It's 6:15 p.m. The locusts with pens and microphones have been swept from the Phillies' clubhouse. It's their living room again. Creeping to the center of the room, like a seven-year-old in Dad's pajamas, is their stumpy catcher lost inside their massive first baseman's uniform and cleats. A half foot of Ryan Howard's pant legs droop from Carlos Ruiz's feet. That alone has the clubhouse cackling ... but Chooch has more. He has made a career by watching everyone in silence, recording everything. This one's easy meat.
He lowers his backside like an emperor settling onto an invisible throne, imitating Howard's setup in the batter's box, then points the end of Howard's bat at an imaginary pitcher, sighting on his prey like Howie does. Only now Chooch begins tilting his head and squinting, trying to see around Howard's big black war club, then yelps, "Hey! Where ees the peetcher? I can't see him!" and the whole squad's howling.
Chooch! comes a request. Do Sammy! That's coach Juan Samuel's nickname. Chooch flashes those big white teeth, those imp eyes and that mierda-eating grin that make every impersonation double delicious, and nails Sammy's slowwww, cool-disco-dude signals from the third base box. The boys roar. Chooch winks. Chooch, do Charlie! He takes a few shambling steps and sends his head bobbing and rolling from shoulder to shoulder, just like Manuel when the Phillies' manager is pissed and heading to the mound to separate the ball from his pitcher's hand, then drops the cherry on top: Charlie's Southern drawl strained through Chooch's Panamanian accent. Chooch, do Shane when Kuroda threw at his head in the playoffs! ... Chooch, do Cliff!
Wait a minute. He's got a dandy Cliff Lee in his repertoire, teething on his necklace and spitting it out as he peers in for the sign ... but Cliff's on the mound tonight. Nope, sorry, no way Chooch will imitate someone he's about to become.
When I am catching," says Chooch, "it is not two people out there—a pitcher and a catcher. It is one person. It is my fault if something goes wrong. Whatever is happening to him is happening to me. One person. That means I am a different man with each pitcher."
It's 6:35. Cliff and Chooch head to the bullpen to warm up. Lee has come out of the chute in 2011 like a windup action figure wound one turn too many—walking more hitters in the first two months than he has in years and whiffing them at a faster clip than he has in his big league life, reverting to the 16-year-old who used to walk 'em loaded, then fan the side—lurching along with four wins and five losses until June arrives and his body suddenly remembers the dart-throwing routine he discovered a few years ago, and he unfurls five straight dazzlers while allowing just one run over 42 innings, the best month in franchise history and the sixth-lowest National League ERA ever for a month, 0.21, since earned runs became a stat in 1912. Chooch gets him now: He's this big, easygoing country hardballer—the long-haired kid he once was, with the hemp necklace and the fishhook in his ball cap, still lurking just beneath his $120 million skin—and so the catcher knows that tonight it's best if Chooch appears loose and carefree and does not burden his other self with the scouting reports or details that are churning in his head.
Look, Cliff! See that crazy man up in the fifth row? Chooch knows he can point anywhere and say anything tonight because then baseball will feel like it should to Cliff, like he's back in Arkansas sitting on an overturned ball bucket between innings and going through a gallon bag of barbecue-flavored sunflower seeds, nodding to whatever number Chooch flashes and playing the same I-couldn't-give-a-flip game of pitch-and-catch that the two of them played when they six-hitted the Yanks in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series.
Even more than funny and free, Chooch knows that tonight he must be fast, must keep Cliff in that feeding-frenzy tempo he craves. Eight seconds. That's all Chooch will have from the time the ball thwacks into Cliff's glove before the lefty's flowing into that stream-of-consciousness-smooth delivery. Ayyyyyy, the ball was exploding in Chooch's face almost before he was prepared to catch it the first time he caught Lee.
Ohhhhhhh, say, can you see? ...
Cliff's ready. Chooch isn't. He enters the bullpen bathroom as the national anthem begins for his ritual moment of soul searching, and stands alone in the dark ...