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BASEBALL FICTION

The Pariah
By Glen Singer

Everybody hates me. Half the people in America. Guys in Japan. Even Commies in Cuba. And for what? For helping my team to win a pennant and a World Series? For being a team guy? For doing something better than someone else? Of course, that someone else was a god, and I definitely don't fit into the god category. There are few blue-collar stars. Few .257 heroes.

What really burns me the most is that all these baseball millionaires, these ten-million-dollar-a-year guys with their stock portfolios, tacky mansions, vintage car collections, nutso groupies, and steroid habits suddenly go historic on me. Guys that never heard of Rogers Hornsby, Paul Waner, Stan Musial, or—God forbid!—Dusty Rhodes start drooling platitudes about the sanctity of the game and the holiness of its never-to-be-broken records. Give me a break. The irony of it all is that I'm the one who cared. I'm the one who worshiped at baseball's shrine. I'm the one who prostrated myself at the feet of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. I'm the one who would've licked the boots of Ozzie Smith.

I can put my finger on the exact day, almost the exact hour that this whole, weird journey started—just like the Play of the Game that they have on the post-game shows.

I grew up in St. Louis, a place where baseball is not a game, but a religion—the religion. I was ten years old. It was late June. I came home at twilight—from playing ball, naturally, and my mother was in the teeny garden in back of our flat, pulling up the last of the weeds from around the marigolds and petunias. The cicadas were sawing away, making that humid tree noise of theirs, just like on every other summer night. The old man was in the kitchen with a few empty cans of Bud lined up in a neat row, working his way through a fourth or fifth one. On the table in front of him was his bible, the 1975 edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia.

He looked tired and sad. I could tell he was in his philosophic mode. "Com'ere, Brian. Take a look."

Well, I goggled at a page, which was covered with player records, little tables and columns of numbers. Of course, I could read them, knew what they all meant. He'd seen to that from the time I could read anything. Nothing special there, no Cardinal greats. I saw Tris Speaker and Chris Speier, names I knew. He pointed a blunt, stained finger at Al Spangler. I looked again, nothing special: a thirteen-year career, four teams, .262 lifetime average, twenty-one career home runs.

"Son, I'd give my left nut to've been Al Spangler."

I gawked more and shuffled my feet.

"Tell you why. Look at this guy. Nothing spectacular, a good solid outfielder. He could go get the ball, never embarrassed himself with his fielding, not like ol' Banana Nose Zeke Bonura or that idiot Dick Stuart—goofy ol' Dr. Strangeglove. Always the most important rule: Be able to field your position. Could hit good enough to hang around the big leagues for quite a while. That's the icing on the cake. Hit good enough to hang around."

I stood there with my mouth open, dangling.

"Brian, I don't think that you're reading me," he said. "The point is that if I could've done that—been a solid major league player, I'd be the happiest, most satisfied guy on this whole damn planet."

Then, I asked one of my stupidest questions ever: "Why your left nut?"

He looked at me a second, then pointed at the page. "See for yourself, kid. Al was a lefty all the way, threw and batted from the left. Southpaw."

Well, that became my mantra: I'd-give-my-left-nut-to-be-Al-Spangler. I'd-give-my-left-nut-to-be-Al-Spangler. I whispered it on the sandlots, in Little League games, on college playing fields, and spoke it to the mirror in my room as I stood there taking practice cuts, night after night. Sweet voices whispered it in my dreams. If I played in the NBA, I'd probably have it tattooed in bright, ugly colors somewhere prominent on my body.

And, I was a pretty good ballplayer—all the way through American Legion, park leagues, and junior college. I ran good, moved good, and learned to field my way around second base. Learned to keep my eye on the ball, not flinch or blink, make the pickups like in a textbook, and to throw sidearm on the run. Learned to turn the double play smooth as silk pie. All the time I was coming up, I never used anything but a wood bat. No aluminum pop for me. That's probably what the scouts noticed, a kid using a Louisville Slugger, building solid numbers, no inflation. It may have been what got me my contract. The Cardinals drafted me in the eleventh round. What a day! I couldn't have been happier. And the old man, well, he was ready to climb the stairway to heaven.

Dreams? You never get the whole deal. After I had two pretty good years in the low minors, the Cards threw me into a five-player deal with the Cubs—the damn Cubs, of all teams. But, I plugged away for three more, and then got the call. My whole family got to see me play in Busch Stadium and even cheered me when I came to bat for the bad guys. I was on the yo-yo with Chicago, up and down, up and down. Des Moines was my second home. Then came the "big trade." New York needed an infielder, and the useless, sorry-ass Cubs, of course—as always—needed pitching. So, I got traded away for a left-hander named Dooley Shrike. Ever heard of him? Don't feel bad, no one else has either. In New York, it all turned around: an injury here, a hit there, a hot streak, and, lo and behold, I'm a regular. And I stayed a regular, right through this year.

Well, I mentioned my wood bats earlier, so I may as well get around to talking about what this year was all about—my hitting. I was never a bad hitter, but I was never a great hitter, either. At each level of play my natural abilities, whatever they were, seemed to become less than before. I learned to compensate. I learned to be patient, to go with a pitch, to slice it to the opposite field, to hit behind the runner, to bunt, to work the pitch count, to chop the ball, to widen my stance with two strikes. All that kind of stuff. I became a slash-and-burn hitter, and it paid off. Like ol' Al Spangler, I was good enough to hang around. In fact, do more than just hang around. As a regular second baseman for four years, I hit .257, usually batted seventh or eighth, and was praised for my smarts and hard-nosed attitude at the plate.

Then came June 21. I'd been in a mini-slump and was something like one for nine. On that fateful day, I got two hits, a single up the middle and an infield chopper. In that game, on that day, the most famous hitting streak in Major League Baseball history began.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2001 issue.

—EFQ

Like Brian Bommarito, GLEN SINGER was born and raised in St. Louis. Over the past thirty years his work has sporadically appeared in professional journals, anthologies, and small press publications. He is currently a librarian at a maximum-security prison in Wisconsin. He remains a Cardinal fan.

© 2001 Glen Singer

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