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The day before Doc Miller was released, a hammer murderer named Ed Friend blew his one-hitter to hell with a two-out double in the bottom of the eighth.
Blaize Depardieu, the team manager and a 1982 second-round draft choice for St. Louis currently doing eleven to twenty for rape, came out to the mound and turned on his thousand-candlepower grin. "Man got a hell of a swing, that's why he's in here," he said. "Don't sweat it."
"I'm not," Doc said. He struck out the last man and retired the side in the ninth with a strikeout, a pop fly to center field, and a grounder to first. Afterward Depardieu gave him the ground ball signed by everyone on the team, a roster of killers, rapists, drug-runners, and state congressmen that would have kept a city block in terror for a month. "Gonna miss you in the Milan game," he told Doc. "Talk is they's transferring a embezzler from Marion that bats three-eighty."
"Earl can handle him if you can get him to lay off that knuckleball. Every time he tries it his control goes to hell." Doc turned the ball around in his hand, unconsciously lining up his fingers with the seams. Standing there in the shower room with its stench of sweat and mildew, he suddenly realized he had pitched his last game.
The grin illuminated Depardieu's blue-black face. "Getting sprang tomorrow, Stretch. You look like they's fixing to feed you the gas."
"You know a team that's scouting ex-cons?"
"All of 'em. Lookit Gates Brown and Ron LeFlore."
"Denny McLain. Pete Rose."
"They was over the hill when they went in. You're what, thirty?"
"Thirty-three-year-old with a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball and a split-finger that Henry Aaron couldn't hit on his best day."
"Nobody ever heard of Brown and LeFlore until they got out and joined the majors. I took my headlines going in. Nobody wants a southpaw with a sheet." He smacked Depardieu's naked muscular shoulder with his open palm. "You're a great manager, Blaize. You'd be in the Show now if you'd kept it in your pants."
"What I should of did was send flowers."
They shook hands.
The next morning, Doc put on a gray suit of clothes and tried the necktie that had come with it, but too much time had passed since he'd had a knot at his throat and he rolled it up and put it in the side pocket of his jacket The suit was one of his old ones and the lapels were out of fashion, but it still fit which was why he had asked his brother to send it to him instead of putting on one of the ready-mades the state provided. Doc stood six-five in his socks and weighed less than two hundred. Suits that weren't made especially for him tended to fall way short of his wrists and ankles when they didn't wrap twice around his waist
As a matter of fact the trousers were a little snug, but that was penitentiary food. They fed you well in Jackson, lots of mashed potatoes and fatty pork chops and buttered vegetables, on the theory that an overweight prisoner was less likely to hoist himself over the wall. Doc, who was indifferent to food, would start dropping pounds without even thinking about it as soon as he was outside.
Kevin Miller had become Doc back in double-A ball when it got around that he had studied pharmacology for a year. The gold-rimmed glasses he wore to correct astigmatism, with a clip behind his head to keep them from sliding off during his follow-through, had made the nickname stick when he joined the Tigers. That year he had fourteen saves and was on his way to a Cy Young Award when the Detroit Criminal Investigation Division got to him first
As a starter for the Southern Michigan Penitentiary at Jackson he had won 116 games in seven years. The team played fewer than a hundred games a season.
He evaluated his buzz cut in the mirror over his sink and decided he wouldn't grow it out much. Styles had changed since he'd left his collar-length mane on the floor of the prison barbershop, and the look took a couple of years off him. The black hair and his cheekbones came courtesy of some Cherokee blood way back on his mother's side; for the rest he was German-Irish and a third-generation native of Kentucky. In high school it had seemed strange to be swinging an aluminum bat with the company that made the Louisville Slugger operating just forty miles away. When he'd mentioned this to his coach, the coach had slapped him on the butt and said, "Play. Don't think."
That was one piece of advice Doc wished he'd forgotten.
Earl Hardaway, the other starter and a trusty with six months to go on a one-to-three for reckless endangerment, unlocked Doc's cell. He was a chunky redhead with freckles the size of dimes, one blue eye and one brown, and an appointment to check in with the Tigers' front office the first Monday after his release. His fastball had been clocked at ninety-nine miles per hour. That was six less than he had been doing the night he wrapped his father's Porsche around a dead elm, fracturing his left ankle and turning his girlfriend into a paraplegic.
"Where's Howard?" Doc asked.
"Mopping C Block. We traded. I didn't get a chance to say good-bye after the game." He turned his blue eye on Doc. Earl thought he saw better out of it, although the ophthalmologist who visited Jackson had told him he had twenty-twenty vision in both. "I got the knuck down now."
"Give it up. It isn't your pitch."
"I wish I could show it to you."
They were walking down the corridor. Doc shook several of the hands dangling between the white-painted bars of the cells. He felt like Jimmy Cagney walking the Last Mile. He had to remind himself he was being freed. "You've got the heat and a good sinker. All you need's a curve you can count on and Blaize will show you how to throw that."
"I'll need more than three pitches if I'm going to be in the Show."
"That's one more than Koufax had. Your knuckle-ball can't find the plate."
"It don't have to if they can't hit it."
"You can fan them out and still give up first while the catcher's chasing the ball all the way to the backstop. You'll never see the Show if you make your catchers look bad. They're mean sons of bitches. They'd pass up a shot at the pennant to send down a cocky pitcher." He stopped before the door at the end of the block.
The face that came to the gridded window when Earl banged on the door didn't have a name. The turnover among guards was high; there would be no warm handshake at the gate or snarled "You'll be back." This one unlocked the door, swung it open, and made an impatient noise when Doc grasped Earl's hand. "When Grant Hoover gets to first in the Milan game, keep him there if you have to go over there a hundred times. If he steals second you might as well hand him third. I don't know what he's in for, but it must've been purse-snatching."
"He won't get to first."
A second guard, equally anonymous but one Doc had seen before, took him to Admissions, where a young harried clerk with an acne condition spent twenty minutes looking for Doc's paperwork before stamping it and giving him a copy. It contained the name of his parole officer and the date and time of his first appointment. The clerk broke the seal on a manila envelope with dog-eared corners and tipped out items Doc hadn't seen in seven years: gold Hamilton wristwatch, class ring, black enamel money clip with no money in it, and a Franklin half-dollar struck the year Doc was born, his lucky piece. He'd carried it in his pocket during all his saves. On the other hand, he'd had it with him the night he was arrested and the day he was convicted. He considered giving it to the stressed-out clerk, but minutes away from freedom he worried that it might be considered bribery and break his parole. He signed a receipt, put on the watch and ring, and pocketed the other items.
His brother Neal was standing in the waiting room with his hands in his pockets looking at the framed prints on the wall when Doc entered with the guard. (No halfway measures here. He was a prisoner until he was not.) Fair and balding, two inches shorter than his brother and running to fat, Neal had gotten most of the Irish blood in his family, down to the leprechaun jowls and a twinkle in his gray eyes that was entirely illusory; the elder of the two Miller boys had no humor. For the reunion he had put on a plaid sport coat over a clean work shirt and gray woolen trousers gone fuzzy in the knees. Doc was pretty sure the sport coat was the only one Neal had ever owned.
"Put on some," was the first thing he said to Doc.
"Not since your last visit."
"You was sitting down then."
Under the guard's eye they shook hands briefly. Although Neal had washed—outside the shop he always smelled of the brown grainy Fels Napthe soap he used—there was a cross-hatching of old black grime in the creases of his palm. He had been a mechanic at a John Deere dealership on Middlebelt since his teens, and the grease was ground in as deeply as the central Kentucky drawl that he had hung on to years after Doc's had slipped away. "I was starting to think you got yourself in trouble again and they wasn't going to let you out."
"Paper chase." Doc thought about something else to say. Communication had always been difficult with this brother who left high school the year Doc entered first grade. "How's Dad?"
"The same. He's coming over for dinner next week."
The female security guard at the desk, pulled-back hair and burnished cosmetics in a pale blue starched uniform blouse, buzzed open the door. At the gate the guard who had escorted Doc from the cellblock turned a key in the mechanism. It clonked, and the gate shunted open. "Have a nice day." They were the first words the guard had spoken.
In the parking lot Neal unlocked the driver's door of a new GMC three-quarter-ton pickup, heaved himself up and under the wheel, and reached across to open the door on the passenger's side. Suddenly locks were opening everywhere. Doc stepped up into the plastic-smelling interior. It was a great square silver tank of a vehicle that had cost as much as a Cadillac, and which his brother would probably still be paying for in five years. By which time he'd have traded it in on something bigger with an even higher testosterone level.
It was a typical nippy Michigan early-April day. The sky was the color of iron, and crusted snow clung to the shady side of the berms on both sides of the road. Neal drove with the seat pushed forward almost as far as it would go—a painful sight when it involved a man his size—his shoulders hunched over the wheel and his big heavy face screwed into a strained expression as if power steering had never been invented.
They took Michigan Avenue through Jackson, four flat, faded lanes cleaving between new-looking glass and steel buildings that soon gave way to horizontal structures of crumbling block with signs rusting through their paint; a prison town whose personality matched the gray bland decaying interior of the penitentiary itself. An electric sign ringed with yellow bulbs flashing in a spastic pattern advertised the Island Health Spa. A number of cars and a van with its fenders eaten away were parked outside the building.
"You start Saturday."
"Saturday?" Doc shifted on the seat. The sight of the massage parlor had given him an erection.
"Sure Saturday. Farmers can't afford to farm full-time, they all got jobs. Saturday's the only day they got to shop."
"What am I selling?"
"Well, not tractors. That's commission work. You sell parts and accessories. Anyone comes in wants to look at the heavy equipment you steer him to a salesman."
"What's it pay?"
"Three hundred a week. I'm sorry it ain't a million a season and your own car." Neal sounded testy.
"It's better than I've been making."
"You wouldn't of got parole if the board didn't think you had a job waiting."
"Thanks, Neal. I know you went out on a limb."
"Not so much." He relaxed a little. "Warren's a baseball fan. That's the manager. Probably ask you a million questions."
They entered I-94 then and didn't exchange another word until they reached the suburbs of Detroit.CHAPTER 2
Willie Hernandez, back when he was still Willie and not Guillermo, before he lost home plate and his sense of humor, had told Doc after the last Minnesota game he was the greatest reliever Detroit had had since John Hiller. That was the best night of Doc's life. Hiller was his hero when everyone else in school was talking about the starters McLain and Lolich; and when it was really going well, when the plate looked as big as a manhole cover and Doc couldn't miss, he borrowed an old Hiller trick and threw three balls in a row just for the hell of it before striking them out. Those days the third strike was like ejaculating, and the look of surprise and rage on the batters' faces when the umpire's thumb went up was better than a cigarette afterward.
That particular night he had come on in the seventh at three-two with two men on base and sent down eight men in order for the save. On his way to the dugout everyone had come over to shake his hand and pat his butt, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Sweet Lou, Tram, Darrell Evans, Roger Craig, and Sparky. DOC DIAGNOSES TIGER WIN, read the headline in the Free Press the next morning.
The headline in a different section of the News the next evening read MILLER CHARGED IN COCAINE DEATH.
Asked by the police and later by reporters if he'd known there were drugs at the party he threw at the Westin, he said no; but there were always drugs, joints and little glittering capsules and square white paper packets like the ones that used to contain the prizes in boxes of cereal. He was the host, and the girl who died, some little high school ride brought by a batboy Doc didn't remember inviting, was underage. The EMS crew was still working on her when the detectives, one black and neatly dressed, the other white and smelling of cherry cough drops, took Doc into the bedroom to talk. They called on his house the next day wide a warrant
The lawyer sent down by the front office gave advice, then bowed out, saying something about conflict of interest. The lawyer Doc retained on the recommendation of a friend on the TV 2 sports desk got the charge reduced from negligent homicide to the degree manslaughter and told Doc he'd get probation and community service. Doc pleaded guilty. The judge, facing re-election the next year, made a speech about sports figures having a responsibility to behave as role models and sentenced him to ten to fifteen years.
Doc's appeal was denied. He fired his attorney and hired another with a national reputation, who went to work on getting the guilty plea set aside and securing a trial based on the first attorney's incompetence. Meanwhile his client began his incarceration. Penitentiary life, Doc told himself in the beginning, wasn't so different from life on the road; the cells weren't that much smaller than some of the hotel rooms he'd stayed in, and you could even get room service once you learned which trusties would share their bribes with the right guards. At least you didn't have to put up with roommates. His size protected him from homosexual rape, and although there was resentment on the part of some of the other prisoners toward a young man who would throw away a bigger break than they would ever see on the same sort of mistake they had made, he wasn't unpopular enough to be made a victim of the gang variety, and besides, the Jackson team needed pitchers.
Excerpted from King of the Corner by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1992 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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