It takes patience to catch a stealer like Willie Cooper.

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Willie wasn’t all bad; he just liked to steal. He’d steal every chance he’d get. He got away with it nearly every time, too. But I stopped him.

When I first saw Willie Cooper steal second base, I couldn’t believe how fast he was. Most times he’d be sliding into second before the catcher even knew what had happened. I heard Willie was so fast that he once hit a shot up the middle and had to duck his head going around second to avoid getting hit by his own batted ball.

I fired the ball toward second. Everyone in the park froze. . . .

Since I’m the catcher for the Cardinals, I knew I had to think of something pretty quick. I watched Willie every chance I could. He was fast all right, and I didn’t think there’d be any chance of catching him in the act. I kept watching just the same.

Then I noticed it. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I saw him do it against the Giants. He was on first after drawing a walk.

He took his lead as if he weren’t paying any attention and had no thought at all about stealing. Of course, everyone in the park knew he was stealing. Then, just after the pitcher looked away, Willie smiled. Not with his mouth, though. Willie smiled with his eyes.

It happened so fast I wasn’t sure if I saw anything at all. He took off running on the very next pitch. He was safe at second by about a mile. Willie did that pop-up slide of his, more to put on the brakes than to avoid any tags, and started dusting himself off. Most times the umpire didn’t even bother running over to call the play. They’d heard about Willie Cooper, too.

The game was over before Willie had another chance to steal. I went home that day thinking maybe I was on to something. I checked my schedule to see when I could watch him again.

Willie’s next game was against my team!

The first time Willie came up to bat, he got himself all scrunched up in the batter’s box. His strike zone was about the size of a mosquito’s suitcase when he stood like that. I honestly don’t know why he bothered to carry a bat with him because he got his walk . . . on four straight pitches.

Willie took his lead off first. I had a hard time seeing his eyes because he was staring at Alex, our pitcher, while he waltzed off the base. I should’ve been calling the pitch, but I was so busy watching Willie I forgot all about it. Alex stepped off the rubber and hollered at me to get my head in the game. It was embarrassing, since no one could imagine the catcher falling asleep with Willie Cooper dancing off first.

I signaled Alex for the fastball and looked down at Willie. He didn’t seem to be smiling, but as I said, it was hard to see. As soon as the pitch came whistling in, I jumped up, ready to throw. Willie stayed at first, laughing like everyone else. I’d popped up so quickly that the ball sailed right past me to the backstop, untouched. Willie strolled down to second as if he were breaking in new shoes. I felt pretty foolish, but inside I thought he hadn’t been smiling and he hadn’t planned to steal.

My next chance to catch Willie seemed like moments later. He was down on first base again, grinning from ear to ear. Not the smile I was looking for, though.

On the first pitch, Willie was joking around with the first-base coach. I thought maybe he was trying to trick me into thinking he wasn’t paying attention, but I was wrong. He wasn’t paying attention. He probably figured the ball would get by me again and he’d have another free pass to second.

On the next pitch, Alex wanted to throw his curve ball. I knew I’d have no chance to catch Willie on a breaking ball. Willie could probably steal second, third, and home on a slow curve! I kept signaling for old number one, the fastball, but Alex kept shaking me off.

Finally the umpire told me to get the game moving, so I let Alex throw his curve. Just before Alex pitched, I snuck a peek down at Willie. There it was again . . . smiling eyes!

By the time that breaking ball bounced into the dirt in front of me, Willie was dusting off his uniform down at second base.

I had him dead to rights now. Willie looked confused. He was probably wondering why I’d be standing at home smiling when he’d just stolen second from me.

His next time up, Willie actually had to hit the ball to get on base. I guess that’s why he carries a bat. With Willie on first, I gave Alex the old number one, and I saw it again. Willie had those eyes going like a little kid on Christmas morning.

I snatched Alex’s fastball and fired it down to second. Everyone in the park froze when our second baseman slapped the tag on poor Willie through the cloud of dust. Willie himself had no idea what to do when the ball beat him to the bag. It had never happened before. Just out of habit, he started dusting himself off.

I guess folks thought it was all a dream. Maybe it was, because the umpire wasn’t anywhere near the base to make the call when Willie slid in. Either way, Willie Cooper stayed down at second base, and no one said anything about it.

I caught Willie that day. And Willie Cooper has never tried to steal on me since.

He knows.