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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006 10:09 am

Odd man out

Once upon a time, "different" people were allowed to roam free

Not many “different” people out-and-about anymore. By alternating acts of charity and intolerance, we herd odd folks into more palatable definitions. I’m not sure where they put the odd people who decide not to go along. Rehab centers? Jail? Asylums hidden behind names such as Meadow Brook and Garden Terrace? Doesn’t matter I suppose, as long as the odd people aren’t public.

But once upon a time long ago, in small towns everywhere, different people were allowed to roam free.

Pete and Jim were odd. They delivered ice from a wagon, until the refrigerators came — and then they lived by picking up street garbage. One of ’em was a horse. Pete and Jim gave Eleem Gatnob a wagon ride to school on cold days because school buses only traveled on roads and the Gatnob family’s windowless house trailer was way “out back,” where roads didn’t want to go.

Knuckles Kloof was odd. He was the town drunk from October though March — he’d stand on a wooden box and cast spells at passing cars. Every April, like swallows to Capistrano, he’d be born again and preach fire-and-brimstone sermons from atop his box — when he wasn’t coaching Little League baseball. Come October, when ball season was over, he’d return to the drink.

Eleem played right field next to my center field 55 years ago. He was odd then; he’s odd still. He’s locked up in his own basement until he wants to be normal. He’s locked there of his own accord, and I doubt he’ll he ever come out. He’s rich now — he invented water in plastic bottles in 1983 and then hurried to his basement.

Eleem was a lousy right-fielder.

But they elected him to our hometown’s Sports Hall of Fame anyway, in the hopes that he’d make a substantial donation and the next year they could hold the induction ceremony in Hawaii. A speech was in order, but, because Eleem was locked in his basement, he asked me to deliver it.

It read:

Pete and Jim, one being horse, the other being man.
The wagon they shared had no name.

Pete and Jim, street warriors.
Picking up road garbage
taking it to the town dump —
a dollar a wagonful.

And when finally the old man died,
they knew not if he was the Pete of it
or the Jim of it.

So they killed the horse,
buried them together in common ground
and carved the headstone.

Pete and Jim — faithful servant.

The speech wouldn’t do; I put it aside and substituted:

I want 110 percent from you men. Give yourself up for the team. Advance the runner! There’s no “I” in “team.” Ya gotta want it more than they want it. Don’t beat yourselves. Speed counts, but you can’t steal first base. Let’s beat ’em like a redheaded stepchild, like a rented mule, then stick a fork in ’em — they’re done!

Use your head! The game is played 90 percent from the neck up! It ain’t over till it’s over! Back up every throw! See the cutoff man! Make ’em play our game! Guard them lines! Look ’em over! Take a strike! Talk to each other! No rabbit ears! Miss a sign, you ride the pine! Get the lead runner!

Ya gotta catch it before you throw it! You got two hands — use ’em! One game at a time! Run ’em out! Assume nothing — it’s yours till it ain’t yours! Know what to do with it before you get it! Errors, like hits and runs, are part of the game! Never make the first or third out at third base!

Stick to basics! Hit ’em where they ain’t! The game’s played between the chalk lines! Make contact! Keep it in play! A walk is as good as a hit! Play the ball — don’t let it play you!

And you pitchers: Keep it in the strike zone, but don’t give ’em nothin’ good to hit! Be ahead in the count! Play some chin music; keep ’em loose. Be a winner! Hustle in, hustle out!

It was the speech Knuckles gave to start each season. It said everything necessary, so there was no reason for Knuckles to speak again during the rest of the season — and he didn’t. He saved his words to cast spells — in October.

The speech was well received, until they noted that there was no donation dangling off its end; consequently, it was unanimously remembered that Eleem Gatnob was a lousy right-fielder and therefore not Hall of Fame material. Odd man out.

I told Eleem the complete story the next day. He showed no emotion and asked only, “Did they pay money to drink water out of plastic bottles?”

But he didn’t hear my answer; he was busy at his workbench, inventing sunlight in a box.

Odd?

Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net.

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