The Final Summer
by Tom Sheehan
The batter swung like a great northwoodsman, and the ball and bat melded in one sound. As of one mind, the audience rose up and released a roar of tunneling wind, a loud, uproarious, expectant howl, a universal cry late-inning born, a cry of hope that pushed the ball outward toward the solitary left fielder, immersed half in shadow, half in sunlight.
Behind first base, in the first row of the box seats, Catherine MacGawran watched the ball streak toward her handsome Owen Blood, her graceful and errorless Irish god, her late-inning ball hawk, her great glove man getting his first play in the Major Leagues; up from the minors and the bases full. What small wings stirred in her then, we all have felt; suspense flighty as a bubble, the pride that is an agreeable mate to love, a chilled and momentary flash of doubt. Of course he was her glove man, best of all, the swift leaper, ball hawk unparalleled, line drive snarer who could chase down the deer of October, who would soon wait for her at the altar. Dependable. So patient. Owen Blood.
Half shadowed, half in sunlight, half a song of harmonicas and strung out fiddles and guitars bittersweet and a Jew’s harp yet in his ears from partying his chance, Owen Blood watched the ball as if it were a spot upon his eyes, as it began a painful gyration above the panic of the third baseman slowly beginning to feel his heart break. All of Owen's instincts, sharp as radar, shucking all the countermeasures that screaming fans and pressures build upon, homed in on the ball. Catherine will be proud, he thought, Catherine of the magnificent face, Catherine of the sweet and tender hands, soon to be mine; all that unending warmth, all that unexploded magnanimity.
Since Little League she had watched him, had seen him chase down and catch ten thousand fly balls and line drives in the sun and the shade and the shadows under trees that killed some outfields, could decode every move his body made; how his hand, shielding the sun, saluted and yet mocked the graceful formality that training induces; how summer camp put an angle to his loping body she could measure out of a hundred boys, no matter how wide the field; how he lifted his left shoulder and dipped his right one just before he caught a ball.
And then that bubble bounced terribly in her chest. Suspense let loose its terror and fright, her chest felt hollow, her legs weighted down. Before he knew, she knew he had lost the ball. Behind first base, alone in the world, her body ached his name.
Time, as it related between the two of them, was different only by a microsecond. In the dim, immeasurable difference between their separate thoughts of one act, Owen Blood lost his first ball in The Bigs. The spot his eyes had found, the whitened orb, the line drive, the final out, the game winner, was elusive, illusionary. What he had found was a grandstand placard, a painted section number, someone’s hat, or a stricken piece of light the sun had let go of, a one-way ticket back to the minors.
When the ball shot past Owen, the owner erupted in fury. "Send him down! Send him so deep he can never come back! I never want to see him here again!"
The shadows thickened over Catherine. She saw the long dark roads ahead of them, her dreams inexorably tied to his, the long hours of waiting, the long mileage that one must travel and endure in the minor leagues, the ups and downs, the insecurities, the difficulties of raising a family on the run. She wondered how she could keep his dream alive.
He was sent down deeper than Double A, down into the dreaded ranks, the pastures and skin-top diamonds baking in the sun, rode buses whole school systems had given up on, the quick hot dogs and chicken-in-a-box meals in the back of the bus a stomach often rebelled at, the agonies of dust, late hours reading in "The Baseball News" of friends who had moved up, who were making their mark, those who would eat steak and eggs for breakfast.
Owen Blood labored in those strange vineyards, across the Coastal States, up the valley of the Mississippi, went into towns that were almost nameless but all the same. Of a hundred back roads he knew the landmarks, the water towers, grain elevators, thick clumps of cottonwoods littered with cans, the diners, the pit stops, the neon signs, the dry towns, the wet towns, the towns in between. Catherine's face he knew at his coming home.
Owen stretched it out, gave it all he had, kept the dream alive, a spark in his heart; filled his deep sleep with catches high up on left field walls deep down the line, rescued runners with late inning doubles, on one bounce threw out runners at the plate. Sometimes in his sound sleep and dreaming nights he touched a warm and sleepless Catherine. She was his oasis, his hot fudge sundae, his cool and pleasant spa in desert's vanity. At trip's end, the yellow bus a nightmare, bone and muscle begging to be rescued, begging to be given over to rest, his eyes full of cheap lights and high blown flies, he counted his times at bat, the base hits on one hand, the intermittent errors, the honky-tonks, the hotel rooms smelling of old fruit and damp carpeting and time. At length he summoned up the narrowness of odds and dealt himself a tender, obvious hand. In his seventh year in the minors, in a dying coastal town, as if he could see the end of a plague, he laid down his bat and grabbed a hammer, set himself to building walls, roofs, houses. And Catherine, three children wider, dearer than anything his life had touched upon, knew his sleep was easier, though his dream sat like a robed spirit in the darkened room.
What she missed in the boiling of his dreams, he gave over to the ghost in morning’s bright challenge of self; the demonstrative stripping away of false facilities, the cold call to reason and sanity, how many swings it took to bury a nail in oak, in pine. He was better with a hammer than with a bat. He was comfortable with the new wood in his hands, moved easily on pitched roofs, scaffoldings, buttresses, ladders sixty feet high, church steeples where only sun and wind walked in day’s long toil, vertical’s agonies. He saw men fall and others freeze up high, saw fingers surgeoned off by skillful saws, grew one thumb twice the size of the other, found holes in walls where fingertips could fit when gravity called, when he thought he might have few breaths left.
Owen Blood journeyed through his trade, and his wife gave him lovely children on the way. The rich garden of Catherine MacGawran Blood amazed him at each new delivery, how the parts of her brought on the new lives, how a sudden slimness brought back his old girl -- the indestructible face, the long smile that had lit the back of many buses, the eyes soft as meadows in April rain, hands of balm his heart had felt, the fingers that worked the magic only women work, the full pliant yielding when day was done, the knowledge noontime smiles could liberate. They grew together, and the dream seemed dead.
Happiness filled their home, and young laughter, the doings and the getting done, the quick energies that can level or fulfill a home, a street, a whole neighborhood. Traffic was routed through Catherine’s kitchen and pantry, through her warmth and generosity. The backyard, never green, was a skin-top infield. Two cats, a frog and Henry the pigeon were buried right beneath the pitcher’s mound. When windows were broken, the balls came back. Nobody threatened their vast energy, no wicked witches or dread warlocks hoarding baseballs in peach baskets. With them, Saturday was ball games, dinner and cards.
Owen never told stories, never went back to that one fatal game in his life, never passed on his loss to his children, though Catherine could read his eyes clear into that abrupt darkness holding sway.
And so it was, twenty-two years later, in his hale and forty-second summer, Owen Blood, Catherine’s errant Irish god, began his way back to the Major Leagues.
He was building a large resort up north. The job was nearly done. It was a Wednesday. From the roof he saw a small sailboat overturn in a sudden squall smothering the lake. Wind lashed his face in its quick fury. Messages began their run to his brain, the six-hundred miles an hour speed coursing his nerves. The spray seemed to sound loudly and boldly on his skin. He was four floors up from the ground level. All the hopes for the lone young occupant of the overturned boat seemed to dwindle, but reaction took him! From the hot tar line, from the bucket rope, he rappelled himself down the building’s skin, dropped just short of sixteen feet per second, dropped like a rock, landed like a Russian dancer, felt his heart banging against his chest, all the time the thin computer of life clicked away at the small chip of living, measured some other man measuring one of his own sons, one of Catherine’s sons, set free all the abandon he needed, gave him resources never called on, brought him quickly to the side of the boy who had little strength left, little hope.
Fate came twisting its edge then, leaning on its own game, carving as it does the sundry lives it touches. Owen knew the anguished grandfather, he who had buried him so deep in the minors, the still-powerful Fenway magistrate, the final acid of his Major Leaguing.
The man did not recognize Owen Blood, nor should he have for all the passing years, but Owen, with the dream and the vision flaming up quickly as dried tinder, brought him back to that lost and fateful day. "I’m Owen Blood who never got to bat in your precious Major League, who faulted just once on a dreaming fly ball I could not find, who spent seven years in the minors, seven years of dirt and dust and hunger, and not once got to bat in the Majors."
"You shall get to bat in the Major League! I promise you that! I promise you, you will be a statistic, at least one at-bat in the Majors," swore the owner, clasping to his bosom the drenched but living grandson.
The jock writers picked it up, then TV. "Forty-two year old rookie is signed up!" "Hope blooms eternal for the carpenter!" "The Hammer hopes he can pound a homer!" "Thor to get chance to bat in Majors!" "God of the North to wage war at the plate!" "When all else fails, dream your most fervent dream!" "Terry Turpentine holds onto the wood!" "What dreams the young have, what visions the old!"
And thus the long and dreadful odyssey began again and came down to its close. July came and the All-Star game was gone. Real baseball came into Boston-town: Gotham sent her Yankees, her second pride. Following the Statue of Liberty, the Yankees were, institutionally, the city’s best emissaries. They clutched, grabbed, bit and chewed, held their magic sway, won games. They sent the classic fabric of pinstripes, the century's long parallels of dye, the cool gray of Babe and DiMaggio, the simple gray Gehrig wore to the end, Yogi Berra’s knickered gray, Reggie Jackson’s October gray, the surmounting and Boston-beating gray, killer gray, shark gray, gray the Yeti wore. New York gray came to see a carpenter.
In the rubber game of the series, in the ninth inning on the wrong end of a lopsided score not in their favor, in front of the roaring and rebellious crowd, with a soft evening fog seeping inland and strange shadows falling upon the night, as promised by the mogul, to get his one appearance at least, Owen Blood strode out to the plate with the old kind of wood in his hands. Kenmore Square reverberated with sound, the single rise of a crowding scream, the great exultation only Boston fans can bring out of old concrete-with-a-heart, the quick and fatal identification audiences can make, the pressure points, the self-squeeze, the mirrored idolatry, the hopes one musters for the little man, the underdog, the loser, an old man grasping a dream in hands frail as his life, the universal Me getting to bat.
The deep-set denizens of Kenmore Square have always read the thunder of the crowd, but that explosion of hope was something not heard in '67, nor even in '75. What rolled in waves was the human spirit, a grand and glorious Fourth of July belonging to some of them belatedly, the transmission of eager dreams, the acceptance man will take of failure or all the glory that winning will bring. It was a clamor of odds, a gambler’s last breath at the final draw, hidden kings, a pair of sevens when sixes would do. It was an uproarious dawn, a sunrise of noise only laminated lungs can make. It was drama reporters dreamed about, endlessly dreamed about.
Down to the end it had come, Sox losing bad, two men on, two men out, Rigsby pitching, the graceful black giant, the whipsawed arm, the left leg kick higher than Nureyev's, the phantom of movement, the fog-loose gray swishing the ball out of a fading mount. Pal-O-Mine Rigsby, ultimate pitcher, bedeviling mechanic of the hill, the king of strikeouts, earning his paycheck. He was a giant among all pitchers, Pal-O-Mine was. The Celtics could use him up front, his hands as good as country music, his feet as good as Fred Astaire’s. His eyes were extraordinary eyes, sizing up men, both foes and allies, measuring as they had all his life what lay in front of him and what in back, what threat the batter was, what said his eyes, what the stance told him of his enemy, how strong the grip on the bat, how pronounced it was.
So long had he been tall, so frequently awarded on his size, little fazed him. What surely would not bother Pal-O-Mine was a forty-two year old carpenter. "C’mon, old man. C'mon you carpenter. Step up and eat a live one, nailing man! Come into my parlor, old carpenter. Jazz my pizzaz if you can, carpenter. Find the head of my nail, old stud marker, roof and shingle man. You better get set!"
Into that stark arena came Owen Blood, a trembling man before Pal-O-Mine, a rookie turning gray, a newborn hope, someone for whom someone in Section 23, Row D, Seat 13, could pray for homers, an elusive dream of darkness, a host of wishes and well done, oh dreams of light.
Owen Blood felt the old familiar wood in his hands, the thin bite of ash almost breakable, the graspable throat of it; felt the tremors burning motor end plates just a whisper away beneath his skin, those slight fuses one must call upon to save what bacon is left in the larder box. The crowd overpowered him, brought him dread by the veritable pound, stood the hair up on the back of his neck, sent his mind plumbing down through his body to see what had suffered him this evil, to find what frailty had made him seek this microscopic place beneath the eyes of thirty-thousand mad Bostonians.
Pal-O-Mine measured the paunch Owen wore, saw his skin grow redder by the moment, found in the carpenter's eyes the insecurity he had found in too many of his foes, and felt some masterful omnipotence come curling up out of his guts, a singing and joyous revelation of what he was, the best fire baller in all baseball, in all the golden land.
Owen put one foot into the batter’s box as if he were testing a pool’s water, as if he were treading some hallowed ground where he was alien and did not belong, as if he were stepping into a dream and a maniacal creature would bite his leg off at the first sign of a curve ball. Like a 2x4 waiting placement, he held the bat slightly off his shoulder. In his eyes, shadows began to set.
Pal-O-Mine contemplated Blood. A rook, a forty year old carpenter, and he gets to bat against me. He just knows I’ll blow him down, dust him on his butt. My pappy and gran’pappy nohow got up here and a chance to be at bat. Just got themselves stuck in Kansas City and played ball because they like to play ball, and no help at all until Jackie Robinson come slippin’ slidin’ ‘round these ball parks.
Way past Kansas City, far more westerly, Owen Blood Junior, by the radio, felt a chill he would never forget. The icing of failure moved its cruel and barbaric legacy slowly on his spine -- the full season of doubt, the hopelessness one feels under a sudden brilliancy, when all is lost and is utterly forlorn. For the carpenter, he was embarrassed, waited a futile swing, the strike, the going down to humiliation, unable to bear himself for the long dream.
Catherine MacGawran Blood, most able wife, lover, total believer, omniscient seer, thinker, adrenaline’s recall, personification of balm, slowly rose behind home plate. A thousand people rose with her, a thousand Bostonians in the clutch of drama and at her side, and thirty thousand felt sudden clamps bind on their aching hearts.
A chill, an unseen icy wave, like fog one is inside of and cannot eradicate, swept across all regions of Fenway Park. A hush settled itself thick as a cloud, sure as canvas, formal as prayer, over the maddening, desiring crowd. Hawking vendors, for a pure moment, stilled their guttural cries, let the sounds stop in their throats halfway to enterprise. Grandstand feet stopped their restless concrete rubbing. Hands folded on themselves like they must have when the beaches of Tarawa or Anzio or Normandy were at hand; some remembered, the recall caught once more in their bloodstream. In right field, the gamblers, high up in their seats, with cigar, dark-suited, stuffed with green, forgot the adversity that odds bring along in their wake. A television announcer, at last, let silence have the microphone, became one of the inarticulate fandom, felt an honesty he had forgotten coming to this place.
Pal-O-Mine looked squarely into Owen’s eyes, delivered a chill along with the stare, felt himself near Charleston, his father sitting knee-bent behind the plate, the floppy and ancient glove calling for a fast ball, the chatter and high song an incidental accompaniment to tutoring. He saw his grandfather, feeble handed, but his eyes absorbing the grandson’s arm, nodding the simplest approvals, the almost quiet acceptances, smiling at the youngster’s blazing speed, the slider as good as his was another day, the curve ball like a barn door on its hinging, another pitch so often dropping out of the strike zone as evil as he could ever imagine. Pal-O-Mine remembered his grandfather shivering in delight, and in a quiet sadness.
The sudden and oft-repeated sorrow came over him like an evil odor; they never had a chance in the majors. Either one would have made the All-Star team, their wide accomplishments legendary in Kansas City and in Birmingham, in Natchez, New Orleans and Galveston. And here he was, the son and grandson, at Fenway Park, facing the carpenter who was getting, at least, his one chance at bat.
I wonder, carpenter, if you can hit a piece of pill on the outside corner. His arm seemed to come out of its socket, and the ball, eerily, inordinately, blurring upon itself, came out of centerfield fuzz, an almost explosive dot of whiteness. "This one, carpenter, is for my gran'pap."
The futile swing, the rusty limbering, made people shrink down in their Fenway seats, ostriches seeking sand. The announcer was again shocked into silence. Owen Blood Junior, radiowise, felt an ignonimity he could not shake. Catherine MacGawran Blood, still standing, clutched the chicken wiring behind home plate. Owen Blood skipped two breaths and took one deep. In behind his eyes, in some deep alcove of thinking and daring, of valor’s beam, in that bare retreat where all hope is born, he scratched for a light in his darkest hour.
The catcher gave his sign and Pal-O-Mine shook him off, made him call number three. "Hey, carpenter," he thought aloud, "how’s a big curve feel to your old and rookie appetite?" And his arm, like some nerve-sprung tentacle, slapping like a mad horse’s tail, a snake lash, broke off a curve as if a comet had caught a secondary slanting of the air.
The pain felt for the underdog hit home. Fenway Park hurt down to the smallest inch at the ludicrous swing the carpenter made at a ball a foot outside the plate. People tried to swallow spittle, tried to release something caught sideways in their throats, couldn’t drop whatever it was; others tried to make their hands do something, anything, something easy, like closing on themselves, but nothing there, neither command nor reaction. Junior wept, but not Catherine. Not her, not the dreamer’s dream, not the lady a thousand people or more watched with utmost gravity.
On the mound, on top of the world itself, omnipotent, proof of all the painstaking practice, Pal-O-Mine felt an odd uneasiness. He felt as if he were cheating the man standing ineffectually at the plate, his paunch seeming more pronounced, his posture more hopeless than any batter he had ever faced. Would not his old gran’pap want this one chance of a lifetime to bat in the Majors and at Fenway Park, the most comfortable park in all the league. And, of course, his father, that marvelous batter, that woodsmith of sweet violence, would have given one leg and an arm to get such a chance. What his father would like, thought Pal-O-Mine, was a ball without any adornments, something down the tube, right down the everlasting pike, a fastball dead center, a stitch ripper, a hundred mile an hour popper coming right into the wheelhouse.
Pal-O-Mine telegraphed his final pitch. He looked his daring into Owen’s eyes and hoped, dearly hoped, the carpenter could read the sign. Catherine read it, the daring that few could see; perhaps others in the crowd saw the dare, saw the easy smile come riding over the happy face of Pal-O-Mine. Very few people can give proper accounting of what happened on that very next pitch.
The black giant with the smile on his face, without fluster, loosed the elegiac fastball, the smoker’s nonpareil, the gunner’s delight, his arm snapping out of socket. "If you want it, baby, you got to come to it! You got to move to the panther! You got to come into the lion’s den!"
Catherine drew blood grasping the chicken wire. In Section 13 a man stopped breathing. Owen Junior shut off the radio. In the batter’s box, an old carpenter amassed a conglomeration of things: twenty-two years of anguish and dreaming, twenty-two years of hatred and despair, twenty-two years of climbing on staging and moving on aerial ladders, twenty-two years of shingles, two-by-fours, hot roofs in August and December's mad cold, the near falls down precipitous walls, one thumb driven wide by the hammering, the silence which beat itself on his ears, a picture of Catherine at odds with acquiescence she had not thought possible even in dear old Fenway Park. The man who sent him down. Cold chicken dinners in the back of yellow buses fleeing the absolute dust of too many towns. The cool plains running off into darkness.
All these he amassed in one final swing, a swing The Kid would talk about for hours on end, a swing that brought old-timers to their feet, a wheelhouse swing, a swing born of anger and dreams and Catherine’s voice above the crowd and a last burst from the engine thrusting in the mid-regions of his very soul.
Momentary silence and disbelief held their sway over good old Fenway Park.
Most people say the ball is still moving, a high delicious arc over left field’s green and stoical monstrosity, a cannon movement, a shell pushed outward into Thor’s outpost, a magical thing of rhyme and reason, of salt and season, the only time All-Fenway got to bat. And the carpenter kissed his lovely wife as thirty thousand let their madness peak.
©2001 by Tom Sheehan