DFA: A BLOG ABOUT LIFE ON THE BASEBALL MARGINS: March 2, 2008
DFA, chapter 15: Remember Jim Umbrecht
After telling me that “Larry’s people wanted” me for next week, Pomade sent me home in a town car, but I was so glumly inert, I felt more like a piece of furniture being delivered. When the driver pulled up in front of the Martha Washington, he said, “You live here?”
“Yeah, me, George and Martha, in a ménage a trios,” I said. “You got a problem with that?”
I wasn’t in the mood to try another color curry; in fact, I had no appetite at all. I went up to my room and turned on my cell phone, which I had shut off during my media coaching session. I had 13 messages, which I quickly scanned for word from Kara:
• SNATCH some Cialis! Legal pharmacy. Overnight delivery from North Pole.
• Dear Mr. Grief: Your auto warranty is expiring. (I didn’t own a car, couldn’t afford one, and got around on a moped, which my teammates teased me mercilessly about. In fact, one guy put some baseball cards in the spokes of one of the wheels, like you did to your bike when you were a kid, and caused me to almost crash into a Mister Softee truck.)
• Voice mail message from “JAYSON STARK” (Yikes!)
• The Catcher’s Society offers discount rates on the new Tom Emansky video, “Plate-Blocking 101.”
• Voice mail message from “MOM GRIEFF”
• NYC’s hottest party at NYC’s most exclusive club, “Piranha” – AND YOU’RE INVITED if you buy a bottle of Absolut, only $500!
• Voice mail message from “RICK SANABRIA”
• “Underage nymphos want to take your load!” (I was so dazed that for a second, I thought the message was from a laundry service.)
• Voice mail message from “BEN SHPIGEL”
• Voice mail message from “JOEL SHERMAN”
• Voice mail message from “PETER GAMMONS” (Christ Almighty, a message from the Commissioner!)
• Tired of being alone? Clone yourself and you’ll never be lonely again! Cellmax Biotech, a dynamic new company…
But the message that stood out and locked my brain was:
• Voice mail from “NEW YORK YANKEES.”
I dialed the number.
“Mick McConnell, New York Yankees public affairs.”
“Hi, this is Ric Grieff. Somebody left a message for me.”
“Oh, hey, Rick,” he said, very nonchalant. Listen, Ric, the reason I called is that, well, we read that ESPN story about your close call down in South America.”
“Close call? I almost got killed.”
“Uh-huh. Ric, we’re a bit concerned about some of the allegations in the story that suggest that the Yankees somehow bore some responsibility for these events.”
“Well, one of your honchos –”
“As I understand it, nobody associated with the team ever made any tangible promises to you vis-à-vis your going to Venezuela. Nor did they order you to go. They couldn’t, since you were a free agent and not property of the Yankees.”
“Under contract. Look, that’s not the real issue. Legally, we’re in the clear. The problem is the publicity hit we’re taking. You know everybody has it out for us. The big, bad Yankees. The Evil Empire. I mean, look at the Mitchell Report. Look at the big names. All Yankees. Hell, why don’t they name Ruth and DiMaggio while they’re at it? Compiled by a board member of the Red Sox, of all people … And your story … they’re calling us “talent exploiters” and “slaveholders.” I mean, it’s unbelievable. This thing has seriously compromised the integrity of the Yankee brand … in the public eye.”
I didn’t know what to say. I could tell him that half of Sanabria’s story was complete bulls—t, that I never blamed the Yankees for anything. But if I did that, I’d look like either a dupe or a scamster, and I could kiss goodbye my fifteen minutes of fame, as well as any chance of ever playing in the Show.
“What do you want?”
“We’re willing to work something out that benefits both parties.”
“Well, if you agree to deny certain allegations that Mr. Sanabria made regarding our … involvement, we’ll do right by you.”
“An invitation to spring training. As a non-roster invitee, of course. Again, no promises. But you’ll be in the big-league camp as long as possible. What do you say?”
An NRI! I would be playing with the New York Yankees! I saw it all spread out before me: ribbing Jetes on the bench, getting batting tips from A-Rod and Reggie and Donnie Baseball, learning from Posada what kind of urine is best for toughening a catcher’s hands.
“What exactly do I have to do again?”
“Just make a public statement – we could draft it for you – absolving the Yankee organization of any responsibility or malfeasance.”
“You want to think on it?”
“I need to speak to my agent.”
“Who’s your agent?”
“Larson Pomade. IBS.”
There was a silence on the other end.
“Larson, huh? We have a good relationship with him. Have him get in touch with us.”
I slowly put the phone down off the hook, moving like a zombie. Venezuela, the gamblers, the media attention, the invite to the Show (if only for spring training) … it had all happened too fast for me to process it. It’s a funny thing, dudes, but for years I’d gone along, lugging this dream around. The longer I beat the bushes, the more solid the dream became. The more detail it had. But now when I was getting close enough to taste it, it seemed watery, out of focus, unreal. Things were aligning in my favor, yet I felt my life was spinning away from me. What’s up with that?
I lie back on my bed, drew a couple of deep breaths, and did a visualization exercise that came with one of my New Age CDs. (I think it was “Music from Atlantis.”) I projected baseball fantasies on the ceiling, just like I did when I was eight years old living on some military base, I can’t remember which. I’d be under the covers with my baseball cards in a cardboard box in one hand and a flashlight in the other. My dad had given me his cards, too, from when he was a kid, so I had quite a collection. I used to love to read the back of the cards, not just for the stats but for a little tidbit they’d have about the player’s hobbies or what he did in the winter months. For some reason now, I flashed back to one of my father’s cards, for Jim Umbrecht, a pitcher for the old Houston Colt 45’s. On the back of his card, instead of saying “Jim loves to hunt and fish” or “Jim’s hobbies are carpentry and playing bridge,” it said, “Jim died of cancer in the off-season.” I never forgot that, and every off-season, when I found myself resenting lugging sheetrock or clerking in a sporting goods shop or eking out a living on unemployment, and even though I never even had my own baseball card, I would remind myself that it could always be worse. I could’ve been Jim Umbrecht.
The cell was vibrating. It was Nick Fondue, my ex-agent.
“Hey, hey Mr. All-Star! How’s it hanging, buddy?” He dragged out and slurred the last word, so that it sounded more like “burrryyyy.”
“Listen, if I’d known you’d make the news cycle someday, I would’ve held onto you.” He laughed, which was more like a snort.
“What do you want, Nick?”
“Want? I just want to congratulate you, burrrryyyyyy!”
“Thanks.” I didn’t want to mention the Yankee offer, or that I’d signed with IBS, or, well, anything. I never felt comfortable with Fondue; like his name, he was kind of gooey. Besides, all he’d ever gotten for me was a couple of dead-end low minor tryouts. Then I’d found out that having him as an agent made you more even more of a suspect than you were to start with. I wasn’t sure if it was the low quality of his clientele or a generally seedy rep.
“I mean, you deserve it. You paid some major dues.”
“Yeah, guess so.”
“Anyway, you didn’t ask, but I’m getting back in the game.”
“I thought you were decertified."
“I was railroaded. Those Dominican kids lied to me about their age. I mean, what do they want me to do – take their DNA? … Anyway, my re-certification hearing goes before the board next week, and, well, it would help if I had at least one high-profile client—”
“I’m with IBS now.”
Nick made a guffawing noise that sounded like a laugh that tripped over itself.
“Yeah, you know. Larson Pomade.”
I heard Nick breathing hard and heavily. “Jesus, you ain’t s—tting me?”
“When did this happen?”
“This week?! Jesus Christ, IBS. Why didn’t you just join the IRS while you were at it?” He paused, still panting into the phone. “I don’t know why I bother. You spend years building a relationship with somebody, like a parent, guiding him through all the stages of life and then, when he finally gets a break, suddenly he’s too big, too “grown-up” for you.” Pause. “I’m a minnow swimming with piranhas.”
I found myself apologizing to Nick, when I owed him absolutely nothing.
“Sorry for what? Don’t be sorry. You think I’m going to have a pity-party ‘cause Ric Grieff double-crossed me? Nick Fondue will be A-OK. I just signed this kid pitcher from China. A little raw but he’s six-foot-seven and ambidextrous!” He paused. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just don’t come crying to me later when Larson Pomade dumps you like a used douchebag.”
“What did you do for me, Nick?”
“What could I do? You were an undrafted backup catcher with bupkis value. I’m an agent, not a magician. Now, some scribe makes you out to be Steve McQueen and suddenly you’re--”
“The Yankees invited me to camp.”
He snorted. “So? The Nazis invited Anne Frank to camp.”
He hung up. I decided to call my parents to tell them the good news.
My father picked up, which was highly unusual. “Sarge” – his nickname, as well as his rank – usually was in his den, listening to show tunes, and my mother would pick up the phone and I’d have to try talking to her over “Pajama Game” or “South Pacific.” She’d yell, “Frank, turn that down!”
“Your mother’s in the bathroom.” He spoke in a clipped, sullen monotone, an echo of his military days.
“How are you?”
“Dad, I have some pretty amazing news.” Silence. “I’m going to spring training with the Yankees.”
“What Yankees? Staten Island Yankees?”
“No, the real Yankees. The team with Jeter and A-Rod and Godzilla.”
“How’d this happen?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Last I heard you were in Nicaragua.”
“Yeah … saw it in the local paper. What kind of trouble did you get into down there? You were gambling?”
“No, Dad, I … it’s a long story.”
“Where you calling from? It’s a bad connection.”
“New York? What are you doing there?”
“I’m … meeting with my new agent.”
He grunted. “So … big break?”
“Well, they didn’t guarantee me a spot on the roster and it’s still a long shot—”
“I never got a break like that. If I did, I’d a been a general.”
“I’m sure you--”
“Don’t blow it. Stay in line, keep your mouth shut, do whatever they tell you. If they tell you to sell peanuts, you sell the goddamned peanuts.”
“Dad, it’s not the army.”
“Sure as hell ain’t.”
“Dad, tell Mom I’ll call her another time.”
“She’s in the bathroom.”
I heard him turn up the volume on “Hernando’s Hideaway.”