033 – The Dugout

My high school, like most in the American Midwest, revolved around the seasons; not fall, winter, and spring, but rather football, basketball, and baseball. The high school sat on a plot of land donated to the school district, about three miles outside of town, one two low, flat hills. There was the football field beside the main building, a practice field behind that, and a baseball diamond built into the small valley between the hills. A practice baseball diamond, along with a fishing pond and a cross country track that literally ran through a forest across country, was located on the far back hilltop. The main football field and the baseball diamond were kept clean and well maintained – they were big money makers for the school, and both school funds and booster contributions kept them in perfect working condition.

The practice fields, however, were only given cursory cleanings and maintenance. The practice football field got a good rolling once a year, usually just before school started, and lines were marked off only once. The baseball practice field was maintained by the players themselves, who would sweep for rocks and mark the base lines with cans of white spray paint. The bases were shapeless canvas bags, covered in sewn up scars, that were kept in a locked shed near the field. The only permanent structures on the baseball practice field were the chain-link backstop and the two dugouts, which were little more than lean-tos with benches bolted into concrete bases. They often collected trash and dead leaves, and the groundskeepers only rarely blew out the detritus with their large leaf blowers.

Because the practice field sat at a higher elevation than the school itself, it was a perfect place for kids to sneak off to if they wanted to sneak a smoke or make out during school hours. There were well known hidden paths near the edge of the building where kids could stealthily slip away through the woods and up the hill to the upper field. The school administrators weren’t blind or stupid; they would send teachers to do quick sweeps during lunch time to catch any students on the hill, but the kids also knew that so long as there was a lookout, they would have plenty of warning that a teacher was headed up the gravel path to the practice field. After school, students were allowed to hang out on the hill all they wanted until six or seven o’clock, when the school was officially closed and all practices were over.

There were, as you would expect, two dugouts for the practice field. The one closest to the school, the home team dugout, faced roughly northward while the other, the visitor’s dugout, faced eastward. This meant the visitor’s dugout got very dark very quickly, especially in the fall when classes were just starting. Normally a dark, secluded place like that would be perfect for teenage groping sessions, but most kids left that dugout alone and congregated in the other or near the small set of bleachers that had been set up behind the backstop so people could watch the practices. Even during practice games, the team assigned to the visitor’s dugout would usually mill about or just barely stay within the dark enclosure.

One of my best friends was one the baseball team, and during our senior year I hung out a lot with him at the practice field. I didn’t have much else to do, and in the fall there were no scheduled practices, so it was just him testing his swing, or sometimes grabbing a pick-up game with some of the other kids after school. He’d been on the team for all four years, and one day while we were sitting in the bleachers doing homework, I asked him why no one liked the visitor’s dugout. I figured it must smell bad or maybe the bench was all punky and ready to collapse. A strange look crossed his face. “You mean you don’t know?” he asked. I shook my head.

He proceeded to tell me the tale of the visitor’s dugout, which I will relate to you. I want to be fair here – this was a story passed from student to student, and was nearly twenty years old when I first heard it, so there’s every possibility that the facts were distorted. I looked at our local library to corroborate some of the story, but never found anything. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have, if the story is to be believed.

The story begins in 1971, about ten years after the school was first built. Back then, there was no fancy baseball diamond down in the valley, and the practice field was the only baseball field on school grounds. There had been, my friend claimed, larger bleachers and a concession stand back then, which had later been moved to the football field to serve as the visitor’s stands when the new diamond was built in the early 80s. The dugouts were about the same, though much cleaner and nicer. They were still the destination for high school lovebirds wanting to neck during school hours.

One particular set of lovebirds was Henry and Mable. Henry was eighteen, held back a year for poor grades, the son of a pig farmer and something of a troublemaker in town. Mable was thirteen, a freshman, and daughter of a sheriff’s deputy. Besides the obvious age difference, Henry and Mable also were from two very different worlds. He was a farm boy, she was a town girl. He liked to work on cars and race them on the back country roads, she was straight-A student and member of the student council. Something brought them together, though, and while they tried to keep their romance a secret, most of the kids in school apparently knew about it. They would sneak off to the baseball diamond almost every afternoon, and rumors started to float through the halls that they did a lot more than just make out in the visitor’s dugout. Someone claimed they found a used rubber up there after Henry and Mable had had a heavy petting session, and the news raced like wildfire through the school.

That’s when Mable’s father was made aware that his daughter was maybe doing something she shouldn’t with an eighteen year old boy. The deputy was called into the school by the vice principal, informed of the rumors, and then took his daughter home for the day to have a talk with her. She didn’t return to school for two weeks, at which point she returned with her left arm in a sling and the shadow of a rapidly fading bruise over her left eye. However, by then, far worse had happened to Henry.

The legend goes that the deputy took his daughter home that day, left her with her mother, and then returned to the school to have words with Henry. Word had reached the your lover that his girlfriend’s father was on his way to play a two-fisted melody on his face and it would be a good idea to be somewhere else. The only problem was, Henry hadn’t driven to school that day. His Mustang was in his dad’s barn, the engine pulled out waiting for Henry to make more modifications. He had ridden the bus to school and planned to ride it home, but he needed to hide out for a while until he could hopefully slip past the angry deputy and get safely home. It probably would have worked had Mable not spilled her guts out to her angry father on the drive home. The deputy knew exactly where to find the cowering Casanova.

The deputy found Henry at the visitor’s dugout. Maybe things wouldn’t have gotten out of hand if the deputy hadn’t made Henry empty his pockets, revealing a wrinkled condom wrapper. Maybe Henry could have talked his way out of it had he been a little smarter, or if the couple hadn’t been hiding their relationship so long, or if his hand hadn’t lingered too long on the large pocket knife he also had in his pocket. He tossed it aside, but the deputy had clearly read the simple equation Henry had run through his mind, and the red rage that filled his face exploded into violence. The deputy rushed Henry, grabbed the boy by the throat and began to beat his face in. Henry wasn’t a small young man by any account, but he was so stunned, so scared that the angry father was going to pull out his gun and shoot, that he just stood there for a moment taking the assault without uttering a word.

By the time Henry’s primal self-protection instincts kicked in, it was too late. The deputy slammed his head down against the edge of the bench and something inside the boy’s skull crunched sickly, like the sound of graham crackers breaking. He went limp as a rag doll, but it was several minutes more before the deputy realized the boy was dead. The red haze of rage fading from his eyes, Mable’s father was shocked to see the blood trickling from Henry’s nose, ears, and mouth. Knowing he’d just committed murder, the deputy quickly grabbed the discarded knife, carefully opened it without leaving finger prints, and pressed it into Henry’s hand. Then he withdrew his service pistol, thumbed back the trigger, and squeezed two rounds into the dead boy’s head, turning all evidence of the beating into little more than ground hamburger.

When school officials rushed out to see what happened, the deputy, shaken by what he’d done but having had time to rehearse his performance, claimed that Henry rushed at him with a knife drawn. He had killed the boy in self-defense, and his overall demeanor of regret was etched perfectly into his face. There’s no way to know, but I like to think that he really did regret killing the boy, and so perhaps it wasn’t all an act. Henry was buried three days later. Mable’s father wasn’t even investigated for the shooting, but he and his wife eventually moved away after Mable graduated.

Now, a story about the tragic slaying of a young man would already stigmatize the dugout, but it’s what started happening afterwards that made people avoid it. It seemed that Henry didn’t exactly know he was dead, and his spirit remained in the dugout, appearing as a bloody, raw-headed specter whenever two teenage lovers decided to use the secluded dugout for a tryst. He first appeared five years after his murder, by which point the story of Henry and Mable had passed into the sort of legend all schools harbor, shared from classmate to classmate in hushed whispers. When the ghost showed up, people began to believe the story was true.

The legend itself, I later learned, had different versions, including one where it was a jealous boyfriend of Mable who discovered she and Henry were having an affair and killed the boy, or perhaps it was the female teacher who had fallen in love with Henry and couldn’t live without him, so she killed him in the dugout after learning he favored Mable over her. In any case, the consistent factor in all the stories was that Henry had been killed in the dugout and his spirit continued to haunt it.

After my friend told me this story, I sat many afternoons watching the dugout, wondering if I could catch a glimpse of Henry’s ghost. I never did see him, but I did witness more than a few new students deciding the visitor’s dugout was a good place to hang out, only to leave soon afterward with pale looks and shivering shoulders. Eventually, a few years after I graduated, the school tore down the practice field, completely leveled it and built a brand new, much nicer field on top of it, with dugouts on completely different sides. I have to wonder if any kids who play first base, which is situated about where the old dugout had been, have ever had Henry stop by and say hello.

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