Saturday, March 29, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Forty-Six: Shots

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The following game is an unexpected pleasure. No press, no townies, no freaky plays spelled with Capital Letters – just another night at Nygaard Field. The weather is a slate-gray overcast, but warm, keeping both players and watchers at a cozy temperature. Their opponents, a team called Bugaboo, is solidifying its hold on last place. They seem to be enjoying themselves regardless, spending most of their energy joking at their own suckage. It’s times like these that David feels hopeful for the future of mankind.
Another bit of civilization is blossoming in the stands, where Abbey and Elena are sharing their standby snacks – Abbey’s Rainier cherries, Elena’s carrots and ranch dip – and laughing. The sight is both pleasing and distracting. For one thing, he hasn’t told Elena about the pregnancy, and he feels it ticking like a bomb. Later on, he will use this as an excuse for his inexplicable faux pas.
Baseball has a strict hierarchy for the calling of fly balls. Any outfielder, for instance, may call off any infielder, for the simple reason that it’s easier to catch a ball while moving forward. The low man on the totem pole is the pitcher, who may be called off by anyone.
The batter lifts a high pop-up that seems to be on a precise path toward the pitcher’s mound. David calls it, and follows it back as it drifts over his shoulder. So intent is his focus that he fails to notice Oscar, who comes in from second and calls “Mine! Mine! Mine!” in a drill-sergeant bark. As soon as David pockets the ball, he rams into Oscar, and the two of them fall to the dirt. David manages to hang onto the ball, but the positive outcome is no consolation to Oscar, who jumps to his feet, righteously pissed off.
“What the hell are you doing?”
A gun goes off. From his position on the ground, David sees a man in a black hooded sweatshirt, stalking his way toward a fallen Billy. The man raises his arm, but before he can fire a figure in white streaks in from behind, goes into a slide and clips the man’s legs, sending him flying.
David is running, his breath chuffing, the grass flying beneath his feet. Thye man is flat on his back, gripping his right leg. Pablo has recovered the gun and stands five feet away, aiming it at the man’s head.
“How does it feel, asshole? How does it feel to be on the other end? You think you got a right to take a man’s life? You think you got a right to play God? Well I’m God now, you sick fuck.”
The man lets go of his leg and looks up with a strange calm.
“Go ahead.”
“Don’t!” David comes to a stop and holds up a hand. “Pablo, you don’t want to kill anybody. Billy’s hurt. We have to get him some help.”
Pablo takes two hard breaths and swallows.
“Okay. On your stomach. Hands behind your back.”
The man rolls over quietly. David takes the belt from his softball pants and ties it around the man’s hands. Oscar does the same with his feet.
“Hold him down,” says Pablo. “Don’t let him budge.”
Oscar puts a knee on the man’s back; he offers no resistance. Oscar would like very much to bash his head in, but he’s seen enough cop shows to know that this is not a good idea.
Twenty feet away, Derek kneels next to Billy, pressing his hands to Billy’s chest, which is covered in blood.
“Oh God, Dad, it’s everywhere!”
“Okay. Okay. Our best bet is to get him out of here.” He takes off his shirt and hands it to Derek. “Keep pressing, but gently, okay? And don’t move him.”
David turns to find Abbey; her eyes are wide with fright.
“Is he…?” She spies Derek’s hands, covered in blood, and hides her face in David’s chest. “Oh God, oh God.”
David holds her by the shoulders.
“Abbey! Need to focus now, okay?”
“Did you call 911?”
“Yes. Elena. They’re on the way.”
“Good. Don’t worry. We’ll get him out of here.”
Somewhere up the peninsula, a siren winds its way up to pitch. It’s a sweet sound.

They watch as the paramedics strap Billy to a gurney and load him up. The sheriff, Jim McConaghy, locks up the shooter and makes the rounds, gathering eyewitness accounts. David glances at Jim’s cruiser, parked in shallow right, and sees a Latino with a graying goatee, maybe mid-forties. He leans his head against the window and stares. There’s not much there. He seems to have surrendered to his fate. Relieved of command, David feels a little adrift, and he’s glad when Abbey comes and takes his hand.
“We better go. You want to drive?”
“Yeah. Give me something to do.”
David starts the engine. Abbey gives him an alarmed look.
“Oh shit. Joyce. We better get her.”
“Oh, Jesus. Okay. Call her. Tell her we’ll pick her up.”
They arrive five minutes later. Joyce is on the porch, pacing. David doesn’t have time for the standard sit-down-I-have-bad-news, so he takes her firmly by the arms.
“Joyce. Billy’s been shot. They’re taking him to Aberdeen.”
Those eyes – he knew those eyes would be trouble. The whites spread out, and he can feel the weakness in her knees. He slips an arm around her waist and keeps her balanced. It feels like they’re about to start dancing.
“Oh God. Is it… How bad?”
“It’s bad. Chest wound. He’s breathing, but unconscious. I need you to be real strong, okay? We need to go right now.”
She wipes her eyes, swallows, and heads for the truck, moving like a sleepwalker. Abbey gets out and lets her in so she can sit between them – so Abbey can hold her hand. They take 109 into the forested hills. Joyce lets out the thought that’s torturing her.
“I can’t lose him again.”
Abbey wraps her arm around Joyce’s shoulder and joins her in a fit of crying. David steels himself, trying to map out the fastest route to the hospital. Gray’s Harbor opens before them. He takes a left.
But the hospital’s a false destination. Billy’s been flown via helicopter to Seattle. The three of them rush back to the truck and keep going. The silence grows too deep; David switches on the radio, harmless Top 40 oatmeal. He reaches for the volume and sees that his hand is shaking, adrenaline working its way out. The whole episode plays out in a single visual flash, and he realizes that the shooter might have gotten Pablo, too. David feels a wave of heat in his forehead, sees himself taking the gun and blowing the bastard’s brains out the back of his head. A traffic sign flashes past. He grips the wheel.

For a moment, the fear gives way to the routine dread of bureaucracy, but the power of celebrity intercedes. At the mention of Billy’s name, the young Filipina at the desk smiles and guides them down the hall to a conference room. At the end of a half-hour, Joyce has exiled herself to a window seat, where she watches the traffic on Interstate 5. She has begun to sway back and forth, like an autistic child.
Abbey is madly texting, keeping the extended family up to date. David is content to sit at the head of the table, a self-appointed CEO, stewing in his thoughts, parsing the single visual flash for clues. For one thing, the shooter seems familiar. He suspects that this is just what the mind does, trying to pull reason out of randomness. Occam’s Razor says that the shooter is recently fired, recently divorced, and/or recently bankrupt, and saw Billy as a handy target for his anger. And fifty bucks says that he’s a Blues fan.
An hour into their limbo, they receive a visitor: short, good-looking, a streak of blood on his scrubs for credibility. His hair is dark and precisely cut, his features vaguely WASPy.
“Hi. I’m Dr. Ferotte. You’re with Mr. Saddle?”
David stands. “Yes. I’m a friend, David. Wife Joyce. Niece, Abbey.”
“I need to be a little short – one of those nights.” He looks to Abbey, and performs the standard double-take at her missing arm. “Your uncle is lucky. Missed the heart, the major arteries, the organs, the spinal cord. But. A punctured lung, and lots of bleeding. We’ve patched him up as best we could, but the rest is tricky business. Have to be careful about shock, infection – also, possible oxygen deprivation of the brain. In a wound of this type, the blood abandons the brain and heads for the injured regions.
“I’m not going to tell you that he’s going to make it. But he’s in the right place, so he’s got a decent chance. He’ll have to stay in Intensive Care for a while, and even if he stabilizes, he’ll be unconscious for upwards of a week.”
Joyce rises. Her eyes are bleary with crying.
“Is there… anything we can do?”
Dr. Ferotte sets his jaw. “Pray. Hope. Be around. Other than that, it’s up to Billy.”
David sees the need to let him off the hook.
“Thanks, doctor.”
“How long can we stay in here?” asks Abbey.
The doctor smiles. “I’m pretty sure you’re safe till morning.”
He leaves and they’re back to limbo. David wakes from a brief shut-eye to find that it’s two in the morning. Across the table is a sharp-featured Asian woman in a blue blouse and a corduroy jacket.
“I’m really sorry,” she says. “I’m Liz Gong, Seattle Times. Are you David Falter?”
David looks around for Joyce and Abbey but finds neither. He’s half-certain that he’s dreaming.
“Yeah. Yes. That’s me.”
“Could I ask you a few questions?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Liz gives a practiced smile.
“You’re Billy’s friend?”
“I play bass in his trio. And I manage his softball team.”
“So, this… shooting. Does it surprise you that someone came after him?”
David pauses, wondering how careful he should be with his words. But he can’t escape his historian self – he loathes spin doctors. Besides, he’s too tired to lie.
“I never expected something this serious. But he does have a way of attracting… problem children. He’s got good security at his performances, but I did worry about the other times. In fact, there was a story about the softball team in the Aberdeen paper. Maybe that’s how this guy found him.”
Liz finishes a line of writing and looks up.
“Now, there’s some rumor about a hero in this story?”
“My son, Pablo. He was playing center. The shooter was approaching Billy, looking to finish him off. Pablo’s a fast kid, he ran up behind him and took him out with a slide. Exactly the way a runner would take out a shortstop to break up a double play. Sent him flying; sent the gun flying. Pablo picked up the gun, and we tied the guy up.”
Liz smiles. “Wow! So how does a father feel about that?”
“Pretty proud. And amazed. But not surprised. That kid does some pretty incredible stuff. ‘Course, if I’d’ve had any time to think about it, I would have been scared to death.”
“I can imagine.”
Liz follows with several detail questions – ages, names, hometowns – then turns to something philosophical.
“So… if someone asked you to describe Billy very briefly, what would you say?”
David folds his hands over his knee. He’s surprised to see that he’s still wearing his softball pants.
“The most gracious soul that I have ever encountered. An absolutely charming and kind man.”
“Thanks, David.” She shakes his hand and is about to leave when he stops her.
“Hey. Maybe you could tell me something. Any ID on the shooter?”
Liz flips through her notebook. “Yeah. Odd name. Oh! Here. Pasco. Pasco Fernandez.”

Pasco hailed from the remarkable baseball country of the Dominican Republic, where he was raised in a highly superstitious family. In his second year with the Milwaukee Brewers, he went through the bats of 17 teammates before he found the one that broke his slump. Once he dreamt that meeting Tom Hanks would improve his fielding. He harassed his agent into arranging a lunch, and insisted that Hanks try on his mitt. That was the year that he won his first Gold Glove.
Pasco was also what players call a “red-ass,” a player who demands a lot from his teammates, and who loses his temper when he doesn’t get it. The reason that he got away with it was that he demanded even more from himself. Five years into his career, Pasco already had three All-Star appearances and a batting title.
One would think that a superstitious man would find a trade to a famously cursed ballclub devastating. But Pasco also believed that curses could be broken, and that those who did the breaking were destined for immortality. He took the Memphis Blues as his personal project, and he harangued his teammates until they performed. It was said that the ’98 team was so unified because every one of them hated Pasco. But every one of them would have to admit that they liked the results. During a celebration following a walk-off homer, one player took the opportunity to deliver an “accidental” elbow to Pasco’s jaw. Pasco never complained; after all, they had won.
The rest of the Blues eventually came to peace with the Grand Fool Double. More than a few of them reasoned that they should have won the game on the field, regardless – or in Game 7.
Not Pasco. He had come that close to being the Blues’ longed-for savior. Even the quirky shot to right was a testament to his hard work and determination. Reviewing tape the night before the game, he noticed that the Cardinals’ reliever, PiƱon, when he was in a crunch situation, liked to steal a first strike with a slider on the outside of the plate. When the moment came, he followed that slider all the way out and slapped it into right. Pasco knew that breaking Big John’s curse depended on the best efforts of every Blues player and every Blues fan. One of their own had betrayed the cause. Months later, Pasco was still railing against that great idiot, Billy Saddle.
The Grand Fool Double took all the spirit right out of Pasco. Spring training was horrible. Even his famed glovework was going to pot. Two months into the season, he was batting .189, booting grounders and making erratic throws, even as he delivered tirades against management, teammates, umpires and other satanic forces.
Pasco discovered the downside to being a red-ass. Once you stopped playing well, there was no one to stand up for you. The Blues kept him in the lineup until the All-Star break, hoping against hope that the magic would return, then they shipped him and his $6 million contract to their double-A squad in Iowa.
He never reported. He turned up in Miami, where a scuffle with a bartender won him a six-month sentence for assault.
For Pasco Fernandez, baseball was gone. The following years brought a long string of failed jobs, drug addictions, alcoholic binges and small-time assault charges. Four years later, he declared bankruptcy. Six months before the shooting, his wife Angela, a devout Catholic whose patience probably qualified her for sainthood, gave in to the pleas of her friends and filed for divorce.
It was easy to see why, out of all the potential freaks out there, Pasco Fernandez would be the one who picked up a gun. Billy’s reemergence must have infuriated him.

Photo by MJV

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