It's a terrible thing, Cyrus Nygerski thought as he crouched in the on-deck circle, to be washed up before the age of twenty.
But he was, he was. He contemplated his lofty batting statistics -- a .175 average with two home runs and a couple dozen RBI -- and the last egregious error that had prompted his manager to yank him out of the infield a week ago in the middle of an inning, embarrassing him in front of several hundred beer-sodden hometown fans. "You take that behind-the-back throw of yours," Cliff Gillespie had said with controlled fury (spitting a stream of tobacco juice at Nygerski's feet and making him dance out of the way), "and you shove it up your ass." Three runs had scored as Nygerski's errant toss on what should have been an inning-ending double play rolled lazily along the empty right-field bleachers toward Illinois.
Though all nine fielders stood in Wisconsin, the state line lay just steps beyond the decaying, open-ended ballpark. A strong left-handed pull hitter could sometimes hit a ball from one state into the other, but Nygerski wasn't thinking about that as he stood in. He just wanted the game, and the season, to be over, so that he could get the hell out of here.
He sniffed the air. There was a faint smoky smell, the accustomed background pollution, but nothing more. It was a calm evening, the twilight gathering, the worst time of day to see the ball. Sometimes, when the wind blew from the north, the smell of stale cheese would waft over the field and the town from the nearby Frito-Lay factory. Beloit was a butt-ugly factory town where blue-collar workers liked nothing better than to put away a few beers and then head out to the ballpark for a night of heckling.
It had been almost a week since Nygerski had been pulled from the lineup, and he suspected he was only being sent up now to pinch-hit because Gillespie wanted to protect his new regular second baseman from the maniac on the mound, a kid named Pinkham who threw about a zillion miles an hour with little or no sense of direction. In two innings of relief, the kid had struck out six, walked four, broken their best hitter's left wrist, and sent the batboy and the peanut salesman scurrying for cover. Although the Turtles had scored a run off the kid on a wild pitch, no one had thus far managed to hit a ball in fair territory.
The score was 8-3 in favor of the other team, though at this point in the season nobody really gave a damn who won. It was, after all, August 26, and the Turtles stood seventh in an eight-team league. Nor were any players from this low level likely to be called up to the White Sox when major-league rosters expanded on the first of September. Then again, in the surreal world of the low minors, anything could happen.
It was the bottom of the eighth, which meant that unless the kid got really wild or the blurs that he was throwing up to home plate suddenly became hittable, Nygerski would get just one chance at him. He watched the batter wave at a fastball (did this kid throw anything else?), and awaited his turn as the next human sacrifice.
His gaze wandered out into left field, toward the short section of stands that jutted out into fair territory near the foul line. Fallon Field had been built before World War II for the Beloit College football team, and its seating layout only grudgingly accommodated baseball. The result was the most lopsided outfield Nygerski had ever seen. The stands ended abruptly a few steps into left field, creating a dangerous obstacle for an unwary outfielder and a tempting target for a right-handed hitter who could pull the ball down the line. Beyond them, a decrepit fence snaked its way out toward a series of billboards, most of them advertising the products of small, nearby breweries. Right field, where as a lefty Nygerski would naturally hit the ball, ended over the horizon at an auto graveyard in Illinois. If the ball rolled into the weeds surrounding the rusting junkers without an outfielder touching it, the batter was awarded a home run.
The seats in left were usually unoccupied, for insults and objects had a better chance of reaching their intended targets from closer to the action. The lighting out there was poor. Sometimes couples retreated there to make out during games, and sometimes small groups from the nearby college showed up and made those stands their home. Though they were better behaved than the regular drunks who attended every game, the team's management didn't like them because they smuggled in their own cheap beer instead of buying it for an inflated price at the concession stand, and some of them smoked pot. The smell was a good deal more pleasant than the more frequent odor of processed cheese, but the security guards hired by the team took a dim view of such flagrant lawbreaking.
Tonight the left-field stands stood empty. The stadium, in fact, was nearly deserted. Beloit had fallen four runs behind in the very first inning; the verbal abuse had started early and lost most of its momentum by the third. Malcolm Wood, whose wrist at that very moment was being immobilized by a cast, had hit two homers to make the score respectable, but each time the Turtles lost no time in giving the runs back. Not a very good show for the hometown fans. Jackie Gleason was on TV at eight, and most of the crowd had left before dark, missing the kid with the great fastball and the rising of the full Moon, which Nygerski now enjoyed from his spot in the on-deck circle.
It looks just like a hanging curveball, he thought. The way pitches used to look when he had starred on his high school team in Boston, barely a year ago. Of course, the league in which he had played did not boast pitchers with ninety-five-mile-an-hour heaters or curves that fell off the table just as you started to swing. Nygerski knew he was overmatched, and by this point in the season he had the feeling that everyone in the White Sox organization knew it as well.
The batter swung wildly at a pitch up around his chin, then shrugged his shoulders and walked past Nygerski back to the dugout. In his face Nygerski read relief. Survival was more important than a point or two in the batting average. Not exactly the most confident thought to take to the plate, but there it was. Show no fear, Nygerski told himself as he stood in and affixed the pitcher with his most menacing glare. Nygerski may not have been able to hit or field, but he could glare with anyone.
The pitcher went into his windup. Nygerski heard a hissing sound and the thwack! of ball against leather behind him. "Stee-RIKE one!" boomed the umpire as the catcher threw the ball, now once again vis-ible, back to the kid, who was grinning.
Holy shit, is this kid fast! Nygerski thought. If he throws it at my head, I'm dead. Better just swing at the next two pitches and sit down.
And swing he did, although the next pitch sailed off to the third-base side and all the way to the backstop, where it disrupted a group of pigeons checking out some spilled popcorn. "You stink, Nygerski!" someone yelled from the seats behind him. "Helen Keller could hit better'n you!"
Nygerski chuckled to himself. That was only a half-truth, he mused. He at least could hear the pitches as they zipped by.
On the next pitch he closed his eyes and swung. To his amazement, he felt the ball hit his bat. He opened his eyes. He had swung late, of course, and managed to hit what looked like a routine pop fly down the left-field line. The ball arced lazily toward the rising Moon as the left fielder glided over toward the abutment of seats. Nygerski dropped the bat and watched.
"Run, you idiot!" Cliff Gillespie screamed from the dugout. Nygerski ignored him. The outfielder backed up against the stands now, right on the foul line. He patted his glove as the ball descended toward him. Nygerski didn't move. He watched the ball fall across the face of the Moon, and he saw the fielder lean into the stands, reaching his glove as far back as he could. The ball landed inches beyond it in the second row of seats, just barely in fair territory.
A stunned silence fell over the ballpark, punctuated a moment later by scattered, surprised applause. Then Nygerski felt something jab him in the back. He turned around. "What're you waitin' for, asshole?" the catcher snarled behind his mask. "Get movin'."
Slowly, savoring the moment, Nygerski circled the bases in the nearly silent ballpark. A plastic cup filled with beer narrowly missed him as he rounded third. He looked up into the stands in time to duck another cup. Several rows up, well back from the rowdies and drunks, a red-haired woman stood on her seat and clapped wildly. Nygerski lifted his arm momentarily in acknowledgment.
"Way to go, Cy," said Eddie Baker, the new regular second baseman, when he reached the dugout. Most of his teammates were laughing. "Shortest goddamn home run I ever saw," said Bull Seivers, the first baseman, who had hit twenty of them, some of them monumental shots impressive enough to keep the big club interested despite a .225 average. Cliff Gillespie, at the opposite end of the dugout, spat tobacco juice on the ground and didn't say a word.
Nygerski's home run changed only the score. Pinkham walked a couple more batters and struck out the side in the ninth, and the Turtles lost again, 8-4. After he had showered and half-dressed, Nygerski was startled to hear the manager's door slam open and Gillespie bellow his name.
"Just got a phone call from Chicago," Gillespie said, inside the tiny office that Nygerski suspected had once been a janitor's closet. The manager twirled an unlit cigar stub in his fingers. "They said you don't have to go to Peoria with the team. You're through."
"Through?" Nygerski asked.
"I believe the official term is 'unconditionally released,'" Gillespie said. "You'll be paid through the end of next week. But you can clean out your stuff tonight."
The office was so small, there wasn't even a chair for Nygerski to collapse into, or throw in frustration, or crash across Gillespie's crewcut-topped skull. Not that he was surprised. People had come and gone all season -- it was the nature of minor-league baseball. Now it was his turn. Gillespie had been trying to get rid of him for months. But he had to say something. You don't get fired from a job -- in this case, a whole career -- and just walk away.
"Did you tell them," he asked, "about the home run I hit off that kid? No one else could touch him."
Gillespie's face softened slightly, from granite to a lighter grade of shale. "Only in Beloit," the manager said, "does that little can-of-corn fly ball go out. Besides, that kid's got something you ain't."
"What's that?" Nygerski said.
"A future," Gillespie replied. "You can teach control. Natural ability -- well, you either got it or you don't. The big club wants to check out some other prospects. I'm sorry, Cy, but the White Sox got no use for a left-handed second baseman who leads the league in errors and can't hit his weight."
At this statement Nygerski's back stiffened. "I'll have you know that my average is now up to .179," he said. (He had done the math in his head during his home run trot.) "And I only weigh 165. Release me if you want, but get your facts straight."
Gillespie stuck the unlit cigar into the side of his mouth and opened the top drawer of the small metal desk. "Look, I know it ain't much fun, gettin' your walking papers. It's the toughest part of my job, lettin' young players go. Baseball's a demanding game. You ain't the first kid who couldn't cut the mustard. And you won't be the last."
Nygerski wondered how many times Gillespie had given that little speech. He sounded about as sincere as President Johnson did about ending the war in Vietnam. And that thought reminded Nygerski that he ought to get in touch with Professor Ed Fishman over at the college about his lapsed enrollment application, lest the draft board get in touch with him first.
Then again, the bus from Chicago to Winnipeg stopped in Beloit at midnight, and the weather in Canada would be nice for a few more months....
Gillespie pulled something small and flat from the desk drawer. "Tell you what," he said, bringing Nygerski back to the present. "The big club's got a doubleheader tomorrow, down at Comiskey. I guess you probably know your precious Red Sox are in town. Anyway, they sent us up some tickets, and seeing as how you're free..." Awkwardly, Gillespie turned the tickets over in his hands. "It'll do you good to get out of this shithole," he mumbled. "God knows I've been trying for years." With a scowl that almost turned into a smile, he handed Nygerski two tickets across the desk.
"Thanks, boss," Nygerski said, in genuine surprise.
"I ain't your boss anymore," Gillespie growled at him. "And the Red Sox are gonna fold. You watch. They got no pitching beyond Lonborg. Who else they got? Buncha kids and has-beens. That don't cut it in a pennant race."
"It's the first time in my life they've been in one," Nygerski said.
"They been lucky so far." Gillespie leaned back in his chair and shifted the cigar stub from one side of his mouth to the other. "That Yastrzemski's havin' a good year. But losing Conigliaro's gotta kill 'em. Man for man, they're the weakest team in a four-way race. White Sox'll sweep 'em tomorrow."
"We'll see," Nygerski said quietly, clutching the tickets. He moved toward the door, already weary of Gillespie and his bullshit. "Thanks for these."
"Good luck, Cyrus." Gillespie did not rise or offer his hand, and Nygerski exited the tiny office.
In the clubhouse, Malcolm Wood sat with his wrist in a cast as several players crowded around him. Wood's season had been the opposite of Nygerski's. One errant fastball had ended it, but he was acting like he knew there would be other campaigns.
"Hey, Nygerski," he shouted cheerfully. "Heard about your tremendous blast. They're comparing you to Mickey Mantle." This brought a round of general laughter, and made Nygerski feel a little better as he ambled over to grab his few possessions.
"Last homer I'll ever hit in this dump," he muttered as he began jamming stuff into a large, pale green duffel bag.
"How come?" Eddie Baker needled him. "You goin' to the Show?"
There was another round of laughter.
Nygerski fixed the small, dark infielder with one of his glares. "Yeah, Eddie. I'm goin' to the show. The Ed Sullivan Show. Tomorrow night you can watch me juggle while riding a unicycle."
This brought more laughter and a sprinkling of derisive comments. Nygerski turned his back and fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. Most of his teammates thought him strange. He didn't care anymore.
He finished putting on his shirt and stuffing the bag. "Hey, Nygerski," Wood called over to him. "What happened, really?"
Nygerski stood up. Wood had been one of his few friends on the team, in the transitory nature of baseball friendships. "You'll never make it with a name like Malcolm," he said. "A star like you should have a nickname, you know that." Nygerski looked around the muggy, decrepit dressing room. "Baseball seasons come and go," he said, "but life goes on." And he hefted his bag and walked out the door without looking back.
At the far end of the dirt parking lot, Sammy Mavrogenes waited for him by an old Volkswagen bus stuffed with musical gear. Sammy worked with the groundskeeping crew at the ballpark to make the rent on the small upstairs apartment he shared with his girlfriend. He also played and sang in a three-piece rock and roll band, and had begun teaching Nygerski some riffs on his left-handed guitar. Sammy had provided a friendship beyond the insular, competitive world of baseball. "What took you so long?" Sammy said, throwing his cigarette on the ground and stepping on it. "I got a gig at ten."
Nygerski set down his duffel bag and opened the sliding door. "Sorry," he said, pushing aside an amp and shoving the bag in. "Had to have a talk with the boss."
Mavrogenes brushed his long curly hair out of his face and gave his friend a puzzled look. Nygerski kept his hair short for baseball. Now he could grow it down to his butt if he wanted to.
"What's with the bag?" Mavrogenes asked him as he slid the door shut.
Nygerski looked up at the full Moon, and then back at his friend. "They let me go," he said. "Guess I'll have to start looking for a new career."
"Shit. I'm sorry."
Nygerski got into the passenger seat; Mavrogenes slid behind the wheel. "You wanna beer?" Mavrogenes asked him.
Mavrogenes reached behind his seat, opened the cooler there, and produced two cans of Leinenkugel. They drank silently in the moonlight as other players, coaches, and a few straggling fans came out into the darkness, got into their cars, and left. The parking lot was nearly empty when Nygerski again spoke. "Well, I can say one thing, at least," he declared, staring straight ahead.
"What's that?" Mavrogenes asked.
"I went out like Ted Williams."
"Huh?" was his companion's only comment.
"Homered in my last at bat," Nygerski said, draining his beer. "Didn't tip my cap, either. Come on, let's go."
Copyright © 2001 by Henry Garfield
Six hours later, she is sitting next to him in Comiskey Park, watching the Red Sox play the White Sox on August 27th, but by the time Boston outfielder José Tartabull fires his famous, game-winning throw to home, the mysterious beauty is suddenly disappearing into the crowd. Nygerski is frantic. The next morning he reads about her in a Chicago paper, though not by name: there's no mention of Cassandra Paine-only of a vicious murder back in Beloit of a man who, in another version of events, appears to be very much alive and out for Nygerski's blood.
Among Cassandra's abilities is time travel. Nygerski learns of this later (or is it earlier?) on the seacoast of Maine where she introduces him to her family and the tantalizing legend of Howley's Deep Hole, a portal into an alternate time line that sweeps him to the heights of rookie season stardom. It's then-and at a terrifying cost-that he earns the nickname "Moon-dog." Even Cassandra can't foresee the prophecy in that.
Henry Garfield interweaves a classic Red Sox pennant race, the supernatural, a love and coming-of-age story, and a memorable cast of earthly and unearthly characters into a treat for baseball fans, horror buffs, devotees of science fiction, and lovers of suspense.
- Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books |
- 272 pages |
- ISBN 9780689838408 |
- May 2001 |
- Grades 7 and up