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Harvey Blissberg seemed to be walking a plank of his own making. He had been out of baseball for fifteen years and out of sorts for the last six months. After ten years spent as a private investigator followed by four forgettable ones as a motivational speaker, Harvey felt he was slowly marching himself at cutlass-point toward an early demise. Lately he had spent much of his time on his Cambridge sofa, watching old sporting events on ESPN's Classic Sports Channel and documentaries about the history of baseball.
When the phone rang, he paused a documentary called When It Was a Game that he was enjoying for the third time that week, brushed the tortilla chip crumbs off his shorts, and croaked a hello into the receiver.
"Professor?" a voice said. "That you?"
Professor. No one had called him that for years. It was like hearing a childhood nickname called out at the end of a very long hallway.
"Felix?" Harvey said, meaning Felix Shalhoub, his manager during his last year in the majors with the expansion Providence Jewels, and now—Harvey still followed the game just enough to know this—the franchise's general manager.
"Yeah, yeah, it's me. How are ya?"
"Good to hear your voice. I heard you were doing some motivational speaking."
Harvey had been possibly the least motivated motivational speaker ever to address three hundred pharmaceutical salesmen in Orlando or three dozen managers of export documentation for dangerous cargo in Bayonne, New Jersey. How had this happened, that a man who prided himself on his avoidance of cliché should end up peddling platitudes about courage, teamwork, and the will to win? Because a man named Cromarty, who operated a second-rate speakers' bureau in Boston, had heard Harvey address a group of high school coaches and told him that midsize companies who couldn't afford Norman Schwarzkopf or Fran Tarkenton would still shell out good money for a tall, personable, former major-league outfielder with good teeth to pump up their troops.
Cromarty's proposition came at a time when Harvey had lost interest in exploring the bleaker secrets of his fellow human beings. It turned out there was a limit to the amount of evil a man could investigate, even at a certain professional remove, without eventually feeling contaminated by some virus of moral degradation. Before Harvey knew it, he was on a plane to the first of many sales meetings with themes like "Simply the Best," "The Future Is Now," and "Tomorrow's Our Middle Name" to explain to a ballroom of captive employees the fundamentals of a positive outlook that Harvey himself had never quite mastered. When he was through spewing slogans, there was invariably a stampede of grown men to the podium. They peppered him with questions about his baseball exploits, which they remembered far better than he, or tried to solicit his predictions for various pennant races and free-agent signings. It was depressing to Harvey that so many otherwise functional adults would want to shake the hand of a .268 lifetime hitter. And finally, he was out of that game too.
"You still with Mickey Slavin?" Felix asked.
"Still together, still not married. You know, she's now a sideline reporter for ESPN. She's on the road a lot." Fifteen years ago, when they met, he had been the star and she had been an oddity—a female sportscaster, albeit in Providence's tiny market. Now she was on national television, and he was—well, he was on the sofa, merely watching it.
"Now that you mention it, I feel I've seen her around the league this year."
"So how's the team doing?" Harvey asked.
"Whaddya mean, how's the team doing? You don't follow the game anymore?"
"Oh, off and on."
Where to begin Harvey's list of grievances with the national pastime? Overentitled players, selfish owners, and soaring ticket prices that left many ordinary Americans outside the ballpark. Worse, the game itself was buried beneath an avalanche of inane sports talk radio, round-the-clock cable coverage, and merchandising of team apparel and vintage sportswear. The game seemed to Harvey little more than a sideshow, the raw material for the finished product, which were the highlights that ran around the clock on several channels, a frenzy of home runs and annoyingly complex graphics. Instead of being a refuge from the clutter of daily life, baseball was now just part of that clutter.
"We actually got a shot," Felix was saying. "And thanks to Cooley we're selling out. His streak's the biggest thing to hit Providence since the hurricane of 'thirty-eight."
"I see where he's flirting with history."
"More like French-kissing it. Last night he pulled even with Pete Rose and Wee Willie Keeler."
"Twelve more, and he'll do the unthinkable," Harvey said.
"The Daig," Felix said in a reverential whisper. "Joe DiMaggio."
Whose very visage had appeared moments ago on Harvey's TV screen. The documentary he'd been watching consisted of 8- and 16-millimeter home movies of baseball players, games, and ballparks shot by players, their families, and fans between 1934 and 1957. It was like opening up a box of old baseball photographs to find they had all come quietly to life in faded color: DiMaggio himself, Gehrig, Ruth, Robinson, Greenberg, Dickey, even old-timers like Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Cy Young, all liberated from their black-and-white prisons, yet still innocent of television and everything it would do to the game, to the very expressions on men's faces. The home movies gave these players a particular poignancy, a simple clowning humanity.
The documentary captured some of the game's now forgotten rituals: comical pepper games, train travel, afternoon crowds in hats, ties, and fur stoles. In the 1940s, ballplayers were still leaving their gloves—poor little scraps of leather—on the field rather than carrying them to the dugout, as if to say the field was hallowed, as if leaving a sacred piece of themselves there until they returned. Harvey had retired in the 1980s, much closer to the present than the days the documentary depicted, but it was only with the grainy, earnest realities of baseball's past that he felt any connection at all.
"You wouldn't recognize Rankle Park, not since Marshall redid it and renamed it The Jewel Box. We're packing 'em in. It's a real carnival atmosphere."
This was pure Felix. The hoary bromides of baseball were his specialty; "carnival atmosphere," "a real donnybrook," and "a day late and a dollar short" just rolled off his tongue. Not that Harvey was anyone to cast the first stone; he'd made a living off the clichés of competition for the last few years. He'd even stolen a few of Felix's.
"You want to know something funny, Felix? I used to use a few of your favorite sayings in my motivational speaking."
"Be my guest."
"Remember that sign you had in the clubhouse? 'Winners Are People Who Never Learned How To Lose.'"
"I believe that with all my heart."
"I know you do, Felix. And that's why I passed it on to thousands of office supply salesmen across this great country of ours."
"You doing okay, Professor?"
"I'm fine." But the fact that he was wearing an embroidered polyester-blend Mexican shirt with four pockets suggested otherwise, that dark forces were at work. Of course, he could try to justify the guayabera on the basis that, in early middle age, he needed more pockets than ever: for reading glasses, cell phone, bottle of Advil, tiny address book for numbers he could no longer remember, the TV remote control, a tin of Altoids. But without question his sartorial style, which Mickey referred to as "a lot of denim, a little suede, and a great deal of olive green," had taken a nasty, leisure-wear turn. Time had swallowed him up, as he had seen it do to other middle-aged men.
"Look," Felix was saying, "all the more reason for you to come down and see me tomorrow night. I want to talk to you about doing some work for us."
"We want to hire you as the team's motivational coach."
"You can't be serious."
"A team that's on the verge of winning might as well be losing if it can't get over that last hump of inferiority."
"You just make this shit up, don't you?"
"I need you down here, Professor, to gas these boys up."
"I've been out of baseball a long time, Felix."
"Which gives you that important fresh-blood factor."
"My blood is very tired at the moment."
"That's because you're not out here at the ballpark, where you belong."
"Right here on my sofa is where I belong."
"I'm talking about showing these overpaid boys how to put the finishing touches on their self-esteem. I'm talking about instilling in these boys the peace of mind needed for victory. I've cleared it with Marshall."
"I have nothing to say."
"You're underestimating the value of your experience."
"Don't be so sure."
"I want you to come down here to The Jewel Box. I'm offering you a free skybox seat to a game you'd never be able to get into otherwise. We'll sit and drink Narragansett and talk about my proposition, and you'll see how you feel about this great national pastime."
"I know how I feel about it."
"I'll leave your name and a pass to the owner's box at the Will Call window. Campy would love to see you."
"Campy Strulowitz? I thought he was dead."
"He is dead, but he keeps showing up at the ballpark, so we figure we might as well just let him coach third base."
Harvey laughed, perhaps for the first time in weeks. Felix Shalhoub and Campy Strulowitz still working for the Providence Jewels? After all these years? It was like hearing your family had survived a tornado.
"So it's a deal?" Felix said.
When Harvey got off the phone, he took a long swig from the quart bottle of Gatorade he kept on the end table and stared at the image on his television screen, frozen in pause mode: it was President Eisenhower throwing out the first ball at a Senators' opener in Griffith Stadium. Eisenhower, the Senators, Griffith Stadium—all gone now.
For the first time in a while, Harvey remembered what it was like to stand three hundred feet from home plate and pick up the flight of a ball the instant it came off the bat, how it felt to be connected by a thread of pure desire to that sphere as it rose and cleared the background of the upper deck, arching against the summer night sky as he sprinted deep into right center, Harvey already knowing, with a certainty that was wholly lacking in his present life, that he would consume the ball in full stride a few feet from the warning track and feel the warmth of the fans' applause on the back of his uniform jersey as he loped, full of humble triumph, back to the dugout.
Harvey bit off the corner of a tortilla chip and chewed it thoughtfully. He had the sinking feeling he was about to push himself off the end of the plank, into his shark-infested future.
It was almost midnight by the time Moss Cooley turned into the dapper development in western Cranston where he'd bought a seven-thousand-square-foot home over the winter after signing his new deal with the Providence Jewels. He was the only black man in Roger Williams Estates, a distinction that added a tincture of guilt to his love of the house and its amenities. The truth was, his neighbors left him alone, a courtesy for which he was grateful now that he had to spend two or three hours a day talking to reporters and evaluating endorsement offers. He had helped beat the Baltimore Orioles this evening by sending a hanging curve into the Providence bullpen, making him the sole owner of the second-longest hitting streak in major-league baseball history. Forty-five straight games.
He looked at his hands on the steering wheel and tried to remember what they had been like when he was a scrawny kid hitting rocks into the clover field behind his house with a broom handle. Now his hands, and the thick wrists to which they were attached, had entered history. Sports Illustrated had compared them to Hank Aaron's. He smiled at the absurdity of it all. He couldn't wait to call his mama. She'd still be up waiting to hear from him. When he was ten and newly cut from his Little League team, she had paid a personal visit to Coach Lloyd and browbeat him into taking her little Maurice back. "My boy has greatness in him," she told Lloyd, as she reported to her son years later. "He has greatness in him, and I won't have that greatness sitting around the house all summer, moping and getting into what-all kind of trouble."
As he pulled into the driveway, past the parched lawn beyond the redemption of sprinklers, he wondered if he was in any kind of trouble now. The hate mail didn't faze him, even the worst of it. You reached a certain prominence, and that was part of your job—providing a target for the ranting of unhappy people. As his mama liked to say, "Don't you make other people's unhappiness your business." Just like there were some folks who had to get in the TV shot, mugging and waving like anyone gave a shit, there were a certain number of people in America who just had to write you a letter telling you what a black cocksucker you were.
But the lawn jockey last night had thrown a scare into him. It was different, he thought as he pushed the button for the garage door and waited for it to complete its slow ascent. It had taken more than a 34-cent stamp and a trip to the mailbox to get it to him.
He started to pull his Range Rover into the rightmost bay, next to the mint-condition 1979 Caddy he had bought for the simple reason that he could afford to and that it was the car he had wanted most when he was a child, watching Dr. Drexel cruise around the town of Starrett in his.
Because he was lost in thought, and because he was admiring the Caddy, he was halfway into the garage before he saw it. He applied the brakes. Had he not, it would have hit the windshield.
It had been tied to a piece of twine and hung from the garage ceiling. It dangled in midair, eyes bulging, swaying slightly now in the entering breeze.CHAPTER 2
It was the instant you crossed the border from life's chaos to baseball's magnificent green order. It was the moment that baseball writers fell back on when fresher metaphors escaped them—and yet, there it was, it couldn't be denied that the game's divinity was somehow contained in it. You came up the sloped stadium ramp toward your seat, seeing only sky and perhaps a light tower or a fragment of scoreboard, and as you got closer, the field itself seemed to rise up to meet you. At the crest of the ramp, you stopped, startled by the vivid grass, the scope of the park, the immortal discipline of the diamond. And if it's a night game and the summer sky is turning that bottomless, evening blue, you would be forgiven for thinking that God's a fan.
When Harvey came up the ramp of the jam-packed Jewel Box, né Rankle Park, he was stung by a sadness that this beautiful game had gone on without him. Baseball was an archetype, an institution through whose turnstiles he had come to play his small historical role before being ejected back into the world. And now he was back as just another fan. Or rather, a motivational coach, whatever the hell that was.
As he looked for an usher to give him directions to the owner's box, he took in the new, improved home of the American League East's Providence Jewels. The charming irregularities that highly paid design and architectural firms had created from scratch with the new generation of retro ballparks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Houston, Pro-Gem Palace had achieved as the result of a long organic process. When the expansion Jewels had first moved in sixteen years ago, Rankle Park was a former minor-league park, a steel, brick, and concrete affair down by India Point on the Providence River. It looked like the deformed offspring of a World War II battleship and a nineteenth-century mental hospital. In the years since, owner Marshall Levy had made improvements, culminating in a $30 million facelift. Levy had added new seats, a big scoreboard with all the trimmings, and a grassy knoll beyond the left-center-field fence where fans could put out blankets and picnic. No amount of refurbishing, however, could conceal the fact that the stadium was a hodgepodge. But it conformed to the current vogue for asymmetry, and The Jewel Box was included in any discussion of baseball's architectural treasures.
Excerpted from Dead Ball by R. D. Rosen. Copyright © 2001 Richard Dean Rosen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 9, 2008
Harvey Blisberg was once a good outfielder for the Providence Jewels. After retiring he became a private investigator until all the evil he witnessed threatened to turn him into a madman. He quit to become a motivational speaker, but gave up on that too because he did not believe his own words. <P>Harvey accepts a job as bodyguard to Jewel¿s superstar Moss Cooley, a black man closing in on Joe DiMaggio¿s once unbreakable hitting record. The excellent baseball player has (not surprisingly) begun receiving hate mail but there is one death threat that worries team officials because they think that someone is very serious about harming Moss. As he watches over his client, Harvey realizes that this is not about breaking a record by a black man, but is about Moss and someone connected to him. Harvey places himself in peril by following the serpentine trail from Moss to his tormentor. <P> Baseball fans are going to love this exciting sports mystery that stars an endearing curmudgeon as a hero. The action is fast-paced and the characters, especially Harvey and Moss, feel genuine. With MEAN STREET, RD Rosen hits a home run to rival that of Maz. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.