by Stan Jacoby
Hard Ball Times Oct. 30, 2014
Editors Note: What follows is an excerpt from an illustrated book in progress about baseball’s afterlife.
Satan challenged God to a baseball game. “You can’t win,”
God told him.“I’ve got all the good players: Buck Ewing,
Jim O’Rourke, King Kelly, Ed Delahanty.” “That’s okay,”
the Devil replied. “I’ve got all the umpires.”
1. Ultimo Posto
Ring Lardner helped me to my feet.
“You’re no athlete,” he observed, though not unkindly,
“so you must be here for the tour.”
We entered a decrepit stadium
full of howls, sighs and obscene chants.
The light there, as intermittent
as a dark street’s when the doors of dives
are thrown open and slammed shut,
picked out great performers.
“I’m a frequent visitor,” the writer said.
“New talent’s pouring in,
after the false start of 1919.”
Glowing cinders littered the grounds.
Before us and turned against themselves,
Marichal fought to keep his bat from his head
and Alomar belled with saliva.
The pair could only follow us with their eyes
as we left them rooted to their rage.
Touch of Evil McLain could move
but with each roll groaned, being the size and shape
of the organ he pedaled between convictions.
Packs of rotund and bald imps
harried tottering Martinez,
who’d thrown down furious old Zimmer.
We skirted quicksand that reached
the hairline of the bronze profile of Perry,
sunk unrepentant in expectorate.
The buzzcut aggression of Rose
blurred between telephone calls
as the celebrated hustler
frantically placed losing bets
and climbed a cartoon severed rope
above mortarboarded demons.
As we reached the infield, my guide paused.
“Several of the figures we’ve encountered,” he said,
“though gifted and admirable,
became the public memories
of their worst moments, their achievements
at best framing their failures.
They ultimately betrayed themselves.
Now we’ll meet characters
who poisoned the air they breathed.”
Presently Cicotte et al
came into view, the banned members
of the Black Sox, Pompeian Chicago,
hollows in the pyroclastic flow
of their disgrace, better preserved
than murders in a bog.
Not even the blank eyes of these outcasts
could shift as our contorted shadows
passed over their eroded forms.
I had to speak: “Everybody knows
how Comiskey treated his players.”
“Here they are,” my guide said and walked on.
But I couldn’t question further
the justice of their fate.
Durocher demanded attention,
the miraculous cheat who’d stolen signs
and unwittingly hobbled his own players,
who still won despite that distraction.
So the victory cigar between his teeth
blows up in his face at intervals
for eternity. “Lardner,” he roared,
“Why do you show our misery to this shavetail?”
Jamming his scorched puss into my face,
he bellowed, “You couldn’t carry
Ernest L. Thayer’s jock!” I thought I’d go Furillo.
“Shut yer yap, unquiet spirit,”
my guide commanded. Sneering and glowering,
the bantam fraud stalked off. We made our way
across the blackened diamond
and heard an explosion behind us.
I began to see what lay ahead.
An inch from home, never closer, stood
or extended the best of their time,
the fantastic, mountainous growths
that had been McGwire, Clemens and Bonds.
The uncontrolled proliferation
of their bodies had shredded their uniforms
and billowed high above us
in sagging towers and domes.
As clouds change their shapes
from horses to flung oatmeal,
so these figures had mutated
and, I thought, would someday fill
every cranny of the stadium
and collapse that tottering structure
after pulping the last spectators
who couldn’t save themselves.
A piercing keening emanated
from distended features, maybe the wind
whistling over escarpments of flesh,
or the sound of unavailing remorse.
Dazed by all I’d seen, I’d put
one foot in front of another
and stepped on the plate, but not before
I reflexively snatched a charred scrap
of newsprint scudding past me
in the guttering light and saw this:
THE 1899 CLEVELAND SPIDERS
Leo Durocher, Mgr.
STARTING LINEUP BULLPEN BENCH
2B Roberto Alomar Gaylord Perry Jason Giambi
OF Manny Ramirez Pedro Martinez Pete Rose
OF Barry Bonds Roger Clemens Miguel Tejeda
1B Mark McGwire Juan Marichal Ken Caminiti
OF Sammy Sosa Andy Pettitte Ryan Braun
SS Alex Rodriguez Denny McLain Jose Canseco
C Mike Piazza Lefty Williams Gary Sheffield
3B Heinie Zimmerman Eric Gagne Benito Santiago
P Eddie Cicotte
2. Le Leghe di Bush
“Not since Finley’s ball rabbit
have I seen such an entrance.
May I ask how you came to be here?”
Red Barber waited as I gathered my wits.
At length I said, “Through no intention of my own,
I left car and monitor behind.
My journey began when I attended
a local game. Burdened with cares,
I saw little of that contest and less
of a line drive till I made out
I’ve just been ejected from a region
of badly-lit torment.”
The sportscaster nodded: “Where you’ve arrived
is no Decoration Day picnic.
The bus rides of this farm team, let’s say,
are lengthy trials, though all know they end.
Under expiatory affliction
is barely contained joy.”
We crossed a street lined with Studebakers
and Packards and were thumbed into a ballpark
by a seamed gatekeeper. Scattered claps
mixed with catcalls in half-filled stands
as players snared grounders and shagged flies.
That afternoon was hot if you wore
a wool uniform all summer
on patchy but resolute grass.
Hornsby and Jeter stood near second,
the latter not wasting words.
The opinionated half
of that keystone duo addressed us:
“Even my unrivalled ability
wouldn’t excuse a callous
and inconsiderate manner.
One would be a damned fool to lose
any chance to express regret therefore.
It’s not enough to pluck out the offending eye.
You must cauterize the socket.
Do you realize how unpleasant I’ve been?”
By then we’d passed Lajoie wind-sprinting for bunts
from left field, where a third baseman
had once played to help him steal a batting crown.
Famously abrasive Philadelphians
Grove and Allen walked arm in arm
in foul territory, locked in mutual solicitude.
A tall player ran toward us in a union suit,
pursued by police, “Red,” he cried,
“how much longer must I suffer
for a few underwear ads?”
“This isn’t Olympus, Palmer,”
my guide answered. “A little modesty
and contrition might serve you well.”
He motioned to me to follow him
to the shade of a high board fence.
“There are drinking men here,” he said,
“tedious egotists and insolent scofflaws,
and others quick with their tempers.
They require seasoning before they can leave.
If any came close to disgrace,
the line wasn’t crossed, that none of us can see by ourselves.”
We continued along the fence’s advertisements
and discovered Ford in the bullpen,
at work by a pyramid of baseballs.
“Gentlemen,” the lefty addressed us,
“here I get to replace the cover
of every ball I modified.
You should have seen the heap when I started.”
We waved to the resourceful Yankee
and Barber couldn’t help noting
that for one twelve-month stretch
nobody’s choice as the greatest pitcher
was the most successful.
Few doubted Cobb was best in his prime
but finding him on even that field
of deferred dreams astonished me.
His predatory gaze registered us
and moved on, seeking worthier opponents.
In disbelief, I asked my guide,
“Why isn’t this Bengal submerged
in a river of blood
or sent packing by the other players?”
Barber fixed me with his own clear gaze:
“He always had to be first.
He’ll be the last to leave here.
It will take time to hammer
the obdurate viciousness
from his incandescence as a competitor.”
As I turned away from the feral Peach,
I saw Ruth, Mays and Mantle,
out of uniform and shaking hands
with former teammates in the dugout.
“Yes,” Barber said, “being most loved,
they’re closest to their release.”
Eager to meet them before they went,
I left my guide and started running
toward that shadowy opening.
Not even Mays could catch me
when I missed the top step and a space
in the bat rack became a light show.
THE 1937 NEWARK BEARS
John McGraw, Mgr.
REGULARS STAFF RESERVES
1B Jimmie Foxx Pete Alexander Dick Allen
2B Rogers Hornsby Whitey Ford Nap Lajoie
SS Derek Jeter Greg Maddux Bad Bill Dahlen
3B Mike Schmidt Jim Palmer Wade Boggs
OF Babe Ruth Ferguson Jenkins Mickey Mantle
OF Ty Cobb Dizzy Dean Willie Mays
OF Tris Speaker Lefty Grove Ted Williams
C Mickey Cochrane Bob Gibson Bill Dickey
3. Lo Spettacolo
A small plaque celebrating the members
of a city’s champion club
gradually was supplanted
by what I saw as I found myself
in the middle of an open field
between two chalk lines vanishing into the distance.
A host of fans murmured in bleachers
and lawn chairs along those lengths.
Shouting and laughter surfaced on those seas.
There was no sign of paid admission
or uniformed security.
Sound wasn’t enhanced.
No Stalin-sized images Bullwinkled
over the fresh numbers added
by hand to unobtrusive scoreboards.
Instead, a light breeze came and went
between infinite blades of grass
and uncounted, knowledgeable witnesses.
The Father of Baseball stepped out of the crowd:
“I’ll answer your questions, if you wish.
You might have drawn Roger Angell or Pete Palmer.
We’ve been appraising Sy Berger’s new cards.
Have some. I admit I’m partial to the Bid McPhee.
But look at that Clyde McCullough.”
I know I saw what he meant.
“The best gift,” Henry Chadwick continued,
“is the ability to range anywhere
through an inexhaustible pastime.
I’ve watched Pete Reiser and Herb Score
as they extended their careers.
I’ve seen Sandy Koufax Alexander Oakland,
Josh Gibson lead Bill Veeck’s Phillies
to National League pennants.”
He moved about easily,
not depending as I had
on a series of violent accidents
which left me grateful and apprehensive.
“Has Cy Young won 2,500 games?”
I asked. “No,” Chadwick answered. “Being a fair hitter,
he’s played first base for Louisville and Baltimore,
then managed a club back in Ohio.
What exist here, you should understand,
are names in faithful translation.
Some are immobilized in ignominy,
others scuff under disrepute.
Now contemplate Honus Wagner, Satchel Paige,
Yogi Berra and Roberto Clemente.
Illness cut short the career of Jim Greengrass
after two good seasons in Cincinnati,
but just think of him
and the ground’s measured in leagues.”
Though no announcement had been made
and umpires hadn’t appeared,
I realized that a doubleheader
was about to begin. The crowd seemed ready
without impatience. A great pleasure
was in the offing, yet already present
in expectation and for adepts it wouldn’t be over
once experienced. Genomic accounts
would record Frank Crosetti’s signs.
I knew I’d be leaving the field
any moment, lucky
to have felt it under my feet.
I asked a final question:
“You know what it’s like where I’m going,
made less endurable by what I’ve seen here.
Money, which once had its uses,
in response to a climate change
accelerating through minds and pockets,
front offices and sand lots,
like kudzu along a Georgia highway
became a weed species replacing
all other considerations, about the time
of the excellent remake
of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
An emptied person would collapse
and a nude, hard-eyed replica
would point and shriek at Donald Sutherland.
How can anything survive
that cellular transformation,
so measurably superior?”
Chadwick looked up and said, “Yes, Brooke Adams.
There aren’t so many reasons
to voluntarily wake up
we’d let one go through our hands.
Can my robot track your android’s delivery?
Ants fighting over a doughnut
would seem more consequential to us.”
The crowd stirred as the first three ballplayers
came out of the dugout and onto the diamond.
THE 1927 CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Gil Hodges, Mgr.
STARTING LINEUP BULLPEN BENCH
2B Jackie Robinson Carl Hubbell Buck O’Neil
OF Stan Musial Sandy Koufax Charlie Gehringer
SS Honus Wagner Satchel Paige Arkie Vaughan
C Josh Gibson Herb Score Harmon Killebrew
1B Lou Gehrig Warren Spahn Roberto Clemente
OF Joe DiMaggio Cy Young Pete Reiser
OF Mel Ott Walter Johnson Willie Stargell
3B Brooks Robinson Dan Quisenberry Yogi Berra
P Christie Mathewson
My ability to see faded, yet the brilliance
of Christie Mathewson, Lou Gehrig
and Jackie Robinson made possible
a last glimpse of that playing field
as spectators rose together
through still audible applause
in a green flash you might compare
to that of a sun sinking
in the water under clouded stars.