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Blockade Billy, Page 2

Stephen King

  “Ain’t you just the cheeriest Cheerio,” I says.

  He stuck out his hand. “Bet.”

  And because I knew he was trying to take the curse off it, I shook his hand. That was twenty I won, because the legend of Blockade Billy started that very day.

  You couldn’t say he called a good game, because he didn’t call it. The Doo did that. But the first pitch—to Frank Malzone—was a curve, and the kid caught it just fine. Not only that, though. It was a cunt’s hair outside and I never saw a catcher pull one back so fast, not even Yogi. Ump called strike one and it was us off to the races, at least until Williams hit a solo shot in the fifth. We got that back in the sixth, when Ben Vincent put one out. Then in the seventh, we’ve got a runner on second—I think it was Barbarino—with two outs and the new kid at the plate. It was his third at bat. First time he struck out looking, the second time swinging. Delock fooled him bad that time, made him look silly, and he heard the only boos he ever got while he was wearing a Titans uniform.

  He steps in, and I looked over at Joe. Seen him sitting way down by the lineup card, just looking at the floor and shaking his head. Even if the kid worked a walk, The Doo was up next, and The Doo couldn’t hit a slowpitch softball with a tennis racket. As a hitter that guy was fucking terrible.

  I won’t drag out the suspense; this ain’t no kids’ sports novel. Although whoever said life sometimes imitates art was right, and it did that day. Count went to three and two. Then Delock threw the sinker that fooled the kid so bad the first time and damn if the kid didn’t suck for it again. Except Ike Delock turned out to be the sucker that time. Kid golfed it right off his shoetops the way Ellie Howard used to do and shot it into the gap. I waved the runner in and we had the lead back, two to one.

  Everybody in the joint was on their feet, screaming their throats out, but the kid didn’t even seem to hear it. Just stood there on second, dusting off the seat of his pants. He didn’t stay there long, because The Doo went down on three pitches, then threw his bat like he always did when he got struck out.

  So maybe it’s a sports novel after all, like the kind you probably read in junior high school study hall. Top of the ninth and The Doo’s looking at the top of the lineup. Strikes out Malzone, and a quarter of the crowd’s on their feet. Strikes out Klaus, and half the crowd’s on their feet. Then comes Williams—old Teddy Ballgame. The Doo gets him on the hip, oh and two, then weakens and walks him. The kid starts out to the mound and Doo waves him back—just squat and do your job, sonny. So sonny does. What else is he gonna do? The guy on the mound is one of the best pitchers in baseball and the guy behind the plate was maybe playing a little pickup ball behind the barn that spring to keep in shape after the day’s cowtits was all pulled.

  First pitch, goddam! Williams takes off for second. The ball was in the dirt, hard to handle, but the kid still made one fuck of a good throw. Almost got Teddy, but as you know, almost only counts in horseshoes. Now everybody’s on their feet, screaming. The Doo does some shouting at the kid—like it was the kid’s fault instead of just a bullshit pitch—and while Doo’s telling the kid he’s a lousy choker, Williams calls time. Hurt his knee a little sliding into the bag, which shouldn’t have surprised anyone; he could hit like nobody’s business, but he was a leadfoot on the bases. Why he stole a bag that day is anybody’s guess. It sure wasn’t no hit-and-run, not with two outs and the game on the line.

  So Billy Anderson comes in to run for Teddy…who probably would have been royally roasted by the manager if he’d been anyone but Teddy. And Dick Gernert steps in, .425 slugging percentage or something like it. The crowd’s going apeshit, the flag’s blowing out, the frank wrappers are swirling around, women are goddam crying, men are yelling for Jersey Joe to yank The Doo and put in Stew Rankin—he was what people would call the closer today, although back then he was just known as a short-relief specialist.

  But Joe crossed his fingers and stuck with Dusen.

  The count goes three and two, right? Anderson off with the pitch, right? Because he can run like the wind and the guy behind the plate’s a first-game rook. Gernert, that mighty man, gets just under a curve and beeps it—not bloops it but beeps it—behind the pitcher’s mound, just out of The Doo’s reach. He’s on it like a cat, though. Anderson’s around third and The Doo throws home from his knees. That thing was a fucking bullet.

  I know what you’re thinking I’m thinking, Mr. King, but you’re dead wrong. It never crossed my mind that our new rookie catcher was going to get busted up like Faraday and have a nice one-game career in the bigs. For one thing, Billy Anderson was no moose like Big Klew; more of a ballet dancer. For another…well…the kid was better than Faraday. I think I knew that the first time I saw him, sitting on the bumper of his beshitted old truck with his wore-out gear stored in the back.

  Dusen’s throw was low but on the money. The kid took it between his legs, then pivoted around, and I seen he was holding out just the mitt. I just had time to think of what a rookie mistake that was, how he forgot that old saying two hands for beginners, how Anderson was going to knock the ball loose and we’d have to try to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. But then the kid lowered his left shoulder like a football lineman. I never paid attention to his free hand, because I was staring at that outstretched catcher’s mitt, just like everyone else in Old Swampy that day. So I didn’t exactly see what happened, and neither did anybody else.

  What I saw was this: the kid whapped the glove on Anderson’s chest while he was still three full steps from the dish. Then Anderson hit the kid’s lowered shoulder. He went up and over and landed behind the lefthand batter’s box. The umpire lifted his fist in the out sign. Then Anderson started to yell and grab his ankle. I could hear it from the far end of the dugout, so you know it must have been good yelling, because those Opening Day fans were roaring like a force-ten gale. I could see that Anderson’s left pants cuff was turning red, and blood was oozing out between his fingers.

  Can I have a drink of water? Just pour some out of that plastic pitcher, would you? Plastic pitchers is all they give us for our rooms, you know; no glass pitchers allowed in the zombie hotel.

  Ah, that’s good. Been a long time since I talked so much, and I got a lot more to say. You bored yet? No? Good. Me neither. Having the time of my life, awful story or not.

  Anderson didn’t play again until ’58, and ’58 was his last year—Boston gave him his unconditional release halfway through the season, and he couldn’t catch on with anyone else. Because his speed was gone, and speed was really all he had to sell. The docs said he’d be good as new, the Achilles tendon was only nicked, not cut all the way through, but it was also stretched, and I imagine that’s what finished him. Baseball’s a tender game, you know; people don’t realize. And it isn’t only catchers who get hurt in collisions at the plate.

  After the game, Danny Doo grabs the kid in the shower and yells: “I’m gonna buy you a drink tonight, rook! In fact, I’m gonna buy you ten!” And then he gives his highest praise: “You hung the fuck in there!”

  “Ten drinks, because I hung the fuck in there,” the kid says, and The Doo laughs and claps him on the back like it’s the funniest thing he ever heard.

  But then Pinky Higgins comes storming in. He was managing the Red Sox that year, which was a thankless job; things only got worse for Pinky and the Sox as the summer of ’57 crawled along. He was mad as hell, chewing a wad of tobacco so hard and fast the juice squirted from both sides of his mouth and ran down his chin. He said the kid had deliberately cut Anderson’s ankle when they collided at the plate. Said Blakely must have done it with his fingernails, and the kid should be put out of the game for it. This was pretty rich, coming from a man whose motto was, “Spikes high and let em die!”

  I was sitting in Joe’s office drinking a beer, so the two of us listened to Pinky’s rant together. I thought the guy was nuts, and I could see from Joe’s face that I wasn’t alone.

  Joe waited until Pinky ran down, the
n said: “I wasn’t watching Anderson’s foot. I was watching to see if Blakely made the tag and held onto the ball. Which he did.”

  “Get him in here,” Pinky fumes. “I want to say it to his face.”

  “Be reasonable, Pink,” Joe says. “Would I be in your office doing a tantrum if it had been Blakely all cut up?”

  “It wasn’t spikes!” Pinky yells. “Spikes are a part of the game! Scratching someone up like a…a girl at a kickball match…that ain’t! And Anderson’s in the game seven years! He’s got a family to support!”

  “So you’re saying what? My catcher ripped your pinch-runner’s ankle open while he was tagging him out—and tossing him over his goddam shoulder, don’t forget—and he did it with his nails?”

  “That’s what Anderson says,” Pinky tells him. “Anderson says he felt it.”

  “Maybe Blakely stretched Anderson’s foot with his nails, too. Is that it?”

  “No,” Pinky admits. His face was all red by then, and not just from being mad. He knew how it sounded. “He says that happened when he came down.”

  “Begging the court’s pardon,” I says, “but fingernails? This is a load of crap.”

  “I want to see the kid’s hands,” Pinky says. “You show me or I’ll lodge a goddam protest.”

  I thought Joe would tell Pinky to shit in his hat, but he didn’t. He turned to me. “Tell the kid to come in here. Tell him he’s gonna show Mr. Higgins his nails, just like he did to his first-grade teacher after the Pledge of Allegiance.”

  I got the kid. He came willingly enough, although he was just wearing a towel, and didn’t hold back showing his nails. They were short, clean, not broken, not even bent. There were no blood-blisters, either, like there might be if you really set them in someone and raked with them. One little thing I did happen to notice, although I didn’t think anything of it at the time: the Band-Aid was gone from his second finger, and I didn’t see any sign of a healing cut where it had been, just clean skin, pink from the shower.

  “Satisfied?” Joe asked Pinky. “Or would you like to check his ears for potato-dirt while you’re at it?”

  “Fuck you,” Pinky says. He got up, stamped over to the door, spat his cud into the wastepaper basket there—splut!—and then he turns back. “My boy says your boy cut him. Says he felt it. And my boy don’t lie.”

  “Your boy tried to be a hero with the game on the line instead of stopping at third and giving Piersall a chance. He’d tell you the moon was made of his father’s come-stained skivvies if it’d get him off the hook for that. You know what happened and so do I. Anderson got tangled in his own spikes and did it to himself when he went whoopsy-daisy. Now get out of here.”

  “There’ll be a payback for this, DiPunno.”

  “Yeah? Well it’s the same gametime tomorrow. Get here early.”

  Pinky left, already tearing off a fresh piece of chew. Joe drummed his fingers beside his ashtray, then asked the kid: “Now that it’s just us chickens, did you do anything to Anderson? Tell me the truth.”

  “No.” Not a bit of hesitation. “I didn’t do anything to Anderson. That’s the truth.”

  “Okay,” Joe said, and stood up. “Always nice to shoot the shit after a game, but I think I’ll go on home and have a drink. Then I might fuck my wife on the sofa. Winning on Opening Day always makes my pecker stand up.” Then he said, “Kid, you played the game the way it’s supposed to be played. Good for you.”

  He left. The kid cinched his towel around his waist and started back to the locker room. I said, “I see that shaving cut’s all better.”

  He stopped dead in the doorway, and although his back was to me, I knew he’d done something out there. The truth was in the way he was standing. I don’t know how to explain it better, but…I knew.

  “What?” Like he didn’t get me, you know.

  “The shaving cut on your finger.”

  “Oh, that shaving cut. Yuh, all better.”

  And out he sails…although, rube that he was, he probably didn’t have a clue where he was going. Luckily for him, Kerwin McCaslin had got him a place to stay in the better part of Newark. Hard to believe as it might be, Newark had a better part back then.

  Okay, second game of the season. Dandy Dave Sisler on the mound for Boston, and our new catcher is hardly settled into the batter’s box before Sisler chucks a fastball at his head. Would have knocked his fucking eyes out if it had connected, but he snaps his head back—didn’t duck or nothing—and then just cocks his bat again, looking at Sisler as if to say, Go on, mac, do it again if you want.

  The crowd’s screaming like mad and chanting RUN IM! RUN IM! RUN IM! The ump didn’t run Sisler, but he got warned and a cheer went up. I looked over and saw Pinky in the Boston dugout, walking back and forth with his arms folded so tight he looked like he was trying to keep from exploding.

  Sisler walks twice around the mound, soaking up the fan-love—boy oh boy, they wanted him drawn and quartered—and then he went to the rosin bag, and then he shook off two or three signs. Taking his time, you know, letting it sink in. The kid all the time just standing there with his bat cocked, comfortable as old Tillie. So Dandy Dave throws a get-me-over fastball right down Broadway and the kid loses it in the left field bleachers. Tidings was on base and we’re up two to nothing. I bet the people over in New York heard the noise from Swampy when the kid hit that home run.

  I thought he’d be grinning when he came around third, but he looked just as serious as a judge. Under his breath he’s muttering, “Got it done, Billy, showed that busher and got it done.”

  The Doo was the first one to grab him in the dugout and danced him right into the bat-rack. Helped him pick up the spilled lumber, too, which was nothing like Danny Dusen, who usually thought he was above such things.

  After beating Boston twice and pissing off Pinky Higgins, we went down to Washington and won three straight. The kid hit safe in all three, including his second home run, but Griffith Stadium was a depressing place to play, brother; you could have gunned down a running rat in the box seats behind home plate and not had to worry about hitting any fans. Goddam Senators finished over forty games back that year. Forty! Jesus fucking wept.

  The kid was behind the plate for The Doo’s second start down there and damn near caught a no-hitter in his fifth game wearing a big league uniform. Pete Runnels spoiled it in the ninth—hit a double with one out. After that, the kid went out to the mound, and that time Danny didn’t wave him back. They discussed it a little bit, and then The Doo gave an intentional pass to the next batter, Lou Berberet (see how it all comes back?). That brought up Bob Usher, and he hit into a double play just as sweet as you could ever want: ballgame.

  That night The Doo and the kid went out to celebrate Dusen’s one hundred and ninety-eighth win. When I saw our newest chick the next day, he was very badly hungover, but he bore that as calmly as he bore having Dave Sisler chuck at his head. I was starting to think we had a real big leaguer on our hands, and wouldn’t be needing Hubie Rattner after all. Or anybody else.

  “You and Danny are getting pretty tight, I guess,” I says.

  “Tight,” he agrees, rubbing his temples. “Me and The Doo are tight. He says Billy’s his good luck charm.”

  “Does he, now?”

  “Yuh. He says if we stick together, he’ll win twenty-five and they’ll have to give him the Cy Young.”

  “That right?”

  “Yessir, that’s right. Granny?”


  He was giving me that wide blue stare of his: twenty-twenty vision that saw everything and understood practically nothing. By then I knew he could hardly read, and the only movie he’d ever seen was Bambi. He said he went with the other kids from Ottershow or Outershow—whatever—and I assumed it was his school. I was both right and wrong about that, but it ain’t really the point. The point is that he knew how to play baseball—instinctively, I’d say—but otherwise he was a blackboard with nothing written on it.

p; “What’s a Cy Young?”

  That’s how he was, you see.

  We went over to Baltimore for three before going back home. Typical spring baseball in that town, which isn’t quite south or north; cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey the first day, hotter than hell the second, a fine drizzle like liquid ice the third. Didn’t matter to the kid; he hit in all three games, making it eight straight. Also, he stopped another runner at the plate. We lost the game, but it was a hell of a stop. Gus Triandos was the victim, I think. He ran headfirst into the kid’s knees and just lay there stunned, three feet from home. The kid put the tag on the back of his neck just as gentle as Mommy patting oil on Baby Dear’s sunburn.

  There was a picture of that put-out in the Newark Evening News, with a caption reading Blockade Billy Blakely Saves Another Run. It was a good nickname and caught on with the fans. They weren’t as demonstrative in those days—nobody would have come to Yankee Stadium in ’57 wearing a chef’s hat to support Gary Sheffield, I don’t think—but when we played our first game back at Old Swampy, some of the fans came in carrying orange road-signs reading DETOUR and ROAD CLOSED.

  The signs might have been a one-day thing if two Indians hadn’t got thrown out at the plate in our first game back. That was a game Danny Dusen pitched, incidentally. Both of those put-outs were the result of great throws rather than great blocks, but the rook got the credit, anyway, and I’d say he deserved it. The guys were starting to trust him, see? And they wanted to watch him do it. Baseball players are fans, too, and when someone’s on a roll, even the most hard-hearted try to help.

  Dusen got his hundred and ninety-ninth that day. Oh, and the kid went three for four, including a home run, so it shouldn’t surprise you that even more people showed up with those signs for our second game against Cleveland.

  By the third one, some enterprising fellow was selling them out on Titan Esplanade, big orange cardboard diamonds with black letters: ROAD CLOSED BY ORDER OF BLOCKADE BILLY. Some of the fans’d hold em up when Blockade Billy was at bat, and they’d all hold them up when the other team had a runner on third. By the time the Yankees came to town—this was going on to the end of April—the whole stadium would flush orange when the Bombers had a runner on third, which they did often in that series.