Michael J. Vaughn
The Redemption of Billy Saddle
Managing a softball team on the Rain Coast is no easy thing. The umpires cancel games only for Noah-like deluges. The league uses special rain-resistant balls, and players are on permanent orders to show up unless they're doing the backstroke in their living rooms.
That particular Wednesday, the stuff was coming down in buckets, inspiring three-fourths of my outfield to head to Seattle for a Mariners game. Alas! The clouds thinned out an hour before game time, and Luke Driver's new drainage system was performing ridiculous miracles on the ballfield.
I was up against it. Harry the Blue came over to give me the heads-up.
"Y'got ten minutes to get that eighth player, Joel. Andacourse, the rosters are still open, so if you can shanghai a layman..."
A reasonable idea, if I was closer to town. Who the hell would be wandering the park on a night like this?
"Hey, Joel. You see a spot of yellow up there?" My second baseman, Carson, gestured at the spruce grove behind the first-base dugout. Sure enough, a rain slicker, drifting down the trail like a day-glo ghost.
"Hey!" I shouted. "You up there! Y'wanna play?"
He walked slowly to the backstop, then lifted his hood to reveal gray hair and a deeply lined face.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Couldn't hear you."
"We're a little short," I said. "Would you like to fill in for us?"
He spotted Besky and Lew playing pepper on the infield.
I am up against it, I thought.
"Um... haven't played for a while. Haven't got a glove."
"I've got an extra," I said. "Listen. If ya do nothing but stand out there and scratch yourself, you're saving us from forfeiting."
He smiled. "Those are the kind of expectations I can deal with."
"Great! What's your name?"
"Right field okay?"
"Joel!" said Harry the Blue. "Y'got yer eighth?"
"Home team, take the field!"
I handed Billy the raggy old glove I used to use in high school, and we had our skeleton defense: three outfielders, first, second and short. Pitching-wise, I was kinda screwed. Inisde, they pull it through that third-base hole. Outside, they hit it to a right-fielder wearing hiking boots.
Funny thing, though -- sometimes an eight-man defense just messes with a hitter's head. The first guy was too eager, and popped it to first. Number two tried to pull an outside pitch, and grounded out to Besky at short. The next guy kocked a single through third, though, and the cleanup man got a double to left-center.
Number five was a lefty. I meant to start him outside, but the ball drifted in and he hit a long fly to right. Billy didn't move a muscle. I was sure he'd fallen asleep.
"Billy!" I shouted.
At the last second, he raised his glove, and the ball smacked in. He took it out and studied it. then smiled and tossed it to Carson.
Besky ran by the rubber and grinned. "He catches!"
Late that night, I brewed a pot of coffee and punched our stats into the computer. There's nothing I love more than a well-done scoresheet. It's like a blueprint of a house that's already been built.
Don't get me wrong -- we lost. It takes a better team than ours to beat a ten-eight handicap. But I kept going back to Billy.
You watch a good outfielder, he runs with his glove at his side. Then, at the last second, he raises it for the catch. Otherwise, it gets in the way. Some of these men's-league guys run with their arm straight out like a puppeteer with a tall stage.
He didn't give me much else to go on. Tracked down the base hits, hit the cutoff man. Swing was kinda choppy -- one-for-three, single up the middle.
But that catch. He wasn't asleep at all; he was studying the ball, saw it coming right at him, calmly threw up the glove. Your muscles don't just do that on their own. That single motion carried twenty years of repetition.
I didn't get the chance to find out more. I made the final out, a long fly to left, then lined up for handshakes with the other team. I returned to find my old glove on the bench and a yellow ghost rising into the spruce. Which made it all the more surprising, the next week, to find Billy sitting in the bleachers.
"Billy! Good to see you."
He gave me a smile that was hard to read. "Thought maybe you could use a rooting section."
"Sure! We need all the help we can get."
I didn't think much more of it until the fourth inning. Carson was trying to muscle one over the right-field fence (the only fence we've got). As usual, he missed, fouling a pop toward the bleachers. The ball took a high hop and headed toward Billy, who reached up and snagged it with his bare hand.
"Nice grab!" said Carson. "If we had a shortstop who could catch like that..."
"Or a second baseman who could turn a double play!" Besky rebutted.
The witty repartee came to a stop when we noticed that Billy hadn't thrown the ball back in. He sat there, staring at it, almost like he was trying to read his fortune.
"Yo, Billy!" I said. "Need the ball back, bud." Nothing. Finally, I had to walk over and pat him on the shoulder. He looked up with a dazed expression.
"Can I get that back?" I said. "We're a low-budget league."
"Oh. Sure," he said, and rolled it into my hands.
With a full roster, we were cruising along nicely. By the sixth, we had the bases loaded and needed only a run to win by the ten-run "mercy" rule. But I was still thinking of that look on Billy's face.
Lew looked up from the batter's box with his usual wry expression.
"What? Did I miss the bunt sign?"
"Nah," I said. "You're out. Billy! Get over here."
Billy pointed at himself, quizzically. I nodded.
"Geez, Joel," said Lew. "I toldja I'd give ya my league fee next week."
"Got my reasons, Lew. Harry, this guy's on the roster from last week."
"Sure. I never forget a rain slicker."
I met Billy at the on-deck circle. He had a bat, but he still looked puzzled.
"Easy situation here, Billy. Hit the ball into the outfield, we win."
"Payback, pal. You gave us a chance last week; this week, I give you a chance. Go get 'em."
It didn't take long to get my answer. Billy took the first pitch and roped it to left. He stood at the plate, admiring his handiwork, then trotted to first to make it official. Lew ran from the dugout and started a mock celebration, slapping Billy about the shoulders.
I was piling my bats into the truck when Billy appeared at the far side.
"Billy! How does it feel to hit a walk-off single?"
He circled the bed and shook my hand.
"Thank you. That was very... gracious."
His demeanor was so intense that it made me a little uncomfortable. "That's all right," I said. "I was going for the lefty-righty percentages."
He chuckled and turned to go.
"Wait a minute, Billy. Would you like to be on the team? We're pretty set on starters, but I can getcha a couple innings here and there."
I was getting a bead on that smile now. It was elfin. That's why you couldn't read it. Different species.
"Sure," he said. "I'd like that."
"Great. But get some kinda uniform, wouldja?"
He showed up in a complete Nashville Blues uniform, right down to the navy stirrups. Looked like the oldest Little Leaguer in America.
In the sixth inning, our right-fielder, Frank, got into the longest rundown in Rain Coast history, scampering back and forth till most of the opposing team got a hand on the ball. When he finally got tagged out at first, I looked at my scoresheet and threw up a hand.
"Did anybody keep track of that?"
Billy looked up, blinked his eyes once, and said, "Seven to four to three to four to one to six to three to... ten."
I just stared. "You're shittin' me."
"Nope. That was it."
"Here." I handed him the sheet. "You write it."
"Uh-oh," said Lew.
I turned around to find Frank writhing around in the coach's box.
"Ah shit. It's that goddamn hamstring. Billy. Warm up, wouldja?"
That's how Billy Saddle became our starting right-fielder. And the mystery grew. Never anything big, just the little, instinctual things. His arm wasn't strong, but his throws were perfect -- through the cutoff, two bounces to the base. He didn't make showboat catches, but he made the ones he should, and he never muffed a single into a double. His hitting got sharper each week, till he was spraying the ball left and right, following the pitch wherever it came in.
Frankly, it was getting on my nerves. When the last game of the season was rained out, I saw my chance. I offered Billy a ride home.
"Hey, Billy. Mind if we stop and get a pizza? My treat."
"Oh, uh... sure."
We split a pitcher of beer and a large pepperoni as we talked old-time baseball. Billy was a goddamn encyclopedia, and spoke names like "Hoyt Wilhelm" and "Nap Lajoie" with a faint fire in his eyes. When he seemed fully engaged, I edged around the to the real question.
"So what's with the Blues uniform? You from Tennessee?"
His face switched off like a light. "No. Just a... fan."
Okay. Plan B.
"Look, Billy. I'll be honest with you. You're drivin' me nuts."
He looked concerned. "Oh?"
"I'm onto you, pal. All these little... fine points in your game. You have definitely played at an advanced level somewhere. Are you Shoeless Joe? Deadbeat dad? Mafia turncoat?"
He looked like all three as he scanned the room, taking note of our fellow diners.
"Will they let us... into that banquet room?"
"Sure. Owner's a friend of mine."
We settled in a dark corner of the room. Billy looked around once more until he felt safe. I fought the urge to make a joke.
"I'm going to tell you the whole story. But you can't tell a soul. In fact, the only reason I'm telling you is because you are someone who will understand the absolute necessity of my secrecy. You've also been awfully nice to me, and I appreciate it."
Billy was suddenly talking in focused, compound sentences. I sat back and listened.
You're right. I'm a player. Nothing special -- played for my junior college, then a dozen years of softball. Like most guys.
And yes, this is also about the Nashville Blues. In fact, I'm gonna have to start at the beginning. As you probably know, Nashville was one of the original National League teams. Spent the 1910s battling the Giants for the pennant and the Philadelphia A's for the Series.
Blues owner Sal Withers made his money on nightclubs and hotels. By the early twenties, he found that white audiences were increasingly interested in the new negro music. He also found it was easier to shaft negro musicians.
One such performer was Big John Spillums, a delta guitarist from New Orleans. (I should add, at this point, that the Blues got their name from their blue uniforms, not from the music.) Spillums played for two weeks at the Bijour Parlor, and drew a pretty good crowd. When he went to collect his pay, he was handed half the agreed-upon price.
"What the hell is this?"
"Lodgin' fees," said the manager. "Had to take out lodgin' fees."
"You know damn well that was included!"
The bartender appeared at the manager's shoulder, right on cue, whapping a billy-club against his palm.
"Hello, Seth," said the manager. "Could you see that Mister Spillums gets safely on his way?"
Big John was standing outside, guitar in hand, when Sal Withers' car pulled up to the curb.
"Mister Withers! There's been a mistake, sir! They took out half my pay!"
Withers' driver, Jimmy Collins, knocked Big John to the ground, as Withers climbed the steps to his club.
"Oh, you done it now," said Big John. "Withers! That ball team o' yours ain't never gonna win again! You done messed with the wrong man!"
Withers laughed, and walked inside.
If it hadn't been for Duffy's Drop, the very next year, Big John's words might have disappeared into the pea soup of history. Duffy Webster, the best outfielder in the league, dropped an easy fly that would have iced the pennant. The Blues lost their last two games, and the Boston Braves went to the Series. Such a horrific turn of events had to have a cause, so fans and press alike turned to Big John Spillums, the New Orleans bluesman with the voodoo connections.
The Drop was followed by Bob's Big Boot in 1947 and the sixth-game collapse in the '58 Series. In 1964, Teddy James took Skip Henry's Doofus Pitch -- a pitch that had not once in ten years been hit over a fence -- and homered to win a three-game tiebreaker. In 1973, a team-wide flu epidemic caused the Blues to waste a seven-game division lead in the last ten days.
In 1987, Nashville had its best team ever: Ted Fitzsimmons in center, Pasco Fernandez at short, Richie Campbell firing 97 mile-per-hour heaters from the mound. This was gonna be the year they broke the curse, once and for all.
In the championship series, we had the Cards down, three games to one. They won the next game, but that was our weakest pitcher, Pat Webster. We had Campbell starting the next day -- and I had tickets, on the right-field foul line.
I was thirty-five. Had a wife and two daughters. I worked in real estate, made some pretty good money. It seems funny that the Blues meant so much to me, but I'd been through some real shit with that team. Just the thought of being there when we finally got back to the Series -- it was nearly inexpressible.
The game did not go well. Richie had some control problems, and the Cards had a knuckleballer, Stephens, whose pitches were dropping and dipping like drunken mosquitoes. Still, we were in striking distance, back four-to-two in the eighth, and suddenly Stephens couldn't hit the plate. After he walked the first two batters, they put in a reliever, Pinon. He got the first out on an infield pop, then McCarthy singled to score the runner from second. Davis struck out, leaving us behind four-to-three, two outs, with men on first and third.
On the first pitch, Pasco reached out and slashed the ball down the right-field line. It landed a foot fair, spun to the right, then struck the bullpen mound and took a high hop toward the stands. It was headed right at me!
Withers Field is a quirky old place, and there along the foul line the stands jut out at an odd angle. I remember an interview with an old right fielder, who said sometimes he couldn't throw straight home because the stands were in the way.
Problem was, I didn't think about this ahead of time. I didn't realize where I was, I just grabbed. I was the only one tall enough to have a shot.
I caught it with my bare hand, and then I spun around, tucking the ball to my stomach so no one could take it from me. This left me in a perfect position to see where the ball would've gone if I hadn't messed with it: back into play, into that blind right-field corner.
McCarthy, the runner on first, was a speedster. With two out, he would've been off at the crack of the bat. He would've scored easily with the go-ahead run.
The buzz of 35,000 confused, angry fans filled my ears. A couple of security guards led me out of the park, for my own good, as people pelted me with hot dogs and beer. I didn't blame them.
You know the rest. The ground-rule double left McCarthy at third. Fitzy flied out. The Cards scored in the bottom of the 13th to take the game, then beat us eight-to-two the next day to take the pennant.
I was a celebrity. I got death threats. The cops said they couldn't make any promises. I decided to move, but my wife said she couldn't leave Tennessee, couldn't put the kids through it. I think the truth was, she didn't want to be married to Big John's Curse.
The Northwest coast seemed a likely place to disappear. I stay light on my feet, though -- there are Blues fans everywhere. Every summer, I meet my daughters at a neutral locale, and we spend a few days together. But that's about it.
We all make mistakes. Not many of us pay such a high price. I keep picturing the hours just before -- entering the stadium, buying a beer, joking with my pal Dave. How could I have known?
That ball was the last one I touched -- till that night at the park. I didn't even know I was near a ballfield till you shouted out.
I hadn't thought about that '87 championship in years. The media pegged it the Grand Fool Double. I gotta admit, I agreed with them. But a month later, when the late-night comedians were still joking about it, I thought, Come on! Enough already. And here he was, the Curse personified, sitting in a pizza parlor in Hoquiam, Washington.
"Come on, Billy. Let me drive you home."
Playoff night was two weeks later. We breezed through the semis, and everyone seemed to be on their games. Everyone but me. I kept swinging at bad pitches, hitting little pop-ups to the infield. I had a theory about this. All this forbidden knowledge about my right fielder was gumming up the works.
Billy, meanwhile, was playing like a man with much less weight on his back, slashing singles all over the place, breaking up the double play, taking the extra base. In the first inning of the championship game, their leadoff man pulled a grounder past first. Billy raced over, went into a feet-first slide, caught the ball, popped up and threw a strike to second. The hitter was so impressed, he just stood on first base, watching.
It was a back-and-forth game, all the way through. We had a two-run lead going into the top of the final inning, and my teammates seemed to think that was enough, making three quick outs. Our opponents took full advantage, starting the bottom of the inning with two singles. I got the next guy to pop up, but the next batter hit a grounder to deep short. Besky made a great diving stop, but couldn't make a play anywhere. Their cleanup man followed with a long fly to center, scoring one runner and moving the others up. Tying run on third, winning run on second, two outs. The air was getting thin.
I had a base to work with, so I started the next guy, a big left-hander, with a couple of high ones. He wasn't fishing, though, so I brought the next one down, and he hit it to right with a breathtaking smack!
It was a liner, but it was headed right for Billy. I watched him square up behind it and thought, This is it -- the end of the curse.
But now Billy was staggering, sinking to a knee, fighting some unseen force. The ball clanked off the heel of his glove and fell to the grass.
I would have let out some suitable lament, but I didn't have time. Billy had fired the ball toward first, and no one was covering. I took two steps and dove, pocketing the ball mid-flight and landing squarely on the bag.
Beating the runner by a half-step.
"The runner is out at first!" yelled Harry the Blue. "That is a force, so neither run scores!"
Our team went silent for a confused half-second, then burst into hysterics. In the midst of wrestling with ... whatever, Billy had spotted the batter, watching his drive from the box, certain that he had just made the last out of the season.
I ignored the melee all around me and dashed out to right, where Billy was kneeling in the grass, watching the celebration.
"Billy! We won! You all right?"
Billy smiled. "Give me a hug, coach."
He stood, and I squeezed him for all he was worth.
"No, no," he said. "Little higher. 'Round the shoulders."
I did what he said and heard a popping sound.
"Ah! Thanks. Does that when I throw too hard."
I smiled and said, "It's gone, isn't it?"
"The curse! You beat the curse!"
Billy looked at me quizzically and said, "I don't believe in curses."
"Well, then what the hell got ahold of you on that line drive?"
He laughed. "Bastard hit me a knuckleball. You ever try to catch one of those things?"
We gave our championship the full treatment: four hours of pizza and beer, numerous slo-mo retellings of that final, miraculous play -- followed by two weeks of bragging, till the whole town was sick of us. One night, I arrived home to find a package on my doorstep, with a note.
Dear Coach Joel -
My eldest daughter invited me to Colorado, so her newborn son could have a granddad. Maybe someday I'll take him to a Rockies game.
I leave you an item that's done me no favors -- but I thought you'd get a kick out of it.
Gratefully, your friend,
I opened the box to find a major-league baseball, marked by a single grass stain, a clay-colored scratch, and small red letters near the seams reading, 1987 NLCS.