By Larry Smith
Guys like Bernie Fuller who are intellectuals like baseball a lot more than other sports. Bernie says it’s the poet’s game. He says that you can find whole sections of books like the Baseball Encyclopedia full of witty things that baseball people, and not just Yogi, have said. Not so with football or basketball. Not so at all. He says many great writers have written stories about baseball but hardly any about football or basketball.
Guys like Bernie Fuller never leave a game before it’s over and look down on people like Dodger fans who do. That’s all well and good but sometimes I think it’s ridiculous. In fact, Bernie was one of maybe – what, twenty fans total? – who actually were still in their seats when we came up in the bottom of the ninth in the game against Elmira. Damn, I would have loved to have gotten out of there myself if I weren’t on the team. What was the point? Every damn pitch is a poem? No, every damn pitch is not a poem, not when you’re down 11-2 in the bottom of the ninth in a game that doesn’t even have anything to do with the standings. But there sat Bernie and those nineteen other brave souls. I just think it’s weird.
When it was finally over, sixteen jillion hours later, Bernie bought me a beer because he wanted to talk about it. What was there to talk about, for crying out loud? But Bernie wanted to talk, so we talked. He said the game today was the purest example of existential futility, if I’m spelling it right, that he had ever experienced.
“What do you mean?” I asked. And from what he said, I take it to mean that you try and fight your heart out in a situation that you would never have chosen to fight your heart or anything else out about, in fact you’d already gotten to the point of happily accepting defeat and not giving a shit, but there you are anyway, fighting your heart and everything else out, and then you lose, and you’re as disappointed and exhausted as if you’d been fighting for your sister’s good name in the first place.
When I say exhausted, I mean exhausted. It’s nine months later and I’m still exhausted. Whenever I think about it, I can’t do nothing. I’m just exhausted. And since I keep thinking about it, I’m always exhausted. That’s pretty tragic, don’t you think, which reminds me of something else Bernie Fuller said when we were having that beer. “Baseball is the real theater of American tragedy, the perfect form of tragedy on the proverbial field of dreams,” he said. He said it does for America what he said the opera — I think it’s called Electric by Strauss — does for the Germans much more really than Vagner and what Carmen does for somebody or another guy who used to love Vagner but outgrew it.
But I’m telling you, we weren’t just down 11-2 in the bottom of the ninth, we were down 11-2 with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Then we get to the top of the order and Dickie Johansen, damn his eyes, is up against Darnell Gibbons. It’s lefty on lefty so I start to head to the locker room when Dickie dribbles down the third base line and it stays fair and he’s on. Ok, but then Ralph Manone draws a walk on a full count. Full count, mind you, so ten more minutes of my life go down the toilet. I’m figuring Leon Botterdammer who’s up next is eager to go home to his wife before she does something stupid again, so I figure he’ll wave three times and that’s that. O me of little faith, he hits a hanging slider 400 feet in the general direction of Valparaiso.
Nobody high-fived him in the dugout, I assure you. “I just couldn’t lay off,” says Leon Botterdammer, sounding a mite sheepish to these ears. “It was really fat,” he says.
“So’s your head,” I tell him.
Oh for joy, it’s now 11-5, praise be the name Leon. Now Charlie Ingelstodder decides he needs some pine tar before he gets in the box next, and I start to think this is all a practical joke at my expense, especially when Ingelstodder bends over to adjust his shoelaces. “Another human rain delay,” mutters the Skip, but I don’t see nothing except impassive faces on our bench, including his. If this is all a joke, they’re not showing it. Meanwhile I’m trying to contain my annoyance but I’ve never been too good at that. Fucking Ingelstoddder, if you’ll excuse my French, steps out of the box twice – twice – on a 2-2 count. Then Gibbons grooves a fast ball and Charlie lines it to right for a hit.
I couldn’t have asked for worse because now the Elmira manager, what’s his name, Mereshotovsky or Mereshowitz or whatever, has no choice but to make a pitching change. So out he comes, at a snail’s pace to give his reliever extra throws in the bullpen. He gets to the mound, there they talk. High-level discussion, Obama and Putin. Pat on Darnell’s ass. In comes Sanchez, not running but walking, mind you. Warm-up throws. Chats with the fucking catcher.
Righty on righty then, our third baseman Garrett Swenson at the plate. Sensible fellow, Swenson, good solid stock, nice family at home he’s hoping to get home to, or so I thought. Garrett bunts. Son of a bitch, Garrett bunts because their third baseman had been even with the bag. So now Garrett’s on first, the majestic Mr. Ingelstodder on second.
Hello, I’m up! I can take fate right in my hands if I want, just pop it up easy, but you know what Bernie Fuller said to me when we were having that beer? He said that at that moment I was condemned to be free. “No Bernie,” I told him, “I was condemned to be stupid.” Sanchez hung a curve on the first pitch and I split the outfielders. I pulled into second and, running with two outs, both Inglestodder and Swenson scored. 11-7, lucky numbers for somebody.
Here comes Vic Duhenny who hasn’t hit a lick in weeks. “Vic, you can’t du henny thing,” Manone taunted him before the game and waited for the rest of us to laugh. Sure enough, Sanchez throws two off-speed pitches and Duhenny looks awful, swinging like a spaz. Then Sanchez wastes one and then he comes with the high hard one, so to speak. Duhenny offers at it like a sucker but, believe it or don’t, catches a little piece underneath and dumps it in shallow center. I could have tried to score and maybe gotten thrown out and maybe ended the agony. But I’m a professional, you know what I mean. I mean, you just got to do the right thing no matter how much it hurts.
Joe Ruiz, the best catcher I’ve ever played with, stands in, but he’s only a .215 hitter. You know what? You know what suddenly came over me? We were down four with two on. Damn, I was getting into it now despite myself. Maybe we could win, maybe we should win. What a story that would be for the reporters, a bottom-of-the-ninth ten-run comeback after two outs. Man, that was a story to shoot for! Mereshotovsky or Mereshowitz or whatever now wants to pull Sanchez and bring in another righty, Lou Lovallo, who pitched two innings yesterday and is probably tired. Now the wait is just as awful and maybe worse because it’s a different kind of awful. Goddamn thing got interesting. Hope springs eternal. Man, I hate baseball.
Oh yeah, it gets worse because Joe’s at-bat is just sheer torture. He lays off one pitch that I would have hammered and the thing gets to 2-2. In comes Lovallo with a cutter and I could have sworn it caught the corner. The ump starts to pump his arm but in a split second he thinks better of it. My heart stopped. Lovallo jumps off the mound and all he can think to scream is, “crap, crap, crap.” Like I say, the guy was tired to begin with, and now he’s rattled.
He buries one in the dirt, and their catcher, Suggs I think his name is, fires down to first. The throw pops out of the first baseman’s glove and rolls toward second, but the second baseman was behind his bag almost in shallow center. So I race home and now we’re three runs down with two on because Joe won’t let himself get jammed and walks on the inside pitch.
“Don’t let Holloway swing for the fence,” I beseeched the Skip when I got back to the dugout. Holloway is pinch-hitting for whichever one of our Godforsaken pitchers had finished the top of the inning.
“I already told him,” he says.
Mereshotovsky or Mereshowitz or whatever goes out to the mound and I figure he’ll pull Lovallo and bring in a lefty to face the lefty Holloway. Lo and behold, Mereshotovsky or Mereshowitz or whatever must have liked what Lovallo said to him because he scoots back to his dugout and leaves him in the game. That’s what they call counter-intuitive.
“Let’s get cute,” the Skip says and cute he gets. The first pitch is a fastball and he’s figuring the next one will be slow, so he calls a double steal even though it won’t bring the tying run to second. Skip is counting on the element of total surprise and Ruiz is a pretty good runner for a catcher. Well, Lovallo surprises us and throws another fastball but it’s well off the plate and Suggs I think his name is has to dive for it. Safe all around.
Lovallo is rattled again and Mereshotovsky or Mereshowitz or whatever finally brings in the lefty, I think his name is McKenna. His first pitch is way high, and the next one is outside, and Holloway figures he’ll groove the next one. Holloway figures right and doubles over the right fielder’s head. Now it all comes down to where it began, with the Right Honorable Dickie Johansen who started the existential futility in the first place. We had come back against impossible odds and we’re only one solid single away.
Now, friends, Dickie Johansen is a shortstop and a very good one. But he weighs 110 pounds after three six-packs. He’s hit two home runs all season and I think both were off his girlfriend. The first pitch is low and then my heart stopped because it looked to me like Johansen was getting ready to muscle up. Oh for Chrissakes, don’t do that! The pitch is a fast ball in and the little twerp tees off and he, well he shellacs it. Yes, he does. I’ve never seen him hit a ball harder. In fact, he shellacs it about 300 feet to dead left.
But friends, aggrieved as I am to tell you this, the fence in dead left is 305 feet.
“Johansen started it and Johansen ended it,” I said to Bernie Fuller over that beer. “Too bad he started it. Too bad he ended it.”
“The next time, it’ll be the other guy who gets the shitty end of the stick,” said Bernie.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said.
Bernie smiled. “Besides, you know what they always say. ‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’”
“I know,” I said. “That’s the problem.”
Copyright Smith 2016