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Eliot Asinof’s newest baseball hero left tiny Gandee, Missouri, as John Clyde Cagle Jr., a hard-throwing lefthander who had pitched a perfect game in high school. Now he returns in triumph as the legendary “Black Jack,” superstar of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a stoic, menacing mound demon with a Fu Manchu moustache and a 106-mile-per-hour fastball.

 

In a nationally televised event that, like everything else in his life, is precisely orchestrated by agent and money manager ...

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Overview

Eliot Asinof’s newest baseball hero left tiny Gandee, Missouri, as John Clyde Cagle Jr., a hard-throwing lefthander who had pitched a perfect game in high school. Now he returns in triumph as the legendary “Black Jack,” superstar of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a stoic, menacing mound demon with a Fu Manchu moustache and a 106-mile-per-hour fastball.

 

In a nationally televised event that, like everything else in his life, is precisely orchestrated by agent and money manager Gordon Stanley, Jack’s return is to dedicate Black Jack Field, the two-million-dollar ballpark he has donated to his hometown. He arrives in a white stretch limo, glamorous girlfriend at his side and the world at his feet, but he is stung by a spate of bad memories of his boyhood, most pungent of which is that of Cyrus Coles, his fat black battery mate who had quietly taught Jack the disciplined pitching that had made him great. Typically now, when Jack throws out the ceremonial first pitch to his father, Vietnam war hero, spit-and-polish sheriff of Gandee, everyone believes the father to be the reason for the son’s success.

 

Then Jack confronts Cyrus’s murdered body, blown away by a shotgun blast. He has to face the fury of Cyrus’s widow, Ruby, and, most provocative of all, an outspoken woman named Foxx, who makes him aware that he’s been living a lie.

 

Jack flees this unsettling scene with his girlfriend for the pleasures of New York City—until he learns that, back in Gandee, his father has arrested Ruby for the murder of her husband. To everyone’s astonishment, Jack returns to Gandee to help her. With Foxx now an ally, he sees his hometown for its corrupt racist traditions, bringing on a new understanding of himself that leads him to risk everything to probe an intolerable truth.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A shocking murder involving the wife of a big leaguer’s old high school teammate plunges the major league superstar into a viper’s nest of small-town secrets, racism and lies.”—USA Today Baseball Weekly

“Here is the book’s great originality: it lets readers see how despite financial and cosmetic changes, baseball still retains its uncommon pertinence to the deepest truths about American life.”—Jerry Klinkowitz, author of Owning a Piece of the Minors

“[A] successful mixture of hard-boiled mystery, coming-of-age story, and baseball yarn.”Booklist

 

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Eight Men Out, Asinof's acclaimed nonfiction account of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, is his primary claim to fame; his first foray into fiction, Man on Spikes, was not as successful, commercially or critically. Asinof's new novel, about a baseball superstar's reckoning with his past, falls in between. It's admirably ambitious, but it shies away from the kind of kinetic sports descriptions Asinof is known for. John Clyde Cagle Jr., aka "Black Jack," is one of baseball's most successful pitchers. He has a $100-million Dodgers contract, and with a beautiful girlfriend who happens to be the Dodger owner's daughter, product endorsements, tours and publicity, he is poised to earn further millions. He donates $2 million to build a baseball field in his dumpy, backwater home town of Gandee, Mo., then returns there for the first time since high school to celebrate the opening of Black Jack Field. But the returning hero has a secret he'd just as soon forget: as a teen he was just an average pitcher, and it was only through the brilliant coaching of his high school batting mate, Cyrus Coles, that he became the star he is. Cyrus, a black auto mechanic who never had a chance of turning pro, is murdered on the way to the ceremony, and Cyrus's upright, truthful wife, Ruby, is charged with the murder. Jack is sure that Ruby is innocent, so he leaves his plush, glamorous environment to take time to exonerate her. A mouthy female reporter for the local newspaper, who Jack disastrously dated in high school, gets irritatingly involved with Jack's life. Readers will intuit the mystery's solution, especially given the heavy foreshadowing weighing down the relationship between Jack and his overbearing father, who's the sheriff of Gandee, above suspicion although virulently racist. The novel comes to a tidy conclusion, but its sparkling, suspenseful passages about baseball are overwhelmed by Asinsof's more sentimental themes. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In this novel, which straddles the baseball and mystery genres, star big-league pitcher Black Jack Cagle returns to dedicate the ballpark he has given his hometown of Gandee. With Gordon, his agent, and Judith, the enticing daughter of his team's owner, he finds the ceremony disrupted by the murder of Cyrus Coles, his high school catcher. Rushed away to New York, Jack returns again to Gandee to try to clear Ruby, Cyrus's widow, of the crime. On closer inspection, Jack finds instead a town run by his uncle (the mayor) and his father (the sheriff), enmeshed in corruption, violence, and racism. With the aid of a woman reporter named Foxx, he tries to expose the real criminals. This latest work includes too little of Asinov's fine baseball writing (Eight Men Out ), and its too-easy conclusion is also disappointing.--Morey Berger, St. Joseph's Hosp. Medical Lib., Tucson, AZ Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809322978
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2000
  • Series: Writing Baseball
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Eliot Asinof is renowned among baseball writers for Eight Men Out, his brilliant reconstruction of the infamous Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series. The author of six books of fiction and eight nonfiction books, he paid his dues in the minor leagues.
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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


Shimmering in the late afternoon sun, the white stretch limo cruised by the flow of pickup trucks like a yacht on a river of old scows. Drivers waved, beeped a staccato of greetings to the unseen face behind the tinted windows, for this had to be John Clyde Cagle Jr., known throughout the sporting world as "Black Jack," coming home to Gandee, Missouri, to celebrate the nationally televised opening of Black Jack Field.

    In the spacious back seat, he stretched his powerful six-foot-four, 220-pound body, hands clasped behind the thick black hair that draped the back of his neck. On his thigh, the jeweled fingers of Judith Pagonis tapped to the beat of Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It?," her seductive body moving like one who had danced in limos all her life. Instant stirring in his loins amused him, and he remembered how he had left Gandee eight years ago, an eighteen-year-old virgin who would jerk himself off in bed hoping to forestall recurring nightmares. Now he shut his eyes to wallow in the sensuality of her perfume (special exotic stuff she had discovered in India). Her uninhibited sexuality dazzled him, and because she made no demands on him, all other aspects of his life seemed perfectly arranged. "I make magic happen," she would whisper in his ear, crystals dangling from the bedposts. What's more, Judith was the daughter of Theodore "Ted" Pagonis, billionaire shipping magnate, recent owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jack's hundred-million-dollar contract, a neat parlay if there ever was one. His friend and old road roommate Corky (nee Thomas Jackson Corcoran) had declaredJudith to be the consummation of the Six Bs of good living: BaseBall, Big Bucks, Banging Broads. Black Jack Cagle had won them all, for he was the greatest pitcher in modern baseball, shoo-in for a third Cy Young Award, twice National League Most Valuable Player.

    She saw the smile teasing his lips and had to know why.

    "What?" she asked.

    "I was thinking, on a list of the Ten Happiest Men in the World, I'd be right up there."

    "Oh, lists!" she sighed. There had been so many of them. Forbes Magazine had him richer than all but Michael Jordan. Esquire had the two of them as the Hottest Unmarried Couple in America. Sports Illustrated named him Athlete of the Year. "At Bryn Mawr, they voted me the Girl Most Likely."

    "Most likely to what?" he asked.

    "They couldn't decide." Judith laughed.

    Typical of her, he thought: she could be obvious and unpredictable at the same time. With Judith, everything that happened came out of the moment. "Sudden Judith," Corky said of her.

    Then, from the front seat beside the chauffeur, came the voice of Jack's money and management.

    "You guys like sushi?"

    Gordon Stanley shifted his overweight middle-aged body to drape his left arm over the seatback. Catching the sun, gold cufflinks peeked out of his blue-gray sharkskin sleeve. Like one who kept a record of what he wore from day to day, he seemed never to repeat himself from his unlimited wardrobe. "Did they teach you about clothes at Harvard?" Jack once dared to tease him. "For those of us who can't throw a baseball 106 miles an hour, we rely on the power of image-making." This was the man who had turned an insecure eighteen-year-old minor-leaguer into the intimidating persona that brought him fame. When Jack hit the first batter he faced, then brushed back the second, Gordon had labeled him "Black Jack." The straight-arrow crew-cut all-American boy, his look patterned after his decorated war-hero father, grew his dyed ink-black hair to near shoulder length, flaring out from his cap like wings on a hawk. Nor was he to shave for two days prior to his turn on the mound, the beard darkened to add menace. He was taught to scowl as if he were suffering the stench of rotten eggs, staring at the catcher under the lowered peak of his cap like one scheming to commit mayhem. "Mean" was a more marketable image than "gentle," so under no circumstances was he ever to smile, not even in the dugout lest some TV camera catch a glimpse of it. Whatever effect this may or may not have had on hitters, TV announcers reveled in it. Indeed, Gordon wrote copy for them: "Look at that face, will you? Could you possibly picture him kissing a baby's butt?" Or "Black Jack was born biting the obstetrician's finger!" Nobody wanted to admit it, but everyone knew that the devil was the more powerful of the two deities. Gordon turned Jack into a satanic figure. No interviews. He never spoke to reporters in the locker room. Gossip columnists were fed provocative anecdotes about him kicking barking dogs in the street or threatening obstreperous children who dared to ask him for an autograph, or telling off policemen who dared to stop him for going through a stop sign. His appetite for food and drink and party girls was exaggerated to make him into a Ruthian figure of unlimited capacities. He was trained to ignore everything and deny nothing. On the mound, meanwhile, he became the best and kept getting better.

    "Oh, it's a sexy image, all right," Judith had agreed. There was nothing so erotic as a competent villain, especially in custom-tailored spandex baseball pants that hugged his muscular thighs and buttocks. Whatever this extraordinary violation of his nature, Jack was too shy to object—an irony he quickly learned to live with—especially since he didn't really know who he was anyway.

    And now, a trip to Japan.

"We're looking at what could be three, four million for a two-week tour. Pitch a few innings of an exhibition game, a couple of talk shows, have a catch with the emperor."
"Sounds fine," Jack said.

    "There's another two mill if we put your name on a Jap glove."

    Jack tried to make a joke of it. "Just two?"

    "Well, it's a definite maybe."

    Just a question of numbers, Jack knew. Year after year, Gordon had sent the dollars spiraling like exploding skyrockets. He made all manner of things happen—like this trip to Gandee. Gordon's idea from the beginning. Donate two million to build a ballpark for his hometown with a special facility for Little League. A contribution to small-town America via the national pastime. (Even the Mean Man had a soft spot.) It would culminate in this trip, heroic hometown boy returns to national TV coverage. The best public relations imaginable worth untold millions more in good will. "As good as it gets!" Gordon had put it. Jack had nodded, accepting the proposal over a year ago and promptly forgetting about it. He always did what Gordon asked, and the money kept rolling in.

    "You are my main man," a grateful Jack once said to him.

    "You can thank Curt Flood."

    "Who's Curt Flood?"

    Gordon had jumped all over him. "My God, you're like the black ballplayers who never heard of Jackie Robinson. Flood sacrificed his career to fight the reserve clause that kept you dumb ballplayers in virtual bondage. He led the way to free agency so guys like me could make guys like you rich."

    "Okay, thank you, Curt Flood," Jack had said.

    "And Marvin Miller."

    "Who's Marvin Miller?" Jack had asked, but even as he did, he remembered. Miller had organized the players union.

    "Japan is lovely in the fall," said Judith in tones that promised sex in a field of lotus blossoms.

    Jack suspected she'd been everywhere in the world. And now even Gandee, which was not his idea at all. They were supposed to have met in New York three days hence, but there she had been at the Los Angeles airport. She wanted to go slumming, he guessed, an adventure to talk about at Beverly Hills cocktail parties. He remembered the other side of the coin when she'd taken him to the opera. She loved Carmen, the sexy lady who drove men wild enough to kill her. Jack was in evening clothes for the first time in his life in the company of elegance that took his breath away.

    Now, in this limo, she moved close to him, her magic perfume dazzling his senses as her hand settled firmly on this thigh. With Judith, sex was best as an improvisation, the more spontaneous the better. (Tina was belting out the chorus to "What's Love Got to Do with It?") It was the sort of stuff that turned his lust into a blessing. He had never known what it was to really love someone, not even his parents. This was better, or so it seemed. No pain, all gain. "Limo sex," Judith would say: "You come as you go." He had to laugh at the mystery of what she was about to do. He looked up at her smiling blue eyes, caressed her ivory skin and long blond hair. Sensing his desire, she circled his Adam's apple with her mouth, working her tongue over it. His head went back to give her better access while her nails teased flesh under his shirt. In time, her touch had him gasping, fingers curling around him snakelike creating a need so powerful, nothing else in the world mattered.

    When it was over, they did not kiss. She simply backed off with a self-satisfied smile. Kissing was strictly for foreplay. Love was the insidious L word, never mentioned. Rich girl's sex, he thought, not like star-fucking groupies who wanted him to autograph their panties. "Hey, I'm a sexy angel!" she would say, then laugh at such an implausible thing.

    "Look!" she cried out. "`Welcome to Gandee. Pop 6181. Home of Black Jack Field.'"

    Her voice bubbled as joyously as a child's on Christmas morning, but what he saw turned pleasure into a mouthful of sawdust. Three black crows were perched on that sign, splattering bird shit over his name as they waited to get at a dead dog on the road. In that instant, he was cursed by a sickening memory a dozen years old. He was on his bike and saw crows feeding on a run-over dog in front of his house. It was Boone, a setter he loved, and he went wild, yelling and screaming to scatter them. Later, he saw bird shit on his baseball cap and he never saw a crow again without tasting a residue of bile.

    He'd never believed in omens or superstitions or even the need for luck, but the sight of that sign left his stomach roiling at the first flush of fear. The limo had driven by, but the impact lingered like the stench of a skunk. He knew what it meant, all right. He had felt uneasy from the moment they'd arrived at the St. Louis airport.

    "Isn't this exciting!" Judith persisted as if she had to justify her insistence on coming with them.

    "Hey, you'll love Gandee," he said, putting his best face on it. "Nice, neighborly folks. Like when you drive on rainy days, you don't splash anyone on the curb, you just don't," teasing her with this, having ridden in her Porsche enough to note her skill at "wave-making," as she called it, splattering people ten feet away.

    As the limo headed toward town, he saw ghosts hovering over everything but he spoke only of angels. There was the Pringle wire factory, an old brick building now boarded up. He'd had his first job there, pushing a thirty-six-inch broom one summer so he could play bah on the factory team, but he didn't mention the sadistic foreman who'd made him scrub toilets until the acrid stench of disinfectants permeated everything he wore. And when they passed the Burger King, he bragged about all the cokes and fries he'd eaten with friends, and the fun of pranks and food fights that made his teenage life seem like a TV sitcom, but he definitely did not mention Betty Anne Simms, the cashier who'd exploited his endless infatuation with her until he reeked of humiliation. When they passed the Motel on the Hill, he described his young fantasies of romantic episodes in velvet-draped bedrooms with king-sized beds and giant color TV screens but said nothing about getting caught as a peeping Tom outside a window, for which he was soundly thrashed by his father. In fact, he never spoke of his father to Judith (or anyone else, for that matter) except in awe of his silver-starred Vietnam War heroics.

    "Your father, I can't wait to meet him!" Judith said. "My father never goes to war, he just buys and sells the equipment."

    Jack enjoyed the comparison, pleased at what his father meant to others. He'd grown up under the shadow of a man who demanded too much. Jack could never be good enough to command his respect—a kid who stammered a lot, who occasionally wet his bed long past his infant years. Now that he was coming home again, above all else, above the hoopla of his two-million-dollar ball field and whatever else Gordon had dreamed up, he wanted his father's respect. He wanted to see it in his eyes, hear words that came from the heart. He could ignore the rest of whatever lay lurking under all the old Gandee garbage. The opening of Black Jack Field would be the perfect occasion. Whatever this trip meant to Gordon and his bottom-line mind, to Jack, nothing meant more than throwing out the first ball to his father on national TV.

    "He's one tough hombre," Jack said. "Like the way he eats an apple. Stem, core, seeds, the whole goddam apple. Wait till you see him, still a soldier, by Jesus. Not a phony bone in his body. Always neat as a pin, crew cut and all. When he walks into a room you think, `Stand up and salute!'"

    "They don't make 'em like that anymore," said Gordon.

    "The lieutenant my father saved in 'Nam, he came to the house with his family on the tenth anniversary, all the way from Oregon, just to introduce them. He was a schoolteacher and every March 22nd he would tell his class the story of what my father had done. The two kids gave Dad a gold watch and hugged him around the waist. Oh, man, when I saw that, I was proud!" Then he thought how he'd felt, that he could never be the man his father was, but he didn't say that.

    Came then the sudden demands of Judith's bladder.

    "Gotta go!" she let it be known, pointing to the towering "Shell" sign a half mile ahead. Gordon signaled to the chauffeur to pull over. "Might as well refuel." The chauffeur nodded and moved into the right lane.

    Jack gasped at the sight of the Shell station, his heart pounding with resistance. No, not there. He didn't want to stop there. Words of protest locked in his throat as the limo pulled up to the pumps.

    "Come pee with me, Jack," she said, squeezing his hand.

    He didn't need that either.

    "Hey, this is Gandee, baby," he said.

    "What can happen? Your daddy is sheriff!"

    He pushed open the limo door for her. "It's to the left," he said. Then he watched her perfect body in motion, but even that could not stay his uneasiness.

    Jesus, the Shell station! He had to wonder at the weird forces working to screw up his head, leaving him trapped where he definitely did not want to be. It had no right to happen this way, as if her bladder were part of a wily conspiracy to mess with his head. Had that fifty-foot sign sent a charge through her urinary tract? Was it there in the cards, right from the beginning, from that day Gordon first mentioned his idea for this project over a year ago? Jack could have stopped it then. He had wanted to stop it. He just couldn't come up with a reason. Nothing came to mind that could override Gordon's enthusiasm. He simply let it ride, then forgot about it. What the hell did it amount to anyway?

    "C'mon, I'll buy you a coke," Gordon said, fumbling in his wallet for small bills. "You got change of a fiver?"

    Immediately Jack shook him off without even checking. The mere mention of five dollars was still another jab at his memories.

    Jack simply stayed in his seat, arms folded across his chest, his legs stretched out across the jump seat, his eyes shut like one about to take a nap. But he couldn't shut out the smell. It was the smell that hit him the hardest. When the fragrance of Judith's perfume gave way to oily rags and pumping gas, Jack was beaten by a memory slithering around inside him like an army of snakes. He was a sixteen-year-old kid on a day with a load of losses, pushing his broken bike from Burger King, where he had suffered still another rejection from Betty Anne. Inside this same garage a fat black kid was luring a tire, so befouled in greasy sweat he seemed to have reached the outer limits of filth. Jack caught the body stench even as he entered. "Fat nigger sweat," his father would call it. "A fat man is an insult to God," his father would say. Jack had then seen one whose body seemed a creation of the devil, a black snowman with a blubber face made all the more sinister by a hideous scar across his right cheek. Beside him, a boom box belted out black man's rap in nasty sounds that threatened to drive Jack up the wall. It was maybe the first time in his life Jack was in full agreement with his father.

    "Hey, can you fix my wheel?" he called out.

    The response was complete indifference like one who was not only ugly but deaf. Jack reached for the boom box button and cut off the blare.

    "Hey, my bike is busted!" he said.

    The other kept working on the tire, two gnarled fingers on the left hand adding to the grotesque sight until, finally, without looking up, a soft mocking voice came back at him.

    "Man, you pissed off all the time?"

    "What's that supposed to mean?"

    "I seen you pitch, that's what." And he shook his head in total dismay. "Hooo-eee! You might as well be throwing rocks at mad dogs."

    Jack felt the back of his neck bristling, rage bubbling in his throat. "My bike."

    "Pitchin' ain't no street fight, it's art, man. You gotta love it, like playin' a geetar to a beautiful chick. All that smoke you got is blowin' away!" Then, the kicker: "Ain't nobody ever showed you how to pitch?"

    It was the "you-gotta-love-it" that scalded him, a phrase that summed up the story of his sixteen-year-old life. What he had loved the most had become the source of his unhappiness. His father had taught him how to catch, throw, and hit but constantly demeaned his talents, immersing the boy in a prophesy of failure. Then, one spring afternoon the stringy ten-year-old had hit a towering shot over the Little League fence, which no one had ever done, and young Jack circled the bases with a greater joy than he had ever known. In subsequent games, no one could get him out, Jack having found a God greater than his father. In the outfield, he ran like a deer and caught everything anywhere near him. Year after year, he proved his growing talents again and again until, one portentous afternoon, the fifteen-year-old threw a clothesline strike from deep center field to nail a runner trying to score. His father, then, found a new mission in their lives. "The pitcher is king," he said. "The game revolves around the man on the mound." So the young outfielder was put on the mound where the cycle of failure began again. Jack hit batters with his powerful left arm and watched them crumble in tears. He walked far more than he fanned. He never conquered his nervousness, forever aware of his father's scorn. He was so wild, they called him "The Joker", a name he heard so many times that it fastened to his psyche. His catcher was totally unable to handle his speed. He would start games praying this would be the day he could hit the strike zone, but he always knew he couldn't. Two or three innings later, they'd put him back in the outfield. He had begun to hate the game of baseball, the only thing he had ever loved.

    And always there was Betty Anne Simms to make it all the more painful. This first romance of his teens had become a horror story. She loved to tease him, jiggling her sexy little body to drive him crazy. He would get erections he couldn't control, embarrassing himself until he took to wearing jocks to conceal them. She would come to ball games, always with another boy, and sit behind the backstop where he couldn't help but see her. He would throw right at her, trying to drill it through the screen. Sometimes he thought she was the only target he could hit. His father, his wildness, his obsession with Betty Anne became the tripod of his misery.

    ("You gotta love it.")

    Jack disliked everything about this kid in the garage. Combine the fat and filth with the smart-ass style and you couldn't disgust him more. He had grown up wary of all blacks. One way or another they bothered him. This one was about as bothersome as they came. He was making quick moves as he tinkered, little moves with his head and hands as if he didn't know how fat he was. His father used to warn him: "Niggers come in two kinds: them that don't give a goddam about nothing, and them that pretend they do." Jack stared at this one thinking, "Shit, he's probably both."

    "Goddam it, fatman, can you fix my wheel?"

    Finally, the other had acknowledged him, "Fix anything," he said, then turned the bike upside down to rest on the handle bars and spun the foot peddle as he watched the gear mechanism. In less than a few minutes, he found the dislocation in the gear line. In a few more minutes, he repaired it.

    "Ten bucks, man," he said.

    "What! For that?"

    "I fixed it, man. You couldn't."

    "I've only got five," Jack said, hating this.

    "Gimme five, owe me five."

    Jack gave him the five dollars and turned to leave. Straddling the seat, he paused, eager to turn this scene around.

    "What makes you such an expert on pitching?" he asked.

    "I'm a catcher."

    Jack laughed at him. Not a high-jumper? Not a sprinter?

    "Maybe you should use a mitt," Jack said, pointing to the distorted fingers of his left hand.

    "I got a mitt. I'm lefty."

    "What! I never saw a lefty catcher."

    "There ain't too many. My granddaddy caught lefty. He caught Satchel."

    Yeah?

    "Who did you catch?" Jack teased him.

    The other smiled, shaming him for the question by refusing to answer. He smiled at his little secret looking as if he had caught everyone from Satchel to Koufax. Jack was moved to ask, "Where you from? I never seen you before."

    "Kansas City. Moved here a couple months ago."

    "Catcher, eh. You got a mitt?"

    "My granddaddy's."

    Sure thing. A rotten old rag. Jesus, what a joke. If he threw hard to him he'd likely kill him.

    "Bring it tomorrow. Okay?" he said. "Better bring a mask and all, just for protection."

    "Five o'clock, Joker," he smiled. "And you bring the fiver you owe me."

    "My name is Jack Cagle," he corrected him.

    "Cyrus Coles," said the other.


    Cyrus was sitting in the shadows, a young black girl beside him as slender as he was fat and as loving as Betty Anne was not.

    "This's Ruby," Cyrus introduced them.

    "Sheeeit, he ain't even got a glove!" said Ruby, sounding like a child crying out that the emperor had no clothes.

    Jack paid her no mind. What's the big deal? He could throw without a glove, couldn't he? Hadn't he come to see if Cyrus could catch?

    Cyrus was fondling a new baseball in the folds of a frayed black leather mitt with almost no padding around the cavernous pocket.

    "There ain't nothin' like a new baseball. All them wound-up bands inside, the smooth hide sewn tight. Put fingers on them seams, you feel like you can throw it through a wall. You dig, man? Ain't it a perfect piece of work?"

    "Let's see it," Jack said.

    Cyrus shook his head. "You ain't no pitcher without a glove."

    "Bullshit!"

    Cyrus sighed, turning to Ruby. "Baby, you know why this white boy so badass? He made a wrong turn up Pussy Street!"

    Their laughter left him seething. This fat filthy nigger had turned his love life into an obscenity! How did he know, anyway? That he should have a girl friend and not Jack was too much for him. He demanded the ball with his eyes, furious that nothing was going his way.

    Ruby broke the silence, glaring at him with steel gray eyes.

    "You a real piece of shit, man. You ask him to bring his mitt? He brings his mitt. He buys a new baseball with the five dollars. He takes me in back to help him measure off the slab and the home plate. He wants everything to be right because he is Cyrus Coles." She paused to let that penetrate. "Now s'pose you go fetch your glove and the five dollars you owe. Then maybe if y'all show some respect you'll have some for yerself!"

    "Wooo-eee!" said Cyrus.

    Well, to hell with this bullshit, Jack thought, then pulled away on his bike with no intention of returning. He would never know why he did. In his room, he put his glove on his right hand, punched the pocket, then quickly laid it back on the shelf. He went to the kitchen for a Coke, taking his time drinking it. He needed a victory to counter his frustration, especially over a fat nigger who thought he was hot shit.

    When he came back with his glove twenty minutes later, they hadn't moved. He didn't have the five dollars and he had no intention of repaying it. He had come back to punish this kid for his arrogance with murderous fastballs.

    Cyrus led him around the garage where he had set up a two-by-four slab for the pitcher and a plywood square for home plate. It had been several days since Jack last threw to his father, so he warmed up slowly. Cyrus threw the ball back with hard whip-like flicks of his wrist requiring no more energy than pulling a trigger. Then sensing Jack was ready, he squatted, centering the old black mitt in front of him.

    Jack was ready, all right. Ready to all but kill him. His pitch was high, just over Cyrus's head, and the mitt snapped at it like a hungry snake at a jumping frog. And back it came, returning anger with admonition.

    "Why you lookin' off, man? You ain't at Burger King. Look at the mitt! It's cock high, man. Look at the mitt!"

    Fuming, Jack threwat his head again, and missed inside.

    "Man, you lettin' go too quick. Bring it down to me. Bring it all the way down!"

    It took five or six more throws before Jack realized what was happening: he wasn't testing or intimidating Cyrus, Cyrus was trying to teach him something. Besides, he could have thrown a thousand pitches, Cyrus would have snapped them back as fast as he grabbed them. Fat as he was, he had the quickest mitt Jack had ever seen.

    "C'mon, c'mon! Eyes on the mitt! There ain't nothin' in your life but the mitt!"

    For all his rage, Jack stared at it. Even before he began his next motion, he fastened on the sight of it. Slowing his tempo, he brought the ball down and hit the target for the first time. Then he hit it again, and again, and began to throw harder. Suddenly, it seemed as if that mitt was blessed with a magnetic power. He hit it repeatedly. Six, seven, eight times. This never happened when he threw to his father.

    "Lift your leg, man! Take the arm back further, yeah, and keep them eyes on the mitt!"

    Harder and harder, the more he hit the mitt, the harder he threw, making sharp popping sounds he never heard before. Cyrus began moving the target off center. Inside, outside, low, high, it didn't matter where. Jack never took his eyes off it. Then Cyrus called Ruby to stand at the plate like a batter, an old broom stick to simulate a bat. It was like William Tell setting an apple on his son's head. Jack hesitated, afraid he might hit her. But Cyrus kept on him. "Don't look at no hitter. You don't see no goddam hitter. Just the mitt. It's suckin' you in. It's the momma and you the daddy. It's the pussy, man. Bring it into the hole!"

    And so it happened. When Cyrus moved Ruby to the other side of the plate nothing else changed. Jack fought back laughter as he threw strikes because this was definitely the most beautiful goddam thing he had experienced since that first Little League home run.

    When Cyrus decided it was enough, he tucked his mitt under his arm and kissed Ruby.

    "Baby, you just seen the best? he said.

    She laughed. "I didn't see nothin'!"

    "That's what I mean!" said Cyrus.

    Time and again, throughout the summer, Jack came back to that Shell station. From Cyrus, there was something new every time, some minuscule adjustment that added power and stability to his delivery. All unnecessary movements were eliminated. He could throw a hundred pitches and not feel tired. He could feel that old black mitt sucking him in. He could see it in his dreams. He began to see himself as a pitcher.

    He never told anyone, least of all his father. When he threw to his father, he was deliberately wild, using his new skills to imitate old failures. Once, when his father happened to drive by the Shell station and saw him biking away, Jack was ready with an explanation. He had even rehearsed it. "Had to get air in the back tire." There was no fat nigger catcher with an old mitt that had once caught Satchel Paige, no leather pussy with magical power, no slab behind the garage. None of this had happened. Besides, this wasn't even a ball field much less a game. He was like a soldier firing at bullseyes on a rifle range where no one was shooting at him. In town games he played during that summer, he stayed in the outfield for which everyone was grateful. Everything would wait for the following spring.

    Cyrus Coles became his high school battery mate out of default. It was enough that no one else could catch his speed. And when Jack began to throw strikes, everyone believed it was part of some inevitable development, a coming of age that blessed all talented young athletes. In that one season, the seventeen-year-old John Clyde Cagle Jr. became invincible. Cyrus, who could neither run nor hit, was never thought to be a factor. It seemed simpler and even appropriate that Jack never suggested otherwise. After all, he had always been one helluva ballplayer, just as his father had been. Having grown four inches and added fifteen pounds since the previous season, it was easier for him to believe what everyone believed, especially since his father put a genetic spin on his first shutout. When there was another shutout, Gandeeans agreed: "Like father, like son," they said. They even had the same names, didn't they?

    Throughout that triumphant season, Cyrus kept him disciplined, no hollering necessary. The squat body and the centered mitt were enough. Having learned to pitch over the previous summer, Jack could feel the difference in his stride, his kick, his release. It seemed to him that his timing came out of his body fluids. His concentration was unfailingly intense. Betty Anne could have danced naked on the dugout roof and he wouldn't have noticed.

    Then came the big league scouts, all the way to Gandee from Chicago, St. Louis, and even Los Angeles, seduced by the big young lefthander's ninety-mile-an-hour fastball and string of shutouts. The scouts came repeatedly through the season and were never disappointed. They were all there at the Southeast Missouri Regional playoff game in June to see the undefeated kid with the poise of a veteran, smoking strikes by hitters, rarely more than a dozen throws an inning. In this state of grace, he could have gone on pitching forever. At the end of eight innings, Jack returned to the bench leading 1-0 when suddenly, there was his father sitting where no parent had a right to be. Jack winced at the sight of that gleaming Sam Browne belt, thinking Good God what have I done! It was eight innings of a perfect game as it turned out. He hadn't realized it. Not one man had reached first base. For the first time, he hadn't walked anyone! "This is your big moment, Son! Don't blow it!" came the arrogant demand, leaving him to stew in one last challenge to his seventeen-year-old equanimity.

    Jack sat alone on the end of the bench, suddenly nursing a buzzing in his ears. He felt an enormous thirst but was barely able to swallow. It was as if someone had delivered a death threat that clung to his sweating body. He should have said something but no one would talk to him. Not Cyrus who was in the on-deck circle waiting to pop-out, or the coach (his chemistry teacher) at third base. To have a no-hitter going was supposed to be unmentionable. To speak of a perfect game had to be a capital crime.

    When he returned to the mound for the start of the ninth inning, his stomach rebelled at the terror coursing through him. When he faced the first hitter, he pleaded for a thunder storm to rescue him. He stared at Cyrus's mitt, unable to find focus. He stepped off the mound, went to the resin bag mumbling idiot words of encouragement. When he threw his first pitch, it soared over Cyrus's mitt, into the screen fifty feet behind the plate. It was so wild, he stood on the mound grinning. His second pitch was in the dirt, and he heard the nervous crowd sounds. He could see the visitors' dugout coming alive, bats banging on the dugout steps. He worked fast, thinking all he needed was one strike to turn it back. His third pitch was outside, signaling the coming end of the perfect game.

    He tried to rally his composure, thinking, okay, he'd walk this guy. What was so terrible about just a no-hitter? He began to landscape the mound with his spikes but there was no relief from the butterflies fluttering in his gut. He heard that old cry "Joker!" from the visitors' dugout, a dozen kids yelling at him. In the stands, the crowd was on its feet, screaming at him. "Do it! Do it!" Anything less would be a defeat. Well, tough shit, he thought. It ain't gonna happen, not this time.

    Then, suddenly, he saw Cyrus rise from his squat and walk slowly to the mound. Jack scowled at him. He didn't want to hear any more bullshit. Anything and everything was futile; he was going to walk this guy and get on with the no-hitter. He stood tall on the mound, waiting, daring Cyrus to defy his mind-set.

    They were words he never expected, never repeated, and never forgot:

    "You dead-beat honkey mother-fucker, I just remembered: you still owe me five bucks!"

    And to punctuate the charge, he tapped Jack in the gonads with the mitt, then turned back to the plate.

    Jack was stunned. It was so crazy, he couldn't absorb it, so out-of-whack with the terror pumping through his body, it knocked the breath out of him. Cyrus's words simmered until the laugh-bomb exploded in his brain. He felt himself give way to its power and turned his back to conceal the impact. To be capable of laughter at that moment was akin to a miracle. His eyes began to tear and he turned toward the outfield, shielding his face with his sleeve like one wiping away sweat. "Up yours, Cyrus," he mumbled as he went for the resin bag, shaking his head at the enormity of his relief. When he finally went back to the rubber, he spun the ball lovingly in his hand, his fingers alive on the seams. He looked at Cyrus for his sign and saw five fingers splayed out in his crotch, not a sign but an appendage to his joke. Jack smiled, then shook him off. There was no need for signs now. He had but to drill it in. Once, twice, three times and the lead-off man retreated to the dugout, shaking his head. Jack got the second hitter on a one-hopper back to the mound. With two strikes on the third, he popped him up a few yards behind the plate. Cyrus circled under it but the ball hit the heel of his mitt and fell to the sod. As the crowd screamed in fury, Cyrus picked it up, tossed it back to the mound, then calmly returned to the plate. Two pitches later, Jack threw a blazing third strike across the knees, the umpire punched him "Out," and the great game ended the way it ought to end. By dropping the pop foul, Cyrus had made certain of it.

    Teammates mobbed him as the crowd poured onto the field, bodies tumbling over each other in a jubilant melee. Cyrus, never one to join such celebrations, disappeared. When Jack finally got back to the locker room, he found the game ball in his shoe.

    Two days after the major league draft, in front of TV cameras came the inevitable announcement of a major league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers as Jack handed that game ball to his father, "The Man Behind the Gun" they said of him, a neat turn of phrase that referred to the decorated war hero as well as Jack's early-on baseball coach.

    In the whirlwind days that followed, there was no mention of Cyrus. They flew Jack to L.A. for the signing itself with its five-hundred-thousand-dollar bonus, a night at Chavez Ravine and his first meeting with big leaguers, a day at Disneyland, then on to the Dodger's farm club in Yakima, Washington. He never saw Cyrus. He was swept away before he had a chance to consider it. And when he stood on the mound again, he faced a professional catcher. There was no more Gandee, no more Cyrus. All signs pointed to the biggies. In such an ideal new world, he had no past, no room for memories.

    He had never come home again until this day, a history that took him from that busted bike to the sleek stretch limo, from a wrong turn up Pussy Street to the beautiful blond daughter of his billionaire club owner. From the teenager Joker to Black Jack Cagle, the world's greatest pitcher.

    He had come full circle with his memories, but he couldn't walk a dozen yards to where it all had happened—back there, behind the garage, where he had pitched to Ruby with her broomstick for a bat. He couldn't get over having done that. Cyrus had taken him beyond his reach, transformed his growing body into a marvelous machine. Cyrus had had the power to re-create him. Cyrus had made magic happen as if it were a religious experience. Cyrus had changed his life but Jack had pretended otherwise because that had been the convenient thing to do. Even then, they had never spoken except on the ball field, or in the dugout. They were battery mates, nothing more.

    He didn't want to go back there. When no one knows, no one cares. You have but to conceal it from yourself and all will then be right with your world.

    He could have gone back. He could have scruffed around in all those weeds to see if the two-by-four slab was still there. Its absence would be a fitting end to his memory. He would like that, the whole Cyrus story dissolving in a long-gone, rotted away two-by-four.

    But he didn't go, preferring the pretense that it didn't matter. The truth was, he was afraid that if he did, he might find it. He'd have to set his left foot on it again, face the force of his memory across 60 feet 6 inches of weeds after those eight years pretending that it hadn't really happened.

    But it had. Just being here was enough to shake him up. He thought of calling Corky, making jokes about crow shit on the "Welcome to Gandee" sign, limo sex with Judith. He would not mention the Shell station, for he had never once spoken of Cyrus. Corky, however, had a way of seeing through Jack's bullshit. He'd get Jack to say things he had no intention of talking about. It was as if Corky could see into his head.

    Then there was Gordon again to rescue him.

    "Why do I always hope that a shithouse won't smell like a shithouse? Can you smell Gandee, kid? I'll tell you something: you could drop me blindfolded in Worcester and I'd know where I was at the first whiff. Year after I graduated Harvard I stopped my BMW at a service station a lot like this, a guy comes out and says `Hey, if it ain't ol' Stinky!' Goddam. Not long after that George Stanky became Gordon Stanley, and I don't go back to Worcester."

    "I know what you mean," Jack said.

    "You and me, we're a lot the same. We both got out. I had this preppy friend at Harvard, taught me how to play the money game. Wear the right clothes, use the right words. Say `basically' every once in a while, or `really?' Speak with the right tone of voice. Even the woman I married, she had to be the right sort of gal, not too smart and definitely not too good-lookin'. I didn't want my wife to seem threatening to other wives. Best thing I ever did was marry ol' Ellen. I take that woman to bed and I think, hey, because of her, everybody trusts me. She may be a dog but so what, it pays off in the daytime."

    "Hard to think of you as `Stinky,' Gordon."

    "Self-made men, you and me. We make adjustments. That's always the secret kid. Adjustment."

    Jack nodded, pleased with this kind of talk. The Harvard man had wiped off Stinky and Black Jack wiped off Cyrus. Everything was now neat and tidy. He liked Gordon. Not only made him super rich, he made him feel good.

    Judith returned with a bright red ribbon over her long blond hair, walking with her look-how-beautiful-I-am moves, smiling seductively as if this was what her life always came down to. When Corky first saw that look, he had a line for it: "She looks like somebody who never heard any bad news."

    Gordon sighed, shaking his head in awe. "Kid, you are one lucky sonovabitch!"

    She kissed Jack like a long-gone lover. "Remember me?" she whispered. "We met in a bordello in Istanbul."

    "You were the best," he said.

    Actually, they had met seven months ago in the children's ward of a Los Angeles public hospital. He was there on a media photo op at the bedsides of poor sick kids, autographing Black Jack baseball cards, cheering them up with assurances of a quick recovery whatever the ailment, and to prove it, he promised to strike out Ken Griffey Ir. that night. "Just for you, Billy," whereupon the TV cameras would lap it up as he ruffled the kid's hair, the tamed monster, the savage beast turned pussy cat for the moment. The real Black Jack would reappear on the mound. And there was Judith, a volunteer social worker in sedate tailored clothes orchestrating the action. One minute at this bedside, three minutes at another depending on which kids were appropriately photogenic—like little Billy with his bright eyes and wistful face. Ordinarily, he would have hit on a woman that beautiful, but her elegant style cut him down. She looked as if she could run the world. Her superior tones suggested you don't have to really care in order to please anyone, all you had to do was pretend that you do. Of course, he was aware that she was the club owner's daughter, which only made her all the more intimidating. She never so much as smiled at him. She carried her head high, and the quiet command of her voice exuded privilege. He found out later that she was a Bryn Mawr graduate doing her little do-good thing, much like himself. She would give the hospitals two afternoons a week—unless she had something better to do. She was Judith Pagonis and nothing more was expected of her.

    As she got back into the limo, the chauffeur was running Windex spray and a squeegee across the windshield, vainly trying to remove splotches of dried bird shit. With a sudden fury that astonished them all, Jack bounded out of the limo, scooped up a handful of dirt and smeared it roughly over the surface with his bare hands.

    "Good God, what's got into him?" Judith murmured.

    "Whatever. Just don't ask!" said Gordon.

    Jack used his handkerchief to wipe his hands, smiling sheepishly as he got back in the limo.

    Then Gordon went back to work.

    "There'll be an escort waiting for us in town. TV trucks, mucho cameras, the whole network bit. I want you to keep these windows rolled up. No pictures of you until you step out onto the field, Jack. Let them shoot the limo en route. Adds mystery and drama to the arrival. Okay?"

    Jack reached for Judith's hand but she was busy with compact and mirror. He sat back, staring out the window as they moved by vaguely familiar sights. Everything seemed shabbier than he remembered, as if the years had blighted the town under a polluted cloud. He had grown up where pride demanded neatness whatever the size of one's income, where even poverty was no excuse for slovenliness. What he saw now depressed him, a violation of his father's standards. "Just like Rodeo Drive!" Judith joked. Seeing the decay through her eyes made it all the more distasteful.

    Then they passed an old pickup truck with a pile of junk in the bed, and from the driver's window a bony black hand emerged, its middle finger raised to greet his passing. Jack grunted, stifling his need to take vengeance, unseen and unheard behind the tainted window, satisfying his troubled soul by mumbling "Up yours!" under his breath.

    "Welcome to Gandee." He actually spoke the words.

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