Humor Science Fiction Romance baseball

The Comeback

By James Van Pelt
Mar 15, 2019 · 4,473 words · 17 minutes

Well worn

Photo by Ben Hershey via Unsplash.

From the author: Baseball is a game of unlikely stories, of fortunes turned on a wild pitch or a bad hop or a miracle play. A lot has changed in the game from the early 1900s, but in 2051, its nature is still the same. As said in the movie, Bull Durham: "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."

"The art of fiction is dead.  Reality has strangled invention.  Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

Red Smith in the New York Herald Tribune commenting on the 1951 Giants snatching the pennant race from the Dodgers after being 13 1/2 games back on August 12.

This game will teach you things.  I can tell you that. 

In 1951, the underdog New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a best of three playoff set to go on to the World Series.  A hundred years later, in 2051, our manager, Old Deacon O'Doul, who had a keen sense of baseball history, pasted that Red Smith quote on the locker room wall and growled at the boys, "We're only nine games behind and it ain't August 12th yet.  If any one of you have an ounce of quit in you, tell me now so I can give up hope and start dusting off my fishing gear."

Baseball’s changed some since 1951.  Vids everywhere, floating over the field, watching the dugout.  Heck, there’s vids in the bat and the ball.  The home audience can switch views whenever they want.  Players are stronger.  New ways of cheating.  In 1951 you didn’t worry about genetically enhanced players, that’s for sure.  You didn’t worry about being traded to Buenos Aries or Cape Town.  Nobody knew about guys like Spooky either or humanity evolving.  But more about the game is the same than is different, and a coach yelling at his club in the locker room humbles ballplayers the same way in 2051 as any other time.

In the silence that followed, Spooky Earl Waters leaned over to me and whispered, "What 1930's ballplayer said, 'There'll never be another one like me'?"

I said, "Dizzy Dean."

But other than a leaky shower head dripping in the background there was no sound, and the team looked glumly at the floor.  The speech worked; we took both ends of a double-header against Cincinnati that afternoon.

Spooky had a career day against Cincinnati.  He stood next to Deacon in the dugout and called the defense before the pitch, "Second base, two steps left, one hop," or "Deep right center."  Deacon would run through his signals, shifting an infielder to one side or the other, or he'd move an outfielder.  Poor Cincinnati failed to get a single base runner in the opener; everything went straight to a forewarned fielder.  Spooky didn't miss once.  They were quite a pair, Deacon, the gray old man leaning over to get the call from Spooky, who looked like a towheaded kid, his brows all wrinkled up in concentration.

It was a great game: the reason I loved baseball in the first place.  At the end, the sun cut across the field; the smell of infield dust and chalk and grass filled my nose, and the home crowd raised a ruckus.

In the nightcap, they only scored one run, and it was unearned.    Blue Blackburn walked a pair in the seventh inning, and then scored the first on consecutive wild pitches.

At the end of the inning, Blue stormed into the dugout, knocked over the water cooler, and kicked the bats.  He grabbed the front of Spooky’s shirt, picking him up before anyone could stop him. "You lost my shut-out for me you miserable excuse of a . . . prostate-rater!"

"Prognosticator," said Eddie "Crouch" Potato, our catcher, who put his hand on Blue's fist.  "Put him down, Blue.  You tossed those wild ones all by yourself."

Crouch was a quiet man, very gentle, but he weighed over two-hundred pounds with no fat.  He looked like the kind of guy who'd crush your spleen if you crossed him.  The year before we had a rookie pitcher who refused to come into the locker room after a game because he thought Crouch was mad at him for shaking off a signal.  Blue was nearly two-hundred himself, but he knew it was a bad idea to rile his catcher, so he dropped Spooky and stalked down to the other end of the bench.  "What good is he if he doesn't warn me about this kind of stuff?"  As he went out to start the eighth, Blue slapped Spooky on the back of head.  "Should have seen it coming, freak."

The vids picked up his behavior and replayed it on the big screen several times, which didn't help his mood.  The crowd booed him.

Blue had won a lot of games, and he was a darned good pitcher, but he'd never earned a shutout.  Not in Little League, not in high school or the minors.  Never.  It was just one of those weird things.  Weird things are a part of baseball.  Take Richie Ashburn of the '57 Phillies.  He was playing in a game where a ball he fouled hit a fan.  Ashburn, naturally was concerned, and he waited until they started to take the fellow out of the stadium.  Then, on the next pitch, he fouled off again and nailed the same guy.

Afraid that he'd jinx himself, Blue never told anybody about the shutout, but we all knew he wanted it more than anything in the world. 

Blue plunked the leadoff batter in the shoulder.  No good reason for it, he was just mad.

The part of the crowd hooked into the batter's point of view winced on the pitch.  They passed their V.R. goggles around so others could see it themselves.

Blue wasn't the brightest pitcher I'd seen in my twenty years as equipment manager.  Somebody once said, “Open up a ballplayer’s head and you know what you'll find?  A lot of broads and a jazz band.”  That was Blue.

He never really did figure out what prognosticators did for the club.  In 2051 they were still pretty new.  I mean, the whole idea of psychic Homo Telepathis, which is what the papers called them, as a branch of humanity confused the heck out of people.  Spooky and others like him who got little peeks into the future had only been in the league for a half dozen years or so at that point, and a few teams didn't even use them.  Heck, some people argued they would ruin the game, but baseball's survived all kinds of change.  I mean, look at the designated hitter and artificial turf!  You still have to throw and hit and catch, for crying out loud.

I'd asked Spooky once why he only knew where hit balls were going but no other part of the game, and he kind of hummed and hawed without saying anything.  He was a shy guy anyway, and darned small at a bit over five-foot, but he knew baseball like nobody's business--we'd swap trivia and stats all the time--and could tell a great joke.  That's how he got hooked up with young Annabelle Martin in the front office.  He made her laugh, and even though she was eight or nine inches taller than he was and looked like a model (which she had been her last two years of high school), it was understood they were an item.  They'd meet for lunch in the hotel restaurant to split a sandwich when we were on the road.  It was cute.  I almost expected them to order one malt with two straws afterwards.  At any rate, and not to get too far off the subject, Spooky said a hit ball released a distinctive and sharp flash in time he could track.  Almost nothing else worked the same way, and he could only predict maybe twenty or thirty seconds into the future on a really good day, so he was no better at the race track than I was.

But he knew his trivia.  Once I said to him, "Where'd the term 'Charlie Horse' come from?"

He grinned at me, that real open faced smile where his face looks lit up from behind.  "Charlie Esper.  Pitched for the Orioles in the 1890's.  He ran so badly his teammates thought he looked like a lame horse, and ever since then a player with a leg cramp uses his name."

I thought for sure he wouldn't know that one.

After the second win, Spooky danced a jig on a bench in the locker room.  Deacon gave him a game ball; only Blue refused to sign it.

Of course, Spooky had his slumps.  Like all ball players, percentages ruled him.  Sometimes he'd have streaks too.  Baseball's a streaky game; who can forget Joe DiMaggio, for the love of Mike?  The day of the double-header against Cincinnati Spooky killed them, but other days he was useless.  He carried a little towel, and if he wasn't seeing so good, he kept twisting it, like he was trying to wring out a vision of what was coming next.  When his inner eye was working, he'd stick the towel in his belt or leave it on the bench.

After Cincinnati, Spooky went into a dry spell.  About that same time, the tabloids ran a picture of Blue at a local dance place planting a big kiss on Anabelle Martin.  She didn't look like she was struggling either, her eyes all bright and adoring.  Don't know whether the slump had anything to do with the confrontation in the dugout or Anabelle, but I know Spooky started looking real distracted, and his eyes were red-rimmed.

He quit playing trivia with me, even when I tossed him some pretty easy chestnuts. 

Over the course of the next few weeks, Spooky worked his way through towel after towel until they were no more than a tatter of threads.  He got another from me and started on it.  Didn't matter much to the club, though, even if he wasn't helping.  We swept the Braves in four, split two games with the Mets, took all three against Tokyo in Tokyo and went twenty-four for twenty-nine to finish the season a half-game back of the division leading Chicago who hadn't played badly in the final stretch themselves.

And wouldn't you know it, our last game of the season was in Chicago to make up for a rain-out in July.

Blue won five of his six starts after Cincinnati, and Deacon scheduled him in for the Chicago game.  All that winning didn't make him any sweeter, though.  The gossip columnists were making a fuss about Blue and Anabelle, him being a big name ball player and all, and she being so young and glamorous.  Blue would bring in the clips, mostly to get Spooky's goat, I think, and then he'd talk dirty about her to the rest of the guys loud enough for Spooky to hear.

Spooky moped around like a whipped dog.  Like I said, his average dropped way off, and he started getting a lot of "false positives," where he'd tell Deacon to shift a player wrong; Deacon would flash the signals, and the ball would shoot through right where the fielder had been before.  Deacon started to not trust in him so much.  Still, Spooky produced in a couple of key situations.  He never put down the towel though.  Worried it pretty good, he did.

Most of the team caught on pretty quick to what was going on, but there's three or four like Blue on any squad, mostly second stringers, and they'd yuck it up at Spooky's expense.  Crouch didn't like it, naturally, and he started tossing the ball back to Blue in the dirt or to the left or right so he'd have to step off the rubber until Deacon told him to cut it out.

"I don't know what's happening here, Crouch, but you're just hurting the ball club.  I don't care what you think of the guy off the field, but he's a part of this pennant drive.  You toss it up there nice and don't break his rhythm."

So it came down to the final game.  Winner makes the playoffs.  Loser gets to think about it all winter.  After the national anthem, the team settled into the dugout except for Lemon Smith, our shortstop who batted leadoff, and Crouch who was on deck.  On the bench, Blue started spouting off about Anabelle.  "I finally pegged her," he said to his cronies real loud.

Spooky sat up like he'd been shot.

The players around Blue chuckled and slapped him on the back while Blue worked a ball in his hand.

"Wasn't worth the wait, though," Blue said.  "All those looks, and I don't think she'd been round the block before."

Somebody said, "How'd you know, Blue?" 

He turned away to answer, so I didn't hear, but his buddies burst out laughing like they'd never heard something so funny.

"And get this," said Blue.  "She thinks I love her.  She's probably registering silverware patterns right now.  Hell, I haven't spent two nights alone this month."

Made me sick just to hear it.

By this time, Lemon stepped up to the plate, so they turned to watch.  A couple of them yelled encouragement. In the other dugout, their coach was signaling like crazy.  The pitcher wound up, and as he delivered, their second baseman took off toward first.  Lemon slapped a perfect line drive to the gap, but the second baseman snagged it on the run.  Spooky's Chicago counterpart had anticipated the hit, and Lemon was out.  Our next two guys went down swinging, so we took the field.

Spooky didn't move from his spot on the bench.  Deacon looked around after a bit and spotted him.  "Get up here, Spooky!  We got a game to play, if you don't mind," he barked.

I'm no soothsayer like Spooky, or mind reader or anything else, but he was furious mad.  I'd never seen him like that.  His face got red and screwed up, and I could see it in the way he held his shoulders, how his hands moved in close to his side and clenched.  I thought, it’s a good thing Blue’s a foot taller than Spooky, or Blue wouldn't have a chance.

Baseball players aren't supposed to let their feelings about each other get into their game, but it happens all the time.  It's inevitable.  Left fielder gets mad at the shortstop, so he quits hitting him for the cut-off, or third base is pissed at first base, so he short-hops his throws.  When personal feelings don't enter the game, it's remarkable.  Take the Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combo: Joe Evers and Johnny Tinker disliked each other so much, they didn't talk for two years, but there they are, a legendary pair of teammates.  Most of the time, it's the other way around.  Some days the game is all personality.

Blue coaxed a popup out of their first batter.  He walked the second, and the third grounded into a double play Lemon didn't have to budge an inch to pick up.  Spooky didn't say a word.  I don't think his head was in it.  He was holding his towel, but he when he wasn't glaring at Blue he was looking up at the club's sky box where management and their big wig buddies watched.  Of course, Anabelle would be up there too.  I didn't figure they hired her for her computer skills.  But I couldn't see anything behind the mirrored glass.

From the second to the fifth, Blue mowed them down.  I don't think I'd ever seen him keener, catching the corners, running the ball inside if they crowded the strike zone.  Change ups floated like marshmallows, sliders broke a foot away from the plate, and man, his fast ball was nearly invisible.

He was tight, though.  I could see it in his jaw, the way he kept wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.  It can't be argued, Blue was a competitor, and when the game was on, nothing existed for him but the ball and the batter.  After five innings, I knew he was thinking about not just a shutout, but a no-hitter.

With two gone in the top of the sixth, their pitcher walked our first baseman, and he got all the way to third on a bad hop single through second base.  Nothing a fielder can do about a bad hop.  Spooky could call it, Deacon could signal it, and the fielder could be there, but a bad hop can go anywhere and get there fast.  Bad hops are a part of the game.  Ask Bill Buckner of the '86 Red Sox about bad hops.  In the sixth game of the series, with two out in the 9th, Mookie Wilson tops an easy play grounder up the first base line, but the pill slips under Buckner's glove to give the Mets the game.

The ball does funny things.

Runners waited on the corners now; Crouch worked the count full, then fouled off five in a row.  Finally, he planted the eleventh pitch into the twentieth row, straight-away center.  We poured out of the dugout like the game was over, congratulations all around, and with a three run cushion, Blue looked like a man who'd stepped off death row.

I could feel the change in the dugout too.  We started the game pretending to be loose.  The loud jokes.  The relaxed postures.  They were a pose.  But the way Blue was tossing them in there, three runs looked good.  No one would say it, but I knew they were thinking cork popping and champagne baths.  The playoffs seemed a blink away, and our remarkable comeback would be complete.

Spooky woke up on the home run too.  He started twisting that towel around, watching the field a little sideways.  Three pitches into their first batter, he said something to Deacon, and the old guy flashed signals quick as could be.  As Blue delivered, left field turned and sprinted for the corner to catch what would have been a sure double at the wall a foot from the foul line.  The crowd roared on the hit, then quieted to nothing.

Blue didn't look in, but he had to know he owed that one to Spooky.  The second guy fanned at three high ones, and the third popped to shallow right.  Our second baseman was camped under there before the hit, so we were out of the sixth.

Chicago called on their bullpen to shut us down through the top of the ninth, but Blue answered back with flawless control, the whole time with Spooky leaning against the rail, watching him.

In the stands, the crowd grew frantic.  I could hear it in their cheers as batter after batter sat down.  Blue walked one in both the seventh and eighth, but we got them in double plays Spooky set up.  No one else reached.  Deacon watched Blue too, but he was looking for a change in his delivery.  Anything to indicate he was weakening.

“How are you doing, Blue?” asked Deacon at the end of the eighth.

“I can finish it.”  Blue draped a warmup jacket over his arm.  He was so into his pitching, I don't think he knew any of the rest of us were there.

“What do you think, Crouch?” said Deacon.

“He’s got more snap on the ball now than he did to start the game.  He’s on auto-pilot.”

Deacon nodded, and I could see the wheels turning behind Blue’s eyes.  He had a sense of history too.  A no hit shutout to win the final game of the regular season would make his name the answer to a lot of bar bets.  So Blue led the team out of the dugout at the bottom of the ninth, three outs away from a berth in the playoffs.

Spooky took his place on the rail next to Deacon.  Everybody else was up too.  I could almost feel them willing the crowd to silence, sending all the bad luck they could to Chicago’s batters, praying to the baseball gods.

Blue took his stance, and with three evil breaking balls sat the first batter down.  I checked Spooky.  He wasn't twisting the towel and he wasn't saying anything either.  No hits? I thought.  He looked up at the sky boxes again.  I’d almost forgotten about Anabelle, but Spooky hadn't.

Somehow the ump saw four perfect strikes on the outside corner differently than we did, and he awarded the next man first base.  He promptly stole second.

Deacon signaled for an intentional walk to put the double play possibility back on.  Crouch set up wide to take the pitch-out, but instead of tossing the ball out of the strike zone, Blue reared back and beaned the batter with a fast ball.

“What was that?” screamed Deacon.  He hates purpose pitches, but I knew what was going on.  Chicago’s next batter loved to crowd the plate, and since we were going to put this runner on anyway, Blue must have thought, why not send the next guy a message?  Maybe he won't dig in quite so deep.

Besides, I think Blue liked to hit batters.

The crowd stood.  In the second tier, they stamped their feet so it sounded out like a quick, huge pulse.

I wanted one of Spooky’s towels to twist myself, so I looked around for something, and there was his towel.  He'd neatly folded it and it was laying on the bench.  Deacon asked Spooky something, and Spooky shook his head.  Deacon nodded, then signaled Lemon who slid to his left six feet.

I thought, double play ball, and I was right.  The ball shot straight to Lemon, and he gobbled it up, but somehow he couldn’t get it out of his glove, and when he finally did it slipped out of his hand to drop to his feet.  By the time the play was over, the crowd was screaming and stomping too loud for me to hear anything else, and the bases were loaded.

Deacon started to walk over to the bullpen phone.  It was only natural to pull Blue now.  We needed two more outs, and Chicago had eight innings to learn Blue’s timing, but Spooky grabbed his arm.  I couldn’t hear anything above the crowd.  Spooky gestured and yelled, then Deacon yelled back.  Finally he shrugged his shoulders.  They went back to the rail.

Baseball is filled with incredible performances, like the ‘77 series when Reggie Jackson hit four home runs in four straight official times at bat.  A player’s not supposed to be that good.  Later, I thought maybe Spooky had a kind of Reggie Jackson game to beat Chicago.  Maybe more than twenty or thirty seconds of the future opened up for him just then, but I don't think he cared how the game played out.

No, considering what happened, I don't think he cared at all.

The bottom of the ninth.  Bases loaded.  One out, and Chicago had the potential winning run at the plate.

Blue’s first pitch was a ball.  Deacon flinched.  The crowd roared.  Now the pounding feet almost hurt.  Our bench players crowded the rail.  It all seemed so intense.  My skin ached from the tension.

That’s what you play baseball for, or course, for moments like that one.

Spooky, though, he didn't look tense at all.  His fingers tapped lightly on the rail.  One foot rested on the first step out of the dugout.  He smiled, and I realized that was the first time I'd seen him smile since Cincinnati.  He smiled, then he yelled something in Deacon’s ear.

Deacon went through a complicated series of signals, all to Blue.  I couldn’t see most of them, but the last one was a hand to his right ear, the signal for “high.”  The player would have to jump to catch a ball over his head.

Blue nodded, then faced the batter.

Spooky turned to me and yelled, “Herb Score.”

The name rang a bell, but I couldn't make the connection.  Blue brought the ball up, held the pose for a blink, then unleashed a hellacious fast ball.

Every image that followed is blazed for me like those old time sepia photographs.  Blue fell off to the right as he always does.  The batter brought back his hands to swing, and as he started the bat forward, Blue recovered, his face a picture of desperation and hope, gathered himself and jumped up, glove above his head.  Connection.  The crack of a perfectly struck ball.  A line drive up the middle just as Spooky had called it.  But not high.  Dead center.

Blue reached the top of his leap, anticipating the catch above him.  His mouth was open.  I don't believe he ever saw the ball.  It caroomed off his forehead with a horrible, wooden thud.  The ball went up.  Blue went down.

Behind him, Lemon charged forward.  Caught the ball at his shoe laces.  Fired to first to double off the runner.

We won.

They carried Blue off the field on a stretcher.

And all the while, Spooky never moved from the rail.  He kept the same smile on his face, and I suppose everyone thought he was happy because we'd beat Chicago.

The myth is that in 1932, in the series between the Yankees and the Cubs, Babe Ruth called his home run hit, pointing where he was going to blast the ball in center field.  It doesn't matter eye-witnesses don't back up the legendary story.  It's the myth of the called shot that survives, and it's the story everyone knows.

After our game ended, and all the interviews were done, I looked up Herb Score.  He was familiar to me because he led the majors in strikeouts for the Indians in both '55 and '56.  But he only had three games in '57.  In the third game of the season a Yankee batter, Gil McDougald, blasted a line drive back through the box, shattering Score's cheekbone and ending his career as a ball player.

The story of Babe Ruth and his predicted home run is just a legend, but I know for a fact Spooky Earl Waters called his shot in the last game of the regular season in 2051.  We won the game, but that was incidental.  There was another contest on the field.

And that should end the story, but I really should mention the next day a grieving Anabelle Martin went to the hospital to pay Blue a visit.  She couldn't get in because six other women were there arguing about who he loved most.

Spooky gave her a lift home.

Leo Duroucher said, "Nice guys finish last," but I say, a lot can happen in a season, and if baseball's taught me anything, it's that you should never count someone out until the last pitch.

Doesn’t matter if it’s 1951 or 2051.  Those underdogs have a way of coming back.

This story originally appeared in Analog.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."