Authors: Stephen King
Tags: #King; Stephen - Prose & Criticism, #Horror, #General, #Fiction - General, #Suspense, #Horror - General, #Fiction, #Sports
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen King.
Cover Artwork Copyright © 2010 by Glen Orbik
Interior Artwork Copyright © 2010 by Alex McVey
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials.
c/o Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman
236 West 26
Street, Suite 802
New York, NY 10001
A hardcover first edition of
has been published by Cemetery Dance Publications.
This is for every guy (and gal)
who ever put on the gear.
Oh my God, you mean Blockade Billy. Nobody’s asked me about him in years. Of course, no one asks me much of anything in here, except if I’d like to sign up for Polka Night at the K of P Hall downtown or something called Virtual Bowling. That’s right here in the Common Room. My advice to you, Mr. King—you didn’t ask for it, but I’ll give it to you—is don’t get old, and if you do, don’t let your relatives put you in a zombie hotel like this one.
It’s a funny thing, getting old. When you’re young, people always want to listen to your stories, especially if you were in pro baseball. But when you’re young, you don’t have time to tell them. Now I’ve got all the time in the world, and it seems like nobody cares about those old days. But I still like to think about them. So sure, I’ll tell you about Billy Blakely. Awful story, of course, but those are the ones that last the longest.
Baseball was different in those days. You have to remember that Blockade Billy played for the Titans only ten years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and the Titans are long gone. I don’t suppose New Jersey will ever have another Major League team, not with two powerhouse franchises just across the river in New York. But it was a big deal then—
were a big deal—and we played our games in a different world.
The rules were the same. Those don’t change. And the little rituals were pretty similar, too. Oh, nobody would have been allowed to wear their cap cocked to the side, or curve the brim, and your hair had to be neat and short (the way these chuckleheads wear it now, my God), but some players still crossed themselves before they stepped into the box, or drew in the dirt with the heads of their bats before taking up the stance, or jumped over the baseline when they were running out to take their positions. Nobody wanted to step on the baseline, it was considered the worst luck to do that.
The game was
, okay? TV had started to come in, but only on the weekends. We had a good market, because the games were on WNJ, and everyone in New York could watch. Some of those broadcasts were pretty comical. Compared to the way they do today’s games, it was all amateur night in Dixie. Radio was better, more professional, but of course that was local, too. No satellite broadcasts, because there were no satellites! The Russians sent the first one up during the Yanks-Braves World Series that year. As I remember, it happened on an off-day, but I could be wrong about that. What I remember is that the Titans were out of it early that year. We contended for awhile, partly thanks to Blockade Billy, but you know how
turned out. It’s why you came, right?
But here’s what I’m getting at: because the game was smaller on the national stage, the players weren’t such a big deal. I’m not saying there weren’t stars—guys like Aaron, Burdette, Williams, Kaline, and of course The Mick—but most weren’t as well-known coast to coast as players like Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds (a couple of bushers, if you ask me). And most of the other guys? I can tell you in two words: working stiffs. The average salary back then was fifteen grand, less than a first-year high school teacher makes today.
Working stiffs, get it? Just like George Will said in that book of his. Only he talked about that like it was a good thing. I’m not so sure it was, if you were a thirty-year-old shortstop with a wife and three kids and maybe another seven years to go before retirement. Ten, if you were lucky and didn’t get hurt. Carl Furillo ended up installing elevators in the World Trade Center and moonlighting as a night watchman, did you know that? You did? Do you think that guy Will knew it, or just forgot to mention it?
The deal was this: if you had the skills and could do the job even with a hangover, you got to play. If you couldn’t, you got tossed on the scrapheap. It was that simple. And as brutal. Which brings me to our catching situation that spring.
We were in good shape during camp, which for the Titans was in Sarasota. Our starting catcher was Johnny Goodkind. Maybe you don’t remember him. If you do, it’s probably because of the way he ended up. He had four good years, batted over .300, put the gear on almost every game. Knew how to handle the pitchers, didn’t take any guff. The kids didn’t dare shake him off. He hit damn near .350 that spring, with maybe a dozen ding-dongs, one as deep and far as any I ever saw at Ed Smith Stadium, where the ball didn’t carry well. Put out the windshield in some reporter’s Chevrolet—ha!
But he was also a big drinker, and two days before the team was supposed to head north and open at home, he ran over a woman on Pineapple Street and killed her just as dead as a dormouse. Or doornail. Whatever the saying is. Then the damn fool tried to run. But there was a County Sheriff’s cruiser parked on the corner of Orange, and the deputies inside saw the whole thing. Wasn’t much doubt about Johnny’s state, either. When they pulled him out of his car, he smelled like a brewery and could hardly stand. One of the deputies bent down to put the cuffs on him, and Johnny threw up on the back of the guy’s head. Johnny Goodkind’s career in baseball was over before the puke dried. Even the Babe couldn’t have stayed in the game after running over a housewife out doing her morning shop-around.
His backup was a guy named Frank Faraday. Not bad behind the plate, but a banjo hitter at best. Went about one-fifty. No bulk, which put him at risk. The game was played hard in those days, Mr. King, with plenty of fuck-you.
But Faraday was what we had. I remember DiPunno saying he wouldn’t last long, but not even Jersey Joe had an idea how short a time it was going to be.
Faraday was behind the plate when we played our last exhibition game that year. Against the Reds, it was. There was a squeeze play put on. Don Hoak at the plate. Some big hulk—I think it was Ted Kluszewski—on third. Hoak punches the ball right at Jerry Rugg, who was pitching for us that day. Big Klew breaks for the plate, all two hundred and seventy Polack pounds of him. And there’s Faraday, just about as skinny as a Flav’r Straw, standing with one foot on the old dishola. You knew it was going to end bad. Rugg throws to Faraday. Faraday turns to put the tag on. I couldn’t look.
Faraday hung onto the ball and got the out, I’ll give him that, only it was a spring training out, as important in the great scheme of things as a low fart in a high wind. And that was the end of
baseball career. One broken arm, one broken leg, a concussion—that was the score. I don’t know what became of him. Wound up washing windshields for tips at an Esso station in Tucumcari, for all I know. He wouldn’t be the only one.
But here’s the point: we lost both our catchers in the space of forty-eight hours and had to go north with nobody to put behind the plate except for Ganzie Burgess, who converted from catcher to pitcher in the early fifties. He was thirty-nine years old that season and only good for middle relief, but he was a knuckleballer, and as crafty as Satan, so no way was Joe DiPunno going to risk those old bones behind the plate. He said he’d put
back there first. I knew he was joking—I was just an old third-base coach with so many groin-pulls my balls were practically banging on my knees—but the idea still made me shiver.
What Joe did was call the front office in Newark and say, “I need a guy who can catch Hank Masters’s fastball and Danny Doo’s curve without falling on his keister. I don’t care if he plays for Testicle Tire in Tremont, just make sure he’s got a mitt and have him at the Swamp in time for the National Anthem. Then get to work finding me a real catcher. If you want to have any chance at all of contending this season, that is.” Then he hung up and lit what was probably his eightieth cigarette of the day.
Oh for the life of a manager, huh? One catcher facing manslaughter charges; another in the hospital, wrapped in so many bandages he looked like Boris Karloff in
a pitching staff either not old enough to shave or about ready for the Sociable Security; God knows who about to put on the gear and squat behind the plate on Opening Day.
We flew north that year instead of riding the rails, but it still felt like a train wreck. Meanwhile, Kerwin McCaslin, who was the Titans’ GM, got on the phone and found us a catcher to start the season with: William Blakely, soon to be known as Blockade Billy. I can’t remember now if he came from Double or Triple A, but you could look it up on your computer, I guess, because I
know the name of the team he came from: the Davenport Cornhuskers. A few players came up from there during my seven years with the Titans, and the regulars would always ask how things were down there playing for the Cornholers. Or sometimes they’d call them the Cocksuckers. Baseball humor is not what you’d call sophisticated.
We opened against the Red Sox that year. Middle of April. Baseball started later back then, and played a saner schedule. I got to the park early that day—before God got out of bed, actually—and there was a young man sitting on the bumper of an old Ford truck in the players’ lot. Iowa license plate dangling on chickenwire from the back bumper. Nick the guard let him in when the kid showed him his letter from the front office and his driver’s license.
“You must be Bill Blakely,” I said, shaking his hand. “Good to know you.”
“Good to know you too,” he said. “I brought my gear, but it’s pretty beat-up.”
“Oh, I think we can take care of you there, partner,” I said, letting go of his hand. He had a Band-Aid wrapped around his second finger, just below the middle knuckle. “Cut yourself shaving?” I asked, pointing to it.
“Yup, cut myself shaving,” he says. I couldn’t tell if that was his way of showing he got my little joke, or if he was so worried about fucking up he thought he ought to agree with everything anyone said, at least to begin with. Later on I realized it was neither of those things; he just had a habit of echoing back what you said to him. I got used to it, even sort of got to like it.
“Are you the manager?” he asked. “Mr. DiPunno?”
“No,” I said, “I’m George Grantham. Granny to you. I coach third base. I’m also the equipment manager.” Which was the truth; I did both jobs. Told you the game was smaller then. “I’ll get you fixed up, don’t worry. All new gear.”