A Cross for Wy Moss
I found the first note tucked under the rosin bag behind the rubber. Scrawled on a single sheet of paper, folded in half and torn out of a pocket-sized spiral notepad, were these words: “Keep your weight back. Throw with your legs.”
Smudged with pencil lead and eraser scars, the message appeared to be written in haste.
I kept my cool. I didn’t want anyone to know, especially my teammates. With one hand, I re-folded the paper and placed it back under the rosin bag.
Before throwing the first warm-up pitch, I knew what I had to do.
Finding him was easy. While the catcher threw the ball to second base and my teammates tossed it around the infield, I looked toward the Dothage dugout. He was there, leaning against a chain-link fence that separated the infield from a narrow bullpen. He was wearing one of those puffy, faux-satin warm-up jackets, and he was looking right back at me.
They had taught us to hate Dothage. I don’t remember why exactly, but based on the number of mansions of a certain era – gorgeous granite and marble Victorians and Italianates built at the end of 19th century – I suppose it had something to do with wealth and privilege. A my-granddaddy-worked-in-the-mines-while-your-granddaddy-owned-them kind of thing. But I don’t know this for sure. All that was decided years ago, decades before I got to Stark City.
Dothage players were aloof and, at worst, quietly hostile. They played hard and beat us more than we beat them, yet they seemed to accomplish this without much effort. Maybe it’s because they weren’t emotional. I don’t remember any of them ever losing his temper.
Pretty boys. That’s what we thought of them. Oddly, they all looked alike, from their haircuts to their pressed uniforms, and they were all about the same size. It was almost robotic. We, on the other hand, were a ragtag crew of corn-fed giants, averaged-sized kids and more than a few scrawny runts.
The Dothage boys came prepared. They had the best of all the necessary gear and good bit that was superfluous and flashy. We had one kid – his name was Donnie Miller and his grandfather was the only doctor in town – who wore batting gloves and, I might add, received an avalanche of ridicule for it. On the Dothage side, everyone had batting gloves.
All right, here’s the thing: I hated Wyman Moss, “Wy,” as everyone called him. I hated him because he was so good, and I hated him because that’s what they told me to do. But I really didn’t know anything about him.
Except this: Like me, he was left-handed. Unlike me, he was a gifted athlete, the best pitcher I ever saw.
But superlatives such as “gifted” and “Dothage’s ace” don’t cut it. He was the only high-school pitcher I knew who could throw faster than ninety miles an hour. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, consider that only about half of all major-league pitchers can thrown that fast.
Most flame-throwers are wild. Not Moss. He had masterful control – of his body and pitches. He could paint the corners, a wildly precocious skill for a seventeen-year-old kid, and he had great junk – a wicked, sharp-breaking slider and a sweeping curve that started out somewhere near first base and ended up right over the plate. I can’t tell you how many times I saw a left-handed batter, thinking he was going to get hit by the pitch, bail out of the box and hit the deck, only to suffer the indignity of hearing the umpire calling it a strike while the batter lay flat on his back. Sometimes, even the umps were fooled.
On top of all of this – and this was the thing, other than the heat, that distinguished Moss, that really put him in a league of his own – he knew how to vary the speed of his pitches. We’re not talking about the occasional change up. Someone had taught him how to grip the ball differently or subtly change his arm motion such that every pitch was three or five or even fifteen miles an hour slower the fastball. This threw off hitters’ timing so badly that it made them look foolish, swinging at pitches before the ball was even halfway to the plate.
Combined, these skills rendered him nearly unhittable. Which happened regularly; by the time he finished high school, Moss had thrown a eleven no-hitters.
Beyond these attributes, Moss’s demeanor was no different than that of his teammates. He was quiet and aloof, or perhaps just shy. But there was more to it than this. He almost seemed disappointed, like he was embarrassed that he had to take the field against such weak competition.
That inning, Dothage’s hitters roughed me up pretty good. They had already scored two runs when I telegraphed a high fastball to Travis Spurgeon, their man-child cleanup hitter, and Spurgeon crushed it about eighty feet beyond the left-field wall. Wobbling on the mound, I actually cringed when I heard the bat hit the ball. Because it sounded like a small bomb had gone off. Then, three seconds later, I heard the ball knocking against the branches of a post oak out by the highway.
The second note was waiting for me in the bottom of the third. “Like Tom Seever,” it said, “how he gets his knee dirty when he pitches.”
Now what was this all about? Who did this guy think he was? Was he trying to get inside my head? Why he would do that? He knew I couldn’t compete.
I faced centerfield and ran my hand through damp hair. Casually, discreetly – as much as this is possible for a sixteen-year-old boy – I bent down and scooped up the note. With the paper secure in the lining of my hat, I turned around and went to the rubber. Instead of thinking about the hitter and which pitch I should throw, I was busy judging Moss. “Seever,” I huffed. With three Es. He can’t even spell.
I threw two balls to the first batter, and he slapped the third pitch to right-center, a double. Already, I was restless and agitated. Not a good place for any pitcher. Relief came when our coach trotted out to the mound and told me to intentionally walk Spurgeon, who was up there again for the third time in three innings. The hometown crowd groaned while I did this, and there was minor grumbling from Dothage’s dugout. But none it was coming from Moss. After the fourth ball, while the Spurgeon was jogging down to first base, I glanced toward their side of the field. Again, Moss was alone, standing in the same spot, wearing that ridiculous warm-up jacket. He was watching me, and nodding. This time, I swear I saw him shrug, as if to say, “Don’t listen to these morons, you’re doing the right thing.”
The lead-off man made it to third on a fielder’s choice, and Spurgeon to second, but I got out of the inning without them scoring a run. So I was feeling pretty good as I ran off the field. Then, somewhere near the foul line, my mind flashed on Seaver. It was a vivid image of him, bearing down on the mound, teeth gritting, arm and neck muscles bulging, his knee dragging across the dirt.
Meanwhile, Moss was throwing a Mossian gem. Between my drama in the bottom of every inning, he had been mowing down our hitters in the usual manner, leaving us disgusted and embarrassed, shaking our heads as we walked back to the dugout. That inning, though, we experienced six minutes of glee and hope when Dewey Gregg, our scrappy second-baseman, got lucky on a blind check-swing and blooped a single into right field. Dothage’s first baseman, sprinting toward the outfield, almost gloved it. But our spirits deflated when Moss, needing only eight pitches, coolly struck out the next two batters. Dewey’s single was the only ball we would get out of the infield.
What really pissed me off about the third note, a long and rambling manual on everything I was doing wrong, had nothing to do with mechanics or my pitching motion. That part I’d accepted and even tried to incorporate into my game, so far with mixed results. “You’re crossing your legs after the pitch,” the note said. “Open your right leg more and swing it out farther so you can land the right way and square up after you release it.” This was a lot of information, but I knew what he was talking about. Our coach had harassed me about the same thing. I say “harassed” because he never had any helpful tips about how I could stop doing it, only curt and angry edicts that I should. And then, the addendum, the part that needled me: “Also we know what your throwing so you and the catcher might want to come up with some different signs.”
Damn it! I knew it! That’s why that guy leading off second base was waving his finger at the batter. How could I be so stupid?
Back at the rubber, standing two feet higher than every other player on the field but feeling lower than dirt, I fumed. Doofus! What does he know? His grammar sucks.
If Moss had been trying to help, his effort produced the opposite effect. I tried to do what he said, as I had before, but it felt awkward and uncomfortable. I didn’t realize – nor did he – that it would take weeks, if not a year, of practice for the kind of changes he suggested to materialize.
After the first pitch, a pretty fastball that nicked the inside corner of the plate, the wheels spun off. I walked the first batter on four successive pitches. The next guy promptly doubled to right-center. Watching the ball ricochet off the wall, seeing our outfielders scramble to corral it, I had an ugly premonition of things to come.
Three runs had crossed the plate when Moss himself came up to bat. As a hitter, I had faced him twice and he made me look foolish, striking me out both times. The second time, he caught me on a nasty inside fastball that put cuffs on my wrists. Maybe somebody could have hit that pitch, but not me.
I, on the other hand, grooved him a juicy fastball that he handled superbly, lacing it like a harpoon over the first baseman’s head. Two more runs. That we barely caught him at third, trying greedily to stretch a double into a triple, felt like no consolation.
In fact, I think he was safe. (Weren’t guys like Moss always safe?) The umpire didn’t see his cleat clip the bag a microsecond before the third baseman applied the tag. But for Moss, this was no big deal. To argue wouldn’t have been his way, even if it had been a close game. Instead, after springing out of the slide, he slapped dust out of his pants and trotted across the infield. I was standing in front of the mound when he did this. Of course, I had to look at him. He was real subtle. As he passed me, without turning his head, he winked by lifting one cheek.
Why our coach didn’t pull me I’ll never know. We were down by eight runs when Spurgeon (I learned later that he had not come from wealth and privilege, but in fact had bailed hay all summer to supplement his family’s income.) came to the plate again. It just seemed like he was up there every two or three hitters.
Frustrated and resigned after Moss’s double, I had managed to load the bases with two more singles and a walk. So there was Spurgeon, man-child with the Ted Williams swing, strolling to the batter’s box with ducks on the pond. I doubt he even knew how many RBIs he had that season. He probably just vaguely knew it was a lot.
Before I threw the first to Spurgeon, I my mind pictured Moss’s face, the wink and the good-natured grin. Throw with your legs, he’d said. Keep your weight back. Stay balanced. All of this was going through my head, but unfortunately none of it translated into execution. Spurgeon fouled off a pitch and then sent the next one sailing out of the park. Unlike the cannon he’d shot in the second inning, this was one soared and circled with the turkey vultures. I thought it would never come down. When it did, the ball still landed a good twenty feet beyond the left-field wall.
Needless to say, we lost the game. Dothage scored two more runs in the bottom of the seventh, but at least I got Spurgeon to ground out in his last at bat.
After the last out, we lined up and went through that weird ritual where everyone slaps hands and says the same thing over and over. “Good game, good game, good game…” I expected something from Moss, a little chat near the mound, maybe more instructions or perhaps just a few words of encouragement. But that didn’t happen. When we slapped hands, he looked at me and winked again and that was it. After the hand-slapping and good-gaming, his teammates mobbed him with congratulations, and they ran off the field.
For the next three years – while still in high school and during my first year of community college, where I struggled to walk on with baseball team – I kept track of Moss’s progress. Every Sunday during baseball season – from mid-April to early September – the Springfield Globe published the names of local boys playing at various levels in the minor leagues. There weren’t that many players, maybe only a eight or ten at the time, including Moss, Spurgeon until his parents called him home, two brothers from down around Table Rock Lake and two other boys I’d played against from towns up north, Nevada and El Dorado Springs.
I knew Moss had chosen the old-fashioned route – through an organization’s minor league system rather than playing in college, the path that seemed to be growing in popularity every year. It was never clear to me how this happened, but at some point during his second season in the minors, he switched from the Reds organization to the Tigers. In the summer of 1988 he pitched for Detroit’s AA team out of Glen Falls, New York. He had performed well, winning a dozen games.
Expectations must have been high. Entering his third year in the minors, Moss was only nineteen years old. But something happened that year. For the first two months of the season, his name did not appear in the paper. Then, in early July, it debuted. He was still affiliated with the Tigers, but there were no stats. I wondered what had happened, but I didn’t know anyone who knew Moss, so I had no way of finding out. Week after week, I consulted the paper, and there was nothing. Had he been injured? I asked several people, including my father, who knew a lot of people in the area and also kept track of these things. He knew nothing.
Finally, in late July, Moss had numbers. But they weren’t good. The innings were low and the runs were high, his ERA hovering somewhere above five. Then he didn’t pitch for a while, because the numbers stayed the same. He must have been injured. But, good news came in late August. He returned, pitching here and there, getting a few wins and garnering respectable stats. Two weeks later, though, the season was over.
After that season, I forgot all about Wy Moss. There were several reasons for this, but mainly it had to do with losing interest in baseball in general and moving away from the area. I gave up on my own career and transferred to the University of Kansas. After that, I didn’t think much about baseball or Moss.
Until 1998. Easter of that year, my wife and I were driving home to visit our parents, who were the main reason we’d decided to move back to Missouri after years in Texas and California. We were early en route, so I decided to get off the interstate and take the old highway through Johnstown and into Stark City. This was Route 66, the Mother Road, which I taken many times, including trips between Stark City and Dothage.
My wife doesn’t suffer with nostalgia. Though tolerant, she is much less interested in these historical detours, these “living, breathing museums,” as I call them. Nevertheless, that’s what we were doing – “screwing around on another back road,” as my wife put it later – when we saw one of those little white highway crosses stuck into a pretty knoll on the other side of a deep culvert. We had come to a T intersection, the end of a short road connecting the interstate to the old highway. There was a barbed-wire fence behind the cross and beyond the fence was an old farmhouse that needed painting.
I can’t remember why I approached, but there was something about the cross that drew me in. There were flowers at the base, and it looked dignified, almost regal, situated as it was on the pretty hill.
I made a wide turn and stopped. There were letters on the cross, an inscription. The letters and words stretched out to cover nearly the entire length of the horizontal piece. “Wyman Carroll Moss,” it said. I leaned across my wife’s lap to get a better view. “Father” was written at the top of the vertical piece, “Son” at the bottom.
My wife leaned forward and we made eye contact.
“Wasn’t he the guy who…?” She paused and frowned, waiting for her brain to help. “You knew him, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I did.”
In that moment, hearing my own voice, I felt youth vanish, twelve years now stretching out before me, no longer compressed into a week. We were just there, I thought, two kids playing a child’s game.
About the Author: Matt McGowan grew up in Webb City, Missouri, small town founded on lead-ore and zinc mining. He has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years now he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His stories have appeared in Valley Voices: A Literary Review, Deep South Magazine, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Open Road Review and others. He lives with his wife and children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.