Since I was just a boy / They’ve said the truth shall set you free / Sometimes it seems the truth is just a source of misery / The line is long and weary gathered at the gates of hell / Just heed the devil’s call / Don’t ask, don’t tell
After a visit to the equipment room to be fitted, Riggs looked in vain for Leland Mortenson, the Portland Loggers’ resident phenom. Most of the players were milling around in the clubhouse. Not Leland. Riggs didn’t know if he was supposed to be there or not. Maybe Gary Sjakich didn’t have any hard and fast rules other than be there in time for batting practice. Riggs had always heard Sjakich referred to as “a player’s manager,” but he didn’t know him well. They’d mingled a bit in Tucson, where the Loggers trained. This was Sjakich’s second year and, quite possibly, his last. He wasn’t a bad fellow, a little cloying, but, mainly, just another bright guy with a big smile who was in over his head.
Riggs got dressed carefully, making sure everything fit. He’d only managed Mortenson for two months because he’d put up big numbers in the Eastern League and been rushed through Triple-A. Riggs had found him startlingly talented but also self-centered in the way most extraordinarly gifted athletes were. Mortenson was accustomed to hearing people tell him how great he was, to the point where he had started believing them. He hadn’t given Riggs any particular trouble. He seemed a brat, but brattiness was correlated positively to huge signing bonuses. When Leland had left the Tri-Cities, Riggs had figured “the show” would knock him down a peg and it’d be good for him. Apparently, he’d exceeded even the high expectations, and it had gone to his head. Mortenson, now in his first full season, wasn’t having a great year, but he was the best run producer the Loggers had. He hit the long ball but was only batting .267. He had a splendid throwing arm but used it too often to throw to the wrong base. He struck out about twice as much as he ought to and had pretty much given up on hitting the ball to the opposite field. He had great speed but had been thrown out stealing seven times in twenty tries. Leland was a great athlete who left much to be desired as a player. When he hit a home run, it looked majestic, like a moon shot, reminiscent of Jim Rice or Richie Allen, but he didn’t look that interested in getting better, which meant that he was on the way to a career being the least horseshit member of a succession of horseshit teams.
What do you call a guy named Leland Mortenson? Morty? Leelie? Lando?
Riggs ducked his head in Sjakich’s office. The manager was talking on the phone but motioned for him to come in and sit down.
“I know that we announced you’d be coaching first base,” Sjakich said, standing to shake Riggs’ hand, “but it would be fine if you want to stay in the dugout.”
“Whatever you prefer, Gary.”
“We just need a little help getting the kid straightened out. We thought about bringing in professional help, a sports psychologist, but we thought that might draw too much attention when word got around.
“Philip thought it might be good to give you a try.”
“Well, it ain’t the first time.”
“What do you plan on doing? I mean, if you don’t mind my asking …”
“You’re the manager of the ballclub, Gary. You can ask me anything you want. The way I’ve always seen it, for a kid to straighten himself out, somebody, or some thing, has got to put the fear of God in him. That’s not really God with a capital ‘G.’ It might be. It was with Lee Thomsen. But he’s gotta learn, up close and personal and in an emotional way, the consequences of his behavior. God might be money. Likely is. It might be a woman, a good one who can straighten him out if he loves her enough and knows he’ll lose her if he don’t straighten up and fly right. What I gotta do to start out is figure out which of his buttons I can push, so to speak. I’ll keep an eye on him, talk to some of his teammates, maybe if he’s got friends off the field, talk to them, and try to figure the boy out. Ain’t no quick fix. Six weeks left in the season. I figure I’ll need every bit of that.”
“I’ve always believed in letting people do their jobs,” Sjakich said. “Sometimes that’s come back to bite my ass, but it’s what I believe. Let’s just keep communicating.”
Riggs left the office encouraged. The feeling didn’t last long. It took only a walk through the locker room to draw the right fielder’s fire.
“Seventy-fucking-nine,” Mortenson said. It was the number on Hellams’ back. “Whoever heard of a ballplayer wearing seventy-fucking-nine?”
Riggs turned around. “That must be why I’m not no ballplayer,” he said.
“I got five hundred dollars says you can’t think of a single number seventy-nine, Riggs.”
“You’re on, Leland.” Good to see they were already on a first-name basis. “Ron McDole. Harvey Martin.”
“Who the fuck are they?”
“Ballplayers,” Riggs said. “Football players. You didn’t say. I’ll take a check.”
“Fuck you,” Leland said.
Riggs just smiled and went about his business.
TO BE CONTINUED