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THE PORTSIDER

Terror in the Desert
By Staff Writer

I should have killed him when I had the chance. Oh, I had the opportunity. I had the means. Did I have the motive? I'll let you be the judge of that.

I'd never known heat like this. I'd sweated in the Louisiana bayous. Couldn't touch this. I'd baked in the mesas of Utah (playing for the Zion Joseph Smiths—a team made up of men named Joseph Smith, and me). But while that dry heat evaporated moisture from places on your body that you didn't realize were moist, it still couldn't top this.

Cairo in 1962 felt like the ancient god Osiris held a giant Weber grill cover over the city. He had stoked up coals below our feet and then capped the inferno with a dark, overhanging, polluted dome. I ran onto that diamond in front of the Sphinx and felt like a hot dog—if someone had run a paring knife along my torso, I'd have released a great cloud of steam and entrails.

We were playing in Giza alongside the pyramids of Cheops, Chephron, and Mykerinus because a Milwaukee entrepreneur had the bright idea that Warren Spahn looked like the Sphinx. The first thing they did when we landed in Egypt was pose poor Spahny on all fours, gazing out at the desert, his Braves uniform soaked with sweat. Allan, the Milwaukee mover and shaker, had gone with an interesting concept: If Warren was the Sphinx, then the other nine players could dress as Egyptian myths, too.

He'd hired minor leaguers to fill out the team (like yours truly) and outfitted us with Eric Gagneństyle goatees, loincloths, cat masks—whatever we needed to look dynastic. So when Spahny pitched, you'd look around the diamond and see first sacker Bob Gervis in a jackal head portraying Anubis, and second baseman Tubby Hunt painted green wearing a goose mask (Geb, god of the earth). Jerry Colleary had a big falcon head on at third (Mentu, the war god), and taking on the biggest handicap, Julio Ortega at shortstop. Allan dubbed him Ptah, because Julio was a big spitter. He didn't mind being called Ptah (his English was limited anyway), but then came the costume: beard, skullcap, mummy shroud covering his body, hands emerging from wrappings, and his glove in the shape of a scepter.

The really tough thing was standing out in the field in that damn profile. Allan insisted we all take our positions and do the Egyptian—stand like two-dimensional hieroglyphs. Tough to get down on a grounder from that pose.

Catcher Earl Bevis was allowed to squat three-dimensionally, but he had his own problems. He portrayed Thoueris—hippopotamus goddess, a role he enjoyed a lot more than anyone should. Of course, Earl's parents owned a petting zoo in Daytona Beach, so he was used to animal intimacy. And later he opened "The Different Loving Menagerie," Florida's first sanctuary for lesbian alligators, so maybe Allan cast him well.

Allan had forgotten—or forgot to forget on purpose—one small detail: an opponent. We landed in Egypt, unpacked our bags, got out the frog head masks, the Scales of Truth and the feathered crowns, and asked, "So, who do we play?" Allan adjusted his glasses. "We're in negotiation."

The next day, we loosened up, as best we could with all the cats wandering around (Allan went to the local market and bartered a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for twenty-five cats—the rug merchants are still laughing about that one). Out of the opposing tent—no dugouts near the Sphinx; you start digging and you're bound to disturb some tomb—emerges a bunch of law students from Cairo. Allan figured they were smart enough to catch on to the basics of the game quickly, most of them spoke a little English, and they were willing to play in Bedouin robes.

Yes, it didn't make a whole lot of sense. Not one of those law students lived in a tent in the desert, but Allan said something about a photo opportunity. I guess he figured if we were acting the roles of Egyptian gods, they could act out the roles of the indigenous natives. The law students were headed up by a tall fellow with a thick head of black hair. He spent a lot of time washing his hands in a little earthen bowl, and brushing dirt off his white robes.

He came over and introduced himself. "Hello. Welcome. My name is Saddam."

He explained he was studying law in Cairo. He'd left his native country for a little bit, some trouble going on back there.

Yes. It was he. I know that now, but back then we just understood he was a law student. Our guide told me this kid was involved in Iraqi politics. He'd been part of a revolt against Karim Qassim in 1959 and was sentenced to death in absentia. He was absentia in Egypt, studying law, and now he was studying baseball. At least for a day.

The game began. We took the field, a living tableau, the Field of Egyptian Dreams—a diamond studded with the gods of ancient Egypt, ready to take on the modern Bedouins. That's when the trouble started. This Saddam fellow looked out. He sized us up.

"The Americans, they are out to humiliate us! They seek to set themselves up as gods! We are the lowly humans! Screw them!"

I believe this is the translation our guide gave us when it was all over. All we knew at the time was that Saddam was shouting and gesturing toward us. We figured he was giving his fellows a pep talk. Well, it worked. For starters, we were wrapped up so tightly in our damn costumes, blinded by jackal masks and weighted down with scepters and frog heads, that we could hardly walk, let alone play baseball. Spahny was wearing this huge Sphinx hat and this glove with big claws; even Warren had trouble getting the ball over the plate.

And these law students had played cricket. They knew how to handle a bat. They weren't always clear on the rules, but they could hit and they quickly got the idea of picking up a ball that was hit to them and throwing it to first base.

Then there was the umpire. Gamal Abdel Nasser himself was calling the game. He had a tough job. On the one hand, he had to play to the home crowd. He'd give them huge breaks and then smile and wave to the fans who cheered him with a really rousing spirit. Of course, the field was ringed with military men training their guns on the spectators, so it was hard to say how much real sentiment was behind those cheers.

But Gamal had to balance out his desire to please the home fans with his desire to placate his American sponsors, who, after all, pumped a lot of money into Egypt. Not that we got any of it. From the moment we landed, Allan was pleading poverty. "We can't afford bottled water. This tour is for your country—building goodwill, promoting baseball internationally. I'm broke. This is costing me a fortune. Do you know how much a good jackal head costs? Your meal allowance is enough for gyros. What more do you need?"

On and on he went. And now we were playing ball in front of the monuments of Egypt and finding ourselves about to be buried with the Pharaohs. We took an early lead, but inning by inning, as the Bedouins got the hang of the game, they closed the gap. In the top of the ninth, Earl got all of his hippo girth into a hanging curveball and socked it to Cheops. We were up by a run. Spahny came to me, his great hangdog face looming out of the big dangling Sphinx ears. "Staff, I'm out of gas. Can you pitch the bottom of this inning?"

I've never turned the ball down. I strode out onto the mound, facing a chorus of mild boos, which Nasser from behind the plate politely quieted with a raised eyebrow. It was hot. My ceramic frog head was broiling. The glue that creased the frog ears ran down my face in fine rivulets. Maybe I could turn this into an advantage. I dabbed some glue on my finger. It wasn't that far off from slippery elm. I threw my first pitch—wild. It would have gone back to the screen, except there wasn't a screen. There was a row of chairs, Allan sitting in one of them.

I mumbled an apology, not that anyone heard it, and kept pitching. It took me a few tosses to see how this melted frog head glue would work out. The first eight pitches were balls. Okay. I've walked the first two batters. So the winning run is now on first base. I'm thinking I've got the hang of this stuff. The next batter strides to the plate. It's Saddam. His thick black moustache is puffing with pride. He points his bat toward Mykerinus, says something in Arabic. Son of a bitch is calling his shot.

Translator yells out to me. "He says this is going to be the mother of all home runs." I'll show him his mother. First pitch I wipe the glue off my hands and get a good grip on a four-seam fastball. It comes in right under that moustache and Saddam ends up with his robed rear on the hot desert sand. He stands, stares out at me. I stare back at him, a pair of frog eyes burning with intensity.

Now he points his bat at me, calls down imprecations, curses, and Arabic phrases that cannot be translated without expectoration. Fine. I lather up the ball with bluish green glue that's now covering my neck. I wind. I pitch.

Saddam had the right idea. He was aiming a line drive right at my forehead. But my pitch dipped just enough at just the right time—it avoided the meat of his bat like a heat-seeking missile angles around a Baghdad street—and his line drive became a shooting groundball to third. Colleary, the war god, picked it up. Stepped on the bag. To the green goose at second for two. On to the jackal at first—triple play. Saddam never left the plate. He'd felt the splatter of glue from the ball to his bat to his hands, and he was frozen, trying to wipe his mitts clean of bacteria.

We had won the game. Then the real fun started—because Saddam approached Allan right then and there and demanded payment. He wanted money for the dry cleaning bill for his now sullied Bedouin robe. Allan tried to dismiss him with a grin. Then he tried to dismiss him with a shake of the head. Then by turning his back on him.

That's when Saddam pulled out the gun. I'll tell you, the guy played a pretty good game of baseball for someone who'd been packing heat the whole nine innings. He held that gun up to Allan's head. Demanded two dollars and ninety-five cents, American money. Allan's eyes grew cold behind his big glasses. He glared at Saddam. It was a Mexican standoff, except we weren't in Mexico.

That's when I had my chance. I'd been given the game ball. It was in my hands. A well-placed throw could have changed the course of history. I could have saved us all from years of tyranny by a pea brain. Instead . . .

"Duck, Bud!" I yelled. I hurled a fastball at Saddam's hands, knocking the gun out and saving Allan Selig's life. They've called him "Bud" ever since, in grateful recognition of the occasion when a veteran left-handed frog gave him some divine intervention.

And what thanks did I get? Forty years in upholstery and a lifetime learning the ways of baseball.

—EFQ

 

STAFF WRITER is not a religious man, but throughout the reign of Bud I, he’s been praying furiously to the baseball gods. Should the Minnesota Twins become World Champions this year, or a vacant Miller Park implode under the weight of a gigantic snowstorm this winter, he’ll know that his prayers have been answered.

© 2002 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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