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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Th Old Ball Game
By Tom Larsen

My mother calls.

"It was him. What is he doing?"

"He's a call-in guy mom. What can I tell you?"

"At 3 A.M.?"

"Maybe it was taped earlier. How did he sound?"

"That's just it. He sounded wonderful. I'd almost forgotten how charming he can be."

"What are you doing up at 3 A.M.?"

"I couldn't sleep. I put the radio on and there he was."

"You listen to Sports Talk?"

"It's better than the music they play. Anyway, it's just voices to me. If I turn it down, it sounds like you two are in the kitchen."

"What was he saying?"

"Something about a four-man rotation?"

"Was he for it?"

"I think so. Why? What is it?"

"Nothing, Mom. Don't worry about it."

When he's manic, my brother works the phones. If he's got your number he'll be in touch. The calls are rambling or incoherent, entertaining or exhausting depending on his stage in the cycle. They can be long or short, but if they're short you can bet there will be more of them. At his worst his calls are abusive and more than once they've landed him in jail.

His former employer was a frequent target until the restraining order. The mayor, the chief of police, his lawyers and doctors have all drawn Rob's telephone ire. Last year he berated a receptionist at the FBI and within the hour there were G-men at his door. I've seen him rip the phone out of the wall and toss it out the window only to retrieve it for a quick follow-up. The Veterans Administration has put him on their shit list and the D.A. had his number changed. I've heard him make grown men cry.

The sports talk guys know him as Rob from Doylestown. His peeves are many and his logic, irrefutable. At least to him. To their credit the jocks hear him out, though they've heard it all before. From his Dick Allen in the Hall-of-Fame campaign to the vagaries of the balk rule, brother Rob can beat the dead horse. The four-man rotation is a new one on me, but it sounds just like him.

There was a time when I welcomed his calls. Back before the walls started closing in on him. For a time we lived on different coasts and a late-night recap might stretch on for hours. Now it's all red flags and preemptive maneuvering. He's hung up on me more times than I can count. Some days a ringing phone can make my toes curl.

 

"Okay asshole, what did you say to Andi?"

"Andi? I haven't talked to her."

"Something about Ginny. Come on asshole."

"I haven't seen Ginny in years."

"Do me a favor, asshole. Don't badmouth my ex-wives to my kids, okay?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

SLAM!

Sometimes the calls aren't even from him. The ex-wives for example.

"Hello, Tom? This is Pat. I thought I should call you."

"Why? What's up?"

"It's Rob. He's going off again."

"What now?"

"He's up on a ledge at the courthouse. I think you should get down there."

"Right. Are the kids okay?"

"Okay? Daddy's up on a ledge."

"Right. I'm on my way."

Sometimes you know what's coming

"Hello, Mr. Larsen? I have a collect call from a Robert Larsen."

Sometimes you don't.

"I need you to check my pipes."

"Pipes? Now?"

"I'm worried about the outside spigot. It's making me nuts."

"But it's snowing."

"The shutoff valve is behind the washing machine. It's a little complicated."

"Where are you?"

"In the nuthouse. All I can think about is my pipes. Bursting. My pipes bursting."

"Okay, relax. How do you turn it off?"

"It's complicated. Get a pencil."

In his depressed mode you have to call him. These are often the worst.

"оо.. lo?"

"Rob?"

Silence.

"You okay?"

Click.

When he was younger, he never seemed depressed. Full-blown mania was his only variation. Back then he was also normal much of the time, but the normal days seem behind him now. The message on his answering machine is a voice from the past. Crisp and business like. All bases covered.

"This is Rob Larsen at the Putnam Street Studio. Please leave your message and a number and I'll get back to you, or you can fax me at 596-4887. Your message may be important to me. We'll see. This is Rob Larsen, signing off."

As you might expect, the calls and faxes have slowed to a trickle. Mostly irate creditors and notices to foreclose.

 

Rob calls.

"Okay, big bro. Name the Game 4 winning pitcher. World Series, 1962."

"A trick question, no doubt."

"The trickiest. Here's a hint. In his previous postseason start, he pitched the perfect game."

"You're kidding. Uncle Don?"*

"DING! That's correct. And now, for the grand prize—one free ticket to this afternoon's Phils-Braves twin bill—what was the winning team?"

"Yankees, of course."

"BRAAAMP! Oooh, I'm sorry. The correct answer is the San Francisco Giants. Try that one down at the old watering hole."

"What? No consolation prize?"

"I almost forgot. And the consolation prize is . . . two tickets to this afternoon's Phils-Braves twin bill."

"You have tickets?"

"I have tickets."

"I don't know. I've got work—"

"Suit yourself."

"Okay, I'll go."

"Attaboy. Hey, it's a beautiful day for a ball game, right?"

"Yeah, right."

"Right?"

"I'll be over in an hour."

"Right?"

"Okay, okay, let's play two."

"Attaboy!"

A beautiful day it ain't. Halfway through August and the world is a soupy brown. It will be a steam bath down at the Vet, but what can I do? Let him go alone? He's been spiraling off for weeks now and drinking heavily to boot. Rob from Doylestown in the house. Worst-case scenario staring me in the face. A doubleheader, no less. Six hours, if I'm lucky.

When I get to his house, he isn't there. Instead, niece Andi, looking less than happy. I sit down beside her and grin like an idiot.

"Don't worry," I tell her. "I'll be with him."

"It's really bad."

"It'll be all right."

She looks right through me.

"Listen kiddo. I know it's hard, but I promise you nothing will happen."

What would possess me? If anyone knows that something always happens, it's Andi. Not yet noon and the day's getting away from me here.

"He's been calling day and night. Mom's a wreck."

"I'll talk to him. Where is he?"

"I don't know. He's in and out."

And in he comes, a case of beer under each arm. He stacks the cans in the refrigerator without a word, folds up the cartons, and then he's out. We sit looking at the empty doorway until he returns, this time lugging a watermelon. He drops it in the sink, then he's out again. We listen to him stomping empties in the driveway. It takes a while.

"Would you like to see my pictures from Paris?" Andi asks me.

She pulls an envelope of photographs from her purse and hands them over. I glance through them registering nothing. Out in the driveway he is singing now, softly, but loud enough to hear.

"Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks." STOMP!

"I don't care if I ever get back." STOMP!

 

I can feel the hair rise on the back of my neck.

Andi's last photo shows a gang of girls standing before the Arch de Triumph. Herself to the left looking younger than the rest. She lived with her mother and sister after the breakup and has given her dad the tough love he deserves. Andi's pretty and smart, with a cynical edge that can be disarming. For the past four years she's been a student at the Pratt Institute and last spring when she graduated Daddy bawled like a baby.

"All set?" He stands bare-chested in the doorway. His hair is matted and he stinks to high heaven.

"I'm looking at Andi's pictures of Paris," I say, hoping to spark an interest.

"Paris shmaris. In my day we were lucky to go to Willow Grove."

"I've got an idea," I tell them both. "Why don't we all go to the game?"

"Andi hates baseball," Rob scoffs. "It reminds her of her old man."

She looks at me and rolls her eyes. I'm reminded of another photograph, an early one from another time. Andi at three, scolding me as I trundle off on her tricycle. She has her reservations about me, even now. A good uncle would fix this. I kiss her good-bye and we leave her with her doubts and her photos.

 

My brother drives like a madman. His truck has no air conditioning, so we ride with the windows down, hot wind swirling papers around the cab. The smell of him comes in gut-churning waves. Stereo cranked up to negate conversation. Lucinda Williams whining the blues. My scalp is sweaty and my eyes are swollen with the heat. The distant city is shrouded in haze.

"I want to make one stop," Rob shouts over the music.

I manage only a shrug. Anything to shorten our time at the ballpark. He takes the Center City exit and we stop and go to Broad Street. Just north of city hall he parks by a hydrant and kills the engine. The silence is a blessing.

"I want to check out the exhibit at the institute. We have time."

He pulls on a badly wrinkled tank top and checks himself in the rear view. We leave the truck at an odd angle and I follow him up the steps to a grand brick building. The doorman eyes my brother's shirt but swings the door open and in we go. Cool air washes over us and almost instantly I start to sneeze. Half a dozen stopping me dead in my tracks. Rob continues on without me, taking the ornate stairs two at a time. I watch him swagger through the crowd like he owns the place.

"The Art Institute of Philadelphia presents Maxfield Parrish—A Retrospective." The poster shows a print of statues caught in the first rays of sunrise. The very same print that papered hippie bathrooms by the millions. Hard to believe Parrish could survive it, but here he is back at the Art Institute. Whatever that is. I've passed this building a thousand times without ever noticing it. Plush furnishings and gleaming marble, walls hung with portraits and tapestries. The sort of place we don't belong.

I see my brother's head bobbing above the crowd in the main gallery. He stops at a short wall of miniatures and the gathered patrons recoil visibly. I come up beside him and together we study a snow-covered landscape, a small cottage with fire-lit windows. Warmth and safety perfectly rendered. I see it as my brother sees it. A cozy little fortress of solitude.

"You okay?" I give him a nudge.

He looks at me but doesn't answer.

 

There's a line around the Vet when we drive up. Forty minutes to game time and the gates aren't open. Some fuck-up here. We park on Delaware Avenue and make our way past scalpers and tailgaters to the base of the stadium. The closed ticket windows are mobbed but we breeze right by them, keeping to the inside, knifing through families and stadium geeks. My brother in the lead, testing every door. One marked PRIVATE opens onto a poker game. The players freeze in the blinding light.

"HAH! Busted!" Rob barks, then slams it shut. We cross the reserved skybox lot and follow a catering crew into the stadium restaurant. A security guard intercepts us and shows us out.

"I thought you had tickets?"

"Relax, will you? We're as good as in."

I scramble after him, feeling the heat rise off the blacktop. Five doors in a row refuse to budge. The sixth opens on an elderly security guard perched on a stool. My brother flashes his wallet and the guard waves us through. We are in the downstairs pressroom and as we skirt by a crowded table, I see Stan Hochman of the Daily News. Rob leans in and offers his hand.

"Great column, Stan. What I want to know is where is our man in Havana?"

"Good to see you. Hi there."

"Those Cuban scouts are killing us, Stan."

"Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."

"Check the sign, Stan. You'll love this." Rob reaches in his back pocket and pulls out a sweat-stained sheet of loose-leaf paper. Fumbling with the folds he opens it to the words Ed Wade, Call Fidel scrawled in pencil.

"What do you think?" He holds it up by the corners, the last letters of Fidel squeezed in to fit.

"Very nice. Would you excuse me?" Stan heads off to anywhere else.

"Fucking troll," Rob snarls as we sidle along a row of cubicles, past fat men talking on phones and rolling carts heaped with Danish, down a short corridor to an emergency exit leading to the main stadium concourse. Just like that, we're in.

"Unbelievable." I look around in wonder. "We have the whole place to ourselves."

"Stick with me, pardner. I'm on a roll."

"What did you show the security guard?"

"I told him we were with the Triple A affiliate," he says and flips open his wallet.

"A Triple A card?"

"It's the 'affiliate' that throws 'em."

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2005 issue.

—EFQ

RICHARD CREPEAU is author of Baseball: America's Diamond Mind, reprinted by Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press) in 2001. He lives in Orlando, Florida.

© 2005 Richard Crepeau

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