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THE PORTSIDER

Hipped to Hemp
By Staff Writer

Nine-thirty. Night or day? Night. I wake up, clammy, the sheets cling to my face like Saran Wrap to Velveeta. Then I realize I'm not in bed. I'm on the floor. And that's not a sheet. That's a dog's tongue. I'm on the floor of the Avery Island Pepper Pot Lodge somewhere in Louisiana. Kirby, my roommate's Wheaton Terrier, is licking my cheek. I'd get up except I have a broken hip.

This is my third broken hip, but it's the first time I've broken the hip replacement. I came down hard on it when I was throwing the remote at the TV. My release point was off; the remote sailed out over the box and I stumbled on the follow-through. Then I must have blacked out. I was throwing the remote because the umpire of the Cub-Astro's game had just missed a call and it reminded me of the first umpire I'd ever attacked.

I was a younger man then, so it didn't pack the damage of my later confrontations, but there was still a lot of dust settling to the ground after I tackled "Porky Pig" Verble. Verble didn't get that nickname from his stoutness. No, I'm afraid this was an earlier era when sensitivities about learning differences weren't as acute—what the hell am I talking about? I pummeled the man with my fists, but it wasn't because he stuttered. No, nobody really cared that when he called a strike, it came out, "S-s-s-s-strike one!" Or on a close play at home: "You're-you're-you're-you're-you're . . ." There would be a breathless pause as the potential tying run lay across the plate, the catcher frozen with his glove on the man's leg, neither one wanting to upset the picture they were painting for Verble. We all hoped that he'd already made up his mind and he was just trying to get out the word "safe" or "out"—but there was always that little doubt that maybe he was thinking it over. Just maybe this was a brilliant strategy on his part to buy time while he reran the play in his head. And if you held your pose, if you framed the tag or the slide just right, he might go your way.

That's what got to me that night in 1957. I was managing the Kern County Pecans in the San Joaquin Mixed Nuts League. The nut growers had set up this Class A Rookie League to promote California nuts. I can hear you out there, "Nobody needs to promote California nuts; they do a fine job of it themselves." But the boys of the Mixed Nuts Association had another hidden agenda. They were also growing hemp on the side, and their real interest was in pushing an all-hemp baseball. It seems like you can make anything out of hemp—rope, clothing, pup tents—and they figured, why not a baseball? They somehow compacted the stuff into a bouncy center and shredded the stuff for an inner padding and wove the stuff into a cover and threaded the stuff for the stitching. Now they just needed people to play with the hemp ball and so they started the Mixed Nuts League. I guess they figured if they called it the Hemp League, they'd get the wrong sort of customer.

The first couple of games they were still working out the kinks. The balls were woven a little too tight and when a batter hit them right on the sweet spot, the hemp ball would explode like we'd tossed him a grapefruit. They adjusted the weave, but then the pitchers figured out the stitching was loose. They'd work the rim of the stitches, bring it up until it formed a ridge as big as a line of denture adhesive. In fact, some of them would bring a glob of denture adhesive with them to the mound. They'd work that stuff into the stitches until it set. It was like the ball had grown a flattop. They started calling it a pistachio ball, because it looked like the outside of the ball dropped off halfway to the plate.

So, yes, there were a few kinks, but by the time this game rolled around, that was all behind us. We were playing with a very fine hemp ball, not perfectly white, but a pleasant beige tint. You could look in catalogs today and find that color identified as "bleached taupe." We were squaring off that day against the San Luis Obispo Filberts (oddly enough, not named for the edible seed, but because the owner's son was named Filbert). The Filberts played little ball. I mean, they were really little. None of them weighed more than 160 pounds and most of them were about as tall as an average seventh grader. I think this was because Filbert was their manager and he didn't really know that much about managing, so he figured if he towered over his players, it would give him some authority. Unfortunately, he was only five-foot-seven, so he found himself with an extremely short team.

And they played little ball. They bunted. They ran the bases. They used the squeeze play. In fact, many teams would park their outfielders behind the dirt of the infield and challenge them to get it over their heads. It looked like a T-ball game out there, with the outfielders creeping up and the shortstop and third baseman creeping in until the infield was littered with fielders.

So it was a team you really felt you should beat. And when you were losing to them, you could get pretty frustrated. Especially when the ump was tilting things their way. I think Porky Pig Verble liked the Filberts. He identified with their struggles. He knew how hard it was to succeed in a world where people viewed you as a cartoon character. He was giving them calls right and left. Every pitch on the outside corner was a strike against us and a ball against them. Every warning for throwing chin music came against us—even if the ball was nowhere close to the chin.

By the end of the game, I'd had enough. I was young then. (The older I get, the older "young" becomes—I guess I was in my fifties, but let's not dwell on that.) I was young enough to have strong legs and pack a good right hook. And so when the game was on the line and Little Freddy Singleton was on third and I knew they were going to try a suicide squeeze, I was determined the result should be suicide. Little Herb Palmer squared off to bunt. Here came Little Freddy down the line. Just like I'd ordered, my pitcher, Big Dicky Peckham, pitched out. Little Herb reached way over for the ball—too far over, batter interference! Little Freddy was tearing down the base path. My catcher, Fat Jimmy Frost, got tangled up in Little Herb's bat and fell down. Little Freddy slid, like a pincer bug scuttling under a doorjamb, and then everything froze.

Porky Pig started his call. "He-he-he-he-he-he . . ." He froze, too. He looked at the picture, a tableau of a complicated baseball play: Fat Jimmy collapsed on the outside corner of the plate. Little Herb standing with his bat outstretched for the bunt. Little Freddy splayed out over the plate like a gnat on lemonade. "He-he-he-he-he . . ." I couldn't stand it.

"Batter interference! He's out! He's got to be out!"

"He-he-he-he-he . . ." Still Porky Pig stood over the plate, wrestling with either the call or his vocal apparatus. I wasn't as patient then as I am now. I bolted for Porky. I grabbed him around the throat. "He's out, damn it!" Porky looked at me, a sudden rage clouding his eyes.

"He's SAFE! Th-th-th-that's all, folks!"

He waved at the crowd and started off the field.

"What? You goddamn—"

That's the last thing I remember. Apparently I dove at Porky, grabbed him, locked him in a pile driver, and was about to crack him into the earth like Rumpelstiltskin when I was gang- tackled by the Filbert Munchkins. They crawled over me like a pack of dogs and slammed me to the scorched ground of the San Joaquin Valley, crushing my hip right on top of a hemp baseball. Broke the sucker—the hip, not the baseball, which was incredibly durable. Which brings me back to my present position, prone, on the floor of a hotel in Louisiana, being licked by a dog while I write this in the margins of the New Orleans Times Picayune, which we'd left out for the dog to pee on.

I'm here scouting, looking at a big pitcher who grew up right next to the Tabasco sauce factory in New Iberia. But now I'm not looking at anything. I'm waiting for Mr. Paul Touissaint, my old buddy, to come back from getting coffee and discover me lying on the floor with his dog licking my face. I hope he comes back. He's getting on in years and sometimes hotel doors get confusing. They all look alike, don't you know? And then instead of keys, they give you these damn things that look like credit cards and don't even have your room number on them. I imagine Paul is going from door to door, sticking his ATM card in some, his credit card in others, and every now and then putting in the card the hotel gave him.

Well, the game is still on. If I turn my head to the left, I can see it pretty well—if this damn dog gets out of the way. And the umpire's still blowing calls. But, as I said, I've mellowed over the years and that doesn't upset me the way it used to.

If you're reading this, then you know that I was found and got back on my feet and had another pin or two put in my hip, and that we maybe even found a good pitcher down here in Cajun country. What I can't tell you is if I'm able to reupholster a couch, like I've been doing for forty years. That's okay. I've spent a lifetime in baseball and only forty years in upholstery.

—EFQ

 

STAFF WRITER has always been hip to the latest medical advancements. His Cochlear 2002 Ear Receiver is so advanced that even when Bud Selig isn’t speaking, he can hear the b.s. reverberating around the room.

© 2002 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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