By Michael P Lambert
Scooter Gillette was the greatest hitter to come out of the Peach State since Ty Cobb.
Great hitters are not made. They are born. And Gillette was born with one of those swings fans are privileged to see once in a generation. His swing was unconscious. On his locker door, Gillette had plastered a quote from Ted Williams, “The Splendid Splinter.”
“If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much.”
Ballplayers harbor more demons than most mortals. At the rarefied level of the game where they ply their craft, it is a constant struggle for them to keep these demons in check.
In Scooter’s case, swing mechanics were not the issue. In his first big league at bats, the Nats’ radio announcer quipped, “This kid Scooter’s swing’s so perfect they should bottle and sell it.”
But like many a baseball phenom, his foxfire temperament was his Achilles Heel, and everyone in the locker room knew it. As long as he was hitting 340 and above, and as long as he was leading the league in hits and RBI, his coaches wouldn’t dare touch him. It was axiomatic that a coach should always “let sleeping dogs lie.”
Last September, in the Playoffs, Scooter went into the batter’s box in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tied game. Momo Butchkoski, a fearsome reliever, was glaring down from atop his hill as Scooter went through his irritating ritual: adjust each batting glove, dig his feet in, tap each side of the plate and then get set. He did this before every pitch. While most pitchers let it go, it drove Momo up a wall.
“Let’s go already,” Momo yelled at Scooter.
Scooter stared back at him, spit on the fake dirt, and waited. He was hunting for a high fast ball, and Momo, inconceivably, complied. It was a huge mistake. Scooter sent the pitch to the upper deck in right field. Game over. Gillette had won the game with his “walk-off tater.”
Fans took to social media and debated what happened next between Gillette and Butchkoski for weeks after the event. Did Scooter taunt Momo as he trotted the bases or not? Was Momo dissed by the brash young star? Did Momo provoke the young star? Fans took to arguing all points of view.
The replay of the scene showed a jubilant Scooter smiling toward the mound as he skipped around the bags. You could see that Momo was seething, kicking the dirt on the mound and staring at Gillette. Just as Scooter got to home plate, he looked over at Momo and gave him a mile-wide grin.
There are unwritten rules in baseball—call it The Code—and what Scooter did that day was a flagrant violation.
Some of the rules border on the infantile. When hit by a pitch, the batter may not cry out or show pain. He may not look at the pitcher. He must trot to first base and act like nothing had transpired. And a player may never acknowledge a taunt from fans, no matter how vile the fan’s words.
For home runs, a batter must not evince triumph as he rounds the bases. The Code requires him to trot around the infield quickly. He must not look at the pitcher. Once he touches home, modest celebration may commence.
Next season, the two faced each other again. It was late April, with a brisk wind, bright sun, and Carolina-blue sky. Perfect for baseball.
Gillette was in the dugout at the top of the second inning, waiting his turn to bat.
“I got me a plan to get Momo today,” Gillette said to fellow outfielder, Moose Harvey.
“What ya gonna do?” Moose whispered, spitting the husks of sunflower seeds on the dugout floor.
“I’m gonna let him hit me. He’s always brushing me back. But this time, I’m gonna take a plunk,” Gillette said.
Moose looked stunned. “Why the hell do that, Scoot? That’s crazy!”
“Nah, it ain’t crazy. It’s part of my plan. I’m gonna get hit and drop like a bag of dried beans. And I’m gonna stay down. I’ll make ‘em think I’ve had it.”
“What’s the point of that?” said Moose.
“The point? Think, Moose. After all the threats of retaliation Momo made about me in the press after the homer I hit off him last year, the Commissioner is for sure gonna suspend his ass for the rest of the season. Wouldn’t that be money?”
“Man, Scoot, that is the dumbest damned thing you ever said,” Moose replied and walked down the dugout to the water cooler, shaking his massive, shaggy blond head.
“Show time,” Scooter yelled back to Moose from the on-deck circle as he sauntered out to the batter’s box. He took his time with his pre-pitch ritual, watching Momo out of the corner of his eye.
For his part, Momo leaned forward from the mound, looking like a hawk fixing his prey from 60 feet and 6 inches away, keeping the ball in his hand and squeezing it so tight that his fingers turned white.
The first two pitches were low and wide of the plate, and Scooter, with one of the best set of eyes in the game, never twitched. He inched closer to the inside of the box, crowding the plate. The count was 3 and 0. The stands went quiet. From a full wind-up, Momo hurled a fastball, a pitch that exceeded 104 mph, down the inside lane toward the batter.
Gillette dipped his shoulder, and the ball lightly glanced off the top of his shoulder and hit his batting helmet with a crack so loud that they could hear it on Half Moon Street, three blocks away.
Gillette dropped to the artificial dirt, just as he told Moose Harvey he would do.
But Scooter Gillette, the best hitter to play the game since the Splendid Splinter, never got up.
He was dead.