Curveballs & Changeups: Bleeding Blue and Seeing Red

Curveballs & Changeups: Bleeding Blue and Seeing Red

by K.P. Kmitta


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Robert Campbell, a businessman from St. Louis, heads to Chicago in 1867 and meets William Hulbert, a mysterious man who tells him he plans to build a baseball field. Hulbert claims that baseball in America will be a grand new pastime and a grand new business opportunity.

In 2006, Scott Banks is a devoted Cubs fan even though he's moved to St. Louis and is married to his well-meaning, Cardinal-loving wife. Life for Banks is on cruise control until he gets the chance to fulfill a dream of a lifetime-but it comes with a curveball. Suddenly, he's forced to face the gut-wrenching realities that have him swinging and missing life's off-speed pitches. Modern time is intertwined with a nineteenth-century depiction of the birth of a storied rivalry in Curveballs and Changeups.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491760932
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/15/2015
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Curveballs and Changeups

By K. P. Kmitta


Copyright © 2015 K. P. Kmitta
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-6093-2


1967, St. Joseph Church, La Salle, Illinois

A boy sat five rows behind Big Frankie and Vito Vitale and laughed so hard that his face hurt. These guys are great. This is too good to be true, he thought. The parishioners of St. Joe's had proven so far to be very — even if not intentionally — entertaining. He was already hooked on the odor of beer and cigar smoke, a concoction all the more amazing considering it was still only ten in the morning. The boy had the feeling this day was going to somehow be a game changer. "Game changer" was a term he had only just begun to sprinkle his vocabulary with. This was good because the kid felt he needed a break, needed something to happen. He felt his life was in a rut, too predictable and boring, and though he had not yet reached his teens, he felt he was getting old.

It had not been to this point a particularly good weekend (just the day before he had lost his favorite football at the Pitstick Pavilion swimming pond in Ottawa). He stared at his shoes — shiny new Beatle boots. They were two sizes too large in order to accommodate his high instep. He sighed as he realized he should have just worn his Red Ball Jets.

"Everyone, shut up!" Big Frankie screamed, interrupting the boy's thoughts. The interior of the bus rattled.

Frankie Wojciechowski stood near the front of the bus and appeared momentarily startled at his own voice. He straightened the red baseball cap that was perched tightly on his head. Frankie's bright-red, short-sleeve polyester shirt strained at the seams. Despite the cool temperature, perspiration dripped from the big man's chin. He continued, "The padre is going to give us his blessing! And take your hats off, for cripes' sakes!"

The bus quieted. No one wanted any more delays. It had been a long mass. Father Smith had made sure of that.

It was a trip — an expedition — to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. The men of St. Joe's were going to see the Northsiders compete in a Sunday baseball tradition: a daytime doubleheader. They did not consider it just another typical day at the ballpark; the opponent this day was the rival from the south, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even for a country that had already lost its innocence, this was a year of big change: Vietnam, trendsetting movies, drugs, hippies, civil rights and women's rights, and peace and love. The Camaro became Chevy's answer to the Mustang. The "Summer of Love" was the end for Woody Guthrie but the beginning for many other new artists that fueled change.

The world of sports was not immune. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL championship, also known that year as the Ice Bowl. UCLA, with Lew Alcindor, won the first of its seven national basketball championships. Muhammad Ali, no longer Cassius Clay, was found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his World Heavyweight Champion boxing title because of his objection to the Vietnam War due to religious beliefs.

And on Route 66 in St. Louis, Johnny Mac opened his first sporting good store.

In Chicago, anticipation was in the air as manager Leo Durocher had a refreshing, young Cub team on the rise. After years of futility, there was finally a genuine cause for optimism, and that optimism was on full display in the bus.

Big Frankie leaned heavily across Vitale's rail-thin body. Vitale's bushy eyebrows almost matched the length and color of his dark-brown beard, and they were now arched in contemplative shock. Frankie forced his wide head as far as it could go through the window, like a buffalo straining for that tasty bit of grass that lay just on the other side of the fence. "Go ahead, Father," he said, "I finally got —"

Reverend Raymond Smith, who had been waiting outside the bus for everyone to get reverently quiet, sprayed the big man's face with holy water as it spewed from the priest's dented and well-used aspergillum. Whether it was an accident or on purpose, no one knew for sure; it was a debate among the church members for years to come.

Frankie recoiled in a spasm of coughs and choking sounds and banged his head with a resounding thud on the top of the window frame. He barely managed to hang on to his cap — a St. Louis Cardinal cap — as it narrowly missed dropping to the damp sidewalk below. The Vitalis he lathered into his brown hair that morning left a greasy smudge on the glass.

Vitale, free of Frankie's weight and without apparent injury, could not resist a comment. "Hey, everybody," he shouted in a voice carrying remnants of an Italian accent, "Big Frankie's drowning on holy water-uh! But not to worry, not even Frankie could go to hell drowning on holy water-uh!"

"Serves the Cardinal fan right!" someone else yelled.

The explosion of laughter within the bus set the tone for the day.

The boy wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. A moment later he felt the forward movement as the driver shifted the bus — a yellow 1955 Carpenter over a bent GMC frame — into gear and depressed the accelerator. A cloud of blue exhaust, accompanied by a loud backfire, provided the push to get the bus rolling.

At the front of the bus, a tall man by the name of Mickey Rochetti lost his balance and almost toppled over as he stood at the makeshift urinal constructed by the boy's uncle; a corrugated tin tub full of ice with holes drilled at the bottom.

A quick right and they were heading due east on Route 6 — that is, as long as Wally held the steering wheel a constant twelve degrees left.

The men settled into predictable routines: poker, euchre, raffle tickets, newspapers, and smoking — a lot of smoking. Bottles of Star Union beer and cans of Old Style were tossed through the air by a smiling thin man by the name of Ziggy Kasmerski. Ziggy was a nickname for a first name that most of the parishioners could not pronounce. For the most part, the metal missiles had landed into the eager hands of his intended targets.

The drizzle continued, and the windows were open just a crack. The air inside the bus was thick with the scent of cigarettes and cigars.

Sitting across the aisle from the boy was his father, masterfully reading the Chicago Tribune's sports section while juggling a cigar and a bottle of beer.

Seated two rows behind, on the opposite side of the aisle, sat the boy's grandfather, holding court with his usual one-liners for anyone who would listen. He knew the old man never tired of telling his stories and jokes, and it did not matter if it might actually be the same one for about the fifth time in the span of a month. He was just close enough that he could hear his grandfather delivering the punch line to one of his favorites, something about two antennae that got married and had a great reception.

The boy reached into the pocket of his Windbreaker that his mother insisted he bring with him and pulled out a Jolly Rancher candy. Carefully removing the clear plastic wrap, he popped it into his mouth. He silently saluted his two older sisters as the wonderful watermelon flavor saturated his taste buds. Prior to leaving for church that morning, he sneaked into their bedroom and pilfered exactly eight of the candies from their dresser top. He now had the thievery down to a science, and they would never know they were missing. He was especially proud of this morning's heist. Left scattered within the remainder of the watermelons were four less-than-desirable cherries he expertly rewrapped and made to appear as the much more preferred watermelons. He wished he could have seen the faces of his sisters upon their unpleasant and shocking discovery.

The boy looked again at his grandpa. The last several summers he had been helping in the garden behind his grandparents' house. The house was only about five blocks away, so he easily made the run on foot once or twice a week to help out with the spading, hoeing, or weed pulling. He learned a lot about gardening from his grandpa, and he really enjoyed the work.

It seemed lately the boy could count on his grandfather to take at least one tumble into the soft, upturned soil of the garden. As he extended his hand to help his grandpa back to his feet, the old man always laughed and turned it into a lesson. "There's no shame in falling, kid," the old man would say. "Just be sure to always get back up. And don't ever be ashamed to accept a helping hand!"

Mostly, though, he enjoyed sitting on the front porch with his grandfather after the work was done. If he was lucky, the Cubs would be playing a home game that afternoon. In those days, they were all day games. They would listen in on the game through his grandpa's transistor radio as Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau provided the Cubs play-by-play. The transistor was special. It was larger than most, and protected by a light-brown leather case. There was also a mysterious extra dial or two that suggested this was a radio not meant for his hands. The kid was actually terrified of it. Gradually, the boy began to become familiar with the name of the Cub players, although the listening wasn't always easy through the metallic static that usually accompanied the broadcasts. It also seemed to the boy that the only batteries his grandfather ever owned were destined to burn out each and every time he visited.

The boy's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of laughter from several rows behind him. His grandpa had managed to get off another joke. He knew this to be another of the old man's favorites, the one he only tells when he is in a great mood. It was the one about the two cannibals eating a clown, and one asks the other, "Does this taste funny to you?"

* * *

The boy stared in awe as they finally arrived at Clark and Addison. Jesus, he thought. Before him was what he felt the equivalent of the second church they were all going to be in that day — Wrigley Field. He ran his fingers through the hair he only recently began to grow out from his normal flat-top style. The reassurance of the fresh goop of Brylcreem he had applied that morning was comforting.

The boy studied the outside of the old ballpark. He noted the red marquee that read, Wrigley Field — the Home of the Cubs. "This place is much bigger than I thought it would be," he said out loud. He also thought that it looked older. He recalled reading recently that the great Babe Ruth had played here.

Something else caught his attention — an organ playing from within the park. "What is that?" he asked. "I thought we left church behind!"

Mike Gladhour, the parish school's science teacher and a self-proclaimed wilderness survivalist, said, "Wrigley Field is the first professional baseball stadium to use an organ, young man."

Attendance that day was almost thirty-two thousand people. Up to that point, the largest group of people the kid had ever seen gathered at one time was at the 9:00 a.m. Christmas mass in 1965. It was the only time anyone could remember Vito finishing ahead of Big Frankie with the collections. In his failed attempt to catch up that morning, Frankie had shifted into a higher gear and had solidly smacked the back of the head of a hoity-toity woman, appropriately named Mrs. Constance Headwurst, with his basket.

Once through the main gate, the boy observed the steel girders, the bare walls, and the rain-dampened concrete floors. He also noticed the concession stands and, most importantly, the pictures! Black-and-white head shots of the current Cubs players hung in a horizontal fashion along the top of one of the inside concession stands. He took note of Williams, Santo, Banks, Hundley, Kessinger, Beckert, Jenkins, Popovich, Holtzman, and the rest of 1967 Cubs squad, thrilled to be finally putting faces with the names.

Another picture stood out from the rest. It was off a bit to itself, just above the photo of center fielder Adolfo Phillips. Like the others, it was in black-and-white, but it was slightly smaller and not autographed. It was a photograph of a distinguished and serious-looking man who wore a thick mustache and was dressed in the clothes of an older time.

The boy examined the name at the bottom of the photograph and recruited the help of his dad. "Do you know who William ... Hoo ... ah ... William Hulbert is?"

His father shrugged. "No, I don't. I've never noticed that picture there before. I have no idea who that man is." His dad continued to stare. "William Hulbert," he said to himself. He turned and said, "We better keep moving, son. They're going to start the game without us!"

They moved fast to catch up with the rest of the group. The mystery of William Hulbert was unceremoniously dropped and not to be discussed again by the kid until decades later.

Soon they were at the base of the steps that helped form the narrow concrete chute that would lead up into the ballpark. Small, muddy puddles remained on each step after the earlier rainfall. The tunnel was dark, but there was light at the end. The men of St. Joe's looked up, as if expecting to see the Holy Spirit beckoning them on. The boy was thrilled to see bits of reassuring blue sky as it appeared at the very top of the ten concrete steps. Like a moth to a lamp, he was drawn to the sunlight and joined the rest of them as they began their quiet ascension up the steps. To the boy, it was the closest to having a religious experience outside of actually being within the church.

The buzz of the crowd amplified as new sounds — ballpark sounds — were introduced to the group with each step upward. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn beckoned them on. The nearer to the top, the more of the blue sky became visible to them, contrasting sharply against billowy white clouds. The boy sensed there was something special and exciting waiting up there for him — much more intriguing than the grainy image seen on his parent's black-and-white TV.

They arrived at the top step. To their relief, the temperature seemed to have jumped by ten degrees since they had arrived. The boy's grandpa looked down at him and said, "Go ahead!"

"Yeah, go ahead, son," his dad added. "We'll be right behind you."

The two gentlemen shared a smile, perhaps remembering the time they also first walked into a major-league ballpark. The boy stepped forward and froze still. Not one of the boy's daydreams about what a major-league field looked like had accurately captured this.

The colors inside the ballpark stood out like a wide panoramic oil painting. He had no idea the grass that covered the cavernous outfield could look that green and smooth. The deep green of the ivy on the walls was spectacular. It seemed as if the rain had cleansed the park, and it was shiny and new.

"I can't imagine playing out there in that outfield. Look at the size of that!" he said to anyone who wanted to listen, but not expecting an answer. "And look at that ivy!"

He saw the vivid white of the chalk lines that contrasted sharply against the green of the grass. It was a Wizard of Oz moment, and he had now just entered into the colored part of the movie.

With the aid of an Andy Frain usher, they found their way down to their field-level box seats. They used their hands to wipe away the raindrops that remained beaded on the wooden seats that held firmly to at least twenty layers of green paint. They were only twelve rows back from the playing field, allowing for a close-up view of the action. Just ahead of them, Bill Hands, the Cub starting pitcher for the first game, was warming up just inside the waist-high brick wall separating the fans from the field.

Just beyond the pitcher, in the outfield grass of shallow left field, several other Cubs were warming up by playing catch. One player in particular stood out.

"Who is that, Dad?" the boy asked, pointing to the outfield. "Number twenty-one."

His dad reached and grabbed a program from the unsuspecting Ziggy and scanned it. "That's George Altman, an outfielder," he replied as he looked up.

"Used to play in the Negro Leagues," his grandfather added.

"Negro Leagues," the boy said. "Wow!"

The ball spanked into the player's gloves with a pop that could be heard all the way from where the small group sat. The boy never imagined a game of catch could sound so cool. How great it would be to do that someday, he thought. Playing catch on a major-league field!

He was jolted by a voice that bellowed just behind them.

"Cold beer! Cold beer here!"

The vendor, hawking Old Style, was a sweaty, husky black man blessed with a voice that pierced the air with the rich resonance of a Mack truck on steroids. The boy and his grandpa jumped in their seats. His dad almost spit out his freshly lit cigar.


Excerpted from Curveballs and Changeups by K. P. Kmitta. Copyright © 2015 K. P. Kmitta. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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