Saturday, March 8, 2014

Billy Saddle, the Baseball Novel, Chapter Twenty-Six: Outed by History

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It’s the first day of school. The sun is out and eager, throwing straws of yellow light across the kitchen table. David ventures a first sip of coffee. His brain is painfully overamped: first-day speeches, syllabi, schedules, reading assignments. He reminds himself that he’s dealing with zombies, their brain cells sucked dry by summer. It doesn’t do any good to rush things.
So why not read the paper?
He ventures down the walk. That same gray cat next to the hedge, ready to flee at the slightest aggression. What is it about cats? So neurotic. He picks up the Aberdeen Daily World, wrapped in a plastic sleeve, and carries it inside. Something ticks forward in his head, a familiar face, bearded. He returns to the table, slides the paper from its sleeve and discovers Billy, wearing a look of anxious concentration, eyes narrowed, forehead wrinkled. It’s the region above the masthead, home of teasers for the inside sections.
Baseball Recluse Spotted in Ocean Shores – Billy Saddle, villain of ’98 playoffs. Sports 1D.
David pulls out the sports section and finds a triptych from Derek’s sequence: Billy peering at the oncoming drive; on a knee, the ball dropping from his glove; back on his feet, rearing back for the throw to first. The photo credit is Derek Falter, Special to the Daily World. Set into the text of the story is a mug shot of Billy from the ’98 playoffs.

Blues Scapegoat Sighted in Ocean Shores
By Jerry Sturgess, Sports Editor
Billy Saddle, the Memphis Blues fan who notoriously interfered with a fair ball in the ’98 National League playoffs, was spotted recently in Ocean Shores, playing for a men’s softball squad.
The incident, known as the Grand Fool Double, and widely attributed to a team curse, drove Saddle to become a fugitive. The only other Saddle sighting came in 2003 near Sheridan, Wyoming.
His presence in Ocean Shores came to light thanks to a remarkable play that locals are calling The Assist from the Mist. After dropping a line drive in right field, Saddle threw to first for a force out that iced the championship. Photographs of the feat, taken by the coach’s son, 16-year-old Derek Falter, were displayed at a team party, where they were spotted by a Blues fan visiting from Centralia.
Falter, a student at North Beach High School, described Saddle as an ideal teammate.
“He’s not a gung-ho, cheerleader type,” said Falter. “But all you have to do is watch the way he plays. He really knows and loves the game, and his hustle is infectious. That play in the championship speaks for itself.”
Falter described Saddle’s existence as “somewhat homeless,” although he has apparently received some assistance from a North Beach English teacher. He has also performed in a local hotel as a jazz singer and drummer – the same occupation he held in ’98, before media attention and death threats drove him from his hometown.
Efforts to contact Saddle or his teacher-patron have been unsuccessful.

David is thankful that he is fully dressed, because he needs to leave, right now. His overwhelming desire is to throttle his son, but he also hears the small, wise voice at the back of his head saying, “Do not act on this.”
Also, he has a ritual to perform. On his first day at North Beach, 20 years before when the ink had barely dried on his teaching credential and he had no wordly idea what he was going to tell his students, David stopped at Steve’s Doughnuts for a coffee and a pair of glazed old-fashioneds. The combination seemed to give him the necessary charge, so – like a pitcher who refuses to change his cap during a winning streak – he has gone there every first day since.
He adjourns to a window booth with a cinnamon roll and a bear claw. A half-cup later, he has assembled all the logical conclusions. Derek puts the photos up at the party. Mr. X, wandering Blues fan from Centralia, sees the photos, sees the singer, recalls Billy Saddle’s occupation and, driven by the thrill of the hunt, peripheral celebrity or twelve-year-old anger, calls up the nearest daily.
Jerry Sturgess, hearing Mr. X’s tale, understands that he might have something national – the kind of story where writers from Memphis, Washington and New York will be calling him. Failing to get Mr. X to let him use his name, he builds a checklist. He needs confirmation, he needs a quote – though he doubts it will be from Saddle himself – and most of all he needs those photos. He Googles “Run Like Hell Ocean Shores” and discovers the team Facebook page. And now he’s drooling, because the photos are good. He pulls up a Saddle shot from ’98, does a little compare-and-contrast, and removes all doubt. It’s him.
Sturgess contacts Derek through the page, says he’s doing a story on Billy’s remarkable play, and mostly he wants to use these wonderful photos. He gets a few quotes about Billy, making sure to reveal nothing about his real identity. The photos cost him a mere fifty bucks. He sends Derek to the paper’s website, where he can fill out an online permissions form. “Just a legal thing,” he says. And is much relieved when, ten minutes later, a copy arrives in his email. He has landed the fish.
David assumes it’s Derek who came up with The Assist from the Mist. It screams Poet Who Loves Baseball. It’s also freakin’ beautiful. It reminds him of the name that Indians fans gave to their old stadium, The Mistake on the Lake.
David spends the rest of his coffee-time stewing. He assumes that Derek didn’t tell anybody because he was going for the big surprise. Now, Derek will be surprised. And so will Billy, who will undoubtedly shift into Flying Dutchman mode and disappear by noon. Odds are that Abbey’s heart will be broken.
Riding heavy doses of sugar and caffeine, David is feeling greedy. He’s the fucking coach. What does David Falter get out of this? He consumes the final toe of his bearclaw and heads for the newspaper box, where he inserts two quarters and removes the entire stack. He refuses to suffer any more guilt, so he takes out a twenty, wraps it in a strip of newspaper and stows it in the back of the box.

With attendance taken, late adds signed and matters of class decorum elucidated, David assumes the classic teaching posture, seating himself on the top of his desk, legs dangling.
“The more observant among you may have noticed that the teacher brought a stack of newspapers to class.”
This elicits a patch of titters – a good start. The newbies are still feeling him out. Eventually, he wants them to know that humor and American history are not mutually exclusive.
“No, we have not had budget cuts. No, I have not taken a paper route.”
The titters grow into sprouts.
“Any former paper-carriers here today?”
A dark-complexioned boy raises a nervous hand. David checks his seating chart.
“Okay, um, Erik. Help me out with this.”
David splits the stack. He and Erik make the rounds. The poor little tikes are so nervous, they won’t even open the papers. Or perhaps, the way technology is advancing, they no longer have no idea what these alien objects are for.
“Let me start by saying that nothing I say today will be on a test. However, if you listen carefully, I will hand you the keys to making this class much more interesting. At eight-thirty in the morning,  interesting is a very desirable quality.”
They’re working up to snickers. Good. David stands and slaps a paper against his hand.
“This thing we call ‘history’ is, quite literally, yesterday’s news. History is being produced every day. The Aberdeen Daily World, the Internet, TV, YouTube, Twitter, text messages. That’s right, you are producing history. Now. Please flip through to the sports section and look for the man with the long-ass beard.”
More snickers. Teenagers respect the occasional low-level swear word.
“Now. Without reading the article, does anyone know who Billy Saddle is?”
A big blond kid in a letter jacket says, “He screwed up the playoffs like ten years ago.”
“Precisely. What position do you play, um, Marcus?”
“Ah. The smart ones play catcher. I’m a pitcher. And I spent the summer playing softball with this man, Billy Saddle, without knowing that he was a genuine historical figure. I only discovered his true identity a couple weeks ago. I told him I would reveal it to no one. Even after twelve years, a lot of Memphis fans would like to beat Mr. Saddle to a pulp.”
David is making this lecture up on the spot; unsure of his next segue, he opts for a stall.
“Tell you what. It’s a short article. Go ahead and give it a read.”
He turns away to focus his thoughts. An observer might think he’s praying to the chalkboard. He watches the clock until the second hand arrives at 12.
“Okay! Let me give you my central point. A large portion of what we call ‘history’ is, in fact, plain old dumb luck. Let’s look at the pivotal sin of Mr. Saddle, which was to interfere with a ball that likely would have returned to the field of play and, by so doing, scored a run that might well have guaranteed the Blues the pennant.
“Consider the forces of chance lined up against poor Mr. Saddle. In a stadium of 45,000 fans, only he was in a position to catch that ball. He was only in that position because some 1920s stadium architect drank too much gin one night and decided that a single set of bleachers should poke out into the field like Barbra Streisand’s nose. The historical magnitude of Mr. Saddle’s play was amplified by the much-exaggerated curse of a scorned blues musician named Big John Spillums, and several similarly heartbreaking plays, scattered over several decades of baseball, that fit neatly into the legend.
“So there’s the setup. Now let’s follow the path of the baseball. Coming off the bat of Pasco Fernandez, this magical spheroid dodged the first baseman’s glove by inches, landed inside the foul line by another couple of inches, spun crazily to the right, struck the bullpen mound and launched itself, Evel Knievel-like, into the air, spelling out an arc that would have just cleared those protruding bleachers. Let’s throw in one more coincidence: only a spectator of Mr. Saddle’s height and skill could have plucked that ball from its path, much less caught it bare-handed.”
David paces toward the window and takes a moment to look out at the front field, where Coach Hazlett is handing out P.E. uniforms to a class of freshmen. He taps the window and turns back.
“This is a sad story. A veritable DNA strand of random events that have conspired to ruin a man’s life. And lest you think I was kidding about one of you contributing to history, please note the unwitting catalyst of this latest chapter: my son, Derek, who goes to this school.
“But coincidence can also be happy. Twice during the year 1776 – the taking of Dorchester Hill that forced the British from Boston, and the Christmas Day attack on the Hessian troops at Trenton – known by most of you from the painting ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ – the weather turned suddenly terrible, providing a perfect camouflage for the American troops. Had this not so magically occurred, both efforts might well have failed, and this flag behind me would be a Union Jack.
“Another of my favorite subjects: Lewis and Clark, who arrived at the Pacific Ocean some fifty miles south of this classroom. They spent the first winter of their journey with the Mandan tribe of present-day North Dakota, preparing to enter the territories of unfamiliar and possibly hostile native tribes. They planned to ingratiate themselves with these tribes by offering gifts of military medals, uniforms and American flags, when what the natives really wanted was tobacco, guns and whiskey. Sort of like Hoquiam on a Saturday night.”
Actual laughter. He’s on a roll.
“That winter, Lewis and Clark recruited a French fur trapper named Charbonneau. This man had a teenage wife with an intriguing background. As a child, she was abducted from her native tribe, the Shoshone, by the Hidatsa tribe. Charbonneau then won her, along with another Shoshone girl, on a bet with the warriors who had captured them! She gave birth that February, and had to carry her infant son with her on the journey. And I will fail you all unless someone tells me her name in the next five seconds.”
A brunette in the third row blurts out “Sacagawea!”
David smiles. “Good! Thanks to that high-school-age girl, Lewis and Clark had a translator, and a guide who would be leading them into the lands of her childhood. What’s more, in a situation in which a sizeable squadron of white men could easily be taken as an invading force – and dealt with accordingly – the sight of a young native woman with a papoose served as an immediate signal of the excursion’s peaceful intentions.
“But it didn’t stop there. When they arrived at Sacagawea’s childhood village, they discovered that, in the intervening years, the title of tribal chief – a position won not through lineage but warrior deeds – had fallen to Cameahwait, Sacagawea’s brother. The Corps of Discovery was immediately embraced by the tribe and guided through the treacherous Rocky and Bitteroot mountains by one of its scouts, Old Toby.
“If not for Sacagawea, this flag behind me might well be a Union Jack, a hammer and sickle, or, God forbid, a maple leaf.”
More laughter. He’s killing. David perches on his desk and folds his fingers.
“I will be testing you on dates, and names, and themes and movements. But I want you to enjoy these little marvels of chance as much as I do. and, If you should work them into your papers, the teacher will look kindly upon you. As for today, I have no further lecture material, but I’d like you to use the remaining time to get started on our first reading assignment, Chapter One of the Graham textbook.”

Photo by MJV

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