The Bushleaguers (part three)
Publication date: 28 March 2020
The tournament ran across both Saturday and Sunday. They had enough guys for the first day, and I didn't want to deprive anyone of a place, so I spent the day making the final arrangements to leave the apartment and then headed into London on the Sunday morning.
When I arrived I learned that the guys had won one game and lost two on the first day and ended up in the bracket for the second-tier teams on the Sunday. But there was still silverware to play for.
My shoulder still did not feel at all right, but I knew I'd be okay to at least play first again. We were not playing in the first round of games and so I sat down on the bank near an unoccupied folding chair. The national champions were on the field in the first bracket. I recognized the well-sunned face at third base.
"Hew, Chewie," I hollered, "you're in the wrong uniform."
"They were a guy short, so I offered to help out. Don't worry I can still play for us today. I just want to work the hangover out my system first. You missed a good one last night, Ray."
"This blue's something of a legend," observed a voice behind me. It belonged to the owner of the chair, who was returning with a hotdog and a can of English lager. He had a boxer's nose, which I tried to avoid examining in detail. "Yep," he continued, "this ump's got the best strike-zone in the country, but he likes to let everyone know about it. He also knows the commonest insults in over twenty languages. In the London league, there are only two players who can slag him off safely: a Slovenian and a Nigerian."
"Hey," I said on a whim, "do you recall a player called Michael Hise who played about three decades back. I'm his son, Ray."
"Michael Hise?" he said. "His name rings a bell… That's right, he was with the Orbitals, right? There's a guy here this weekend who used to play on that team. You might want to see if you can find him. He's wearing an old Orbitals cap, in fact. It's sun-bleached red with a white 'O' squashed like an orange."
On my way to grab a drink from the beer tent, my eye caught a spectator who would have been dressed too smartly for the occasion, were it not for the old baseball cap plonked loosely atop his mop of hair. The cap had a squashed O.
"Hi," I said excitedly, "I've been told you used to play for the Orbitals? I'm Ray, by the way."
"Your source is reliable," the man joked as he pushed himself out of his seat using both arms. "Dave Phillips."
"Popeye Phillips?" I asked, remembering a name I'd seen on a couple of the programs.
"Well that's what they used to call me. Not because I was muscly, though. I just used to go on about olive oil, before it was all trendy. It's to do with the free radicals, but that's probably not what you want to talk about."
"No, I'm wondering how much you remember of my dad, as a player? He was Michael Hise."
"You know, your face reminds me of him, except for that long hair of yours. I don't know what he'd say about that if he was still… God! The shortstop's got to get down on that ball. They just don't field like we used to."
"He pitched in the final in 1991, didn't he?" I asked, trying to wrestle his attention back from the game in front of us.
"Yes, sorry, I got distracted there. He pitched one hell of a game. He could have been on the mound all day and they wouldn't have got more than a handful of hits off him. I remember him having to leave the hill half-way through an inning to take a leak in the bushes behind the backstop. He came back to strike out the next three batters.
On the field, a call of "play" was quickly followed by a cry of "he's got the ball" from the third-base coach. I missed the play's unfolding, but the runner at that station must have been slowly creeping down the baseline, only to look back and find the baseball in Chewie's bare hand. The runner was so stunned by this development that his balance betrayed him. Chewie had the simple task of tapping the ball against his floored figure. The lanky third baseman grinned and scratched his chin. It was a replica of the hidden-ball trick he'd pulled off in a grand final in Australia, which he'd talked about in the pub.
The next hitter turned on an inside pitch, lining it just to the foul-side of third base. Chewie made a full-length reflex dive and came up onto his knees with the ball in his glove. He had a chance to gun down the runner on first, too, who had set off with the pitch.
The umpire signaled the out on the catch, and then looked at Chewie, who was holding onto the ball and shaking his head. I wondered if, in his hungover state, he'd made a mental error. But he hadn't. "I trapped it," he announced. "It wasn't a catch."
That a player who had just pulled off a trick play could now show an act of sportsmanship like this was remarkable.
# # # # #
Despite his hangover, Chewie had not looked out of place as a guest of the national champions. He had certainly not disgraced himself. And it felt great to have him in our ranks for our first game of the day. He went three-for-three as we registered a comfortable win to advance to the second-tier semi-final, where we would meet the a team called the Marlins in a seven-inning contest. By this point, we had exhausted all our pitching options except Az and Chewie himself.
Az started the semi-final and threw as well as I had seem do yet, but the junk pitching of the Marlins' Cuban ace stifled us on our first two times through the order, and they held a four-zip lead as we went into the bottom of the seventh—"last chance saloon," as Chip was quick to label it. Even Chewie had, uncharacteristically, struck out in both at-bats. But he was still nursing the symptoms of excess.
In the middle of the seventh, he pulled off the protective equipment he wore as catcher and jogged into the bushes behind our folding chairs. We could hear him vomiting, and he returned looking like a new man. Sprinting back to the field, he grabbed his preferred bat by the barrel end and watched the Cuban's final preparatory pitches. Smoke rose from a half-drum barbecue behind the Marlins' folding chairs and deathly strong mojitos were being mixed, signaling the imminent victory and the end of our tournament.
The Marlins' ace and his catcher knew how to handle a batter with a hangover and they challenged Chewie with pitch after pitch up and inside, mixing in the occasional breaking ball in the dirt. But this was a different batter from the one who'd struck out in the second and the fourth inning, and the Australian never once failed to get wood on the chinward arsenal, fouling everything back. He seemed to be deliberately drawing out the plate appearance, in order to wear down the Cuban, and on the fourteenth pitch he took ball four, high and too far inside.
The Marlins' third baseman replaced the Cuban on the mound with none out and Chewie on first. P-Rod and L-Ma joked in Spanish to the departing pitcher as he deposited the ball on the mound and walked over to fill the gap on the hot corner. It was clearly in good spirits as there were smiles all round.
P-Rod drew a four-pitch walk to put runners on first and, with the replacement pitcher struggling to get even close to the zone, I did the same to load the bases. The procession continued as the bottom two hitters in our line-up drew run-scoring walks. With the winning run now on base, the Cuban—working on four batters', rather than four days', rest—was brought back into pitch to the top of our line-up.
Az was the first batter to face the Cuban in his second stint on the hill and the count quickly went to three-and-oh. "It's gotta be good now," cried Chip, sensing another run. The next pitch was good, low on the outside corner, but Az clubbed it back over the pitcher's head and into the glove of the right-fielder, on one bounce, bringing me home. The tying run was at third and the winning run in scoring position. Marcus, another of our Brits, popped up back to the pitcher to give the Marlins' their first out.
L-Ma was up next and he smoked the first pitch he saw right at the left-fielder, who took the catch but was unable to prevent the runner scoring from third. It was a tied ballgame with two outs. The two Marlins' supporters in charge of the barbecue had by now abandoned their station and stood captivated by the game. Chewie was in the on-deck circle. The score was four runs apiece.
As Chewie stepped purposefully toward the plate, there was a crack of thunder from a bank of dark cloud that had crept up unnoticed and was now rolling in fast. As all eyes turned toward the sky, the first drops of rain fell and we ran off the field.
The first job for us and the Marlins was to get all our equipment and the barbecue up into the shelter of the beer tent, which had plenty of ventilation for the smoke to escape through.
It quickly became clear that the tournament would need to be abandoned. Most teams left swiftly, but we stayed in the tent with the Marlins and watched the storm unfold as salsa pumped out of an old stereo. The Marlins made us mojitos, and then when the rum ran out we bought up the rest of the cans from the beer stall, which effectively closed the bar.
Within an hour the storm had rumbled through and the sky was clear once more. We moved the barbecue back outside and burned a couple of broken bats from our tied game as the stars came out.
Eventually, and reluctantly, I said my farewells to the Bushleaguers and headed for the bus that would take me to a hotel that I'd booked so that I could shower and grab a few hours' sleep before catching my flight back across the Atlantic.
An epilogue (for cycling enthusiasts)
I had been home for nearly four weeks when I got an email from L-Ma in auto-translated English. He was letting me know that the Vuelta a España, a Spanish counterpart to the Tour de France, was beginning in a couple of days' time and that the young Colombian had recovered from his broken collar bone and was among the entrants.
Reports from the Colombian press indicated that Pollo had always been planning his season to peak for the Vuelta, as its profile suited his riding style well. Moreover, he had been able to keep broadly to the plan using an exercise bike in his family's garden. His home village was in the mountains, and the six- or seven-hour daily sessions at that altitude were as rigorous as the schedule of any competing cyclist. Once he was healed, he had a week to train on a real bike, and he spent most daylight hours either climbing or descending the mountain road that wound past his home. As a youngster, it was seeing lycra-clad athletes bursting past the end of his garden in local races and the occasional national tour—cheered on by the passion of his family and their neighbors—that had pointed his trajectory toward cycling. The bike he won races on as a teenager, his first real machine, landed from the sky against the wall of his garden, having been hastily abandoned by a team car after their star pro cracked its frame on hitting a pothole. A mechanic from the village managed to restore the frame's structural stability and, by dropping the seat right down onto the crossbar, the teenager was just able to touch the ground with his outstretched toes.
The Vuelta started with an afternoon team trial, which was being televised. The studio discussion that preceded the first live pictures focused on the chances of British riders and on a new doping story. (The expert admitted to having lost track of what this latest scandal meant for the official winners of previous grand tours.) There was no mention of the Colombian.
The early starters were mostly the weaker team, but, with their teardrop helmets and well-drilled relays of riders, they all cut professional profiles. It was only in the final couple of kilometers of the short city time trial that frailties were exposed. One of the local teams, for instance, split into a front group of four, with the five other riders drifting alone in their wake. Since the clock was stopped for the team on the fifth bike across the line, this was a major blunder. The finishing stretch was into a headwind, and the fifth man completed his lonely battle fifteen seconds in arrears.
Pollo's team was a strong Spanish outfit with a national icon at its helm, and the Colombian was in the line-up as one of its two specialist climbers. It was hoped, the commentators explained, that he could serve as a mountain lieutenant to the Spanish favorite.
Pollo and his eight companions were the penultimate team to be released onto the course. They glided into a line after rolling down the start ramp and quickly fell into a smooth rotation through their riders. Pollo's elbows poked out through the sides of the rolling wind tunnel that the cyclists created down the asphalt. Nevertheless, he seemed to be doing stints on the front that were as long as those of his team-mates, excepting a German with bulging thighs and gargantuan lungs who was riding double-turns.
On a time split, Pollo's team had the overall lead, and they held their shape until hitting the headwind up the final straight. The nine quickly became seven and with 500 meters to go the Colombian was screaming inwardly just to stay on the back wheel of the fifth rider as a gap blew up behind him. He tilted violently from side to side up the final stretch, pounding through heroic pedal strokes to remain attached to his own team-mates. They were paced by their Spanish leader, who seemed to care only for the first five riders. The fifth man crossed the line three seconds inside the time of a Dutch team, which had gone out early before the headwind really picked up. The Spanish team's held up for the win when the last team's charge was halted by a crash at the front of their line on the final corner.
Later, the leader of the Spanish team, a national icon, stood on the podium, soaking up the adulation, and pulled on the red jersey as the leader of the race. A small gap between the team's clock-stopping rider and Pollo was adjudged by the timekeepers to be two seconds. The Colombian was sixth in the general classification. The first serious inclines were only two days away.
The heralded viciousness of the Vuelta's route showed its first barbs on the first Monday. The riders were not yet in the mountains but a sadistically steep finishing kilometer was predicted to open up gaps in the field of up to thirty seconds. The members of a small breakaway pleased their respective sponsors by staying off the front well into the televised section of the stage, its final third. The team of Pollo and the Spanish hero controlled the pace of the peloton, timing the catch for exactly the moment the riders hit the foot of the final ramp. Pollo led his team leader up the start of the climb and a small gap emerged between them and rest of the pack as the Colombian accelerated.
The Dutch team's leader, Van den Bossche, a Belgian, was the only rider to respond to Pollo's increase of speed. He had been poorly positioned at the start of the incline but he skillfully picked his way through the debris in front of him and soon found the back wheel of Pollo's Spanish passenger.
As the three leaders hit the final 500 meters, the Spanish rider flicked his wrist sharply to signal the Belgian through to take his turn on the front. A close-up revealed anger in the Spaniard, who as leader of his home tour might have anticipated greater respect. But Van den Bossche was not going to be bullied into surrendering the tactically superior position. He had won that year's Giro d'Italia, which was the other major stage race in the cycling calendar besides the Vuelta and the Tour (he had been forced to pull out of the latter owing to a stomach bug). The Belgian timed his move expertly, peeling his sprightly figure off from the short line with fifty meters to go and putting three seconds between him and the Spanish team's duo. The differential between the increments of bonus time available on the line for the first three places gave Van den Bossche the race lead. The young Colombian, meanwhile, moved up to third.
The last rider home on the stage was Pollo's German team-mate, whose oversized muscles, exhausted from a day of towing the peloton, gave the asphalt, for him, the consistency of thick syrup.
The day after Pollo had risen to a podium place, I received another email from L-Ma. He was delighted with the young Colombian's prominence at the front of the race but he felt that the stage could have been Pollo's had his team leader not ordered him to the front at the foot of the final climb.
The Belgian, the Spaniard, and the Colombian built on their Monday form to emerge as the strongest riders of the opening week. The route had stayed in the lowlands for four more days, with the finishes alternating between billiard-table flatness—the battleground of the sprinters—and punchy climbs. Both of the ramped finales were claimed by the Spaniard, who had adjusted his tactics from the Monday and used Pollo to even greater advantage. The time bonuses put him into the lead and opened up a gap between Van den Bossche, who finished second twice, and the young Colombian.
The first climb for the purists came on the Saturday. The stage passed over two Pyrenean passes and along a beautiful forested valley before a sharp right took the riders up toward a mountain finish. The German giant pulled Pollo and his team-mates, who were protecting the red jersey, to the bottom of the final climb. Soon, though, the team had just the Colombian and the race leader in the front group, as the peloton decayed to leave an elite bunch of fifteen riders. Van den Bossche had two team-mates with him. Both were close enough to the Spaniard in the general classification that they had to be kept in sight and, knowing this, they took it in turns to vault off the front with short bursts of acceleration. It was a tactic designed to wear down Pollo and his team leader so that Van den Bossche could attack further up the climb.
The first three attacks were quickly brought back by Pollo, with the Spaniard always on his wheel, but on the fourth the response was much less potent. With a grimacing face Pollo edged back toward the escapee, pulling a line that included his leader and the small figure of Van den Bossche. (The commentators suggested that Pollo was still not at the peak of his form and fitness.) The camera showed that the Spaniard was issuing instructions to the Colombian. Just as contact was made, at a point where the gradient noticeably increased, Pollo—whose facial contortions had obviously been theatrical—pulled wide and exploded up the hill. Van den Bossche gasped for air to fuel his response, as the two allies in his team fell back.
The lead group was down to six with three steep kilometers to race and Pollo was setting such a furious pace that it looked like the elastic by which the other five riders were holding on could snap at any moment. It very nearly did, right before the marker for the final kilometer. A gap of ten meters opened in seconds and Pollo looked free to sail on to win and recoup some, if not all, of his deficit in the general classification. But he looked behind to see his leader screaming an order and he reduced his cadence to allow the weary quintet to return to his wheel. Pollo finished third on the stage, his leader second—the podium placings were unchanged.
Up to the second Thursday, the mid-point in the race, the hilly stages had seen much marking of moves and no significant movement in the general classification. That pattern would have been broken on Friday had Pollo not shown the same fight that had initially endeared him to me back in the Tour de France. It began when, on the final climb of the day, his team-mate punctured. (In an interview at the end of the stage the team director reported the cause of the flat tire to be a carpet tack, and video footage revealed the probable source: the hand of a fan, who was wearing the team jersey of Pollo and the Spaniard and had thus presumably intended to hinder Van den Bossche.)
As the Spaniard pulled to the side of the road, Pollo was ordered to sacrifice his front wheel so that the team leader could begin his fight to catch back up to the Belgian's group. The seconds spun by as the Colombian waited for the mechanic to arrive with a spare bike. After Pollo finally got on his way again, the first time check clocked him at forty seconds back from Van den Bossche's group, which the Spaniard had by then rejoined. For the first time in the Vuelta, though, the Colombian was free to climb without the restraints of team orders and he rode steadily and cleverly over the brutal inclines of the closing kilometers to claw his way back to the group, making contact seconds before they crossed the line in a sprawled formation.
The bonus seconds for the first three cyclists had been mopped up by a breakaway of bit-part riders and thus there was no change to the order at the top of the general classification. The Spaniard remained in red as the overall race leader. Van Den Bossche was second and rode in the white jersey, signifying the best all-rounder. Pollo was third. He rode in his standard team jersey, but in the King of the Mountains competition he was only a few points behind the French cyclist who currently wore a white jersey with blue polka dots to signify his leadership in that category.
# # # # #
The third Saturday's stage was billed as the toughest day in the mountains of the entire race. On the lower slopes of the mountain-top finish, the Spaniard, who had oscillated off the back of a whittled-down bunch of elite riders over the penultimate climb, finally broke. The hammer blow was a gutsy explosion from Van den Bossche that ripped him out of the pack. Pollo, who had provided the elastic for the string of his team leader's earlier yo-yoing, waited diligently for the Spaniard. However, after an abortive attempt to halt the growth of the gap to the Belgian in front, the Spaniard finally surrendered his own bid for the Vuelta and released Pollo to tackle the mountain on his own terms.
Pollo made ground on the Belgian and, while unable to totally nullify the advantage, was second on the stage and now second in the general classification too. He made his first visit to the podium, to pull on the polka dot jersey. The French rider had picked up a stomach bug and been in a day-long battle to stay inside the margin of elimination. He crossed the line just outside the margin with off-color streaks visible down his thighs and he collapsed on the fissured asphalt.
Pollo now carried the team leadership on his young, angular shoulders. But with the worst of the mountains now behind the riders, and a flat individual time trial still to come, in which the Colombian was expected to struggle, the commentators opined that he had probably assumed this role too late in the race to be able to catch Van den Bossche.
After a rest day on the Monday, the Colombian, as predicted, lost ground in the time trial. He barely clung onto his second place in the general classification and fell to two minutes and thirty seconds behind the Belgian.
On the penultimate day of racing, and the last in the mountains, Pollo made the boldest of possible moves by attacking at the foot of the first of three long climbs. Van den Bossche's team, who had doggedly protected his lead up till this point, decided to let the Colombian escape, gambling that he had gone too early and would be gradually reeled in with his sting removed. However, the gap remained substantial when the shrunken peloton hit the final climb, and Van den Bossche had no option but to attack the slopes alone. It was effectively another individual time trial, but this time over gradients for which the Colombian's style was an asset. Pollo sensed that every second needed to be fought for and the photo accompanying the news story showed him crossing the line with head down and hands still gripping the bike, declining the opportunity to celebrate the moment of his first stage victory. Van den Bossche played his part and tussled all the way up the final mountain. After the bonus seconds were taken into account, Pollo had moved ahead of Van den Bossche in the general classification and held a lead of three seconds. No other rider was close to the pair. The Belgian showed admirable character in admitting that his team had underestimated the Colombian and declaring him the worthy winner of this grand tour. He was hinting at the unwritten law that barred competition between the podium placings on the final day of a grand tour.
# # # # #
On the final day of the Vuelta, the stage did not play out as had been anticipated.
The Colombian's team sat on the front of the peloton all day. Van den Bossche had shown no interest in the small time bonuses on offer at the intermediate sprints, which reinforced his comment the previous day that Pollo was the worthy winner. Only in the final few kilometers did the teams of the sprinters push through to the front, as they battled to create an optimal lead-out train. Pollo and his team-mates began to slide back through the field. They had failed to spot that Van den Bossche was riding flat out to keep pace with the sprinters.
As the riders approached the line, all out of the saddle and riding at high velocity, Van den Bossche held third position, which would have given him enough of a time bonus to steal back the overall lead from Pollo and claim the title. But just behind was the Spanish national hero, Pollo's team-mate who had worn the red jersey earlier in the race. With all his experience and tenacity he had spotted the threat, but in the chaos of the closing stretch all he was able to do was mark the move himself. He rode the sprint beautifully and emerged from the Belgian's slipstream like a top sprinter and pipped him to third place. Pollo's victory was sealed. ■
All content © Joe Gray