The final series of the season was upon the Portland Loggers, and the opposition was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who, with ninety-three victories, boasted the second-best record in the National League. They were twenty games ahead of the Loggers and five up on the San Francisco Giants. The best pitcher in baseball, lefthander Clayton Kershaw, was on the mound, though it was widely believed he’d throw only five innings or so in order to be sharp but rested for the first game of the postseason. The Loggers were honoring their championship Triple-A team, the Tri-Cities Bullfrogs. Ten members of the team, which Riggs Hellams had managed until mid-August, had received late-season “call-ups,” and the rest were in town.
Leland Mortenson wasn’t much concerned about the game. He figured the Triple-A prospects would liberally dot the lineup. He and his loved one, Doctor Sophie Apodaca, Ph.D., rose early and performed yoga as the morning sun peeked through the glassed-in living room of their Vancouver, Washington townhouse. Then Sophie was off to class, and Mortenson bided his time sipping coffee, smoking weed, and reading William Burroughs. Sophie had taught him to appreciate finer things in life, and he believed weed, yoga, transcendental meditation, and frequent sex combined to make him a slightly better ballplayer and a considerably happier man. He believed this because he did those things and played baseball. It was an inherently positive way of looking at the situation, but what was a man with several million dollars to do if not derive pleasure from it?
Jonny Leonard and Sean Woodward dropped by at one, both figuring they had plenty of time to get over a few bong rips before the game. Both also figured they wouldn’t be seeing much action, thanks to the new prospects on the bench and also the fact that both were lefthanded hitters. Neither wanted anything to do with Kershaw if they could help it. On the other hand, it was unlikely that Gary Sjakich would sit the righthanded-hitting Mortenson. Not surprisingly, three ballplayers getting stoned mainly chatted about how there wasn’t anything wrong with marijuana. The National Football League had recently liberalized its rules regarding marijuana use, and Leland was of the opinion that the Major League Baseball Players Association should quickly move and go beyond the NFL. Mortenson offered the opinion that ballplayers should not even have to undergo testing for weed and allowed to his teammates as how he was willing to offer for the position of team player representative. Whether or not a liberalized treatment of marijuana was good for the game was a matter of some controversy, but whether it was good for Leland Mortenson, Jonny Leonard and Sean Woodward was not. The other two deemed Mortenson’s candidacy a capital idea.
They had some coffee and muffins that were somehow organic, then set off to the park in Woodward’s Escalade. They walked into the clubhouse at five till four, wearing sunglasses and decidedly merry. There they discovered that neither Leonard, Woodward, nor Mortenson was listed in the starting lineup. This opened Mortenson’s window of opportunity. He wasn’t crazy enough to take hallucinogens and then play an entire game, but he thought he might be able to pinch hit after eating, oh, a mushroom or two. Dock Ellis had dropped acid. Mortenson’s buddies in the Great Northwest said mushrooms were much better.
Mortenson thought this was his destiny. Dock Ellis wasn’t his inspiration; he was his mantra. Ellis had done what no one else ever had, but Mortenson wasn’t a pitcher. He thought he could bat with what his eyes could see enhanced. Embellished. The possibilities of the mind were endless, as Sophie was fond of telling him. The clubhouse was furnished with a blende r, along with ice, fruits, wheat germ, nuts, whey, kale, and other ingredients of what many strength-conditioned athletes considered healthful foods. The cold cuts, chips, and dips were still there, too, but custom-concocted smoothies and energy drinks were as popular as Gatorade and soft drinks nowadays. Mortenson concocted himself a doozie, slipping a few nasty-looking but potent mushrooms into his mix. Discreetly, he brought the entire pitcher back to his locker and poured himself a tall glass.
Leonard and Woodward, who, being members along with Mortenson of the Les Jacklin caucus, dressed on each side of him, were immediately suspicious.
“Keeping that smoothie all to yo’self, huh?” Leonard hadn’t grown up a fool in the mean streets of Camden, New Jersey.
“Yeah,” Leland whispered. “This is a special smoothie. It’s magic.”
“You crazy,” Woodward said, and he was a man who knew crazy, having grown up somewhere around San Francisco.
“Yuh … want some?”
“Hell, no,” Leonard said.
“We ain’t in the lineup,” Leland said. “It’s like my grandma used to say. It’s a jubilee.”
“What did you put in it?” Leonard asked.
“Some itsy-bitsy, polka-dotted mushrooms,” Leland said.
Woodward smiled. “Shit,” he said, “I’ll take a sip.”
“Go get yourself a cup, Shawnee. Get Jonny One Time one, too.”
Batting practice wasn’t too bad. By the time the lineup cards were being exchanged at home plate, Mortenson was glad he wasn’t the captain. They were a sight, sitting next to each other down at the end of the bench, tripping. Mortenson sat on the end. That way there was room for Dock Phillip Ellis, Junior. Number Seventeen.
The Dodgers scratched out a run in the top of the first off Bernie Stone, the stocky Portland lefty, who was eleven and fourteen. Leland told Jonny that Bernie ought to try throwing righthanded to Yasiel Puig.
“Might as well,” Leonard said.
“Seriously, man, he’s better righthanded. I’m visualizing it.”
In the bottom half, Kershaw threw eleven pitches, no more than one or two in the strike zone, and struck out all three batters. The prospects looked only slightly less ridiculous than they seemed to the Les Jacklin caucus.
“I think I can play, man,” Woodward said.
“Shit, yeah, me, too,” Leonard added. “What about you, Lelo? You done drunk twice as much as me and Shawnee.”
“Fuck, yeah,” Mortenson said. “Knowing I can hit. I wanna play in the muhfuckin’ field.”
“I don’t know,” Woodward said. “Let’s not and say we did.”
Because they had not inquired, or asked around, and had instead spent all their pregame time going from being stoned to hallucinating, neither Mortenson, nor Leonard, nor Woodward, had even entertained the possibility that the reason they weren’t in the lineup was that the team was honoring the Triple-A champions, and Sjakich’s plan was to let them all get their at-bats in and then put in the regulars. It took three innings, five Kershaw strikeouts, three groundouts and one popup to fulfill that requirement. By then, it had occurred to most everyone on the premises that Kershaw could easily pitch a no-hitter if the Loggers provided no reinforcements. It was quite likely the Dodger ace hadn’t ever eaten mushrooms.
In the top of the fourth, Sjakich sent Mortenson to right field, Leonard to center, and Woodward to second base. The other changes were incidental to what subsequently happened. Adrian Gonzalez belted a long fly ball to right-center. Leonard called for it, waited for it, and was pounding his glove, still waiting, when it fell at his feet. He looked down, picked it up, threw it to Woodward, looked up at Mortenson and informed him that the ball had gone right through his glove. That was all he could figure.
“I better take the next one,” Leland said.
The next two batters hit balls to Loggers who hadn’t enjoyed pregame smoothies. Then Woodward booted a ground ball. He, too, thought the ball had beamed right through his glove. That scored Gonzalez, who wasn’t fast, but Mortenson’s throw pelted the foul-ball screen, behind the plate, halfway up, and dropped harmlessly near the on-deck circle.
“Did you see that? Next one I’m going to throw it clear out of the stadium,” Mortenson said to Leonard, trotting back to his position.
“There’s something going on that’s real bad,” Riggs Hellams said to Sjakich in the dugout. “You might want to get them boys right back out of there, lest we all gonna be on Sportscenter.”
He was right, not in terms of them all, but in terms of Mortenson, who coolly assessed the arc of Andre Ethier’s fly ball, pivoted counter-clockwise, and caught it behind his back for the third out. The twenty-one-thousand or so on hand, most of whom had come to watch Kershaw, gave Mortenson a standing ovation.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” Sjakich said.
“Max Patkin, maybe,” Hellams said.
Patkin had once been known as the Clown Prince of Baseball. He’d been a performer, not a player.
“Don’t let him bat against Kershaw,” Hellams said.
“I can’t take him out now,” Sjakich said. “They just gave him a standing ovation.”
“They’re high as he is,” Hellams replied.
Kershaw, having been perfect, faced the top of the order – Jonny Leonard, shortstop Juan Santa Ann, and Sean Woodward – in the fourth. Leonard struck out looking. He, in fact, struck out on three pitches, all of which he took. Santa Anna worked the count to three and one, then broke up the perfect game with a grounder between Gonzalez and Dee Gordon. Woodward popped up but ran like he’d lined Kershaw’s fastball into the gap.
“That’s what I call hustle,” Hellams said to Sjakich, who apparently took him seriously.
Before stepping up to the plate, Mortenson walked up near the dugout to greet Woodward, who had finally slowed to a trot on his return to the dugout after mysteriously sliding into second. The team’s public-address announcer, who talked way too much, told the crowd to give Woodward a round of applause for being “a great showman!”
“Sean,” Mortenson said, “you know what?”
“We all live in a yellow submarine.”
Mortenson took a strike. It had vapor trails that lingered after it popped into A.J. Ellis’s mitt. He swung and missed a changeup. Too easy. Oh and two. Kershaw threw serious heat, way out of the strike zone, shoulder high. Mortenson lunged at it. He hit it to right field, a line drive that started out twenty-five feet fair but sliced off the pole, halfway up. The team’s radio announcer said that never had such a bad swing sent a baseball that far. Mortenson’s thirty-third homer tied the game at two.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” Sjakich asked.
“Once,” Hellams said. “All-Star Game. Vladimir Guerrero. I was watching on TV. Never seen nothing like it live. I still say you better get those three boys out of there.”
Sjakich didn’t say anything.
Mortenson knew it was time to quit, too. He had done it. He had hit a home run off the greatest pitcher in baseball, and it was unreal, literally, in terms of the experience. Leland hadn’t even hit a baseball. Kershaw’s “serious heat” had looked like shuttlecock, fluttering through Mortenson’s line of sight. Then, when he hit, it felt heavy, like one of Super Balls he’d played with in his youth.
Somehow, though, it was too much fun. He couldn’t give it up. He felt as if this was something special in life. Sjakich wasn’t going to take him out now, and he was half a mind to go back to the clubhouse and fix himself another refreshing smoothie. He was shit out of mushrooms but felt like God.
Hellams knew this was going to end badly, but he’d made his feelings known, and Sjakich had decided to leave the three amigos in the game. What could he do? He couldn’t go sit down next to Mortenson and tell him to get unhigh.
Kershaw sailed through the fifth inning but reportedly told his manager, Don Mattingly, that he wanted to pitch one more inning. Mortenson was due up again. Kershaw wanted to face him again. Mortenson told Sjakich he wanted to pitch an inning himself. Sjakich responded the same way he had when Hellams said he ought to take Leland out of the game. He just let it be.
Hellams greeted Mortenson when he ran in from right field after the top of the sixth.
“You did what you wanted, Leland,” he said. “Go tell Gary to lift you for a pinchhitter.”
“Fuck off, Riggs. I’m gonna win the game. I own Kershaw, man.”
“Magic don’t last forever, son. Magic don’t last but a minute. You done beat all I ever seen. For God’s sake, quit while you’re ahead.”
“It ain’t like I got nothing to do with it, Riggs. I’m just a ballplayer who does what they tell me. If Gary wants to pinchhit for me, let Gary do it. Otherwise, I’m taking Kershaw deep again.”
“You’re the most talented fool ever I seen,” Hellams said.
Hellams didn’t return to his post next to Sjakich near the dugout steps. He walked down the runway to the clubhouse because he didn’t much care to watch. He sat down. The game was on. Someone was getting treatment in the training room. He could hear the whirlpool running. Hellams closed his eyes and thought about Dock Ellis. Some claimed he couldn’t have pitched that no-hitter on acid. Dock was a bullshitter. Willie Stargell had believed it, though, and that was good enough for Hellams. Willie was dead a long time now, too.
He’d been twenty-one years old back in 1970. Now he was two weeks shy of sixty-five, and, every now and then, it occurred to him how little things had really changed. What was there in human brilliance that made people crazy as hell?
Mortenson dug in and stared at the mound. Kershaw could’ve knocked Leland down. The benches would have cleared, but everyone would have understood it. Mortenson had showed him up. And that behind-the-back catch. Strictly bush league. But Kershaw decided he’d let Wonder Boy see if he could make that impossible swing one more time. He threw it a foot outside. Mortenson let it go. Kershaw threw it out there again. Two and oh. He could still bean him, but the score was tied, and he’d already walked Santa Anna. Kershaw decided to throw a fastball right down the pipe.
Wonder Boy never saw it. He saw a pitch that wasn’t there. He saw a ball outside, leaving its golden trail. He lunged at it. The real pitch hit him right in the cheek. It was a wonder it hadn’t blinded him, but it caved in his whole jaw and missed his left eye. He went down like a sack of potatoes. He wasn’t even qualified for first base. He’d swung his bat at the ball that wasn’t there. The benches didn’t empty. It didn’t occur to anybody. Sjakich ran out with the head trainer. Emergency Medical Services carted him off on a stretcher and carried him through the clubhouse, Hellams sitting there, watching as they put him in the ambulance. Jacklin was in there, the first time Hellams had seen him, looking like a man who’d just lost a heap of money. Leland would live. He’d most likely never be the same. A part of Hellams wanted to go say something to the agent, but he’d had conversations with enough devils lately.
Hellams took a shower and changed into the clothes he’d worn to the park. He packed his bag. By then, the Dodgers had scored five times in the bottom of the seventh. Hellams took a cab back to the hotel where the team had put him up. He sent a text to Sjakich.
I reckon what’s done is done, Gary. Enjoyed getting to know you. I’m heading home to Opelika.
Hellams had the contract in his briefcase. He tossed it in the trash while waiting for his flight.