I originally published Baseball Heaven (a baseball fantasy), in Seamheads, an on-line baseball blog. My favorite short story, it’s about an L.A. Dodger baseballer who took a different avenue to the bigs…
Andy Temple, the “Vacaville Vacuum,” played one hundred straight error-free games at third base for the Albuquerque Isotopes Triple-A ball club. The switch-hitter from Northern California batted .386 with 35 home runs and kept L.A. scouts in awe along the third base line while he regularly flagged unstoppable line drives around the bag. Third base, a temporary stop for a busload of players since popular Dodger Ron Cey had hung his glove up nearly three decades before, had had Andy’s name on it until the nineteen-year-old phenom met with an unfortunate accident late in the season… Sadly, a head-on car collision sent Andy Temple straight to baseball heaven…
The shabby old Memorial Stadium shunned Andy’s chagrin. Dugout steps creaked, a woeful tune to an off-key whistle within the shadows of the dugout. A patched cushion at the end of the bench groaned in a way that imitated flatulence, much to the dugout denizen’s delight.
Andy covered his ears as the public address system shrieked, akin to a bass guitar at a heavy-metal concert. “Holy cow! Sorry about that folks,” Harry Caray’s voice reverberated from up in the broadcast booth.
The empty seats behind home plate exposed several layers of chipped paint, daring a baseball archeologist to decipher the legendary posteriors that had once occupied them. The outfield bleachers had been removed leaving rusted urban totem-poles and beyond, the gray silhouette of skyscrapers stood like jilted inheritors at a funeral waiting for the sore-eyed stadium to be turned asunder.
But the crack of the bat dropped Andy’s jaw and his brief bout of complacency. At home plate a young Ted Williams had smacked a high fly ball to Babe Ruth in right center field. Joe DiMaggio streaked behind the Babe, backing him up. Ruth caught the ball on the run and threw a strike to second baseman Jackie Robinson.
“Why do you play here?” Andy asked manager Casey Stengel. “Shouldn’t a stadium made in heaven be more… heavenly?”
Casey offered an amused smile used to fielding questions from rookies trying to make it in the bigs. His eagle eyes scoured the park before he replied, “This is baseball heaven. It’s all how you see it, kid. To me it’s more gorgeous than any dame—the most beautiful park I’ve ever managed in.” He nodded at first base. “They told me that when Lou Gehrig arrived he was so overwhelmed by its beauty that tears swelled in his eyes. Babe, on the other hand, just shook his head and asked where the nearest tavern was.”
Andy squinted his eyes but nothing changed the sight of the broken down old ball park.
“Go take some infield at third,” Casey barked out. “And kid, remember—you’re not as smart as you think you are.”
Andy peered down at the name, “ALL-TIME GREATS,” pasted across his chest and shuttered.
“Come on kid, you’re in the majors, now,” Stengel said and waved at third baseman Pie Traynor to return to the dugout.
Overwhelmed by it all, Andy trotted out to third base and watched the graceful Joe DiMaggio in center field angle underneath a towering fly ball off the bat of Ted Williams. The Splendid Splinter pointed at him and hit a sharp grounder. Andy gloved the ball smoothly and tossed a strike to Lou Gehrig at first. Williams hit a topper to Honus Wagner at shortstop and then swatted a line drive that Jackie Robinson gathered in at second. Andy was mesmerized by how effortlessly the hall-of-famers fielded. Gehrig scooped up every chance at first base—his glove a natural extension of his arm.
Andy got down in a crouch at third and thought I can play with these guys while Ted Williams joked with catcher Mickey Cochrane at home plate.
Williams turned cat quick and slapped a hard grounder down the third base line. Andy reacted too late. The ball eluded his glove and screamed into the left field corner. “Come on, rookie,” the notorious Ty Cobb snapped at him from the third base coaching box. “You should have at least knocked it down.”
Andy’s face turned a pale red, matching a faded Coca Cola sign hanging from the stadium wall. The players all stopped what they were doing and peered up into the sky above center field. A luminous disk copied the sun but appeared more welcoming. Andy had the feeling that if he peeked inside he would find that it led to somewhere far away. He joined Ted, Lou, Mickey, Joe, and the Babe, and removed his hat, placing it over his heart.
The disk’s rays shrouded the entire stadium. Andy was a twelve-year-old again playing over-the-line at the school ground in the summer with his best friend Will. His soon to be girlfriend, Jan, stood along the third base line and watched. The opposing hitter smashed a line-drive over the line. Andy dove for the ball, snatched it in the web of his glove, turned two somersaults, and ended up at Jan’s feet. “Hi there,” he said and quickly got up and returned to his position.
Jan’s smile blessed the remainder of the game.
The beam of light comforted but also questioned him—Andy didn’t understand what it was asking. He didn’t want to leave his cherished childhood but the light slowly dimmed until Jan, Will, and the game had become mere memories again.
Back on the dugout steps Casey Stengel patted him on the shoulder and said in a fatherly way, “Maybe next time kid.” Although the disk had disappeared it was still bright in the stadium. Andy knew without being told that there would never be night games played here.
“Thanks, coach,” he said, and added, “Who do we play against?”
Casey gazed up above the stadium, cleared his throat and said, “In baseball heaven we play against the White Sox and the Black Sox, against our competitors and ourselves, and sometimes we just play for those sorry souls in hell.”
Stengel’s eloquence confounded him. Casey laughed and said, “No, I didn’t come up with that line—heard it in a New York bar.” He pointed in the sky. “Kid, look up there—you may have to squint your eyes a little.
The blue sky was a sea of memories and thoughts of baseball fans past and present. “We play against them… and for them,” Casey said. Again, Andy needed no explanation. The sky above the stadium held the spectators, the competition; the lovers of baseball and those who disliked it, too.
In the ancient locker room Andy found his name handwritten on a gray locker between Lou Gehrig and outfielder Roberto Clemente. Their names were etched on the locker doors permanently.
“Hey kid, you showed a good glove out there at the hot-corner,” Lou Gehrig said, sitting on the bench removing his cleats.
“I lost my concentration,” Andy admitted and stowed his glove in the locker.
“We all let one get away, kid,” Gehrig said, chewing on bubble gum.
He wanted to be Lou’s friend; didn’t everyone? “I’ll do better next time.”
“A hundred games at third base without an error—you’re pretty special kid,” Gehrig said, shaking his head.
“It was only triple-A ball. I never played in the majors.”
“Take it from me,” Lou said. “You’ve got what it takes.” Gehrig looked around—they were alone—and said, “I hear the Dodgers had you tapped to be their third baseman.”
“That was my dream.”
Lou looked at him sideways, smiled, and said, “Did Casey tell you why you are here?”
“No, I just arrived.”
“I think the man upstairs is concerned about the fate of baseball,” Lou said.
“What does that have to do with me?”
“You’re the future of baseball, kid,” Gehrig said and swallowed hard. “The man upstairs must have figured that youth needed to know what was in store for the game.”
He didn’t understand.
Lou picked the mud out of his cleat with a golf tee and said, “I haven’t told anyone but I’ve noticed that part of the right field bleachers have been… missing.”
Andy hadn’t seen any right field bleachers. He was beginning to understand what Casey meant when the old sage had said: “It’s how you see it.”
“The more you give to the game the better it will get,” Lou said. “We’ve been noticing lately that too many ballplayers are taking from the game.”
“I was one of them,” Andy admitted. “Is that why I am here?”
Lou nodded his head. “Maybe…what do you think, kid?”
Andy still didn’t understand why the stadium looked different to each player. “Memorial Stadium looks like it’s ready for the wrecking ball to me.”
Gehrig frowned and said, “I’m sorry to hear that, kid…but it’s never too late to change things around.” He nodded down at the shadowy area the end of the locker bay. “Shoeless Joe Jackson is beginning to ‘see the light.’” Lou chuckled.
Gehrig’s modest optimism instilled Andy with hope. “You think I can go back?”
Lou’s smile waned. He wore that determined look that he had seen before the “Iron Horse” belted Walter Johnson’s fast ball over the steel girders in right field with the bases full. “I’ll talk to Casey about it, kid.”
“Thanks Lou, you’re the greatest.”
Before the second game of the doubleheader, Andy stared in awe at the scorecard tacked on the clubhouse wall:
- Jackie Robinson, 2B
- Honus Wagner, SS
- Ted Williams, LF
- Babe Ruth, RF
- Lou Gehrig, 1B
- Joe DiMaggio, CF
- Mickey Cochrane, C
- Andy Temple, 3B
- Cy Young, P
“Play ball!” umpire Augie Donatelli yelled at home plate.
The “All-Time Greats” played baseball as if it was a symphony conducted by the lord himself. Andy had never tried so hard in his life. He hit a two-bagger off of legendary Cards right-hander Dizzy Dean in the second and speared Rogers Hornsby’s line shot at the third base bag in the bottom of the inning, which caused Casey to nod his head (Lou said that was a high compliment coming from Stengel).
During the third inning Casey took him aside and said, “Andy, my third baseman Pie Traynor wants to do some coaching. How about you being my regular third baseman?”
The voice was Stengel’s but the question leapt out of the sky from the past. Now he understood what the beam of light had asked. During the past he had always furthered his career while letting down the ones he loved—Jan and Will. Andy didn’t have to think it over this time. “Thank you Mr. Stengel,” he said. “But I could never replace Pie Traynor at third base. I…I should return to the… minors… to Albuquerque. I left a lot of unfinished business there.”
Casey thought it over for a moment, glanced up above center field and said, “Let me talk to the man upstairs.”
In the ninth inning Andy came up to bat left-handed against Dodger Hall-of-Famer Don Drysdale. The lanky right-hander’s first pitch came within an inch of his chin. Andy straightened up as if he had been asleep and had just awakened out of a long dream. Drysdale smiled and threw a slider that caught the outside corner.
“Stee-rike one!” Umpire Augie Donatelli cried out.
Drysdale came back to the plate with that unwinding cork-screw motion and his wicked inside fastball had Andy bailing out. Donatelli screamed, “Stee-rike two!”
Andy stepped out of the batter’s box and grabbed a handful of red soil—the same as in Dodger Stadium. The grass infield suddenly turned a bright lush green and the right field bleachers had somehow been restored. Behind the plate, shiny new seats beckoned the fans. Harry Caray’s clear voice sang out, “It doesn’t get any better than this, folks.”
He tossed the dirt in the air—a slight wind was blowing in from center. He stepped into the batter’s box and gave Drysdale a determined look. All eyes were on him. Drysdale looked in to get a sign from Josh Gibson and nodded. Andy glanced over at the first base dugout and Lou Gehrig gave him a wink.
Drysdale went into his windup and Andy strained his eyes to catch the release point of the pitch. He sensed a fastball, low, and cocked his bat. His thoughts centered on Jan and Will before he stroked the low fast ball high and deep into center.
Mickey Mantle raced to the base of the center field fence and looked up.
Everyone looked up.
The disk had returned, much brighter than before. Andy stood mesmerized at home plate. The stadium, now a place of consummate beauty, floated in the sky amongst the clouds. The outfield walls were laced with vines and colorful bougainvilleas. Forgotten but cherished odors from the Little League concession stand in his youth overloaded Andy’s olfactory senses.
The light consumed him and this time he didn’t fight it. His feet dangled in the strike-zone above home plate. Andy felt like it was his first carnival ride—he slowly rose. The anticipation mounted. He floated above center field and laughed at the pale gray skyscrapers melt into granite boulders surrounded by tropical gardens amidst flowing waterfalls.
Ahead, the disk beckoned him. Andy stole a look behind. The field became smaller and smaller. He waved goodbye to Lou Gehrig, Casey Stengel, and the rest of the guys.
When he turned back to the disk it immediately lulled him to sleep.
When he opened his eyes he found himself in bed in a hospital room, hooked up to an array of electronic machines. He lifted his head.
Jan’s eyes couldn’t hold back their surprise and joy. She jumped out of the chair and rushed toward him. “Andy, oh Andy… You’re awake!” she screamed and a nurse rushed into the room.
“That’s a ball player for you,” the smiling nurse said, checking the electronic monitors. “He wakes up after weeks in a coma, just in time for spring training with those Dodgers.”
“I’m sorry for everything Jan,” he said. “There’s so much I need to do to make things right with you and Will.”
“I knew you would come back to us,” she said, holding his hand.
He looked up at the ceiling where the disk of light slowly disappeared. In baseball heaven, Lou Gehrig’s faint voice whispered in his ear, “Attaboy, Andy.”
Copyright © 2018 D.K. Matthews
TAGGED: LA Dodgers, Baseball, Hall of Fame, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Fiction