The off-season lags and lags, flowing slow, like thick, gooey molasses. Topic ideas start to wane. The lull of the holidays ends, and for some of us, our real jobs kick back into gear. The tonic? How about a trip in the wayback machine, to October of 1986?
About ten posts ago I promised that someday I would use this forum to serialize my new baseball novel, The Curse of Carl Mays. Now that I've crawled back atop that MVB list, that day is today. Hey, it's my blog. So here goes. I hope you enjoy the peek, but most of all, I hope you crave more.
Prologue: Up and In
October 26th 1986, 12:23 A.M.
Buckner recalled the other time he had played in a World Series, back in '74 with the Dodgers, as an enjoyable, exhilarating experience. Twelve years later and on the back side of a solid career, he supposed his fond remembrance of that one youthful trip to "The Big Dance" was now selective, conveniently blotting out the sports media crush that had filled the time between games with tedious, redundant blather. And of course, his memory could never account for this new ingredient, this Red Sox thing.
Along with an anemic one-for-his-last-nineteen, his week had been more-or-less ruined by the jackals with microphones. He had tried to accommodate the slavering horde of scribes, the insatiable lust for copy, but had been worn down, had grown increasingly raw from the steady bombardment of hackneyed metaphors, weird superstitions, sports clichés, tales from the occult, on and on. There was that tan network jacket who had asked whether the "baseball gods" would "allow" the Sox to win. Allow? He had been reminded, again and again, that he was carrying not only the "weight of the Red Sox uniform," but a "monkey on his back," as well. He had dismissed Andelman with contempt when the radioman had hit him with Galehouse, Pesky, Bucky Dent--the whole damn haunted house full of Boston ghosts. It kept coming, relentlessly--just this morning! Over breakfast, his hackles had been raised by another new fantastical "theory," a newspaper article claiming that the franchise had been haunted by the sale of Babe Ruth way back in 1920. Babe Ruth, for chrissake.
Buckner was at heart and by birthright a Southern Californian. A relative newcomer to Boston, he had never understood much less taken on the burden, the albatross, of local baseball history. When it came to the game, his profession, he wasn't particularly superstitious, wasn't spooked by goblins of Red Sox past, and certainly didn't believe in anything like "baseball gods."
But now even he was starting to get religion.
How else to explain what was going on out here?
The first two had gone down without a whimper. The fans had gone stone silent, somber, as if readying a funeral to bury their beloved Mets. Even the guy who operated the Jumbotron must have thought it was good and over--the message board had briefly foretold nirvana, prematurely flashing laurels to the "World Champion Boston Red Sox." The adrenaline of anticipation was coursing through his body, his heart swelled, he was even fighting back a grin. They were right there, on the brink. This was all just a few friggin' minutes ago.
Then something happened. It was barely perceptible, but he remembered feeling it. It wasn't panic, like what he was feeling now. It had felt like something else ... impending doom, foreboding, more like that. It seemed to descend on the stadium like a thick fog enveloping a witch's coven, and now, it was if he had been thrust into his own danse macabre. The hostile fans had turned to demons, hopping, taunting, cackling. The Mets players seemed to transform, now revealed as red devils in blue pinstripes.
Carter slapped a single.
Then Knight. 5-4 now, and the tying run just a base away.
Eye of newt, toe of frog. It can't be happening to the Red Sox. Again. It just can't be.
He watched dejectedly as Owen relayed Knight's base hit from center field back to the mound, thought, Still need just one. The noise now engulfing the stadium was so powerful it seemed to have a tangible presence, a physical force, a wind that could blow him off his feet. He glanced over at Knight on the first base bag. The cocky bastard was preening, and Robinson, the first base coach, was slapping Knight's hand. Look at them. He felt like puking, thought, Better go talk to the kid.
He walked toward the pitchers mound with the gait of an old man. His ravaged ankles throbbed in the bottom of the tenth, uncharted territory for a player accustomed to being replaced for defense in the late innings. The rest of the shaken infield remained manned to their posts.
Buckner usually thought McNamara a fool. But maybe not here. Maybe this was the situation the manager had envisioned when he had decided not to--or was it neglected to--pull him for Stapleton. Billy Buck, the wily, cool veteran, that was him--his stomach churned, a layer of cold flop-sweat covered over the real perspiration, but no one the wiser, if the calm old warhorse was to be his role, he was up to putting it on.
Completing his hobble across the short stretch of grass, he scaled the mound, sidled up to Schiraldi, said, "Settle down, Cal. That looked like a good pitch."
Schiraldi furrowed his brow, spoke no words.
Buckner raised his voice, forced to overcome the din of the emboldened Mets faithful now rallying with the hope of completing a miracle, last-gasp, series-saving comeback, said, "It was a good pitch. Way in on his hands. He got lucky."
"Didn't get it up enough," Schiraldi shouted. "Sh-t! Two strikes--"
"Yeah, up and in was the spot. You should have drilled that c--ksucker in the godd-mn coconut. Look over my shoulder at that stupid grin on his face." Buckner smiled through his bushy mustache. Maybe humor would relax the frightened rookie, no small challenge as they stood there at the center of baseball gravity, a mere ninety feet of lime-stained dirt spread between a world championship and a "new ballgame."
"Mac coming to get me?" Schiraldi said.
Buckner waved his glove in front of his face. He was sure the answer was no. Who else to turn to in the Sox's sorry excuse for a bullpen? "It's your game, Cal. C'mon now. Who's up? Wilson? We're still up one. There's a helluva lot more pressure on him--"
"Here comes Mac."
Buckner couldn't believe it. McNamara was marching across the grass toward them, waving two fingers toward the bullpen. Who the hell could he be calling for? Stanley? He wouldn't. Not Stanley. But who else?
McNamara was now across the third base line and closing. Buckner looked in Schiraldi's vacant eyes, and when the manager arrived, the stricken pitcher surrendered the ball without protest.
Patting the departing rookie with his glove, Buckner turned toward the fence in the left field corner, blocked the pulsating crowd from his senses, refrained from asking McNamara who, wanted to see for himself. But when the door to the bullpen swung open he couldn't bear to look. Bowing his head, he rummaged around his back pocket, felt around for a talisman, maybe a shamrock or a rabbit's foot, and finding none, he crossed his fingers, crossed himself, closed his eyes, prayed silently, prayed to the Baseball Gods, prayed that the human form emerging from the bullpen was superhuman, maybe an exorcist, a shaman, a sorcerer, a dragon slayer, the reincarnation of Babe Ruth, anybody who can get this last out.
Peace out, readers.