DFA: A BLOG ABOUT LIFE ON THE BASEBALL MARGINS: March 12, 2008
My Transaction History, part 2
2002: Let go by the Burlington Bees after I accidentally mention that I knew two of the guys accused of pulling off 9-11 from working at the flight school where they trained, I am first interrogated by the FBI. When they realize that I don’t know anything about the terrorists, one agent asks me if I’d be interested in playing for the FBI fast-pitch softball team. I tell him I didn’t even know the FBI had a softball team. I ask him who they play, and he says, “That’s classified information.” I ask him where they play and he says, “That’s classified information.” I ask him how will I know where to go for the games and he says, "We'll call you." I hear rumors that the entire team is an undercover counter-terrorist unit that tries to infiltrate “subversive” groups by playing softball games against them and bringing their own keg. But since I don’t receive any other offers, I agree to play with the G-Men (that’s their team name). The money is good, and in 30 years I can retire with a pension. Although I’m the best athlete on the team, they insist that I stay at catcher, because they say I can find out more information about “America’s enemies” – which is weird, since all of our games are against other government agencies. Their unis have icons of tommy guns and J. Edgar Hoover on them), but the players’ names are classified. We play our first game against the I.R.S. – the “Tax Men.” Everybody hates them. It’s a grudge match, and tensions are high, especially when the I.R.S. manager threatens to audit the umpires. I hit two big flies and we beat them, 13-8 (minus deductions). As we leave the field, the I.R.S. shortstop glowers at me, malice in his eyes, and trash-talks: “We’re going to take a good, long look at your business expenses, pal…”
We play on: against the Department of the Interior, the “pussies” at the Environmental Protection Agency (our manager, Tarmac Tomlinson, dumps a trash can right in front of their dugout, and our entire team doubles over in laughter, while the EPA-ers look down sheepishly and do nothing), the Defense Department, and the U.S. Army. My father attends that game and roots against me. This conjures up a terrible high school memory. My team, Ennui High, was playing in the state finals against Our Lady of Fatima, and I was pitching. Now, remember that my father left my mom and me when I was about six, and thereafter made fewer appearances than a stiff-armed lefty specialist. The score was “knotted” (as the scribes put it) at 3 in the bottom of the ninth, and Fatima loaded the bases when Thaddeus Brandy, a real nerd who won first prize at the science fair by sending one of his pet gerbils into low orbit around the Earth in a home-made rocket, dropped three straight pop-ups in right field. Still, I kept my composure and had the next batter 0-2. I went into my windup, but just as I hit my release point, I heard my father’s drunken voice cry out, “Now don’t let me down, boy!” I was so startled that I threw the ball over everything – the batter, the catcher, even the backstop, which had to be at least 15 feet high. We lost the game. Everyone was so shocked – including the other team – that they froze for a second before the runner on third started moving toward home. I don’t think anybody ever retrieved the ball.
I got a bit of revenge against the old man that day, because I went 6-6 and we beat the Army, 24-2. (We found out before the game that they were all exhausted stop-lossed National Guardsmen in between tours of Baghdad, and so at crucial moments during the game, our guys would make exploding-bomb sounds to rattle them.)
By far the most important game of the season was against our arch- rival, the CIA. They were so into the cloak and dagger that they dressed in trenchcoats and wore wigs, fake eyeglasses and false beards. And fedoras that all but hid their faces. It was the only time I saw our guys intimidated.
Tarmac decided to change-up on his usual strategy and gave me the ball that day. It was a strange experience going up against a team of faceless players (like pitching against the Washington Nationals). What was even stranger was that they seemed to know every pitch I was going to throw. They knocked me all over the yard. Later we found out that they had planted a miniature camera in our catcher, Special Agent McNulty’s shinguards. We had wiretapped their bullpen phone, but that didn’t really give us much of an advantage – especially since they’d discovered it and gave us misinformation about who was warming up. They whipped our butts, something like 18-2. The only consolation we took was that near the end of the game, some of the spooks got cocky and started to brag about secret missions they were on, like the stuff they were pulling in – tttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt REDACTED BY CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY. DON’T EVEN ASK.
About halfway through the minor league season, I got a call from the owner of the Aberdeen Ironbirds, a new franchise in the N.Y.-Penn League. You might’ve heard of him. Name of Cal Ripken. They were just starting their season – the NY-Penn was a short-season league whose schedule went from mid-June to early September – and Cal had heard of me from a friend of his in the FBI. He needed a catcher and (I found out later) the FBI was getting suspicious about my checkered background and considered me a security risk (even if the only information I was ever privy to were the team's signs). So the FBI traded me to Aberdeen for some autographed photos of Ripken.
Later 2002: I was the starting catcher for Aberdeen, until I sided with a young shortstop prospect from Italy, Piero della Francesca, in a dispute over playing time. You see, Ripken had decided to play for the IronBirds and wanted to start another consecutive-games-played streak. In the process, he bumped Francesca (we called him “Frank”) to the bench. He was also the manager, the general manager and the first- and third-base coaches (except when he was on base, when he would give himself his own signs), the pitching coach, the hitting coach and the entire board of directors and their secretaries.
The Orioles had signed Frank and wanted to develop him as their shortstop of the future, but they were very leery about crossing Cal. (I remember that late in his career, when the Orioles wanted to move Cal to third base in favor of Manny Alexander, Cal gave Manny such a rough time that Manny never developed as a player. Last I heard, he was in a mental institution after suffering paranoid delusions that Albert Belle was following him with a corked bat.)
Everybody was leery of crossing Cal. Everyone but me. So one day I approached Ripken before the game and said, “Hey, Cal, don’t you think Frank deserves to play? He’s a young guy, and he's not learning anything riding the pines.”
Cal fixed those piercing baby blues on me but said nothing.
“I mean, that’s why the Birds sent him here, right?”
Cal nodded slowly and said, “Sure, Ric.” His voice was calm and soft. He turned to Frank and said, “O.K., hotshot. You’re starting at short today.” You could tell he was giving Frank notice that he’d better shine or else. That day, Cal started at third, and he did everything possible to make Frank look bad. He called for pop flies, then at the last minute backed away and when the balls fell in, waved his arms at Frank, as if Frank was to blame. He cut in front of him to field ground balls, and at least twice Ole’d and let the ball through, temporarily blocking Frank’s view and causing him to boot the ball. Of course the official scorer gave the errors to Frank – six in all. The next day, I was released.
Even later 20002: When Cal released me, it was too late in the summer to catch on with another team. I needed a job to make some bread, so I got a job hauling sheetrock for a developer who was working on a home for this famous German sculptor, Hans Schprinker, whose gimmick was to make life-size sculptures of famous people out of edible stuff. He made a Marilyn Monroe out of Redi-Wip and a George W. Bush that looked like Mr. Potato Head. He’d sell these for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (I later mentioned his technique to Omar Vizquel, whose off-season hobby was art, during a spring training game, and that’s where Omar got the idea to make a life-size sculpture of himself out of salsa.) Schprinker’s place was up in Woodstock, N.Y., where a lot of the people still walked around in paisley shirts and wore Birkenstocks. A few of them looked had this glassy, crazed, not-there look in their eyes, as if they went on an LSD trip in 1969 and never came back. Anyway, Schprinker was a regular guy, and sometimes we’d drink Kolsch or reisling with him after work.
One night he promised to make a miniature sculpture of me from pickles, but he went to bed that night without finishing it and some of the work crew mistakenly ate it with their liverwurst lunch sandwiches. This doesn’t have anything to do with my career; I just thought it was kind of cool. It was my first exposure to art and gave me something to talk about when I met Kara ...
… Who was still parked on the bench in my mind. That night, after Sarah left, I had a dream where Kara showed up at my door wearing a tank top, hot pants and thigh-high go-go boots with stiletto heels. She strutted in, swinging a svelte leather handbag, doing some kind of go-go boogaloo. (The boogaloo? From the Sixteis? Yeah, dudes, it was that ridiculous.) She pushed me down the bed and started doing a striptease. She took it all off, every last stitch, except the go-go boots. Then she put her hands on her jutting hips and hissed, “One day, all this could belong to you.”
I reached for her. The only problem was she was made of catsup.