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FICTION

Beat 'Em Bucs
By Robert Rubino

 

The first thing Quigley hears MacGregor say is "My Pirates."

The words gurgle out, as if they are MacGregor's dying words, or as if MacGregor gets hit in the throat by a bad-hop groundball, like what happened to Tony Kubek in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series.

It's a September morning of choking humidity in 1961 in the final class of the first day of senior year at Blessed Blaise, an all-boys Catholic high school in the Highlander section of New York City's borough of the Bronx, where mothers are housewives and fathers are truck drivers, janitors, mechanics, barbers, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, and cops and robbers.

As a way of introducing themselves in his required class, Christianity's Challenge in the Atomic Age, Brother Dismas calls on each boy to stand and say his name and favorite extracurricular activity. Quigley thinks this is odd because, except for one or two new kids, after three years everyone pretty much knows each other. It's not that big of a school, not nearly as big as some of the Catholic high schools in Manhattan, not as big as Power Memorial, for example, where a basketball player named Lew Alcindor starts to get a lot of attention. But this, after all, is Brother Dismas, one of the elite, one of the Brothers of Blessed Blaise—young, smart, tough, angry, committed, celibate men. You do what they say. Besides, Brother Dismas, built like a weightlifter and with the swagger of a wrestler, is the toughest. And angriest.

Quigley plans to say "reading" because that summer he reads Jim Brosnan's revelatory The Long Season and Al Stump's insightful story of Ty Cobb's wild final days and he knows he's sailing off into a breathless inner world from which he wishes he never has to emerge. But Quigley senses a danger of shipwreck if he says "reading," so he says "Jack Quigley. Playing ball." It's a safe answer even though the ball he plays is of the pick-up variety on the sandlots where he hears the muffled noise of jets flying into and out of La Guardia and Idlewild airports. He doesn't, strictly speaking, play for the Mighty Martyrs, the school team. Still, it's a safe answer because baseball is the city's unofficial religion and besides, Brother Dismas is the school's baseball coach. You might say he's more than the school's baseball coach. You might say Brother Dismas is the school's baseball pope and commissioner, too.

For three years Quigley tries out for the team, as an infielder and as an outfielder, even as a pitcher, and for three years Brother Dismas tells him they don't need infielders or outfielders or even pitchers. They need a catcher—not this season, Brother Dismas says each year, but soon they will need a catcher. Soon. And if Quigley shows a commitment to learning the skills and acquiring the intelligence and toughness and discipline—especially the discipline—it takes to be a catcher, and if Quigley is willing to swallow his pride and stick with the team as a sort of practice-squad, non-playing second-stringer whose duties are more in line with a bat boy or assistant trainer or a mascot, and of course if Quigley's broomstick body (six-feet tall and 115 pounds fully clothed and soaking wet) ever fills out, well, then Quigley just might become the first-string catcher, a full-fledged member of the team. So, Quigley swallows his pride and sticks around as the team's factotum. And in countless hours of private instruction from Brother Dismas he learns, among other things, the fundamentals of catching.

As Brother Dismas goes through the roll call, other boys say "baseball," too. Some say "football," some "basketball." One says "hockey." Henry Dooley, a sulking hulk nobody messes with, not even Brother Dismas, says "karate." A few say "rock and roll." A few say "television." And there are those who get the intended guffaws by saying "making out with my girlfriend," "raiding my old man's liquor cabinet," "smoking Lucky Strikes" or "beating up faggots."

Raymond Devane, expected to be the team's star pitcher in the spring, says "all of the above," and he gets the biggest laugh—an unbreakable seal of approval. Brother Dismas seems amused and he lets the laughter run its course.

But that kind of camaraderie, cloaked in victimless laughter, is nothing like the explosive kind, ear-splitting and scary, that comes when Peter MacGregor—the seventeen-year-old new boy from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wearing a canary yellow vest and inhabiting the soft, lumpy body of an awkward pre-adolescent girl and deeply frowned face of a middle- aged man—says "My Pirates."

Just like that, as quickly as it takes to get hit by a pitch or make the sign of the cross, the class is out of control, the laughter derisive and relentless and seemingly as loud as Yankee Stadium's roars of approval that greet the Mantle-Maris home run duel.

Peter MacGregor looks like he's holding his breath, like an umpire who just can't pull the trigger and make the call, ball or strike, safe or out, as if taking a breath would be instant death. His pale-green eyes drown in fear and humiliation.

Quigley laughs, even after realizing MacGregor is in pain. It's so easy. It's as irresistible as lingering in the locker room after practices and games, waiting for everyone to leave, everyone except Brother Dismas, like he is told to do. It's as intoxicating as the intense guilty high of pleasing Brother Dismas, listening to his counsel, following his signals—obediently, silently, secretly. Quigley loses himself for a moment, unaware that he's laughing the loudest.

It's time to restore order, a challenge the Brothers of Blessed Blaise are unflinchingly good at meeting, usually with violent vigor. But none is better than Brother Dismas.

Brother Dismas stands up from behind his desk, strides to where Quigley sits, lifts him by his armpits, stands him up and notices, with alarm and awe, that Jack Quigley's body has, finally, regrettably, filled out to manly proportions.

Well, I've got me a catcher for spring season, he figures.

Nonetheless, Brother Dismas punches him, once, hard, in the middle of his chest. A love tap, he figures; a ritual of closure.

The stunned classroom is as quiet as an empty confessional box, or the Stadium when the Yanks are on a road trip. Brother Dismas, in an instant change of mood as mystifying as stealing a base with a seven-run lead, gently, almost tenderly, encourages Peter MacGregor to continue, to elaborate.

Quigley recognizes this side of Brother Dismas: warm, syrupy charm and commanding charisma. He also recognizes MacGregor's pathetic need to believe in a protector, in a promise that things will get better, or at least be okay.

Peter MacGregor gulps for air like a catcher in a home plate collision in which a stampeding bull of a baserunner and the ball arrive simultaneously. His words come in spasms.

"My Pirates," he continues. "World Series champs. That's my . . . hobby."

As MacGregor goes on, he gains strength from Brother Dismas's apparent patronage.

"I'm from Pittsburgh and I go to a lot of games," he says. "I have autographs of all my Pirates."

MacGregor gains momentum, like he's part of a ninth-inning rally. For a magical moment, he's unafraid.

"Groat. Hoak. Smokey Burgess. Friend. Law. Face. The great Clemente. I've met all of them," MacGregor says. "Haddix. Virdon. Skinner. Dick Stuart. And best of all, I got Maz's. Bill Mazeroski. Great man. Humble hero. My all-time favorite. October 13th. Last year. Seventh game of the Series. Yankees against my Pirates. He ends it. Homer in the ninth. Happiest day of my life."

MacGregor swallows hard and grabs his moment of daring-do with just a hint of a smirk, but bold and provocative nonetheless.

"Beat 'em Bucs," he says, resurrecting Pirates fans' World Series rallying cry.

After classes that day, an exquisite ache in his chest and shameful pounding in his head propel Quigley toward MacGregor, who walks, oblivious, alongside the baseball field on his way to the subway, four blocks away.

The first hard slap he delivers across MacGregor's face fills Quigley's head with a delirious exhilaration, not unlike what he feels in the locker room, alone with Brother Dismas.

The second hard slap he delivers across MacGregor's face seems to set Quigley's face and neck on fire. It's as if he—Quigley—were getting hit instead of doing the hitting. The burning is worse than the sunburn Quigley feels under the Fourth of July sun in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium with his father, who spends the game gulping Ballantines and ranting about the '61 team being better than Murderers Row of 1927.

"The Mick, Rajah, Yogi, Ellie Howard, Moose, even Johnny fucking Blanchard," his father bellows to no one, to everyone. "Are you kidding me? And Whitey Ford as our ace and Luis Arroyo out of the 'pen. Best team ever! All-time!"

With barely repressed tears giving him a hot-liquid vision, Quigley looks at the mute, beaten, tortured MacGregor, hoping to see a reason, a clue, for this attack—the likes of which he's never done before and hardly even dreamed. He wants a witness, someone to stop him, but he and MacGregor are eerily alone.

Quigley wonders: How is that possible? Where is everyone? Anyone.

There's no reason for the attack, none forthcoming, and no stopping him. There are only MacGregor's pained pale-green eyes turned red, and his profound frown. Neither Quigley nor MacGregor understand what's happening.

The third hard slap he delivers across MacGregor's face comes a heartbeat before the fourth hard slap and then the fifth, and even if Quigley were suddenly to reveal a reason, MacGregor isn't going to hear it because his uncontrollable, choking, gulping sobs drown all other sound.

"Fuck your Pirates, faggot," Quigley hisses. "Lucky sons of bitches got outscored 55–27. Shut out twice. Beat 'em Bucs, my ass. Where are your Pirates today, faggot? Nowhere. And my Yankees? Greatest team of all time, that's where they are. I say fuck your Pirates."

The school year wears on and MacGregor seems to become invisible. At home, at night, alone, he looks at the autographs of his Pirates—Groat, Hoak, Smokey Burgess, Friend, Law, Face, the great Clemente, Haddix, Virdon, Skinner, Dick Stuart and his favorite, Maz, the humble hero. They are his patron saints.

"Beat 'em Bucs," he whispers, like a prayer for a miracle.

Quigley, meanwhile, glumly but determinedly strides through autumn and winter, toward spring and baseball season and his spot as the Mighty Martyrs' starting catcher (let Brother Dismas try to stop him). At practices and games, though, MacGregor appears in the background, a lingering presence, like a ghost, apparently serving as scorekeeper, statistician, and gofer for Brother Dismas. Quigley makes sure he's always first to flee the locker room.

On the day before graduation, Peter MacGregor jumps off a subway platform in front of an express train to Yankee Stadium. On graduation day, an airless, sunless afternoon with infinite shades of gray, whispers of the news (the "mortal sin," Brother Dismas calls it) flash like Brother Dismas's signs from the third-base coaching box—quick, confusing, deceptive. It occurs to Quigley that MacGregor burns in hell. Forever.

But Jack Quigley, like the others seem to do, effortlessly shakes off the initial shock of the news about Peter MacGregor only minutes after getting it. And then Jack Quigley, like the others, shakes hands with the Brothers of Blessed Blaise, including Brother Dismas, and he graduates.

It occurs to Quigley that the last thing he says to MacGregor is "Fuck your Pirates."

—EFQ

ROBERT RUBINO is a daily sports copy editor and Sunday columnist for the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, California, a New York Times regional newspaper. He's so old he remembers the pregame shows of Happy Felton and Laraine Day.

© 2006 Robert Rubino

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