Authors: Jerry Spinelli
Tags: #Children/Young Adult Trade
In the morning Grayson bought Maniac an Egg McMuffin and a large orange juice. He bought the same thing for himself, so they ate breakfast together in the baseball equipment room.
"You sent me to bed without a story last night," Maniac kidded.
Grayson brushed a yellow speck of egg from his white stubble. "I don't got no stories. I told you."
"You wanted to be a baseball player."
"That ain't no story."
"Well, did you become one?"
Grayson drank half his orange juice. "Just the Minors," he muttered.
Maniac yelped, "The Minors!"
"Couldn't never make it to the Majors." There was a frayed weariness in the old man's words, as though they had long since worn out.
"Grayson --- the Minors. Man, you must have been good. What position did you play?"
Grayson said, "Pitcher." This word, unlike the others, was not worn at all, but fresh arid robust. It startled Maniac. It declared: I am not what you see. I am not a line-laying, pickup-driving, live-at-the-Y, bean-brained parkhand. I am not rickety, whiskered worm chow. I am a pitcher.
Maniac had sensed there was something more to the old man; now he knew what it was. "Grayson, what's your first name?"
The old man fidgeted. "Earl. But call me Grayson, like ever'body." He looked at the clock on the wall. "Gotta go."
"I'm late for work. You oughta be in school."
He was gone.
Grayson returned at noon, bearing zeps and sodas, and was not allowed to leave until he told Maniac one story about the Minor Leagues.
So he told the kid about his first day in the Minors, with Bluefield, West Virginia, in the Appalachian League. Class D. "Can't get no lower'n that," he told the kid. "That's where you broke in. Don't have D ball no more."
He told about thumbing a ride to Bluefield, and, when he got there, going up to a gas station attendant and asking which way to the ballpark. And the gas station man told him, "Sure, but first I gotta ask you something. You're a new ballplayer, right? Just comin' on board?" And Grayson said, "Yep, that's right." And the man said, "I thought so. Well then, you're just gonna want to make your first stop right over there" --- he pointed across the street --- "that there restaurant, the Blue Star. You just go right on in there and sit yourself down and tell the waitress you want the biggest steak on the menu. And anything else you want, too, because it's all on the house. The Blue Star treats every new rookie to his first meal in town free." He gave a wink. "They want your business."
Great, thought Grayson, and he did just that. Only when he got up and left, the restaurant owner came running after him down the street, all mad at Grayson for skipping out. And when Grayson told him he was a rookie just picking up his free first meal, the owner got even madder. Seems the gas station man was a real card and liked to welcome dumb rookies with his little practical joke.
And that's how it came to be that when the Bluefield Bullets took the field that day, they did so without the services of their new pitcher, who was back in the kitchen of the Blue Star restaurant, doing dishes to work off a sixteen-ounce steak, half a broiled chicken, and two pieces of rhubarb pie.
After a story like that, Maniac couldn't just stay behind, so he tagged along when Grayson went back to work. He helped the old man raise a new fence around the children's petting farmyard. When the park Superintendent came around and asked about the kid, Grayson said it was his nephew come to visit for a while. The Superintendent, who managed the budget, said, "We can't pay him, you know." And Grayson said, "Fine, no problem," and that was that.
From then on Maniac was on the job with Grayson every afternoon. They raised fences, mended fences, hauled stone, patched asphalt, painted, trimmed trees. They ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, sometimes in the equipment room, sometimes at a restaurant. They spent weekends together.
All the while Grayson told baseball stories (insisting, all along, "I ain't got no stories"). He told about the Appalachian League and the Carolina League and the Pecos Valley League and the Buckeye and the Mexican Leagues. About the Pedukah Twin Oaks and the Natchez Pelicans and the Jesup Georgia Browns and the Laredo Lariats. All Minor League teams, Minor League baseball.
Sleazy hotels. Sleazy buses. Sleazy stadiums. Sleazy fans. Sleazy water buckets. Curveballs and bus fumes and dreams, dreams of the Majors --- clean sheets and an umpire at every base.
Funny stories. Happy stories. Sad stories. Just plain baseball stories.
The happiest story being the one about Willie Mays's very last at-bat in the Minor Leagues, before he went up to the New York Giants and immortality. Well, it was of Grayson himself who had last crack at Mays, in the ninth inning of a game with Indianapolis --- and what did Grayson do? All he did was set the Say Hey Kid down swinging --- on three straight curveballs.
The saddest story was the one about the scout who came down from the Toledo Mud Hens. The Mud Hens had a roster slot, and the scout had a notion to fill it with the pitcher with the wicked curveball, name of Earl Grayson. This was Grayson's big chance, for the Mud Hens were Class AAA ball, one short step from the Majors.
The night before the game, Grayson spent half of it on his knees by his bed, praying. And even five minutes before the game, in the dugout, he bent down, pretending to tie his shoe, and closed one eye and prayed: "Please let me win this ball game." Which was something, since he had never gone to a church in his life. ("God musta fainted," he said to Maniac.)
And indeed, maybe God did, or maybe He only listened to Major Leaguers, because Grayson took the mound and proceeded to pitch the flat-out awfulest game of his life. His curveball wasn't curving, his sinker wasn't sinking, his knuckler wasn't knuckling. The batters were teeing off as if it were the invasion of Normandy Beach. Before the third inning was over, the score was 12-0, and Grayson was in the showers.
He was twenty-seven years old then, and that was the closest he would ever get to the Big Show. He hung on for thirteen more years, a baseball junkie, winding up in some hot tamale league in Guanajuato, Mexico, until his curveball could no longer bend around so much as a chili pepper and his fastball was slower than a senorita's answer.
He was forty, out of baseball, and, for all intents and purposes, out of life. All those years in the game, and all he was fit to do was clean a restroom or sweep a floor or lay a chalk line --- or, far, far down the road, tell stories to a wide eyed, homeless kid.
*¤* nihua *¤*
It was impossible to listen to such stories emptyhanded. As soon as Grayson started one, Maniac would reach into one of the equipment bags and pull out a ball or a bat or a catcher's mitt. Sniffing the scuffed horsehide aroma of the ball, rippling the fingertips over the red stitching --- it's hard to say how these things can make the listening better, but they do, and, for Maniac, they did.
And of course, as happens with baseball, one thing led to another, and pretty soon the two of them were tossing a ball back and forth. And then they were outside, where the throws could be longer; where you could play pepper on the outfield grass of the Legion field, the old man pitching, the kid tapping grounders; where you could shag fungoes, the old man popping high fliers, the kid chasing them down.
And now the stories were mixed with instruction: the grizzled, rickety coot showing the kid how to spray liners to the opposite field; how to get a jump on a long fly even before the batter hits it; how to throw the curveball. Stiff, crooked fingers. that grappled clumsily with Krimpet wrappers curled naturally around the shape of a baseball. With a ball in his hand, the park handyman became a professor.
As to the art of pitching, of course, the old man could show and tell, but he could no longer do. Except for one pitch, the only one left in his repertoire from the old days. He called it the "stopball," and it nearly drove Maniac goofy.
The old man claimed he'd discovered the stopball one day down in the Texas League and that he was long gone from baseball when he perfected it. Unlike most pitches, the stopball involved no element of surprise. On the contrary, the old man would always announce it.
"Okay," he'd call in from the mound, "here she comes. Now keep your eye on her, 'cause she's gonna float on up there, and just about the time she's over the plate, she's gonna stop. Now, nobody else ever hit it, so don't you go gettin' upset if you don't neither. It's no shame to whiff on the stopball." And then he'd throw it.
Well, of course, Maniac knew that most if not all of that was blarney, and, just to make sure, he watched the ball extra carefully. There sure didn't seem to be anything unusual about it, not at first, anyway; but as the ball came closer, it did somehow seem to get more and more peculiar; and by the time it reached the plate, it might just as well have stopped, because Maniac never knew if he was swinging at the old man's pitch or at his speech. Whatever, in weeks of trying, he never hit out of the infield.
It was October. The trees rimming the outfield were flaunting their colors. The kid and the geezer baseballed their lunchtimes away, and the after-dinner-times and weekends.
And every night, as the old man left for his room at the Y, he would grouse, "You oughta go to school." And one night, the kid said back, "I do."
And that's how the old man found out what the kid was doing with his mornings.
He had noticed the books before, rows and piles of them that kept growing; but their being books, he didn't think much of it. Now, the kid tells him, "You know the money you give me" --- each morning he gave the kid fifty cents or a dollar to get himself some Krimpets --- "well, I take it up to the library. Right inside the door they have these books they're selling, cases of them, old books they don't want anymore. They only cost five or ten cents apiece." He pointed to the piles. "I buy them."
He showed them to the old man. Ancient, backbroken math books, flaking travel books, warped spellers, mangled mysteries, biographies, music books, astronomy books, cookbooks.
"What's the matter?" said the old man. "Can't you make up your mind what kind you want?"
The kid laughed. "I want them all." He threw his hands out. "I'm learning everything!"
He opened one of the books. "Look... geometry... triangles... okay, isosceles triangles. These two legs, they look equal to you?"
The old man squinted. He nodded.
"Okay, but can you prove it?"
The old man studied the triangle for a full minute. "If I had a ruler maybe---"
The old man sighed. "Guess I give up."
So the kid proved it --- absolutely, dead-center proved it.
Two days later, while playing pepper in the Legion infield, the old man said to the kid, "So why don't you go ahead and teach me how to read?"
*¤* nihua *¤*
The story he told now was not about baseball. It was about parents who were drunk a lot and always leaving him on his own; about being put in classes where they just cut paper and played games all day; about a teacher who whispered to a principal, just outside the classroom door, "This bunch will never learn to read a stop sign." Right then and there, as if to make the teacher right, he stopped trying.
"The part I didn't tell about Bluefield, I was only fifteen. I ran away."
The kid and the old man climbed into the pickup. They made three stops. First, they stopped by the park office at the zoo, where Grayson told the Superintendent he just wanted to work part-time for a while, in the afternoons. Fine, said the Superintendent, just so you don't expect to get paid full-time.
Then they went to the library book-sale racks and bought about twenty old picture books, such as The Story of Babar and Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel and The Little Engine That Could.
Then they went to Woolworth's for a small portable blackboard and a piece of chalk.
Within three days, Grayson had the alphabet down pat. The shapes, the sounds.
After a week, he could read ten one-syllable words. But he was reading them from memory. It took another couple of weeks before he began to get the hang of sounding out words he had never seen before.
The old man showed an early knack for consonants. Sometimes he got m and n mixed up, but the only one that gave him trouble day in and day out was c. It reminded him of a bronc some cowboy dared him to ride in his Texas League days. He would saddle up that c, climb aboard and grip the pommel for dear life, and ol' c, more often than not, it would throw him. Whenever that happened, he'd just climb right back on and ride 'er some more. Pretty soon c saw who was boss and gave up the fight. But even at their orneriest, consonants were fun.
Vowels were something else. He didn't like them, and they didn't like him. There were only five of them, but they seemed to be everywhere. Why, you could go through twenty words without bumping into some of the shyer consonants, but it seemed as if you couldn't tiptoe past a syllable without waking up a vowel. Consonants, you knew pretty much where they stood, but you could never trust a vowel. To the old pitcher, they were like his own best knuckleball come back to haunt him. In, out, up, down --- not even the pitcher, much much less the batter, knew which way it would break. He kept swinging and missing.
But the kid was a good manager, and tough. He would never let him slink back to the showers, but kept sending him back up to the plate. The kid used different words, but in his ears the old Minor Leaguer heard: "Keep your eye on it... Hold your swing... Watch it all the way in... Don't be anxious... Just make contact."
And soon enough, that's what he was doing, nailing those vowels on the button, riding them from consonant to consonant, syllable to syllable, word to word.