The Bushleaguers (part one)
Publication date: 28 March 2020
A PRELIMINARY NOTE OF WARNING FROM THE AUTHOR
This might be the tale that is truest to the green ethos among all those I ever write, for I salvaged parts of it from the wreckage of a story that I tried to pull together back in 2012. In this way, it is akin to the bubble and squeak that Ray Hise enjoys in Chapter 2. It is by no means a complete work, and it is still too far off being coherent to begin to think about polishing it. But there you go.
I should add that this is a tale that has been written for a minuscule potential audience, comprising people with an interest in ecology and professional cycling and baseball as played in England. The warped Venn diagram that describes that population has at its centre a vanishingly small area. I am not sure if even I qualify for its membership.
All the bushleague batters
Are left to die
on the diamond.
In the stands
the home crowd scatters
For the turnstiles,
For the turnstiles,
For the turnstiles.
(Final verse of 'For the turnstiles' by Neil Young)
I. Outward bound
It feels like an act of self-immolation when I finally click the 'confirm' button. By the time I've done so, the tickets have nearly expired in the basket. I'd just spent twenty-eight minutes mulling over the consequences of what I was about to do.
In the column of negatives are three major factors. One: Flying is a shitty thing to do the planet, unless you had an astoundingly good reason for it. Presenting a flawed piece of research at a conference where everyone went to speak and no one went to listen—that was not such a reason. Two: The Red Sox recently drafted a young center-fielder out of high school who possesses, as one journalist put it, "never-before-seen sprightness." Named Fleet Glover (you couldn't make it up), he is currently posted with the Double-A Sea Dogs. And they are based in Portland, Maine, where I live. My childhood obsession with the big leagues has all but gone, but I still love the game in a purer sense, and watching from the bleachers as this kid chases down a deep fly-ball is about as good as it gets. I don't want to miss a game before his inevitable call-up to Triple-A Pawtucket, because Portland is probably never going to see him again. Three: I have a girlfriend, Ronaele, and she won't be able to make the trip as she's recently started a new job.
The column of positives has two entries. The first is that I have been told that I need to attend international conferences if I want to get anywhere in my postgraduate research career. Arguably, this factor could easily sit instead among the negatives, given my growing distaste for the industrial flavor of academia's thought-factory. The second entry relates to where the conference is taking place—England. It's not somewhere that I've been, but my dad lived there for four years in his early twenties before coming back to the States, meeting my mom, and making a family. For this reason, I'd always had a particular curiosity about the country, and I have thus decided to take as long as possible a trip out there: three-and-a-half weeks.
Back to Ronaele. In the continuing spirit of list-making, there are four things that I find especially important to say about her. First, she has an addictive personality, by which I mean one to which I am growing dependent. Secondly, she is about as stunningly gorgeous a person as I could ever hope for the cosmos to push in my direction. (A physical description is not necessary here, as I am writing this for you only, Ronaele, to keep the promise of an account that I made to you before departing. I will just mention your caramel skin and dimpled chin, because, well, you know…) Thirdly—and this is a big one—Ronaele, like me, does not want kids. Human overpopulation is a fundamental driver of the ecological crisis, and we don't want any part in its exacerbation. (Please don't go changing your mind.) My own choice to not have children makes me feel slightly more comfortable about the trip that I've just booked. (Think about all those flights our non-existent children will not be taking. All the food they won't be eating. And all the waste they won't be making.)
The last thing that I wish to note about Ronaele is that her name is what could be called an emordnilap, a word that spells a different word in reverse—in this case another female name. This appeals to me because I enjoy wordplay. My own name, Raymond Hise is an anagram of horsy maiden—and, indeed, mashed irony.
There aren't many outlets for such an interest, but I do set an occasional cryptic crossword in the university's postgraduate rag. This is the type of crossword with clues like: "Spreading minced meat without motion —metastatic". Other residents of H8 on the American chessboard seem to channel such an interest into crafting puns on our state's name—the ones that can be seen in any shopping center, including those of poetic plumbers (Mainely Drains), alliterative and now-defunct DVD stores (Mainely Movies), and even horse groomers (Mainely Manes).
But I am drifting. It is time to jump forward and in so doing switch to the past tense (a more traditional style for the account that you have requested). In the spirit of authenticity, I will resist further paranthetical asides.
# # # # #
As the date of the outward flight approached, my uncle developed an urgent interest in meeting me. I had not seen him since a family gathering six months earlier that had been held to mark what would have been the sixtieth birthday of my dad, his older brother.
Ronaele and I decided to meet him for a coffee at the Donut Hole (next door to Mainely Muffins). It was a bright morning but the air was slow to warm. I got there first, sat down on a table by the front window, and thumbed through a local paper as I waited. There was an item on candlepin bowling being "on a roll" and something about a new brewery "tapping into" the growing market. The juxtaposition of such editorial lightness with stories on bank fraud and beaten-up elderly women was unfortunate.
My uncle was next to arrive at the Donut Hole. On completing the formalities, we soon realized that we had little with which to sustain a conversation. I stared out of the window for a while, partly to keep an eye on my racing bike. One of the things I saw was a customer from the muffin establishment next door skillfully wedging a crushed Styrofoam cup into the last remaining space in the bin outside. Thirty seconds later another customer emerged from that eatery and carelessly side-armed a balled-up serviette at the bulging mass of trash. He was oblivious to the ricochet.
It was my uncle who broke the silence, with a recollection of a canoeing trip that we had taken in New Hampshire a few years earlier. It had been blissful until we passed under a bridge and into a maelstrom of drunken paddlers and horizontal fireworks. I'd learned that day of how a river's greatest misfortune was to meet a road with a wide enough verge for an improvised parking lot. This case was particularly unfortunate as there lay a narrow path of fine gravel on a collapsed bank that served as a perfect launching ramp. The ramp, that day, had seemed more like a sewage pipe, dumping pollution in bodily form right into the pristine water.
The conversation faltered once more, and we both looked out of the window until we saw Ronaele arrive on her mountain bike. My uncle said that there was something he wanted to show me at his place and so we stood up and headed to intercept Ronaele at the door. In lieu of a greeting, my uncle delivered a well-rehearsed quip about the genetic curse of an undersized bladder and headed to the restroom.
In the cool mid-morning air, Ronaele and I slowly pushed our bikes over to my uncle's pickup truck and lifted them into the bed. Out of a summer-forged habit, he had parked his vehicle in the partial shade of a lone tree's elongate shadow.
On the drive to his house, I attempted to ease the dial of his ancient radio into a hiss-free slot. It took a minute or more of delicate wrist-twisting to crack the safe and set loose Frank Zappa and the Mothers. After an unhurried appraisal, my uncle delivered his harsh verdict: "Why can't they just decide what tune they're trying to play and stick to it?"
We arrived at the house and headed into a room in which a suitcase sat open on a table. My uncle wanted to show me the contents, which were old possessions and mementos of my dad that he'd kept. Among them were programs and a scrapbook of press cuttings from his days playing amateur baseball in England for a team called the London Orbitals. I knew that he had played baseball out there, but he had obviously been too modest to let on about his success.
My dad had played with them during the late 1980s and early 1990s and, in his last season, 1991, they won a national championship. In the title game, he threw a Herculean total of one-hundred-and-fifty-seven pitches over nine blank frames and, honoring the name of his team, he hit a pair of home runs. (According to one of the cuttings, the Orbitals got their moniker from the location of their field being next to a motorway that circled the capital, but they were also aptly named for their propensity to hit the long ball.) My dad's efforts in the finals got him the Most Valuable Player trophy, and he was also awarded the league's Player of the Year trophy. All of this was news to me.
The clipping with the report on the national final included a photo of the team. Michael 'Moose' Hise—as my dad was listed in the caption—was standing in the middle of the back row, holding his two trophies in an awkward pose. He was the only player who was not wearing a cap. The scrapbook contained another team photo, stuck to the inside of its front cover, but it was from an earlier era. Circled in the middle of the back row was a lone figure without a cap who had a similarly awkward stance. The player was my great-grandfather and his team had represented St Albans, a railway terminus in northern Vermont.
# # # # #
Twenty-four hours before my early-evening flight out of Logan, Ronaele and I took the train into Boston and checked into a hotel. On the morning of our last day together, we rose early and walked the red-brick Freedom Trail, stopping for coffee and pastries in the Italian district and reaching the Bunker Hill Monument just as it was opening. We were the first people of the day to scale the two-hundred-and-ninety-four steps. After this we caught a ferry back from Charlestown to downtown and strolled over to Boston Common, browsing the pale-tobacco pages of old books in the second-hand shops that we passed. In the park, under the warm afternoon sun, we devoured a huge picnic lunch, discussed important trivialities, and dozed. All of which would have made for a perfect day, were it not for the inevitable incursion of melancholy from our imminent parting.
II. An uncut diamond
I arrived in England on a Saturday morning and I spent most of the day in transit to the provincial town where I'd rented a one-room apartment—what the British call, unglamorously, a bedsit. Early the following day, with my stomach and food cupboard both empty, I set out on foot in the direction of the town center and stopped at the first café that I saw.
I ordered a mug of tea and a large portion of bubble and squeak, which was a special on the permanently painted faux chalkboard. The waitress, who seemed irked at having a customer, trudged back to the kitchen with my order. As she disappeared into the kitchen, I remembered what bubble and squeak was—my mum had made it a few times at my dad's request. It was a typical British breakfast dish created out of cabbage, potatoes, and other vegetables left over from the previous day. The café did not serve vegetables with any of its other meals, and so the dish was going to be at best contrived and at worst the latest iteration of an infinite recycling of its own leftovers, akin to the yeast in a friendship cake. When the bubble and squeak arrived, I couldn't work out where it was in this spectrum, but I had to admit that it tasted pretty good. Sadly, it was let down by the tea, which functioned merely as a lubricant, stuck as it was in a battle of excesses between being over-brewed and being overly milky.
Sated, I continued my stroll, and after about ten minutes I came to a piece of parkland. Oddly, in the far corner, it looked like a group of adults was getting ready for a game of baseball. An outfield wall was being erected using plastic orange fencing and metal spikes, and I could see two rows of folding chairs where one would have expected the dugouts to be. The only permanent features that I could make out were a backstop and the pitching mound.
I circumnavigated a sprawling soccer game, in which every player wore a different color top, and I reached the diamond as the managers were chatting with the solitary umpire at the pre-game plate conference. The grass was long, and the small cutouts of infield dirt around the bags looked dangerously coarse, but the mound appeared to be in reasonable shape.
The home team's manager jogged off the field—his wine-barrel gut wobbling—and sat down on one of the folding chairs. He kept his hands warm in his jacket pockets, removing them only to cup his mouth as he issued brief hollers of encouragement. In this, he drew from a broad base of American baseball phraseology—during the game's early exchanges favoring, "Go on, throw him a seat now!"
The visitors' manager had headed from the plate conference straight to the on-deck circle—or at least to where a circle might reasonably have been painted—and there he studied the home-team pitcher's warm-up sequence as he cut hard swings through the air. At the plate, he drew a four-pitch walk and signaled to a team-mate to bring him his jacket so that he could keep his arm warm. This indicated that he was not only manager and lead-off hitter but pitcher too. The team-mate, who wore a cap, the team jersey, and jeans, looked to be in discomfort as he limped through foul territory to deliver the jacket. As an afterthought, he remained on the field as a first-base coach.
The pitcher, who had not yet found the strike zone, made a pick-off attempt with his next throw. There was no helpful shout of back! from the first-base coach. Instead, he just watched as the ball dipped under the first baseman's glove and rolled through the first cut of rough. The manager appeared to be torn between staying put to give a lecture on base-coaching duties and tearing over to second. He opted for the latter and was driven in on the next pitch by a single to right-center. It might easily have been a double had the batter not lost his footing rounding first.
The shortstop threw the ball to the pitcher, who used its seam to scratch his densely stubbled chin. "It's alright, get the next one," came a shout of encouragement from the home team manager. This was swiftly followed by his staple: "Throw him a seat, now!"
The tea had gone straight through me, and so I headed to the cover of some bushes on a slope behind the backstop to relieve my bladder. As I passed the backstop, I noticed for the first time how oddly close it was to the plate and how there was padding around its base. When I returned, the left-fielder was gloving what I presumed was the first out, with a runner on first, and I sat down on the slope to watch a few innings. I had just grown the crowd by one hundred percent—or fifty percent if you counted the yapping terrier at the end of a lead clutched by the other person on the slope.
The next batter was thrown out by the catcher after he scrambled to reach a mishit ball that squirted back toward the mound. "Score it as a sacrifice bunt," the barrel-chested manager advised the only player he had on the bench, a seemingly reluctant scorer.
The top half of the inning came to a close on the next pitch when the first baseman barehanded a soft line drive that had looped up off the top of his glove. It was fascinating to me that his reaction was to go for the arcing ball with his ungloved hand rather than his mitt—if the play had been made in Major League Baseball, it would have undoubtedly made the evening highlight reel—but judging by the lack of reaction to his play, I figured that this was, in its own way, a routine sort of play in England. (I later learned that the first baseman was more of a cricket player, and there he fielded as part of a formation known as the 'slip cordon' where you had to be able to barehand balls that flew off the edge of the bat at close to a hundred miles an hour.)
As impressed as I was with this piece of fielding, the baseball that I'd seen so far was nothing like that which I'd read about in the cuttings from my dad's scrapbook. The reports told of "roaring" crowds, "viciously breaking" curveballs, and homers that were hit "out of the stands." Either British baseball had fallen ill in the past three decades, or the journalists of my dad's era had applied some creative license in their selection of words.
Both pitchers found their own version of a groove, and after four innings the game was delicately poised with a scoreline of thirteen runs to the Lynxes, the visiting team, and twelve to the home team, who had no name on their shirts but wore a cap with an embroidered B. The Lynxes were losing the battle of body language, though, and with their pitcher holding his arm as if it were about to fall off, and no one warming up to replace him, they seemed resigned to defeat.
During the top half of the fifth, an additional player turned up for the Lynxes; apparently, he had caught the wrong train. The newcomer changed into a South African jersey—answering a question that I had about his accent— and exchanged a few lazy warm-up throws with that inning's lead-off hitter. The latter had struck out looking on a ball in the dirt and promptly been ejected for a comment to the umpire. I was out of earshot, but the catcher had certainly heard it, as the game needed to be stopped for a couple of minutes as he recovered from a fit of laughter. Two runners crossed before the side was retired, extending the Lynxes' lead to three runs.
In the bottom of the fifth, the new player took the mound, and the change in the Lynxes' attitude was remarkable. Led by their manager they began to gloat. Raw and aggressive, the tone was similar to that of the shouts that I could hear from the nearby soccer game and very different from the more subtle provocation that American baseball custom called for. It was clearly a big deal to have a South African playing for you. However, after five straight walks, three wild pitches, and a hit batter, all traces of bellicose pride had been wiped away.
At first it was fun to see the Lynxes quietened and the home team rise up, but by the time the game had been taken away from them it had all become too ugly. There was no let-up on base stealing, and I willed the pitches that evaded the catcher to rebound back to him off the backstop and limit further advancement. However, the padding at the bottom deadened the ball each time; it had been placed there deliberately, I figured, to mitigate against the backstop's closeness.
Eventually, the manager returned to the mound with an unshiftable grimace and promptly gave up a run-scoring single. Disagreement followed about the extent of the damage: the home team claimed that they'd crossed thirteen times; the visitors said that it was only eleven. I strained to hear the umpire's take, but it sounded like he had lost count at seven.
Presently, various players started shaking hands, and the home team congregated jubilantly around the plate. I was at a loss to explain the celebration until the umpire announced, a few moments later: "That's the ball game."
I was confused by the game's early termination, and so I strolled over to the umpire and asked him why he called the game so early.
"That's because it was a seven-inning game."
"Okay," I said, as gently as I could, "but that was only five frames, by my count."
"Yeah, but the mercy rule kicked in as the Bushleaguers' lead had reached double digits."
I had just watched an act of euthanasia. I had just seen my first Bushleaguers' win.
"That's a shame," I commented to the umpire, "I could have watched more of that."
"You're in luck. They're playing a double-header… You're American, aren't you?"
"Yes I am."
"You should consider becoming an umpire."
"But I've never umpired before."
"Neither had I, before April."
Our conversation was interrupted by the sore-armed manager of the Lynxes, who had worked himself up into a state of fury.
"Where was your fuckin' strike zone today, Ed? It's a fuckin' disgrace. Givin' up my Sunday for this fuckin' shit."
"Hey, I'm not paid enough to be talked to like that. You can umpire your own bleeding game. I'm off."
And with that the man in blue grabbed his bag and began a slow waddle over to the parking lot, his chest protector still inflated. That he was paid at all came as a surprise to me.
The umpire's sudden departure left me with several unanswered questions, and so I walked over to the manager of the Bushleaguers, who sat alone munching his way through a large box of sandwiches. His players had been dispatched into the bushes behind the field in search of foul balls.
The manager, whose name was Chip, was happy to oblige me with the information I wanted, and he spoke freely with his mouth full of food. To limit his spraying of wet debris in my direction, I tried to coincide the end of each question with his completion of a mouthful of bread and cheese.
He was eager, in particular, to tell me how much his team disliked the Lynxes, who were one of the older teams in the league. When his team was just starting out, the Lynxes would talk to his players in the most condescending of tones and then, as soon as he found a decent player, they would try to lure them away. One year they stole a really talented sixteen-year-old pitcher and were so desperate to use him to win that they wore him into the ground. The manager, the guy who had just abused the umpire, ignored the pitching limits that were in place to stop this type of thing happening and threw him so much that he suffered permanent damage to his arm and would never play competitively again.
The only good thing that the Lynxes had done for Chip's team is to inspire their current name. During their first couple of seasons, when they had played as the Buzzards, the Lynxes' preferred term of insult for them had been 'bush league'. When they finally got a first victory over the Lynxes, Chip decided that from the following season his team would be proudly known as the Bushleaguers.
Chip had been happy to reminisce about seasons gone as he ate his lunch, but as soon as he gulped down the final sandwich and closed the lid of his box, he rose from his seat and, in an instant, switched his focus to the second game.
"This one's going to be tough, as we're losing the pitcher from the first game and another player, as they've both got to go to the airport to meet their girlfriends. So we're down to eight."
"Is that allowed?"
"Yeah, you just have two players in the outfield and give up an automatic out in the ninth spot… Unless you want to play? You're American, right?"
"Me. I haven't played since high school. And, anyway, wouldn't I need to be registered or something?"
"No, it's fine. We can worry about that later. Why don't you just come and throw with me for a bit. I've got a spare glove in my bag."
It felt good to throw a ball again. And there was none of the shoulder pain that had stopped me from playing at college.
"Well," said Chip after a dozen throws, "you certainly meet our standards! So what do you say about taking the hill?"
This is where common sense should have kicked in but didn't, and so I found myself accepting the invitation.
"Great," he said, "let's get you fitted up with some spare clothing and then get you some batting practice."
I borrowed an old pair of cleats with holes in the toes, and Chip lent me his XXL jersey, which was only three sizes too big. For pants, I stuck with the jeans I'd turned up in, and I politely refused the offer of Chip's cap. I explained that it was a family tradition, and there was no real need anyway as the day was overcast.
I only had time for a few practice swings before I'd need to get warm to pitch. My first hack was completed before the ball had reached the plate. "Nice change-up, Chip," I joked. I sat back on the second pitch and fouled it off deep into the bushes to the right of first base.
"I'll add a fiver to your subs to replace that ball," shouted Chip from behind the L-screen.
It felt great to have made contact, even if I'd started the swing a little late. I made contact again on the third pitch, drilling the ball back against the protective screen, and I teased Chip, who had instinctively turned his back and ducked.
"Hey, you'd have done the same thing," he countered. "Have you seen the holes in this!? Anyway, you better get your arm properly warm."
I was happy to learn that I could still throw the ball reasonably hard, but my accuracy did not come back to me quite as quickly. The catcher, a tall, hairy Australian who went by the name Chewie, had to use the full length of his arms to save a number of the balls from disappearing into the scrubby overgrowth behind him.
The second game was umpired by the South African from behind the mound. As I prepared to deliver the first pitch of the game, to the Lynxes' manager, he stepped out of the box and told me that I couldn't play without a cap.
"Hey," shouted Chip from his folding chair, "since you scared off the only umpire, who's to say what we can and can't do!?"
"Well, I'm protesting the game if you beat us," replied the manager. He had lost his temper once more and was now in danger of also losing his dignity.
Chewie called for a fastball on my first pitch, and, irritatingly, the manager lined it above my outstretched glove and over the fence on one bounce for a ground-rule double. He strutted round to second like a cartoon chicken.
Later, once the outcome was already assured, I got a chance to test my returning accuracy: With my hundredth and final pitch, I threw a fastball right into the fat of the manager's back.
After the game, we rolled up the fencing into several cigar-shaped bundles and used a wheelbarrow to transport these and the other equipment to a storage container near the parking lot. With this complete, the mound repaired, and the dirt raked, we walked to the nearest pub, the Dragonslayer, to celebrate the Bushleaguers' inaugural sweep of the Lynxes.
Before I'd taken my first sip of beer, I was already beginning to doubt my wisdom in accepting the invitation to pitch. There was a throbbing pain in my shoulder that I'd not felt in six years, and it was beginning to gnaw at me like a rotten tooth.
We sat down round a long table and Chewie took on the role of formally introducing me to the players with whom I'd shared a diamond in the second game. There were five Brits—Steve, Az, Sean, Marcus, and Nick—who'd filled first, third, and the outfield. And the keystone combination comprised a Colombian second baseman, Luis Martínez, whom they called L-Ma Fudd, and a Venezuelan shortstop, Pablo Rodríguez, who went by P-Rod.
Despite Chewie's excitement over the nickname he had given the Colombian, I could not see the supposed porcine facial characteristics. And I had no desire to see the anatomical feature that was honored in the naming of the shortstop.
At the end of the table at which I was seated, L-Ma and P-Rod spoke mostly to each other in Spanish—the latter had a very good command of English, the former less so—and so I talked at length to Az, who'd played third base and gotten me out of a couple jams with his smart glovework. Away from baseball, he worked as a ranger for several local nature reserves. He knew of the conference that I was going to, but he said he didn't have time for that sort of thing as there was always too much hands-on conservation that needed his attention. He had to leave after a couple of pints, but he invited me to look round the reserves with him as a guide at some point before I returned to the States.
With a couple of the other players departing at the same time as Az, I moved down the table to sit next to Chip. I agreed to come back the following weekend, after the conference, as the Bushleaguers had another home double-header.
The pain in my throwing shoulder, despite beer's numbing pain, was now excruciating. I knew that I would not be able to pitch again, but at least I finished my brief pitching career in Britain with a 1-and-0 record.