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Jul/Aug 2003 fiction

The Big Inning

by Daniel Cubias


 

In the off-season Rodgers, the ancient manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, had given his soul to Satan, but he was still wondering if he had done it properly. Were the rituals and incantations correct? He had downloaded them off the Internet, and they certainly seemed spooky enough, so he assumed that the Great Deceiver had accepted his offering and that the deal was done. And now he was one hit away from the success for which he had bargained. "I'm one hit from showing that motherfucking owner that I can still manage at 81. That my sacrifices for a child's game mean something."

In the opposite dugout, Lockman watched his relief pitcher go through his warmups and get ready to face the most excruciating pressure that was conceivable in this profession. Lockman was in his second year as manager of the Chicago White Sox. Before that he was the hitting coach, a position he never liked because of his opinion that professionals should no longer need instruction on how to hit. Before that he was an ordained priest. This previous vocation received gallons of press, almost as much as those couple of pitchers who had MDs received. Lockman had stopped administering to his flock because of the constant complaints about his demeanor. Whenever anyone came up for communion he would yell at them, "The Body of Christ!" in a most fearsome manner. He really wanted them to appreciate their savior, but all they did was cower. So he became a baseball manager instead. Before every game he held a prayer session with several of his players, including Broharder, Yostes, and Castro. And after every win he and some of his boys would go out and celebrate with a fanatical, Shaker-inspired, speaking-in-tongues hoedown at his house. As Haaskin threw his eighth and final warmup pitch, Lockman repeated his Hail Marys and the Apostles' Creed in his head, content that God would deliver victory to him just as He had delivered Daniel from the lion's den. Lockman just knew it.

The hitter, Koalasky, stepped into the batter's box as the catcher shouted, "Baseball, football, eyeball! What's the difference?" and flipped the ball back to his pitcher. Koalasky was known as "Koala" to all real Milwaukee Brewer fans. He acknowledged the nickname but secretly hated it, not only because it was a sickeningly banal play on his name but because he hated koalas. He hated them passionately. In fact, he hated all furry animals, every cute, cuddly mammal in existence. On the other hand, he loved insects. His home was crawling with them, and he often woke up some nights with a laugh as he dug a praying mantis out of his ear or removed a South American longhorn beetle from his genital area. He had never invited a teammate to his home because he knew that they could not understand why the living-room table was a fire-ant colony or why they had to watch every step for fear of crushing one of the thousands of bugs that lined the floors. "The dehydrated larvae of the African chironomid Polypedilum vanderplanki are able to withstand exposure to liquid helium at negative 270 Celsius for up to five minutes," he thought. "How does a shitty koala rate with that?"

Haaskin leaned in for his sign. He was pitching in his first World Series. He was also a serial killer, although he did not classify himself that way. The murders he had committed were understandable, he told himself every night. The first was an accident, the second was to cover up the first, and the third was based on principle. All three bodies were buried in manageable chunks behind Comisky Field. He had not been discovered, and he seriously doubted that he ever would be. He reasoned that even if the corpses were someday uncovered, no one would come knocking on the clubhouse door asking a $3.5 million-a-year pitcher if he knew the deceased. He reassured himself of this fact and of his heroic place in the American culture. Then he whirled his 98-mph fastball perfectly low and inside for strike one.

Martinez caught the ball amid a flurry of boos. He was playing with the fever that would eventually kill him. Today he was hovering around 101 degrees. Doctors were at a loss as to what he had, but they had advised him to rest and skip the World Series. He laughed, and not figuratively, at the suggestion that he skip the highlight of his career just because of some nagging coughs, muscle cramps, swollen glands, and nightmarish hallucinations that ravaged his eyes with psychotic tenderness. During the national anthem, he had looked at the B-level actress who was singing it as her face melted and giant Oompa-Loompas from Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory hacked the shrieking crowd to bits with purple scythes. Despite his illness, however, he was in the running for Series MVP, a rarity for catchers. He was batting .414 with two homers, but he knew that it was only because his bat was telling him what pitches were coming next. "All of us should take turns pitching the fifth, drinking a fifth, then pleading the Fifth," he thought. "That somehow makes sense right now." His catcher's mitt told him to call for a curve so he flashed the signal, and Haaskin acknowledged it.

Slatton watched Haaskin check the runners. The beleaguered first baseman had never measured up to his predecessor, who was not only a Hall of Famer and community leader, but had come right out and said that Slatton sucked. However, the replacement did have his moment in the sun. Just three seasons ago he shockingly came in second in the MVP voting after a stellar year that boggled the mind with its incongruity to his previous career of mediocrity. No one could explain it, during or afterward. But by now he was back to marginal-at-best status, and the White Sox fans sarcastically would start chants of "LVP! LVP!" for Least Valuable Player whenever he batted. His only other claim to fame besides this flukish, career-defying, instant-metaphor season was a rare fantastic fielding play, which happened last year when he made a spectacular backhanded dive of a liner off the bat of C.C. Cooper. Unfortunately, it was during the last game and the last at-bat of the season for Cooper. If the ball had gotten through, it would have been his 3,000th hit. Cooper died in a car accident during the winter, and his career hit total would now read 2,999. Comparisons were made to Clemente, who had just eked it out prior to his own off-season tragedy, and both sportswriters and fans lambasted Slatton for not letting the ball go through. He was easily the most despised man on the diamond.

The runner on first base, Howellman, stood anxiously tapping his foot on the bag. He knew that he was removed from the equation since it was a tie score, the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and two outs. Either Lerchkus scored or they went to the tenth inning, which would be agonizing for all the fans who were ready to bash their heads against lampposts out of sheer Game Seven drama. Howellman's own presence was irrelevant, and he was grateful. When he had stepped up to the plate, and it looked like the White Sox were actually going to pitch to him, he almost pissed the chalk off the batter's box. But then they gave him an intentional pass to load them up, and he happily trotted down to first. "All these assholes keep saying that they love being in that situation," he thought. "With the game on the line, and it all up to them. What a bunch of horseshit. Nobody likes it but sick fucks. I'd rather be here where it's safe. I've done my damn part. Leave that pressure shit to somebody else. Like Mary Lou Retton. She started all that talk about loving pressure." He mentally paused and then added the word "Bitch!" just as Haaskin delivered wide for ball one.

The second baseman, Washington, worked on memorizing his quote to the reporters after the game, when he was sure that he would be drenched in champagne. He and Silverhorn, the runner on his base, dueled for the human-interest story of the Series. Washington felt that he had the lead since Silverhorn was still clearly insane. What Washington had going for him was that he was a future Hall of Famer playing in his first World Series. It would almost certainly be his last too, since he was 42 years old and wouldn't have the energy to make it back to the Show. In addition to his career frustration, ala Ernie Banks, his toddler son died in a freakish fireworks accident two years ago. A Fourth of July party went awry when a bottlerocket whipped between his wife's legs and struck his son right between the eyes. To give him further motivation, his wife left him last year, his mother committed suicide six months ago, and that painful feeling in his groin had just been diagnosed as testicular cancer. "I've got something good coming my way," he thought. "I deserve at least a Series ring. Don't I? Is anybody with me on this one?" And he sweated a little thinking about the alternative.

Silverhorn fidgeted and twitched nonstop as Haaskin threw a slider in the dirt for ball two. Silverhorn had made headline news for his nervous breakdown during the second inning of last year's All-Star Game. When he finally snapped, after years of pent-up neurosis, he ran around the field swatting the bases with a fungo bat, screaming that all their jockstraps were booby-trapped to implode after the seventh-inning stretch. After some time in a sanitarium, he came back and was currently a fan favorite for his courageous stance. "Everybody's trying to make me into some kind of Piersal triumph-of-the-spirit kind of bullshit hero," Silverhorn thought. "But the media and the fans don't realize that I'm far crazier than that guy ever was. I'm still racked out of my fucking gourd in fact. What the hell am I even doing here? Shit."

As Martinez tossed the ball back to his flustered pitcher, Broharder leaned on his third-baseman's glove and tried making some small talk with Lerchkus, but the runner wasn't interested. "Fuck him then," thought Broharder. "He's probably still bitter about his wife taking off on him. And I don't know about the rest of these motherfuckers, but I spell 'team' with an 'i.' " Broharder tried to visualize how a win would help his career. He was in the last year of his contract, coming off a mediocre season, and had been in and out of Rehab so many times that David Crosby looked like a Straight Edger in comparison. Broharder wanted to freebase right now so badly that he could barely breathe. And he knew that he would celebrate any victory with a dash of crystal meth, a huge speedball, and several pops of X. Now that he thought about it, any loss would need to mollified, so he decided that a helping of smack and a big old bag of weed would make it all go away. He had opened his first vein as a Boy Scout, and then as now, he was always prepared. He just wanted the fucking game over.

Lerchkus, standing on third base and bracing himself for a mad dash home, wanted to win as much as anybody on his team. But he especially wanted to score the winning run, to run right past Martinez, who would only be able to watch from behind his catcher's mask. "I can't believe I ever agreed to that wife-swap thing with him," Lerchkus thought. "And his wasn't even that good. It sounded like a good idea when we were all drunk. And when my honey demanded double penetration, what could I do? And when she demanded to be lathered in peanut butter and have all three of us lick it off, what could I do? I was being a damn good sport. And now he's shacking up with both of them. There was no need for that." He continued frowning at the catcher even as a fastball popped into the man's glove for a clean strike two.

The shortstop, Castro, didn't know what was more ridiculous: the fact that as a gay man he made his living playing professional sports and showering with rugged men, or the fact that he was militantly pro-choice, which was a decision that would almost certainly never affect him on any personal level. But he was more concerned at the moment with Koalasky, who must be going through terrific agony under such pressure at the plate, and against his old team, and while staring at the guy who had given him the best blowjob of his life. To this day Castro didn't know how Koalasky knew that he was gay, since he had not initiated the makeout. Maybe he still didn't know and was greatly surprised when his offer of a cocksuck was quickly accepted and reciprocated. But Castro knew that Koalasky wasn't gay. No gay man had ever batted .346.

In left field, Yostes focused his hatred on Lockman for ordering the intentional walk of Howellman. As a minor league pitcher Yostes had cracked two different player's skulls with his fastball solely because they were crowding the plate. The organization immediately moved him, claiming that Ruth and Musial were both former pitchers shifted to the outfield and that he would finish the triumvirate of converted greatness. "It was because they're afraid of me on the mound," Yostes thought. "Afraid I'll show them that these pussy strategies of walks, bunts, and stolen bases are ruining the game. We should catch barehanded. And throw guys out by beaning them with the ball, like in the 1800s. And go for homeruns and brushbacks and full-out brawls like in hockey. A whole league of spineless shitsacks. And if I have to share a locker room with niggers and spicks, they shouldn't be surprised if I wipe myself off with my swastika-emblazoned towel. What's so upsetting about that?"

Standing next to Yostes (but as far away as possible) was the centerfielder Peccolo, who was the only completely calm person in Milwaukee. He knew deep within his heart that no matter what happened it was only a game, that one should control his emotions at all times, and that the inevitability of reincarnation into the exact same temporal dimension meant that everybody had an infinite number of chances to get things precisely right. He had said this to his wife a couple of times, but she only laughed as if he were joking. He certainly was not, but he decided that his wisdom did not have to be passed along to his peers, all of whom would find out for themselves anyway. So he just smiled and watched Haaskin deliver a fastball woefully outside for ball three, making sure to note what was going on so that he could anticipate it perfectly when it all happened again. And he knew that it would.

In right field, Bosslie did algorithms, logarithms, and calculations in his head both to pass the time and, more importantly, to compute the odds of the ball being hit to him. He figured that since Koalasky was a right-handed pull hitter and all other variables were apparently equal, it was about fifteen to one. He liked his chances. He did some random math while Haaskin toed the rubber needlessly. The calculations were pointless. But then again so was his career as far as his family was concerned. His father was the worst, ridiculing him when he called to say that he had won a Gold Glove. "Is that anything like a Field's Medal?" the old man snapped. "I can't believe I raised you to play a game all your life. When are you going to do something with that intelligence of yours?" But Bosslie had no answer. And his explanations that he earned millions of dollars, was on the cover of major magazines, and made thousands of people happy only increased their collective contempt. So he stood there, reciting pi to the thirty-second place, calculating the approximate cubic footage of the stadium, and realizing, abruptly, that Fermat had made the whole fucking thing up.

Bosslie snapped out of his math frenzy when he heard a terrifying crack amid a hellish roar of screaming fans. Koalasky's swing had been late but level, and now the ball was spinning toward the gap between first and second. The horsehide object upon which men bet their fortunes struck the ground just 3.8 inches from the outstretched glove of Washington, who was left with only a few pebbles and a choke of dust in his face as the ball skipped into right field.

Bosslie forgot about calculating the proper asymptote to the hyperbola of the stadium and instead scooped up the ball with his bare hand. He threw it as he calculated the ball's arc, velocity, and trajectory, computed Lerchkus's running speed, and realized that it would be far to late.

Martinez watched the ball as it bounced up the first-base line toward him. It only stopped laughing at him when it rolled into the swarm of fans who were already enveloping home plate, where Lerchkus had just scored the winning run for the Brewers.

The fan who grabbed the ball, Chad, immediately realized that he could sell it for an enormous profit or keep it as a cherished memento. Either way, he instantly knew that it would make up for each and every last shortcoming in his life, such as the fact that he had never had sex with a living person. "Necrophilia gets such a bad reputation," he thought as he caressed the smudged baseball. "I believe that I'm doing a spiritual duty by sending the corpse, be it male or female, away happy. But I would still like to know if I'm technically a virgin or not."

Rogers wanted to yell "Hail Satan!" but instead he just screamed with childish joy as he hobbled onto the field. On the other side of the field, Lockman watched the celebration start, then walked quickly with his head down and cap pulled over his eyes into the clubhouse. He decided at that moment that he would kill himself. But he also decided that he would wait about a month so that the Manager of the Year award could be announced.

The rest of the White Sox got up and followed their manager's lead into the clubhouse. The victorious Brewers hugged, squeezed, and (in one case) tongue kissed as fireworks exploded high above the stadium.

Lerchkus, the man who had scored the winning run, was mobbed by teammates and fans, who hurled themselves into an enormous pile of humanity. Lerchkus found himself at the bottom of this mound of flesh, the weight crushing and the lack of air alarming. He started to scream, but no one could hear him above the cheers and pyrotechnics. His collarbone snapped, several of his ribs gave way, and his appendix ruptured. Ten minutes later they removed his broken body from the pile and carried it into the clubhouse.

He came in second to Silverhorn in the MVP voting.

The party went on all night.

 

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