Read an Excerpt
It was summertime, and the living was easy for the Red Sox because Marty Rabb was throwing the ball past the New York Yankees in a style to which he’d become accustomed. I was there. In the skyview seats, drinking Miller High Life from a big paper cup, eating peanuts and having a very nice time. I wasn’t supposed to be having a nice time. I was supposed to be working. But now and then you can do both.
For serious looking at baseball there are few places better than Fenway Park. The stands are close to the playing field, the fences are a hopeful green, and the young men in their white uniforms are working on real grass, the authentic natural article; under the actual sky in the temperature as it really is. No Tartan Turf. No Astrodome. No air conditioning. Not too many pennants over the years, but no Texans either. Life is adjustment. And I loved the beer.
The best pitcher I ever saw was Sandy Koufax, and the next best was Marty Rabb. Rabb was left-handed like Koufax, but bigger, and he had a hard slider that waited for you to commit yourself before it broke. While I shelled the last peanut in the bag he laid the slider vigorously on Thurman Munson and the Yankees were out in the eighth. While the sides changed I went for another bag of peanuts and another beer.
The skyviews were originally built in 1946, when the Red Sox had won their next-to-last pennant and had to have additional press facilities for the World Series. They were built on the roof of the grandstand between first and third. Since the World Series was not an annual ritual in Boston the press facilities were converted to box seats. You reached them over boardwalks laid on the tar and gravel roof of the grandstand, and there was a booth up there for peanuts, beer, hot dogs, and programs and another for toilet facilities. All connected with boardwalks. Leisurely, no crowds. I got back to my seat just as the Sox were coming to bat and settled back with my feet up on the railing. Late June, sun, warmth, baseball, beer, and peanuts. Ah, wilderness. The only flaw was that the gun on my right hip kept digging into my back. I adjusted.
Looking at a ball game is like looking through a stereopticon. Everything seems heightened. The grass is greener. The uniform whites are brighter than they should be. Maybe it’s the containment. The narrowing of focus. On the other hand, maybe it’s the tendency to drink six or eight beers in the early innings. Whatever—Alex Montoya, the Red Sox center fielder, hit a home run in the last of the eighth. Rabb fell upon the Yankee hitters in the ninth like a cleaver upon a lamb chop, and the game was over.
It was a Wednesday, and the crowd was moderate. No pushing and trampling. I strolled on down past them under the stands to the lower level. Down there it was dark and littered. A hundred programs rolled and dropped on the floor. The guys in the concession booths were already rolling down the steel curtains that closed them off like a bunch of rolltop desks. There were a lot of fathers and kids going out. And a lot of old guys with short cigars and plowed Irish faces that seemed in no hurry to leave. Peanut shells crunched underfoot.
Out on Jersey Street I turned right. Next door to the park is an office building with an advance sale ticket office behind plate glass and a small door that says BOSTON AMERICAN LEAGUE BASEBALL CLUB. I went in. There was a flight of stairs, dark wood, the walls a pale green latex. At the top another door. Inside a foyer in the same green latex with a dark green carpet and a receptionist with stiff blue hair. I said to the receptionist, “My name is Spenser. To see Harold Erskine.” I tried to look like a short-relief prospect just in from Pawtucket. I don’t think I fooled her.
She said, “Do you have an appointment?”
I said, “Yes.”
She spoke into the intercom, listened to the answer, and said, “Go in.”
Harold Erskine’s office was small and plain. There were two green file cabinets side by side in a corner, a yellow deal desk opposite the door, a small conference table, two straight chairs, and a window that looked out on Brookline Ave. Erskine was as unpretentious as his office. He was a small plump man, bald on top. The gray that remained was cut close to his head. His face was round and red-cheeked, his hands pudgy. I’d read somewhere that he’d been a minor-league shortstop and hit .327 one year at Pueblo. That had been a while ago; now he looked like a defrocked Santa.
“Come in, Mr. Spenser, enjoy the game?”
“Yeah, thanks for the pass.” I sat in one of the straight chairs.
“My pleasure, Marty’s something else, isn’t he?”
I nodded. Erskine leaned back in his chair and cleaned the corners of his mouth with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, drawing them together along his lower lip. “My attorney says I can trust you.”
I nodded again. I didn’t know his attorney.
Erskine rubbed his lip again. “Can I?”
“Depends on what you want to trust me to do.”
“Can you guarantee that what we say will be confidential, no matter what you decide?”
“Yes.” Erskine kept working on his lower lip. It looked clean enough to me.
“What did my lawyer tell you when he called?”
“He said you’d like to see me after today’s game and there’d be a pass waiting for me at the press entrance on Jersey Street if I wanted to watch the game first.”
“What do you charge?”
“A hundred a day and expenses. But I’m running a special this week; at no extra charge I teach you how to wave a blackjack.”
Erskine said, “I heard you were a wit.” I wasn’t sure he believed it.
“Your lawyer tell you that too?” I asked.
“Yes. He discussed you with a state police detective named Healy. I think Healy’s sister married my lawyer’s wife’s brother.”
“Well, hell, Erskine. You know all you really can know about me. The only way you can find out if you can trust me is to try it. I’m a licensed private detective. I’ve never been to jail. And I have an open, honest face. I’m willing to sit here and let you look at me for a while, I owe you for the free ball game, but eventually you’ll have to tell me what you want or ask me to leave.”
Erskine stared at me some more. His cheeks seemed a little redder, and he was beginning to develop callus tissue on his lower lip. He brought his left hand down flat on the top of the desk. “Okay,” he said. “You’re right. I got no choice.”
“It’s nice to be wanted,” I said.
“I want you to see if Marty Rabb’s got gambling connections.”
“Rabb,” I said. Snappy comebacks are one of my specialties.
“That’s right, Rabb. There’s a rumor, no, not even that, a whisper, a faint, pale hint, that Rabb might be shading a game now and then.”
“Marty Rabb?” I said. When I’ve got a good line, I like to stick with it.
“I know. It’s hard to believe. I don’t believe it, in fact. But it’s possible and it’s got to be checked. You know what even the rumor of a fix means to baseball.”
I nodded. “If you did have Rabb in your teacup, you could make a buck, couldn’t you?”
“Just hearing me say it made Erskine swallow hard. He leaned forward over the desk. “That’s right,” he said. “You can get good odds against the Sox anytime Marty pitches. If you could get that extra percentage by having Rabb on your end of the bet, you could make a lot of money.”
“He doesn’t lose much,” I said. “What was he last year, twenty-five and six?”
“Yeah, but when he does lose, you could make a bundle. And even if he doesn’t lose, what if you’ve got money bet on the biggest inning? Marty could ease up a little at the right time. We don’t score much. We’re all pitching and defense and speed. Marty wouldn’t have to give up many runs to lose, or many runs to make a big inning. If you bet right he wouldn’t have to do it very often.”
“Okay, I agree, it would be a wise investment for someone to get Rabb’s cooperation. But what makes you think someone has?”
“I don’t quite know. You hear things that don’t mean anything by themselves. You see stuff that doesn’t mean anything by itself. You know, Marty grooving one to Reggie Jackson at the wrong time. Could happen to anyone. Cy Young probably did it too. But after a while you get that funny feeling. And I’ve got it. I’m probably wrong. I got nothing hard. But I have to know. It’s not just the club, it’s Marty. He’s a terrific kid. If other people started to get the funny feeling it would destroy him. He’d be gone and no one would even have to prove it. He wouldn’t be able to pitch for the Yokohama Giants.”
“Hiring a private cop to investigate him isn’t the best way to keep it quiet,” I said.
“I know, you’ve got to work undercover. Even if you proved him innocent the damage would be done.”
“There’s another question there too. What if he’s guilty?”