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Baseball Fiction

A Butterfly's a Butterfly
By Gordon McAlpine
For Don Zappia

Bobby Magee stood on the narrow cement strip between the edge of the bleachers and the visitor's bullpen in right field. He watched a batter nearly three hundred and forty feet away tap clots of hard dirt from his spikes with the fat end of a Louisville Slugger. Bobby Magee stood in this dark hollow every game, leaning one bony hip against the painted railing that separated his spot from the jabbering kids who paid six dollars for a general admission ticket. He hooked the first two fingers of his right hand in the chain link that separated him from the pen; every game, shifting his weight from one leg to the other when he felt the pin pricks crawling up his skin that told him half his body was going to sleep. He thought of the little space, the architectural mistake in the vast, otherwise perfect stadium (a mistake which years before had cost a draftsman his job) as a second home. Sometimes when his wife, Francine Yolanda, was especially difficult, when she nagged about his leaving three hours early to catch the game and claimed she was unable to understand why a man had to see every inning in order to work well with the maintenance crew afterward, he felt that these nine square feet of miscalculated, forgotten concrete constituted the most precious inches in the world.

Bobby Magee had come to possess this space by striking a deal with the head of the maintenance crew. Bobby proposed to work for free one day out of every five if, in return, he could come in early enough to watch all the games from the useless spot just beyond the right field wall. He had discovered the gap one day while sweeping peanut shells tossed down from the upper deck. The crew chief agreed to the plan, though in the eight years of its practice had never gotten around to deducting the 20 percent from his long-time employee's paycheck. He was a fan too. Bobby Magee had never actually thanked the crew chief for his charitable oversight because, as he often pointed out to the infuriation of Francine Yolanda, "Money don't mean a rat's ass to me."

Sometimes, if it was a one-sided game, a bullpen catcher or relief pitcher from the visiting team might carry his folding chair over to the fence beside which Bobby Magee stood. Though he wore no stadium uniform, Bobby's vigilance was usually mistaken by the athletes as the act of a shabby, but nonetheless official, security guard. "No, no. Cleanup crew," he would tell them. Sometimes his thoughts drifted back twenty-five years to a time when he, too, had been a relief pitcher. He told the muscular Yankees and Indians that he had turned down a professional contract at the age of eighteen when he learned that the organization planned to groom him for a few years in the minor leagues. "I ain't, and never was, no minor leaguer," he would conclude. "It was the big leagues or nothin' for me," and in this way he explained away obscurity as easily as he brushed away moths when the summer nights grew warm. Of course, no one believed his story.

On the night of the accident, which was a nationally telecast, prime-time playoff game, Bobby Magee was telling a young reliever about his best pitch:

"Butterfly," he said. "My goddamn legendary butterfly." He clapped his palms together. "Had wings on it. Folks in the stands used to say, 'That boy got butterflies made up to look like baseballs!' Pitch'd float up to the plate, stop, just hang there like on a string, then flutter away before anybody could touch it. And then after the batter'd swung and missed, it'd come to rest right in the catcher's mitt and the ump would be rubbin' his eyes with his fists like he'd just seen somethin' he couldn't believe. Then he'd say, 'Stee-rike three!'"

The young relief pitcher nodded his head and smiled through the chain link at Bobby Magee. "That pitch is called a knuckleball now."

A wide grin spread across Bobby's face. He inhaled and then laughed. "A knuckleball's a knuckleball," he said. "A butterfly's a butterfly."

The distant batter, satisfied now that his sharp spikes were clean and perfect like teeth in a gear, stepped up to the plate. The stadium organist began a cafeteria-style rendition of the old Sinatra song "All the Way" as a kind of musical encouragement to the batter. Bobby Magee sang along as the batter took the first pitch, a low fastball, for a strike. "If you let me love you, it's for sure I'm gonna love you, all the way. . . ."

The umpire's voice carried through the night as he called, Stee-rike! The next pitch, another fastball, came in at the batter's waist but then seemed to rise at the last moment; the batter swung on and missed. The young reliever turned his head away from Bobby and spat out a brown stream of tobacco. Bobby Magee's voice remained deep and full of song: "Who knows where the road may lead us, only a fool would say . . ." Nearby in the bleachers kids yelled obscenities at the distant batter who had stepped out of the box to rub his hands with dirt.

Bobby Magee wrapped a third finger in the chain link and leaned toward the young reliever who sat, just a foot away in the bullpen, on the back of a folding chair with his feet resting on the seat. "If you're wonderin' why I can sing so good," Bobby said, "it's because my daddy was a minister and believed God wanted all his children to be musically trained. So he taught us himself to sing and play. But I gave it up for baseball. My sister jammed once with Dizzy Gillespie for a whole weekend at the Alexandria Hotel." The batter stepped once more to the plate.

The young relief pitcher nodded and Bobby Magee cleared his throat to sing some more. If one were to have watched the two of them in that moment between the time the ball left the pitcher's hand and the time it arrived at home plate, aware by precognition that one of them was only moments away from being called into the bright light of stardom, it would have seemed to almost anyone that the young pitcher's baseball card was about to double or triple in terms of trading power. But it was Bobby Magee, though he didn't know it at the time, who stood at the edge of the light.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2000 issue.

GORDON McALPINE is the author of two novels, Joy in Mudville and The Persistence of Memory. He has published short stories in journals both in the United States and abroad. He lives with his family in California.

© 2000 Gordon McAlpine

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