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THE PORTSIDER

True Believers
By Staff Writer

Fear. Right now fear is spreading wider than pink pant suits across bar stools at a Mary Kay convention. Fear. It's as sticky as a booger under a preschool lunch table. Fear. It's stopping more people in their tracks than all the Jews on the Malibu police force. It's sinking our spirits as fast as a bowling ball thrown from a canoe.

Biff Lowenstein did that on a bet so I know how fast a bowling ball sinks. Biff was a wiry little fireballer from Brooklyn whose father thought it would be hilarious to name his two sons Biff and Hap. He drove them crazy, telling them they needed to be well liked. They ended up the least well-liked pitchers in Class A ball, stupid and obnoxious to the bone. They had a nasty habit of putting Red Hots in guys' jocks—not the analgesic cream, but the little Red Hot candies—which leave a hideous stain impossible to get out. They couldn't even get their practical jokes right.

Anyway, Biff dropped that bowling ball on a bet: five bucks said he couldn't kill a walleye with a sixteen-pound Brunswick. So we paddled out onto Lake Pepin (we were part of the Winona Riders pitching staff, and believe it or not, her dad stole that name from us!). Our team owner, Elmer Dessens—no relation to the current Dodger pitcher who, for some reason has that name and yet is from Mexico—was a first cousin to Harold Stassen and owned a string of racehorses. So the uniforms were modeled on jockey's silks, right down to the high leather boots and helmets. Nobody on that team had to deal with post-concussion syndrome, let me tell you! And silk feels so good on your buttocks. I'm afraid he didn't let us wear sliding pants, felt it ruined the look, so there were more strawberries in that locker room than on a Pick-It-Yourself-Ranch in Ventura County. . . .

Where was I? Pink pant suits? Buttocks? Something weighty . . . Oh, yes—a bowling ball in the lake, which did indeed kill a walleye. We just couldn't prove it because the walleye sank, too, as if in death he'd lost his faith in swimming and sank like scat from a dog that ate a Hershey's bar and WHY AM I SAYING ALL THIS?

Because I'm afraid. Afear'd, as they used to say. Scared poopless.

You see, I'm writing this column while a man trains the business end of a fungo bat on my white and fragile cranium and demands I explain to my readers why the Pakistani cricket team got a bum rap. He's also demanding I finish this column within an hour so he can email it to his boss, that Goldstein fella, long-suffering publisher of EFQ. On August 12, I had assured Goldstein that in honor of the magazine's fiftieth issue I would tell the hitherto untold story of my fiftieth birthday party, celebrated in Rawalpindi, Pakistan (just outside Islamabad). And that I'd have this piece for him within two weeks. Now, a month later . . . well, I'm typing aren't I? Ain't me? Whatever. Fifty. I was fifty and had taken up temporary employment over there coaching the pitchers on the Serve It Up Hibiscus Tea Cracket teem . . . Cricket Tome . . . Cricket te—

Will you please take that piece of ash off my temple? It's interfering with my typing. And stop reading over my shoulder. Do you know how hard it is to write with someone reading over your . . . okay. Read over my shoulder. Just keep the meat end of that stick at a distance. Where was I? Pink buttocks? A minion of Malibu cops?

Oh, thanks . . . right. Turning fifty. Meeting deadlines.

In case you've forgotten, there was a huge row this summer when the Pakistani cricket team refused to return to the field after tea on the fourth day. That's the fourth day of the match. Cricket is for real men: you have to sit through five days of cricket to figure out who's won. Who says we need extraordinary rendition to crack terror suspects? Just chain them to a folding chair at the Oval. Umpires Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove accused the Pakistanis of ball tampering. The Pakistani captain was outraged and refused to come out after tea. His team forfeited and now he's charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

Which led directly to the guy holding a fungo to my head. See, Goldstein knew I had spent my fiftieth birthday in Rawalpindi. That's a suburb of Islamabad—did I say that before? It's easy to lose track when there's a BASEBALL BAT AT MY HEAD . . .

So, Goldstein figures, Pakistani team accused of ball tampering, Staff Writer spends long weekend in Rawalpindi . . . who could possibly have taught the Pakistanis how to scuff a thrown object?

Hmmm. . . . Have you ever picked up a cricket ball? It's round. Not that different from a baseball. And, like every sphere, subject to a change in its flight pattern when nicked. I knew manned flight had something to do with this.

I had met Inzamam-ul-Haq Senior on an international good will tour. He was doing the touring and the good will. I had neither. He was demonstrating cricket at minor league stadiums across America. I was bitching from the dugout because it was another stunt that took away our batting practice. Stan Lockrum, owner of the Mt. Rushmore Presidents (I was the Lincoln on that team, growing a beard and playing in a stove-pipe hat, which I thought was bad until I saw how hot Washington got playing under a powdered wig), had planned a big Cricket Night at Rushmore, teaming up Inzamam-ul-Haq's appearance with a post-game concert by Buddy Holly, but then there was a plane crash in Iowa that cancelled the back end of that plan. I guess you could call that the Field of Bad Dreams.

But Inzamam-ul-Haq showed up with his flat bat and whites and I was elected to throw him some BP. When he told me that in cricket you bounced the ball to the wicket, I was all grins. I'd been bouncing balls to home plate all season, but in this game that's a good thing! I-U-H Senior—that's not what I ended up calling him, but it's a hell of a lot easier than trying to type Inzamam-ul-Haq Senior over and over—I-U-H Senior and I hit it off pretty good and he was hanging around the locker room while I made my final preparations for the game. He asked me why I was gluing a little piece of sandpaper to my hand.

"Standard stuff for a pitcher. Get a new ball. Rub it up. Sandpaper adds a bit of, shall we say, character to the ball."

I-U-H Senior was intrigued. "So this is something every pitcher does?"

"Every pitcher over thirty-five. Look, I-U-H, a pitcher needs every edge he can get. You're out there armed with just a nine-and-a-half inch sphere weighing six ounces. A batter's got a thirty-four-inch piece of wood that might weigh six times as much as a ball does. The odds aren't fair. You've got to do whatever you can to even them up."

I-U-H: "You're inferring this procedure is not legally sanctioned?"

Those Pakistani cricketers were all over-educated. I parsed out what he was saying for a minute.

"I'm not saying sandpaper is legal. I'm just saying it's part of the game."

"What do you do if the umpire discovers the piece of sandpaper glued to your finger?"

"Eat it."

"Eat it?"

"The moment he starts walking to the mound with a suspicious look. Doesn't taste as bad as you think. You've probably eaten worse goat."

That winter I got a little blue airmail letter. Remember those? Thin as a tissue, light so the mail wouldn't weigh down an airplane because, after all, flight was a tricky thing to master and you needed every edge you could bring to the craft—just like pitching. That little blue letter was an invitation to fly to Pakistan and conduct a master class in pitching and foreign substances. In Pakistan, I was going to be the foreign substance. Sure. Count me in. Great place to spend my fiftieth birthday.

Have you ever been to Rawalpindi in the fall? It's surprisingly shitty. A hundred degrees, sandy, dry as a great-grandmother's underarms, raw sewage in the gutter. But in one corner of the town, in one little park, there's a grassy field and a team of Pakistani cricketers serving tea and eager to learn what this stuff called slippery elm can do.

I just taught them the basics. Sandpaper scuffs, slippery elm in the cheek. I brought along a little jar of Vaseline. Turns out they didn't have Vaseline in Pakistan. I introduced them to its wondrous properties. A dab on the inside of your shirt collar. A spot in your hair. Ever wonder why so many Pakistanis have a Brilliantine look to their hairstyling? It all goes back to their fabled hurler, Zaheer Khan. Folks thought he was the hippest guy around when he came out to hurl all shiny-haired. He'd just put on too much Vaseline.

We had a wonderful two days, which ended with a big sit-down tea and goat dinner. I-U-H Senior gave me a tour of Islamabad and I admired the dusty roads and raw sewage and we stayed in touch for all these years. I subscribed to Islamabad Sports Illustrated (By Hand Etchings). I kept track of Pakistan's cricket fortunes and I've always enjoyed seeing their excellent hurling stats.

I-U-H Senior passed away, but his son I-U-H Junior took over the reins and he wrote me that my original jar of Vaseline had become a national treasure. They took it to all the matches and their hurlers claimed there was something special about that forty-year-old jar that made a cricket ball jump like nothing else. The jar became an icon, placed in the center of every team tea tray.

Then came August 2006. The Pakistani team was enjoying their tea and Wheetabix. They preferred these delightful organic wheat biscuits, covered with jam. Suddenly, umpires Hair and Doctrove barged into their tent. They demanded that the Pakistani hurlers hold up their hands—as if they were under arrest! Hair said they were looking for foreign substances. The Pakistani hurlers, of course, had to lick their fingers clean of the jam. And with it came a lot of sandpaper that they chewed down. They hadn't seen this coming and so they had to gobble the sandpaper in bigger chunks than they were used to. And it got stuck in their throats.

Hair and Doctrove were examining their hands, but the evidence was already lodged in the esophagus. The hurlers couldn't talk; they could barely breathe. Hair and Doctrove took this as some admission of guilt—they never said a word!—and accused these men of ball tampering. I-U-H Junior had no choice. He refused to let his team play, outraged at the inquisition, but also because he knew his hurlers would get out on the pitch and, well, hurl.

So it's all my fault. Don't charge I-U-H Junior with bringing cricket into disrepute. Charge me. I'll take the fall. Just fly me to London and I'll testify that I supplied them with resources and material and I'm ready to plea bargain. Starting with first class on the flight over.

Okay, pal? Am I done now? Will you lower that bat? I admit, the moral of the story is a little fuzzy, but it's hard to be philosophical with a fungo pointed at your head.

Thanks. I knew you'd never use the bat. It was just symbolic, kind of like TR and the Big Stick. Guy never had to swing it, but he got people's attention.

Yeah. I understand. After a lifetime of changing the course of a sphere in flight, I appreciate that one has to use whatever tool is at hand to get the job done. Sandpaper, Big Stick, hired gun hoisting a Louisville—it's all about finishing the game. Kind of like EFQ. After fifty issues, they're still out there pitching—and you never know what's coming next.

—EFQ

On the occasion of EFQ's fiftieth issue, the identity of STAFF WRITER can finally be revealed: He's a lefty, he's crafty; he's been to Pakistan—no, it's not bin Laden. Okay, so we're not really going to tell you. Just stick around another fifty issues, then you'll find out. We promise.

© 2006 Elysian Fields Quarterly

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