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by Jason Bennett
Baseball is the most perfect activity ever invented by man. I’ve been saying that for so long that I don’t consider it an opinion any more, but a fact. Others may argue, but I know it's true.
I defend my point of view regularly and passionately, not only in my job as a sports reporter for the Southport Times, but also in casual conversation. The argument is typically the same:
Him (or her): Baseball takes too long too long to play.
Me: baseball takes only as long as the game demands. It conforms to its own rules and conventions, not to an arbitrary time limit. It is the only major sport to do so.
Him: what about golf?
Me: golf is not a sport, golf is drinking beer and walking through a park.
Him: Baseball games are too slow-paced.
Me: That is only true to the uninformed. To the truly enlightened, so much strategy goes on between each pitch that there’s barely enough time to complete it all. And, to the rest, the ones who either don’t know what to look for, or don’t care to know that much, it allows a conversational pace, so that a person can be sociable, and not worry about missing a small detail.
Him: Baseball games are too low-scoring. Most people want more points.
Me: Soccer is the most popular spectator sport in the world, and scores in soccer are lower than baseball scores 99 percent of the time.
And on and on, as I shoot down every one of his complaints, then pile reasons on top of him as to why nothing else even comes close; things most people would never think of. For instance, it’s the only game in which the defense controls the ball, it’s the only game whose playing-field’s dimensions are not dictated, but reflect the personality of each team’s venue – while, at the same time, retaining strict rules about the playing field’s dimensions, and, it’s the only game whose rules promote a poetic tension between symmetry and asymmetry in both numerical conventions and physical location. I should write a book.
I pulled into the parking lot of Simmons Field that Friday afternoon and walked into the park, to my usual seat on the third base line. I was a couple hours early for the game, as I usually was, so that I could at least pretend this was a job.
I bought a hot dog and a beer, and walked onto the field.
“Augie,” I put my hand on the shoulder of the Southport Anglers’ veteran manager. August Zupec had been in organized baseball for 50 years, 14 of them with the Anglers’ organization. He had been managing at one level or another for 25 of those years. His knowledge of the game was unsurpassed, on any level, and I loved to talk with him. “What’s new today, skip?”
“Nice to see you, too. Got held up at the office.”
“Fucking desk jockey.”
“We haven’t talked in a while, Augie, what’s new with the team?”
“This an interview, or a conversation, newsie?”
I laughed, as I knew from years covering the team that Augie enjoyed nothing more than talking about baseball. “Who’s going today?”
“Mitchell? A rightie?”
“Yep.” Augie spat a stream of tobacco juice towards my shoes. He was from the old school, and one of the few who still openly used chewing tobacco. He leaned on the rail in front of the dugout.
“Aren’t these guys packed with left-handed hitters?”
“I thought sure you’d throw Olivera today. Isn’t he next in the rotation?”
“Yeah, but Mitchell will be better ‘gainst them.”
“Couple reasons. He’s new to them. Most of their lineup has been here all year long. Mitchell just came over here. Plus, their lefties are all power hitters. Not one of ‘em is hitting more than .260.” He spoke while keeping his eye on the warm-up drills his players were executing on the field. “Their three and four hitters are both dead pull hitters. Mitchell has better control of his breaking stuff on the outside than Olivera has. They’ll try to pull him and hit grounders.”
“Makes sense, but do you think. . . “
Augie cut me off: “You pussy! What kind of fucking throw was that?” He yelled at the field.
I chuckled at Augie’s demeanor. “You think you guys will do it? Will you take the division?”
“I think we can. But don’t fucking print that. We have thirty-some games left. . . “
“Okay,” he spat again. “It’s a road. We’ve got the horses here, you know that, Ozzie. You’ve seen ‘em play all year.”
“I know, Augie, but you always tell me that’s not what’s important, and I’ve seen some tension lately. Am I right?”
“No.” Augie smiled. “No tension on my team. Just ask young Mr. Akers.”
I laughed. “Okay, okay, so who’s starting in the outfield? Akers or Rusty?”
“Rusty is starting tonight.”
“You gonna tell me why Rusty tonight?”
Augie smiled and spat again. “Figure it out, kid. I think you probably can do that.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll leave you alone.” I strolled away and headed back to the stands, then called back. “By the way, I’m gonna do a column next week on Rusty. I’ll talk with you later about it.”
He responded with a wave as I walked back up onto the brick façade next to the dugout.
On the way back to my seat, I ran into Jerry Case, the Anglers’ owner, and a long-time friend of mine. Jerry had lost his wife to cancer several years before. He was an extremely well-respected business man in Southport, and even had served several terms in various offices in city government.
Fifteen years previous, Jerry and three partners had purchased the Anglers from the corporate owners who were threatening to move the team out of Wisconsin, and into a potentially larger market. As too often happens in the baseball world, money had become the issue, and the corporate hands-off management style didn’t allow them to see what the team meant to the city. All this happened long before I began covering the team for the Times, but Jerry loved to talk about how he “rescued baseball” for Southport. He always said it with a chuckle in his voice, but largely, it was true.
His partners eventually tired of the grind associated with getting fans interested in minor league baseball. The fan-appreciation promotions, silly games between innings, and day-to-day finances didn’t meet their ideals of being sports moguls. They allowed Jerry to buy them out over a period of years, and just as I was assigned by the Times to cover the team, he became the sole owner. That was 7 seasons ago.
Jerry never tired of owning a baseball team. He was one of two people I knew whose love of the game was as far-reaching as mine. And he always gave me access to anything I wanted. As a reporter and baseball fan, it didn’t get any better. He knew the advantage to having the local paper on his side – free advertising he called me – and I was always able to get a great story. It didn’t get any better.
“Ozzie, how you doing, son?” Jerry never had a son. But he had told me once, that if he had, he would have wanted him to be like me. Hearing him say that had saved me, years ago.
Shortly after my father died, I hit a very low point in my life. I contemplated quitting my job and working in our family’s auto body shop. I had no motivation to write at all. Jerry case helped me through that time. I was forever indebted to this man as a friend and father figure.
“Hey Jerry,” I extended my hand, which he enthusiastically shook. “Great day for a ballgame.”
“Yes, yes. How’s that book of yours coming?”
“Slowly, I’m afraid. Work has been killing me.”
The book Jerry was referring to, was a reflection and outgrowth of my love for baseball. Somewhere in the early part of the century, some rich white, baseball owners had decided that black players were not welcomed in the major leagues. While no written contracts were made, this “gentleman’s agreement” stood until 1947 when Branch Ricky had the balls and foresight to hire Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers. But that’s neither here nor there.I was researching and writing about a baseball team called the Homestead Grays, a giant among the negro league teams that arose as a result of black players not being welcome in the major leagues. While my book was a fictional account of a fictional player, it was steeped in historical fact, and required mountains of research. It was slow going, but I enjoyed it more than anything – except being at an actual game.
“Hang in there, kid,” Jerry said to me. “You’ll get there.”
I nodded, knowing he was right. It was my nature to second guess myself, especially when it comes to my own writing.
He noticed my downturn. He knew me well. “So what’s the good word, then?” He asked.
“Well, seems to be Colby Akers, for you anyway. He’s hitting nearly .350, and in only his second year in the minors. How long you figure he’ll be with the club?”
Jerry laughed. “Not long enough, I’m sure.”
“Never long enough.”
“No, not at this level.”
“Think he’ll go up?”
“Nah, not this year. The major league club is in too much of a battle. They don’t want to bring up prospects now. They want proven talent.”
“But experience in the show could be beneficial next year.”
“Just between you and me, Carson,” Jerry said, “They spent too much on the trades they made in August. They’re determined to get the most out of that money, and see what the market brings in the offseason. I’m sure Mr. Akers will be at their spring training next year. But for now, I’m glad he’s here.”
I hated it when Jerry said ‘just between you and me.’ As a reporter, I knew I couldn’t print whatever he was going to say. But as a fan, I knew I was about to get some serious dirt.
“Okay, so then we’ll just have to win the league with him, here,” I offered.
“Sounds good to me,” Jerry laughed. “Say, Carson, why don’t you come by the house early next week. I have something I want to give you. I think you’ll appreciate it.”
Jerry had, over the years, imparted on me several pieces of one-of-a-kind baseball memorabilia that didn’t quite fit into his collection, but that did fit my interests. I never knew where he got them, but he got them.
“Sure,” I agreed. “What you got?”
“Nah, it’s a surprise.” He enjoyed that game.
“Alright. I’ll stop by some evening. Maybe Tuesday.”
“Good. Now sit down and watch the game. I have a good feeling about this one.”
We shook hands and I looked around. The crowd filing in was a bit fuller, now, and the lights had popped on. Jerry walked away, and I found my way to the concession stand for another beer and hot dog, then back to my seat I watched batting practice. I pictured myself on the field, hitting in the cage, catching a fast ball on the sweet spot and feeling the hum all the way up my arms. I never was a very good hitter in real life, but I could dream about it.
As I looked up from my daydream, time for the Star-Spangled Banner was starting.
Performing the banner that night was the barber shop quartet from What Cheer, Iowa – the group that had recently won the national championship in the over-fifty age group at the National Barbershop Quartet Competition, held in Southport every August. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of their performance.
Just as they finished and the applause began, I sat down and felt a tap on my right shoulder.
Donovan Pagliocci stood over me, an ugly grin parting his dark goatee. His trademark dark suit struck me as far too dressy for an evening baseball game, and far too warm for August. But he usually teased me, saying my polo shirts and painter’s jeans were not only too casual for a professional in any line of work, but also, in his words, ‘very 2000.’
I decided an Augie Zupec quote would work best in this situation: “You’re late.”
“Yeah, by the way, she told me to tell you that you were terrible last night.”
“Funny, she told me I was better than you’d ever been.”
“Shut up and move over.”
I got up and moved over one seat to give him room to sit down. He handed me a beer, which I added to mine, in the cup holder on the seat back in front of me.
Donnie and I had been friends since third grade, when I moved to Southport from Chicago. We had grew up together, and we both went to college at the University of Wisconsin, then returned to Southport to look for jobs. As luck had it, we both found jobs in town, and continued to be close friends. I began as a copy-editor for the Southport Times, while he went to police academy, and began busting speeders on Sheridan Road.
We rarely missed an Anglers game together, and always sat in the same place. I guess the kids in us hadn’t grown up.
The first couple innings proved uneventful that night, a couple fly balls for them, and a couple groundouts for us, with a few strikeouts thrown in for good measure. Heading into the third, it looked like Augie was right about Mitchell. He was looking strong, until Rockford’s left-handed power prospect, Aurelio Montalvo, stepped up and parked a solo shot over the right field fence. One out, 1-0, Rockford.
After that, visibly shaken, Mitchell grooved one to Meyers, their backup catcher, who lined a single to left center.
“Uh-Oh,” Donnie said, “Trouble.”
“Nah, no problem.”
“That sounds like a money-offer,” Donnie said, pulling out his wallet. He removed a one-dollar bill and held out his palm, waiting for me to do the same.
I followed suit, and we each held our dollar.
“What is the bet,” I asked.
“The bet is this,” Donnie rubbed his goatee while the next hitter warmed up. “The Anglers will lose this game, unless no more runs score in this inning, and will win, if no more runs score this inning. If Rockford scores no more, and we win, I win the bet. If Rockford does score, and we win, you win the bet. If, however, Rockford scores, and we lose, I win. But, if Rockford doesn’t score this inning, and we still lose, you win the bet.”
I took a second and sorted it out. It was a typical Pagliocci bet. We tried to confuse each other, more than actually winning any money. The competition was more in creating a convoluted bet, than winning a dollar.
I handed him my dollar and the bet was on.
The next batter, a aging right fielder named Marovic took two pitches and then rapped sharply to the shortshop, who backhanded the ball and flipped to second for the first out, and the second baseman threw a rocket to first to complete the twin killing.
Just like that, the bet was in my favor.
No luck, however, in the bottom of the inning, as their young pitcher struck out our side.
The score remained 1-0 in Rockford’s favor into the 7th. The game proved to be a pitcher’s dual, Mitchell striking out six and throwing seven ground balls, including two double plays. I should have known never to argue with Augie.
During the seventh inning stretch, Donnie went to the concession stand for beer, and I stood up, shook my head and looked around the healthy crowd. For a Friday night, these were pretty good numbers: I estimated 1000 people in the stands.
I looked towards the first base side, and noticed Olivia Case, Jerry’s daughter, sitting in the second row, directly behind the Anglers’ dugout. Next to her was the brunette I had met two nights previous at the Southport Pub.
Donnie returned, beers in both hands, and asked me what I was looking at.
“Olivia Case,” I replied. “And her friend, Trish, I think. I saw them at the Southport the other night. Olivia was there with Jake.”
“She’s not dating him again, is she?”
“I don’t know, but they weren’t getting along too well that night. They were both very coked up, and all of Jake’s flunkies were around. I’m sure he was doing business.”
We both watched the two as they flirted with the players between innings.
“What’s with the other broad; her friend. She’s cute,” Donnie prodded. “Why don’t you ask her out?”
“I thought about it.”
“So when are you going out with her?”
“I said I thought about it.”
“Oh, yeah. You need to actually grow a pair and do it, then.”
“I don’t know, Donnie. . . “
“Oh shit, here it comes. ‘I still have feelings for her.’ “
“Leave it alone, pig,” I warned, “or I’ll take your own gun out and shoot you.”
“Listen, Ozzie, it’s time you move on. I’m fairly sure that Dianne has.”
“I know, I know.”
We both watched the grounds crew refresh the infield and replace the bases. I have always admired how quickly a good grounds crew can make a trampled infield look good enough to photograph in the space of one inning break. The efficiency of their tasks, and the beauty of the result were two more reasons why I felt baseball was the only perfect sport.
In our half of the 8
Since he came to the club, he had shown amazing maturity for a 22-year-old hitter. He was patient, rarely struck out, and was hitting .347 with 12 home runs. He was a dangerous tool coming off the bench, and in the near future, would make a key addition to the major league club.
Akers stepped in and took the first pitch on the outside corner for strike one.
“He’ll strike out,” Donnie said. “Too much pressure.”
“He will not.”
“Double or nothing.”
“Donnie, I don’t even understand the fucking bet,” I said, “but if you really want to lose a dollar to me over this lousy at bat, then that’s fine with me.” I reached back into my wallet to pull out another dollar, and nearly spilled my beer.
The next pitch came in high, ball one. Akers stepped out and knocked the dirt from his cleats. He stepped back in and took two small practice swings, set his bat and waited.
Their pitcher wound up and released.
The curve didn’t break. It hung beautifully just below belt level, and rode the middle of the plate at about 78 miles per hour.
Akers stepped and swung. His picture-perfect mechanics would have impressed Ted Williams, and his lumber connected.
Akers trotted around the bases and followed Olivera across the plate. It was his 13th home run as an Angler, and enough to win the game for the team. After an uneventful 9th inning, Donnie handed me my two dollars, and we started walking out of the park.
“We’re going to take the league this year,” I told him, “and Akers is going to be gone next season.”
“I’ll have to think about that one.”
“I’m not offering you a bet, moron.”
“I might make it into one, anyway.”
“I suppose that’s your right.”
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