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THE PORTSIDER

Baseball Ain't about Horsing Around
By Staff Writer

Call her the donkey whisperer. She had a way with jackasses. Like me. And the hairy quadrupeds. This was a long time ago, in a faraway place called Ahqwitcherbitchinanshadaphuckup, Mississippi. Indian name. Translates as "low valley of smoke that promotes irritable bowel syndrome." I was there playing for the Ahqwitcherbitchinanshadaphuckup Smiling Seminoles. (Hereafter, let's just call it the A-S-S team.) Like I said, a long time ago. Nineteen thirty-eight. Before the clouds of WWII descended on us. Before we understood that the Seminoles were rarely smiling and that frown of theirs came from us. Come to think of it, the owner of that club rarely smiled. Leslie Francis Muldroon. A guy, stuck at birth with two first names that could go either way. He preferred to be called "Chugga-Chugga" because he loved chugging beer. At least that's what he told people. The nickname really came from his childhood set of HO scale model trains which he still had in mint condition, locked in his basement. He was forced to chug beer as a cover until his IBS flared up and then he was just a big fat depressed guy wearing a shirt with a smiling Indian on it.

Maybe that's why he turned to donkey ball. Either the donkeys or something else brought a smile to his face. You be the judge.

Her name was Jenny. She showed up one brilliant, burning Mississippi afternoon. Her ass shimmered in the sunlight. He was a large standard jack, and as she led him onto the infield grass, I couldn't help but look twice. There was a thoroughbred, I thought—gray-dun eyes, bay brown hair, straight neck, large round feet. And the rump. That inspired poetry. But when she started leading him on the field, I stepped out and stopped her.

"You can't bring that donkey on the grass. He'll chew it up."

"He'll outrun any man here around the bases."

"How's that?"

"This isn't just any donkey. This is Babe out of Ruth, a purebred Poitou."

By this time Emil Holtzke had wandered up. Emil ran like a gazelle. He wasn't very fast, but he did have the footwork of a gazelle: high steps, bounding, glancing nervously over his shoulder to see if the throw was going to hit him. He was out of baseball by the time the summer was over, but he looked like an ideal candidate to race a donkey. They lined up at home plate. I expected Jenny to give the donkey some hand sign or slap the thing or yell at it or something. No. She just took a bat and ball, and hit a fungo to center field. The moment the donkey heard that crack, he took off. First move was a cross step like a big leaguer. Galloped toward first. Emil was taken off guard but leaped down the line too. They were neck and neck rounding the bag, donkey on the inside. Emil now made a big turn and raced for second. Donkey didn't waste any motion on his turn. He headed straight for the bag, made a clean, tight turn and steamed toward third. Emil was fast, but now the donkey had half a length on him. Donkeys, especially a Poitou, are big animals. Hard to pivot. Big turning radius. But Babe hit the inside corner of third base with one of his hooves and barreled home. Beat Emil by two lengths.

I was impressed. I was also impressed with Jenny. She didn't gloat. She just handed Babe a sugar cube. He ate it out of her hand. Over the next week I saw a lot of that. She had many males eating out of her hand.

She was here to book Donkey Baseball into A-S-S Stadium. You young people may not be familiar with Donkey Baseball. It's a degraded sport now, something that pops up every now and then in places like Texas and Ohio. A fundraiser: Get your high school teachers to play Donkey Baseball! The batter, let's say it's the local high school assistant principal, stands next to a donkey. Once he hits the ball, he mounts up and rides to first base. Out in the field, everyone's on a jackass. You've got to field the ball as best you can, staying connected to the donkey by at least the reins. The joke is that donkeys are stubborn and won't run the bases and won't let you field and everyone makes a fool of himself and has a good laugh.

Except those of us who knew Donkey Baseball when it was great. There was a time in this country when Donkey Baseball teams barnstormed the land. When there were men devoted to playing baseball on a jackass, men who not only mastered the difficult art of picking up a groundball from atop a fifty-four-inch Large Standard donkey but who scouted the finest geldings in America to handpick a superb Donkeyball team. I'm thinking of teams like the Braying Mantises, the Donkey's Kong, and Bob's Big Ass Kickers. These teams were approved by ACOSA—the American Council of Spotted Asses. That seal of approval was your assurance of quality Donkeyball.

I knew none of that then. Jenny was a Donkeyball pioneer, and she was just beginning to spread the word. When Chugga-Chugga met her, I think a signal switch flipped inside his heart. He started writing poetry to her ass. Seriously. I kept a few lines of his doggerel:

Oh, walk from me once more
So I can see that conformation.
Show me your croup, show me your rump,
Your aw-EE aw-EE makes my heart jump.

The man wasn't a poet. He wasn't much of a baseball owner. He was probably best at setting up model trains, but he couldn't make a living doing that, so he decided to jump on the Donkeyball bandwagon. He agreed to book Jenny and her donkeys, "Jenny's Jacks." Our Smiling Seminoles would take on the Yoknapatawpha Oxfords, a team, usually drunk, that played in spiked Oxford shoes. A dangerous combination, especially when you add donkeys to the mix.

I took Jenny out to dinner the night before the game. I had a burger. She had a salad. She looked down at her plate with her large sad eyes. Some string of tender affection began to pull inside my chest. I asked a question I thought I knew the answer to:

"Does it get lonely out on the road?"

"Sometimes. But the donkeys need a lot of attention. It keeps me busy."

She started munching on her lettuce. "Of course, I could use a pitcher."

My ears pricked up. "A pitcher?"

"That's the hardest thing. It's hard for teams to find someone who throws well on a donkey. And I can't really help the pitcher, because I'm in the first base box during the game, giving signals to the donkeys."

"Sure." I had no idea how she did that, but I didn't care. Her communicative skills ran on a deep underground cable.

"You know, I'm a pitcher. A lefty."

She looked at me. She didn't say anything.

That night I went back to the boardinghouse, got out a sawhorse from the garage, and practiced throwing while astride it. The next day at the game, I threw one of the best Donkeyball games I ever pitched. It was the adrenaline, I suppose. I kept glancing over at first base, often because my donkey turned that way and I didn't have any choice. And there she was, patient, still, quiet, whispering to the ass at first base. I pitched my heart out and we easily beat the Oxfords, who seemed to mostly worry about soiling their shoes. Donkey droppings have always been the Achilles' heel of the sport. After the game she made her offer:

"Come with me. Let's travel through eastern Mississippi and even into Alabama and Tennessee. You pitch, I'll coach the donkeys. We have a big portable corral and a couple of tents and two big trucks. It's a life on the road, but you're used to that."

People thought I was crazy when I said yes. Maybe I was. Maybe my career in baseball would have taken a whole different trajectory if I hadn't spent that summer in Donkeyball. But you know what? I wouldn't trade those wild months for twenty cups of coffee in the bigs. The sweet smell of the hay in the morning. The gentle braying of the herd. It was love. I never knew what a sweet-tempered, intelligent animal the donkey is until I played alongside one. They look up at you with those soulful eyes and you know they're much more than just equines that lack withers. I came to believe that lost souls of old ballplayers inhabited their hairy bodies. Ancient names from the nineteenth century—Candy Cummings, Ned Cuthbert, Edward "The Only Nolan" Nolan—the real old guys, long dead, but whose spirits were so deeply imbedded in baseball, they were willing to come back as donkeys as long as they could get on the field again.

Then there was Jenny. Mysterious, quiet, beautiful Jenny. It didn't take long for me to realize she wasn't interested in my mind or my heart. Just my arm. But when has baseball ever been different? Don't you always give it your heart and soul only to find all baseball really needed was your arm?

We should never have played the House of Donkeys. Every other game our jacks went both ways—in the field and running the bases. But then Jenny got a telegram, challenging us to a Donkeyball showdown. She was convinced this was our big chance. Our moment to crown ourselves Kings of Donkeyball. The publicity, the fame, the bookings—it was all there, waiting for us in that game against the House of Donkeys.

The HOD was an offshoot of the House of Bernarda Alba team, not to be confused with the House of David. The House of Bernarda Alba didn't have the long beards. They were faux Spanish. They played in long black capes, dressed like matadors and picadors. Their shtick involved a lot of toreador moves on the mound, with big "Ole's!" and a lot of castanet snapping following a K. Their owner was Francisco Goya. (Distant relation, but he used the "Portrait of the Duchess of Alba" as the team logo, although no one ever figured out what a painting of a Spanish lady in black had to do with baseball.) Goya, the owner, saw Donkeyball as the coming thing. And he had a twist: Andalusian Donkeys. Miniatures. Cuter. Faster. Lower to the ground.

We should never have played them. Wasn't fair. Riding an Andalusian, your own two feet touch the ground. You're basically a ballplayer with an extremely large, hairy cup. Our boys never had a chance. They tried. They ran their asses off. But it was just a mismatch. The House of Donkeys cleaned our clocks.

Afterward, we corralled the team. There was a lengthy silence. Finally, someone brayed. "That's okay, Jaspar," said Jenny. "Not our day." Something had broken inside our jackasses. They were competitors. To lose to a team so much smaller just killed them.

That night, two donkeys ran away. We woke up in the morning and they were gone. The next night, three more bolted. This time you could hear the ee-AW, ee-AW as they ran across the stubbly field into the woods of Alabama. I got up, but Jenny stopped me. "Let them go. They have a mind of their own. It's all over."

I always thought she gave up too easy. The one point in her life when she should have been as stubborn as her jackasses, and she wasn't. Or maybe she knew something about these donkeys that I didn't. They were proud equines. They'd rather be standing tall, pulling a lonely plow on a sharecropper's field than Donkeyball losers.

We said good-bye back at A-S-S Field. Jenny had one faithful donkey left. The Babe. He'd never desert her.

"What are you going to do, Jenny?"

"Find forty acres. I already have the mule."

Babe brayed.

"Just kidding. I meant the donkey. We'll get by."

I wanted a kiss. I leaned forward, but the head lowered and I only got a mouthful of the mane of hair.

"Bye, Babe. Nice ass."

With stories from the decades of Donkeyball, baseball, and Manatee T-ball, as well as over forty years in the upholstery business, I'm Staff Writer.

—EFQ

 

The older STAFF WRITER becomes, the more stubborn he gets. But unlike Bud Selig, he's never been a horse's ass.

© 2003 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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