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 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 didn’t 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 Bernie a decision. Don’t nobody know about that, but, then, last week, Leland got beaned by Jake Peavy, and Leland snapped, charged the mound, and when little Juan Santa Anna tried to get him away from Peavy, Leland popped his own teammate upside the head. Course, you read about that.
“Club knows he’s been out, drinking and God knows what else, coming to the ballpark looking like hell. 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.
“Shoot, 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 theirself 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 anymore – 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 damn 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.”
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, Hellams looked in vain for Leland Mortenson, the Portland Loggers’ resident phenom. Most of the players were milling around in the clubhouse. Not Leland. Hellams 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. Hellams 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.
Hellams 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?
Hellams ducked his head in Sjakich’s office. The manager was talking on the phone but motioned for him to sit down.
“I know 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 say, 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.”
Hellams 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.
Waste your money / On a bag of weed / Take out options / You don’t need / The first time that you compromise / Well, now you’re on your way / And when you pass out on greed / That’s where you’re gonna stay
It was a Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, the first time Riggs Hellams and Leland Mortenson had a worthwhile conversation. Leland wasn’t the social sort and didn’t hang out around the batting cage as others did. He took his swings and headed for the clubhouse, where he found Riggs waiting.
“What you want?” Leland sat down in front of his locker and swigged on a bottle of water. Riggs pulled up a chair.
“It’s not like I jumped my Triple-A club, two weeks shy of a pennant, the Lord appeared to me in a dream and told me to come see Leland Mortenson,” Riggs said. “I work for the organization. The organization brought me here. I’m drawing a check, just like you. Mine’s not near as big. I probably need it more.”
“Just what the fuck is the problem, Riggs? What? My best isn’t good enough? Am I not giving the club enough bang for the buck?”
One of the first lessons Hellams had learned after his playing days were over was the value of talking face-to-face. Dress a man down in front of his teammates, and his ego demanded that he fight back. The size of the ego corresponded with the size of the salary. Coaches’ egos weren’t so large, but it was a living.
“Right now,” Riggs said, “you’re a great, great athlete, one of the best. As a player, not so much. Your ability won’t carry you any farther. You can make a fine living just the way you are.”
Leland made an obscene suggestion. Riggs ignored it.
“So what am I doing wrong exactly?”
“At the plate,” Riggs said, matter-of-factly, “your average is down fifty points because you’re trying to pull everything, hitting grounders right into the shift, lunging at breaking balls in the dirt, leading the league in strikeouts …”
“Fifth in home runs.”
“Fifteenth, though, in RBIs.”
“Not enough baserunners in front of me,” Leland said. “I’m trying to help the club win.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“I’m making almost three million. At the end of next year, I’ll be a free agent. I’m figuring four times that much, over eight years or so. Eighty million total, or thereabouts. Now tell me more about how I’m fucking up.”
“Yankees won’t bid,” Riggs said. “You’ll sign with somebody not as smart, and you’ll spend the rest of your career as a guy who puts up decent numbers for horseshit teams.”
“Like this one?”
“Yeah,” Riggs said. “Doesn’t have to be that way, though. You don’t have to be another one of those guys with great ability who plays out by the time he’s thirty. Woods are full of them. Remember Shawn Green? Ellis Valentine? Hell, B.J. Upton. Sam Horn.”
“I heard a couple of those names.”
“There’s a reason for that, big man.”
Leland almost said, hey, you can’t talk to me like that, but, obviously, Riggs could.
“You got one of the three best throwing arms in baseball, and you show it off by throwing to the wrong base, usually the plate. Last night, I watched video of you trying to force David Ortiz at the plate from medium right field.”
“I almost got him.”
“Oh, five steps, maybe. Ball went through the catcher, another run scored, five in the inning. You made SportsCenter, though.”
“Fucking mind your own business,” Leland said.
“I am,” Riggs said, and walked back up the tunnel to the dugout.
Hide your money / From the man / Plant your head / In the sand / If you ain’t got insurance / Claim treatment as your right / And if you want to go to war / Send poor kids off to fight.
“What in hell did you do? Piss him off?” Gary Sjakich leaned forward, leaning against the dugout railing of Progressive Field.
“I didn’t think I pissed him off,” Riggs said to the Loggers’ manager. “I just thought we had an honest conversation.”
“Whatever it was, don’t stop.”
Leland Mortenson had four hits in as many at-bats. His teammates had combined for two more. The Loggers led the Tribe, six to two, and Mortenson had scored three of the runs and driven in four. It was the seventh inning, a runner on third, one out, Lonnie Chisenhall batting against Henry Lively, the Loggers’ stout righty. On a two-and-one count, Chisenhall hit a decent fly ball, one that ought to have been good for a sacrifice.
Sjakich and Hellams watched the fly ball rise above the stands.
“The day Leland’s having, they’d be a fool to send him,” Hellams said.
They did. Leland laid back a tad, strode forward as he caught the ball, and threw to the plate, straight in, like a missile. Mike Aviles was out by two strides.
“Just add water,” Hellams said. “I told you. Don’t cross a kid with talent when it’s his day.”
Mortenson homered for the second time in the top of the ninth, becoming the first Portland Logger ever to collect five hits in as many at-bats. In the bottom half, Sjakich waited for Leland to trot out to right and sent Julio Soto out to replace him.
“Ah, hell, Gary, look,” Hellams said. “Dumb son of a bitch thinks you’re showing him up.”
Hellams thought for a moment that Mortenson was going to flip off his manager. Then he heard the applause. Fifteen thousand Cleveland fans were giving him a standing ovation. He looked around and smiled, slapped Soto a high five, took off his cap, and acknowledged the grudging adulation. He jogged in and, as he stepped down into the dugout, said to Sjakich, “Thanks, Skip. Means a lot to me.”
Sjakich’s eyes met Hellams.’
“I be dogged,” Riggs said.
The four-game series spilled over to Monday night. Another afternoon game would have been appreciated, but the Loggers were only traveling to Detroit. Mortenson showed up late, said he’d been playing golf. He also told Sjakich he thought he had “flu-like symptoms” and needed the night off. Sjakich asked him if he thought he could pinch-hit, and Leland said he reckoned he could. Sjakich sighed and said all right. Leland wasn’t even in the dugout when the game started.
“You think he’s drunk?” Sjakich asked.
“Stoned, more likely,” Hellams said. “He’s something.”
“I guess you better get him pissed off again.”
“You know how it is,” Hellams replied. “Two steps front’ards, one step back.”
Get your licks in/ While you can / Keep your future / In your hands / Don’t let the damn authorities / Dictate what you do / Always keep it in your mind just who’s / Screwing who.
Hellams found an old acquaintance standing, arms folded behind him, in uniform near the photo pit of Portland’s Amalgamated Timber Park. A police uniform. Bill Clendenon did a little ballpark security, partly because he could use the money and partly because he was an ex-ballplayer. Hellams and Clendenon had befriended each other during one of his previous salvage operations in Portland.
“I read where you were back,” Clendenon said, embracing him. He lowered his voice. “I’m guessing … Leland Mortenson.”
“Got any idea what’s eating him?”
“Yeah,” Clendenon said. “Portland. He has fully embraced our fair city.”
“Look, we can’t talk here, Bill. What if I bought you a couple beers after the game?”
“Sounds good. I’m off tomorrow. I’ll meet you at Blimey’s, what, ninety minutes after the final pitch?”
“Yeah, I can make that. They don’t trust me behind a laptop, and I don’t know what ‘doing the metrics’ means.”
“Don’t want to, neither, do you?”
“Don’t want to,”Hellams said. “See no evil.”
Blimey’s was a lavish, glassed-in microbrewery where the food was as good as the in-house lagers and the bar didn’t fill till late at night. It wasn’t a sports bar, which meant it wasn’t the kind of place where an obscure, short-term coach of the Portland Loggers was likely to be recognized. It had lots of oak paneling and patrons dressed tastefully.
They took a booth, just in case. The music being piped in was jazz, and the noise level was reasonable. Clendenon ordered an IPA. Hellams said he’d have the same.
“I take it you’re still doing some work for the league,” Riggs said.
“That reminds me. Where do you wear a uniform other than at the park?”
“Nowhere,” Clendenon said. “It’s my baseball uniform.”
Forty hours a week when he was lucky, Clendenon was a homicide detective.
“Mortenson’s from Georgia, right?”
“South Georgia,” Hellams said. “Waycross. It’s not very much like Portland.”
“He’s been here, what, two and a half seasons? Boy’s changed.”
“Bright lights, big city. He’s not the first.”
The beers arrived. Hellams took a sip. “Ain’t bad.”
“Mortenson, he’s got a fairly well-known girlfriend. Sophie Apodaca. Brainy. Teaches sociology at Portland State. She’s, uh, active in the marijuana reform movement. She and Leland live together across the river.”
“In Washington. Where pot’s legal.”
“It’s not very illegal here,” Clendenon said, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if the latest referendum passes in November.
“Mortenson’s fairly responsible. He and the little woman do their socializing at home.”
Hellams took another sip. “But drug use is fairly common?”
“People bring their water bongs with them,” Clendenon said. “They got their own carrying cases.”
“More of a hipster crowd. Just a couple athletes. It’s more of an artists’ colony. The only guys from the Loggers who ever show up are Leonard and Woodward.”
“Pretty good ones.”
“There’s one thing unusual about that. All three of them got the same agent.”
“Yep. He’s well connected.”
“How could their agent keep them from testing positive?”
“Well, no one seems to want to know that, Riggs. What I know can be chalked up to cop’s curiosity.”
“Les Jacklin owns ten percent of the ballclub.”
“How could I possibly not know that?”
“Because his shares are in the name of his brother-in-law,” Clendenon said. “As recently as ten years ago, Jackson Mulroney was a welder. Now he’s the CEO of a lab, a lab that conducts drug testing.”
“A lab that does business with major league baseball?”
“Bingo. Baseball works with four labs. Cheshire Research is headquartered in San Rafael, California. Best I can tell, its only account is MLB. It’s got the West Coast teams: Seattle, Portland, San Fran, Oakland, Dodgers and Angels, Padres, Diamondbacks.”
“If next season comes and goes, and Leland doesn’t want to stay with the Loggers, reckon he’d sign with one of those other clubs?”
“I don’t know,” Clendenon said. “He might.”
“Thanks, Bill,” Hellams said, finishing off the beer, and motioning for the server. “I gotta plane to catch to Kansas City in the morning.”
The prevailing view was that Riggs Hellams was turning the trick. Leland Mortenson, slugging right fielder, was coming around. With less than a month 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 barely 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 Hellams 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,” Hellams 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. Hellams 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?”
“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,” Hellams 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’s 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 Hellams, smiling. “Kershaw’s a lefty. That’d be too easy.”
“It’s just fascinatin,’ that’s all,” Leland said.
Life is short / Give it your all / Keep your focus / On the ball / Be aware of all the detours in your way / And never be afraid when it’s time / To walk away.
Three games remained in the regular season. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town, division champions already, seven games ahead of the Giants and twenty-one and a half over the Loggers. Naturally, in Portland, it was raining. According to the forecast, they might just get that night’s game in. Riggs Hellams had a meeting with the general manager, Philip LaRouche. LaRouche had been supportive. He wasn’t Riggs’ type, but, then again, he couldn’t think of any GMs who were anymore. It was as if they were all playing in rotisserie leagues. They had incredible access to numbers, and they came to love the numbers so much that they forgot about everything else.
Hellams liked that other word better. Fantasy. Fantasy baseball. LaRouche was the boss, though. Hellams played by his rules.
LaRouche began the meeting by kissing Hellams’ ass. This wasn’t unusual. He believed in “positive reinforcement.” He had all these sayings he called on over and over again, regardless of how many times he’d used them. For instance, say, about anything, “We’ve got a problem,” and LaRouche, about anything, would answer, “It’s not a problem. It’s an opportunity.”
Well, be that as it may, Philip, the problem is that the toilet’s running over, and somebody’s gonna have an opportunity to mop up some shit.
Riggs didn’t say that, but his expressions gave him away. They generally communicated more than his vocal chords.
Even though the only conferee was Hellams, LaRouche had insisted they meet in a conference room, one prepared in advance with legal pads, writing instruments, pastries and coffee. Maybe LaRouche had two meetings. Maybe he was just giving Riggs access to the coffee and rolls. Maybe he was a creature of habit. Maybe every word spoken in his office was recorded, and he wanted freedom from electronics. Hellams was just speculating. He didn’t really care to know.
“Congratulations, Riggs. You’re something,” LaRouche said. “Whatever you’re doing with Leland, it’s working. He’s been a man possessed for the past two weeks.”
“He’s had his ups and downs,” Hellams said. “Don’t give me the credit. I expect it’s more a coincidence than anything else.”
“Modesty gets you nowhere in this business, Riggs. One of these days, you better learn how to take credit for what you do.”
Hellams ignored him. “Kid’s a great talent, Philip. He’s still crazier than hell.”
“Leland Mortenson’s a free spirit,” LaRouche said. “That plays well in the Northwest. The teen-aged and college kids feel like he’s one of them.”
“The only way that works is in lieu of a winning team. Without a winning team, it won’t work long.”
LaRouche opened a file folder and shuffled some papers. Hellams wondered if he was really looking for information or just pausing for effect. Wasn’t much to him that was unrehearsed.
“We’ll never have the payrolls of our competitors,” LaRouche said. “We’ve got to make wise decisions.”
“And you’re going to make a big play of signing Leland Mortenson to a long-term contract.”
“Yes. That’s one of the reasons we brought you up from Tri-Cities,” LaRouche said, “and, by the way, while I’m thinking of it, congratulations on the team winning the Governor’s Cup.”
“Ah, I was just slowing them down. Rashad Harper deserves the credit, before I left and afterwards, too.”
“Nonsense. You really are self-deprecating.”
Riggs wasn’t completely sure what that meant but thought it must mean he was modest.
“I want to offer you a contract, too,” LaRouche said.
Ah. The paperwork.
“How does three hundred thousand dollars sound, Riggs?” LaRouche smiled.
“It sounds like three times what I’m making now.”
“You’ll be the bench coach. Associate manager to Gary. I already met with him about it. He’s excited. Fifteen thousand-dollar bonus if the team finishes above .500 next year. Another five grand if we make the postseason.”
“That’s very generous, but there’s a problem, Philip.”
“It’s not a problem, Riggs. It’s an opportunity.” Bingo.
“All right, Philip. You and Gary brought me up here to find out what’s wrong with Mortenson. I know. He’s not the only one needs some adjusting.”
“Now, look, this is between you and me, right? Nothing said in this room leaves it. I don’t tell anybody. You don’t tell anybody, and what I say doesn’t get held against me, right?”
“Of course. Goes without saying.”
“Nothing in this game goes without saying, Philip. You’re the boss, okay. What that means is, you ask me what I think and I tell you. If I don’t do that, I’m nothing but a yes man. But you’re the boss. What you say goes. You tell me to do something I don’t agree with? I do it, but don’t hold it against me if I answer your questions honestly. Don’t hold it against me if I say what I think.”
“You just articulated what makes you invaluable to this organization.”
“The rules here don’t apply to everybody,” Hellams said. “At least three players – Mortenson, Leonard, Woodward – don’t have to worry about drug tests.”
“That’s impossible,” said LaRouche with a dismissive wave.
“No, it’s not. They know when they’re coming. Know why?”
“Because Les Jacklin is their agent. All three. Jacklin owns ten percent of the ballclub.”
“Where’d you get that idea?”
“Because it’s in the name of his brother-in-law, Jackson Mulroney, and Mulroney is the CEO of Cheshire Research – nice name, don’t you think? – and that’s who oversees the team’s drug testing, and I bet the real head of that is Les Jacklin, too.”
LaRouche bit his lip. He looked guilty.
“As I said, where’d you get this?”
“I’ve just got my sources,” Hellams said.
“The person is in law enforcement, Philip.”
“Being a private investigator is sort of beyond your responsibilities with the club.”
“There weren’t any conditions set when you summoned me. You just told me to try to fix what was wrong with Mortenson. I believe the words you used were ‘whatever it takes.’ Now we already agreed. This is between you and me, and I don’t mind Gary knowing about it. I’ll never mention it to a soul. We also agreed that you’d hold nothing I say against me, and that, regardless of what I think, what you think, or say, goes. You can fire me right now, Philip, and I’ll never say a word to anybody even about that. You have my word, and my word is all I’ve ever offered and all that’s ever mattered to me.”
“I’m not going to fire you, Riggs.” LaRouche picked up the paperwork. “I’m trying to promote you.”
“And I’m trying to decide if this team can win when things aren’t entirely on the up and up.”
“What you’re telling me is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“Well, let me take this here contract with me,” Hellams said. “I better let my agent look over it.”
Riggs Hellams’ “agent” was a country lawyer in Opelika, Alabama, who, under normal circumstances, made sure his taxes were properly prepared.
“Let’s get the season over with,” Hellams said, getting up. “I’ll be back in here Monday morning, and we’ll get everything settled.”
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.