In baseball parlance, having “a cup of coffee” refers to a player who is called up from the minors for a brief stint with the major-league team – staying just long enough to have a figurative cuppa. Stan Freeman’s The Pitch is about a fictional ballplayer who barely got a sip.
It opens with the voice of the play-by-play announcer (longtime Valley radio personality Dennis Lee) describing the moment in 1968 when rookie pitcher Vernon Peters is called out of the bullpen in Yankee Stadium in a game against the Boston Red Sox. The batter is future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, who hits the first pitch – not out of the park, as you might expect from a less disciplined author, but a run-scoring single.
Peters is lifted, sent back to Triple-A, and released from baseball a week later, never to play again. His entire major-league career consists of that one pitch.
That’s the premise of the world-premiere play now running at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, directed by Danny Eaton. It’s a sports story wrapped up in a mystery, a changeup played out in argument and memory. (Daniel D. Rist’s lighting effectively frames flashback scenes.)
Freeman, who lives in Northampton, is a prolific writer with wide-ranging interests. His published works span detective novels, science fiction and a natural-history series. He started as a journalist at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, then moved to the Springfield Republican, covering science and the environment. The Pitch is his first play, and a very good one it is, as crisp and tantalizing as a backdoor slider.
Peters’ brief moment in the spotlight, followed by his sudden ejection from the sport, have piqued the curiosity of Mike Resnick, a young sports writer at the New Haven Record. He looks up Peters’ old friend Roger Pennell, a retired veteran of the paper’s sports desk, and proposes a collaboration – a biography of Peters, who has recently died, which begins with that unlucky curveball and then follows his downward spiral into alcohol and despair.
Roger isn’t interested, but finally agrees, on the firm understanding his name won’t be on the book. There’s a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the book itself. Is it a biography or, as Roger insists, just a “sports book” that uses Peters’ aborted career as a jumping-off point to talk about life in the minors in the 1960s?
As Mike digs deeper into Peters’ past it’s evident there’s more to it than Roger wants to reveal. Freeman’s achievement here is to go beyond simply hooking us with “What’s really going on?” and explore themes of ambition and betrayal that slowly coalesce around parallel plotlines. (Mike, for instance, is the same age as Peters was on that fateful day, and he too is at the turning point of his life.)
The playwright also gives us central characters whose outlines are clichéd but who gain color and substance. Mike is more than an eager cub reporter on the trail of a scoop; he’s a determined and resourceful sleuth, and Julian Findlay effectively balances both sides.
Roger is more than a grizzled curmudgeon impatient with “kids” who don’t remember the old days and haven’t learned from their elders’ mistakes. In John Haag’s affecting performance, he’s stoop-shouldered with the weight of memory but still sharp-witted and ironical. (Roger refuses to use a doctor-ordered walker “Because I’m 71, not 91,” and when young Mike observes that “When you’re 28, there’s not a lot of difference between 71 and 91,” he retorts with a smile, “Well, when you’re my age there’s no real difference between 28 and eight.”)
Steve Pierce appears as Peters in flashbacks, deftly sketching the cocky young prospect with a fiery fastball and a promising future. We first see him on the mound preparing to pitch, then drinking, bragging and flirting, and finally in a pivotal encounter with Roger. Katie Sloan plays two cameo characters, one of them a stretch for any young actor: the same woman seen at 25 and 75.
Though Freeman wasn’t a sports journalist, he’s a student of the style, and Roger’s obit of Peters captures it beautifully: “…If he had a fatal flaw, it was a curveball that had less bend to it than an interstate through Iowa.”
The Pitch plays at the Majestic through April 5. In the theater’s café before the show, you can have a cup of coffee.
Photos by Kait Rankins