God strode purposefully into the batter’s box, tapped some dirt off His divine cleats, and positioned His bat on His broad, steely right shoulder. His powerful muscles protruded majestically through taut, ruddy skin. His imposing frame tapered like a marble column, or a California redwood, or the world’s largest skyscraper, the Sears Tower, which stood only a few miles away. And His well-hewn countenance radiated the wisdom of infinite time and unending dimension, as well as the determined concentration of the Creator of the Universe, the Master of All Things, and now, potentially, the Fiercest Slugger of the Game. God clearly appeared ready for what likely would be His final at-bat of the afternoon. His team—the Chicago Cubs—were down by one run in the ninth to the visiting Montreal Expos. With two outs and a man on second, a base hit would tie the contest. A home run would win it.
The pitcher looked to his catcher, then to the sky, and then dealt the first pitch, a ball coming fast on an inside track to the plate, yet spinning curiously in a clockwise direction. God cocked his bat, swung with all His divine Might and Will, only to watch the ball tail to the outside just as it reached the plate.
“Strike one,” croaked the umpire.
God stepped out of the box, perhaps to collect Himself.
“Whatsa’ matter, God?” yelled a heckler from the first base stands. “Can’t hit the curve ball?”
Slowly but deliberately, like a glacier changing course, God focused His attention on His accuser. The heckler was a fat man in his mid-40’s, holding a plastic beer cup in one hand and a rolled-up Official Cubs Scorecard in the other. His dirty green T-shirt barely covered the rolls of skin underneath it, and his tan shorts were stained with ketchup and mustard and nacho cheese sauce. The heckler was standing and pointing a chubby finger at the Lord while looking at his fellow fans for support, all of whom were shrinking away from him in utter alarm and horror.
Suddenly the skies turned quite dark. A strong gust of wind blew in from the east, and rumbles of thunder grew from soft murmurs to loud insults to cracks of great volume.
““Thou shall not take the name of thy lord in vain!” God’s voice rang out, resonating over every crossbeam and support post of the stately ballpark. As God extended the full measure of His right arm and right index finger toward the first base stands, a silver-white bolt of lightning zig-zagged from the thundercloud overhead, striking the heckler dead center in the chest. The fat man glowed intensely for a moment, light radiating from all parts of him while his face held frozen in surprise and anguish. But half an instant later, the man simply was no more. In the space once occupied by an overweight heckler was only a small pile of gray ashes, littered casually with spilled beer and peanut shells.
As the Lord’s wrath subsided, the thunderclouds and wind storms receded toward the far horizon from whence they came.
At this point, the home plate umpire stepped toward the pitching mound to call time. Quickly the other umpires joined him, and the four huddled together nervously. As per protocol for such occasions, the Wrigley Field organist launched into a rousing medley of the latest hits, a ploy to keep the fans entertained during the lapse in action. But all eyes were on the Deity at the plate and the quartet of umpires in the field, neither of whom moved in any direction for what seemed an eternity, but of course was only three or four minutes.
Because He was omnipotent and omniscient, simultaneously in all places and in all minds, God knew precisely what the four men in blue were discussing. Clearly, a ballplayer deliberately injuring a fan in any fashion, including the invocation of heavenly electrocution, was an offense the umpires could not let pass unpunished, lest they lose control of the game. Yet despite such duties, the umpires were mere mortals. None could find it within his soul—let alone contract—to take the Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings, and expel Him from a major league baseball game. From the umpires’ view, the dilemma was irreconcilable.
And so, if only to let the game continue, God again turned His gaze to the seat in the first-base stands. In a gesture somehow the reverse of His previous one, the Lord called forth a bolt of un-lightning from the heavens—a burst of vacuum-like energy that seemed to suck away even the memory of the first bolt—and the fat man with the green T-shirt and beer cup was restored. He looked none the worse, although perhaps a little disoriented, as if he had just awaken from major surgery and was not sure which organs were missing.
““Play ball!” spake the Lord, His voice resonating through the stadium once again. And the umpires scurried back to their positions, none in the mood to tempt fate by prolonging the game any further.
God returned to the batter’s box, once again fixing His gaze on the opposing pitcher. And to what might be described as His surprise, He found the pitcher returning His gaze in kind.
No surprises at all greeted Kenneth Clayton Ambrose on a typical morning, not even the potent stare of Wally, who was a stuffed moose. Wally was a final bequest to Ambrose from his late father, the great capitalist Terach Ambrose, who had shot Wally on a boyhood hunting trip in western Wyoming and who had cherished the dead beast ever since. The first instinct of both Ambrose and his wife Sarah was to bury the great head in mothballs—or perhaps to bury it, period—but to their alarm and bemusement their twin daughters took to the moose almost immediately. So Wally was hung in the front hallway of the family’s otherwise modern penthouse apartment, and there he startled visitors and watched over the Ambrose twins as they left for school and stoically greeted Ambrose at the same time every morning when Ambrose walked by Wally on his way to the kitchen, the rays of early sunlight reflecting enticingly off the gold trim of Wally’s headboard.
Kenneth Ambrose believed strongly in a regular, enjoyable morning routine; indeed, he doubted he could manage the rest of his day without it. The rest of Ambrose’s day was devoted to the assorted absurdities of presiding over a major league baseball team: negotiating contracts, coddling egos, hob-nobbing with the local ward healers, vigorously denying the latest trade rumor concerning the team’s beloved but overpaid left fielder, unabashedly pulling the trigger on that very trade, and peddling any and all conceivable surfaces of venerable Wrigley Field as advertising space. (Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital wanted their name plastered on top of the home team dugout—imagine that!) He loved all of it, of course. A man does not advance to the position of general manager of the Chicago Cubs—and at the tender age of 39 years, no less—without enjoying the machinations of the business side of America’s national pastime. But somehow the sanctity of the mornings made it all possible.
At 7:01 that morning Ambrose signed his name in a dream and suddenly awoke to the cheery repartee of the morning crew at radio station WGN. At 7:02 he doused the radio and carefully and judiciously inched himself out of bed, a practiced ritual designed to leave undisturbed his slumbering wife, who loathed the morning hours almost as much as her husband relished them. For twenty minutes Ambrose happily prowled about the family’s penthouse apartment as if he were an exotic burglar, helping himself to orange juice and shaving cream and bedroom slippers but ever careful not to arouse the rest of the family—including Wally, who in such moments Ambrose imagined protected his family from intruders such as himself. When Ambrose could stand such notions no longer, he pulled open the curtains covering the gigantic picture window in the living room, thus flooding the entire quarters with the shocking measure of daylight that an unobstructed sun can offer when it hangs wantonly over Lake Michigan.
“C’mon, everybody! The day’s a-wastin’!” he boomed.
“Urrggh,” groaned his wife.
“Daddy!” yelled one of his daughters.
But in short order the apartment awoke and fruited, with the twins arguing over who would get to wear the pink blouse with the frog stitched on the front and spilling cereal on each other and complaining about Norman, the kid who teased them occasionally at day camp, and with Sarah Ambrose happily and deliberately chasing after both girls and fixing their box lunches and tying their shoelaces and pointing out in measured tones that the whole family didn’t really need to get up quite so early because both the kids’ day camp and her job at the publishing company didn’t start until nine o’clock.
And in the midst of this bliss, Ambrose, dressed in full business attire and sipping the morning’s one cup of coffee, allowed himself a final indulgence before heading into what even he referred to as the real world, and that indulgence was to peruse the baseball pages of the morning Tribune. Ambrose preferred to peruse those pages not as the general manager of the Chicago Cubs, nor even a Chicagoan per se, but as an ordinary, generic fan of the game.
Dodgers 6, Mets 1. A three-hitter for Martinez, and Green went 5 for 5. Bet that makes the Angelinos happy.
“That’s my purse and you can’t have it!”
Another sip of coffee. Cardinals 5, Giants 3. But the Cards used 6 pitchers in the last 3 innings. They can’t keep that up for the rest of the season.
“It’s mine! You traded it to me for my Magic Hair Barbie. Mommy!”
Rangers 14, Mariners 13 in eleven innings. Heavens, a pitching duel.
“Miriam, give Miranda the purse. I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
“Obey your mother, girls,” said Ambrose placidly.
Yankees 3, Red Sox 2. Undoubtedly a good contest.
Ambrose’s eye wandered to the transactions column, which is a recount of the official goings-on of the front offices around the league.
CHICAGO CUBS: The Cubs announced the signing of God (of) and placed Him on their 40-man roster effective noon today.
“Daddy, tell Mommy that Randy traded me the purse for her Magic Hair Barbie!”
At that moment, the telephone rang.
“Daddy, are you listening to me?!”
In the front hallway, a large but solitary nail, carrying a heavy burden, suddenly acquired a tiny bend. Wally, the great moose, slipped slightly lower and to the left of where it had been resting previously.
In a cramped office in the Manhattan headquarters of the Bureau of the Amalgamated Press, Saacovich slumped dejectedly over his well-worn wooden desk, his hound-dog face pressed against the earpiece of a jet black telephone, his right hand butting a Pall Mall cigarette into an ash tray next to a half-filled glass of bourbon. For the first time in years, Saacovich was being subject to a peculiar art form that he always had disliked and now decided he utterly hated, at least when done over the telephone. But because the artist in question was associated with the bureau’s biggest client, Saacovich felt duty bound to not hang up.
“I hope you find this funny, Mr. Saacovich. Because we are laughing very hard here in Chicago, I can assure you. We think you wrote the funniest press release we’ve read in years.”
Years indeed had passed since the men of the sporting press of America had hound-dog looks that they hid behind Pall Mall cigarettes and half-filled glasses of bourbon. Rather, like the athletes they cover, America’s sportswriters now favor Gucci loafers and Pierre Cardin sportshirts with matching ties and Aramis cologne and they drink designer beers served in oddly-shaped bottles served at bars with names such as “Dino’s Attic” and “The Prancing Pony” and “Yankee Doodle’s Famous Dining and Drinking Emporium.” But no one had bothered to recruit Saacovich into the new order—or if they had done so, Saacovich elected to stay resolutely in the old one—and so Saacovich gamely resigned himself to the realm of the living anachronism, a drunken sportswriter behind his time, a tired cliché with few pals and fewer readers and ever-increasing expenses for rent, alimony, and back taxes.
In previous decades, Saacovich had bounced doggedly from city to city, from sports desk to sports desk, leaving each newspaper about the time its management banned felt hats and cigars from the press room and junked the electric typewriters in favor of computers and computer networks. Saacovich eventually decamped at perhaps the only news office in the country still willing to put up with him, which was the ancient and tradition-steeped Amalgamated Press. Amalgamated fulfilled a variety of ancient and tradition-steeped functions, one of which was serving as the clearing house for the official transactions of Major League Baseball.
Among his duties was to read the verbose and often ambiguous prose that Amalgamated received from the offices of the baseball commissioner and the league’s general managers and edit it into turgid, succinct pronouncements that make the commissioner and general managers look good for having said them. This job Saacovich performed with glum relish and bored panache and with the aid of perhaps the only remaining Underwood-320 manual typewriter among Earth’s industrialized nations. Typically when Saacovich finished editing the day’s press releases he handed them to his secretary, who retyped them into a computer that sent them over the wires to every sports page in North America. Except the secretary quit recently, so Saacovich was reduced to retyping the day’s press releases into the computer himself.
“You know, blasphemy is a wonderful way to gain new fans. I suppose we have alienated most of the Christians, Jews, and Moslems in the greater Chicago area, but think of the atheists and anarchists we’re bringing in.”
Saacovich took another swig from the half-filled glass of bourbon, noticing with considerable distress that the glass was approaching quarter-filled, if not eighth-filled, and the day was not even half over. Saacovich marveled at how in the here and now, amidst the dying embers of his long and twisted career, he was confronted with an absolute howler of a journalistic error, undoubtedly the worst misstep—if not the strangest—with which he ever had been associated. This time the offense was not to just anyone with an ego and connections (which described most people in professional sports these days) but was an offense to a certain Big Cheese—The Biggest Cheese of Them All, as it were—whose ego was legendary and whose connections extended not only to every hall of government and corporate boardroom, but to every church rectory and factory floor and small-town lunch counter in America.
But what Saacovich found especially troubling about this particular error was that he had no memory of making it. Absolutely, definitively did not do it, he told himself as he leafed through the previous day’s pile of press releases. Positively did not happen, he insisted.
Yet at the bottom of the pile, to Saacovich’s astonishment, was the following announcement, typed in Saacovich’s inimitable style on the Underwood’s inimitable typeface, which printed the capital G’s and C’s slightly off-line and featured a lower case ‘a’ that looked more like the Greek letter lambda.
CHICAGO CUBS: The Cubs λnnounced the signing of God (of) λnd plλced Him on their 40-mλn roster effective noon todλy.
Someone, Saacovich reasoned as he goggled at this particular missive, has decided to give a 64-year-old man a very hard time of it.
“Do you have any other marketing strategies for us, Mr. Saacovich? I ask merely for information. I am sure whatever you come up with will be just marvelous.”
I obviously am going senile, decided Saacovich eventually. I am an old man who clearly has few good years remaining. Maybe I can check into an old folks home in Florida, he continued. Get a good tan. Play shuffleboard. Until the mind really goes, when I will be reduced to drooling into a little cup all day, or nodding absently at the television, or—worst of all—pitching real estate to tourists at the dolphin shows. (Shudder!) But in a way it is a release, giving up like this. No more journalistic integrity. No more insulting telephone calls. No more assaults on honor and manhood from which even the cramped, obscure, menial job of baseball transactions editor could protect. Good bye, cruel sporting world. After all these years, good bye.
Just at that moment, Saacovich was saved.
Something was coming in on the fax machine. Or the Telex, or whatever the hell it was called. Something important, too, because the thing was making the various bell and whistle noises which Saacovich knew announced the arrival of a document more significant than half-off coupons for take-out pizza. Although it meant delaying the last sip of the bourbon, Saacovich stretched both his body and the telephone cord toward the arriving copy, which he grabbed just as the machine finished printing it.
“If you can give me one good reason why Major League Baseball shouldn’t fire your organization, I’ll be happy to hear it. Just one good reason and—”
“Excuse me, Mr. Sarcasm,” interrupted Saacovich joyously.
“Smith!” said the voice on the telephone.
“Whatever,” said Saacovich. “I just received a fax or Telex or whatever the hell you call it from Ernie at the commissioner’s office. You know Ernie? He’s a nice guy. In fact, I’m putting him back on my Christmas list. Anyway, I’m sure Ernie will send you a copy, but let me save you some time and tell you what it is. You might find this interesting.”
Three minutes later Saacovich hung up the telephone, just after accepting a muffled, grudging apology from the voice at the other end. Saacovich leaned back in his chair, folded the piece of paper that saved him into a paper airplane, then sent it floating across the room. He drew a long, contented drag on his Pall Mall unfiltered. Take that, lung cells, Saacovich mused to himself. At least I’ve still got my marbles, he thought. Or at least, he continued, I’m not going crazy all by myself.
The hot lights blared, the video cameras whirred, competing microphones jockeyed for position at the speaker’s podium. The occasion was the arrival of José Oliveras, the slugging outfielder that the Cubs had acquired only hours ago from the cross-town White Sox, where he had grown slightly out of favor. On the dais were a variety of officious men in business suits and two not-quite-so officious men in baseball uniforms. One of the latter was Aaron “Buck” McOates, the team’s grizzled and philosophical manager, and the other was Oliveras himself, looking powerful and happy in his spanking new Cubs pinstripes, showing no signs of the assorted drug and alcohol problems of his infamous past.
“José, how do you feel about switching to the National League?”
“Oh, I’m looking forward to it. I grew up in Philadelphia, so I’ve followed the National League for a long time. Of course, I guess now I am a Cubs fan.”
The reporters laughed good-naturedly.
“Buck, where are you going to bat your new left fielder?”
Buck McOates stretched his turkey-like neck to the closest microphone.
“Oh I dunno. José figures to be a pretty fair hitter, so I guess we can fit him in the line-up somewhere.”
Standing at the side of the room was Kenneth Ambrose, the boy genius general manager. Although his face bore the same expressionless smirk as was his custom, in his mind Ambrose was smiling broader than a change-up down the middle. The day’s activity was an outstanding achievement, an absolute classic Ambrose orchestration of people and events, and that none of the reporters in the room even realized this made the music all the sweeter. Let Byrom Smith and Ted Dathan meet problems head on, Ambrose told himself, referring to his two older, more experienced, but far less brilliant assistants. For in less time than it takes the sun to climb the sky, he went on, I have completely resolved the problem of the morning’s sacrilege, which I have accomplished by banishing it to the periphery. A few quick phone calls and a dip into the team’s pocketbook and voilà, enter José Oliveras, providing everyone in Chicago with something new, exciting, and less blasphemous at which to froth and salivate. And the team gets a good left fielder in the bargain.
But didn’t I sign another outfielder a while back?
No. Couldn’t have.
“José, any last words for White Sox fans?”
Ambrose noticed Byrom Smith pushing his bulky self through the crowd of photographers and reporters. Ambrose liked to assign Smith to dirty and unpleasant duties because Smith enjoyed such duties so much. But as Smith approached him, Ambrose could tell that things were not completely right with the dirty and unpleasant side of the world. Smith was sporting a wan, pasty expression on his normally smug, corpulent face.
“This just came in from the commissioner’s office,” Smith whispered to his boss, and he pressed several pages into Ambrose’s hand. “Apparently, we’ve got another player on the roster.”
Ambrose opened up the fax. And the wan and pasty look transferred from Smith’s face to his boss’s.
“The Sox fans were great to me. Yeah, they got on my case when I hit a slump, but you take the good times with the bad, you know?”
The pages were a copy of a contract. Or more likely, a copy of a copy of a contract. In all respects it looked to be a standard league contract for a newly-signed player. Except the name of the player name was God. Apparently, the Chicago Cubs had signed a player named God to a one-year contract.
“I made a lot of fans on the south side, and I hope that some of them come up to Wrigley and—OW!” The slugger put his finger to his mouth.
“What’s wrong?” asked a reporter.
“I bit my tongue,” said Oliveras, turning his massive back to the audience.
Ambrose leafed through the contract. He checked God’s salary, which was the major league minimum. He scanned the sections on player injury, on the duties of the player to the team, on the trade clause—all of which were per league norms. He flipped to the last page in search of signatures. Without signatures, nothing was official. But the last page almost blinded him when he came to it. In fact, he discovered that he could only look at it for half a second or so in a single glance. The blinding part came from the space for the player’s signature. The page had come out of a fax machine—a fax of a copy of a copy—but whatever signature was on the space burned with the brilliance of more suns than Ambrose cared to think about.
Yet what disturbed Ambrose even more was the signature below the blinding, unreadable one. It took Ambrose about four or five tries to make out that signature, and another four or five tries to confirm the initial reading. But he eventually decided that the second signature, unmistakably and undeniably, was his own.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” mumbled Oliveras as he stepped away from the podium. “I just need some water or air or something.”
“Thanks for coming out, everybody,” said one of the business suits hastily. “Stick around for today’s game.”
“José, you starting in the outfield today?” shouted one of the reporters.
“Sure!” replied José, just as he tripped over the edge of the dais and fell to the floor.
On the other side of the dais, Buck McOates put a wrinkled hand to his forehead and sighed wistfully, but not loud enough for anyone to hear.
As Ambrose finally set aside the pages he had been studying, he focused his attention neither on his assistant, nor on the goings-on of the press conference, nor on his newly-acquired left fielder, who by then was sitting on the floor with a pained expression on his face while massaging his left kneecap. No, Ambrose’s attention was focused on nothing quite so tangible.
He was trying to remember a dream.
It dawned on Ambrose that he had been trying to remember the dream for some time.
It was a dream he had the week before. Or perhaps last month. Or last night. Ambrose’s wasn’t sure. He was not good at remembering dreams beyond the two or three magical seconds he took to wake up.
The dream began at a ball park. It was not a park that Ambrose recognized—lot of clouds around, for some reason. Nevertheless it was a gorgeous, sunny day at this ball park, and Ambrose was sitting comfortably between third and home—his favorite place to watch a game. He had a beer in one hand, a hot dog in another hand, and a score card in yet another hand. (A dream is a dream, after all.)
On the field was a baseball game played by nondescript, fuzzy players, although they did congeal in a fashion when Ambrose concentrated on them. The players on one team wore white sheet-like uniforms with curious round hats that floated over their heads, and they did not so much field their positions as glide over them, as if they were playing a pastoral form of ice hockey. The other team’s players wore dirty red uniforms and hats with two bills on them—two pointy bills, could that be right? Unlike the white team, the red team was far from graceful—they had bent backs and spindly legs and they scurried about the diamond like large ants or hedgehogs.
But Ambrose felt his purpose was not just to watch, but to scout. Specifically, to scout one of the white team’s outfielders—a big, strapping Fellow with a sturdy gait and an arm like a cannon and a strong swing that regularly launched the offerings from the red team’s pitcher into the center field bleachers. This Player is the finest prospect I have ever seen, Ambrose told himself. And in the next moment Ambrose was on the field talking to the Player in question. The Player was a Boy/Man who said very little, but Ambrose could sense that He was eager to sign with a big league team like the Chicago Cubs. Assuming, of course, that Ambrose felt He had the talent.
“Sure, You look pretty good,” Ambrose dream-spoke to the Player, and a contract conveniently appeared in Ambrose’s hands. “Of course, there’s no guarantee You can hit major league pitching.” And the Player sagely shook His head in agreement.
And that was all Ambrose could remember.
“You all right, boss?” asked Byrom Smith.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” replied Ambrose quietly.
“What are we going to do about this crazy contract?”
Ambrose looked at his porcine, lumbering assistant and smiled as reassuringly as he could.
“We’ll see just who shows up to claim it, Byrom. We’ll see just who shows up.”
Ambrose slapped Smith on the shoulder and walked to the rear of the Wrigley Field press room, toward a window that overlooked the intersection of Addison and Clark.
The Cubs were scheduled to play the second of three games against the visiting Montreal Expos, and already the fans were streaming toward the aging ball yard for the afternoon’s contest. Ambrose watched as the fans migrated toward the park in small clumps that grew into herds that Ambrose knew by game time would grow into teeming masses. Released from the bondage of their offices and factories, these men and women came for the spectacle of meaningful athletic competition, as well as the refuge of the sunshine and outdoors and the beneficence of the box seat and the hot dog vendor. They came with their children and their picnic lunches and their stadium blankets and their portable AM radios. They came with their pennants and their baseball mitts and their emblazoned hats and T-shirts that identified them as fans—or tribe members, as it were—of the long suffering Chicago Cubs, who had last won the pennant in 1945. But maybe this was the year of deliverance. A fan could only hope.
For the first time since leaving them at the beginning of his day, Ambrose thought of his home life with his wife and twin daughters and a stuffed moose named Wally. He wondered if he ever would be allowed to greet the mornings the same way again.
He was among them.
The assembled got their first vision of Him during batting and fielding practice, the pre-game ritual during which the players limber up and play toss in the outfield and take a few practice swings and make jokes with each other and sign autographs for the fans. Except none of the players were doing any of that this time, or at least not with their usual relaxed demeanor. For He was with them, running laps in the outfield, fielding balls in the infield, and taking His cuts at the plate. Neither players nor fans could ignore His presence.
He looked quite young. Or not so much young as old. That is to say, He clearly was in the middle years of a very long life that obviously was just beginning. In the outfield, He loped with long, purposeful, bounding strides that simultaneously took Him in all directions. He later pitched His own batting practice, on both mound and plate at the same time, tossing Himself balls that came at impossible angles and impossible speeds and stabbing each of them with a powerful, lightning-quick swing that launched them into the deepest corner of the center field bleachers, if not Waveland Avenue behind it, or perhaps as far as Waukegan or Racine, Wisconsin.
“Is that….who I think it is?” asked Ozzie Beckert, the Cubs second baseman.
“That’d depend on the Who part, I reckon,” replied McOates, the manager. In his days managing in the bush leagues, McOates was famous for smoking a cigar from his perch at the left end of the bench. But organized baseball had come to frown on tobacco products of any kind, so McOates had switched to sunflower seeds—a healthier, if no less messy indulgence.
“I know Who I think He is,” McOates went on, and he spit a seed toward the shoes of his second baseman, a sign of endearment. “The question is Who is He really? If I figure right, we’ll all know soon enough.”
In fact, McOates instinctively knew who the new Player was, as did everyone else in the ball park.
“That ain’t the Lord. It just cain’t be.” said Daniel Powers, a farmer from downstate Illinois who had driven to the big city especially for the game.
“Well, just look at Him,” said his wife, Ruth. “Look at Him and tell me He’s just somebody ordinary.”
Daniel Powers looked at the Outfielder and shuddered nervously. It was not the physique, nor the supernatural prowess at the plate or in the field. Rather, it was a presence, or a Presence, that Daniel Powers, a cattle and pig farmer, could not quite define, but neither could ignore. To gaze upon Him was to believe—that here was the Lord, alive and in person and in the flesh, the Flesh, the Flesh from which all creation had sprung. Daniel could not stand to look at Him for longer than a few moments, the Sight was too powerful. When Daniel looked away, he insisted that the Outfielder was an impossibility and an abomination, that if such a thing could happen it would happen in a church or some other holy place, maybe even the Leonis Evangelical Lutheran Church of Leonis, Illinois, where the Powers family were active members. But then Daniel looked at Him again, and such thoughts melted away, leaving Daniel in more or less the same philosophical quandary in which he had began.
“Oh Lord, forgive me for all my sins,” intoned a small-time fence and gambler in Section 127, who had taken hat in hand and dropped to his knees. “It has been 6 years since my last confession. No wait, make that 10 years.”
“Will you leave Him alone, for Pete’s sake!” piped 40-year old Father John O’Malley in the next seat. “He’s trying to take batting practice!”
“Hey God,” said Sonny Lazzeri casually as he sidled up to the Lord. God was busy fielding grounders in the infield. Lazzeri was the Cubs’ slap-hitting, devil-may-care third baseman.
“Hey God,” said Lazzeri again. “Betcha’ got some good teams up there in heaven, huh? Babe Ruth. Ty Cobb. Mickey Mantle?”
God removed his blue and red Cubs hat and turned His head to the smiling Italian addressing Him. Standing only a foot or so away, Lazzeri received the full measure of the Lord’s countenance.
The Lord returned to fielding ground balls.
Up in the broadcast booth, none of the directors or producers or spotters or other seasoned professionals had any idea how to relay the startling events taking place in front of them. By a quirk of scheduling, the day’s game was one of the few not televised, neither locally on Chicago’s Channel 9 nor internationally on the Montreal stations. But the game, like all major league games, was to be narrated over the ubiquitous medium of AM radio. So if only by default, disseminating the news of the arrival of the Lord at Wrigley fell principally into the arms—or larynx, to be more accurate—of one Thomas T. Lucely, better known to his legions of admirers as Thinkin’ Lucely.
For years on end, Thinkin’ Lucely had regaled the baseball fans of Illinois with his inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, stream of consciousness reminiscences of days gone by, birthday and anniversary greetings to whoever sent him an announcement, product endorsements on behalf of whoever sent money to the station, homespun philosophy and logical postulating (thus his moniker) on whichever subject struck his fancy, and on special occasions, actual descriptions of the baseball plays on the field. To focus both Thinkin’ and the listener at home on this latter activity, the management at WGN invariably paired Thinkin’ Lucely with a more traditional baseball announcer, usually some velvet-voiced baritone fresh out of the Famous Baseball Announcer’s School of Evansville, Indiana. Inevitably the velvet-voiced baritones left the Cubs broadcast team after a year or two, typically because they grew tired of working either in Thinkin’ Lucely’s considerable shadow or inhaling the fumes of whiskey sours and gin and tonics that Thinkin’ consumed with passion and abundance, sometimes between innings, occasionally between batters or even pitches.
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Cubs fans of all ages. It’s a beautiful afternoon here at Wrigley—aren’t I right, Rod Dupree?”
“You bet, Thinkin'” replied Rod Dupree in his Evansville-trained deep baritone.
“Well, we’ve got two new players for the Cubs today, and one of them isn’t even on my program. This guy’s a big, scrappy-looking rookie outfielder who goes by the name of Good or Godd or Goade, I’m not sure which. He’s got an interesting uniform number, too. Looks like a sideways 8. Do you know anything about this Goade player, Rod?”
“Uh, well, Thinkin’, all of us in the broadcast booth feel we are witnessing a moment of considerable significance, if I may put it that way—”
“You know, Rod and fans,” Thinkin’ interrupted, “I was driving home on the Kennedy Expressway last night and the traffic turned pretty fierce—it was rush hour, let me add—and so I pulled off at the O’Hare Denny’s Restaurant in Des Plaines, just north of I-90 on the Mannheim Road exit. They’re great people at that Denny’s Restaurant and at all your neighborhood Denny’s. Ask for the $5.99 seafood plate special, and tell ’em Thinkin’ Lucely sent you. Anyway, the folks at the Denny’s recognize me of course, and we get to talking Cubs baseball, and the waiter asks me when the Cubs are finally going to give some playing time to the young, strapping kids they’ve got down on the farm—kids like this Goade kid we’ve got on the field today—and I told the waiter that he had a great idea. If you remember back in ’58, the Cubbies tried an all-rookie infield, one of whom turned out to be Smiley Postem. Now Rod, am I the only one left who remembers the great Smiley Postem?”
In the Cub’s dugout, the team trainer revived Lazzeri with a few slaps and some smelling salts.
“You all right?” the trainer asked, and Lazzeri shook his head yes as he stumbled to his feet.
“What happened, man?” asked Cletus Banks, the first baseman. Lazzeri looked at his teammate and opened his mouth. But to the moderate alarm of both men, no words came out. Lazzeri bent his head and brought his hand to his throat, and he managed a few muffled choking noises, but that was all. He was mute.
En masse, the assembled Cubs’ players turned to their manager, who by then was surrounded by a small flotilla of spent sunflower seeds at his customary left end of the bench.
“Not a real surprise, is it?” postured McOates, who was staring pensively toward the Entity in question, currently running wind sprints along the left field foul line. “Bother a nervous rookie, no question what kinda trouble you can get into.”
“Nervous rookie!” yelled Cletus Banks. “That is no nervous rookie!”
But not only did McOates hold to his claim, he even kept the Lord out of the starting lineup, opting instead to give left field to the quite forgotten José Oliveras. (“The front office is payin’ him a lot of money; we may as well let him earn some of it.”) So after the National Anthem, out to the field ran nine mere mortals, leaving the Cubs’ reserves to squirm nervously and unhappily on the bench among the sprawling and magnificent Lord—to whom none of them dared speak—and their sunflower and homily-spitting manager—to whom they decided not to speak any further, either.
Yet Oliveras was not well. On his way to the outfield he ran extremely gingerly, as if he was worried about stepping on a carpet tack or a small animal. As the top of the first inning progressed, Oliveras seemed to grow paler and paler, sometimes bending his knees and pointing his head to the ground, as if preparing to throw up. When the inning ended, the Cubs’ newly acquired slugger jogged back to the infield in an odd, butterfly-like pattern, zig-zagging this way and that, and he even headed toward the Expos’ dugout before someone pointed him in the proper direction. Once inside the Cubs’ dugout, Oliveras made a beeline down the tunnel toward the locker room.
“Ants!” he cried as he ran. “I’m covered with giant, flesh-eating ants!”
From the left end of the bench, McOates leaned his head forward to gaze at the Lord at the other end of the bench, who did not gaze at him in return, although McOates thought he glimpsed a bit of a smile.
“Looks like we need us a new left fielder,” McOates mumbled to no one in particular, and he spit a sunflower seed in the Lord’s general direction.
After Beckert and Lazzeri flied out, God picked up the 32-inch bat at his feet and ambled deliberately toward the plate.
“Attention, attention please,” boomed the public address announcer. “Now batting for the Cubs: Number infinity, God.”
And thus God planted his well-proportioned feet into the batter’s box for his first official major league at bat. After a slight hesitation, the pitcher threw a fastball straight, low, and down the middle. With a mammoth, monstrous swing, the Lord turned the pitch into a fiery line drive, a baseball blur, a thunderous streak of horsehide through the air just above the head of the Expos’ third baseman. The ball landed foul by only a few inches.
“How come he don’t hit a home run?” asked Cubs’ reserve infielder Buddy Lovullo on the bench to no one in particular.
“‘Cause hitting against a big league pitcher ain’t easy for anybody,” replied McOates gruffly. “You oughta know. Last time I checked you were battin’ a buck-90.”
The next pitch was another low fastball, although this one was aimed toward the outside of the plate. But with a fierce reach, the Lord turned that pitch into another fiery line drive, a second baseball blur the mirror image of the first, landing only a few inches foul along the right field line.
God frowned, stepped out of the batter’s box, and focused His gaze on his long bat. With deliberate precision, He rubbed His majestic right hand along the bat’s shaft, as if the two foul balls had been the fault of a subtle error in the grain of the mountain ash.
Meanwhile, the Expo pitcher stepped off the mound, put his hands on his knees, and stared resolutely at the ground beneath him—in baseball, an undeniable request for guidance. But to the pitcher’s horror, coming to his aid was neither Stan Jude, the Expo field manager, nor Mickey Kane, the pitching coach. As the pitcher looked into the dugout, he found both men fidgeting nervously in a corner and deliberately not looking at the game on the field. Instead, perhaps by default, from a small wooden stool in the corner of the dugout loped the unlikeliest of counselors, the team’s ancient bench coach, Everett Snohomish.
On a team of physically powerful young men with seamless bodies and million-dollar contracts and lifetime supplies of sunglasses and styling mousse, Coach Snohomish served as a reminder of both history and mortality. Ninety-two years old according to the Expos’ yearbook, possibly older than that, Coach Snohomish claimed to have proffered hitting tips to Lou Gehrig and barnstormed the hinterlands with Walter Johnson and to have been the first white man to be struck out by Satchel Paige. But the Expos knew him as their ancient bench coach, an ambulatory prune or large raisin who walked with a pronounced limp and whose carcass-like body barely filled the modest Expo uniform into which he always took forever to fit himself. Snohomish’s job was to offer advice to all who asked, which never was anyone, and to pitch batting practice whenever no one else could do so, which never happened, and to look old, stoic, and wizened on the Montreal bench, which he did quite well.
So Everett Snohomish made his slow, limping way to the unhappy pitcher on the mound, and the catcher and shortstop eventually joined them.
“Got a problem with this apple-knocker?” Snohomish asked, his voice as resonant as year-old sandpaper.
“Uh, yeah,” said the pitcher, still talking to the ground. “It’s the Lord. God, you know.”
“I’d say the batter is crowding the plate,” replied Snohomish. “What d’ya do when a big apple-knocker crowds the plate?”
The pitcher finally looked up. In the pitcher’s year and a half stint with the Expos, he barely had exchanged two words with the ancient bench coach. But here Coach Snohomish was with him now, in this strange moment of need, and the coach was posing an extraordinarily simple question.
“Brush him back?” said the pitcher tentatively.
“You got it,” said Snohomish, and with no further words he made his limping, halting way back to the dugout, giving the players assembled on the mound a good look at the baggy backside of his ill-fitting pants.
“Two outs,” said the shortstop as he returned to his position.
“Let’s get ’em,” said the catcher.
I’m a professional baseball player, the pitcher told himself. I have a job to do; that is what I am paid for.
And so the pitcher reared back, cocked his slender right arm, and threw yet another fastball, this one directed far closer to the Batter than either of the previous pitches. He watched as the Lord subtly backed away from the ball, His face radiating travail but no fear. Again the Lord uncoiled His bat with the force of a divine hurricane, but this time the ball hit the bat near the Lord’s fists, resulting in a towering pop-up towards right field. A mighty, towering, spinning pop-up—what the pundits called a major league pop-up—but an easy out all the same.
End of the first inning. Score Cubs 0, Expos 0. And the Expo pitcher, John Jason Yawkov, left the mound and briskly walked back to the visitor’s dugout.
And so the game progressed. Both teams played seriously and professionally, although few of the assembled observers seemed to care or notice. Particularly escaping their attention was the sterling play of Cubs’ third baseman Sonny Lazzeri, who throughout the day was diving at ground balls, backing up the shortstop on close plays at second, positioning himself properly for relays from the outfield, and in short playing the sound, crisp, fundamental baseball for which he defiantly had not been famous previously.
In the sixth inning with a man on first and no outs, Lazzeri executed precisely what McOates had signaled for, a drag bunt down the third-base line, advancing the runner to second and nearly allowing Lazzeri safe passage to first, where he was out by half a step. As Lazzeri returned to the Cubs dugout he received the customary high-fives and atta-boys from all of his teammates—except for God, who sat beatifically by Himself whenever His services were not required. In response, Lazzeri merely smiled and waved happily at his fellows, for Lazzeri still could not utter a word.
As for the Lord, by the eighth inning His box score read 1 for 3, having popped-out in the first, grounded to the shortstop in the fourth, and blooped a shallow fly ball that dropped in front of the center fielder in the sixth. After the latter, the crowd cheered nervously as the Lord glided safely into first base. (“Holy Moses, the Goad kid gets his first major league hit!” croaked Thinkin’ Lucely after taking a long swig of a clear, aromatic liquid. “He’ll want to hang onto that ball, I’m sure.”) Unfortunately for the Cubs, the next hitter hit into a 1–6–3 double play, ending the inning.
On defense, the Lord was occasionally spectacular, but erratic. Before every pitch He flexed His body into a measured crouch, His arms dangling purposefully at His sides, His gaze fixed to the man at bat. And typically, when the ball was lofted toward anywhere near the territory of left field, God sped like a raging Ferrari to the exact spot at which the ball would eventually land—perhaps, muttered a mathematician in the stands, by using vector calculus to calculate the ball’s trajectory.
Yet on other occasions, typically on easy pop-ups or soft line drives, God appeared distracted or preoccupied. God appeared not to even notice one fly ball until it landed a few feet to his left—an easy out that the scorer graciously allowed as a two-base hit. And with a man on base in the fifth inning, after fielding a clean single past the shortstop, the Lord threw a rifle shot at the catcher—a perfect, stainless, express train of a throw that landed square in the catcher’s mitt and that would have beat the Expo runner by fifteen feet. Except the runner had only been on first base, which meant the play had been at third, not home.
Between innings, John Yawkov reviewed his life in search of something special, or damning, or magnificent, or unusual in any way. Of course he was far different from other men for the simple actions that had turned him into a major league starting pitcher. The hours upon hours of his youth throwing baseballs at a backstop or a tire swing, the maddening slow-motion drills to improve his mechanics, the day-long bus rides between the far-flung cities of the Southern and Texas Leagues—Yawkov had suffered through it all, and had triumphed. At 23, Yawkov threw his first pitch for a major league team, the Cincinnati Reds. That first year the National League batters lit him up like Chinese fireworks—the simple fastballs at which less mature hitters had whiffed and cursed were instead being launched toward the Ohio River or the state of Kentucky or the planet Neptune. But Yawkov adapted. He polished his curveball and slider. He learned the value of changing speeds. He became not the best pitcher in the league—not the strongest or most baffling or most intimidating—but certainly a good pitcher, a consistent pitcher, one a manager would never hesitate to pencil into a lineup. That in itself, in Yawkov’s mind, was a tremendous accomplishment.
But it did not explain why he, of all major league pitchers, was pitching to the Lord.
As the innings passed by, Yawkov noticed a certain uneasiness between himself and his teammates. At first he allowed that it could be a manifestation of an old baseball tradition, giving the silent treatment to a pitcher in the midst of throwing a no-hitter. But after the fifth inning, in which the Cubs touched him for two singles, Yawkov returned to a dugout of the same icy glances and muffled conversation as before.
“All right, what’s the deal here?” Yawkov announced to his teammates eventually.
“What d’ya mean?” said C. J. Parusha, the Expos’ veteran first baseman. Parusha was a burly, muscular man with bushy eyebrows and a hard stubble and an intimidating stare that by reputation helped to sway umpires toward his favor on close calls. The previous spring, however, Parusha had announced to his teammates and the world that he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, after which some of his swagger seemed to dissipate.
“I want to know why you’re giving me the cold shoulder,” said Yawkov nervously. Such forthright accusations were frowned upon even in the locker room, let alone the dugout during a game. But these were unusual circumstances, thought Yawkov, which called for unusual actions.
C. J. Parusha stood up from the bench and turned his bushy face to the pitcher.
“Do you know who you’re pitching to? Do you know who’s playing for the Cubs today?” he asked petulantly.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Well I know so,” said Parusha. “And when this game is over, I’m going to ask to be traded to the Chicago Cubs. I urge all of you to do the same.” The rest of the Expos murmured comments of general, if begrudging assent.
“What are you talking about!” babbled Yawkov. “We can’t all be Chicago Cubs!”
“No, we cannot all be Chicago Cubs,” replied Parusha with sudden serenity. “But we can all strive to be among those chosen for the Cubs—the Lord’s team, the Team of Righteousness. And I, for one, refuse to play for anything less.”
“Are you nuts?” screamed Yawkov. “This is major league baseball! Every team needs every other team!” Yawkov searched the dugout for the Expo field manager or the coaches, and it dawned on him that he had not seen Jude or the bulk of the coaching staff for several innings.
“Where’s Jude?” he cried. “Where’s the manager?”
“He left,” said someone dejectedly.
“What do you mean ‘left’? Who’s managing the team?”
“The Lord manages us now,” replied Parusha in a voice that Yawkov thought came from someplace else. “And you should let Him manage you, as well.” Parusha parked his bulky frame back on the bench, and with an ethereal grimace he folded his arms across the script Montreal on the front of his uniform, as if the city’s name were a grave embarrassment. He then aimed one of his patented stares at Yawkov, although one less of intimidation and more of frustration and severe disappointment.
The other Expos stole guilty looks at the amazed pitcher, but none said anything to him either. Yawkov eventually caught sight of Coach Snohomish sitting on his customary stool. Coach Sno had his eyes closed and his mouth open, a man reduced to a catatonic state of some sort, which Yawkov knew was not atypical for the Coach at this point of a game.
All right, so I am in this alone, Yawkov told himself. Fine. I am a paid professional. I will do what I have to do.
Up in the stands, scenes were unfolding of a different nature, yet of comparable intensity and revelation. From the luxury boxes to the mezzanine to the bleachers, the prolonged Epiphany manifested itself in unusual ways.
“Guys, I got a confession to make,” said Zeb J. to his companions. “I don’t mean to shock you fellas, but….I’m gay. Have been all my life.”
“Oh get off, Zeb,” said his brother Ben. “You’ve been married three times, for Chrissake.”
“Well, why do you think I always get divorced!” The 39-year old plumber and Wednesday-night bowler began to cry in his cup of stale Budweiser.
“Hey, it’s all right, man,” said Lee V., a former brother-in-law. “You are who you are, right Ben?”
But Ben stood up from his box seat, a scowl etched in his face. “I’m getting a pretzel,” he announced. “Any of you guys want a pretzel? Or some nachos?”
In the upper deck, Sheila Bonwit (née Leban) and her friend Dinah Dillard were telling stories while their husbands Mitch and Mike were cracking salted-in-the-shell peanuts and keeping a keen watch for nearby foul balls, as was their custom. Sheila was 63 and Dinah was 66 and their husbands were about ten years older than that, and all together they had attended nearly 100 seasons’ worth of Cubs games, although to how much actual baseball they paid attention is a matter of conjecture.
“So I’m 28 and I finally leave home to marry Mitch,” said Sheila to Dinah, “and I knew we needed a whole mess of pots and pans and casseroles and so forth, so I stole some from my father.”
“Hey, that was close,” croaked Mike, referring to a foul ball that landed about 200 feet to their left.
“I mean I had cooked for that man for 14 years, ever since Mom died, so I figured the cookware was as much mine as it was his. But the next day Dad comes storming into the apartment and starts ripping open boxes and demanding to know where his pots and pans are.”
“No one wants to hear this story!” shouted Mitch all of a sudden, his voice unusually high and unsteady.
“Well, I tell Dad that I didn’t take a thing from him, but that he was welcome to ransack the place as much as he wanted because I was having my period and felt like shit. And I park myself on a big crate and pretend to look hot and bothered. Dad opens a few more boxes before he scowls at me and leaves. Of course, that big crate I was sitting on was the one that had Dad’s kitchen stuff in it.”
“Heckuva story,” said Mike, cracking open a shell with his false teeth. But Mitch was turning various shades of purple.
“What’s the matter, lover?” said Sheila to her husband coyly. “Am I embarrassing you?”
“Could we talk about something else, please?” asked Mitch.
Sheila stood up and flapped her flabby arms up and down.
“Period!” she shouted at Mitch. “Monthly bleeding! Menstruation! It’s part of life—get used to it!” But Mitch simply stared resolutely into the distance.
“Men are such wusses,” said Sheila, sitting down.
“Amen,” said Dinah, and she reached over Mitch’s lap to her husband’s to cop a handful of peanuts.
In excellent seats near the first baseman, Joseph K. stared at his precious family for a few moments. On Mary’s lap was sleeping the couple’s eight-year old son, who had been looking forward to his first ball game but had not quite lasted through it.
“Do you love me?” he asked quietly.
“Of course I do,” said Mary, her gaze downward. “You know I do.”
“Then what about that doctor in St. Louis?”
Mary turned suddenly to face her husband, whose face, for the first time in their marriage, was clouded with fear and suspicion.
“I told you about him,” she said carefully. “We dated a little one summer—and that’s all. I swear that’s all.”
Joe imagined the truth splashing inside his wife like floodwaters on a levee.
“Some letters I found suggest otherwise.”
“You read his letters?!” shrieked Mary. And out came the tears, in streaks and in buckets, a few even landing on the son sleeping unaware beneath.
By the bottom of the ninth inning, a sense of strain and exhaustion permeated the entire assembly, their number announced at 20,513—all of whom, it could be assumed, remained in attendance. Due up in the inning were Hocase, Beckert, and Lazzeri—and even the die-hardest of the die-hard Cub fans were surprised to find themselves wishing these men would make quick, simple outs. Such a result would end the game in a 3 to 2 win for the visitors, but avoid another soul-wrenching plate appearance by the next Batter in the line-up.
Of all those wishing for three simple outs, none was wishing more fervently than John Yawkov, who also was quite certain that his wish would not be granted. As Yawkov took to the mound he peered into the visitor’s bullpen and was unsurprised to see no relief pitchers warming up—or no relief pitchers at all, for that matter. Fine, thought Yawkov. He resigned himself to completing what he had started, and to pitching to the Batter one last time.
First up was Reynaldo Hocase, the back-up catcher who had come into the game in the sixth. Yawkov mentally ran the book on Hocase—average hitter, no power, chased three fastballs in his one at bat of the game. With confidence Yawkov hurled another fastball, aiming it low and to the outside. But even before the ball reached the plate Yawkov grimaced and saw Hocase smile, for the ball was not as low as it should have been. Hocase connected, shooting a hard line drive that barely an eye-blink later landed in the glove of the Expo shortstop, who had barely moved an inch to make the play. One out.
Damn, I’m losing it, said Yawkov to himself.
“Boy, that Yack-off looks good, doesn’t he?” said Thinkin’ Lucely into his microphone. “Here it is the bottom of the ninth and he’s throwing as tough as at the beginning of the game. I don’t know, Rod Dupree and fans, the Cubs may not have a chance in this one.”
Rod Dupree wondered if Thinkin’ Lucely had a chance of remaining conscious for the next fifteen minutes. Dupree had seen his colleague consume whisky sours and gin and tonics during numerous ball games, but never to quite the extent as in the past eight and one half innings. Gone even was the veteran announcer’s pretense of legitimacy, having abandoned the spike-it-under-the-table approach in favor of a collection of open bottles huddled to the right of the microphone, bottles which Thinkin’ poured alternately and at regular intervals into tiny paper cups devoid of either water or ice. By the bottom of the ninth Thinkin’ Lucely’s face had turned beet red, his breath could be used as lighter fluid, and his hands were quivering and shaking, as if tectonic plates in his cerebellum were creating a prolonged earthquake. Yet amazingly, his voice remained strong, intelligible, and reasonably lucid.
The man is an alcoholic, thought Rod Dupree. He watched as Thinkin’s puffy hands fumbled with the cap of yet another liquor bottle he had produced from yet another corner of the tiny booth. I must organize an intervention, Rod told himself. I must speak to the producer, to the station manager, to whomever it takes. Thinkin’ must be removed from the air, as soon as possible. For his own good.
“Well, the game isn’t over until somebody makes the last out,” said Rod Dupree.
Next up was Ozzie Beckert—excellent contact hitter, hits to all fields, a demon on the basepaths. Yawkov’s catcher signaled for a fastball and Yawkov accepted. C’mon baby—come back, come back, said Yawkov silently, and he went into the windup. But as he released he knew that he was 10, maybe 15 miles per hour slower than he had been a few innings earlier. The pitch landed high for ball one.
There’s no shame admitting you’re tired, Yawkov heard his high school manager tell him. When you gotta come out, you gotta come out.
The legs are the first to go, the old timers liked to say.
My legs feel OK, thought Yawkov. The legs aren’t the problem.
The catcher signaled for the deuce, the curveball, low and away. All right, thought Yawkov. That’s good. I can do that. He wound up and he threw, catching the outside corner for strike one.
“You know I have been announcing Cubs games for over 30 years now—close to 40 years, almost—and they’ve never won a thing. Well, a division crown a few times, I guess—but never the National League pennant, never a World Series.”
“Hey, don’t give up yet,” said Rod Dupree.
“Did I say I was giving up? Did I say that?”
How long can I hang on?, Yawkov asked himself, the sweat down from his eyebrows and puddling into his eyes and mouth. He took off his cap and wiped his face. Gotta keep thinking positive. Gotta keep focused. Another curveball, same place as the last one. Fine. Yawkov nodded to the catcher, adjusted his grip, wound up and fired.
The ball was headed low—too low—but Beckert was swinging anyway. Late in his swing he tried to pull back and couldn’t, and with a small thunk the ball dribbled off the bat toward Yawkov on the mound. He picked it up and tossed it to Parusha at first base. Parusha stretched and received the ball for the out. When he tossed it back to the mound, he also threw Yawkov one of the possessed, pointed glances he had given Yawkov earlier in the dugout. I took the toss this time, the glance said, but don’t count on me taking any more.
Fine, thought Yawkov. That’s fine.
“Hope is what keeps us going, Rod and Cubs fans. We gotta keep thinking that this year is our year. Or if not this year then next year, or the one after that, or the one after that.”
“We have two outs and the batter is Lazzeri,” said Rod Dupree into his microphone.
Lazzeri—slap hitter, will swing at anything, can be fooled on pitches that are too—
Suddenly, Yawkov stopped, because the book didn’t matter any more. Yawkov could tell that this batter was not his. The feeling was hard to define, but Yawkov had been in the league long enough to know when a batter had found the pitcher out, when he knew all of the pitcher’s strategies and tricks and ploys and that none of them was going to work any more. Yawkov knew that feeling all too well.
When you gotta come out, you gotta come out, said the high school manager.
Lazzeri smiled as he faced down Yawkov and his eyes seemed to call out words that Yawkov could not hear. The catcher signaled for the deuce and Yawkov shook him off, opting for the fastball. If I’m going to get burned, Yawkov thought, I’m going to get burned on the first pitch. Yawkov threw the fastball and Lazzeri laced it into left field. When Yawkov turned around there was Lazzeri dusting himself off at second base, smiling and waving either at Yawkov or at the Batter in the on-deck circle, who was working His way to the plate.
“Hey, Lazzeri gets a double,” said Rob Dupree. “The Cubs aren’t dead yet.”
“Rod, have I told you that I love you?” asked Thinkin’ Lucely to his partner, and he took another swig from a paper cup. “I do, man, I really do,” he said.
“Thinkin’, once again you leave me speechless,” Rod said evenly.
“I love you and I love that guy Panzer or Penzer who we had in here last year, and I love the guy before that and all the other announcers I’ve worked with, not to mention the great staff we have working for us, and the Cubs players and management and all you fans out there. And all our sponsors, like Denny’s and Firestone tires and your Chicagoland Ford dealers and the good people at the Anheuser-Busch breweries.”
And so God strode purposefully into the batter’s box, tapped some dirt off His divine cleats, and positioned His bat on His broad, steely right shoulder. Yawkov elected to step off the mound and look away from the Batter for a few moments.
I am 31 years old, he thought to himself. Not an old man even by baseball standards, but not an especially young one, either. Yawkov remembered listening to an interview of a certain hall-of-fame pitcher, one of Yawkov’s boyhood heroes. “As you got older, did you have to work harder to stay in shape?” asked the interviewer. “Yes, absolutely” replied Yawkov’s hero. Absolutely, repeated Yawkov to himself. I am 31 years old, thought Yawkov, and my fastball is not as strong as it used to be. At least not as consistently.
Well, I will have to adjust. Others have done it, and so will I.
The catcher signaled another deuce. Yawkov wound up, looked to the sky, then fired and released—a fine pitch, one of the best of the day, a pitch that would have fooled anyone. The Lord swung and missed.
“Strike one,” croaked the umpire.
“Whatsa’ matter, God?” yelled a heckler from the third base stands. “Can’t hit the curve ball?”
Yawkov stepped off the mound again while the Batter performed his Batter’s rituals. Yawkov found himself desperately wanting another conversation with Coach Snohomish. But scrutiny of the stool in the Expo bench revealed the old coach motionless with his eyes closed, his exact position of a few innings past. Yawkov recalled a certain scenario, one he and his teammates had bandied about many times. At the end of a game the Expos had won, the team would be shaking hands and laughing and razzing each other as always, and as the party moved into the locker room they would notice someone was staying behind, and it would be Coach Snohomish, who had died in the middle of the game and no one had noticed.
It suddenly dawned on Yawkov that that may be precisely what had happened.
Well, it was not such a bad way to go. Coach Sno probably would prefer to die in a ball park over any place else.
How do I want to die?, Yawkov asked himself. How do I want to live?
“You know this Goade kid is up right now,” said Thinkin’ Lucely, “and I think he’s got a great future with the Cubs—a great future—but there’s something about him I don’t like.”
Rod Dupree, whose face had been buried as close to the microphone as he could put it, suddenly turned in horror to his supposed partner and associate. Even stone drunk, how can you say such a thing?, Dupree asked voicelessly.
“Look how he’s grandstanding right now—that just isn’t right, in my opinion.”
“Well, that of course is one opinion,” the deep-voiced young Hoosier spoke in a choked-up tremolo, “but not necessarily that of the management of this station or anyone associated with Major League Baseball.”
The Lord returned to the plate, fixed His gaze on Yawkov, and Yawkov, for the first time all day, stared straight back at the Lord in return.
It’s just You and me, Yawkov said in his mind.
That’s right, the Lord told him. Let’s get on with it.
Yawkov accepted the sign from his catcher, adjusted his grip, spun, hurled, and released. Another curveball, a carbon copy of the previous one. Or so it seemed. It was breaking in the other direction—a slider? Yes, a slider. The Lord swung and missed. Strike two.
Yawkov thought about his childhood with his parents and his older brother and the rest of his family—good people, good despite their faults. His father, who always favored Yawkov’s brother Harry; his mother, who always pandered to Yawkov; and of course Harry himself. In their boyhood, Harry had been the more athletic and adventurous of the two—a lover of football and wrestling and fist fights with children twice his size. Yet it was Yawkov who had found ultimate success in athletics, and in their mother’s opinion if was because of Yawkov’s discipline, his tirelessness and patience in pursuit of an end larger than himself. As adults Yawkov and Harry were on fine terms—good friends, even—but Harry moved from job to job in the trucking business while Yawkov was a finely-honed professional who earned millions. Yawkov then fast-forwarded to his life with his wife Rochelle and their pack of sons, and their large house with the dog and two cats and vegetable garden to which Rochelle tended ceaselessly. In his children Yawkov saw himself and Rochelle, as well as Harry and his parents and grandparents and the other relatives that Yawkov had known. And Yawkov imagined himself the father of a great nation.
And Yawkov realized that it would have to end.
All of it. The house. The family. The baseball games. The life. It all would come to an end, as all life eventually does on Earth.
But the life was not over just yet.
I am a paid professional, Yawkov told himself. I have a job to do. And he began his windup.
“You know, Rod and fans, I think I’m going to have to quit this game early” said Thinkin’ Lucely, and suddenly, with a single sweep of his right arm, he cleared his desk of all the half-filled cups and bottles, causing a din that was only amplified over the radio waves. “It’s been a long game and I need a brief time out. Rod, you can handle the rest of the game, can’t you? Or even the rest of the season?”
“If you say so, Thinkin’,” Rod whispered, trying to keep his emotions in check.
“But I’ll be back,” said Thinkin’. “Oh, you can count on that. And you know why? ‘Cause baseball is the greatest game in the universe, that’s why. Win or lose, up or down, World Series or no World Series, there’s just no substitute for this game—this wonderful game—and the wonderful people who play it. Especially when they play it on real grass, under the blue sky…..Rod, you don’t mind if I leave now, do you?”
“Oh, go ahead,” replied Rod.
“There’s a sofa in the press lounge; I think I’ll take a little nap. It’s a not a Serta Easy-Sleeper, mind you, like I got at home. Those Easy-Sleepers are the greatest, you know, giving you the support you need at night so you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go in the morning. They’re available at every Chicagoland Sears Department store or at a Serta dealer near you. Well, I’m going to the press lounge to take that nap—so long everybody!”
And Thinkin’ Lucely fell out of his chair and collapsed in a heap on the floor.
The trick, Yawkov knew, was in concentration and control, in executing the same motions in the same order and the same intensity as always, ignoring the complaints of aching muscles and frayed nerves and the magnanimity of the moment—a moment, like all moments, that would pass like falling ticker tape.
Yawkov reared, cocked his worn, tired right arm, whirled, kicked, and fired.
God’s eyes tracked the ball as it came barreling at Him at 75 miles an hour—no, 80 miles an hour—85 miles an hour—it was the fastball, of all things. And the Lord flexed and extended His biceps and triceps and latissimus dorsi and other muscles of His arms and legs and back, each of which served as the model upon which He created Man and Woman, and His bat traced a circle at great speed over the plate, topping it a half second after the little white ball flew by it. The ball landed with a thwock in the catcher’s mitt.
“Strike three!” called the umpire, and the game was over.
With no fanfare, Yawkov walked briskly off the field, not looking at the Batter whom he had just bested. Somewhere from the stands, or perhaps from his imagination, Yawkov thought he heard the sound of a cheer or two. But the notion soon melted away, leaving Yawkov to think only of the sunset, and of a long shower, and of his wife and family waiting for him at home.
From his custom luxury box in the upper reaches of the stadium, Kenneth Ambrose made his way down to the field level, taking a private elevator to avoid the throngs of fans. In his company were Ted Dathan and Byrom Smith and other members of his staff. None of them, Ambrose included, could have explained precisely the purpose of the journey. When Ambrose arrived on the field, he was greeted by manager Buck McOates, himself surrounded by a contingent of Cubs players, Expos players, ball boys, stadium ushers, and even a healthy collection of fans, who normally were allowed nowhere near the ball park’s hallowed playing field.
“He wants to talk to you,” said the Cubs’ field manager to Ambrose, gesturing unnecessarily to the Lone Figure remaining in the Cubs’ dugout. To the surprise of Ambrose and the assembly, beginning to enshroud the Cubs’ dugout was a strange fog. In a matter of seconds, the dugout was covered by a tall, thick mass of dirty clouds and smoke, topped by a ring of fire.
“Alone,” McOates added.
So Kenneth Clayton Ambrose walked slowly and deliberately, by himself, toward the Player who had requested his presence. How am I going to find the way?, Ambrose asked himself at the edge of the fog. As if in response, there appeared a pathway of bases, ordinary baseball bases, although they were as blue and translucent as sapphires. Ambrose gingerly stepped forward along the path, which curiously lead up, not down, into the dugout.
After Ambrose disappeared from sight, those left behind turned anxiously to each other, exchanging whichever words crossed their minds.
“That Ambrose is a hell of a guy,” said Ted Dathan to a stranger, some kid with dirty black hair and glasses and a souvenir Cubs hat. The kid shrugged his shoulders. Dathan fumbled for a cigarette in his breast pocket, found it, and lit it.
“You know what he’s got in his hallway—a big stuffed moose head,” said Dathan between puffs. “I always liked that moose.”
“Shut up,” said Buck McOates, whom Dathan had assumed had not been listening.
Forty seconds later, Ambrose walked back to the assembled, proceeding in an even slower, more deliberate gait than before. All eyes were in astonishment, for Ambrose had changed. His hair was curled outward at its ends and had turned as white as the clouds, and his face radiated a glow, almost a fluorescence, as if he had been infused with a divine light.
“What happened?” asked McOates.
Ambrose spoke slowly and with great hesitation, as if he were still in the fog from which he had emerged.
“God asked me if I thought He has the skills to play in the major leagues,” Ambrose said eventually. “I told Him He does, but those skills are raw and untutored. I told Him He needs to work on His timing and concentration and maybe to brush up on the rule book. What He mainly needs is experience. I suggested a stretch of ten months or so in the minor leagues, perhaps with the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in Orlando, Florida.”
“God said He would think it over and get back to me.”
The assembled turned to the cloud over the Cubs dugout, which was thinning and dissipating as quickly as it had formed. When the air was just clear enough, they caught a final glimpse of the Lord just as He vanished from their midst.