A. C. Haeffner
What follows is an excerpt from a novel Ive written and rewritten, and am still tinkering with titled The Judges Game.
The scene focuses on the books fictional retired pitching great, Tom Killian, who some readers might think rather resembles retired pitching great Tom Seaver. Both hurlers, for instance, are right-handers, started their careers with the Mets and finished with the Red Sox, and wrote books assessing how they would pitch to the legends of baseball if they had the opportunity.
Here, Killian gets his chance on the weekend of his Hall of Fame induction in 1992, at an Ebbets Field resurrected not in our world, but in a setting beyond a wall in the Hall beyond a portal that only the clever or lucky or blessed can cross. He is pitching for The Parliaments, a team of deceased but vibrant ballplayers who were very good in their day, but never quite measured up to the greatest to the men who made the celestial Hall of Fame as embodied in this stadiums hosts, the Dodgers. Because Killian is a guest pitcher a visitor from the land of the living he cannot represent the Dodgers; that honor can only come after death.
As we join him, Killian, still alive and vibrant and rejuvenated nearly to the physical condition he had enjoyed years before, is about to deliver the first pitch to the leadoff batter of the home team, the late but still awesome Dodgers
KILLIAN VERSUS THE GREATS
By A.C. Haeffner
Tom Killian was ready.
This is great, he thought, standing on the Ebbets mound. The arm feels good, the legs are sound, and I feel strong.
It had been years since hed felt the rush of an upcoming first pitch. About two-thirds the way through his career hed lost the anticipatory edge that produces the rush. Hed been on the down-slope then, and the fun was gone.
But not now. The fun was back, the rush was back, and the drive was back.
He had waited patiently as his team the Parliaments was retired in order in the top of the first inning, and then strode to the mound in a hurry. He felt so good, had so much energy, that he wanted to get started. He tossed a few warm-up pitches, dried his hand on the resin bag, and then threw a few more, cutting loose on the last one with a rising fastball.
Whoooeeee, he said to himself. Havent thrown a riser in ... Lord, who knows when.
Then he walked from the mound and paced the grass at its perimeter, taking in the stadium filled to capacity and his teammates, who were in position and nearly ready for his first pitch.
Norm Cash over on first base nodded and pounded his mitt. Second baseman Kenny Hubbs had scooped a handful of Ebbets dirt and was letting it seep from his hand in a slow trickle, watching it hit the ground. Harvey Kuenn was scuffing the dirt at shortstop, eyeing Killian. Tony Conigliaro in center had just completed his last warm-up throw to rightfielder Roger Maris, who was tossing the ball over to the Dodgers bullpen.
Now everybody was ready.
Killian strode to the rubber, waited for the first Dodger batter the right-handed second baseman Rogers Hornsby to step in, and then looked for the sign from his catcher, Ernie Lombardi.
Well, here we go, he thought. Too bad Jackie Robinsons not starting this one at second. I wanted him. But what the heck; Hornsby was an even better hitter.
Killian took a deep breath, went into his windup, reared back and cut loose with his bread-and-butter pitch, the fastball. But he took a little off of it. There was no need to show his best stuff first.
Outside corner. Hornsby laid off it. Strike one.
Good, thought Killian. That felt good. Concentrate. Hornsby. The Rajah. A .358 lifetime average. But no banjo hitter. Over 300 homers lifetime, with 42 one year. So bear down.
Killian let fly with his second pitch, and jammed Hornsby inside. Hornsby started to swing, checked it and fouled the pitch off.
All right. One more. Lets see. What do I know about him? Any weaknesses? No. A sucker for a waste pitch? Lets see.
The third pitch was a slider, well outside the strike zone and low. Hornsby held off.
Okay. Not a sucker. Give him a curve ball? Yeah. Slow curve on the outside. If he bites, good. If not, it sets up the heater.
Killian broke off a nasty curve that barely missed the paint on the outside. Again, Hornsby held off.
Shoot, thought Killian, striding down off the mound to gather his thoughts and his confidence. Okay, stay with the plan. Fastball, high. Low? No, high. Go with your gut, dummy.
He climbed back up the mound, dug in, shook off Lombardi who wanted another slider and went into his motion.
Here it comes, Rajah, Killian muttered.
Hornsby timed the arrival of the ball perfectly, and laced a liner back up the middle that nearly clipped Killians right ear on the way by. Conigliaro fielded it on a couple of hops in center and tossed it back in to Hubbs. Hornsby held at first base, looked at Killian and grinned. Killian couldnt help returning the smile.
Hes good, he thought. Heck, theyre all good. I better turn it up a notch, find the zone, or its gonna be an early shower.
Honus Wagner was the next batter.
Out of the frying pan, thought Killian. Batting average of .329. Geez, they should have led him off; if I remember right, he stole 720 bases. But wait; he was probably a good hit-and-run man. Single to right here, and they have first-and-third. Then he steals second ... how do I pitch this guy? Okay, nothing fat over the outside part of the plate. Thats too easy for a hit-and-runner. First, inside.
Killian delivered a curve ball that started at the back of Wagners head and dove over the inside corner. Wagner was still backing away when the ball crossed the plate. Strike one.
He looks perturbed, thought Killian. Stupid, Tom. Dont look at him. Concentrate on Lombardi and where he puts his mitt. Okay. Next pitch outside, but well outside. Dont want him getting a piece of it. He shouldnt; hell still be leaning back a little.
The second pitch was low and outside, but being a slider looked like it might catch the plate before it tailed off. Wagner bit and swung, but wasnt close. Strike two.
Good, good. Okay, Tom, now what? Fastball? Hornsby creamed it. Wagner will be looking for it, too. Hell probably dig in, figuring the heater or a waste pitch. Not looking for it inside. Okay. Brushback time.
The third pitch headed on a line for Wagners chin, and he appeared not to believe it until it was almost there. At the last moment, he managed a backward thrust that pushed his chin clear of the hurtling orb by half an inch. The move cost him his balance and he fell, hitting the ground hard, but bounced right up and stepped back into the batters box without dusting his uniform.
Tough guy, eh? thought Killian. Yeah, right; not even you are that tough. Now youre not sure. Am I gonna do it again? Youll be back on your heels a little. Whats that sign? A curve? Might work, but if hes already leaning back, he might have time to adjust. No. Shake it off. Right, Ernie; thats the one. Number one.
Killian wound and delivered. His fastball this time rose more than it had with Hornsby, and blew by Wagner before he had an honest chance to connect. Swinging strike three. One out.
Yes! Thats more like it. One out, sets up a possible inning-ending double play. That would be ideal. But I really want this next guy. Another strikeout, thats what I want.
He peered toward the next batter approaching the plate.
It was Babe
In his book How Id Pitch To the Legends, Tom Killian acknowledged The Babe would be difficult for him. Ruth was a superb high-average hitter (.342) with disarming speed, considering his bulk, and a slugger by whom the standard of sluggers was set (714 career homers, and 60 in a season). He also batted left and therefore would get a good look at Killians right-handed pitches. Throw in the fact that it was only 297 feet down the Ebbets right-field line and Ruths ability to pull high flies and Killian had ample potential for trouble.
In his book, he imagined such a confrontation, and said he would open with a slider, outside corner, follow that up with a sinker outside, bust a fastball on the inside corner while Ruth was leaning out, and then go to the outside corner again with a low fastball.
In his book, he imagined that sequence working, with Ruth flying out to left-center.
Again, in his book, Killian could see himself striking out the Babe in Ruths second trip to the plate, fanning him with a rising fastball.
But on Ruths third at-bat, Killian imagined trying the riser again only to watch it clear the fence as Babe trotted around the bases with a homer.
All of this was playing through Killians mind now, as the Babe stepped in for real.
Okay, Killian reasoned, I can try it like I did in the book, only without that homer. The first at-bat was a good plan. Maybe well try that. Lets see, slider, outside corner. He should have trouble yanking that out.
Killian kicked and delivered. The ball was spotted perfectly, and the Babe held off. Called strike one.
Good, just like in the book, Killian thought. Now, what was next? Oh, yeah, a sinker out there, but off the plate. Hed have to lunge to get it. Lets try it.
The pitch was, as planned, outside. Ruth held off again, running the count to 1-1.
Third pitch was, lets see, fastball inside. Ernie wants a curve. No; too slow. Fastball might work. Yeah, hes looking outside, leaning that way. Thats my best bet. Okay, Babe, here comes a beauty.
Killian wound, kicked and threw the ball just where he wanted it. But The Babe wasnt leaning anywhere but into the ball as it came in on him, had in fact turned his body the necessary notch to the right to handle the ball as it approached, and hit it with a full arm extension.
The ball took about two seconds to clear the 38-foot-high screen, some 15 feet inside fair territory in right field.
Killian jerked his head to the left as the ball left Ruths bat, and saw it exit the park on a line. Then, a look of disbelief on his face, he turned his attention back to Ruth who was taking his time rounding the bases, chuckling all the way. As he went past third, he slowed to a walk and looked straight at Killian.
Nice try, Tom, he called. But you made a fatal blunder.
Whats that? Killian asked. Ruth was now halfway between third and home.
I knew what you were gonna throw, said Ruth.
Killian looked perplexed.
How? he called back. You guys cant read minds, can you?
No, said Ruth as he crossed the plate. He took three or four more steps, acknowledged the cheering of the stadium crowd, and turned back toward the mound.
No, we cant read minds, he shouted. But we can read books. I read the book you wrote. Next time, you better stray a little from the published script.
Laughing now, The Babe shuffled to the Dodgers dugout.
Damn, said Killian. He hadnt anticipated that, though he should have. Someone had brought the book through the portal.
Killian took The Babes hint.
I shouldnt have used the book at all, he mumbled. Dumb.
He cleared his mind of anything he might have written about any of the men he was now facing several of the Dodgers had been subjects in the book and applied simple pitching logic and instinct. Whatever he felt at the moment whatever his gut told him was applied as the answer to the repeated question: What the heck do I throw this guy?
And it worked.
Lou Gehrig followed Ruth to the plate, and Joe Jackson followed Gehrig. Both were extremely dangerous hitters, but both were retired on routine grounders.
And Killian was on his way.
Over the next seven innings he gave up just three more singles to Mickey Cochrane, the starting Dodger catcher; to Cool Papa Bell, the center fielder, and to Grover Cleveland Alexander, the starting pitcher.
That last one bothered Killian. Pitchers were not supposed to yield hits to other pitchers.
Dummy. You should always get the pitcher out, he scolded himself.
Of course, some pitchers were exceptional hitters although many lost the opportunity with the advent of the Designated Hitter Rule an American League policy instituted in his world in 1973 that had a hitter, designated by the manager, batting in place of the pitcher throughout each game.
Killian had asked Ruth about that before the game.
Do you have designated hitters? he had said.
Hell, no, said Ruth. Damn pansy rule.
Killian tended to agree. He had batted for years in the National League, but then not at all after moving to the American. He had preferred the added challenge that batting brought.
Yeah, he had answered. I always felt like the rule was saying I just wasnt good enough. I never liked it.
Attaboy, said Ruth. Youll get your swings here.
Which he did, paying back Alexander by doubling once in his first three attempts and on one of the outs hitting the ball hard. He was pleased by his at-bats.
The only Dodger run after Ruths homer came at the hands of Bell, a man renowned as the quickest of all time, a runner so fast that pundits said he could outrace his own shadow.
Bell had laced a looping single to left in the fifth inning, and had then stolen second and third bases despite Killians best efforts to hold him close to first and then second.
Brother, Killian had thought after the second theft, I dont think Ive ever seen anybody so fast.
The fact that Bell then scored on a short fly ball to right, easily beating the throw home from the strong-armed Maris, merely confirmed that assessment.
Entering the top of the ninth, it was 3-1 Dodgers. The only run for the Parliaments was a homer by Conigliaro in the fifth. They had had several scoring opportunities, but only cashed in the one time.
Killian was scheduled to hit third in the inning, but figured hed be lifted for a pinch hitter.
But after Harvey Kuenn, subbing for Marty Marion, had singled, and after late-inning replacement Billy Martin had popped out, Killian got the nod from manager Charlie Dressen to go up and take his own licks.
Its your game, Dressen said.
So Killian dug in against Walter Johnson, on in relief. The first two pitches were both strikes, right down the pipe. Killian had looked at the first and waved meekly at the second, marveling at the speed with which they both arrived.
Man, hes as fast as Nolan Ryan, Killian muttered.
Faster, said Mickey Cochrane, who was still catching.
Killian looked down at him.
Thanks, he said. I needed that to bolster my confidence.
He stepped into the batters box for what he assumed would be strike three, but somehow managed to start his swing just as Johnson let go of the ball; he was anticipating the fastball instead of reacting to it. If it had been a slow curve, Killian would have finished his swing before the ball arrived; but it was a heater, and he hit the ball squarely, wrists breaking at just the right moment, the ball leaving the wood of the bat faster than when it arrived, and on an arc toward deep left field.
Killian stood at the plate, wondering at his handiwork as the ball soared away, over the infield, over the quickly retreating Joe Jackson in left, over the fence and into the Ebbets stands.
The crowd, noisy throughout the game, kicked it up a couple of notches as Killian rounded the bases, still carrying the bat. He was so excited he had forgotten to discard it upon leaving the batters box the traditional point of release. This was not his first home run, but there hadnt been many at any level youth ball, high school, college, minors or majors. And besides
Walter Johnson, he said to the third base coach, Bucky Harris, as he touched third and headed home. I hit it off Walter Johnson.
Harris was clapping and smiling.
As he crossed the plate, Killian was met by Kuenn who had scored in front of him and then by most of the Parliaments as the team emptied from the bench in tribute.
Im smiling like a goof, Killian told himself, but he couldnt stop.
The game was tied 3-3.
The bottom of the ninth was anticlimactic.
Killian couldnt really feel badly about it in retrospect. No lightning-bolt homers decided the game, no walks, no errors, no wild pitches.
His team was dinked to death.
Ken Boyer, pinch-hitting for Pie Traynor, hit a high chopper in the hole between short and third that he beat out for a single.
Then Ty Cobb, batting for Tris Speaker, hit a flare to right center that fell between the hard-charging Maris and Conigliaro and just beyond the reach of Billy Martin, in now at second. Boyer, anticipating it, scooted around to third.
There was still nobody out.
Up came Josh Gibson, hitting for Cochrane. Power hitter against power pitcher.
Killian decided to start Gibson off with a curve outside, but Gibson let it go by. Then Killian tried to jam him inside with a rising fastball, but Gibson failed to swing at that one, too. Two balls, no strikes.
Okay, Killian figured. Sinking fastball. That way I can probably avoid the sacrifice fly maybe keep Boyer from scoring.
Killian kicked and delivered, and Gibson went for it, taking a mighty cut.
He barely touched the top of the ball, sending it bouncing off the ground a couple of feet in front of the plate and out between the mound and third but inordinately high.
Killian camped under the ball, waiting for it to come back down and knew even before he gloved it that the game was over. As the ball settled into his mitt and he drew it back for a quick throw to the plate, Boyer slid home past Lombardi.
Dodgers 4, Parliaments 3.
Killian had lost.
Did I point? Hell, yes, I pointed. Pointed right to where the damn thing was gonna go. And I hit it there. Why? Who says different?
Oh, you know, Babe, sometimes legendary feats are treated as legends, Killian said. Some people just dont believe they happened. Like the called shot.
Yeah, well, I pointed.
Well good. I thought maybe you had, said Killian, though he still harbored some doubts.
The Babe was shaking his head.
You know, he said, softly now, I get really riled when people start belittling the accomplishments of others. It just isnt right. Thank goodness none of that goes on here.
Killian took a sip of his beer. The two were standing at the bar in a place called Rileys, located across the street from Ebbets.
Yeah, Babe, he said in agreement. Its a rough crowd out in the real world. Im sure it was in your day, too, but I think its worse now. Seems like all they want to do is tear down their heroes. Its the electronic media. You know, TV mostly.
Were not unaware of technological advances, said Ruth.
Yeah, but being aware and living through it are two different things, said Killian. Its a cutthroat business. They get right in the faces of the athletes. Not like the old days, where the press kind of turned its collective head when guys like well, like you did something a little out of the moral mainstream.
Ruth laughed and slapped Killian on the back.
Damn good one, son. Out of the moral mainstream. I like that. Yeah, I did things my way, no doubt about it. But youre wrong; I caught some heat in my day. I wasnt immune. Why, that time I sat out with a bellyache. Man, they about crucified my appetite.
But its different with TV, Babe. More intense. A star sneezes and these reporters are all over it. Theyre just looking for an excuse to embarrass us. Im afraid you have no idea about public crucifixion.
Ruth looked around the bar, clearly losing interest.
Well, Ill take your word for it, Tom. Damn, isnt this a fine place? We get together here after almost every game. Suits most of us fine. Of course, Gehrig never comes in here. The guy likes to spend time with his wife. Admirable, really, he added almost wistfully.
Killian followed the Babes gaze around the bar. Rileys, a composite of several old Brooklyn establishments in Killians world, boasted an early 20th century motif highlighted by brass fixtures and a shiny mahogany bar. Baseball paintings and photos adorned the walls.
A number of Dodgers, as well as some of the Parliaments, were seated at the 15 or so circular wooden tables placed around the room. A couple of dozen fans were standing around the tables, talking to or watching their heroes. Some of the players were just drinking; others were mixing booze with poker.
Thorne, Mann, Walton, Breck and Susan Masterson (editors note: key characters in the book) were at one table, along with Shoeless Joe Jackson and Christy Mathewson. The two ballplayers seemed to be in a heated discussion.
Whats that about? asked Killian.
Aw, those two are always jawing, said Ruth. Arguing about which one is more pious. Teetotalers; a real pair.
I dont get it, said Killian. If they dont drink, whatre they doing in here?
They think theyre saving some souls, said Ruth. Figure that by occupying a couple of chairs, theyre keeping out a couple of poor fools who would otherwise contaminate their bodies with the devil rum. Something, huh?
Well, said Killian, Ive always admired a person with firm beliefs. Even if those beliefs dont correspond to mine.
Ruth considered him.
Then youre a better man than I am, Gunga Tom.
(Shortly thereafter, Killian and the books other key characters are called back to their own world, and the main plot the search for a killer stalking Killian resumes.)