BEISBOL

We drove down to Carpinteria High School for a statewide Odyssey of the Mind competition in 1992. My son Will was a sixth grader and his team was in the competition for the second year in a row. Held at the high school, it drew teams from all over the southern part of the state. If you’ve never been there, Carpinteria is one of the hidden gems of California. With rugged mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, it is situated in a way that it can’t grow and so has remained a small town. Tucked in this pocket, the town built it’s school on a large grassy plain at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Like all high schools, a large open space on campus is dedicated to athletics. East of the main campus is a large grassy space containing practice football fields and two baseball fields. One being the official field on which league games are played and closer to the school buildings, a practice field. It had a battered backstop, old green painted wood and sagging chickenwire above that. As with most HS fields it had a pitchers mound, and base paths worn in the dry crinkling  grass but no actual bases, just round dusty areas where they might be on a practice day.

There was a Junior Varsity game on the real diamond but the old field was about to demonstrate where the real heart of baseball is.

At around one o’clock on that Saturday men began to arrive, walking in from the parking lot they carried an odd assortment of baseball gear. There was an old cotton catchers chest protector, torn here and there, the stuffing poking out in tufts. It had only  one old leather strap to hold it on, the other being a piece of cotton rope. Maybe a piece of old clothsline. There were a few old and beaten gloves in evidence but no batting helmets. Two old wooden bats, one obviously held together by nails and duct tape and that was it.

By their looks, the players had just come from the strawberry fields in the surrounding area. Half a day Saturday and a little baseball after. They were universally dirty, scuffed workboots, every variety of trousers, worn at the knees, occasional holes. Everyone wore long sleeves, there are no short sleeves in the fields, sun and prickly leaves are hard on the skin. These were men not boys. Men who labor. You could see the states of Mexico reflected in there stature. Chapparitos from Oaxaca, the occasional Chilango from DF, swarthy skinned round men from the mountains of the Sonora and Chihuahua. Happy men, days work done. Time to do a little ribbing, a tease or two and play ball.

Just as little boys do, the bat was tossed, grabbed by a horny palm and hand over hand to the knob to decide home team and first pick.  One by one names were called and stepped to this side or that until all were chosen. Each team had 8 players. They decided that the ninth player on each team would be the last to bat on the opposite team.

Ready to go, the defensive players took their positions. The umpire, one of the players wives stood behind the catcher. She didn’t crouch for she had no gear, so she stood, the better to jump out of the way of a wild pitch or foul tip, her only protection a rather battered old Boogie board. The lanky kid who was to pitch toed the imaginary rubber on that dusty little mound, the catcher wearing the old chest protector, one shin guard, a pair of work boots partially unlaced and a tin hard had with  a well used catchers mask got ready.

Now I just naturally assumed that this would be the kind of friendly game in which nobody worked too hard or took to seriously but I was completely wrong. The Lanky pitcher wound up and presented the batter with a sidearm throw that came across the plate at better than eighty miles an hour. If you’ve never seen what a good sidearmer can do with a baseball you’ve missing something. They can make the ball hop or dip, wriggling like a worm on a hook. Lest you think the batter was surprised, think again. These guys had obviously played  before. The hitter tapped the second pitch over the shortstops head and beat it on down the line, his greatest fan, the umpire, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Apurate, apurate mijo,” as the batter hustled down to first. These guys played for reals.

The game went on for a good two hours. Changing sides, the gloves were exchanged and the catchers gear shared. The other hurler was a stocky dark skinned middle aged man who was a junk ball pitcher. He had a whole bag of tricks. Knucklers, sliders, drops, a rudimentary fastball that he never threw over the plate, not even once. On purpose of course.

The game was an absolute pleasure to watch. There were a couple home runs, one that rolled under the bleachers on the soccer field where the center fielder had to crawl underneath in order to fetch it. There was much laughter and good natured back and forth, the fans, including me had a wonderful time.

Given a good field, proper gear and uniforms, these guys could have beaten a decent high school team. After nine innings of play they packed it up, pulled some cervezas from their coolers and arm in arm walked off the field. They left me knowing that I had just seen real baseball, played just for fun and nothing else. It is still a cherished and serendipitous memory because it was such a surprise and I had it almost to myself. The kind of thing where you sit, hug your knees and smile. Like a fool.

This may seem like a “story” but its not. It really happened. I played and coached baseball for over 20 years and its the only time i’ve seen anything like it. I wish I could see it again. So if you’re traveling somewhere on a Saturday afternoon keep your eyes open, it might happen to you. If you’re lucky.

 

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THE DEAD RIDE HARD

A SHIRLEY SHANNON MYSTERY

ONE

It was a hot night in the city of angels. The Santa Ana was comin’ in from the San Gabriels like an express train loaded with coals from the devils furnace. I was upstairs in my office in the old John Marshall Building. The fan in the corner doing no more good than if it was off, might as well throw it out the window.

I reached down into the desk drawer and hauled out the bottle of bourbon I kept there for inspiration. I found in right next to my 1911 Colt auto, yeah the one I brought back from the ass kickin’ we give the Krauts. Shoulda paid the government for it but I’m not that kinda guy.

Being a private dick has its compensations, one of which is plenty of time to put yer feet up and contemplate the gams of my secretary Vivian. She’s painting her nails and paying no more attention to me than she would the brick I use to prop the door open when I’m trying to get a little breeze into this oven. 

The phone rings with a jangle that punches me right in last nights hangover. Viv picks it up and opens her carmine red lips, takes out her unfiltered camel that smells like it came from one, and says with a purr, “Shirley Shannon, private eye, watcha want?“ God, she’s great. Keeps the lightweights away, that voice gives ‘em the willies.

“It’s fer you,” she says, “It’s that dick Red Baker down at Robbery Homicide, says you better hop on down there, toots sweet. Says it’s important. Thats a laugh. He wouldn’t know important if it walked up and kissed ‘im on the mouth.” She puts the phone back on the hook like a construction worker humpin’ a jackhammer. Thats Viv, all soft and sweet; charmin.’

As usual the elevator in headquarters ain’t workin’ and I had to hump up the stairs to the third floor. The door to the homicide office ain’t so clearly marked. Half the letters is gone, it says Homi now, ya know like the spics say up in Boyle Heights when their talking to each other. Sorta fits though, the LA Dicks do a lotta business up on the East side.

I strolled down the row of battered old desks, most of ‘em empty, but a few heads looked up and ignored me. I ignored them back. Mutual disrespect. Cops don’t much care for guys who are private, ‘specially one who used to work outta this same office. Yeah, I use ta be a cop. Least ’til the bottle and a dame queered the deal. Chief was happy to see my ass go out the door, but like a nightmare I’m still in his head.

“Jeez Shirley, you look like someone just dug you up, maybe I outta check with the Angelus Rosedale, see if they have an empty hole with no one in it.” Red reached up with a right hand, looked like a catchers mitt and took the cheap cigar out of his mouth, “Boy do I got a doozy here.”

I pulled up a chair a flopped down in it like a sack of barley, tired, barley in the distilled form being the reason why. I took off my battered Fedora, wiped my forehead with the backa my hand and said, by way of nothin’, “Hot enuff for ya Red.” He tilted his head back and a grunt which I took to be a laugh bubbled up from his throat. He cocked his head and spat something brown into the wastebasket next to the desk and said, “Kiss my ass, Shannon, I got enough ta worry about without you bein’ such a wise ass.” He shoved a battered file folder across his desk. “Look at this will ya, I wanna know what ya think.” I opened it up and looked at the top sheet. Picture of a cheap hood, greasy hair slicked back, mouth, couldn’t tell if it was a smirk or a sneer. Those bastards must practice in front of the mirror. Always wonder what they think, is it gonna stop a slug? Might shoot ‘em just for doin it, if ya know what I mean. “Name of this piece a garbage, one Steve Campodonica jr. Shirley,” Red went on, “ found him face down on that old has been actress Laura Howards’s carpet, she says she stuck him with a kitchen knife, got ‘im in the gizzard. Bad end for Mickey the bosse’s chief enforcer aint’ it? Killed by a woman. He figured he was real tough, course that actor Sean Conners damn near broke Campodonica’s wrist when he stuck his rod in Conner’s face last year cause he though Conner’s was shtuppin’ the old bag. Steve was a Marine in the Pacific too, musta been handin’ out tea towels though. Not so tough.” Red leaned back in his chair, creaking under his weight, pointed at the file and said, “I need ya to do me a favor for old times sake…..

I loafed down the stairs, thinkin.’ Was I gonna get myself into another mess? Peepin’ Johns about to get divorce papers or servin’ writs was the usual stock in trade for private dicks, boring , but it brought in the shekels that kept Viv in silk stockings and lipstick. Paid for the dump I called an office too. Not to much stress either, maybe the occasional schlub needed to be knocked around, but hey, a guy’s gotta have a little fun in this world before he checks out. Know what I mean?

I was crossin’ the lobby, headed for the door, tryin’ to get outta there to clear the cop stink off me when I heard, “Hey girly, still got that name,” followed by laughter that sound like a file rubbin’ across some sheet metal. I knew I shouldna turned, but I did. I clocked  a  big lump leanin’ on the receptionist’s desk. It looked like it was an even fight, would the desk hold him  up or not. He had his fedora pushed back on his head, showin’ his thinnin’ hair, his tie pulled down, some kinda peacock printed on it, wearin’ a brown suit musta been made out of a surplus army tent by the looks of it. He had the butt of a cop’s 38 special stickin’ outta of his pocket, the only thing he had in front coulda’ passed for the business end if you know what I mean. “Stuff it Pigmeat,” I said, “Rolled any drunks lately?” I strolled over towards him, sayin, “Jerry, how come they ain’t booted you outta here yet, must be some silk lined pocket you’re in.” His little pig eyes, the pupils the size of BB’s narrowed, “Take a hike Shirley, you ain’t wanted around here. Get it, dirty cops get thrown out with yesterdays garbage. Go back to that dump of a office with that trashy dame you got and don’t come around here no more if you know whats good for you.”  I shoulda’ give him one right in the beak right there, woulda saved a lotta trouble. Instead I said, “I’ll pass along you compliments to the trash dame, see if she wants to return it.” The receptionist snickered. Jerry snapped his head around and gave the girl a rancid look, “Cut the gas Baby, take the word from the bird and mind your business and you might last a week here.” She lowered her eyes to her work but not before giving me a sly little wink. She knew the score. 

I decided to hoof it back to the office, give me some time to think about what I’d just seen. Figured I’d head down Spring to 4th and back to the dump we politely called the office. Once I hit the concrete, I could hear the squeak of brakes behind me.I turned and saw a beat up hack tryin’ to slow down, the binders soundin’ like someone wringin’ the neck of a cat. Could only be one car in the whole town sound like that. 

“Oi Shirley, need a lift?”  The gal behind the wheel was the only skirt drivin’ a cab in LA. Tillie Picadilly we called her. She was just a slip of a gal, 100 pounds wringing’ wet, Cats Eye cheaters always slipped down on her nose, talked funny ’cause she’s from London’s east end. She hooked a doggie in ’45 to get inta  the country and then dumped him when he wasn’t useful no more.

“Wotchor, Shoil?” she questioned. “Hop in and I’ll roll you down to that trash heap closet you call an office, could’n swing a cat in there could ya? Can’t do no better?” What could I say, I fisted open the front and crawled into her heap.

“Hope ya feel special, sitin’ in front, ain’t to many gets to,” She said. She took her foot off the brake and we rolled down the street back to my place.

“Flip me an oily rag, Shoil, I know ya got plenty Bees and Honey in the Rattle and Clank.”

“When you gonna’ learn to speak english Til’? “Whats the hell does that mean anyway?”

“A fag, Shoil, you damn Yanks stole plenty ah things from us British, but hit ain’t English.” She replied. “Giv’ us a smoke Shoil.”

I shook out a Chesterfield from my pack and she stuck it in her face. I scraped a match with my thumbnail and she looked over and lit up, not watching the road, which she didn’t often do anyway judging by the condition of the fenders on her heap.

She pulled up to my building, judging her distance by bouncing her front tire off the curb.

“Gates of Rome, Shoil,” Tilly said, “Oi, “Give us a Butcher’s at your paper mate.”

I’d forgotten I was still carrying the times and I flipped it to her. She clocked the front page a moment and then, “Humph, think that old slag did for the hood?”

“Couldn’t say Til.” I turned and headed for the stairs.

“Oi, Shoil, Ya forgot the bread and honey, float me a tenner and I’ll buy you a drink at the boozer later.” She was laughing now.

“Sure thing Til,” I said, handing her the double sawbuck. I turned and tripped up the apples and pears to the office, thinking about how, whenever I was around her I learned more about whatever the Brit’s called English. Apples and pears, stairs, there’s one for ya.

 

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