Thursday, March 6, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Twenty Four: The Return of the Curse

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 Championship night arrives crisp and clear at Nygaard Park. Run Like Hell opens up against the fourth seed and makes quick work of them, 15-6. The twilight game between the second and third seeds goes to the underdog North Beach Dukes, who come up with a four-run final inning to win 12-11.
It’s always a good debate as to who gets the advantage in the finals: the team that just played, all warmed up and filled with momentum, or the team that’s had an hour to rest.
One thing’s clear: Billy’s on fire. He leads off with a looper that lands near the right-field line and takes a crazy spin into foul territory. (David can’t help picturing Pasco’s fateful slash for the ’98 Blues.) The poor fielder keeps kicking the ball along the fence so Billy keeps going, arriving at third with a slide.
David comes to the plate with a new policy: in all situations, he will ask, What Would Billy Do? In this case, Billy would hit a grounder to the right, guaranteeing the RBI and – bonus time! – rolling it through for a single.
When Oscar hits a two-hopper to short, David goes as fast as his aging transmission will allow and puts on a hard slide, sending the second baseman flying into the air and preventing the double play. The fielder pats David on the back and says, “Good slide.” David jogs to the dugout, thinking, what a cool and rare thing to find an opponent who understands the game.
The Billy Show contines in the bottom of the inning, when the leadoff man strokes a grounder down the right-field line. Billy sprints to his left and goes into a feet-first slide. He gloves the ball, while he’s sliding, then pops up, spins and tosses a one-hopper to second. The runner stops in his tracks and goes back to first. David hears a shout from the dugout and sees that Derek has brought along his zoom-lens camera. (Apparently, he got the shot.) David feels a little guilty about Derek, but it’s the playoffs, and he needs to put his best team on the field.
In the fourth, David finds himself with a ripe situation: bases loaded, one out and Pablo at the plate. He calls time and meets him in the on-deck circle.
“You thinkin’ suicide squeeze?”
“Yeah, yeah. Chucklehead. You’ve done such a good job with this off-field stuff, they’re playing you shallow and to the right. You still got that useless baseball swing?”
“Let it rip. If you get to two strikes, just go wherever the pitch goes.”
The first pitch is a groove shot, and Pablo attacks, leveraging his hips, extending his arms and lofting a bomb to left. The ball lands three feet fair, and by the time the fielder digs it out of the bushes Pablo is loping home. David gives himself a few mental backslaps for being a genius fucking coach.
The grand slam is huge, but the Dukes are not going away easy. They’re scrappers, lacing liner after liner through the infield. Run Like Hell finds itself with a two-run lead in the top of the final inning and seems to think that’s enough, making three quick outs.
The Dukes start the bottom of the inning with two singles. David gets the next hitter to pop up, but their number-three man hits a grounder to deep short. Oscar lays out for a great stop, but is unable to make a play. Their cleanup man follows with a long fly to center, scoring one runner and moving up the other two. Two outs, tying run on third, winning run on second. The air is growing thin.
The next batter is a tall, wiry left-hander. With first base open, David tosses a couple of high ones, but he’s not biting. He brings the next one into the zone, and he hits it to right with a breathtaking smack!
It’s a liner, but it’s headed straight for Billy. David watches him square up behind it and thinks, This is it! This is the end of the curse.
But now Billy’s staggering, sinking to a knee, fighting some unseen force. The ball strikes the heel of his glove and falls to the grass.
David is ready to let fly with a few suitable obscenities, but he doesn’t have time. Billy has popped to his feet and fired the ball to first, and Lemke’s wandering in shallow right. David takes three steps and launches himself, catching the ball mid-flight and landing with his glove on the bag.
Beating the runner by a half-step.
The umpire steps in front of home plate.
“The runner is out at first! That is a force! Neither runner scores. Game!”
Run Like Hell goes silent for a full second, then bursts into hysterics. In the midst of his wrestling match with Big John Spillums, Billy had spotted the batter, standing in the box, watching his drive, certain that he had just made the last out of the season.
David dodges Lemke, performing an actual cartwheel across the infield, and dashes out to right, where Billy is kneeling on the grass, watching the celebration.
“Billy! We won! You all right?”
Billy smiles and struggles to his feet. “Give me a hug, coach.”
David wraps him up and lifts him into the air.
“No, no. A little higher. ‘Round the shoulders.”
He does as instructed and hears a popping sound.
“Yowch! Thanks. It does that when I throw too hard.”
David smiles and says, “It’s gone, isn’t it?”
“What’s gone?”
“The curse! You beat the curse!”
Billy gives him a quizzical look. “I don’t believe in curses.”
“Well, what the hell got ahold of you on that line drive?”
He laughs – that special high-pitched laugh, echoing across the field.
“Bastard hit me a knuckleball. You ever try to catch one of those things?”

Photo by MJV

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