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THE PORTSIDER

The Sweetest Game in Town
By Staff Writer

So much misery from a pear. It was a Bosc, russet-skinned and plump and so soft its juice ran down my fingers when I bit it. I ate that pear at midnight and suffered for forty years. Besides issues of this magazine, suffering is the only thing in my life that's added up to forty. I got 39 wins in Triple A ball, 39 wins in Double A ball, and 139 wins in Single A ball, but who counts those? Who really counts any of it except the wins in the majors and there, my cup of coffee left only a stain. A stain that started with a Bosc pear.

Pear juice dribbled down my fingers the night of July 7 in Snohomish County, Washington. I was riding the midnight train to Rainier with the Running Rapids Apple Cheeks Class A ball club. And I was pushing forty. I've pushed forty most of my life. See, I've been blessed with a kind of hatchet face—lean, stubbled with razor-sharp five o'clock shadow—not attractive, but impossible to pin down. For many years, people thought I was thirtyish. Then I moved into thirty-something. Then I was pushing forty. My thirties covered four decades. People thought I was thirty when I was twenty-five. They thought I was thirty-one when I was thirty-six. They thought I was thirty-six when I was forty-three, and they thought I was thirty-nine when I turned fifty. I'm not bragging. When I turned sixty, people thought I was eighty. So it evened out on the other side.

I was pushing forty when I threw for the Apple Cheeks, so I wasn't crazy about the rouge. Roger Fudd owned the Cheeks, and he was promoting Pink Lady apples—"Washington Fresh Pinks." He put out this line that the whole team ate Pink Lady apples day and night, giving the players healthy fresh cheeks. He kept a pot of rouge by the locker room door and demanded we all put some on our cheeks. Some of the boys put it on their cheeks and some put it on their other cheeks and some really did eat a lot of Pink Ladies, but they were the kind that wore sweaters and read Marx and believed in free love.

But there I was pushing forty and didn't look forward to losing a job, so I plastered on the rouge and then listened to Roger Fudd introduce the team: "Ladies and gen-to-men, they're gonna get that wabbit!" I'm afraid Roger talked just like Elmer and the funny thing was that he didn't mind. He was rather pleased that he talked like a cartoon character, and whenever we played the Walla Walla Rabbits, he insisted on taking over the microphone. "Ladies and gen-to-men, meet the Walla Walla Wabbits!" And they'd come hopping out on the field in their bunny suits and then we'd waddle out in our Pink Lady costumes. Times were hard. You think drawing a crowd is easy? You'd put on Pink Lady tights and the little red outer shell if it meant the difference between getting a paycheck on Friday or getting paid off in apples.

And we were happy. What is happiness except the absence of misery? By that standard, we were a happy team. We'd trot out to our positions every night with Roger crying over the P.A., "Let's give a big Wunning Wapid welcome to the Pink Ladies!" And the crowd roared, "Think Pink! Think Pink!" And we avoided misery. Until one day when one of the Pinks turned out to be a lady.

Her name was Randy. That's how she introduced herself—Randy Rawlingson. She was a veteran of the professional women's baseball that flourished in the forties. After it passed into history, she couldn't kick the habit. So she cut her hair short—a buzz cut, shorter than she had to—and she bought men's shirts and pants and played on wherever she could. She—he—had a reputation as a light-hitting, good-fielding second baseman, an exceptionally smart and heads-up player who kept his head down and did her job. His/her managers usually said, "Randy says hello on Opening Day and good-bye when the season ends, and in between hits .270."

Roger made us roommates. We were the two veterans on the team; it was natural; no one thought a thing of it. Except me. I remembered Randy Rawlingson. I managed against her. Do you know how you memorize a player's batting stance? If you saw Stan Musial or Gary Sheffield or Jeff Bagwell stand at the plate, you wouldn't need a number on their back to identify them. A swing is as good as a fingerprint. I had managed against Randy (and sometimes, in a pinch, donned a short pleated skirt and played against her—not proud of that, but better than a forfeit). The moment she came up to the plate for us, and showed a slightly open stance and cocked her hands twice before she swung, I knew it was her. And I was fine with it. I didn't care. It didn't bother me—until we started rooming together.

Because then I felt something rise up in me. Something as foreign to me as a kimono in Kokomo. Love. It was her soft hands that first attracted me. You should have seen her field a slow roller. Beautiful hands. And I admired her steadiness. One hundred and twelve games without an error. And she had great eyes. She walked all the time. Not that she couldn't connect with a ball—she had a nice compact stroke. It was just the whole package I was crazy about. But what could I do? I couldn't blow her cover—I wouldn't dream of it. So I admired her from afar. From about three feet afar, in the other single bed in our hotel rooms.

Until that midnight train to Rainier. It was near the end of the season. I was riding an incredible hot streak. I honestly think that being in love added eight miles to my fastball. Being in love broke my curve off sharply. I was unhittable. And I wasn't the only one to notice. The Tigers sent a scout out. They were looking for a pitcher, a specialist, a lefty who could handle one or two left-handed hitters a game. That would be me. The stars were aligned that night. Until a Bosc pear ruined it all.

We were on a sleeper. I was on the top berth, Randy in the berth below. It was dark and quiet and the steady click-a-clack of the train lulled us both into a kind of softness. It was a time to share secrets. I knew if I threw well the next day, I might get the call-up to the big club. After that, who knew when I'd ever see her again? This might be the last night I'd ever spend three feet apart from Randy. I wanted to close that gap. I whispered in the dark, "Randy?" "Yes, Staff." "Randy . . . I saw you play before." "I've been around, that's for sure."

I paused. "It was in 1945." I knew she'd know what I meant. Her silence told me she did. "You were beautiful. You still are." More silence. I started to babble. "I wanted to tell you—in case I get a call—that if I never saw you again and you didn't know, I couldn't forgive myself." Silence. Then: "How old are you, Staff?" "Pushing forty." "Really? I thought you were closer to fifty." "No, I just look that way." A pause. Then her voice floated up to me: "Do you like pears?" "Sure, Randy." "I've got a Bosc pear down here. Plump. Juicy. Ready for you."

I went down, down to the lower berth and the juice of that pear came dripping down my fingers when suddenly a voice rang out in the sleeper:

"A peah? A peah?" It was Roger. He had a tremendous sense of smell. He'd been drinking and once he started drinking, we all knew the next step: He'd don the little hat with earflaps and grab a bulbous shotgun and start hunting for wabbits. And if he didn't find any wabbits, he'd shoot at anything with ears. Anything that got under his skin. Like a Bosc pear. Roger was an apple purist. He looked at pears as Granny Smiths gone soft in the ass. Like obese apples with a genetic disorder.

"There's a peah in heah." Randy and I froze. Literally. We had no sheets on—they'd been discarded to the floor moments earlier. We didn't budge. We didn't have to. The curtain was flung open and there was Roger, earflaps down, gun up, looking at us in horror. "Wandy? Wandy? Why, Wandy Wawlingson, youah a woman!"

Confusion. Horror. Sheets lifted off the floor. Gun thrust into my nose. Roger stammering: "The Wunning Wapids can't have this! At Wainier youah getting off this twain! For good! And this [pointing to the pear]—this is not a Pink Lady! It's a peah!"

Randy left before Rainier. She leapt out as we slowed on a curve, weeping, her bat in one hand, and her leather grip in the other. She wouldn't look back. She ran off into the Washington woods and I never saw her again.

Forty years I've suffered that loss. I made the call-up to Detroit the following week, but without love my fastball stunk and my curveball hung and I was back in the minors faster than you can say Johnny Appleseed. But I wouldn't go back to Running Rapids. No, sir. I signed up for barnstorming with Harry and David's All Fruit team. At least I could eat a pear in peace and watch the juice run down my fingers and remember the last night before misery came home to stay.

—EFQ

 

STAFF WRITER has tasted the good and the bad in his longtime dalliance with baseball, but never has the fruit been so bitter than with Bud Selig in charge. He tried to sneak a poison apple into the commissioner's box during a Twins-Yankees playoff game in October, but George Steinbrenner snatched the apple away and wolfed it down in a couple of bites. Strangely, the Yankee boss suffered no ill effects.

© 2004 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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