Hot weather, baseball, tobacco spit and Bill Lofland

Bill Lofland pauses in his Nassau shop, between stories about baseball. BY DENNIS FORNEY
July 6, 2012

Bill Lofland’s eyes shine blue and clear, set just far enough apart on either side of the bridge of his nose to see perfectly the red-threaded seams of a baseball hurtling toward the plate.

I was in downtown Nassau mid-morning last Saturday, a day hot and dry at the end of one of the hottest Junes on record.  Baseball weather. Hot and humid air, light air. Baseballs fly out of stadiums like they have wings.

My seized-up chainsaw needed Bill’s small engine expertise. All these derecho winds (straight-ahead in Spanish) and thunderstorm gusts have been pruning the cherry tree and pecan tree on either side of my house. Cutting fallen 10-inch branches with a metal-toothed bow saw gets old in a hurry, especially with sweat pouring into your eyes. I understand how a bow saw works and am coordinated enough to operate one without even looking at the directions.

But within just a few minutes of talking clutches and the persnickety nature of intake manifolds on Tecumseh carburetors with Bill, I moved the conversation into terms I could really understand.

I saw an over and under shotgun leaning in one corner of his shop.

“You can’t shoot that thing,” I said, just to get the conversation started.

“The hell I can’t.  Take off running across that field and give me one shot.”

I didn’t need a demonstration.  I saw him in action one fall about 40 years ago when we were coincidentally shooting doves near a gravel pit at Five Points.  I was hitting every fourth or fifth bird.  Bill dropped them two at a time.

Soon the conversation switched from downtown Nassau to the old Lewes High School baseball diamond, in the field behind the 1921 brick building.

“It was 1957 or 1958.  Coach Georgianna.  We were playing Georgetown High School and they had Costen Shockley pitching.  He was a fine baseball player and there were Phillies scouts in the stands taking a look at him. He came in with one pitch that I got a hold of.  It was the longest ball I ever hit.  Knocked it off the side of the school building. After the game Costen told me I was the one the scouts should have been looking at. I’m telling you, I could see the seams of the ball as it came in. Ted Williams – they say he could see the rotation. I know that feeling.  I could tell if it was a curve ball coming in.”

Seven years later Costen advanced up the professional ladder to take the field as a first baseman for the Phillies, 1964.  Two other players on the field that day – both on the Lewes team – also went on to play in the majors: Chris Short and Johnny Morris, both of them pitchers.

Back in Nassau, back in 2012, Bill stepped out into the hot sun and spit a few streams of tobacco juice.  Just a few yards away was a gently sloping patch of tomato plants that he grows for his produce stand.  Small engine repairs and produce will cost you.  Baseball talk is worth just as much, but it’s free.

“I think that was the same year we went down to Rehoboth to play them.  They were 8-0 going into that game and they had a guy named Fletcher on the mound – I believe that’s who it was – Lee Fletcher.

“Coach said to me, ‘Can you get him?’

“’I believe I can Coach,’ I told him.  ‘I believe I can.  I’ll go up there batting left-handed.’ You see, I batted either side.  I said, ‘If the umpire won’t cheat me, only call strikes when they’re really strikes, I believe I can.’

“Now Fletcher, he threw hard, but he could only throw straight, and that wasn’t good for him against me. I ended up knocking one out of that Rehoboth field.  It landed in the street somewhere.  That was the only game they lost that year.”

Bill went on to play 13 years in the semiprofessional Eastern Shore Baseball League and loved every minute of it.  At 73, his eyes are still sharp and his memory even sharper.  No glasses, and he passes the driving test every renewal with no need for corrected vision.  If you don’t believe it, he’ll show you his driver’s license.

And no, I didn’t try to outrun his over and under.

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