knee level along the inside corner. Then BAAAAMMM it hit the catcher's mitt.

"What kind of pitch did he throw?" I asked Teddy.

"A splitter."

"He got anything else?"

"I got him working on a fork ball but it's not ready."

"What about a change-up?"

"He's got one. But it needs work. He doesn't throw it with the same exact motion that he uses with the fast ball so a good hitter could read it and know it's coming."

"I'd still like to see it."

"Get ready," he said.

The kid took the sign from Teddy, and I watched him go into his windup. He came out of it with a slight hitch so I adjusted my swing and hit a screaming line drive down the right field line. The kid looked stunned as he watched the ball carom off the building out in right field. Three of the kids ran out to retrieve it.

"He's just got a different direction in his windup when he throws his change-up. He comes into it from further out on the mound," I said. "Just have him work on keeping that arm motion in tight and it'll make all the difference especially if he uses it with the splitter."

Teddy smiled and said, "Check."

"I can get one of the coaches to work with him. Show him how to throw a few different change-ups."

"That oughta help," Teddy said calmly.

"I'd like to see how he looks with a right-handed batter in there," I said. "Sometimes that kind of thing can be an enormous problem. I've even seen it break a good left-hander."

"This kid doesn't have that kind of problem," he said softly. I just stepped over homeplate and put the bat up on my right shoulder to see how he'd deal with me from the other side. He leaned forward and I could feel Teddy go into a crouch behind me.

Then the kid did something I had never seen in all my years in baseball. He flipped that weird homemade baseball glove onto his left hand and went into his windup from the other side. Before I realized what had happened he fired a knee-high pitch straight down the middle at about ninety-five miles an hour with his right arm.

"What the hell did that kid just do?" I said quietly to Teddy.

"I wanted you to see it rather than try and explain it," he said and flipped the ball back out to the mound.

"Does he have the same kind of control from both sides?"

"Yeah, but I think he's a little faster from the left."

"Let's see his splitter from the right side," I said in quiet shock. Teddy knelt down. The kid took the sign, went into his windup, and spun out of it in a red blur. I picked up the ball somewhere near homeplate and watched it hook sharply in under the narrow part of the bat and slaaaam into the catcher's mitt. The row of dark-haired kids in the stands cheered wildly.

"Put a jacket on him. We're finished for now," I said.

"Sure you've seen enough?"

"It's getting cold. I don't want him to tighten up. Besides, what else is there?"

"He's a pretty good fielder. Ain't a bad hitter either."

I held up my hands, smiled numbly at him, and he trotted out to tell the kid that he could go and get a hamburger or just head home. The tryout had ended. What I'd just seen could turn the game of baseball upside down and inside out. Take it up another notch. A pitcher like that could double his output of pitches per game simply by being able to throw the ball over ninety miles an hour with either arm, and also have an advantage over any switch-hitter. I didn't think there were any rules in the book to cover it. And at this point I didn't care.

I could see Teddy talking with him out on the mound before they headed back towards me. The kid stuck out his hand and I took it. "Thanks for coming, Mr. Costa," he said. "Nice meeting you."

"I'll be in touch," I said quietly, "but you'll probably have to come down to Phoenix for a few days, if that's all right?"

The kid didn't answer but Teddy nodded and said, "I made appointments with some other scouts, Nick." I must've looked surprised at what he said because he followed up quickly with, "I didn't know whether the powers down in Phoenix were open for a new pitcher like Shoe here."

"They're always open for left-handers with speed," I said, not mentioning the incredible fact that the kid threw from both sides.

"There's a storm coming in. You better put your jacket on before you tighten up," Teddy said, and the kid threw a halfhearted wave to the both of us and headed back across the street to the church.

"What scouts did you make appointments with?" I asked and tried not to sound annoyed.

"Tom Purvis and Steve Merton," Teddy said and looked away. Then he handed me the catcher's mask and said, "The kid doesn't think he did very well."

"He did fine. Better than fine."

"That line drive you hit made him think he failed the tryout."

"Did you tell him I knew his change-up was coming?"

"Yeah, but he didn't believe me."

"The young ones are like that," I said and tried to change the subject. "How big a foot does he really have?"

"Twelve...twelve and a half wide and still growing."

Teddy started to take off the catcher's gear and I said, "Tell him I'll set up a tryout for him down in Phoenix right away. I'm not sure the pitching coach is in town but I could get the owner to come out and take a look."

Teddy didn't answer. When he finished taking off the shin guards we started back across the infield together. I had never talked business with Teddy before and I felt uncomfortable. Things weren't the same in Tuba City as they were in Tucson. I didn't know what to say. Teddy's silence seemed to make the situation clear, and I couldn't help feeling betrayed by my old friend.

"I think this kid should be on the Arizona team," I said as casually as I could. "It's where he belongs."

"Because he's an Indian?" Teddy said.

I hesitated and then said, "No...because he's a Navajo."

Teddy smiled and looked at me with the same kind of suspicious stare that the pale horse had given me on the way in. I felt even more like the intruding outsider as I waited for his answer.

"I've gotta do what's right for the kid," he finally said.

I had to be careful of what I said. The tryout had been the shortest and fastest I ever conducted. Something told me that Teddy knew it'd go that way even before I got there. He'd dragged me all the way up to Tuba City just to put me into a bidding situation with the competition.

I opened the trunk of the car in silence. Teddy dropped in the catcher's equipment while one of the boys put back the box of baseballs. I repacked the speed gun, slid in the bat, and stood there for a long, uncertain moment in front of the open trunk. Teddy didn't look at me. When he started to close the trunk I stopped him and took out my checkbook. "The kid deserves a deal," I said, and quickly wrote out my personal check to Harold "Big Shoe" Bromley for two thousand dollars, and on the back of the check I wrote, "I knew your change-up was coming otherwise I wouldn't have gotten near it."

I handed the check to Teddy and said, "Cancel those appointments with Tom and Steve. I'll set up another tryout for the kid as fast as I can."

Teddy looked at my personal check and smiled at what I had written on the back. "I really never made those appointments with Tom and Steve," he said, but didn't crack his usual smile.

"Then why did you tell me that?" I asked.

"I needed to give the kid something. Something real. Something of value." He stopped talking and looked up at me. "This kid needs that," he said. "All these kids need that."

I began to understand what had just happened. I might be an outsider in Tuba City but Teddy was an outsider too. He'd always been the outsider. And for the first time I knew that was the look I'd seen in his eyes without ever realizing it.

I smiled at him and said, "Make sure the kid gets a new pair of sneakers and a baseball glove with some of that money." He nodded his understanding and I said, "But don't cash it until Thursday."

He laughed and seemed to relax. Then he waved my check in the air and said, "This'll make the kid happy. He can call himself a pro now."

"It'll make me happy too," I said and handed the Navajo kids the box of baseballs they had just put back into the trunk.

"You don't have to do that," Teddy said quietly.

I gave the kids a couple of bats to go with the balls and said, "Let's just say it's an investment for the future and leave it at that." The row of dark-haired boys looked up expectantly for Teddy's approval.

"I'm going to need your help with this kid Shoe," I said.

"I'm glad you understand that," he answered quietly.

I started to get into the car but then extended my hand, and it surprised Teddy because in all the years we had known each other we never shook hands. The big Navajo smile came across his chiseled face and he opened his arms and embraced me. For the first time I felt close to him. Like a friend.

"We'll see you in Phoenix," he said.

I started the car and the kids ran down Moenave Street behind me waving the bats and balls. I made the turn, headed out past the burned out pickup, and the "GO WARRIORS" sign. When I glanced into the rearview mirror I saw the pale horse nibbling contentedly on the sagebrush. If my luck held I'd make the low desert before the storm hit. ##

This story was first published in Playboy Magazine, Deptember 2003 and July Press Anthology 2004.