Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (Part Six)

 

Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City
Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City

The prevailing view was that Riggs Hellams was turning the trick. Leland Mortenson, slugging right fielder, was coming around. With a couple weeks to go, he was closing in on thirty homers. His strikeouts were down. He seemed happier. Those in the media who followed the team were warming to him, depicting Mortenson as a free-thinking throwback who read Kerouac in the clubhouse and quoted him around the batting cage. He had only a high school education yet lived with a college professor. He was attuned to the heartbeat of his laidback town, where streetside vendors near the ballpark sold bootleg Loggers tee shirts with Mortenson’s Number Twenty-Three on the back and marijuana leaves on the shoulders. The club was fifteen games out of the wild-card race but had recently taken two out of three in Detroit and was now headed to Kansas City in search of similar damage to another contender.

Hellams knew a good bit of it was bullshit. Mortenson’s attitude was better. Either Leland enjoyed talking with Hellams, or he had decided to feign enjoyment. Hellams wasn’t sure. Ballplayers developed their skills at bullshit as much as their batting strokes, and Mortenson had a great swing when he got there. Then there was that smooth agent, Les Jacklin, he and his image specialists, and his brother-in-law, the apparent fixer, at least by Bill Clendenon’s suspicion. Gary Sjakich thought Riggs had made Leland a new man. Riggs suspected the beauty was skin-deep.

Leland rang Hellams’ room and asked him to meet him for lunch at the Hereford House.

“How about we split a cab?” Riggs suggested.

It was a good thing. The old Hereford House was shut down, but the cabbie knew and took them to another location, where “Zona Rosa” was in front of the name. They both ordered Kansas City Strips. They were pricey, not so much for a big-league ballplayer, though.

“Pretty heavy lunch,” Riggs noted.

“Ah, I skipped breakfast,” Leland replied. “Ballgame ain’t till eight.”

Leland picked at his salad. “I’m sorry for the way I behaved when you first got here. I was trying to see if I could trust you.”

“My job ain’t to get you in trouble, Leland. My job is to keep you out of it.”

What Hellams was learning about Mortenson was that he could be charming when it suited his purposes. Most great hitters were self-absorbed. How could they not be? They soared above the mere mortals, the working stiffs who had to lower themselves to performing the fundamentals – getting a bunt down, hitting to the right side to advance a runner – as a means of clinging to a fleeting slot in the big time. The gifted didn’t have to bother with all that. They just swung away. It didn’t matter if it was three-and-oh. They always had the green light. They could do more recklessly than others could manage under control.

Therein lied the rub.

“Hey, Riggs, I googled you, man. You had a pretty good career.”

“I done ah’ight, I reckon.”

“Hey, you want some Sea Hogs? Let’s get some Sea Hogs?”

“What are Sea Hogs?”

“Big ol’ shrimp wrapped in bacon. You’ll love ‘em. Ma’am? Ma’am? We’d like to order some Sea Hogs.”

He was right. Riggs loved them.

“What I was noticing,” Leland said, “was that you actually played with Dock Ellis.”

“Yeah. He was a real good pitcher. Could’ve been great.”

“So, were you there …?”

“When he pitched a no-hitter? When he was supposedly on acid?”

“Well, yeah.”

“No,” Riggs said. “The game was in San Diego. I was back in Pittsburgh. I’d broke my ankle and was on the fifteen-day DL.”

“How long were you out?”

“Fifteen days,” Riggs said. “Them was different times. That ankle still bothers me.”

“But you knew him?”

“Yeah, he was something. There was a lot of guys burning themselves out in them days. Lots of guys took greenies. Lots smoked pot. I never heard of nobody taking LSD, but, with Dock, yeah, he probably did. Wasn’t no testing back then. You know, there was the Vietnam War, hippies, Nixon … it was a crazy time. Ballplayers back in them days cost you boys a heap of privacy.”

Hellams tried to keep his expression blank.

“D’you ever get into anything like that?”

“Nah,” Riggs said, “never did. I drank lots of beer. Smoked cigarettes in the runway sometime. I’d get nervous if I thought I might have to pinch-hit. I was a country boy, Leland. Most of the guys into drugs was city boys back then. Not all of them, but the boys from the sticks wasn’t acclimated. Most of them come to a bad end. Dock Ellis come to a bad end. He’d dead, you know.”

Riggs stared at Mortenson. His eyes were a little bloodshot.”

“You ain’t thinking about getting tore up and trying to take Clayton Kershaw deep, are you?”

The Dodgers were in Portland next week.

The steaks had arrived. Leland put some effort into getting his baked potato just right.

“Nah,” he said. “Course not.” Then he looked at Riggs, smiling. “Kershaw’s a lefty. That’d be too easy.”

They laughed.

“It’s just fascinatin,’ that’s all,” Leland said.

TO BE CONTINUED

Read my novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope, both available in softcover and Kindle versions at amazon.com.

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