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One Hell of a Bargain
By Staff Writer
The Curse of the Bambino is over, the Red Sox have won the World Series, and now I can tell the world the truth: There was no curse. It was all my fault. Because in 1919 I made a pact with the Devil.
ButI can hear the fresh-faced young atheists of America crythere is no devil. There is. I have met him and dealt pinochle with him. ButI can hear my old pals as they peer up from the pool table at Johnny Seven's Bar in Frogtownyou were a toddler in 1919. I'm older than you think, Johnny. I wear my years like a Chanel black dress. Timeless and beyond time. ButI hear Curt Schilling and David Ortiz and Theo Epstein cry out from their condoswe won those games without supernatural aid or cause. There are things in heaven and earth that your philosophies don't know shit about, Horatios.
So . . . my story. I was young in 1919, I'll give you that. I was a kid in knee pants, but that was when kids wore knee pants until puberty. So I was young but not an infant, and wise beyond my years.
My father had just lost his right leg in a boating accident. Not on a yacht, far from ithe sailed out of Marblehead, Massachusetts, on the last of the square-rigged ships that trolled the North Atlantic for squid. It was a squid ship, the Sally Squall, and in the spring of 1919 she sailed to Sable Island, off of Nova Scotia.
The squid banks were rich that
year. German subs, which had disrupted the mating patterns during the war, were gone, and as if in celebration, you could look over the railing of the Sally Squall and see squids copulating before your eyes.
At least that's what my father told me. He was a gifted storyteller; at least before the tracheotomy, and even after that gruesome recovery from a collision with a tuna hook, he could mime a narrative better than most men could speak it.
The sea was awash with squid and sailing south of Sable, Dad slipped on some squid suctions spilling over the Sally Squall, and he spun into the sea, where a shark slashed his shin. So he was out of a job.
He took up pitching. This might seem odd to those who never knew my dad, Rod Writer. He never considered himself disabled; he considered himself screwed. It made him so goddamn mad to have just one leg that he decided to do the most unlikely thing in the world: pitch in a major league game.
He started working out. With me. We'd go out on the streets of Bostonhe settled there in the Boston Home for Screwed Seamenand throw the ball for hours. That's how I developed my arm and agility. Not from playing catch, but from running through the streets of Boston after his wild throws. He couldn't hit the side of a barn. I'd have to dodge carts and cars and trolleys and old Irishmen, and then fight other little kids for the ball and hurl it back to him before they'd wrestle it away from me.
Folks, I don't mind telling you it looked hopeless. By the summer of 1919, two things were clear: the White Sox were winning the pennant and my father was never going to pitch in the big leagues.
His old sailing buddies had a regular pinochle game down near the harbor. They played in the back room of the Poop Deck, a dingy inn with the sound of waves hitting the quay beneath them. It was getting late one night and my mother dispatched me to pick up Rod. He'd been drinking a lot lately and this wasn't the first time I'd carted him home. In a cart. Drawn by my little donkey, Babe.
No, I had not named my little donkey after the great George Herman Ruth. I had named him after Ralph "Babe" Pinelli. I just liked Ralph Pinelli. Thought he was going to be a great ballplayer. Anyway, I wasn't distraught when the Red Sox sold Ruth. I was such a fan that I was convinced they could win without him. To hear people talk nowadays, you'd think Babe Ruth was the only reason they won the 1918 Series. Hey, there were good players on that team. Stuffy McInnis. Harry Hooper. Amos Strunk. Some of them are forgotten now, but in eighty years who will remember Johnny Damon or Jason Varitek?
Anyway, I parked Babe out front and went under the swinging double doors. It was dark in the old Pooper. Cigar smoke floated like a pea-souper between a couple of naked bulbs and the peanut shells on the floor. There he was. Dad. Facedown on a table. Three other guys at the table had hangdogs drooping off their fascia. But the last man at the table was grinning. He was grinning, and he had one long eyebrow and a trim little goatee and I swear there was a green glint in his pupil.
"Your father, kid?"
"Yeah. C'mon, Dad." I started to hoist the old man up when the guy with the goatee said, "So do you think Rod's going to make it, kid?"
I stared at him.
"His dream. To pitch in the big leagues."
"Sure you do, kid. There's no way a peg-legged old sailor's going to do that. Unless . . . let me make you an offer."
He carefully gathered up his stack of money and nodded toward the kitchen. I followed him, in that obedient way kids will follow a grown-up through the gates of hell.
The kitchen was steamy and greasy and crowded with pots and pans hanging from the ceiling and a drunken Portuguese short-order cook and a waiter who lounged against the sink smoking. More than anything I wanted to get out of there and maybe that's why I just nodded and agreed to his terms. He was a crazy man, this goateed fellow with the green eyes, and I nodded when he mentioned my soul and mumbled "sure" when he described Dad taking the mound in a meaningless late-season game and then I didn't hesitate when he pricked my finger with a paring knife and I signed a piece of butcher paper with my blood.
I just wanted to bundle Dad up and load him on the cart and leave that dock and once I did and the cool clean air of Boston filled my lungs, I tried to put the entire episode behind me.
And I did. Until two days later when Dad had sobered up and got me out in the street again to play catch. Pop. Ow. All of a sudden, out of the blueor was it out of the vast emptiness of a pair of green eyes?he was throwing the ball so hard my hand ached. And with such accuracy I never had to move the glove. It was a miracle. Or was it the reverse of a miraclea deeply dark sin? It was mostly like an enchantment, like Dad had put on the red shoes and could dance magnificently, but couldn't stop until he died. Which is pretty much what happened.
He showed up at a Sunday pickup game, begged to pitchand then delivered a no-hitter. One of the players there was a cousin of a Red Sox scout and a few days later Dad threw for the scout. (He hid his wooden leg under a uniform and the scout didn't mind his limpnot with that fastball.) A few days after that he was on a train for Pawtucket and a whirlwind month ensued. Another no-hitter in the low-level minors, a perfect game at Triple A, and on the final day of the 1919 seasona meaningless game for the sixth-place Red SoxI went to Fenway Park with Mom to see if Dad would get in and pitch.
We sat in the field level seats with the players' wives, awed and stunned by this bizarre turn our lives had taken. Among other things, we'd never had better seats than the bleachers.
"Nice view, eh?" His voice arrested me. Leaning over from the seat behind us and to the left was the man with the goatee. Even in the autumn sunlight his green eyes seemed to capture and reflect some unseen flickering lamp.
"Uh . . . yes, sir." I mumbled. My mother turned, expecting an introduction.
"Bub," he said, extending his hand. "The name is Fred Beezle. But everyone calls me Bub."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Beezle." My mother wasn't about to call anyone "Bub."
I watched the game in a cold sweat. I wasn't sure exactly what had transpired back in that smoky kitchen, but I knew that somehow I was viewing a preordained piece of theater. And that I had set it in motion. What was it he'd said? "Your father will achieve his dream. He'll pitch in a big league game. And in return, I will own your soul. Until . . . " I couldn't remember the closing line of the deal.
I watched the game. The Red Sox were losing. No one cared. Babe Ruth sat in the dugout between innings eating hot dogs. Then in the top of the eighth inning, I saw someone get up in the bullpen. I gripped my knees. It was Dad. He warmed up. The Sox pitcher was due up in the bottom of the inning and when they pinch-hit for him, I knew Dad was coming in to pitch. I could hardly breathe.
Mom didn't seem to realize how bizarre, how wonderful, how earthshaking it was when Dad hobbled to the mound in the top of the ninth. The few remaining fans murmured. They didn't know who this guy was. I did. I screamed, "Go Dad!" The goateed man chuckled behind me. "Strike 'em out, Rod!" he called out. "Enjoy your moment in the sun!" Mom clapped politely, like this happened every day.
Dad stood on the mound. He wound up, a little awkward, his leg stiff and clunkyand fired a strike. The miracle had occurred! Dad was pitchingand throwing strikes! He wound up and threw again. Strike two! He could strike out a major leaguer! Then a curveball outside. But then back to the heatera swing and a miss! He did it! He struck out George Twombly! I hugged my mother, who looked baffled, as if this were all a strange dream and not part of her real life. The next batter: Val Picinich. A better hitter. Fouled the first pitch off. Then looked at a strike. Thencrackconnected with the fastball . . . a long fly . . . oh, nono, no, then Braggo Roth is under ithe caught it! The batter's out! Two outs! I stood up and cheered and then heard a voice behind me.
"It is done. He has pitched at Fenway. And pitched rather well, don't you think?"
I ignored Mr. Beezle. He wasn't going to spoil this for me. But in the next moment I learned that all good things come to an end. It seems only the bad endures forever.
Sam Rice stepped to the plate. The Senators' best hitter. Dad was smiling now. He knew he could do this. He went into his awkward motion. Leg upsort ofand strode toward the plate. Rice had been watching Dad pitch. He sat on the fastball. He watched it come toward him, swungand thwack!laced a line drive. It was a rocket, a jet, something so fast it hadn't yet been invented in 1919, and it shot off the bat headed directly for Dad's wooden leg. There was an awful CRACK!and like a broken bat that shatters into a hundred pieces, Dad's wooden leg exploded under his uniform, shards shooting everywhere. He collapsed like a stumbling stilt walker. The crowd was shocked, the batter stunnedRice wasn't even runninguntil Dad crawled to the ball, picked it up, and threw a lazy balloon twenty feet wide of first. The magic was over.
After the game, Babe Ruth came up to Dad, who was lying on the trainer's table, numb and white as a sheet. "We'll get 'em next year, pal." He gave Dad a noogie and walked out.
And next year? By next year, Babe (Ruth that is, not Pinelli) was playing for the Yankees. The Red Sox began their futility. And Dad . . . well, my father never picked up a baseball again, but he didn't need to. He'd done it. Pitched for the Sox. Now he could rest on his laurels and chug beers with his buddies until the liver trouble kicked in, and that's exactly what he did.
As for me . . . I went on, as you might know, to a long and dark career in baseballand the colorful world of upholsteryand my life has been a series of events that when you string them together, well, you might think I'd sold my soul to the Devil. I didn't think too much about my goateed friend during all of those decades. I did ponder the Red Sox from afar, watching as the years rolled by with agony upon agony and disaster and heartbreak every year. Until this one.
And then, as I watched Schilling pitch with blood trailing down his ankle, it suddenly came to me. I remembered the last line of Mr. Beezle's deal: "Thus it will remain, the Sox shall not win againuntil once more a man pitches for them with just one good leg. . . ."
So the Red Soxand Curt Schillinghave given me back my soul. Kind of late now. I don't know what to do with it anymore. Except take it to the dry cleaners and hope it comes back unstained.
As all baseball fansincluding STAFF WRITERknow, 1919 was also the year the Black Sox threw the Series, which ultimately led to the hiring of a commissioner to oversee baseball's affairs and "clean up" the game. Thankfully, that strong tradition is being continued by "Bub" Selig as he rids baseball of steroids, touts Las Vegas as a potential home for a major league franchise, and otherwise looks out for the best interests of the game.© 2005 Elysian Fields Quarterly
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