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It's when you're going good that they throw at your head.
Harvey Blissberg had been starting center fielder for the Boston Red Sox for five seasons, had two years left on a new three-year contract, and had just engaged the services of an interior decorator for his recently acquired Back Bay condominium when the team abruptly left him unprotected in the expansion draft over the winter. As a direct result of this insult, he became the property of the Providence Jewels, the latest addition to the American League Eastern Division. At an age when most of his contemporaries were winning their first big promotions, Harvey was obliged to pick himself up and start over with a team composed largely of cast-offs, players of proven mediocrity, and a few arrogant rookies thrown in just to remind him that, as far as baseball was concerned, he was no longer a young man.
Last year, with the Red Sox, he had considered himself in his prime. Now he felt like someone detained at the border before being allowed to pass over into the rest of his life.
Providence, Rhode Island, looked like a place you ended up when they kicked you out of everywhere else. It was too small and not nervous enough to be a city, as Harvey understood the term, but it was too big to be anything else. It seemed to consist entirely of outskirts--a sad city where a Mercedes or a tuxedo was as incongruous as a camelia bush in a vacant lot. At night, the streets of Providence were as empty as Rankle Park's upper deck on any game day.
Actually, the lower grandstands were never that crowded either. The Jewels' aging brick and concrete home, built in the twenties and enlarged a few times for a succession of short-lived minor league teams, dominated a drab neighborhood that discouraged traffic, let alone baseball fans. With its odd assortment of gray facades, turrets, and archways, Rankle Park resembled a rusting battleship docked among shoe factories, textile mills, and warehouses whose tenants had migrated in the seventies to the more congenial Sun Belt.
The fans weren't the only ones who thought they deserved better. When visiting clubs first saw the park, the players tended to react with the polite dismay of people invited to dinner at a house that hadn't been cleaned in weeks. The proposed new stadium outside town didn't look as though it would materialize for another two years, if at all. That the team playing in so tarnished a setting was called the Jewels was an irony seldom lost on the sportswriters who fought for elbow room in the battered press box over home plate. Still, there was logic to the name: the team's owner and president, Marshall Levy, was the founder of Pro-Gem, the biggest costume jewelry concern in a state that had the biggest costume jewelry industry in the country. Levy had ignored the argument that "Jewels" was an unfortunate name for the team of a town where most of the gems were phony.
Even though you had to wonder--and Harvey Blissberg was among those who did--what the baseball commissioner and team owners had been thinking when they awarded a franchise to Providence, the Jewels had exceeded expectations. It was August 28, and with their 63-and-66 record, the Jewels could glance down in the Eastern Division standings and see Detroit and Toronto.
As for Harvey, at the age of thirty he was somehow enjoying his best season ever. His .309 batting average was more than 40 points above his modest career average, and he led Providence in batting, doubles, and--his legs felt five years younger than the rest of him--stolen bases. He was throwing around a lot of leather in center field. And as a bonus, he and Mickey Slavin--some said she was the best and most attractive television sportscaster in Providence--were finally an item.
These unexpected blessings made Harvey slightly uncomfortable. Having been burned once, he had the distinct feeling that someone was bound to start throwing at his head again. But as he stood with bat in hand behind the batting cage an hour before Tuesday night's game with Chicago, the only threat to his well-being came in the form of a vaguely familiar voice.
"Hey, Ha'vey, whaddya say, guy? Come ova heah a sec." It was one of those New England accents that produces r's when they aren't called for, and drops them when they are.
Harvey turned toward the box seats. Ronnie Mateo stood in his usual pre-game spot in the first row by the Jewels' dugout, one spindly leg poised on top of the low wall separating the seats from the field. He was a thin man in his thirties with tightly curled black hair, a long face that looked like a blanched Brazil nut, and a taste for colorful double-knits and two-tone imitation snakeskin casuals. He was well known to many of the Jewels, to whom he tried to sell dubious merchandise from time to time. Occasionally he succeeded, which was why Chuck Manomaitis, the Providence shortstop, had shown up in the clubhouse a month before with a dozen digital traveling alarm clocks--still in their boxes next to the Desenex on the shelf of his locker.
Ronnie had never approached Harvey before. Harvey liked to think of himself as the kind of person who didn't look as if he needed a lot of cheap traveling alarm clocks.
"Professah! Hey, Professah," Ronnie shouted. "Come ova heah."
Harvey, who owned five Harris tweed sports jackets and read hardcover books on road trips, had been slapped with the nickname in his rookie year. It amused him because his older brother Norman was a real professor--of English, at Northwestern. "Professor" implied a clubhouse intimacy that Harvey was not aware Ronnie Mateo enjoyed with him. He finally ambled over to the box seats, not looking at Ronnie until he was standing in front of him.
"Whaddya want?" Harvey said. "You're a little too old for autographs."
"It's not what you can do me, Professor. It's what I can do you." Ronnie bent over the leg up on the wall and smoothed a tan sock with both palms. "You interested in a gross of necklaces, real nice merch, the kind that every month's got a different stone?"
Harvey narrowed his eyes. "Have we met?"
"We need an introduction? I'm pretty friendly with a lot of the ball players."
"All the same. Harvey Blissberg," he said, extending his hand.
Ronnie shook hands, pronouncing his name so it sounded like "raw knee," then flicked something that wasn't there off a brown and gold shoe. "A hundred forty-four necklaces, twelve of each month, each month a different stone. This is a very nice item." He pulled a handful of necklaces out of his jacket pocket and held them in Harvey's face.
Harvey rubbed some pine tar on the shaft of his bat with the rag. "What the hell would I do with them?"
"Now that all depends. If I was you, Professor, I'd give 'em to your lady friends." His smile showed a fringe of tiny teeth.
"Yeah, well, I'm about a hundred and forty-three-and-a-half girlfriends short. Besides, all the women I know were born in February or October."
"So give 'em to your fans. Look, this is quality merch." Ronnie ran a thumbnail coated with clear polish over a red stone. "I wouldn't make this offer to anybody."
"And I don't blame you," Harvey said, starting to turn. "See you around."
"I wouldn't make this offer to anybody but you, Professor," Ronnie said again. In the row behind him, an elderly usher in a jacket with torn epaulets was showing a couple to their box seats.
"Where'd you come up with a gross of necklaces, anyway?"
"Here and there," Ronnie said.
"That wouldn't be the kind of junk Marshall Levy makes, would it?"
Ronnie's face dimmed at the mention of the Jewels' owner, and he carefully put the necklaces back in his pocket. His little black eyes wandered off behind Harvey toward the batting cage. "Gee, that kid Wilton can sure hit," he said. "You're hitting good, too, this year, Professor."
Harvey pivoted away from him again. "I'll see you around."
"They warned me you was a standoffish guy," Ronnie said to his back.
Harvey kept walking, but the voice stopped him after a few yards.
"Hey, Professor. What month your mother born in?"
Harvey turned to him. "February," he said.
Ronnie produced a glittering tangle of necklaces, extricated one, and lobbed it at Harvey. "That's an ametist, Professor," he called out. "For February. Tell your mother it's from Ronnie Mateo, who's a big fan of her son."
Harvey walked back toward the cage. When you wore a major league baseball uniform, sooner or later everyone wanted a piece of you. It was a matter of pride to Harvey that after six years of being approached by hustlers, hot-shot investment counselors, and all the shades of manipulators in between, there weren't any pieces of him missing.
When Rudy Furth, the Jewels' relief pitcher and Harvey's roommate on the road, came up to him at the batting cage, Harvey was idly running the necklace through his fingers.
"I've jerked off in front of more people than this," Rudy said. He was twenty-eight, but he looked like a senior in high school.
Harvey scanned the stands. The gate this evening would be lucky to hit the dismal average. "Yeah," he said, "and here I am playing the best ball of my career."
"At least someone on the team is." Rudy blew a pink bubble with his gum and sucked it back noisily into his mouth. "A gift from Ronnie Mateo?"
Harvey looked at the necklace in his fingers as if surprised to find it there. "Yeah, he tried to sell me some. What's his story?"
"He tried to sell me some color TVs once."
"What is he--some kind of low-grade fence?"
Rudy shrugged. "Who knows? I told him to buzz off. Even I know enough to stay away from him."
"Normally you don't have such good judgment."
"Thanks, roomie," Rudy said, pulling on his ear a few times. He was always moving, pulling his ear, snapping his fingers, thrusting out his lower lip. Harvey kidded him about belonging to the Tic-of-the-Month Club.
Harvey bobbed his head in the direction of a paperback book poking out of Rudy's back pocket. "I see you picked up the novel finally." In the Kansas City airport on their last road trip, Harvey had bought him the book with the intention of improving a mind whose severest tests came in the form of Sporting News and People magazine.
Rudy patted his pocket and jiggled his hand. "Well, it's kind of rough going for a farmboy like me. No pictures." He grinned boyishly. "But I like this guy Gatsby. Had a damned nice life-style, didn't he?"
"I can see you haven't read very far."
Rudy rotated his head a couple of times, like someone with a stiff neck. "If Wagner doesn't need any help from me on the mound tonight, I'll promise to get some reading done in the bull pen. That is, if the other guys don't mind me moving my lips."
Harvey returned Rudy's smirk. "Believe it or not, Rude, when you're through with baseball and out there in the big bad world, you're going to have to know how to read and write." Harvey wondered who the hell he was to pontificate about the big bad world out there.
"Yessir, Professor." Rudy flipped him a military salute.
"Yo-yos," Harvey said. "Nothing but yo-yos on this club."
"You worry too much." He tugged down on the bill of Harvey's cap and jogged out toward right field.
At the batting cage, Steve Wilton, the Jewels' right fielder, and Roger Kokis of the White Sox were discussing a woman who was sitting in the boxes behind third base.
"I'm telling you," Wilton was saying, "it's a law of nature. The bigger their tits, the closer they sit to the field."
Harvey stepped into the cage against Stan Crop, who was pitching batting practice. He popped up the first two pitches, cursing the little hitch that had lately developed in his swing.
"Hum babe, Harv babe, come to the pitch, you're the one," chanted Campy Strulowitz, who was leaning against the cage. Campy was the Jewels' bowlegged, sixty-year-old first base coach who did double duty as the team's batting instructor. A weak hitter in his own distant playing days, Campy had devoted long hours on the bench to studying his superiors at the plate. Harvey credited Campy with at least 20 points of his .309 batting average.
"You're the hum babe, Harv," he said. "Glide it and ride it, bring those wrists, babe, bring 'em and fling 'em, settle down, hum-a-now, you're the kid." He hunkered down in an imitation of Harvey's batting stance, his fists raised to grasp an imaginary bat.
Steve Wilton stood next to Campy, peeling off a batting glove. "Shut up already, will you, Campy?" he said. "The Professor's already hitting three-something. Stop hum-babing him."
Campy fired a thick brown stream of tobacco juice close to Steve's left spike. "I don't see you hitting top ten, Steve kid, don't see you ripping off the big hits."
"Whyn't you just choke on your chaw and die," Steve said, stalking off.
"Hum kid, hum kid, hum-a-now," Campy said.
Harvey sent Stan Crop's next pitch through the humid dusk of August into Rankle Park's utterly empty left field upper deck.
By game time, there were only six thousand people in the park, and the Jewels ran out on the field to thin applause. In center, Harvey adjusted the bill of his cap with a tailor's curt flourish and winged the warm-up ball back and forth with John Rapp, in left field. He snapped off his throws with a deliberate motion, glancing down to make sure his stirrup socks were pulled tightly over his calves. Being alone with all that grass calmed him. Even as a kid, when other Little Leaguers wanted to play only shortstop, or pitch, Harvey had played center field. Green, spacious, removed from the crowded, dusty infield, center had all the virtues of a desirable suburb.
When Chicago's Scott Dykes sent Bobby Wagner's first pitch high over Harvey's head toward the 447 FT sign in right center, Harvey surrendered to familiar instinct. He registered the trajectory of the ball, then turned and put his head down and sprinted toward the wall. Thirty feet from the dirt warning track, he looked up to see that he had beaten the ball to its destination by a split second, allowing him to catch it with an effortless twitch of his glove. Over his head, Rankle Park's new electronic scoreboard commended the play by flashing "A GEM" in rapidly increasing sizes.
On the mound, Bobby Wagner, who had been struggling for most of the season, heaved a sigh. The flamethrower from Virginia had been one of the American League's premier right-handers when the Baltimore Orioles left him for dead in the off-season because of alleged calcium deposits in his arm. The Jewels, who needed a big name on their pitching staff, had traded four players for him even though he was now playing out the last year of his old Baltimore contract and would be eligible to become a free agent in the fall. His record stood at 8 and 14, the worst showing of an otherwise brilliant career.
Harvey's catch seemed to have settled him down, and the White Sox were scoreless after seven innings. Providence picked up two runs along the way, one of them on Harvey's fifth inning double. But in the top of the eighth, Chicago's right fielder, Dave Shingle, lined a home run off the auxiliary scoreboard on the facing of the right field pavilion, cutting Bobby's lead to 2-1. When Bobby proceeded to walk Abbler, and Dykes followed with a single to left, Felix Shalhoub, the Providence manager, walked slowly to the mound, his body bent forward slightly at the waist. He lifted his left arm desultorily to signal the bull pen for Rudy Furth. Bobby Wagner slapped the ball into Felix's extended right hand and headed for the showers.
In deep center, the bull pen gate opened in the fence, and a compact figure with long, blond hair emerged, sliding his emerald green nylon warm-up jacket over his left arm. He walked across center field toward the mound, pulling abreast of Harvey, who accompanied him part of the way.
"How's the arm?" Harvey said.
Rudy jutted out his lower lip. "It's been better. I can't get my fastball to lay down where I want it tonight." He stroked his sheathed left arm nervously with his glove, as if to encourage it.
"Then go with the slider. It's been looking pretty good to me."
"You think so?" Rudy said with his way of giving too much credit to obvious comments. "But this guy creamed the slider last time I showed it to him."
"That one was up in his wheelhouse, Rude. Keep this one down."
"Yeah, okay," Rudy said, a little glumly.
"Now you're the one who's worrying too much. Just go out there and get 'em."
"Sure," Rudy said, and they walked a few more yards before he squinted up at the press box and asked, "Seen Slavin tonight?"
"I don't think she's here. I think she's out covering women's soccer or something."
Rudy spat. "When're the three of us going to get together again? I have fun with you guys."
Harvey looked straight ahead.
"I tried to call you last night," Rudy said. "Were you at Mickey's?"
"She's pretty good in bed, huh, Professor?"
Harvey turned to look his roommate in the eye. "You tell me."
Rudy pulled twice on his ear. "Did I say something wrong or something?"
They walked a few more yards without speaking. Then Harvey said, "Go get 'em, and keep the goddamn slider down, will ya?"
Rudy warmed up on the mound. Dean Levine of Chicago promptly stroked his first pitch deep in the hole at second. Rodney Salta couldn't make a play on it, and the bases were loaded for Mac Bodish, who swung and missed on a slider, then picked on a fastball at the knees. From Harvey's perspective in center, the pitch didn't tail, it didn't rise, it didn't sink; all it did was jump off Bodish's bat and rattle off the wall in left. By the time Rapp chased it down on the warning track, three runs had scored and Bodish was standing on third. The White Sox now led 4-2, and it stayed that way.
In the clubhouse, the Jewels stripped off their white double-knit uniforms with the depressing black and green trim. Chuck Manomaitis, the shortstop, was once again trying to sell Steve Wilton his digital alarm clocks at a small margin over what he had paid to get them from Ronnie Mateo. Wilton once again suggested to Chuck an unsavory use for the clocks that quickly ended the negotiations.
Half a dozen reporters trying to corner a few quotes scurried underfoot. The dean of the local baseball writers, Bob Lassiter, of the Providence Journal-Bulletin, accosted Les Byers, the Jewels' third baseman.
"Les," Lassiter said, wagging his pencil. "I make twenty-nine thousand a year. You make one forty-five, and I'm not even going to mention the bonus on signing and deferred annuity. Now, if you ask me, you're getting paid enough to swing at that called third strike in the ninth."
Les stepped gingerly out of his jockstrap, held it for a moment in front of Lassiter's nose, and let it fall to the floor like a coquette releasing her handkerchief. "Man," he bellowed, "you expect me to do ever l'il thing? The game's hard work. Shucks, sometimes we put in six, seven hours a day."
Lassiter, who did not excel at getting jokes, stammered, "Well--well, that's not exactly slave labor." But Les was already showing him his back.
"Hey, Furth," Steve Wilton yelled across the locker room. "Way to handle Bodish. Next time, why don't you throw it to him underhanded?"
It was one thing to ride a teammate like that when reporters were not around. "Shove it, A-hole," Rudy yelled back.
Harvey caught up with him at the long table in the middle of the locker room where the post-game meal was laid out--hamburgers, fried chicken, french fries, and tossed salad provided by the owner's, Marshall Levy's, sister, who operated a catering outfit in nearby Attleboro, Massachusetts.
"I hear the fried chicken's good here," Harvey said.
Rudy was wearing nothing but shower clogs. He picked up a hamburger, tossed his hair off his face, and said, almost carelessly, "He's right, you know. I couldn't have done any worse throwing underhanded." He took a bite out of the hamburger, handed the rest to Harvey, and shuffled toward the showers.
Harvey pushed a few french fries into his mouth and followed Rudy, passing the open door to Felix's tiled office on the way.
"Gentlemen," the manager was explaining to a trio of reporters, "we stopped hitting after the fifth inning, the bull pen was not in a positive posture tonight, and at the end of nine we were behind by two runs. And that's the whole six flavors."
Excerpted from Strike Three You're Dead by Richard Rosen Copyright © 1984 by Richard Rosen.
Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 12, 2013