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Once Upon a Fastball
By Bob Mitchell KENSINGTON BOOKS
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ball
THE BRAIN OF A BASEBALL FANATIC consists of ten basic structures, each with unique responsibilities: medulla (breathing, heartbeat), pons (dreaming), reticular formation (brain's sentinel), thalamus (sensory information), cerebellum (bodily movements, equilibrium), hippocampus (long-term storage of information), amygdala (aggression, sexual behavior), hypothalamus (internal equilibrium), cerebral cortex (higher cognitive and emotional functions). And, perhaps most important, the little-known triviata minor, a tiny compartment that stores information of no seemingly earthly value, like Ted Lepcio's lifetime slugging percentage, what Don Mueller and Donn Clendenon had in common, Bucky Dent's real name, and who pinch-ran for midget Eddie Gaedel.
* * *
Baseball nut Seth Stein slouches in his La-Z-Boy and looks right into the man's eyes.
The man stares back at him with a look that is vacant and listless, gazing at a point six inches above Seth's head, toward a place a zillion miles in the distance.
The man's secondhand face is wizened and sunken and tan, like a battered old catcher's mitt whose pocket has been broken in and darkened through countless innings of abuse.
The man looks terribly bored, which is understandable, since he has been dead now for thirty-three years. He is staring out at Seth from within his baseball card, and his name is Alpha Brazle.
Seth has been studying the picture album of Papa Sol's old baseball cards for nearly an hour. When he reaches Brazle's card, his mind wanders to the first time his grandfather had ever shown it to him.
"Now, Setharoo, this is ol' Al Brazle," Solomon Stein rhapsodizes to his six-year-old grandson, nourishing the baseball passion he has already bequeathed to Seth via the DNA helix. "Nicknamed Alfie or sometimes Cotton. Began his career late in life, at nine and twenty years, as I recall. Pretty fair southpaw, though. Not as good as Grove or Gomez or Hubbell or Ford or Spahn or Koufax or Carlton, of course. But pretty darn fair."
Seth snaps out of it, eyes the card again. A Bowman 1953 beaut. Number 140. Born Loyal, Oklahoma. Died Grand Junction, Colorado. Baseball fanatic Seth Stein recites it by heart, like a catechism. Lifetime record of 97-64. Played all ten years of his career with the same team, the Cardinals. Not like today's million-dollar, free-agent players, Seth thinks, with more than a tinge of melancholy.
He riffles through a few more pages of the album, comes across Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Murry Dickson's card, stops and cogitates. Good ol' Murry. Always loved the fact that his parents left out the a in his first name. The Tom Edison of the mound, they used to call him, because he loved to experiment out there. Stan Musial once cracked that he wouldn't have given his mother anything good to hit. Won twenty in '51, then lost twenty-one in '52. Unreal. Best thing about him was that during the off-season, he was a carpenter, just like Papa Sol.
Seth Stein pauses to give his triviata minor a rest. He turns the page, removes a Ray Jablonski Topps card from its four rococo cardboard pasties (one for each corner) that are attached with LePage's Gripspreader Mucilage Glue and have been clinging miraculously to the album page since well before he was born. He sniffs the back of the card, aspirating the nearly faded aroma of pink bubble gum powder like Ferdinand the Bull inhaling a flower's fragrance deeply, lustily. The magical smell is still there after all these decades.
Seth returns Ray to his final resting place and flips through more pages, taking affectionate ganders at Coot Veal and Cot Deal, Duane Pillette and Howie Pollett, Turk Lown, Sam Jethroe, Herm Wehmeier, Bud Podbielan, Roy Smalley, Johnny Klippstein, Johnny Wyrostek, Matt Batts (Matt Batts!), Dave Jolly, Virgil Jester (what a pair of clowns), Solly Hemus, Wayne Terwilliger, Ned Garver (how'd he ever win twenty games for the '51 Browns, who lost 102?), Gus Zernial, Al Zarilla, Reno Bertoia, Granny Hamner, Dee Fondy, Eddie Yost ("the Walking Man"), Eddie Waitkus (shot in a hotel room with a rifle by a deranged female fan), Vinegar Bend Mizell.
All these gentlemen are fossils frozen in time, ossified in their fake poses. The shell-shocked Brazle poses goofily with arms above head, ball in glove and left hand gripping it, preparing for the curve he will never throw. Boston Braves utility man Sibby Sisti assumes a silly, stiff crouch, with left gloved hand on left knee and bare right hand on right knee, as if to conduct some bizarre self-examination of his patellae. Philadelphia Athletics first sacker Ferris Fain smiles straight ahead as he stretches out his right gloved hand to reach, perilously, for a ball coming from a totally different direction from where the camera apparently is.
Seth closes the album and his eyes. The rectangular 3 1/2 x 2 1/2-inch cardboard surfaces with frozen men peering out are mirrors to his soul, reflecting who he was, who he is, who he will become.
He is thinking about these frozen men, not as ballplayers, but as human beings. What ever became of them? After their fifteen minutes of fame, what did they make of their lives? Did they go downhill from there or find peace of mind and happiness?
He is thinking about what these players were like when they reached the age of thirty-three, like he himself just did today, October 19, 2006. (Baseball historian Seth Stein notes that an astounding percentage of these men actually retired at this very age, or thereabouts.) Did these guys end up accomplishing in other ways? Or did they proceed to fall from memorable icons on baseball cards to forgettable ne'er-do-wells? Did they become a U.S. senator, like Jim Bunning, or a disgruntled, paranoid night watchman who died in misery, like Carl Furillo?
He is thinking about where he is now in his own life, approaching a midpoint marker going back to the Bible (Psalms 90:10). Nel mezzo del cammin, as Dante put it, smack in the middle of our seventy-year journey.
Like the men in the cards, his life has had a past, a present, and a future. He is thinking about all he has accomplished: a Ph.D. at age twenty-four, his appointment to the Harvard faculty, the five published books. And all he has endured: the failed marriage to and painful divorce from the petulant Julie, the heart disease and recent quadruple bypass surgery, the loss of his parents early on, the loss of his Papa Sol. He is thinking about all he is involved with now: the book he is writing; the stimulating freshman seminar he's teaching; spending time with his beloved Grandma Elsie; watching his son, Sammy, grow up to be a man; his stupendous girlfriend, Kate.
Most of all, Seth is thinking about what will become of him. About the ponderous issues of mortality and achievement and relationships. Will he live to see Sammy grow up and get married and make him a grandfather? Will he finish writing the book? Will he even get to watch another World Series? Will he dare to try marriage again? But these questions are sardines compared to this whale of an enigma: Will he ever be able to figure out the mystery of his Papa Sol's sudden disappearance, two years ago, from the face of the earth?
* * *
Seth Stein, Associate Professor of History at Harvard, is in the feverish process of gestating his sixth book, That Which Has Been No Longer Is: Can We Ever Know History? And while he really loves his Martin acoustic guitar, his Balvenie single-malt Scotch, his feisty squash matches with best friend, Gordon, and of course Sammy, Grandma Elsie, and Kate, he loves History-just as he adores baseball-in quite a different way. More proprietarily. Like the way a dog loves his bone. Meeting the challenge of attempting to "know" the past, to resurrect it in all its glory-not just names, dates, and events, but virtually everything in the air that drives people to action-has become for him a marrow-sucking obsession.
So much so that nearly every one of the ten million available neurons in his gray matter (excluding, of course, the very considerable number dedicated to baseball trivia) is preoccupied with the minutiae of things past: battles, paintings, symphonies, poems, natural disasters, working conditions, biology, technology, meteorology, genealogy ... A walking encyclopedia, his students call him, those earnest, bushy-tailed freshmen in the Fundamental Problems of History seminar he's teaching this term. Flattering, he thinks, but to his mind, most of the credit-genetic and pedagogical-for his extraordinary gift and his passion for History belongs to his teacher, mentor, role model, confidant, and pal, his beloved Papa Sol.
It all began with the bedtime stories.
Stories lovingly concocted by Solomon Stein, then recited at dusk to his four-year-old grandson, whose deep brown eyes sparkle and widen, peeking over the covers, Kilroy-like, as his grandpa's deep, mellifluent voice spins those swashbucklers of times gone by, his majestic baritone meticulously caressing each syllable.
Stories like "The Secret Treasure of the Sierra Padre," "The Puzzling Case of Luiz, King of Barataria," and "The Adventures of Jean Lamain, Pirate of the Azores."
... and suddenly, from out of nowhere, Jean Lamain, the handsome, brave, audacious, one and only Jean Lamain, outlaw of the Seven Seas, takes his trusty sword, Geneviève, out of her scabbard and, with one skillful flick of his wrist ...
Seth is officially hooked on the Past.
As he grows older, the mentoring continues, with Papa Sol donating many a tender evening reading historical novels to the ever-rapt Seth: Ivanhoe, Kidnapped, Quo Vadis, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo. Seth's favorite visits to the past, though, are the tales of Greek mythology.
Solomon Stein's powerful carpenter's hands cradle the entranced Seth on one side of him and Frances Ellis Sabin's Classical Myths That Live Today on the other, narrating to the lad the exploits of gods and goddesses and heroes and heroines: the Twelve Labors of Hercules, Apollo and Cassandra, Athena's birth from Zeus's forehead, Atalanta and the golden apples, the fall of Icarus, Sisyphus and his rock, Daphne and her laurel tree, Perseus and Medusa, Theseus and the Minotaur, Hector and Achilles, Odysseus and Polyphemus.
Young Seth looks up at his Papa Sol, smiles at his hero, shuts his eyes. With Solomon Stein's voice urging him on, he rockets himself miraculously back to those olden times. Mounted on the back of the wingèd steed Pegasus, he glides across the diamond-studded nocturnal sky, Cheshire grin pasted on his cherubic puss. He is actually living way back when!
* * *
Seth settles behind the wheel of Jezebel, his doddering but dependable 1983 Buick Skylark, en route to Grandma Elsie's house on the other side of Cambridge.
Jezebel knows the way to Grandma's house so well that, except for moral support, she barely needs Seth at the wheel. Wobbling along Cambridge Street, hobbling past Harvard Yard, Harvard Square, and Cambridge Common, she splutters up Brattle Street, sputters past Mount Auburn Hospital and Fresh Pond. Right at the fork onto Belmont, another right onto Cushing, and after a few more rights, she staggers to her destination, grinding to an exhausted halt and relieved to find repose at her familiar spot in the middle of the crack-filled, grass-sprouted driveway. Oil drips from under her hood and onto the pavement, like so many beads of sweat.
Seth exits Jeze, gives her an affectionate pat, and wistfully surveys the grizzled, gray-shingled house of Elsie Adler Stein. Funny how you can look at this house a thousand times, he thinks, and each time, a new memory emerges from behind its cobwebs.
Glancing down at the sidewalk in front of the house, Seth revisits with vivid clarity that special cloud-covered, bone-rattling Saturday morn eons ago, when Papa Sol is guiding him on his little red Schwinn, its training wheels amputated, like a grandfather red-tailed hawk coaxing his grandchick to the edge of the cliff, then letting him go on his own, for the first time, his feet pedaling cautiously, then more confidently, his little boy's innocent cackles of avian joy celebrating the realization of his first successful solo flight. Grandma hawk Elsie cackles, too, from the porch swing, between sips of chamomile tea.
His eyes pan to the mailbox Solomon Stein had built over twenty years ago. The house-shaped box is carved out of redwood, its battered body painted a peppy scarlet, its roof a stern navy. The door is a baseball, white with crimson stitching. In place of a red flag on the side, Papa Sol had fashioned a plywood structure depicting two overlapping fat red woolen socks, with white toes and heels. Up above, some twenty feet in the air and attached to the main mailbox by a wooden dowel, a smaller replica of the house below teeters, swaying in the autumn breeze, the word AIRMAIL scrawled across a wooden sign fastened to the top of its roof.
Solomon and Elsie Stein had shared this old house for twenty-four joyful years, ever since they moved to Cambridge from Berkeley. Baseball nut Sol had moved himself and Elsie around according to the object of his passion: first to New York, in 1951, to be close to his beloved Giants; then, he followed the Jints to San Francisco when the team relocated there in '58; and finally, when the club became virtually hopeless in '80 (fifth place, seventeen games behind), he finally tossed his hands up, and up and moved to Cambridge, heavyheartedly switching his allegiances to the lovable and long-suffering Red Sox.
Aside from Sol and Elsie's house in Berkeley and his present Cambridge town house, Seth has occupied no other domicile than this one, at least none he can recall. When he was three, one frigid winter night, Elsie had announced to him the tragic news, which entered his unsuspecting ears as so much gibberish, between her sobs and his toddler's capacity to comprehend.
"Mommy ... Daddy ... airplane ... down ... heaven ... never ... see them ... dahlink ... my baby!"
* * *
"Honey, I'm home!" Seth singsongs playfully to his grandma as he ascends the thirteen creaky stairs on the way to her second-floor bedroom.
"Bubby, it's me!" he insists, concerned about Grandma Elsie's unaccustomed silence, negotiating the steps two at a clip.
When Seth enters the bedroom and sees Elsie's seventy-seven-year-old face peeking out from under the covers, all the blood drains from his. In fact, the face he now observes appears not to be Elsie's at all, but Eve's, in Masaccio's unsettling 1427 fresco, The Expulsion from Paradise: the sunken eyes, the mouth agape, the confusion and the shame.
Seth misses her beaming countenance, the one she'd worn sempiternally before Papa Sol mysteriously disappeared two years ago without a trace. He misses her smiling face that usually greets him on his frequent visits, the smile that is radiant, solar. He misses her spry, mischievous demeanor that, through the years, has earned her his pet nickname, "Grandma Elfie." But the not knowing why and the nagging questions surrounding her beloved husband have, on this occasion, robbed her of the frivolity and energy she exhibits on good days.
Today, apparently, isn't one.
A single tear meanders down Elsie's pale cheek, and Seth knows she's been thinking of Sol. He has come prepared and offers a Kleenex.
Holding her hand tenderly, he peruses the dressing table, which is cluttered with History. The sepia photo of Sol and Elsie on their honeymoon in Lake George, summer of '46: They are on the porch of some country inn, seated on a swing, gazing into each other's eyes, oblivious to the Kodak Brownie camera that is capturing their image. The black-and-white photo of Seth's now-deceased parents, Simon and Rebecca, a woeful surrogate for authentic memories, but still comforting to Seth every time his eyes devour its details. The color photo of Papa Sol and his ballplayer hero, Willie Mays, their arms around each other's waists, Sol's smile improbably wider than the Say Hey Kid's. The polished oak jewelry box Sol had carved for Elsie for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, with those delicate, painstakingly fashioned flowers that were his artisan's signature.
Seth looks down at Elsie, this proud, independent woman whose mostly joyous life has had its share of sunshine: loving husband, doting son and grandson and great-grandson, selfless community service through her teaching and charity work. Her spouse's recent vanishing being the only dark cloud still shrouding all these rays of happiness.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Fastball by Bob Mitchell Copyright © 2008 by Bob Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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