Blockade BillyStephen King
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen King.
Cover Artwork Copyright © 2010 by Glen Orbik
Interior Artwork Copyright © 2010 by Alex McVey
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials.
c/o Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman
236 West 26th Street, Suite 802
New York, NY 10001
A hardcover first edition of Blockade Billy has been published by Cemetery Dance Publications.
This is for every guy (and gal)
who ever put on the gear.
Oh my God, you mean Blockade Billy. Nobody’s asked me about him in years. Of course, no one asks me much of anything in here, except if I’d like to sign up for Polka Night at the K of P Hall downtown or something called Virtual Bowling. That’s right here in the Common Room. My advice to you, Mr. King—you didn’t ask for it, but I’ll give it to you—is don’t get old, and if you do, don’t let your relatives put you in a zombie hotel like this one.
It’s a funny thing, getting old. When you’re young, people always want to listen to your stories, especially if you were in pro baseball. But when you’re young, you don’t have time to tell them. Now I’ve got all the time in the world, and it seems like nobody cares about those old days. But I still like to think about them. So sure, I’ll tell you about Billy Blakely. Awful story, of course, but those are the ones that last the longest.
Baseball was different in those days. You have to remember that Blockade Billy played for the Titans only ten years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and the Titans are long gone. I don’t suppose New Jersey will ever have another Major League team, not with two powerhouse franchises just across the river in New York. But it was a big deal then—we were a big deal—and we played our games in a different world.
The rules were the same. Those don’t change. And the little rituals were pretty similar, too. Oh, nobody would have been allowed to wear their cap cocked to the side, or curve the brim, and your hair had to be neat and short (the way these chuckleheads wear it now, my God), but some players still crossed themselves before they stepped into the box, or drew in the dirt with the heads of their bats before taking up the stance, or jumped over the baseline when they were running out to take their positions. Nobody wanted to step on the baseline, it was considered the worst luck to do that.
The game was local, okay? TV had started to come in, but only on the weekends. We had a good market, because the games were on WNJ, and everyone in New York could watch. Some of those broadcasts were pretty comical. Compared to the way they do today’s games, it was all amateur night in Dixie. Radio was better, more professional, but of course that was local, too. No satellite broadcasts, because there were no satellites! The Russians sent the first one up during the Yanks-Braves World Series that year. As I remember, it happened on an off-day, but I could be wrong about that. What I remember is that the Titans were out of it early that year. We contended for awhile, partly thanks to Blockade Billy, but you know how that turned out. It’s why you came, right?
But here’s what I’m getting at: because the game was smaller on the national stage, the players weren’t such a big deal. I’m not saying there weren’t stars—guys like Aaron, Burdette, Williams, Kaline, and of course The Mick—but most weren’t as well-known coast to coast as players like Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds (a couple of bushers, if you ask me). And most of the other guys? I can tell you in two words: working stiffs. The average salary back then was fifteen grand, less than a first-year high school teacher makes today.
Working stiffs, get it? Just like George Will said in that book of his. Only he talked about that like it was a good thing. I’m not so sure it was, if you were a thirty-year-old shortstop with a wife and three kids and maybe another seven years to go before retirement. Ten, if you were lucky and didn’t get hurt. Carl Furillo ended up installing elevators in the World Trade Center and moonlighting as a night watchman, did you know that? You did? Do you think that guy Will knew it, or just forgot to mention it?
The deal was this: if you had the skills and could do the job even with a hangover, you got to play. If you couldn’t, you got tossed on the scrapheap. It was that simple. And as brutal. Which brings me to our catching situation that spring.
We were in good shape during camp, which for the Titans was in Sarasota. Our starting catcher was Johnny Goodkind. Maybe you don’t remember him. If you do, it’s probably because of the way he ended up. He had four good years, batted over .300, put the gear on almost every game. Knew how to handle the pitchers, didn’t take any guff. The kids didn’t dare shake him off. He hit damn near .350 that spring, with maybe a dozen ding-dongs, one as deep and far as any I ever saw at Ed Smith Stadium, where the ball didn’t carry well. Put out the windshield in some reporter’s Chevrolet—ha!
But he was also a big drinker, and two days before the team was supposed to head north and open at home, he ran over a woman on Pineapple Street and killed her just as dead as a dormouse. Or doornail. Whatever the saying is. Then the damn fool tried to run. But there was a County Sheriff’s cruiser parked on the corner of Orange, and the deputies inside saw the whole thing. Wasn’t much doubt about Johnny’s state, either. When they pulled him out of his car, he smelled like a brewery and could hardly stand. One of the deputies bent down to put the cuffs on him, and Johnny threw up on the back of the guy’s head. Johnny Goodkind’s career in baseball was over before the puke dried. Even the Babe couldn’t have stayed in the game after running over a housewife out doing her morning shop-around.
His backup was a guy named Frank Faraday. Not bad behind the plate, but a banjo hitter at best. Went about one-fifty. No bulk, which put him at risk. The game was played hard in those days, Mr. King, with plenty of fuck-you.
But Faraday was what we had. I remember DiPunno saying he wouldn’t last long, but not even Jersey Joe had an idea how short a time it was going to be.
Faraday was behind the plate when we played our last exhibition game that year. Against the Reds, it was. There was a squeeze play put on. Don Hoak at the plate. Some big hulk—I think it was Ted Kluszewski—on third. Hoak punches the ball right at Jerry Rugg, who was pitching for us that day. Big Klew breaks for the plate, all two hundred and seventy Polack pounds of him. And there’s Faraday, just about as skinny as a Flav’r Straw, standing with one foot on the old dishola. You knew it was going to end bad. Rugg throws to Faraday. Faraday turns to put the tag on. I couldn’t look.
Faraday hung onto the ball and got the out, I’ll give him that, only it was a spring training out, as important in the great scheme of things as a low fart in a high wind. And that was the end of his baseball career. One broken arm, one broken leg, a concussion—that was the score. I don’t know what became of him. Wound up washing windshields for tips at an Esso station in Tucumcari, for all I know. He wouldn’t be the only one.
But here’s the point: we lost both our catchers in the space of forty-eight hours and had to go north with nobody to put behind the plate except for Ganzie Burgess, who converted from catcher to pitcher in the early fifties. He was thirty-nine years old that season and only good for middle relief, but he was a knuckleballer, and as crafty as Satan, so no way was Joe DiPunno going to risk those old bones behind the plate. He said he’d put me back there first. I knew he was joking—I was just an old third-base coach with so many groin-pulls my balls were practically ban
ging on my knees—but the idea still made me shiver.
What Joe did was call the front office in Newark and say, “I need a guy who can catch Hank Masters’s fastball and Danny Doo’s curve without falling on his keister. I don’t care if he plays for Testicle Tire in Tremont, just make sure he’s got a mitt and have him at the Swamp in time for the National Anthem. Then get to work finding me a real catcher. If you want to have any chance at all of contending this season, that is.” Then he hung up and lit what was probably his eightieth cigarette of the day.
Oh for the life of a manager, huh? One catcher facing manslaughter charges; another in the hospital, wrapped in so many bandages he looked like Boris Karloff in The Mummy; a pitching staff either not old enough to shave or about ready for the Sociable Security; God knows who about to put on the gear and squat behind the plate on Opening Day.
We flew north that year instead of riding the rails, but it still felt like a train wreck. Meanwhile, Kerwin McCaslin, who was the Titans’ GM, got on the phone and found us a catcher to start the season with: William Blakely, soon to be known as Blockade Billy. I can’t remember now if he came from Double or Triple A, but you could look it up on your computer, I guess, because I do know the name of the team he came from: the Davenport Cornhuskers. A few players came up from there during my seven years with the Titans, and the regulars would always ask how things were down there playing for the Cornholers. Or sometimes they’d call them the Cocksuckers. Baseball humor is not what you’d call sophisticated.
We opened against the Red Sox that year. Middle of April. Baseball started later back then, and played a saner schedule. I got to the park early that day—before God got out of bed, actually—and there was a young man sitting on the bumper of an old Ford truck in the players’ lot. Iowa license plate dangling on chickenwire from the back bumper. Nick the guard let him in when the kid showed him his letter from the front office and his driver’s license.
“You must be Bill Blakely,” I said, shaking his hand. “Good to know you.”
“Good to know you too,” he said. “I brought my gear, but it’s pretty beat-up.”
“Oh, I think we can take care of you there, partner,” I said, letting go of his hand. He had a Band-Aid wrapped around his second finger, just below the middle knuckle. “Cut yourself shaving?” I asked, pointing to it.
“Yup, cut myself shaving,” he says. I couldn’t tell if that was his way of showing he got my little joke, or if he was so worried about fucking up he thought he ought to agree with everything anyone said, at least to begin with. Later on I realized it was neither of those things; he just had a habit of echoing back what you said to him. I got used to it, even sort of got to like it.
“Are you the manager?” he asked. “Mr. DiPunno?”
“No,” I said, “I’m George Grantham. Granny to you. I coach third base. I’m also the equipment manager.” Which was the truth; I did both jobs. Told you the game was smaller then. “I’ll get you fixed up, don’t worry. All new gear.”
“All new gear,” says he. “Except for the glove. I have to have Billy’s old glove, you know. Billy Junior and me’s been the miles.”
“Well, that’s fine with me.” And we went on in to what the sports writers used to call Old Swampy in those days.
I hesitated over giving him 19, because it was poor old Faraday’s number, but the uniform fit him without looking like pajamas, so I did. While he was dressing, I said: “Ain’t you tired? You must have driven almost nonstop. Didn’t they send you some cash to take a plane?”
“I ain’t tired,” he said. “They might have sent me some cash to take a plane, but I didn’t see it. Could we go look at the field?”
I said we could, and led him down the runway and up through the dugout. He walked down to home plate outside the foul line in Faraday’s uniform, the blue 19 gleaming in the morning sun (it wasn’t but eight o’clock, the groundskeepers just starting what would be a long day’s work).
I wish I could tell you how it felt to see him taking that walk, Mr. King, but words are your thing, not mine. All I know is that back-to he looked more like Faraday than ever. He was ten years younger, of course…but age doesn’t show much from the back, except sometimes in a man’s walk. Plus he was slim like Faraday, and slim’s the way you want your shortstop and second baseman to look, not your catcher. Catchers should be built like fireplugs, the way Johnny Goodkind was. This one looked like a bunch of broken ribs waiting to happen.
He had a firmer build than Frank Faraday, though; broader butt and thicker thighs. He was skinny from the waist up, but looking at him ass-end-going-away, I remember thinking he looked like what he probably was: an Iowa plowboy on vacation in scenic Newark.
He went to the plate and turned around to look out to dead center. He had dark hair and a lock of it had fallen on his forehead. He brushed it away and just stood there taking it all in—the silent, empty stands where over fifty thousand people would be sitting that afternoon, the bunting already hung on the railings and fluttering in the little morning breeze, the foul poles painted fresh Jersey Blue, the groundskeepers just starting to water. It was an awesome sight, I always thought, and I could imagine what was going through the kid’s mind, him that had probably been home milking the cows just a week ago and waiting for the Cornholers to start playing in mid-May.
I thought, Poor kid’s finally getting the picture. When he looks over here, I’ll see the panic in his eyes. I may have to tie him down in the locker room to keep him from jumping in that old truck of his and hightailing it back to God’s country.
But when he looked at me, there was no panic in his eyes. No fear. Not even nervousness, which I would have said every player feels on Opening Day. No, he looked perfectly cool standing there behind the plate in his Levi’s and light poplin jacket.
“Yuh,” he says, like a man confirming something he was pretty sure of in the first place. “Billy can hit here.”
“Good for him,” I tells him. It’s all I can think of to say.
“Good,” he says back. Then—I swear—he says, “Do you think those guys need help with them hoses?”
I laughed. There was something strange about him, something off, something that made folks nervous…but that something made people take to him, too. Kinda sweet. Something that made you want to like him in spite of feeling he wasn’t exactly right in the top story. Joe felt it right away. Some of the players did, too, but that didn’t stop them from liking him. I don’t know, it was like when you talked to him what came back was the sound of your own voice. Like an echo in a cave.
“Billy,” I said, “groundskeeping ain’t your job. Bill’s job is to put on the gear and catch Danny Dusen this afternoon.”
“Danny Doo,” he said.
“That’s right. Twenty and six last year, should have won the Cy Young, didn’t. He’s still got a red ass over that. And remember this: if he shakes you off, don’t you dare flash the same sign again. Not unless you want your pecker and asshole to change places after the game, that is. Danny Doo is four games from two hundred wins, and he’s going to be mean as hell until he gets there.”
“Until he gets there.” Nodding his head.
“If he shakes me off, flash something different.”
“Does he have a changeup?”
“Do you have two legs? The Doo’s won a hundred and ninety-six games. You don’t do that without a changeup.”
“Not without a changeup,” he says. “Okay.”
“And don’t get hurt out there. Until the front office can make a deal, you’re what we got.”
“I’m it,” he says. “Gotcha.”
“I hope so.”
Other players were coming in by then, and I had about a thousand things to do. Later on I saw the kid in Jersey Joe’s office, signing whatever needed to be signed with Kerwin McCaslin hanging over him like a vulture over roadkill, pointing out all the right places. Poor kid, probably
six hours’ worth of sleep in the last sixty, and he was in there signing five years of his life away. Later I saw him with Dusen, going over the Boston lineup. The Doo was doing all the talking, and the kid was doing all the listening. Didn’t even ask a question, so far as I saw, which was good. If the kid had opened his head, Danny probably would have bit it off.
About an hour before the game, I went in to Joe’s office to look at the lineup card. He had the kid batting eighth, which was no shock. Over our heads the murmuring had started and you could hear the rumble of feet on the boards. Opening Day crowds always pile in early. Listening to it started the butterflies in my gut, like always, and I could see Jersey Joe felt the same. His ashtray was already overflowing.
“He’s not big like I hoped he’d be,” he said, tapping Blakely’s name on the lineup card. “God help us if he gets cleaned out.”
“McCaslin hasn’t found anyone else?”
“Maybe. He talked to Hubie Rattner’s wife, but Hubie’s on a fishing trip somewhere in Rectal Temperature, Michigan. Out of touch until next week.”
“Cap—Hubie Rattner’s forty-three if he’s a day.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers. And be straight with me—how long do you think that kid’s gonna last in the bigs?”
“Oh, he’s probably just a cup of coffee,” I says, “but he’s got something Faraday didn’t.”
“And what might that be?”
“Dunno. But if you’d seen him standing behind the plate and looking out into center, you might feel better about him. It was like he was thinking ‘This ain’t the big deal I thought it would be.’”
“He’ll find out how big a deal it is the first time Ike Delock throws one at his nose,” Joe said, and lit a cigarette. He took a drag and started hacking. “I got to quit these Luckies. Not a cough in a carload, my ass. I’ll bet you twenty goddam bucks that kid lets Danny Doo’s first curve go right through his wickets. Then Danny’ll be all upset—you know how he gets when someone fucks up his train ride—and Boston’ll be off to the races.”