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I dropped the donut over the knob of my Louisville Slugger. Blowing out a puff of air, I gazed toward the mound. Octavio Duran was a junk ball specialist, it was unlikely I'd see a fastball.
"Hey Purvis!", a fan yelled from the stands. "How many fat pills did ya take to get that gut? How you gonna make it to first if you hit the dang ball, you're blockin' my view of the plate!"
I tried ignoring the tirade, but it reminded me of what my 6th grade classmates would hurl at me when I donned those polyester pajama uniforms. My LIttle League teams' colors were yellow and black, like the Pirates. When I pulled those things over my gut, even my mother told me I looked like an oversized bumble bee. That's where I got my nickname, "The Bumble." Dang thing has stuck. I also blamed it on the Christmas cartoon of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Yukon Cornelius tames the Abominable Snowman, leading him around on a leash, calling him "The Bumble." It seems the Abominable had a big gut too.
Just like the Abominable, I had a job. Yukon had said "Lookie what he can do!" before he handed The Bumble a Christmas star and Bumble put it atop the twenty foot tree in Santa's workshop.
My job was to hit. I was born lefty and I idolized Ken Griffey, Jr.. Junior had that natural inside out swoop that launched so many low fastballs into the stratosphere. I spent hours imitating that. I jawboned my brother, dad, uncle, or whoever was willing to throw me fastballs til I learned how to launch them into our backyard neighbor's pine trees.
So by my 2nd year of LIttle League, they called me The Bumble. The other team snickered seeing me waddling up to the plate, pulling on my polyester top, hoping that would hide my man-boobs. Then my teammates counted to three and shouted "Lookie what he can do!" Which got the opposing team laughing and so relaxed they would groove me a fastball. That's when they found out what I could do. If it was below the waist I'd launch it over the cyclone fence and into the windshields of their parent's cars. My team's parents knew better than to park there.
My blessed mother often said, there's two things my Salvator was put on this earth to do. One was to eat, which comes natural. The other is to hit a baseball, which some have said is the hardest thing to do in sports. I'm not disagreeing. Mom's cooking made it hard for me to put down the spoon, but when I did I usually had a bat in hand.
By high school most of the locals knew of my prowess for hitting the hardballs. We were in the North Shore district and Coach Heitman was pounding on my parent's front door early in August.
"I been 'round baseball for goin' on twenty years and I've seen a lot of players," he told my folks,"but I've not seen anybody that can pound a baseball the way your Sal can. He's got talent. But he's terribly out of shape, and that's gonna hold him back unless something happens. So he needs to go out for football, work his body out, and maybe come spring, if he can turn some of that fat into muscle we'll be able to find a spot on the team for him.``
Two weeks later football started. Coach Gunderson, the head guy sits us in the 98 degree gym while he tells us what a sorry bunch of clueless sad sacks we were and just exactly where, he wanted to know, did we get the idea we were good enough to represent the proud tradition of Jayhawks football? I wanted to raise my hand and reply: what part of last years 2-7, tied for last in the conference tradition were we unworthy to represent? But I wisely decided against that.
He then commanded us onto the blazing practice field. We ran in place and did belly flops, we were supposed to spring back up and continue to run until his whistle announced it was time to dive back onto our bellies. The spring in my arms and legs was not quick enough and so Gunderson strolled over to my space.
"Purvis!" he screamed, "I thought Bumble's bounced? Ain't that what that dude in the beard said? "Looks like he was lying, cause you sure ain't bouncin'; get to bouncin' back up or y'all is gonna run!"
Needless to say, we all ran til a couple of us fell down and spewed. That was the end of football for me. I didn't need overzealous dictators yelling in my ear about my bounceability. Heitman wasn't happy, but I figured as long as I was putting pitches into the parking lot, he wouldn't be too concerned about how quickly I bounced.
Despite the fact that I added an inch to my waistline between football and baseball, Heitman found a place for me on his varsity squad. They put me at first, figuring I would do less damage there. Most of the time my lack of speed didn't make much difference, I'd either strike out, walk or launch a moonshot.
I kept that up for three years. Heitman sometimes suggested I get a trainer, or join a gym. He mandated the weightroom three times a week. I was adverse to any fitness routine. I didn't mind taking swings in the cage, but not laps around the track.
By junior year I had scouts coming around. By then I was in a 3x custom made uni. A couple of D1 coaches suggested I was scholarship material but I needed to shed about 80 lbs before they'd get serious. I told them I'd give it a shot but toast for breakfast and rabbit food for lunch was not working for me. Until I found a diet where I could substitute Whoppers and fries for lettuce and cale I'd fail.
The extra lbs didn't negatively affect my swing. I was still mashing despite the additional poundage. Junior year I weighed in at 340, but I hit .540 with 16 dingers. By the next spring I was tipping the scales at 370, but stroked .565 and hit 19 out. Sure, I got thrown out at first from right field a few times, but typically I was putting it over their heads. Sometimes I'd even make it to second before they caught up to it.
Heitman stopped jawing about me losing weight and accepted the fact I was going to be big. He told people Babe Ruth wasn't exactly slim and he had a list of players that he'd tick off when people asked him about my weight- Gwynn, Sabathia, Wells, Kruk.
His jawing didn't get me a scholarship. I had scouts at about every game. Some of them clocked my time to first base with a stopwatch, others joked they should use an hourglass. I'd get calls from coaches, but they all said the same thing, I gotta do more than hit if I was gonna get their attention. That meant dropping close to a hundred pounds. They might as well have told me to grow a third arm.
By graduation I had no offers except the Juco that was twenty miles down the road. Hitting the books was not my favorite thing. I was a decent student, getting Bs and Cs mostly without ever cracking a cover. If I wasn't getting a D1 ride then college wasn't gonna be for me. Hernandez, the Juco coach, tried to convince me if I kept putting up the numbers , they'd eventually come calling. But I wasn't interested in that waiting game.
Eventually I convinced myself to give getting into shape a shot. I signed up for Weight Watchers and joined a gym. The trainer had me up at 6 a.m., jogging around the block before I downed my O.J. and toast and headed to the gym. There I did reps on the stations and then got on the treadmill. Ugh. It was torture. After my luncheon salad, I was jogging around the block again and then to the batting cages. After 3 days of this I was miserable. I gave up the cage sessions. After a week, the afternoon jog became too much. Then I dropped the treadmill and told myself it was the weights and the diet that counted.
That lasted another week. All that work and I lost two pounds. I stopped going to the gym and put cheeseburgers back on the menu. Hernandez stopped calling. It seemed my baseball days were over. I took a job as the night clerk at the local Holiday Inn. It was nothing to do and the vending machines within my field of vision constantly. By Christmas I'd put on another 25 lbs.
That's where I met Sheila. She was working day shift housekeeping. Her shift started an hour before mine ended. She wasn't gorgeous but she was cute and we were about the same age. She didn't have a lot to do that first hour, so we both had lots of time on our hands. She'd played softball in high school and was a huge baseball fan. We hit it off pretty quick.
That first hour we broke down the MLB and what was going on with the people we went to school with. One day she said she got a 55'' smart TV and invited me over for some lasagna and a ballgame. I couldn't pass that up. Turned out she's a pretty good cook, which added to the attraction. She invited me onto a love seat in front of the TV. I wasn't sure we were both gonna fit on it, but she squeezed in and there we sat hip-to-hip.
One thing led to another.I'll just say it was obvious she was interested in being more than friends. Me too. She told me right off the bat she was a Christian girl and we weren't going anywhere other than the living room that night. I was o.k. with that, having never really had a girl before, I was letting her take the lead.
So we made that a regular thing. She'd cook, I brought drinks, and we'd sit and watch her Cardinals and make out on the love seat afterward. It was a good thing for me, I think she liked it too. Before long Fall turned into Spring and we were still together.
In the meantime, they'd added a candy machine to the vending lineup in the lobby. Shelia found it harder to squeeze into the love seat. One day after she'd locked her arms together and knocked her knees tight , I looked over and noticed a tear running down her cheek.
Not being the most sensitive guy, I asked, "Hey, what's that about?" She popped up and moved across the room, flopped down and had a good cry while I sat there watching in silence.
Finally she looked up, red eyed and pouty faced. "Sal, I think I love you, but you're scaring me with this weight you're putin' on."
I held up my arms in surprise. " I didn't know it bothered ya."
"Well, I haven't told ya," she continued, "but you know I lost my dad when I was twelve. What I haven't said was that he was big like you, strong as an ox, but tender in the heart. He loved to eat and in the end it killed him. He had a stroke and lay in a coma for a month. It was awful, mom had to decide whether to turn off the machines, nearly killed her…"
I couldn't mouth a response. Shelia kept talking.
"Sal, you're young, but you aren't livin' healthy, since you gave up on baseball, you don't do much physical and your body's beginning to show it…I don't want to lose you, and I can't go through what I did with dad again! She buried her face in her hands and cried again.
I sat there tearing up too. I hadn't really thought about it, but I was falling in love with Sheila. If my size was scaring her, then I needed to do something about it.
That's how I overcame my hatred of workouts. The next day it was back to the trainer and the 6 a.m. jog. It wasn't any easier, but now I had a motivation, and a cheerleader to root me on. And she wasn't just a cheerleader. She threw to me every day. She had a slider that would break as well as most of the high school pitchers I'd faced.
By fall I was down 50 pounds and was getting buff. I wondered if the D1 teams that wouldn't look at me when I weighed 370 might take a look at a slimmer, buffed up me. I signed up for a couple of baseball showcases. At 330 I was still less than ideal. But I was still swatting big flies and now I was moving a lot better.
The D1 folks were still noncommittal because of my size. Coach Hernandez wasn't, he gave me what scholarship money he had and put me at first base. Shelia decided she'd try Juco too. So every weekday we'd commute twenty miles to Lakeside CC together. It turned out pretty well, I hit .454 and tied the team record for home runs. I only got thrown out from right field one time. Sheila made the softball team and ended the season starting. We got engaged that summer, planned on marrying as soon as we had the money. Life was good.
But it didn't stay that way. I was taken by terrible surprise when that fall, two weeks into the practice season, Shelia came running in from the outfield and told her coach she was having chest pains. Before she made it to the bench she'd collapsed and before the ambulance got there she was gone.
She was healthy and symptom free. Her doctors were baffled. I was in shock. She was my life partner, my inspiration. She was probably the reason I had avoided a heart attack. But she was gone.
After Sheila's death it wasn't hard to avoid food. For a year I didn't want to eat. I dropped another sixty pounds. Workouts were dedicated to her memory , my way of dealing with depression. I was in the gym 3-4 hours a day, turning most of my remaining fat into muscle. When I wasn't on the weights, I was in the cage, swatting fastballs, taking out my rage against the unfairness of life on the helpless cowhide.
That's been two years ago now. Eventually I started eating again and cut my workouts back to an hour or two. Somehow I found a way to not be so angry at the universe. Everybody thought it was good when I put thirty pounds back on. But in the meantime I impressed a couple of scouts and signed with the Pirates. I tore up High A and Triple A pitching and made the big club.
Duran started me out with a couple of lazy sliders that were low and off the plate. I wasn't interested. A drizzle was soaking Wrigley. The field was pretty wet. I dug in and he shook off a couple of signs. He was going to have to come to me, there were two guys on and he didn't want to load the bases.
He wound up and let go of a fastball, low and slightly inside, right in my wheelhouse. I slashed at it, sending a liner into right centerfield. The Cubbie center fielder chased it, leaping as he reached the warning track. But the ball didn't come down and his glove was six inches short. He slid into the mud of the track while the ball struck that S-curve in the wall where center becomes right. It shot like a cannon toward the right field corner. The right fielder, rushing over to back up, put the brakes on hard when he saw that and his feet went out from under him. He hit the turf sliding in the opposite direction. Seeing this, I realized there was nothing between me and an inside the park home run but the second baseman digging into the right field corner. By the time their second baseman picked up the ball, our other two had scored and I was rounding third. Coach was giving me the windmill, I was gasping for air, but I wasn't getting thrown out this time. I chugged home, his throw to the shortstop was on target, but when he turned to fire it home, the shortstop slipped and had to wind up a second time. That was all I needed. I crossed the plate standing up.
Later that night I was lying in bed watching the replay on Sports Center. I started thinking about Sheila. How I wouldn't be here without her and how much I missed her. I got all misty and started filtering through my memory, thinking about all the grief I'd taken about my size. I landed on that blazing hot football field back home my Freshman year.That coach riding me because I couldn't bounce up.
It struck me that he was wrong. I bounced. Bounced back from kids laughing at my body in the Little League. Bounced back from high school coaches thinking a big kid couldn't play ball. Bounced back from D1 coaches thinking I wasn't worth a second look because I couldn't run. Hardest of all , bounced back from losing the love of my life and turning the worst thing that ever happened to me into something I used for good.
"Make no mistake about it, Coach," I whispered to the memory of that sneering grimace, "Bumble's bounce."
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