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THE PORTSIDER

Doctor on the Mound
By Staff Writer

I woke up with a golf ball in my throat. I've had golf balls in my throat before—seven of them, actually, on a bet—and I've stuffed three baseballs in my mouth, sort of, for twenty bucks. But this morning's golf ball wasn't a Titleist; it was a sore throat. The kind that means the next step is a dull pain behind the eyes and a hacking cough, which brings up nothing productive but makes you feel as though your brain has gotten loose of its moorings and every wheeze is like going over a cranial speed bump with no shock absorbers.

But because you're a man and not a child or a woman, you go in to work. You're a man; you're not supposed to have common sense. You suffer, you sneeze, you infect everyone around you, but, by God, you're on the job. It's just a virus and you're bigger than it is.

I've got to warn you right now. If you have a short stomach for reading about the flu and its symptoms, stop right here. Because this is not pretty. This is the story of Ralphin' Bobby Scarffen, a man who never took a sick day in eleven seasons of professional baseball and, as a result, pitched for over a decade with nausea, diarrhea, and, of course, vomiting.

I had heard of Ralphin' Bobby long before I coached him. Everyone had heard of Bobby. He left a trail of legendary illness behind him. You'd go into the locker room of the Okefenokee Swamp Rats, down the muggy hallways past the moss-covered toilet stalls and the geckos clinging to the ceiling (brought in to control mosquitoes, but nobody thought through how to control the geckos), and there, cutting through the vapors of the moldy shower heads, was a lingering stench of upchuck.

"Ralphin' Bobby's been here."

"Damn, that's nasty! Get the Lysol!"

Nobody looked forward to playing against Bobby, but even worse was playing with him. Opponents were done with him once they skirted the vomitus along the first base line, but riding the bus with Bobby for fourteen hours while he's riding the waves of the porcelain swimming pool—that's rough. The problem was, he was a great relief pitcher. Believe me, he had to be. Pleasant enough guy, I suppose, but nobody ever got to know him. You could never sustain a conversation without getting coughed at, sneezed upon, or worse.

But Bobby could hurl. A baseball, that is. He had stuff that was just nasty. Quite literally. His number one pitch was the sneezeball. He'd step off the rubber, unleash a powerful expulsion from the nasal cavity, and when he threw the ball, it tailed a good six inches. Number two pitch was his phlegm ball. A quiet hawk and I swear the ball dropped like it was falling off a tabletop.

But his absolute out pitch, the one he'd go to when he had to have a strike, he called his personal Eephus ball. It was an astonishing thing to witness. He'd go to the stretch. Pause. Leg up. And then, as he brought his arm back and then over, he'd suddenly and violently projectile vomit. A stream of regurgitated material flew out as he delivered the pitch. The batter was faced with locating a baseball in a flying cloud of creamed corn, chunks of hot dog, and a fine stream of nachos. Most guys would just bail out, and I can't say I blame them.

I was Ralphin' Bobby's pitching coach at the apex of his career. And I'm ashamed to say I may have been the guy who ended it. That summer with the Cuyahoga River Burn-Outs, Bobby had twenty-seven saves by July. The Burn-Outs were intended to be a tribute to the cleanup of the river—this was after it caught on fire and had burned out—but frankly, the team was populated by a lot of run-of-the-mill burnouts, and we were lucky to have Bobby saving our bacon even as he was losing his own.

When I got word the Indians were sending a scout to see Bobby, I got a bright idea. It was among my worst bright ideas. I knew the Indians didn't want a sick player. At the major league level, you couldn't afford a Typhoid Mary. So the night before the scout arrived, I slipped Bobby a Mickey: I dropped a package of Thera-Flu in his beer.

He woke me early the next morning. Frantic. Banged on my door so loud I thought the hotel was on fire.

"Staff, Staff, I feel great."

"Happy to hear it, Bobby."

"No, you don't understand—my symptoms are gone."

"Great. Just in time for the scout."

He grabbed my shoulders and shook hard. "I'm lost! Lost! How can I throw the phlegm ball? If I can't sneeze, my sneezeball's gone. And my Eephus . . ."

Tears welled up in his eyes. I suddenly realized something Ralphin' Bobby had kept secret all these years.

"Bobby, you mean you've kept yourself sick this entire decade to throw those pitches?"

"Yes! After the first season, I knew I needed a special pitch. I was sick with the flu one time, but didn't want to come out and . . . well, you can guess the rest. Help me, Staff. I've got to get infected before tonight."

We spent that entire day shuttling between emergency rooms and public washrooms. Bobby grabbed every doorknob in a doctor's office, used a public toilet, and then ate French fries at the mall—all without washing his hands. We went in the doctor's waiting room and he cozied up to sneezers and hackers and coughers. Didn't work. We drove to a preschool and Bobby licked the Legos. Nothing happened. He dove into a ball pit at McDonald's and drank out of little kid's Cokes until the manager ran us off. Still—healthy as a piece of Spam on toast.

We got to the ballpark and I tried to cheer him up.

"Bobby, you know the story of Dumbo? How he thought he needed a magic feather to fly? And in the end his feather was gone and he just had to believe in himself? That's you. You don't need the Ralphin'. You just need the Bobby."

He looked at me like I was crazy. "This isn't a Disney movie. Elephants can't fly. I know what my magic is. And I need it."

He tried to raise some phlegm, but the well was dry. "There's nothing there, Staff. Nothing." He slowly walked to the bullpen and borrowed handkerchiefs from the fans during the game.

Ninth inning came around and, sure enough, we were up by a run. Time to call in the closer. All Bobby needed was three outs. The Indian scout sat up. The big league club needed relief help. He wanted to see Bobby succeed. Three outs and Bobby would make "The Show."

The first batter stepped in. Bobby walked off the mound and tried to work up a sneeze. Nothing happened. He rubbed his nose. Tugged at his nose hair. He was digging for gold when the umpire yelled at him to stop picking and start pitching. Bobby had no choice. He drew himself tall and threw his sneezeball. But without the sneeze. Without that expectorant, it looked as big as a bottle of Kaopectate. Boom. Double to right.

Bobby stepped off the mound again. I could see he was desperate. He was sticking his finger down his throat, hoping for a bulimic miracle. Maybe he felt something coming. He must have, because he stepped out on the rubber, quickly got set, and delivered. And as he hurled, he attempted to hurl—but nothing came out. Just clean thin air. The same clean thin air that the baseball flew up into as it left the bat of the hitter. That ball sailed as far over the left field stands as any hit I've ever seen.

Bobby didn't even look up. He didn't even wait for the manager to come out. He trudged off the mound on his own. The fans were booing and as he entered the dugout, I patted him on the back.

"You okay, Bobby?"

"I feel like throwing up."

And then he did. That was the last time. He never got sick again. He retired shortly thereafter—his health had caught up to him. He's lived for many healthy, unhappy years since.

I learned something that day: A man is made to follow a certain path. It may look a little gross to an outsider, but be careful what you fix—it may not be broken.

—EFQ

 

STAFF WRITER sniffles and coughs and wheezes all the time, but he's seldom sick. Just an aging ex-ballplayer living in a drafty apartment above the old firehouse in Minneapolis.

© 2003 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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