Battle Creek

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Overview

Gil Davison is the coach of an amateur baseball team in Michigan, national finalists many times over but champions never. He has spent his adult life juggling his roles as coach to the team, father to his estranged son who has made it clear he is doing just fine without Gil, and caretaker to his disapproving father who is dying of cancer. So when a hot rookie hitter wanders into town--fresh from a stint in prison--Gil convinces himself that this season his team must win the championship, their last chance to ...
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Overview

Gil Davison is the coach of an amateur baseball team in Michigan, national finalists many times over but champions never. He has spent his adult life juggling his roles as coach to the team, father to his estranged son who has made it clear he is doing just fine without Gil, and caretaker to his disapproving father who is dying of cancer. So when a hot rookie hitter wanders into town--fresh from a stint in prison--Gil convinces himself that this season his team must win the championship, their last chance to fulfill an elusive dream. But the events that unfold are unexpected, enlightening, and overwhelmingly powerful--and will change each of these men forever.
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Editorial Reviews

Austin Chronicle
One warm, compelling, heart-wrenching, fascinating story...Mr. Lasser's truest strength is an unassuming genius for characterization.
Baltimore Sun
A first novel by a Lehman Brothers trader named Scott Lasser may be, in its quiet way, perhaps the most absorbing book to be published this may...Lasser has managed to capture the profound dignity in these ordinary lives and the poetry of a baseball season unsullied by the promise of big money or celebrity. And in the end, within this macho world of reticent action men, this is a novel that turns out to be all about love.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Lasser's novel offers...snapshots of players throwing and hitting perfectly, moments that remain in memory, expanding into timelessness. —New York Times
New Yorker
Lasser's prose is spare and precise, but the characters he writes about—greenhorns and aging athletes, fathers and sons—are most eloquent in their silence.
Newsday
Battle Creek is distinguished by Lasser's ability to write about the game with neither myth nor sentimentality. He captures the game's interludes, its breaths and caesuras, with subtlety and grace.
Library Journal
This fine first novel deserves every bit of the excitement it is generating. Gil Davison, coach of an amateur baseball team that has always made it to the championship finals but never won, is resolved that this season they will win it all. A man who has always loved the purity of baseball, he finds that the thirst for winning leads him to compromises that are hard to live with. The book also explores the other key members of his team--the aging pitcher who cannot admit to the pain his arm is giving him, the assistant coach who is dying of emphysema, the young phenom who would long since have been tearing up the major leagues if he hadn't been in prison for beating the brains out of his girl's other guy. The baseball is lovingly, truthfully described, as are the men's friendships and betrayals. All public libraries will want this. [BOMC selection.]--Marylaine Block, St. Ambrose Univ. Lib., Davenport, IA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
...[A]ffecting....[T]he narrative is skillfully understated and elliptical....The story's major developments are stunning surprises....Mr. Lasser's novel offers in abundance...moments that remain in memory, expanding into timelessness.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A tepid first novel for boys who love the boys of summer. Lasser's narrative trots perfunctorily through the lives of a handful of minor-league baseball aspirants before culminating in a championship game played in the cereal mecca of the title. Gil is the coach. Divorced, troubled by the failure of his team, Koch and Sons, to win the national finals for four years running, Gil has uninteresting intimacy issues with his dying father that need to be worked out before the story can end. Vince is the pitching coach. Terminally ill with emphysema, he sports a wise and craggy countenance that has dispensed wisdom to his bullpen for years, yet his wife refuses to learn how to pay the telephone bill at home. Vince dies just before the finals, and the wife is relieved of her responsibilities—she dies, too. Mercer, an aging pitcher whose skills are slowly fading, also has intimacy issues, in his case with his girlfriend: he has to cough up a commitment before the first pitch can be thrown. Luke James is a troubled ex-con, a tightly wound young wizard with the bat just getting used to life on the outside: ticking time-bomb, or possible savior of the team? No one can say, since James is killed at bat by a wild pitch as the big game winds down. Readers will want to send these cardboard characters to the showers for the season. The on-the-field action, which in sports novels is often the redeeming point of light in an otherwise uninspired blur of domestic adjectives, fails to stir and is only dutifully described, as if the author actually wants to return as quickly as possible to the really interesting emotional lives of these guys. Featuring a desultory text strewn with faceless womenin perky T-shirts who mostly serve drinks, Lasser's debut has as much spellbinding crackle as a pre-season rainout. (Book-of-the-Month Club selection; author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688177638
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1ST PERENN
  • Pages: 284
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott Lasser
Scott Lasser recieved his M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and M.B.A. from the Wharton School, and is presently the treasury bill trader at Lehman Brothers. He has written for the PBS nature series Wild America, and his short stories have appeared in the Missouri Review, the Mississippi Review, and other literary journals. He lives in New York with his wife and two children.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

May

Before the screen door can slap shut, the smell of grass hits him. It is the very odor of youth and freshness, and it makes him come to a stop on his porch. By any measure it is a glorious day. The sun shines, the air is warm, the sky is the robin's-egg blue of spring. Though Gil Davison is not normally the type of man to appreciate the natural world, he notices that the buds have opened on the large oak that hovers over his driveway. Across the street his neighbor, Tom Foss, is dropping clear plastic bags of lawn clippings along the curb.

"Beautiful day, Gil," Foss says. Gil has now moved out in front of his house, as this is a neighborhood in which men commonly talk from their lawns.

"Beautiful," Gil repeats.

Foss waves, as though from a great distance, and goes back to work.

Gil then remembers what he has set out to do: fire a player. Though he has coached baseball for nearly thirty years, he still dreads letting people go. Every year he has to do it ten times or a dozen; it doesn't get any easier. This year, though, he is taking no chances. He has made up his mind that this will be his last season. He wants to go out on top. In previous years he kept some people on board out of loyalty, or because he liked them, or because he liked their wives or girlfriends, or just to avoid having to fire them, but this year he won't do it. This year a player has to produce, or he's gone. Hitters have to hit; pitchers have to get people out. He isn't going to have any shenanigans, any lackadaisical grab-ass. For four years running his team has made the national finals only to lose. No other amateur team has thenational reputation of Koch and Sons, no other team has ever made the finals four years, in a row or not. No other team has placed so many players in pro ball, or has had so many go all the way to the bigs. Koch alumni have played in the World Series, are making big bucks in Anaheim, Baltimore, and Osaka. Last year one of the Battle Creek papers called the team a dynasty. Gil thinks of last year, when he left Mercer in so that the kid could get the championship win, left him in even though he knew Merc was tired, and when San Antonio rocked him and all was lost, Gil could think only that again he'd let his heart rule his head. Football was the game of emotions. Baseball required clear-headed logic. In baseball you played percentages and made your own luck. So this year emotions will have nothing to do with it.

Jerry Callicotte does not think Gil is soft. Callicotte has played on the fringe of Koch and Sons for three years. He has found ways to make himself useful. He has played every position — even catcher — and once got a key out while pitching in an early-season game. Really, he's an infielder, and dead weight. The squad can no longer afford two-fifty hitters who play all positions adequately but none exceptionally. True, Callicotte has an exceptional love for the game, and enthusiasm goes a long way with Gil. Gil has given him tickets to Tiger Stadium, which Callicotte eagerly uses, going early to watch batting practice. He's a good kid and likable enough. Callicotte has even sent Gil a Christmas present. Gil considers all this, but his mind is set.

They are to meet in Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan is playing Wisconsin. Callicotte went to school at Michigan. Gil wants to check out the Wolverine second baseman, and thus he can knock off two jobs with one trip. He convinces himself he can be hard and efficient. He has told Callicotte to meet him behind home plate, Gils favorite place to sit.

Gil steadies himself as he drives down M-14. His Continental is freshly washed, a moving spectacle of shiny deep-green clear-coat paint. Gil is content for the moment, a feeling borne, unconsciously, by the smell of leather and what he sees out the window. Here, then, is the comforting landscape: rows of corn barely sprouted; trees quaking with their new leaves; the roadside Queen Anne's lace bowing in the breeze; the now milky-blue sky stretching out endlessly toward Chicago and beyond. On the radio the WJR jockey chatters on about a human interest story a step above the supermarket tabloids, and then comes a Frank Sinatra song sung by Tony Bennett. Gil glances at the car's clock. In seventeen minutes the Tiger pregame show will begin.

Perhaps it's the music or the sky or even the drive along M-14, but suddenly Gil remembers waking this morning certain that his two sons were standing at his bed. Rick was about eight and Laurence five. They were in their pajamas, their short hair matted from sleep. They looked so innocent, especially Laurence, that Gil thought he might cry. They wanted to play, to roughhouse on the bed. This was before Gil's two disks were removed, before the second knee operation and the cholesterol watch. Downstairs he could hear the radio; there was the long-ago smell of bacon. WHen he invited the boys up, they jumped, but instead of landing, they disappeared. The sensation was overpowering. Gil staggered to the bathroom, where in the mirror he saw his tired, sixty-four-year-old face lined with tears...

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First Chapter


MAY


I


Before the screen door can slap shut, the smell of grass hits him. It is the very odor of youth and freshness, and it makes him come to a stop on his porch. By any measure it is a glorious day. The sun shines, the air is warm, the sky is the robin's-egg blue of spring. Though Gil Davison is not normally the type of man to appreciate the natural world, he notices that the buds have opened on the large oak that hovers over his driveway. Across the street his neighbor, Tom Foss, is dropping clear plastic bags of lawn clippings along the curb.

    "Beautiful day, Gil," Foss says. Gil has now moved out in front of his house, as this is a neighborhood in which men commonly talk from their lawns.

    "Beautiful," Gil repeats.

    Foss waves, as though from a great distance, and goes back to work.

    Gil then remembers what he has set out to do: fire a player. Though he has coached baseball for nearly thirty years, he still dreads letting people go. Every year he has to do it ten times or a dozen; it doesn't get any easier. This year, though, he is taking no chances. He has made up his mind that this will be his last season. He wants to go out on top. In previous years he kept some people on board out of loyalty, or because he liked them, or because he liked their wives or girlfriends, or just to avoid having to fire them, but this year he won't do it. This year a player has to produce, or he's gone. Hitters have to hit; pitchers have to get people out. He isn't going to have any shenanigans, any lackadaisical grab-ass. For four years running his team has made the national finals only to lose. No other amateur team has the national reputation of Koch and Sons, no other team has ever made the finals four years, in a row or not. No other team has placed so many players in pro ball, or has had so many go all the way to the bigs. Koch alumni have played in the World Series, are making big bucks in Anaheim, Baltimore, and Osaka. Last year one of the Battle Creek papers called the team a dynasty. Gil thinks of last year, when he left Mercer in so that the kid could get the championship win, left him in even though he knew Merc was tired, and when San Antonio rocked him and all was lost, Gil could think only that again he'd let his heart rule his head. Football was the game of emotions. Baseball required clear-headed logic. In baseball you played percentages and made your own luck. So this year emotions will have nothing to do with it.

    Jerry Callicotte does not think Gil is soft. Callicotte has played on the fringe of Koch and Sons for three years. He has found ways to make himself useful. He has played every position—even catcher—and once got a key out while pitching in an early-season game. Really, he's an infielder, and dead weight. The squad can no longer afford two-fifty hitters who play all positions adequately but none exceptionally. True, Callicotte has an exceptional love for the game, and enthusiasm goes a long way with Gil. Gil has given him tickets to Tiger Stadium, which Callicotte eagerly uses, going early to watch batting practice. He's a good kid and likable enough. Callicotte has even sent Gil a Christmas present. Gil considers all this, but his mind is set.

    They are to meet in Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan is playing Wisconsin. Callicotte went to school at Michigan. Gil wants to check out the Wolverine second baseman, and thus he can knock off two jobs with one trip. He convinces himself he can be hard and efficient. He has told Callicotte to meet him behind home plate, Gil's favorite place to sit.


Gil steadies himself as he drives down M-14. His Continental is freshly washed, a moving spectacle of shiny deep-green clear-coat paint. Gil is content for the moment, a feeling borne, unconsciously, by the smell of leather and what he sees out the window. Here, then, is the comforting landscape: rows of corn barely sprouted; trees quaking with their new leaves; the roadside Queen Anne's lace bowing in the breeze; the now milky-blue sky stretching out endlessly toward Chicago and beyond. On the radio the WJR jockey chatters on about a human interest story a step above the supermarket tabloids, and then comes a Frank Sinatra song sung by Tony Bennett. Gil glances at the car's clock: In seventeen minutes the Tiger pregame show will begin.

    Perhaps it's the music or the sky or even the drive along M-14, but suddenly Gil remembers waking this morning certain that his two sons were standing at his bed. Rick was about eight and Laurence five. They were in their pajamas, their short hair matted from sleep. They looked so innocent, especially Laurence, that Gil thought he might cry. They wanted to play, to roughhouse on the bed. This was before Gil's two disks were removed, before the second knee operation and the cholesterol watch. Downstairs he could hear the radio; there was the long-ago smell of bacon. When he invited the boys up, they jumped, but instead of landing, they disappeared. The sensation was overpowering. Gil staggered to the bathroom, where in the mirror he saw his tired, sixty-four-year-old face lined with tears.

    Later that morning, at the barber shop, he again had a memory, this one only of Laurence. Gil places the year around 1970. Rick refused to get his hair cut and after the crying and a fight with Susan, Gil grabbed Laurence and whisked him off to the barber. Laurence was about seven, still obedient, not yet surly. Gil watched the barber work on the boy's head and this gave Gil the feeling that he had done something lasting and tangible, something he could point to and say, Hey, that's mine. I made that. When Stan, the barber—indeed the same barber these twenty-odd years—wheeled him around Gil was again surprised to see his old face, not Laurence's.

    Something wrong? the barber said.

    Gil stared a long time into the accordion mirrors, back and back through the images, as if he expected one of them to be different.


* * *


Behind the backstop sit the regulars, men Gil's age, men whose company he enjoys. They are big, American men. They sit by spreading their legs wide on the aluminum benches, forearms resting against thighs so as to buttress barrel chests and bulbous stomachs, weight accumulated through seasons of spectating. They cover their bulk with Michigan paraphernalia: baseball caps with block M's, blue-and-gold sweatshirts, pins. Several of these men have football season tickets. The others are on the waitlist. They come to trade stories and eat. Each is supposed to watch his weight; none does, except that a Diet Coke is now considered acceptable to wash down a hot dog or ice cream sandwich. They talk about baseball and sometimes local politics, if the subject—such as the possible demolition of Tiger Stadium and the bond issue to fund its replacement—has some direct relevance to their lives. Not one of them is a Michigan alumnus, but there is little they do not know about Michigan baseball.

    When they see Gil they wave him over. "Where have you been?" asks John, who took early retirement from GM and lives what he calls the good life off Social Security and his UAW pension.

    "Busy, I guess," Gil says. This is only the fourth home game. He sits. Callicotte is nowhere in sight, which is expected. He's not due for another forty-five minutes.

    Michigan's team runs onto the field to brief and restrained applause. The pitcher, a lanky redhead, starts throwing, the ball popping the catcher's glove. Gil doesn't have to look to know the kid has a live arm. But he's a sophomore and the nongraduating players play in the Cape League over the summer, which Gil doesn't think is so great for their baseball.

    In the on-deck circle the Wisconsin batter is swinging in time, as if to hit the pitcher's warm-ups.

    "You hear about Clement?" Roger asks. Gil looks for Clement, realizes he's missing.

    "Ain't that something?" says one of the regulars.

    "What about him?" Gil asks.

    John takes over. "He's got this daughter, see. Lives down in Miami. So, Clement figures, why not go for a visit, see her and the grandkid, and then, hell, catch some of spring training. Something he's wanted to do all his life. The spring training. So, he goes, gets there, and the daughter? She's got a black eye."

    Gil nods. The men watch the pitch, a ball outside.

    "So, anyway, she sees her ol' man and starts in crying. Takes about a minute and she's telling him it was the husband, some Cuban." Pause for a foul tip. "Montez? That's Cuban, right? Anyway, turns out the kid's got bruises up and down his backside. Kid's only three, mind you, and it's Clement's grandson, right? So he goes off to where the guy works."

    A ground ball to short, one away.

    "He works at this Nissan dealership. It's bad enough for Clement that his son-in-law sells Nissans for a living, right? And you know Clement, never what you'd call a diplomat. Ol' Clement, he walks up to the guy and tells him what for. The guy claims he never touched either the daughter or the grandkid."

    First pitch pop-up, two away.

    "So, that night Clement is in a stew, and Linda, his wife, she calls me. So I call him. At his hotel, long distance. I say, forget about the spic, get your little girl and the baby and bring 'em up here. I mean, a guy's a hitter, he's a hitter. People say men change, but I ain't never seen it. Hitters don't change. Am I right?"

    John looks to the regulars, who nod, then turn their heads to the pitch, a called strike.

    "Clement, though, he's a Marine. Guadalcanal. Did you know that? Anyway, he's beside himself and so the next day he goes to get his daughter and bring her up here, but she's really a mess. I guess the guy got home the night before and let her have it. The kid's got a broken arm. Can you imagine?" Pause, a ball, low. "I'm not making this up. Broke his own kid's arm. Clement, he just goes berserk. Drives to the dealership, walks up to the guy, takes out his old service revolver—the thing's been under the front seat of his car since Truman was president, he showed it to me once—and so he takes his gun and shoots the husband in the face. Except you know Clement, not so good with faces. We all know he needs new glasses all the time. Took him a season to tell me from Gene. So ..." A ball, away. "You guessed it, Clement shoots the wrong guy, just some poor bastard trying to sell Nissans. I guess they all wore blue blazers." Pause for a foul down the third base line. "Anyway, Clement gets so excited, he has a stroke right there in the showroom."

    Pause, ball three.

    "That's it?" Gil asks.

    "What else is there?"

    "The daughter, the kid? His wife? Clement?"

    "Got me. The shooting part and all I got from the papers. But I tell you what, you raise 'em and they marry assholes. What can you do? I'm with Clement, though. 'Cept you got to get the right guy."

    "Hear, hear," says one of the regulars.

    The batter hits a fly to center, end of the inning. Michigan trots into its dugout.

    "Good inning," John says, and the other regulars agree.


It is the third inning and still Gil is thinking about Clement. Jesus, he thinks, it's a crazy world if Clement can shoot a man in the face. Soft, doughy Clement, never said but a word or two during a whole doubleheader. Gil is thankful he has no daughters. Boys. Boys he can handle. He wouldn't have known what to do with a daughter. But even boys can be trouble. They can take their mother's side or not speak to you. They get fooled by curve balls and misinterpret your remarks, turn everything you say till you can't speak at all. In your own home. And they can be careless, so careless. When you can't imagine how they can go wrong, they go out and get drunk, take drugs, rob stores, beat up women, crack up cars, get hit by them. Gil has coached through the generations and seen it all. Fathers have called him, begging for answers. He was such a fine ballplayer, how could he do this? Gil has no answers. You never know sadness till you've buried a son, he told one father, hoping some perspective might help. It didn't.

    "Hi, Coach," says Callicotte, who has managed to surprise Gil. The young man wears a Michigan sweatshirt and cap, like the regulars. Gil gets up and moves down the bleachers, for privacy. Callicotte sits next to Gil, who glances at the player's ruddy cheeks and close-cropped hair. Callicotte is an insurance salesman by day. Gil thinks he must have a hard time of it, looking, as he does, as though he's not old enough to drive.

    "What do you think of this Kukla?" Gil asks. He means the second baseman. Gil has already decided he wants the kid. He's got a quick, compact swing, and good range and glove, and he's a base stealer. Everyone says Kukla's got speed, that he can fly for a white boy, which Gil figures is about as nice a compliment as a person can give a white boy these days.

    The conversation pauses for the pitch, a ball inside.

    "How's work?" Gil asks.

    "Good."

    "And Carol, your girlfriend?"

    "Cheryl. We broke up." Another ball inside.

    "Sorry to hear that."

    "Don't be. She wanted to get married, have babies. I'm not ready for that."

    "What have you been doing with yourself?"

    "Getting in shape. Been throwing, going to the batting cage. Weights."

    This isn't going to be easy, Carl thinks. For a moment he wonders if maybe he can use Callicotte after all. He thinks of the year when he was thirteen, when someone made a spot for him. Then he thinks again and says no. No dead weight. Be tough. Do what has to be done.

    "Listen, Jerry," Gil says, sotto voce, so that the regulars can't hear. "I'm not going to be able to use you this year."

    "What?"

    "I'm not going to be able to use you this year ..." The Wisconsin batter drives the ball deep up the alley in right. The center fielder, a wide receiver on the football team, sprints for the ball, dives, and misses. The right fielder retrieves it and throws it in. The batter stops at third to delirious cheers from the Wisconsin bench. It's the first hit of the game.

    Everyone sits down. Be tough, Gil tells himself.

    "Listen, Jerry. I'm not going to be able to use you this year," he says for the third time.

    "What?"

    "You heard me."

    "You're firing me?"

    "Yes."

    Callicotte takes a deep breath. "Gil, I've been with you three years. I contribute." He looks down at his throwing hand, spreads his fingers, then looks up into Gil's eyes. "You yourself called me just to tell me that this winter."

    Gil remembers. Lonely, with nothing to do in February, he made that call, praised Callicotte. Jesus, he thinks. How could I have done that? That was the old, soft me. That person? Long gone.

    "You've been a big help," he says, "but I can't use you this year. There are too many young guys coming in. Why don't you devote more time to your career? You can't play baseball forever."

    "Mercer is thirty-three. Jefferson is thirty-four!"

    "But, Jerry, you're not Jefferson or Mercer. Frankly, they are better players."

    Gil is surprised to hear himself speak this simple truth. It is a hard thing to say; there's a meanness to it. Gil feels sorry, even embarrassed, for Callicotte, whose face is turning the scarlet of Wisconsin's uniforms. He seems to be trembling, as though he might shout or cry.

    "Try not to take it hard," Gil says. "Every player has to stop eventually. It's normal. And most kids don't have the run you've had. They stop in Little League, or junior high. My own son stopped in high school. Even me, when I came back from—"

    Suddenly, Callicotte jumps up. "You're a bastard," he says. Callicotte stares at Gil with a look of hatred that startles him. This blond, all-American Dennis the Menace hates him. Hates him. Callicotte begins to leave, then stops. "A bastard!" he yells again, then tromps off.

    Gil turns toward the regulars. They are staring at him. Not one even glances at the field.

    "You're brutal," says John. The others chuckle. "You brought the poor guy out to his alma mater, then let him go." The men shake their heads, smiling.

    Gil smiles. You're all losers, he thinks. This year I'm going to get it done. This year.


II


Late that night, Ben Mercer stands in his kitchen breaking plates. He takes them by the edge, and with a quick movement of his pitching arm he brings them down on the corner of the kitchen counter. Ceramics fly. When he finishes with the dinner and salad dishes, he goes for the bowls, smashes a set of eight.

    He feels no better. He is in love, in love in the gut-tugging, sweaty-back, all-encompassing way, as if some terrible fever has overtaken him. All other women he sees only in comparison to her: one has her walk, another her tilt of the head, or her hair. He thinks about her at work and on the ball field. Every pop song on the radio seems to speak to the desperation of his position.

    Her name is Emily. She is twenty-four, five-nine, with the body of a goddess. When they make love, at the moment of her release, she cries and then laughs uncontrollably. He wants her all the time, wants to have her, to possess her. He wants to marry her, though he will not admit this even to himself. Also, she dates another guy, someone she's been going with since she got to college, which was a long time ago, six years. His name is Doug, and she complains to Mercer about him. In her stories Doug is weak and pathetic, a puppy, but then she goes off and sees him, spends the night at his place. When Mercer thinks of them sleeping together he is driven to lunacy. And so now he has bolted upright in bed, run to the kitchen, and broken everything in sight. He stands in the harsh light, wading in broken crockery, amazed by his madness.

    The next morning, a Sunday, he wakes early and goes for a run. He runs every morning. He is by build and disposition a pitcher: long, lanky, and intense. He has played baseball around the world, from Glens Falls to Caracas to Tokyo and Manila. He earned a subsistence wage to play ball into his late twenties, then landed back in Michigan, signed up as a trainee at Merrill Lynch, and signed on with Koch and Sons. He once played for Baltimore. He spent only two weeks in the bigs, but the mere fact that he'd pitched from a professional mound was qualification enough for Merrill and Koch.

    He lives in Ann Arbor, not far from the Huron River, and his typical run takes him into Nichols Arboretum, where the trees have blossomed and the earth smells loamy. He runs east, through Gallup Park to the dam, then back, up the hill, past a couple of frats and into the subdivision where he is renting. He has college professors and two light manufacturing tycoons for neighbors. Roughly a quarter of these people are now his clients.

    He showers, takes his Sunday New York Times under his arm, and drives into town. He is playing a game with himself. He knows where he is heading but pretends to be just another guy out for a Sunday cruise. He drives a 1987 BMW 325, a car he loves but one that causes him a good deal of grief in the domestic car country of southern Michigan. He gets to Packard and cruises through the student ghetto, where old family homes have been converted into apartment houses, a magical land where bicycles hang from trees, refrigerators rest on porches, where eaves sag and paint chips float on the wind, where there is more street traffic at three in the morning than at nine. Party detritus—plastic block-M beer cups, Cottage Inn pizza cartons—lies abandoned on the lawns. He notices late-model Beemers with New York plates parked on the street and thinks, I've got to get myself some rental property. Then a coed comes swinging out of one of the homes, her wet hair billowing in the breeze, and he remembers why he has come.

    This is Emily's street. There, in the third house in, is her apartment. Emily is something new for him. She wears sandals, eats brown rice, no meat, smokes cigarettes that she rolls herself. She is fairly well convinced that cattle and automobiles, especially the expensive models of each, are at the heart of human troubles and discontent. She thinks violence against very young boys—by which she means circumcision—is the cause of all violence against women. She votes Democratic, demonstrated against the Gulf War, cares nothing for baseball or the stock market. Also, she likes expensive wine in fine restaurants, and will spend any amount of Mercer's money on her bohemian clothes. At the natural food store he has bought her shampoo the price of molten gold. He thinks of the way her hair tumbles over itself when she tilts her head, and it makes him wild with desire.

    He has the Times under his arm. She likes the Times. One of his fondest memories is of a Sunday morning of lovemaking, sections of the Times read when resting. They didn't finish the paper till almost two that afternoon, and he got her to Angelo's for thick slabs of raisin French toast just before they locked the door.

    Somehow his feet have brought him under her window. She lives on the top floor—the third. He can see that her shade is drawn—it is only ten-thirty—and he wonders if he should go up. What if the puppy is there? The puppy doesn't know that Mercer exists. At first Mercer liked this, but now he knows his situation is untenable. The puppy can go on forever in ignorance, while Mercer is about to get an ulcer. He would like to bust upstairs and throw the puppy out the window, but Emily would not forgive him for this. She likes him with his clothes off and his wallet open, and because he will argue politics with her. He has found no limits to her passion but suspects that he skirts around the border of what she finds acceptable. She likes to have a little fight before lovemaking, so for now the relationship works.

    To go up or not to go up. He looks skyward for guidance. Clouds float by—it will not be as nice a day as yesterday—but still he is paralyzed. Is the puppy there or not? It's impossible to tell.

    He seizes on a bold plan: the fire escape. It is wooden, built on the back of the house as a sop to the fire inspector. Last summer, late on a night as hot and steamy as they come, Mercer and Emily made love on the flimsy, rotting structure, then rolled cold bottles of beer over each other to cool down. He walks now to the back of the house. Here old newspapers and magazines, socks, beer bottles litter the yard. There is a compost heap directly below the fire escape, so that tenants can throw their biodegradables over the rail and still feel ecologically correct.

    Mercer begins to climb. The steps creak and groan. The neighborhood is as still as a school at midnight. He tiptoes, imagines himself light, lighter than air, wills away the noise. Jesus, he thinks, the original backdoor man.

    He is floating across the second-floor landing, looking in the window to make sure he isn't seen (he feels he's invisible if he's looking, as if he's operating behind a one-way mirror), when he puts his foot through a rotten board. He starts to tumble and feels his ankle wrench. He lets out a cry. He frees his foot, watches the paper spill from his arm and fall to the backyard. Still trying to regain his balance, he bangs into the handrail, and it gives. For a fleeting moment he feels as though he were a character in a cartoon, hanging off a precipice. Then he drops the twelve feet into the compost heap.

    His ankle is on fire. He rolls about in the rotting grapefruit rinds and coffee grounds, an organic ooze of squash and potato skins, egg shells, long-forgotten tomatoes, and newly formed mold. A primordial swamp. He tries to stand, but can't. Not yet. It's his right ankle, his push-off foot. Bad news.

    Eventually the pain eases and he does what any man in his situation would do: he rises to his feet, wipes himself off (as much as possible), and heads for his car. He drives with his left foot and marvels at his situation. He is crazy with jealousy of a twenty-four-year-old kid who works in a coffee bar. But this is old news. The admonitions of dozens of coaches come to him, all the warnings of his youth suddenly turned true, a moment as powerful as the one in which he realized—not long ago, he's not that old—that most of what his father had taught him was right. Finally, he has found a woman who is bad for his baseball.


III


Vince Paklos sits in his backyard and sneaks cigarettes. His wife is reading the Sunday paper in bed and so Vince can count on a moment of peace. He sniffs the breeze, strains against the emphysema. There are times—now is one—when he feels he is suffocating and only a cigarette will pull him through, that only the smoke can navigate the clogged and coated byways of his lungs. To Vince cigarette smoke is the life force, the one little bit of pleasure still afforded him. Pulling the cigarette from its pack, the match strike, the first drag—he thinks, when I die I'm going to miss this.

    He is, he thinks, also going to miss baseball. Cigarettes and baseball. These are not unusual vices. Vince has no need for or patience with unusual vices. Baseball and nicotine he can understand. Women he can understand. Cars, food, gambling. Drink. What gets him is the weird stuff he reads in the paper. Just last week they found a pair of brothers dead in a house in Northville. The house was literally stuffed with trash. They never threw anything away. One brother was seventy-four and the other eighty and infirm. When the younger one keeled over, the other starved to death. Weird.

    Today Vince has one task: he has to sign a player for Gil. The kid plays at Central Michigan, so this requires a drive to Mount Pleasant and a meeting in a restaurant of the player's choosing. This is almost always a bad idea, letting a college kid pick a restaurant. Often they're nonsmoking. The food is little better than fodder, sandwiches too thick, stuffed with vegetables, or there's nothing on the menu but pizza. No one serves good meat loaf anymore. He reaches for the sports pages. The Tigers are not doing well. Already, and it's only May. At least this year there will be no false hopes. Next year Vince won't have to endure the misery of a Tiger season, if his doctors are right. He thinks, I'm going to miss that, too.

    He hears the creak of the screen door and swiftly snuffs out his cigarette on the round arm of the lawn chair. He puts the dead butt in his pocket. Ellen is coming. He turns in his seat to see her walking in her typically small, tentative steps. She stops five feet away.

    "Vince, dear, aren't you cold?"

    "Now, if I was cold, would I be sitting out here like this?"

    "I don't know," his wife says. The look on her face displays honest concern. He turns back straight in his chair and waits for her to walk back into his view. He tries to picture her in 1947, the year they were married, but to do that he needs to think of a different woman. We have grown into different people, he thinks. No, we have just gotten to know each other very, very well.

    It's the fluffy slippers he notices first, pink against the grass. Then the robe. He looks to the trees he planted ten years ago. In another decade they might shield a scene such as this from his neighbors.

    "How 'bout some coffee?"

    "Great," he says, thinking it will warm him up.

    "Come in, then. I'll make some."

    "I prefer it out here."

    She humphs. She doesn't approve of his sitting outside in the mornings. She thinks it's not healthy. I'm dying of emphysema, he once yelled at her, but for Ellen a cold is more palpable. She heads back to the house. He wonders what in God's name will happen to his wife. The woman simply refuses to acknowledge the inevitable. They have a son, but he happens to live in Boise. Idaho! He went off to live in Idaho. A lot of help he'll be to his mother.

    Vince feels the anger rise within him. He gasps, grabs a gulp of morning air. It is barely enough, this air. He longs for a cup of coffee, and it isn't long till his wife provides it.

(Continues...)

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  • Posted June 9, 2009

    A Real Grand-Slam!

    I am a 16-year-old high school student who decided to read this book because I enjoy reading about sports and this book is all about sports. I was assigned to read a book in my spare time and I thought I might as well read about a topic that I enjoy.

    The book I decided to read was Battle Creek by Scott Lasser. The book is about how off-the-field issues affect an amateur baseball team on their quest to try and win a championship. The team has made it to the championship many times but never won a championship.

    The characters in this book seem very realistic and Lasser makes it feel like they are real people and he's telling their life story. Gil is the coach of an amateur baseball team in Battle Creek, Michigan.

    This book seemed to always go back to the theme of, if you work hard and always do what you think is the right thing to do you will succeed in life and at whatever you want to achieve.

    When I read this book it reminded me of the movie Hardball because they both show how a struggling team can overcome adversity and off-the-field problems and still succeed in the sport of baseball. I also related it to the movie The Rookie because that shows a\how an older pitcher loses his arm during the season and overcomes that, and that's what happens to the star pitcher for the team in Battle Creek.

    I would give this book 4 stars because it shows a very good real life perception of how people live through adversity and overcome through their problems.
    I would recommend this book to people who like to read about sports or people who like to read interesting books.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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