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BASEBALL FICTION

Concessions for Dr. Strangeglove
By Steven H. Bills

Dick Stuart, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, earned the nickname ≥Dr. Strangeglove≤ because of his penchant for unexpected errors. It is said he once received a standing ovation for capturing a hot dog wrapper swirling in the wind near first base.

When Bill Mazeroski's home run won the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, I drove around the block honking the horn, flashing lights, and waving a Pirates banner. The 10–9 Pittsburgh victory over the hated Yankees was a classic. Anybody who examines the game's box score will find Dick Stuart's name listed as the Pirates' first baseman.

I saw all but three home games that Dick Stuart played for the Salt Lake Bees in 1958. That year I sold concessions at Derks Field, our newly renovated ballpark. My knack for watching the action while pouring drinks for baseball fans was uncanny, if I do say so myself. I didn't like selling soda but I took whatever I was assigned by Becker, the concessions manager. Selling beer was best. Good beer salesmen, guys who hustled, made twenty-five bucks a game. Since I was only fifteen, I was stuck with sodas, Cracker Jacks, peanuts, or hot dogs—but mostly sodas. Early in the season I tried to sell cotton candy but I dumped an entire batch on four ladies with bouffant hairdos. I still have nightmares about hair spray, sticky pink cotton candy, and a quartet of ladies screaming. Becker wanted to fire me on the spot but the general manager intervened and told him to give me another chance.

Working for Becker was not my idea. I had my eye on the batboy job. When I read about batboy tryouts for the new Triple-A ball club, I had visions of wearing that beautiful white uniform I'd seen in the newspaper. After all, who knew more about baseball than I did?

I showed up for tryouts in late March wearing an excited smile that I couldn't erase. When they saw my arm, they looked sympathetic but told me to get lost. My eyes stung with rage and I was breathing so fast I felt like a beached fish as I ran from the park. The general manager witnessed the scene and sent a boy to catch me. My consolation, my "opportunity to be part of the Bees' organization," was Irwin Becker.

"I'm not taking responsibility for this kid getting hurt," Becker warned. "And you better tell the brass to get some insurance because he's going to drop a box of hot dogs on somebody, mark my words."

With all Becker's complaining about me, I didn't expect him to cut me any breaks even when I showed up early for games.

"Tommy, you're selling soda water tonight. Get a box and get to it," he'd order.

"Can't I sell Cracker Jacks? I'll do a good job. I came early tonight," I'd argue.

"You see this picture of the kid on the Cracker Jack box?" Becker asked. "That's what fans expect when they buy Cracker Jacks—not somebody like you."

Anyway, he knew my real reason for coming early was to watch the players take batting practice. I chased down foul balls hit into the stands and asked players to autograph them. By the time Dick Stuart left town, I had thirty-two of his signatures on baseballs and programs in my dresser drawer. Dick got so he recognized me.

"How come you keep asking for my autograph?" he asked.

"I won't be able to get it in Pittsburgh," I replied.

He just smiled.

Dick had hit sixty-six home runs in Double-A ball. I knew all his statistics—numbers that set him apart from the rest of the team. It was only a question of time until the Pirates called him to the bigs.

I had a special aptitude for baseball statistics. I discovered it during a string of hospital stays when I was ten. I devoured dozens of yellowing, crumpled copies of American Baseball Weekly stuffed in the hospital lounge magazine rack. At home Mom complained that I was ruining her newspapers poring over major league box scores. She recognized my interest, however, and for my next hospital trip she bought me a Baseball Almanac which, for all practical purposes, I memorized.

In sixth grade my teacher overheard me explaining batting averages while she was trying unsuccessfully to teach the class percentages. Probing a bit she found out that I already had an advanced statistician's grasp of baseball data. My classmates, who viewed me as an obscure introvert, suddenly recognized my talent. I knew everything about baseball and I proved it. It became a novelty to fire questions at me like, "Who was MVP in '52?" or "Who won the Series in '47?" I pretended to be bored answering them, but I liked the attention.

Capturing a Triple-A franchise after years with just an A-League team captivated Salt Lake City. Stuart's hitting and the aura of upgraded play attracted huge crowds, and concession sales boomed. When the stands were full and the mercury was high, I could earn fifteen dollars a night.

The Bees were mostly young guys, some only eighteen. They acted like they'd been born in a barn, scratching their privates and spitting tobacco juice all over. They swaggered around knowing that with a little luck, they'd be earning fifty or sixty thousand a year in the majors. If one of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Bees' parent club, tore a muscle, broke a bone, or slumped, one of these hotshots would suddenly be called to Pittsburgh. These players sometimes shined under the bright lights and never returned. More often though, they'd be gone for only a week or two, and they'd come back swaggering less.

The Bees also had a few older, experienced players who'd spent time in the majors. They were guys who expected another shot or just didn't want to do anything else in life but play baseball. Dick Stuart had served his time in the minors, nurtured carefully by the Pirates' farm system. He didn't swagger. He let his bat talk, and between innings he sat next to these older players and studied the game in quiet conversation. He appeared to be thinking about hitting all the time.

One night there was a terrible call by the umpire covering third base. He signaled Stuart out when he tried to stretch a double into a triple. The Bees' manager ran full speed from his first base coach's box to intervene and keep his star from being ejected. Stuart's face was sweaty and scarlet, and his uniform was covered with red dirt from the slide. I was selling salted-in-the-shell peanuts in back of third base. I was so close, I could hear every word the manager threw at the dwarfish umpire. The manager kept Stuart out of the argument by inserting himself aggressively in the umpire's face. Nose-to-nose, cap-bill-to-cap-bill, they cursed at each other. To me, the manager's profanity seemed artful. I'd heard plenty of swearing before, but this tirade had passion and purpose. The manager was thrown out when he kicked dirt on the umpire's pants.

The only other adult I'd heard swear so profusely was Becker. Becker's routine, unconscious cursing, really a reflection on his sorry life, had a tone of contempt and wrath. If it weren't for Becker and road games, my life that summer would have been perfect. I had spending money, the team led the league, and I knew with certainty that I was witnessing something extraordinary in Dick Stuart. Baseball had become more than an almanac and box score. Watching people living the game pumped blood into my memorized statistics.

My excitement faded into empty despondence during road trips. Artie, the Bees' radio play-by-play man, had a rich, charismatic smoker's voice during live broadcasts. His description of road games, accounts taken from the news wire, seemed sleepy. These broadcasts, delivered from the station's smoky studio, were marred by ticker tape sounds that were often louder than the phony recorded crowd noises. I think he was as depressed as I was to have the team out of town.

Over time I got to know some of the players, especially the relief pitchers. I stopped by the bullpen two or three times a night to chat, more often when sales were slow or during boring games with lopsided scores. Becker, his little mustache twitching like a snake, forbade me to talk to players—said I was "not authorized." I told him I was practicing Spanish with the Puerto Ricans, and he told me I was only to speak to paying customers. He said a crip like me had no business talking to pure-blooded athletes. Becker had a military crew cut and his forehead always shined. He smelled like sour beer, and sweat from his underarms drenched his un-bleached white shirts.

My mom, a baseball lover herself, didn't like my job. My descriptions of Becker, Artie, and the other concession boys made her think I was mixed up with the wrong crowd. Also, she was afraid I'd fall and break my arm on the stadium's steps. My medical bills had drained her bank account more than once. When I started giving her a few bucks after games, her attitude improved.

Sipping Olympia beer, she'd sit by her radio listening to Artie while waiting for me to come home. She stubbornly refused to go to bed before I arrived. Mom was an office cleaning lady during the day and needed all the sleep she could get. I felt bad that my job kept her up at night. When I was born she wanted me to be a great ballplayer. She put a ball glove in my crib instead of a stuffed animal—a story she'd told me at least a hundred times. My father, her second husband, left us a week after the doctors diagnosed my polio.

"He was a louse. Don't you worry about it, Tommy," she'd say.

I don't worry about it. I missed him for a while, but not now. My left arm is smaller than normal and fairly fragile, but I can still lug a case of soda pop around Derks Field. I haven't broken my arm once since I turned thirteen.

I sold hot dogs a few times when Becker was desperate for help, but my bad arm made that difficult. I burned my hand getting the hot dogs out of the heater and onto the buns. They gave us tongs, but I couldn't manipulate them. Grabbing hot dogs barehanded not only burned me, but also made customers mad.

"What are you trying to do kid, give us polio?" one incensed customer yelled, throwing his unpaid-for hot dog on the ground. Sometimes selling soda was my best option, I guess.

One Monday night Derks was packed—family night with discount seats. It was so hot I sold five cases of soda before the first inning ended. I'd just finished selling Dr. Peppers to two gorgeous blonds with blue eyes who went to my school. They acted like they'd never seen me before, but I'd been in homeroom the previous year with one of them and I knew she recognized me. They were trying to flirt with Roberto Sandoval, a nineteen-year-old Dominican relief pitcher. They chanted his name, stuck their chests way out, and took short puffs on cigarettes to get his attention.

"I'll introduce you to Roberto," I offered. "But he doesn't speak much English. You might not have much luck with conversation."

"It's not conversation we have in mind," they pointed out.

I approached Roberto from the seats adjacent the bullpen and told him that these two chicas wanted to meet him. He looked hungrily at the girls and tried to talk to them in broken English. They were obnoxiously blocking the view of some fans who started yelling, "Down in front."

One of the girls playfully tried to grab Roberto's hat and spilled her Dr. Pepper all down his pressed white uniform. The other relief pitchers scattered to avoid the mess, causing quite a commotion. At the same time the Phoenix Giants were in the process of lighting up the Bees' starting pitcher, and the bench signaled Sandoval to warm up. The girls scrambled back to their seats, and I slouched down in the aisle where I could watch without making any customers mad. Five minutes later they called Roberto in to pitch. I wanted to die watching that Dr. Pepper stain saunter into the game. It was all over the seat of his pants.

Even with nine thousand people in the stands, Becker found me. He grabbed the half-sold case of soda, let it crash to the concrete floor, yanked off my paper hat, and ripped the apron over my bad arm. I could feel the entire stadium staring.

"Tommy, you're so stupid I can't believe it. I told you you're not authorized to talk to the pitchers and now you spill Coke all over that guy's uniform—what in the hell are you thinking?"

"It was Dr. Pepper," I said.

"Don't get smart with me or I'll kick your ass. You're suspended for two weeks. I don't want to see you around here unless you buy a ticket. Thanks to you the general manager called and chewed my ass. Did you see what happened to that guy's uniform? After all I've done for you—giving you a break like this. My God, I thought he'd shit his pants. I ought to make you pay for the cleaning. Now, go on home."

"But Mr. Becker," I pleaded, rubbing my throbbing arm, "I need the money, and it won't happen again. You know I sell soda better than anybody else does."

"I don't want to see you for two weeks, do you hear me?" Becker snapped.

Someone yelled, "Give the kid a break," and another guy called out, "You guys make better doors than windows."

The inning had ended and when I looked down at the field, I saw Dick Stuart glimpse up at me as he entered the dugout. Dejectedly, I walked home. When I thought about it, it didn't bother me so much. In two days the Bees were leaving for an eight-game road trip, so I'd only miss the last two against Phoenix and the first of the Sacramento series. I didn't know what to tell Mom—I guessed I'd just get sick.

In the three home games I missed, Dick Stuart hit five home runs.

On my first day back, Becker glared at me over his half-glasses, his forehead glowing like a beacon. "Has it been two weeks already?"

I nodded.

"I'll give you another chance, but this isn't a charity."

I didn't look at him. When I put a five-dollar bill on his counter to get change, he shorted me thirty-five cents. At the beginning of the season he'd done that to me all the time. He thought I didn't notice, but I was just too scared of him to say anything. I glared at Becker, knowing I'd have to get my change other places that night. Becker cheated all the new kids, especially if they were timid or too lazy to count. I'll bet he made thirty bucks a game off easy marks. But after missing three important games, putting up with Becker seemed like a small price to pay.

Artie broadcast the games alone—they couldn't afford a color analyst, I guess. On the night I returned from suspension, the crowd was thinning early since the Bees had given up eleven runs in the first two innings. Artie signaled to me that he wanted a Coke, so I tiptoed into the radio booth. He was doing filler stats on the players since the game was so uninteresting. I poured his drink in a paper cup and handed it to him. He smiled, mouthed a thank you, and slipped me his money. Dick Stuart was about to hit, so Artie was rifling through his notebook getting ready to read Stuart's career statistics for anybody still listening.

I could hardly believe my ears. Artie must have read the wrong line because the stats he gave were way off. Lifetime batting average, RBIs, doubles, triples, home runs—all wrong! I was so dumbfounded by the errors, I couldn't help myself. I started correcting him right on the air—directly into his microphone. I babbled but I definitely gave the right numbers and I pointed out what a totally dominating player Stuart was in this league and how lucky we were to have him. It never crossed my mind that I was going out over the air until I saw that Artie's face had turned white. He put his hand over the mike and pointed to the door. I felt awful that Artie was mad at me, but it was just like getting quizzed in the hallway at school. I knew the answers and out they came.

I stole out of the press box as unobtrusively as possible, afraid that I'd really finished myself this time. Becker listened to the games and if he'd heard me, I was dead. Rushing to distance myself from the scene, I stopped to sell 7-Ups to a family listening to Artie on their transistor radio.

"Baseball fans, last inning a young man stopped by the booth to visit. He pointed out that I made a few mistakes in Dick Stuart's statistics. I want to thank that young man; he did a great job. I'm going to get my glasses checked first thing tomorrow," said Artie good-naturedly.

I turned toward the press box, and there he was in back of the glass smiling and waving. I lifted my hat with my good arm and waved back.

Sales were slow. In the bottom of the eighth with the Bees trailing by fifteen runs, it started to rain. I thought that the umpires would call the game, especially when thunder boomed to the south. When Stuart came to bat, I ducked under an overhang and put my sodas down to relieve my aching left arm. Stuart ground his cleats into the mud at the back of the batter's box.

The first pitch, a fastball, sailed four feet over the heads of the catcher and umpire, smashing into the backstop, jingling the screen. Sacramento's pitcher had coasted through the game but was obviously tiring. The pelting rain soaked his uniform, making it a much darker gray than the dry uniforms of his teammates in the dugout. I could hear the infielders whistling and yelling encouragement. The catcher walked halfway to the mound rubbing the ball dry, probably trying to make the umpires sense the severity of the storm so they'd stop play.

As long as I live, I won't forget the next pitch. Maybe thunder clapped at the same instant, but I saw and felt an explosion off Stuart's bat. The ball disappeared faster and higher over the left field wall than any home run I've ever seen. It climbed into the rain and vaporized into the night sky before Dick started his jog around the bases. I hate to clap because I can't get much sound out of my hands, but in that instance I clapped, yelled, and whistled as loud as I could. Even in the downpour, the Bees surrounded home plate to greet him in reverence.

Becker tapped me on the shoulder in the midst of my cheering and brought me back to reality.

"Hey, we're going to shut down. All the paying customers went home—along with that damn excuse for a pitcher the Bees put out there. Go turn your stuff in."

"Did you see that home run?" I asked breathlessly.

He ignored me and walked away. I guess I shouldn't have expected much from a guy like that; he probably wouldn't know Dick Stuart if he walked up to him in his uniform. The soda box was heavy as we trudged along. I wanted to throw it down and run away. I think I understood the way Becker treated me—but to be so totally oblivious to greatness nearby seemed disrespectful.

Becker swung around suddenly and glared. "Tommy, I could have sworn I heard you on the radio talking with Artie. Was that my imagination?"

"You think you heard me on the radio?" I replied sarcastically.

"Yeah, you're right. What the hell am I thinking about? A dumb shit like you on the radio—that'll be the day," he said, shaking his head.

When I got home that night, Mom was gushing. She'd heard me, of course, and must have called everybody she knew. She smothered me in kisses and helped me take off my wet shirt. She scrubbed off the blue ink that had run from my paper hat onto my forehead in the rain. She'd made a tuna sandwich for me and had poured a glass of milk that was already warm. All the time I ate, she was on the phone gabbing with her friends, bubbling about me being on the radio.

The final game of the Sacramento series was a turning point for me. I found out later that Artie had come to see Becker, not to complain exactly, but just to ask who I was and how I knew so much.

I arrived at the ballpark earlier than usual, surprised to see a crowd around the front gate. It was a hot night, perfect for baseball under the stars. Fans a dozen deep swarmed the newsstand. My heart turned over in my chest when I heard the newsboys yelling.

"Extra, extra, read all about it. Stuart called up by Pirates—last game tonight in Salt Lake."

I shoved my way through the crowd, straining to read the article as papers were snatched from the newsstand. How could this happen in the middle of the season? I'd forgotten that this was the way things worked. They'd been watching him. They knew he was ready.

"Hey One Arm, you gotta buy it to read it," snapped the boy selling papers.

I wanted to smack him and show him how strong my good arm was, but I just pushed him aside and kept walking, my throat clenched.

Dick Stuart was going to the big leagues. I told myself immediately that I could still see him on TV once in a while. I hurried inside, hoping to get a glimpse of his farewell batting practice.

I was so distracted that I really didn't expect Becker's histrionic assault. He reached over the distribution counter and slapped me in the face. When he grabbed my shirt, every button popped off onto the floor. His little cigar fell on the counter and the blood vessels in his forehead looked like they were going to burst. I stood there looking at my own bare chest and watched blood drip onto the cement from my nose.

"You shit, Tommy! It was you up in the press box last night. You think you're some big shot around here and you can just lie to me? If you weren't a cripple, I'd pound you one," he screamed.

I grabbed the cigar off the counter and threw it at him. Then I tipped over the cash register and it landed squarely on Becker's foot. He started jumping around, swearing and moaning like he might die.

Before the ambulance arrived for Becker, the security guard, who'd witnessed the incident, gave me a handful of napkins for my nose. He winked and told me it would be better if I gave up my career in concessions. Then he mentioned that there were some very good seats in back of first base still vacant if I wanted to watch the game.

— EFQ

STEVEN H. BILLS lives in Virginia, but frequently visits San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium while on business, and recommends fish tacos at their concession stand. (Boog's Barbecue at Camden Yards is a close second.) He opposes the designated hitter and believes with all sincerity that Tony Gwynn is Achilles reincarnated. This is his first published fiction.

© 2000 Steven H. Bills

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