Down & Away

Tony Rehagen:

It’s the top of the first inning, and Leo Mazzone is already rocking.

Each croak of the springs in Mazzone’s brown leather recliner is punctuated by a knock in the wooden frame, like an old screen door blowing open and shut.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Watching the Braves play the Marlins on the 60-inch flat-screen in the den of his home on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, Mazzone isn’t conscious of the nervous back-and-forth tick that became his accidental trademark during four decades in the dugout. He is focused instead on the mound and Miami right-hander Tom Koehler, who leans in against Atlanta leadoff man Jace Peterson.

First pitch: Fastball down and away. Called strike one.

“Perfect pitch,” says Mazzone. “Aimed for the catcher’s crotch, and he got it there.”

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Fastball at the knees. Strike two.

Creeeak-clack. Creeeak-clack.

Curveball inside. Ball one.

The pace of the rocking quickens. Creak-clack-creak-clack-creak-clack. The old pitching coach has spotted something. “Changed his arm slot,” he says. “Tried to overpower him.”

If there is one thing about the game today that will wear out Mazzone’s lounger, it’s the increased emphasis on power in pitching. He’s worked with 12-year-olds, who compete against the radar gun as much as the batter, and tried to get through to high school and college hurlers who’ve been taught that a scholarship or professional contract depends more on M-P-H than E-R-A. In the pros, speed is fetishized by teams and fans alike, the reading on each pitch displayed right alongside the score in the corner of the TV, a CG flame occasionally flaring up when a fastball reaches the high-90s or low-100s.

It makes for great entertainment, sure, but Mazzone says it also leads to pitchers becoming erratic and missing location. More importantly, their release is not as smooth, increasing the risk of arm injury. Mazzone believes the modern game’s infatuation with velocity is one of, if not the primary reason for the recent plague of Tommy John elbow-ligament replacement surgeries. “Now everybody seems to be getting a pass on all the sore arms,” he says. “I don’t get it. If we’d have had all the breakdowns that are happening now, there would have been a lot of pitching coaches fired.”

Lives On

Wright Thompson: CLAUDIA WILLIAMS FOUND comfort wearing her dad’s favorite red flannel shirt. It smelled like him. Time frayed the threads, pulled apart seams, and years ago the shirt went into a safe. She keeps many things locked away. In a closet next to her garage, her father’s Orvis 8.3-foot, 7-weight graphite fly rod leans on a wall. His flies are safe too, and she can see his hands in the bend of the knots. She feels closest to him fishing but has been only once or twice since he died. Nearby, pocketknives rust at their hinges. His old leather suitcase is there too, in its final resting place after years of trains, ballparks and hotel rooms.

Her husband, Eric Abel, comes home from running errands. He’d been through the safes and the storage unit they keep filled to its 10-foot ceiling, hunting for the flannel shirt. She is laughing in the kitchen, a lazy Sunday morning. Eric takes a breath and enters the room. “First of all, Claudia,” he says slowly, “let me apologize; I don’t know what we’ve done with that shirt.”

Suddenly quiet and hiding now, she says, “I don’t wanna think about it,” as one more piece of her father slips away.


Mitch Ryals: Chuck Lawrence is breaking Rule No. 1: Don’t get too drunk.

You can’t really blame him. He’s been sleeping under a bridge in Missoula, a second coat wrapped around him like a blanket. Under his head is a backpack with all his worldly possessions: ramen noodles, a pocket knife, an old watch, a weed pipe, a can opener, bottled water and copies of his birth certificate and Social Security card. He’s come to Montana looking for work, hoping to earn a quick buck to buy a proper bus ticket home to Minnesota. At 39, he’s tired of this life, hitchhiking and hopping trains, town to town, circling the country counterclockwise for the past 20 years.

“The hell with this,” he tells himself. “I’m goin’ home.”

He buys a bottle of Skol vodka at a corner store. Vodka’s not usually his drink — he prefers beer — but it’s going to be a long haul home, and vodka lasts longer. He takes a pull from the bottle and waits in the shadows of the Missoula train yard. He scans the tracks for rail cops, known by train hoppers simply as “bulls.” Gusts of wind whip at his scruffy face as the sun dips below the horizon. When his train finally pulls in hours later, it’s already too late: He’s half shitfaced.

Chuck staggers toward the hulking steel box, as he’s done countless times before, and hoists himself onto a grain car near the front of the train — his second mistake. He settles in for the ride with the twang of country music beating through his earbuds. The train kicks to life with a jerk, and he’s on his way. Or so he thinks. Unbeknownst to Chuck, this particular train is headed west to Spokane.

He finishes the last of the vodka and shoves the empty bottle into his pack. Propped against an inside wall, he snuggles into his Carhartt jacket and pulls his stocking cap low. He drifts off to the train’s hypnotic rumble. Things will be better in the morning.

Suddenly, he’s jolted awake.

Braking hard just east of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe yard in Spokane Valley, the train flings Chuck, face first, toward the tracks below. His backpack explodes against the ground as he lands with a thud. His left leg doesn’t clear the track.

Like a dull table saw, the train rips off his leg just above the knee. It’s quick, but it isn’t clean. Blood spurts from his mangled stump as Chuck writhes on the ground, screaming. Rolling on rock and in his own blood, Chuck’s mind flutters in and out of darkness as he peers down at his nub, the wrong train continuing west without him.

Contest: Best Newspaper Narratives

From George Getschow at UNT:

Have you submitted your narrative to Mayborn’s third annual The Best American Newspaper Narrative writing contest?

In an effort to foster narrative nonfiction storytelling, The Dallas Morning News and The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference are inviting submissions of the best narrative nonfiction published in a daily U.S. newspaper or a U.S. newspaper website in 2014. I hope you’ll be submitting what you consider your best narrative to this year’s contest. Deadline is June 1.

Writers and editors can submit one to five narratives, including narratives that are part of a series. The Best American Newspaper Writing Contest jurors will select three winners and three runners-up. Jurors will weigh everything from the originality of the idea to the strength of the storytelling to the quality of the research.

Our first place winner will receive $5,000 and free registration to attend the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference July 17-19, 2015 in Grapevine, Texas; our second place winner will receive $2,000; and our third place winner will receive $1,000

For information and to register, to go:

The three winning narratives, along with the runners-up and notable narratives, will be published by the University of North Texas Press/Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism in both a print and e-book called The Best American Newspaper Narratives, Vol. 3  

 UNT Press will release Best American Newspaper Narratives, Vol. 2, June 2015.

The Ghosts I Run With

Matt Tullis: “Creech.”

The name escaped my lips somewhere in the third mile of a five-mile run. It was a name I had been trying to think of, off-and-on, for the better part of a decade, the last name of my nurse Janet from Viking Street in Orrville, Ohio.

Janet brought me sausage biscuits from McDonald’s just about every morning because it was the only thing I would eat. She was typically my nurse on first shift. She had short brown hair and was about the same age as my mom, and so she felt very motherly to me.

Those things I could remember, but not her last name. Until now.

She died sometime after my initial 70-day residency at Akron Children’s Hospital, which started on Jan. 3, 1991, but during my more than two years of chemotherapy and radiation as an outpatient, time spent eradicating all the leukemic cells in my 15-to-17-year-old body. She died of cancer after years of caring for kids with cancer.

Surviving A Hike

Kevin Koczwara: A sense of dread has hung over Jason Spare’s life.

Spare’s father was 33 years old when he had his first heart attack. It almost killed him. Spare’s mother had breast cancer and complications related to the chemotherapy haunted her. They both died in their late 50s.

“I always had in the back of my mind a sense of mortality and urgency in life from being in that kind of situation so early on,” Spare says.

Spare, 46, looks worried. He’s digging through his stuff and reorganizing his backpack on the cold concrete floor of an ancient feeling ski lodge. He’s getting ready for what will be the hardest thing he has ever done: a 50-mile, 36-hour hike through the wilderness of Vermont in the middle of January. The hike, which will follow the Long Trail over the state’s highest mountains, is called Extremus.

The Rookie And The Zetas

Joe Tone: It was a matter of seconds, closer to six than seven, before what was happening became obvious, the colt masked in pink kicking up clouds of red on its way into the lead. It was late November, 2009. This race, the Texas Classic Futurity, was among the last of the year at Lone Star Park, the last chance to watch the 2-year-olds run. The last chance at a payday: $1.1 million up for grabs, a half million to the winning owner.

All eyes were on that horse in pink. The muscular sorrel colt, with a white racing stripe tracing the bridge of its nose, had first edged into the lead several weeks earlier, catching many in the crowd off guard. It had never raced in the United States, let alone placed. But it won that first race, and the next, and the next, and by the time it burst from the gates of the Classic, it was the odds-on favorite.

“Tempting Dash has been invincible!” the announcer bellowed as the horse cruised to the finish line, winning by three lengths and breaking its own track record. “Untouchable!”

Tempting Dash bounced along the track, 4-0, a future lucrative stud preening for his eventual suitors. Down in the winner’s circle, a family gathered around the horse’s owner, which only fueled the bleacher chatter. When the horse had first raced that fall, it was owned by a guy well known in racing circles. But since then it had been quietly sold to José Treviño Morales, the stocky, jocular man who was down there with Tempting Dash.

A few of the old-timers were suspicious. But for the most part, they just didn’t know anything about Treviño. He was, to them, like Tempting Dash a few weeks earlier, a mysterious newcomer, totally unknown but coming on fast.

Before I Go

Paul Kalanithi: In residency, there’s a saying: The days are long, but the years are short. In neurosurgical training, the day usually began a little before 6 a.m., and lasted until the operating was done, which depended, in part, on how quick you were in the OR.

A resident’s surgical skill is judged by his technique and his speed. You can’t be sloppy and you can’t be slow. From your first wound closure onward, spend too much time being precise and the scrub tech will announce, “Looks like we’ve got a plastic surgeon on our hands!” Or say: “I get your strategy — by the time you finish sewing the top half of the wound, the bottom will have healed on its own. Half the work — smart!” A chief resident will advise a junior: “Learn to be fast now — you can learn to be good later.” Everyone’s eyes are always on the clock. For the patient’s sake: How long has the patient been under anesthesia? During long procedures, nerves can get damaged, muscles can break down, even causing kidney failure. For everyone else’s sake: What time are we getting out of here tonight?

The Strawberry Queen

Anna M. Phillips: PLANT CITY — In a strawberry patch thirty minutes outside of Tampa, just past the exit for a dinosaur-themed amusement park, Maria Zuñiga pulls on her mud-covered rubber boots and ties a bandana under her dark, quiet eyes.

Now in her third season of strawberry picking, her latex-gloved hands know the most efficient choreography. Her body knows to stay bent at the waist, like a runner frozen mid-toe-touch. If you were to pass her from the road, you would see only the curve of her back silhouetted against the sun.

On this morning, she puts in earbuds to fill the silence of forty other workers picking fruit. There is no conversation, save for a polite exchange as the laborers near the ends of their rows and turn to see whose flats are nearly full. “Cuántos le falta?” they ask each other. How many are you missing?