Fiction from NER 37.3 (2016)
If you play baseball, you know about sportsmanship. Baseball is a game of lines and rules and you allow the home team to have the last ups and after the last out in the ninth inning you file by the opposing team in the infield, win or lose, and you say, “Good game, good game,” and you know the whole procedure is an exercise in what is right. You played hard and you either won or you lost and it had been a good game. Baseball is a good game. The season I played with the Molybdenum Miners in the Mineral League was not about any of these things.
There were some days that August when it looked like the Mollys might win. One time we were ahead four to one going into the eighth inning, but we saw it slip away. It always slipped away. It had been such fun for a while that spring, standing out by second base in a clean uniform playing for the Miners and getting paid (a little) to do so. At all times I knew where Tilda Welk, the owner’s daughter, was, up in the organ booth playing little this-and-thats all through the game. I swear sometimes when I looked up there, she was looking at me. A girl in the stands is a powerful thing. If there is a girl up there anywhere every player on the field knows she’s looking at him. But I had spoken to Tilda, once, at our meet-and-greet barbeque at Mercury Meadows on opening day. I’m shy, but I told her I was hoping I’d see her from time to time. She said, “Get some hits and maybe I’ll be wanting your autograph.”
Well, those hits did not actually occur and our leads all slipped away. How? A slow roller to third would go right through Spanner’s mitt, and then Mippie Bishop would stumble fielding the bunt to first and fall on the ball hard enough to bruise his sternum, and then our one left-hander, Buzz Overneeder, would serve up a tepid fastball which their catcher would clobber to left, a towering fly but still a can of corn, which would fall perfectly between Gamete’s hand and open mitt striking him on the forehead hard enough to give him a goose egg—and the nickname Unicorn—and bouncing then over the plywood advertisement for the many uses of molybdenum, for a homerun.
It was something to watch, and I admit there were many games when I just watched; there was nothing I could do. Then Overneeder would walk six or seven guys, hitting the last two, which offered us little consolation because he threw so softly it couldn’t have hurt, and then they’d just bat for a while there in the eighth, until the kid with the numbers on the scoreboard put up the total for the inning, which was fourteen, meaning he had to use the slot for the ninth inning as well.
The feeling after each game was a kind of numbness. We were numb. The first seven losses hurt, or ten, but after we’d lost all of July and August and we were facing those last two dozen games in September, it wasn’t hurt anymore. We were losers. For part of the summer, we tried to fix it, hitting extra batting practice, and pepper, and fielding for hours, fielding until the light changed and we lost balls in the tall grass in the new dark. But we couldn’t make it click. Usually on a team there are a couple guys who are swinging the bat just wrong, under the fastballs and over the curves, but for us that summer, it was everybody. We were getting two hits a game and those were accidental. In the field it wasn’t blinding sun and bad hops that led to the errors, it was all of us on the wrong foot at the same time. It got so bad after nineteen losses that Malagana at short, if he caught the grounder, would just hold it. He’d thrown it into the dugout twenty times. He’d make the stop and come up with the ball and then show it to us and we understood. It was a little something. It didn’t stop the runners from rounding the bases like a crazy cuckoo clock, but it was something. The ball in his hand.
About then Tilda Welk stopped coming to the games, which took the last shine off it for me. Nobody was crazy about the organ music, though it filled the deadly silence at Mercury Meadows, and now the only music was the national anthem once a night, a song I memorized and came to know as a song just full of difficult and scary questions.
I’m not trying to make a single excuse, but there was something happening. At second base I’d take a line drive and feel it snag deep in the pocket and then watch it fall out like an egg right onto the ground. I’d cap it with my left hand and still it popped out. Grounders, I either bumped them with the back of the mitt or couldn’t dig them out of my glove. I was glad Tilda wasn’t there to see any of that.
“We’re cursed,” Moro Sakakida said. “It is a powerful curse. I can see it all from right field. Even not trying we should have won one game by now.” Coach Ketchum let him burn his incense in the locker room. He had a piece of white lava he stuck the incense into, and Carmine Vexuna, our closer, called it a cat skull and wouldn’t go near it. I liked it better than the twisted scent of mildew we all knew too well, but it didn’t help.
We were good sports about all of this for a while and then when the numbness burned off, something else happened. We’d already had the full load of embarrassment, every one of us, for the glaring mistakes we’d made at the plate and in the field, and the embarrassment of being in the papers as a doleful curiosity, and the problem of our pay as the gate plummeted from five hundred citizens to two hundred and then fifty, many of them using the ballpark to play with their cell phones until the good bars in the town of Oreton opened. Home teams in the Mineral League get the gate receipts; visitors get a flat two hundred bucks for the team, which meant we were abased and debased, broke and strange. It’s funny that we didn’t adjust somehow, that we didn’t give it the old college try and then the second old college try and the third. We lost every game; this means four times a week we stood in the field while all the teams in league, the Nickel Miners from Mipple, and the Talc Miners from Saint Bark, and the Sulphite Miners from Avagadro-on-Avon, and even the Mica Miners from Little Hat, ran around the bases, and we had to stand there and listen to some kid working the scoreboard and making about sixteen dollars a night more than any of us. Your heart goes out is what it is. That’s the pretty way to say it. The truth is that such losing is a kind of infection and you could see without even looking that it had us all. We were all that pale blue a body gets when it drowns.
After the games, the other teams in the Mineral League would line up on the infield waiting for us to come out and say, “Good game,” but somebody in our crowd would just wave from the dugout and call out, “Yeah yeah.”
So we did what we did. It was surprising and then it no longer was surprising. It was always nine to nothing; it was always nineteen to six. It became a condition, a pool of losing and bad faith in which we wallowed. And then late in a game against the Sulphites down eleven to one, Spit Spanner, at third, said to Overneeder, “Hit him, Buzz.”
“Will do,” Overneeder said. He was a unique athlete in my experience because he did exactly what people told him. He never once in the four years I knew him shook off a sign. The day our misery tripled, Overneeder turned to third and said to Spanner, this time through his mitt: “Will do.”
“He can hear you,” our catcher Luke Kistleberg said.
And in fact we all could hear.
“We don’t care,” Spanner said, spitting in a loop toward the batter. He got his name because he won’t spit down; he has to spit for maximum air time. At one time or another he’s spit on everybody on our team; it’s nasty, but on this team there’s been worse. “Hit him. See if you can hit him in the head.”
“Okay, man,” Overneeder said, and he started to wind up.
“I’d watch out if I were you,” Spanner now said to the hitter. He had folded his arms as if he wouldn’t be needing his mitt for what was going to happen now.
And he was right. The pitch hit the batter on the back of his shoulder. As I said, there was little juice in it for us, because Overneeder’s fastball was about forty-five miles per hour. You could catch him barehanded.
“Hey, man,” the batter said, throwing his bat back to the dugout. “What the hell?” He owned the dry-cleaners in Avagadro-on-Avon and we called him Big Martin because the window there said “Martinizing.”
“Good job,” Spanner said to the O. He had walked over to the baseline and was pointing at the Sulphite’s shortstop who was coming to the plate. “Hit this guy too.”
The shortstop was one of those guys who, the first time you see him, you think: shortstop. He was small and put together like a watch. If he dropped out of baseball, he could’ve been an acrobat. We’d learned that nothing got by him in the field.
“You don’t have to do that,” he said.
“Yep,” Spanner said to the boy. “You’re it now.” Spanner came back into fair territory and took a knee in the sweet infield grass. Mercury Meadows Fairgrounds was the prettiest ballpark in the league, our home field. They put the whole fairgrounds on the tailings mound from Millblade Industries, whatever they did, and for some reason lost in the past you could see the grass grow. The joke was that you could see it glow too, but you could not. Malagana took me to the outfield one night between innings. It was dark as they waited as long as possible to turn on the six streetlamps that lit the field. He took off his shoe and when he put his foot down I could see his toes like an x-ray. “Yo, mama,” he said, knowingly. The grass had a weird shine in the twilight, sort of bluish yellow, but it was just a lush ballpark with a beautiful wooden stadium that seated eight hundred people and did once a year when they had the fireworks program from Thermal City.
This pitch did catch the shortstop in the head and it bounced back to Overneeder who fielded it and threw to first as a joke. Big Hi Withers stepped out from behind the plate and yanked his arm, throwing big O out of the game, though it took a minute for the message to get through and when it did, Overneeder said, “What for? Come on, we’re playing ball here.”
But he did exit the field and I heard Spanner say, “Sorry, man.” Then he turned to Carmine Vexuna and said, “Hit this next guy. Throw at his face.”
It was an ugly little performance, Spit Spanner, out there at third, talking mayhem to every batter that came up, and we all felt bad about it, but we were in the bad by now aplenty and I wanted him not to stop. It was a little ache which felt bad and we wanted it worse. I wanted to get to the mound and throw the ball at somebody. We didn’t talk about it in the locker room that night, but I see now that everybody knew. Poor form was just the beginning. It couldn’t get ugly enough for us.
A day or two later, after stinking it up on the field, losing three to nothing in a game as sorry as any we’d played, something smelled foul in the locker room. It took a minute to be sure it wasn’t just these bad days, these sour days, three to nothing in a game where we never had a man on second, but then Enrico Umbrella said, “What is that smell?”
“It’s the dogshit incense,” Malagana said.
“No. It’s just dogshit,” Coach Ketchum said, and he pointed at Albemarle’s shoes, which were gummed gruesomely with the very stuff, thick and green. Next, of course, Albemarle pulled off his cleat, which sent seven guys out the door knowing the next thing was trouble. If we could react to a bunt or make a double play with the kind of speed we showed avoiding dogshit, we’d be headed for the playoffs. Albemarle hit de Herrera with his cleat and that sent everybody spilling back onto the field half dressed. Once the dogshit starts, you leave the room. We’d had it before, but this time it led the way further down the slippery slope.
You’d think with such a team in such a season, we’d just quit. Make a phone call and forfeit the rest of the games. You’d think that game nights guys would stay home and one by one we’d drop away, but, no, it was like we were trapped. No, actually, we were trapped. I could feel it. I felt bad and I wanted to feel bad. That was what we had that season; something ugly that we all wanted to watch. One time I went back to the locker room because I broke a shoelace and found Coach Ketchum, a square shooter at all times, sitting on the bench kneading his hands and saying, “I deserve this. I deserve this.”
The next night, we drove the two vans out along the shore of Avagadro Reservoir, which is also a yellow green that glows for half an hour after dark, to the town field at Avagadro-on-Avon where the ballpark sits on a windy shelf above the water. In the old days, the first weeks of the season, sometimes we sang in the vans. No joke. It started because one time Gamete was whining along with his iPod, “Nowhere Man,” and we picked it up until we were roaring and he unplugged his earbuds and we sang that song and a few others all the way to the game. We don’t sing anymore. If you asked me what guys think about on the van, I would say nothing. This season had come into our brains and wiped the table clean. You’d think some of us would start drinking or something but we just went further into nothing. Less and less.
In the games, I noticed it was taking less and less time for things to go bad. In the bottom of the first inning their right fielder walked and as usual he took a colossal lead off first base. Everyone took colossal leads on our pitchers. There was a rumor that if you stood out away from the base, our pitchers would forget there were men on base. The rumor was based on a true story from some of our early games that season. Big O just kept pitching while the runner took second and then third. It happened two or three times. Four. He’s spacey, but we deserve some of the blame. None of the infielders made a peep. When the first guy ran around it startled us.
But no one gets a twelve-foot lead, so Leandro Inrice throws over to put him back. The runner was surprised and he had to dive in which gives everybody some pleasure, seeing him get his uniform all groggy with the moist topsoil of the infield. “Do it again,” Spit Spanner said. “Put him in the dirt.”
The runner had to again dive in. The whole ballpark had kind of woken up because, as I think about it, we’ve never had a pitcher make a move to first before. Not once all season. Our thinking had been that a guy on first is going to circle the bases eventually, why bother? Anyway, Spit Spanner talks Leandro into moving to first nineteen times in a row. All the fans, maybe seven hundred people, move around to the first base side, crowding down there the way people will move toward the place a fight is going to start. Leandro Inrice keeps throwing over there even after the runner just stands on the base. Every time he throws over, our first baseman Mippie Bishop slaps the right fielder with his mitt and then steps and throws it back to the pitcher.
Finally the ump comes out. It’s Bo Withers, one of the four Withers brothers who are umpires throughout the region. Spit won’t quit. “It’s not against the rules,” Spit said. “Look it up in the big fat rule book, you genius.”
“You want out of the game?” Bo Withers asks Spanner.
“For what, calling a genius a genius?” It’s the kind of remark that wins a battle but loses a war and the one after that.
“Let’s move the game along, gentlemen,” Bo Withers said, taking his mask and walking back behind the plate.
“We’ve got all night,” Spit Spanner said. And then to Leandro, he said, “Watch the runner. Keep him honest.”
The runner was standing both feet on the bag, sick of being slapped by Bishop’s glove. Leandro moved again. Finally the runner sat down on the base and faced the stands. “Okay,” Spit said. “I think you’re good to go.”
Of course, Leandro wasn’t good for anything but throwing to first by now; it had been half an hour, and so he couldn’t throw a strike and was missing the plate so widely that Spit himself went around to back up our catcher. Leandro walked eleven in a row, and then Coach Ketchum came out and put Mippie Bishop in, a guy who had never pitched in his life, and the coach told him: “Just play catch with the catcher. Throw it close. Throw a strike if possible.”
So Mippie starts off to play catch with the Luke Kistleberg, but that doesn’t happen because Avagadro-on-Avon’s hitters intervene heavily, and they call such games slugfests, but it wasn’t a slugfest, it was a slug-and-error festival of the first magnitude. The light changed and they turned on the field lights and the reservoir went a kind of dangerous and magical yellow as if boiling, and the Avagadro-on-Avon Golds scored twenty-one runs, which because of the blessed twenty-run rule, put us out of our misery, or truthfully settled us deeper into our misery which is where we wanted to go. We got one out in that long inning and it was when a runner led off second and Eladio Jensen who plays that base froze the runner by telling him that he had dogshit on his mitt and to come and get it. Mippie Bishop threw to the shortstop who made the tag.
When Bo Withers waved his arms signaling the game was concluded, Spit Spanner, called, “No way. We haven’t had our last ups.”
Withers said it best right on the spot: “Your first ups were your last.”
For some reason that night after the nothing van ride home, I called Tilda Welk; after I told her who was calling, she said, “I know who you are. How’s your hitting?”
Like everyone else on the squad, I was hitting below two hundred and so I said, “The same. We’re the same.”
“So I hear.”
“Right. How’s your dad?”
“Not so good. He wants to sell the team or trade it for two big trucks.”
“That’d be a smart move, I guess.” I said. “You coming back to the ballpark sometime?”
“Not really,” she said. “You guys are kind of creepy.”
“It’s tough without any organ music,” I said, hoping.
To this she laughed for a minute and then drew another breath and laughed some more. Finally, she coughed and said, “Good luck with it. Call me when the season is over.”
That game at Avagadro-on-Avon was the only game in a long season that went one inning. We completed the rest of the games, except one contest which was called in the fifth inning because it went past midnight, and we did in fact lose the rest of the games. It’s remarkable in so many ways that our toxic season wasn’t the end of fourteen baseball careers, namely all of ours, but it wasn’t. There’s a couple more sad chapters in this story.
In a game at Mica Flats, where the infield is all sparkling gravel and the outfield a thorny webbed carpet of crab grass, we pulled out new pages from poor form. It is always windy there and the Mica Flats Windfarm and the forty-two big three-blade generators are ranked along the left field line, grinding away night and day. You can’t hear anything. When Malagana went to the plate in the top of the first, the powdered mica was blowing, and for a while he guarded his eyes and wiped at them, and then with the count one and one, he just turned away from the pitcher. He hadn’t had a hit in five weeks or been on base in six, even though he had tried everything. He was standing in the batters’ box with the bat on his shoulder not looking. The ump, Mo Withers, said, “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for the pitch,” Malagana said. “Bring it on.”
That brought us to the dugout rail. I’d never seen a guy stand in and not look at the pitcher. I think his eyes were closed. It upset the pitcher to see this guy facing away like that and when he finally got a grip, the count was three and one. But he tossed a couple of soft strikes and when the catcher tugged at Malagana’s knee, the batter said, “What happened? Did he get me?”
Every time something like this happened, something for the first time in history, something that should never ever have happened in baseball, it galvanized our attention as we wanted to record every click of the cog as we inched toward the bottom.
“Yes,” Mo Withers said. “You’re out.”
In the next two games a couple of our guys did that. Went up, tapped the plate, and then turned toward the stands while the pitches went by. To see it, even once, changes the game.
Then two days later Carmine Vexuna unveiled another dumb stunt with his behind-the-back move to first. Ever since Overneeder had made first base his favorite place to throw from the mound, there had been a lot of experiments with the throw to first. Vexuna’s move was like this: he’d look in at the plate with his back foot off the rubber and then he’d just pull the ball out of his glove and whip it behind his back, backhand, over to first. To do it like that he must have practiced for weeks. Mippie Bishop was in on it, because he took the throw and tagged out the runner who hadn’t even moved. So sweet.
So sweet for five seconds and then whichever Withers brother was behind the plate came out with big strides wheeling his arms: “Balk!”
Of course, we cried, “No way, he’s out.”
“It’s a balk,” the umpire repeated and signaled how the runner should advance.
“Did you see that move?” Spit Spanner asked the umpire. “That is a first. It’s going to change the game. It is so beautiful.”
“It’s a balk,” Withers repeated. “It’s going to advance the runner.”
“Balk balk balk,” Spit Spanner said, in the manner of a chicken, and Withers stepped toward our unrepentant third baseman and swung his arm again, this time to advance Spanner out of the ballgame.
Then with just a few weeks left in the season, it happened. We were at home in beautiful luminous Mercury Meadows Fairground playing before maybe two hundred individuals who had come to the ballpark for various reasons, who knows, but in the top of the fourth I heard something. I thought it might be a dog moaning under the grandstand, maybe cut his tongue on a beer can, or maybe it was a car radio from over in the lot, and then I focused and I saw that it was Spit Spanner singing something. He’s way in toward the plate as if to field a bunt and he’s singing to the batter, that song, “Nowhere Man.” Every time the batter looks up, Spanner covers his face with his mitt and keeps going. But then, I hear it to my left and Mippie is singing it. Malagana at short is singing it. All of a minute, the whole team knows to sing and if the batter looks at you, stop singing. Don’t let him know where it’s coming from. Pretty soon the song is pretty loud what with Albemarle calling it in from center field and I’m singing it and I’ll tell you right now, if you’re out in the field down six to one and somebody starts singing a song you know, it helps to join in. So we’re singing and Buzz Overneeder strikes the guy out whereupon the song stops. We’re not even looking at each other. If anybody had asked any of us who was singing, we would have said, “I have no idea.” You could see it on our faces. We had no idea.
When the next guy comes to the plate, Spanner starts in with another classic, this one by the Beach Boys: “Wendy.” And it’s a terrific tune but you can tell right away the guys don’t know all the words, but it makes no difference as we step up on the nuhnuh, nuhnuh’s the way you do in the shower, and the melody carries. The batter, while we’re singing this way, mitts up, mitts down, looks scared. We haven’t seen this all season; it emboldens Overneeder, who throws strike after strike. Unfortunately, the third strike he throws is grooved like a gift with a monogram on it and the second baseman for the Nickels hits it out of the park. We stop singing long enough to listen to see if it hits a car, which it doesn’t this time. It doesn’t matter about the homerun, we’ve got a new thing going on. You can feel the team pulling together waiting for Spit Spanner to launch into some new number.
When the next batter climbs into the box, Spanner starts a weird noise that becomes a jerky version of the Roy Orbison classic, “Crying,” which is a vocal test for any ordinary citizen. Before we even get to the first chorus, Hi Withers steps into the infield and looks us all over, like staring us down. Oh, his face says, he’s disappointed in this musical turn of events.
“Too bad, big man,” Spit says to the umpire. “I know this isn’t against the rules.”
“Spanner,” the big man in black says. “This is poor form.”
“Isn’t it, though, Chief. I have to agree with you.” Then he turns to the outfielders as if conducting a chorus and starts singing the big sad song again.
We lost the game seven to nothing.
The next night, we had a crowd of four hundred. “What’s the deal?” Malagana said. “They must think there are fireworks.”
I didn’t care. Four hundred people was a good payday for this broke second baseman.
We found out why they’d come out right away. Some kid above our dugout had a bunch of cardboard signs and the first one read: NOWHERE MAN!
So, right away Spanner leads us through that one and then we fumbled through “Garden Party,” the old Ricky Nelson hit, which took some of us a while to figure out. In the top of the third, after singing a dozen songs, we met on the mound. Mippie Bishop said it, “We’re going to need a playlist to do this right.”
“Why,” Luke Kistleberg said, “do we have to sing these old songs. Everything’s so old.”
“Classics,” Spit Spanner said, “only classics.” He saw Hi Withers coming out to the mound to break us up, so he got everyone to lean in and hum for a middle C just to annoy the umpire further.
By the sixth inning, the fans were singing with us, and so under and over all the terrible baseball we were committing, losing nine to three and then eleven and finally twelve to three, was this music, voices clambering along through the great golden standards of rock and roll.
We played and lost on the road for that last week, and came home to close down the season. When I arrived at the ballpark for our game against the Silver Miners from Little Hat, it scared me in that there was no place to park. There were more cars than I’d ever seen in one place. There were out-of-state plates. I thought there had been an accident or some regional emergency which I knew nothing of. The ballpark was brimming.
Ketchum came into the locker room and said, “Nine hundred so far; there’s going to be a thousand people watching us play tonight.” He came over to me and buttoned the top button on my uniform shirt. “Tilda Welk is here on the organ.” The coach looked around the room. “There’s going to be some music in the old ballpark.”
And as he said it, I could hear the old groaning of the weathered ballpark organ. She was playing a loose and loopy version of “Stand by Your Man.”
Sakakida nursed his incense into a smoky bloom and said, “We could win this game, my friends. Let us aim for victory.”
I was watching Spit Spanner, who was bent down tying his cleats into the double knots he was famous for. We were all watching him as the white thread of incense floated up over his back. We could hear him humming something.
The humming never stopped that night in Mercury Meadows Fairground Field. The Molybdenum Miners played good baseball that one night. In the field we all followed Spit Spanner’s lead and walked around crooning the different melodies, and the people in the stands sang, and we even sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Hey Nineteen,” and the organ played with us when Tilda could and we sang “Poetry in Motion,” on which some guy in the box seats lead the way and he could wail and we sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with the organ really flying on the tail end of each verse there and meanwhile if somebody hit a line shot near us, we caught it, and we turned a classic six-four-three double play in the seventh inning without missing a beat of “Runaround Sue,” which is a song we did twice in a row. We sang some slow songs and we sang some songs to which we didn’t know a single lyric as well as “Louie Louie” which, though it is a puzzle, didn’t stop anybody, and when Spanner started “Nowhere Man,” in the top of the ninth, we hadn’t made a single error and the score was tied four to four. We were playing good baseball. It was a good game. Twice, Tilda Welk had waved at me and I could see her singing along the whole time. The twilight was thick and the field had started to glow. Pretty soon the lights would go on and, just like it says in the beautiful rule book, we’d get our last ups.