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THE PORTSIDER

A Rookie Gamble
By Staff Writer

The fix was in the day I killed Moberly English. But for English, the fix was always in. From childhood on, that's how he liked it. He was a squirrelly, muscle-bound little guy who, at sixteen years of age, loved to fire off a potato howitzer at the elderly next-door neighbors in Boise. He'd call them on the phone and say, "They're rising up! The potatoes are revolting!" Then the neighbors would hear the thud-thud of spuds crashing against the aluminum siding. And old Mr. Doplesworth would stumble out with his hands up, yelling, "I surrender, tubers!" Moberly English would collect ten bucks from Eddie Schuyler, who didn't think he could get old man Doplesworth out of his lounger.

A cruel prank to play on a befuddled old guy? You bet. But English couldn't help himself. Nobody was more addicted to wagering than Moberly, and I was the man who put an end to it. I was almost glad to kill him. Except these things always end up badly.

Moberly English. The man had a gambling jones that was part of his red blood count. He'd bet on anything—cards, horses, dice, whose Jell-O wiggled the most; the world was a roulette wheel he was always spinning. I met Moberly when he was a phenom. That's all he ever would be—a phenom, one of those baseball names that causes old scouts to nod and look down as if they could still see his potential spilled on the floor like a broken catsup bottle.

He had graduated from Boise High in 1960. Just two years later he was at spring training with the Detroit Tigers, in contention to make the club. More than in contention—he was a prospect, one of those kids who carried himself with a swagger because the club had paid him $100,000 to sign and he knew they weren't going to let that money go to waste. But he also knew something the club didn't. He had gone through every cent of that hundred grand in eighteen months. You could find it at the racetrack. You could find it at the dog races. You could find a big pile of it at the Florida Hi-A-Lie Club. It sounds like a place where they play that sport with those funny bats shaped like ice cream scoops, but Hi-A-Lie was a private club devoted to the ancient Aztec game of Tlatchtli. You played it with this rubber ball about the size of a bowling ball. You had to keep the ball in the air, using only your knees or hips, and get it through a ring ten feet off the ground. Tough game? You bet. Moberly always loved a challenge. He played Tlatchtli at the Hi-A-Lie Club almost every day in the off-season and bet heavily on himself to win. You had to at least like that about the guy, that he had confidence in his athletic abilities. Only trouble was, he lost heavily. There were some old Aztecs up from Mexico who had this game down pat.

One day a grizzled old native showed up. He'd come from the Yucatan Peninsula and he had a new ball. It bounced like crazy. Moberly didn't know it at the time, but he was looking at the oversized prototype for the Super Ball. Moberly hipped it against the wall and it rebounded with such force that he had to fall back out of its way, like dodging a high inside fastball. He hipped it again. Boing. Up, up, up it went. That baby could fly. That's when Moberly got the idea.

It was August, the Tigers were getting ready for the September call-ups. It was 1962, the year after they almost won the pennant, and they'd fallen off substantially. Moberly knew if he could show them some power, he'd get that call-up. He brought his baseball bat to me.

At the time, he was playing left field for the Petersburg Cossacks. The owner believed his aging wife was the long lost Russian Crown Princess Anastasia. He installed her in a box at the stadium. I believe it was the world's first luxury box. He set her up behind the first base dugout, above loge level, and gave her a throne and some grapes and caviar. She'd wave her hand to the fans with that little limp wrist thing that royals do, and they'd cheer and the organist would play "Swan Lake." It worked in Florida. I was the pitching coach for the Cossacks, my job made more difficult by those funny little tunics we had to wear. And the mustaches. Alvin, the owner and Anastasia's husband, insisted we all grow mustaches and then use the product he made his fortune with—"Volga Boat Man Moustache Wax: Pull Hard, You Volga Boat Men, You'll Always Come Up Smiling." Bit of a mouthful for a slogan. Maybe it read better in the original Russian.

So mustachioed Moberly came up to me after an August game. He had a bat and a little bag.

"Say, Staff, you've been around the block."

"More than once."

"You know how it is in this game. You've got to get an edge. A competitive advantage. You grab whatever's going to help you, right?"

"Sure, Moberly. What's in the bag?"

He spilled out three Superballs. They were down-sized versions of the new Tlatchtli ball and they bounced like Canadian jumping beans—much higher than the Mexican variety because Canada's so cold you've got to have real umph to elevate.

I knew immediately what he wanted. I'd corked some bats in my time. Not proud of it, but not that ashamed of it, either. Nothing human is foreign to me. Corking bats, spitballs—it's all part of baseball history. But in this case, I didn't say yes right away. I stared into Moberly's eyes.

"Mobe . . . you've got your whole career ahead of you. You get caught and it could ruin everything."

"Aw, Staff, you know and I know that I've got warning track power. I've got to do something, or I'll be out of baseball in two years. And I can't afford that."

Then he spilled his guts out about how the hundred Gs disappeared. Ouch. Not only were his skills questionable, so was his judgment. He needed whatever help he could get. Okay. I played bat surgeon. Did a masterful job, too. Laid in a nice mahogany tint. The Baltic Beauty, he called it. And it worked. It added twenty feet to every ball Moberly hit. Singles became doubles; long flies reached the stands for round-trippers. He got his call-up and the baseball gods smiled on him. Batted forty-four times in September. Hit seven homers. Do the math. Over a full season, say, 450 at bats—look out Babe Ruth.

It was all good until the following spring. Just a casual batting practice. Early in the morning. Thank God for that. Reporters were still sleeping off the previous night's carousing. Moberly hits a ball. He hits it just wrong and—sproing! Bat cracks in two! Hellzapoppin! Tlatchtli super balls bounce over the infield like rabbits. Everyone cracks up because they could guess what game Moberly was playing.

One man there didn't smile. Lefty Shklovski. A Russian, naturally, who worked for the Petersburg club. His title was Vice-President In Charge of Baseball Operations. What he really did was launder money for the then-infant Russian mafia. He wasn't happy because Moberly owed him. Owed him big time. He and Moberly had worked out a deal. When Moberly made the big league team—which, with his Tlatchtli ball-enhanced bat, looked like a sure thing—Moberly would make certain the mob's bets on the games would turn out the right way. A dirty business. But now . . . the whole camp knew about the Aztec super balls. Coaches started calling Moberly "Superballs." Reporters thought the nickname came from some bedroom exploits, but no secret stays secret for long in spring training, and they eventually got wind of the real story.

Moberly's balls, super or not, were cooked. He didn't know what to do. Just at this time, his baseball card came out. He sat there in front of his locker, looking at his smiling picture. A banner ran across the corner of the card: "Future Star." He shook his head, put the card in his locker. I put my hand on his shoulder.

"Mobe, I think you just have to play through this. They won't kill you."

"I'd be better off dead."

He said it, then he paused. A light went off in his brain. "Yeah. That's it." He looked up at me. "And you're going to pull the trigger, Staff."

So it came to be that two days later I was pitching batting practice with a perfectly carved potato. Moberly's theory was that I could eat the evidence. Moberly got up to the plate, grinned. A couple of players hooted, "Uncork your best pitch, Staff! He can't hit without his balls!" I reared back and threw a fastball. The spud spun out of my hand. Moberly had crafted the seams so beautifully I could throw a four-seam fastball as usual. Back then, my control was great. It went right where we planned—smacked Moberly's neck at the carotid artery. He went down in a heap.

Immediately, I rushed forward, grabbed the potato. When Moberly didn't get up, some teammates gathered around. From the stands, I saw a Russian doctor hustle over. He looked at me and I knew this was the guy Moberly had hired. He ordered the circle of concerned players back. He listened to Moberly's breathing. He checked his pulse. He waved to the stands and a moment later we heard a siren. He thumped on Moberly's chest. Once, twice. Three times. Then listened for breath. He put his mouth over Moberly's and breathed in. Once, twice, pause. Again.

An old ambulance pulled up, driven by another Russian guy. The doctor grabbed a collapsible gurney out of the back and they slid Moberly on to it. Loaded him into the ambulance and were gone. The whole thing lasted less than six minutes. Just enough time for me to calmly eat a potato. The team was worried. He went down so hard; it didn't seem like he was breathing. Had his heart stopped? It was possible.

Two hours later, the phone in the clubhouse rang. Moberly was dead. His troubles were over. An inquest, conducted by a doctor with another Russian name, identified the cause of death as accidental. The funeral service was simple, closed casket, and attended by a small group of people who were really pissed off. They were mad at Moberly because he died owing them money. Lots of it. To many different bookies and gamblers. I don't know why they showed up. Maybe just to kvetch among themselves.

Moberly became an obscure legend in baseball, the anti-Don Zimmer: a man who played selfishly, got beaned, and didn't survive. Or so the world thought. Last month, I noticed something on eBay. A rare baseball card. A Moberly English rookie. Only a few in existence. This one was being offered by someone living in Las Vegas. He was willing to barter, or better yet—to engage the potential buyer in a little Tlatchli competition. Winner takes all.

From a man who's seen everything but done very little, this is Staff Writer. —EFQ

 

STAFF WRITER doesn't own any baseball cards, but figures a Portsider rookie must be worth thousands by now. A few years ago he bet on a longshot to win at the track, but in a moment of confusion after the horse came in first, mistakenly ate the winning ticket and tried to cash an old potato he had stashed in his pocket.

© 2003 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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