Claim you’re making / More than you are / Hitch your wagon / To a star / The truth is incidental / To what you gotta say / Those who can’t play ball / Are prone to fade away
Riggs Hellams completed his session with the fungo, and now all he had to do was figure how to win one more game with the Tri-Cities Bullfrogs. He had been called up, ostensibly to coach first base for the big club but really to trouble-shoot. The Portland Loggers were fourth in a five-team division with only six weeks to go, but they had an investment to protect, and it was Hellams’ forte. He could coach first in his sleep. Whipping a spoiled kid into line was another matter.
The International League schedule had two weeks to run. The Bullfrogs were playoff bound, but Hellams didn’t mind leaving too much. Rashad Harper was his right-hand man. They’d been together three seasons, and each knew how the other thought. Hellams was the bad cop. Harper scrambled around sympathizing with the youngsters, explaining how the old man was looking out for their interests and spreading compliments that Riggs had never expressed but should have. Each man was loyal to the other. Once Riggs was gone, Rashad would just have to be a bit sterner and let them know they still had a boss. He’d manage. He’d managed in the low minors for several seasons before someone in the front office had, by nothing more complex than a process of elimination, paired them. Two years earlier, they’d led the Bullfrogs to the Triple-A championship, and this team had a decent shot to win another.
Riggs and Rashad monitored batting practice from the dugout, each leaning against the railing. Most everyone else was either in the field or around the cage. They actually had a little privacy.
“So the big boy’s running wild, I hear,” Rashad said.
“Yep,” Riggs replied. “You know how it is when Philip calls. You gotta pay more attention to what he don’t say than what he does.”
Philip LaRouche was the Loggers’ general manager. He was thoroughly modern, well regarded in sabermetric circles and conversant in the language of business that Riggs couldn’t even pretend to understand. LaRouche had hired him, though, and generally been supportive, and they’d learned instinctively to let the other do his job and tacitly agree to disagree.
“Uh, best I can tell, Leland’s clean in that he hasn’t ever tested positive for nothing,” Riggs said, “but he just turned twenty-one, and he’s making good money, and he ain’t handling it too well. He got in a fight in the clubhouse with Bernie Stone after his error in right field cost him a decision. Don’t nobody know about that, but, then, last week, Leland got beaned by Max Scherzer, and Leland snapped, charged the mound, and when little Juan Santa Anna tried to get him away from Scherzer, Leland popped his own teammate upside the head. Course, you read about that.
“Club knows he’s been out all night, drinking and chasing women. He’s been getting more and more erratic, I reckon you’d say, and Philip didn’t come out and say it, but I reckon they think he’s on something else, cocaine, I don’t know. He got tested right after the All-Star Break, come up clean, and he might figure he’s safe now, unlikely to be tested again before the season’s done, ain’t gonna be no postseason, you know.”
“Sounds like Lee Thomsen all over,” Rashad said.
“Nah, it’s different now. Back in the seventies and eighties, wasn’t no drug testing. Half the players in the bigs were on greenies. Seemed like everybody was smoking pot or snorting coke. The way them guys was back then, that’s why we got all the testing and other stuff in place today. Them days proved you couldn’t trust nobody, gotta protect them pricks from theirself.”
Coincidentally, Lee Thomsen was just about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. One of the reasons, in the underground scuttlebutt of baseball insiders, was that Riggs Hellams had been responsible for straightening out the big third baseman. Thomsen had wound up becoming one kind of legend and Hellams another.
“What’s that story again about when you managed Lee in A ball?”
“When I got to Abbeville, the team had a chaplain, a youth minister from the local Baptist church who volunteered. Some of the boys went to his church when we were home on a Sunday. Lee was giving me all kind of trouble. There’d be a half-dozen gals he was screwing, all sitting behind the dugout, and several times them gals got to cat-fighting right in the middle of games. We won the division, and when the playoffs started, the right Reverend Stevenson arranged it so’s he could go on the road with us. The owner of the team was a big Christian, so he okayed it, and I thought, well, maybe I can get some good out of this, so I roomed him with Thomsen on the road. Thought I was real clever.”
Rashad laughed. “And what happened?”
Rashad knew, but he loved to hear Riggs tell it.
“Well, we won the league championship, beat Myrtle Beach three straight and took five to take out Durham in the finals, and when we got back, within a few months, they tell me, Reverend Stevenson’s secretary turned up pregnant, his wife left him, and he checked into rehab. Lee Thomsen got promoted all the way to Triple-A the next year, and I went with him. He got hisself straightened out, and once he broke the Reverend Stevenson’s faith, he found Jesus on his own, and everything turned out fine, all except for the preacher, and I’ve wondered ever since whatever become of him.
“Shit, Rashad, it was wild back then. The best job in town was being the clubhouse boy. I knew of three of them was selling weed to the ballplayers, and everybody had contacts on the road. Hell, in Pittsburgh, the visiting team’s batboy was selling dope. Back then, you couldn’t hardly do nothing about it. The players’ association wouldn’t stand for it. Like I said, everybody gets protected from theyself nowadays.”
“But boys will be boys.”
“Yessir, Rashad, there’s a good side and a bad side,” Riggs said. “Back in them days, ballplayers come from the wrong side of the tracks. They come up hard and tough. They started making a little money and didn’t know what to do with it. The world has done changed. Not as many black kids. They’re playing basketball and football. Hell, more of them playing soccer at the high school level than going out for the baseball team. The white kids, they’re custom-made. Come from rich families – every damn one of them will claim they’re middle-class, as if there was such a thing – hadn’t never had a job, didn’t play nothing but baseball, year around, since they outgrowed tee-ball, been on select teams, gone to one camp after another, ain’t played a pickup game of ‘rolling bat’ in their whole life, and what they know about baseball strategy comes from a Playstation. It’s like managing a goddamn bunch of zombies.”
“Riggs,” Rashad said, “what’s ‘rolling bat’?”
“How old are you, Rashad?”
“You was born just about the time everything started heading downhill.”
TO BE CONTINUED