Sing with me, sing for the year, sing for the laughter and sing for the tears.
—Aerosmith, “Dream On”
Tommy lit the fuse on a long winding snake of Black Cats and with a crow-hop fired them skyward. The bandolier soared, tail flapping, until exploding and flashing in midair over the oval pitcher’s mound rat-a-tat-tat. People gawked, covered their mouths. Daddy Rich, having already sparked a menthol and slipped into alligator loafers, launched sidewinders that whistled and curled across the grass before popping like twenty-twos. Redeye lobbed plastic grenades that rolled toward the other dugout, thundered, and belched smoke. Meanwhile, Tommy, still in his shin guards, said to the home-plate umpire, who leaned against a cane near the backstop in awe: “Sir, I’d just like to say that on behalf of the team and I, your umping sucks as bad as you walk.”
I looked back from Daddy Rich’s 280 as our caravan left. Smoke layered the air and paper littered the field like confetti. Groups huddled and pointed. We blared horns and shot fingers, cussed and cracked beers, lit more firecrackers. Tommy already had the water bong gurgling. There was a trophy ceremony commencing and I could see our little plaque lying in the dirt on the infield, wrapped in plastic. It was the end of our season and the Good Sportsmanship Award would have to fucking wait. But in our case the axiom was true: There was a next year, for we were only 16 years old.
We destroyed two motel rooms the previous night and fled to our knuckleballer’s uncle’s house in the country 30 miles out of town. We stood in the blinding black asphalt parking lot blinking our eyes or hiding behind sunglasses while Big John surveyed the damage like a Tornado Alley governor. We had ripped phones out of walls, crushed lampshades, bashed in TV screens, and smeared eye black on mirrors. Then we transferred to the other room and started drinking. Tommy, in his long curly locks and perpetual fat lip, rolled a turkey-foot joint, shredding redhead sense onto a Sonic tray, and twisting a monstrous doobie with two smaller prongs at the bottom. You could hit either or all three, but I preferred cigarettes and liquor. Tommy, Winger, and Jaybird, the coach’s son, shot Tequila/7-Up slammers, then began drinking it straight. That led to arm wrestling, slap boxing, and sucker punching, and next thing you know that room was toast, too: blood on the walls, toilet flooded, closet door caved in, barf on carpet, beers sprayed like fire extinguishers. This was all before the championship. No telling what we would have done had we won. Big John said later he kept watch for the cops to show during the game.
“Whose father!” Tommy shouted as the team stood with hands linked in a circle in right field in our pregame ritual.
“Our Father!” we shouted back, then chanted loudly in unison: “Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen!”
The coaches worked out a strategy to start the game. The Devils’ leadoff man was a spray hitter with speed enough to stretch singles into doubles or doubles into triples. He was obviously a base-stealing threat, but not against Tommy, who had thrown out 90 percent of runners that season. So Shack drilled the batter in the thigh on the first pitch, and, sure enough, the runner tried to swipe second and Tommy threw him out by five steps, standing up. Wasn’t even close.
It began to unravel on a bang-bang play at first where I was called safe by the base umpire. The dugout exploded in cheers, rattling the fences, and the tying run was at third with one out. I slapped the patented high-five, low-five with Curls, coach at first. But the plate ump walked out onto the field, pointed at me, then rang me up with a fist. Big John over at third slammed his clipboard, where it stuck in the ground vertically like a knife. He ran in to confront the ump, yelling at me to stay on the base.
“Come on, blue! You kiddin’ me? You can’t call him out from there! He was safe already! Goddamn, are you nuts!” he yelled.
The umpire saw him coming and pulled off his mask, shaking his head.
“Stepped on the plate during the bunt,” the ump said, pointing at Jimbo at third and ordering him back to second. “Dead ball, runner cannot advance. Batter is out. Two down. Play ball!”
Coach wasn’t prepared for that one. He yelled across the field for confirmation, but I sort of shrugged and turned my hands palms up, like, hell if I know. Big John stretched the argument mainly for show because the ruling was irreversible. That ignited the dugout. We banged the tin roof, whistled, yelled that the umps sucked, were blind, were crippled, were crazy. Our other assistant Stan the Man threw a yellow Igloo water cooler onto the field and got ejected. Big John argued against that, too, and he got tossed. The crowd boooooed in the July 4 heat, one hick yelling, “Go back to Muskogee and eat another hog you tub of guts!”
Our homerun king Tommy walked up to crush one out. He swung at the first pitch, a solid clank, driving it to deep center, small as a golf ball in the chalk-blue sky. We emptied out of the dugout with our hands in the air, yelling and screaming, because he’d done it a million times all season, but the ball died at the warning track and the centerfielder caught it against the wall. The Devils dogpiled at the pitcher’s mound. We refused the traditional postgame shake.
It was out of character for Tommy to react the way he did. He was one of the lowest keys in the piano that made up the melody of the squad. Short and squatty, sort of bow-legged, he was the epitome of a youth-league backstop. You just looked at him and said “catcher.” He wasn’t the rah-rah type, but led by example, seeming to possess an understanding beyond his 16 years. His physical stature—thick forearms, barrel chest, enormous calves—and reputation as a street fighter commanded respect and a certain amount of awe. Half Creek Indian, he had smooth pecan-colored skin. A car wreck left him with a slightly curled upper lip, a smirk like he’d just been hit in the mouth. So Tommy’s firecracker tirade and insulting of the umpire must have came from the heart.
I had known him most of my life. I’d spend weekends at his house while our parents went out drinking together. His sister Hokte would baby-sit us. There were so many roaches in the house that once we spied a solid-white albino specimen crawling across the living room rug. The house itself was a squat, one-story cinder block structure painted azure and called “The Blue Pill.” It was only a few blocks from our home field, Sally Park. One season Tommy and I wound up on different teams and I found myself bearing down on him while he stood at the plate, already with the ball. I crashed into him hard as I could, but he held on for the final out of the game. I don’t think I even budged him, scrawny as I was. Even then with the fat lip, he just looked at me and flipped the ball back toward the mound.
I hardly saw any of the guys over the fall and winter until spring as I was the only one still in high school at Muskogee. The rest of the team either went to school on the other side of town, had already dropped out, or were going to vo-tech. Tommy worked full time. He would show up to practice in jeans and steel-toed boots, just getting off at the cattle yards. The high school coach wanted to know why I didn’t play American Legion that summer like the rest of the team, and I said I had moved out of town. Our team was persona non grata to him. To him we were a bunch of renegades who didn’t know proper baseball, didn’t practice enough, weren’t disciplined, weren’t drilled in the fundamentals, weren’t in shape, smoked, drank, didn’t go to school, stayed out late, stayed in bed all day, didn’t treat our bodies like the temples they were. Some of us already had kids. Many times Big John would call the high school coach to schedule a game against the American Legion, but the high school coach always refused. For the high school coach it was a lose-lose situation: Beat the renegades, and you should have; lose to them, and it was a demoralizing embarrassment. But during that high school season (on the bench mainly because I didn’t play for Legion that summer) I contrasted our summer outlaws against the current high school lineup and the summer guys were as good or better at every position. So after I graduated and the option came up again on which summer team to play, I picked the renegades.
Curls rolled up in his four-door Catalina on the first day of practice for the new season. With the bill of his cap jammed down over his shades and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he unlocked his trunk to show us two prone fighting cocks. One had just won, he said, and one lost, but both looked half-dead to me, lying on their rust-colored feathers, chests heaving, red and blue wattles vibrating, staring with eyes flat as dimes, but changing colors like a chameleon: black, red, pink, blue. Curls grabbed the equipment bag and unceremoniously shut the trunk as we peppered him with questions: How much he had won, where did they fight, what are you going to do with the roosters? A thousand dollars, none of your business, bury them.
We took the field, playing catch until Big John showed up, fresh off work from Oklahoma Gas & Electric. He gathered us around the dugout, wrote down our names, said we needed to provide birth certificates and buy a cup and insurance, both protections for the family jewels.
“We’ve got most everybody back this year except Indian and Youngblood,” he said, puffing on a blunt cigar, which he threw down and ground out with the tip of his shoe. “Does anyone know a good second baseman?”
I took that as an affront as I played second. As if reading my mind, he quickly added, “You, Cordell, we’re looking at you for right field this year.”
There was general chuckling and eye averting. Someone said AC had moved back to town, and they’d contact him to see if he wanted to play. We were loaded again.
Sure enough, they played me in right and batted me seventh. Right is where teams usually stick the sorriest player, but in our case that wasn’t much of a weak link as I caught anything hit my way and threw out my share of runners. In youth baseball, you can usually gauge teams by how good their right fielders are. We rolled along again, crushing and run-ruling our opposition, until we finally met up with the hated all-black-except- for-one loudmouthed Muskogee Aces, our stoutest competition from last year. Their only nonblack player was nicknamed “Casper.”
The game was held under the lights and the whole town came out. The bleachers were full, split right down the middle, blacks on one side and whites on the other. Cars lined the fences along both foul lines and around the outfield, fans honking and flashing headlights when their team executed a good play. Sometimes the ump had to call timeout if a driver left the lights on, distracting a batter. The newspaper was even covering the game, a rarity as it usually dedicated all its coverage to the American Legion games, which on an average night might have fifteen fans.
The night games had a different vibe. For one, not many fans came out for the day games: too hot, or if it was midweek, they had to work. The field even looked different. Freshly chalked, the lines stood glaring against the recently wetted red clay dirt; freshly-cut grass was an emerald green, the bases seemed bleached white, the pitcher’s rubber freshly painted, even the baseballs had a particular glow under the fluorescence, stark against the bright red stitching. Stan the Man had cleaned and polished our gear, so our red helmets shone, Tommy’s catching helmet and shin guards sparkled, and even our uniforms seemed brand new, freshly washed and layered underneath with the bright-white sanitary socks that made our red stirrups flash.
For other games, ones we knew we were going to win by big numbers, say a 15-0 run-rule or 23-3, we horsed around before the game, slapping each other’s crotches with our gloves to make sure we had our protective gear on underneath in what is known as a “cup check.” Guys smoked cigarettes while playing toss, or didn’t even warm up, staying in their vehicles and cranking rock music like “Panama” or “Sister Christian” while the other team went through its pregame infield drills, trying to whip the ball back and forth, catching pop flies. Guys chatted with their girlfriends between fences, still barely half-dressed, walking around in loafers and wife-beater T-shirts, gold chains showing. One time Big John blew his stack and told us to get our shit together or we could coach ourselves. Then we went out and won 20-0. But for the Aces game, players paced the dugout spitting sunflower seeds with a vacant glare, or sat with their heads bowed, concentrating in what looked like prayer. There was no grab-ass. Except for Tommy’s occasional pep cry of “Let’s shut their fucking mouths for them,” or quiet routine strategy like going over who were their fastest guys, there was no talk until the prayer. We warmed up silently with our no-fucking-around looks, playing catch, stretching, doing quick wind sprints.
At our level of baseball, most guys had been playing since they were five years old. At five years old, Muskogee is full of teams, say 15 or 20 easily. But as the players get older, many quit, becoming disgruntled that they are sorry and play for weak teams. Some choose other sports or quit athletics altogether and start working on cars or doing jigsaw puzzles, maybe Dungeons and Dragons. ROTC, whatever. So at age 10, you have half those initial 20 teams. At age 15, another half. Then by 17, Muskogee only has three or four teams left. So most of us knew the guys on the Aces, if only because we went to school together. Some of us actually played on the same teams when younger. But that didn’t mean we were over at their houses having cookies and tea. There was real racial animosity back then, even though we had our “own” black players: AC, Daddy Rich, and Gandy.
We heard the biggest of their mouths, Victor Tollett, say, just loud enough so that we could hear him, “Those motherfuckers ain’t shit!” Shack told Tommy on the bench, “If I hit him and he charges me, throw the ball back and I’ll hit that fucker again.”
“Don’t worry,” Tommy said.
We lined up along the first base line and the Aces lined third while the press box played a scratchy rendition of the national anthem. I stood with my cap off and hand over my heart,watching the American flag on the pole in left field flutter in the southern, cool breeze, thinking all the Aces looked huge, like college football players. The umps even looked more official, with creased gray slacks, shiny black Spotbilts, patches on the arms of their short-sleeved blue shirts. My throat felt dry and I was already sweating, although the temp had cooled drastically with that breeze. I had talked Big John into batting me leadoff, and after we lost the coin toss I was the first batter. Curls nodded and clapped at me, giving me encouragement as I warmed up to the left of the plate.
“Light my fire, one-seven!” he yelled.
On the mound, their pitcher looked like he was standing on a mountaintop, his warmup pitches whistling by in a blur. Taking swings, I scanned the crowd for my girlfriend but there were too many faces. I stepped in the box, holding up a hand for time as I dug a little trench with my spikes like I’d seen the major leaguers do on TV. The first ball whizzed past, popping the mitt like a gunshot.
“Steeerike,” the umpire said dramatically, crouching and pointing a finger toward our dugout. The Aces fans clapped and cheered.
“First ball strike,” I heard the PA man say, even though the wind was whistling through the earhole on my helmet.
“That sounded high,” I said in a moment of levity, backing out of the box, taking a swing, saying it mostly to the ground for fear of showing up the ump.
“Right down the middle, jack. You cain’t hit what you cain’t see,” catcher Tollett mouthed off.
I grounded out weakly to shortstop, but the butterflies were gone. Winger, our second batter, drove the first pitch into the left-center gap, stole second, and scored when Jaybird singled to right. We led 1-0. Horns blared and lights flashed.
We knew we were in a battle, our first of the season. Their pitcher had an overpowering fastball, great curve, and a nasty slider. Unlike other teams, who booted ground balls or let them skip through their legs, the Aces scooped them up slickly and in one fluid motion fired bullets to first, or turned double plays like college teams. While other squads let fly balls drop over their heads, or let them pop out of their plastic mitts, the Aces camped out under them and caught them one-handed, like pros. Or they made running, diving catches, sliding on their chests on the slick grass while holding up the ball for the umps to see. Other teams hacked at balls over their heads or in the dirt, looking like golf swings. Oftentimes Tommy would call time and walk to the mound because he was laughing. He and the pitcher would fake a strategy session with their gloves hiding their faces. But the Aces were well-coached, selective at the plate, hammering balls into opposite-field gaps, drawing walks, dropping down deftly-placed bunts. We were definitely in a battle, but we were game, too. Winger made his own circus catch in left, initially going back a step on a sinking liner before recovering and making a fully-extended diving snare to end the fourth with the bases jammed, saving at least two runs.
“Winger!” I yelled from over in right while horns blared.
So it was tied when I stepped up to lead off the fifth. I had the pitcher’s timing down now and surprised myself by lining the first pitch over the right fielder’s head where it rattled against the chain-link fence. A standup double had the dugout fired up and the fans clapping. I looked toward the stands but saw only moths and bugs swarming the lights. I was so stoked my chest was heaving and my heart thumped like a caged rabbit’s. Curls at third clapped and pointed at me.
“You the man!” he yelled.
I was, however, a little too jacked. I should have called time and dusted off my uniform or something, anything to calm down, catch my breath. But on the first pitch, when I saw the pitcher’s lead leg leave the ground and point home, I streaked towards third, hoping to catch the Aces off guard. Later they told me the pitcher calmly backed off the rubber and fired to third. All I knew was the ball was waiting for me when I got there. Eggy Ledbetter, the third baseman, tagged me forcefully during my futile slide, shoving his glove hard into my gut with two hands, saying, “Fool!”
This enraged me. I got up and pushed him as hard as I could, nearly toppling him. I’d known this skinny rat since grade school and for him to call me a fool PO’d me. I’d been made to look like an idiot in front of all those people, in the biggest game of the year. The quickness with which Eggy retaliated, throwing down his glove and rushing me, caught me flat-footed. He tackled me like a football blocking dummy, driving me into the turf. From then on, it was mostly a blur. Their shortstop ran over and dove on top of us while Curls tried to break it up. My face was mashed into the dirt as I reached up to get purchase on anything I could and got a big handful of Eggy’s greasy afro. I began to pull to get traction when Tommy came racing over and knocked both of them off me. When I stumbled up both teams were swinging and kicking at each other right in front of the Aces’ dugout. Eggy and I stared each other down, panting. The umpires yelled for everyone to “Stop, stop, stop!” while coaches from both teams got in each other’s faces, pointing fingers and yelling whose fault it was. The fans hooted, yelling, “Kick their fucking asses!” When the melee ended Tommy and I, and Eggy and their shortstop were ejected. Big John put his arm around me and walked me off the field. It made me almost feel like crying.
“What the heck happened?” he said.
“He balked, John. He lifted his front foot,” I said, looking down at my ripped jersey, tonguing the inside of my split lip. I spit blood, lied, and said Eggy had called me a faggot.
“It’s an emotional game, son,” Big John said, and scruffed my hatless head. “But sometimes you’ve got to keep it in check.” The Aces had captured my cap; it was never seen again.
We had to watch the rest of the game from behind the dugout, eyeballing Eggy and the shortstop on the other side of the bleachers. Instead of a man on second with no outs, there was no one on with one out. We wound up losing our first game since the Devils loss the previous year, 6-5. I blamed it on myself, but to a man every player came up and said shake it off, they would have done the same thing, we’ll beat their asses next time.
“I wouldn’t let that skinny fag call me a fool, either,” Roger said.
Big John took up for me in the article in Sports the next day: “He got tagged unnecessarily hard and retaliated. My guy says their kid balked. I believe my guy.”
It was the summer of 69—the year was 1984. Most everyone on the club had a girlfriend, or girlfriends, and Daddy Rich and The Glide had kids already. Sometimes Daddy Rich would bring his to games or practices with most people thinking it was his little brother. Baby Rich, we called him. Tommy’s girlfriend was always around: games, practices, parties, the lake. It was like they were married. It affected the way he played, too. If they’d had a fight, he’d be pissed off, grouching or being short with us, not talking much, being an asshole. But if things were going well, he was the normal Tommy we knew outside of his relationship: rock steady, confident, offering encouragement, picking you up if you were down. Some guys on the team began to resent his girlfriend, but most of us accepted her because we knew she wasn’t going away. Then there were the five or six girls who made it a point to come to every game and practice, hanging around the periphery, even renting hotel rooms for out-of-town games or tournaments, inviting us over. They’d get drunk and we’d want to screw. Each had their favorite players, embarrassing them by constructing pink and baby-blue posters in curly handwriting saying “JAYBIRD ROCKS! MARRY ME!” “BRUFF TUCKER IS ONE HANDSOME MOTHER—-” or “I LOVE SHACK!” Many of the guys had been with one or all of them, but would deny it vehemently if accused.
I carried a certain distinction because my girlfriend was much older, had already dropped out of Oklahoma State as a sophomore. She operated an art gallery that sold original paintings and lithographs of her father’s, one of the most famous artists in the state who had died at age 26. Digging through her closet I found a diary I didn’t know she’d been keeping. Naturally curious to see if I was noteworthy, I flipped through entries until finding the following: “Cordell has another game today. He looks so cute in his baseball outfit!” I stood staring at the word “cute,” thinking it made me sound like a little kid, not a world-weary 17-year-old. I’d much rather have been described as one handsome motherfucker.
Since the local league only had three other teams, Big John was constantly on the horn arranging competition or getting us into tournaments. When he told us before practice we were traveling to play Stilwell, everyone high-fived, shouted and got in a great mood. It wasn’t that we were stoked for decent competition finally, it was because it meant party time on Lake Tenkiller. Stilwell, near the lake, thought it was in position to make a run at a state title, and was skippered by an ex-Cincinnati Reds scout and minor league coach. But they could have worn clown shoes and been coached by Mickey Mouse for all we were concerned. Practice was a blur as we went through the motions, more focused on when we were leaving for the lake, who was going to be responsible for getting the kegs and staking out a camping spot. The game was Saturday at 1; we left Thursday to spend that day and all of Friday at the lake. It was another major holiday for the team—even some parents tagged along, but camped in tents and trailers away from the squad in a see-no-evil approach. Friends, girlfriends, siblings, and hangers-on trickled in over Thursday and Friday as word spread like grassfire around town that the Demons were partying at Lake Tenkiller.
At its height, the gathering had about 50 people, not including parents or relatives who had their own thing going on, and really kicked into gear when Nate the Skate’s big brother showed up towing a ski boat and a pair of Jet Skis. I had never water-skied before and about drowned myself trying to get up into standing position, crashing and gulping water until I managed a decent two-minute ski. I was content to kick back in the boat and drink cold beer, feeling the cool spray on my sunburning skin. Tommy and Winger were naturals, sweeping back and forth effortlessly with their sunglasses on and gold chains flashing, jumping the creamy waves, doing one-legged tricks. The black players said Hell naw, I ain’t getting in no damn water, but Rich finally waded up to his thighs, smoking a Kool and carrying a quart of Colt .45.
Half of us were still up when the first icicle of light stabbed the sky and laid a golden smear on the still water. The other half were asleep or passed out in or on cars, some in the backs of pickups. The players that actually brought tents were the ones who were still awake at dawn, standing around a pit fire, drinking, joking and laughing. I finally cashed in my chips and sought refuge in a sleeping bag in the bed of Winger’s truck. It was Tommy, with a two-day growth of scruff, who went around waking everyone, saying we had an hour to get to the game. We followed Parrot in his yellow Firebird since he formerly lived in Stilwell and knew how to get to the field. When we arrived, the Cardinals were already doing drills like catching fly balls shot from a pitching machine, hitting cutoff men, and warming up four or five pitchers while we weren’t even dressed. Coaches in sharp uniforms wore whistles around their necks, blowing them when it was time for players to switch drills. We dressed out of our vehicles, looking for mismatched socks, missing spikes, cussing for forgetting gear at home or at the lake. Our coaches showed up a few minutes after us, obviously hungover and wearing their usual attire: blue jeans, team T-shirt, and cap. I knew it was going to be a long, hot day when warming up playing catch I totally missed a perfectly thrown ball, sticking out my glove but missing it by a foot. We looked like shit in warmups, throwing balls over heads, kicking easy grounders, missing cutoff men. I heard some of the Cardinals snicker. But we ground through it.
Word was their starting pitcher was already a professional prospect who had been drafted in the 14th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates but turned it down to improve his position in next year’s draft. And looking at him I didn’t doubt it. He made the Aces’ pitcher look like a peewee player, standing about 6 foot 3 and 220 pounds, solid muscle with thick adult arms and huge thighs, wearing the brim of his cap down over his eyes, snarling. I was intimidated by those types, but to the credit of my teammates, they weren’t, treating him like any other pitcher we’d pounded all season.
I struck out on three straight pitches I barely saw to open the game. The stud was throwing gas, the sun blinding, and my vision was bleary from staying up all night. But slowly we wore down the intimidation factor. Tommy homered to deep center in the fourth inning, and Jimbo and Gandy both doubled in the fifth. I drew a walk, and several other guys had singles. We had Shack on the mound, who never drank, thank God, and actually had a solid eight hours’ sleep. He gave up a few big hits, but wiggled out of jams thanks to our solid defense. It seemed as the game progressed we became sharper, more focused, intent on beating these pompous Cardinals who thought they were from Saint Louis with their fancy pro drills, new equipment, and about a dozen coaches and a training staff.
It was 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the winning run on second with the pro prospect at the plate. I was standing in right, yelling at Shack to keep it up, rock and fire, put him in the books. He kicked and dealed, and the prospect took one of the hugest cuts I’d ever seen taken, missing and corkscrewing himself into the ground, tripping on the unwind and falling on his ass as bat and helmet went flying. Had he connected, that ball would have left even Yellowstone Park. If it weren’t so fearsome looking I’d have been laughing. Apparently the prospect twisted his ankle in the process, and there was a lengthy timeout while their trainers—dressed in matching tan slacks and red polo shirts—looked him over for what seemed an eternity. They knelt above him, prodding and touching, twisting and poking. Then the giant got up and ran a few light sprints down the third base line before everyone deemed him good to go. I had taken a knee and was pulling and chewing at grass, looking at the swimming pool and new gym behind me. Stilwell had one of the best high school athletic programs in the state. Even the field we were on was pro-like, with walls in the outfield instead of fences, and towering stadium lights, bullpen areas, wraparound stadium seating with armchair seats instead of bleachers. Painted on the wall behind me was the advertisement: CHIEF’S BARBERSHOP, DOWNTOWN STILWELL, LOWERING YOUR EARS SINCE 1966.
The prospect took two more balls from Shack to work a full count. The runner on second bluffed a steal and Tommy almost nailed him as he dove back to second. I was thinking about the sign because my dad was a barber when I heard a loud aluminum clank, snapping up my head and seeing the ball sailing at me high, over my head. If I had been focused, I would have anticipated the ball’s direction, got a jump and got in position. Instead, I had to make up for lost ground by turning and running full-speed directly at the wall. The ball was coming fast and seemed to gain velocity the closer it came. I leaped in the air, caught it, crashed into the Indian head on the wall, bounced off and dropped it, head spinning. I staggered after it hearing wild cheering and fired it in but the runner from second had scored easily, sprinting all-out on the 3-2 swing. I dropped to a knee with my head bowed, then rolled to the ground, trying to get my bearings. The next thing I saw were the matching slacks of the Cardinals’ trainers, come to check on me, along with Winger, Tommy, and Big John. I was OK after a few minutes, but had sprained my own ankle, so Big John and Tommy walked me off, an arm hooked under each of my armpits. I hobbled through a line good-gaming the Cards. When I reached the towering prospect, he slapped my rear and said in a deep voice, “Great hustle, one-seven.”
It felt great to get back to Muskogee and start dominating again. Problem was, after running through the remaining three league teams, we had no more opposition and there were two weeks until state playoffs. So Big John got on the horn again and invited the Devils, Cards, and Aces—the only teams to beat us in two years and 46 games—to a round-robin tournament at our place. Everyone considered it a chance to stay sharp during the lull. And since it wasn’t league-sanctioned, Big John could charge a $300 entry fee—a chance to make a little money for playoff travel. But the Devils, remembering our farewell fireworks show and decidedly unsportsmanlike display of a year ago, said Hell no. So it was us, the Cardinals, and the hated Aces with a winner-take-all shot at $900 and a split of the gate.
It was a lose-two-and-you’re-out format with the Aces and Reds playing first and the Demons waiting for the winner. Big John recruited some of us to help run the tournament: getting ice water for the umps between innings, selling admission tickets, raffling off a Pendleton blanket Tommy’s mom had donated. I had the unglamorous job of making sure kids who chased down foul balls returned them. The kids got a free Coke, but many preferred the ball, so it was a chore to stay on top of them.
The Aces beat the Cards, so we had 30 minutes before first pitch. Big John was ready to fill in our lineup, but couldn’t find the scorebook. After much searching and cussing, he figured he left it at home, so sent his son Jaybird, our shortstop, to get it, and Tommy rode with him. After we stretched and threw long toss, we took the field for warmups. Midway through, Curls walked out and said something to Big John, who was about to hit me a fly. Big John dropped his fungo bat, and Curls waved us in. We pow-wowed near the dugout.
“Hey guys, Jaybird just wrecked going home for the scorebook,” Curls said. “He’s in the hospital but he’s going to be OK.”
Curls dropped his head then looked at us behind his shades. His face quivered.
“But Tommy died at the scene.”
Some guys slammed their gloves on the ground, some squatted with heads down. Winger walked off alone onto the field with his hands on his hat. Shack jammed his cap over his eyes. AC took off at a dead sprint toward right field, dropped to his knees. Some of us stared at the coach, not hearing what we just heard. Curls took off his glasses and wiped tears with the sleeve of his jersey. His arm shook. Initially disbelieving with a blank face, Beck burst into tears and stalked away, slamming his fists, looking skyward.
“Tommy’s dead?” Daddy Rich asked.
Curls only nodded.
“What happened?” Rich said.
“All I know now is they hit a tree over by the house,” Curls told us. “Tommy was in the passenger’s side and got the worst of it.”
Curls gave everyone a few minutes, then huddled us again.
“When Big John left for the hospital, he told me to leave it up to you guys. Do you want to keep playing or not? He said he’d understand either way.”
Our backup catcher Beck took over.
“Hell yes, we’re playing. For Tommy. End of discussion,” he said.
Stan the Man joined us and we waited for Winger and AC to return.
“Whose father?” Beck said softly.
“Our Father,” we answered in a hushed tone, “who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Some players sniffled, wiped back tears. We walked into the dugout in a trance. There on the bench neatly folded lay Tommy’s jersey, spikes, and glove. He had only half-dressed for the game before leaving with Jaybird. Everyone—even the Aces, with caps in hands—watched as Beck, spikes and shin guards scraping the fencing, scaled the tall backstop holding Tommy’s jersey in his left hand. He climbed to the very top and hooked the hanger on the uppermost link, then twisted it shut.
There was some lineup shuffling with Skunk and T-Bone coming off the bench to fill holes, but with Tommy’s yellow number seven flapping in the breeze behind us at the plate and in front of us on the field, there was no way we would lose. I tripled into the right- center gap to lead off the game, and when I beat a close throw at third Eggy said, “Good rip, Cordell. Sorry about Tommy.” The celebrations that day were not raucous, but mild. We beat the Aces 7-3, then took care of the Cardinals 10-2 to win the round robin, even though the prospect was on the hill. We hit four homers off him that, granted, would have been routine outs in his spacious yard, but, hey, both teams were playing on the same field. We saved both winning game balls and Curls had us sign them. This time they let me climb the fence and take down Tommy’s jersey.
Me, Winger, Beck, Jaybird, Gandy, and AC were pallbearers, and the entire team was honorary. Jaybird was still in crutches, so Shack filled in. Tommy’s mom and dad agreed to have him dressed out in full Demons uniform, but in lieu of a cap he wore a classic red bandana. Inside his catcher’s mitt that was fitted on his left hand and angled across his chest was one of the signed game balls. Also lying next to him on the maroon satin was a pack of Marlboro reds and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. His service was held outside at an Indian Baptist church near Okemah, in the shade of massive oak trees filled with buzzing cicadas. The myriad leaves rustling in the breeze made kaleidoscope shadows over Tommy’s body. He looked like Tommy, down to the perpetual fat lip. All the Demons were there, some in suits if they had them, but most in their best blue jeans and shirts. It was odd to see them assembled in street clothes. I wore jeans and a new blue Oxford my mom bought me. After the preacher said his words a cassette player was produced and “Dream On,” Tommy’s favorite song, was played: “Every time that I look in the mirror,” it began, “all these lines in my face getting clearer. … Sing with me, if it’s just for today, maybe tomorrow the good Lord’ll take you away.” As pallbearers the entire team sat with the family in front under the tent while the song played. When it finished, the cassette, inside its case, was placed into the casket. Then the church bell rang 17 times, each succeeding peal not beginning until echoes of the last one faded. The locusts grew silent, only starting up again after the long silence of the last bell.
We loaded Tommy into the hearse and got in for the caravan to the gravesite. Mortuary workers lowered Tommy into the hole and everyone filed by to drop the red dirt onto his shiny silver casket, with the occasional yellow flower tossed in. Then the team took turns with three or four shovels until the hole was filled, sweaty work in the baking sun. Some of us stood around talking as the funeral dissipated.
“Man, I’ve never not known him,” said Beck, still tearful. He was shaven and wore a tight-fitting suit. “Same team since five years old. I lost a brother.” He had spoken for all of us.
That was the end of the Demons. Even though the state playoffs began in a week, the consensus was we were burnt. Our starting catcher and best hitter dead, starting shortstop with broken bones. Emotionally whipped. No heart for it. There was a team meeting and a show of hands of who wanted to continue and there were no hands. Too old for summer league, I was forced to play American Legion the next year, and it wasn’t the same. Too organized. Everybody lumped into two Suburbans for away games. Highlight of the road trips: stopping at QuikTrip on the way back. Riding pine. No fans. No girls. No caravans. No one slept at each other’s house on the floor or couch. No one called their teammate’s mother Mom. No one helped you fix your car, picked you up for practice, invited you in for a bologna white bread sandwich. That was my last year of baseball. I was getting sorrier and sorrier anyway. Dream on.