THE OUTFIELD GRASS GLOWS green under the late spring sun as if its plugged in. The grass on the hills behind the stands is invisible, covered with fans on blankets. Al Durocher, the manager, tells me Dominico Field has never been this packed. Is it too arrogant to say they’ve come to see me? Sure, the Barrie Baycats are in town. They eliminated the Leafs from the playoffs last season, and they certainly do bring fans with them. But I was a Blue Jay two weeks ago, until I was released for “conduct detrimental to the team”. Now I’m here playing D-list ball at an unobtrusive diamond in the corner of Christie Pits. People want to see what I do next. They think I’m an asshole who averages thirty home runs a season, in the Bigs. They don’t get it, I’m here for love.
“Look at them all,” Durocher says, slapping my back as he walks out of the dugout.
He stops, adjusting his cap while watching the Baycats warm up along the first base line, then walks over to see our starting pitcher, a thick-necked, tanned guy named Phillips.
“What do you think of the Chief?” The centre fielder, a lithe black kid named Clinton Gibb asks me.
“I grew up in Montgomery County. My stepdad used to take me to see the Orioles. I remember watching Durocher play out his career in Baltimore. Now he’s old and fat and has a handshake about as firm as your grandma’s tits.”
“Uh…Mr. Saunders…I don’t like talk like that…you know…about my grandmother.”
“Don’t worry, kid, you’ll get used to it. And please, call me Craig.”
I put my hand on the kid’s shoulder and give it a squeeze. Further down the bench is a rookie I met in spring training. He was called up from the Jays’ triple A team out in Vegas. Just before opening day, a case of bone spurs in his elbow took him out of the game. For a pitcher, that wouldn’t do, and so he missed his shot at the show and fell just about as far as possible. He nods at me. His cheeks are meat-tray pink and long wisps of brown hair stick out the back of his cap. I turn back to the centre fielder.
My teammates warm up, fielding grounders and pop-ups as I watch, and the fans watch me. Durocher isn’t putting me in my usual position, shortstop. Instead I’m the designated hitter. It wasn’t fair, he said, for a Johnny-come-lately like myself to oust the hard-working guys he already had out there. Fine by me, I don’t mind batting for beer money if I get to stick around town and do what I love.
My agent wasn’t happy about me staying in Toronto.
“You want to do what? Have you taken a line drive to the head? I could find you a job painting bungalows in SoCal that pays more than the Intercounty Baseball League. And at least you could check out the Santa Monica babes going by in bikinis. Craig, I’m on their website right now. I’m checking their site as we speak, know who their major sponsors are? A meat-packer and a tabloid. They’re gonna pay you in lunch meat and old newspapers. They’ll start calling you ‘Cold Cut’.”
“I’ve made up my mind, Mitch. If you won’t make the calls to get me on the Leafs, I will, even if I have to call Al Durocher myself and beg.”
The Chief hung up on me when I called him about joining the Maple Leafs’ roster. Speeding down the 401, I listened to a sports call-in show discussing my future and whether I was headed to the Cubs or the Angels. In fact, I was headed to Bowmanville, Ontario, a blemish on the map, just outside of Toronto.
Al Durocher lived in a nice estate on the edge of town, his driveway was covered with an awning of maple trees. His was an old farmhouse with a wrap-around porch and white shutters on the second story windows. His wife, a stout and friendly lady wearing a white sweater with a kitten on the front, didn’t know who I was when she answered the door.
“Are you here about the mower?” she asked.
Durocher emerged from the den and for a second I thought I’d have to drive him to the hospital. He turned on a stern face once he’d taken stock of what was happening in his own house.
“You’re not above any of the rest of the team, and I’m not putting up with any of your shit either, you understand?”
“Promise me, I want your word now, that you’re not going to bring trouble to me or this team.”
He’d put up with my shit once he saw me at the plate, putting runs up on the board, with its faded lettering and dim bulbs. Every manager puts a winning player first for sometime at least. Think about Robbie Alomar spitting on that umpire or Alex Rios yelling at a kid who asked him for an autograph, or all the crap A-Rod brings with him. Guys like them, like me, can always find something new so long as we have a few home runs or stolen bases left in us.
Before the game starts I walk over to the Baycats dugout to shake hands with their manager, Joe Landau, who played with the Cardinals back in the day.
“No fights today, eh Craig?” he says.
“We’ll see,” I reply.
Instead of walking back to my dugout I walk along the first base line, saying my hellos to the visiting team, then I walk over to the fence. A local cable reporter and a scrum of little kids swarm me. Leaning over the waist-high chain-link, I call to the women on blankets and lawn chairs who appeared to be the Baycats’ girlfriends and wives. One in particular catches my eye, a blonde in a pink tube top wearing Jackie O sunglasses. She’d been watching one player steadily until I walked over and hasn’t taken her eyes off me since. She sits with some other women and occasionally shouts commands at two little blonde boys about four and six.
“These your boys?”
She lifts her sunglasses to look me in the eyes and puts her hand over her brows, almost like a salute.
“Yes, this is Sean, and this is Connor.”
“They’re good-looking kids, must get that from their mother.”
Leaning over further, I am face to face with the older boy, Connor. He nervously fondles the bleach-white baseball in his glove.
“Would you like me to sign that for you, son?”
He nods. With the felt-tipped marker I carry with me for this purpose, I sign the ball and drop it into his glove.
“Say thank you, Connor,” his mom says.
“What’s your name?” I ask the mom.
“Nice to meet you, Cheryl. I’m–”
“I know who you are.”
“Are you doing something after the game?”
Three Baycats in their red uniforms with navy blue names and numbers stand around me, pinning me to the fence.
“Game’s about to start, why don’t you get back to your dugout,” a thick, red-headed man says to me, a dusting of freckles on his nose and under his eyes.
“Relax ladies, we still have to sing your national anthem.”
“Oh, Canada” plays over tinny speakers pointing outward from the two front corners of the announcer’s booth. The music stops and my team takes to the field.
“Go get ‘em, kid,” I say to Gibb as he trots toward second.
Al Durocher stands next to me, curling his fingers around the chain-link fence.
“Where’d you find him?” I ask, pointing to Gibb.
“He’s from Chatham. Won the College World Series five years ago, playing for Arkansas. He’s the fastest guy on the team. He used to be a second baseman, but because he’s so fast I wanted him in the outfield where he could cover a lot more ground.”
The first batter hits a double on the third pitch and the crowd comes alive. The bleachers behind home and along the first base line are filled with Barrie fans who shout and cheer, and an old lady rings a cow bell. The next batter steps up to the plate and one fan shouts “hit some green!” The batter digs his lead foot into the gravel and swings hard, knocking the ball over the centre field fence and between the concession stand and the washrooms. The Barrie fans roar and both runners come home, and then to their dugout, high-fiving through their teammates. Their two-nothing lead expands to six nothing before the inning is over.
“That’s how it goes,” Durocher says, “it’s not like the Bigs. The scores get up here.”
“Anything can happen.”
Our first batter strikes out, the second is thrown out at first base. Clinton Gibb should have been thrown out at first as well, but the kid’s that fast. Good thing too, I’d have been pissed off had I not got up to the plate. The crowd is quiet, save for one heckler, as I sling the bat up over my shoulder and get into my stance. “Come on, big whiffer,” the fan yells. He sounds too drunk and too hot in the afternoon sun, like he’s about to pass out. I let the first pitch, a real beauty, sail right past me and into the catcher’s mitt. Strike one. The pitcher winds up again, firing what passes for a fastball straight across the plate. The umpire yells strike two and the void left by his voice fills with murmurings from the crowd. The third pitch is more of the same and I knock it back over the centre field fence, past the concession stand, and into the men’s washroom. Gibb waits for me at home plate.
“You had me panicking,” he pants.
The inning ends with one more run and two men left stranded, so we’re halfway there.
By the bottom of the third we’re down eleven to five. Durocher pulls our starter, Ortega, from the mound and manages to stop the bleeding, but we have a lot of ground to cover. There’s a man on first and second, with one out, as I step up to the plate. The Baycats pitcher, a tall rail of a man named Gustavson, was experimenting last inning with his pitches, trying to see what I couldn’t hit, which seems to be nothing at all. He tries a knuckleball, which seems to flutter in front of me like a butterfly, then I hear the umpire call strike. The crowd boos me as soon as I take to the plate and continues booing, laughing when I swing and miss. As much as Blue Jay fans loved me for winning, they hated me for my attitude. There’s a loyal congregation of Saunders-haters led by Pastor Bill Tyson, the overly-celebrated Toronto sports radio host, and most of them seem to have shown up. Gustavson tries the knuckleball again and I knock it over the left field fence, into the middle of a soccer game and to the joy of a border collie looking to fetch something.
For the first time I’m able to bat twice in one inning and we’re only trailing by two. Gibb is at first, again, and we have two outs, but a home run would tie it up. The catcher stands up behind me, lifts his mask and walks toward first. He stops a few feet away from me and he and Gustavson play a game of catch until the umpire calls ball four and tells me to take my base. Our catcher comes to the plate, and Gustavson plays a similar game of catch, except his catcher doesn’t move and ours swings at all three pitches.
Jake Birnes, one of our relievers, holds his own for four innings, not letting in a single run. Gustavson has the same luck, especially since he walks me at every at-bat. But his arm’s looking tired, his shoulder is sinking lower, and he’s pausing longer between pitches.
“Looks like you’ve proven me wrong,” a voice says from behind the dugout.
I turn to see Tyson, wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, sneering at me through the fence.
“You’re not an overpaid, loud-mouth, in-it-for-the-money bum after all.” He puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it up, breathing in deep,. “You’re a two-bit, loud-mouth, washed-up bum.”
“I saw an ad for your show in the program, here, before the game started. It said you’re the most opinionated sportscaster in the country. I think that’s code for ‘asshole who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’”
“Whoa, language, big shot, there are kids around here.”
Tyson turns and walks up the hill halfway, stopping and sitting down on the grass. He waves at me and I go back to watching the game. Al Durocher comes over to me.
“All that guy wants is for people to listen to him, so he says whatever gets their attention. Don’t let him rile you.”
My next at-bat is against the Baycats closer, Mike McCreedy. He’s a two-hundred-and-forty pound, one-armed right-hander who only has fastballs. I swing as hard as he throws and cut nothing but air.
“Strike!” the umpire yells in my ear.
“Big whiffer!” I hear the drunk in the crowd say.
“Nice one, Saunders,” Tyson says, his tone so familiar I can pick it out of the hundreds of spectators.
McCreedy throws again and I swing again. Strike two. The third pitch is wild, hitting the cage several feet to my right. The fourth pitch is right over the plate and I swing with everything I have. I hear the whoosh of my bat followed by a baseball landing squarely in the catcher’s mitt.
“Next time, kid,” Durocher says as I come back to the dugout.
“Sure thing, Chief, sure.”
Gibb jogs over to me as the rest of the team heads out onto the field to start the next inning.
“That guy and you got some history, huh?”
He motions toward Tyson.
“Yeah, he’s been hounding me since I came to this burg, following me around like a Jack Russell terrier, barking the whole time. I thought I could get even with him, but that blew up in my face too.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Saunders, it’ll be alright.”
He smiles a mouthful of virgin-white teeth.
“I’m sorry, Clint, I just wanted to forget my past and win this thing for you guys.”
“Baseball’s a team sport, Mr. Saunders, we got to win it for ourselves.”
“Attaboy, Clint. And call me Craig.”
Gibb runs out toward centre field.
“Chief,” I say to Durocher, “you remember that promise? About the trouble?”
He looks at me and nods.
“Well, I’m going to break it.”
He nods again.
Bottom of the eighth, Barrie is leading thirteen to nine. McCreedy fires four fast and wild pitches, and our second baseman, Raul Calderon walks to first.
“Attaboy, Cannon!” I call out to McCreedy.
The Barrie fans are quieter but still encouraging. He throws another fastball, high and away, ball one.
“It cost me an arm and a leg to play here,” I shout, “you got off easy.”
McCreedy, in the middle of switching from glove to ball with his remaining hand, turns to look at me. He turns back toward the batter and throws a perfect strike.
“Woo-hoo!” I cheer, stepping out of the dugout. I turn to the crowd, clapping. “Come on ladies and gentlemen, this man could use a hand.”
I clap louder.
“Let’s hear it for the Cannon!”
He throws two more sloppy pitches and we have two men on base. Gibb hits a double that just squeaks by the pitcher, the second baseman, the shortstop, and the centre fielder. It’s like watching something from a blooper reel. One run scored, narrowing the gap to three. Gibb reminds me of Tony Fernandez in his glory days, not a power hitter, but you could always call him for a much-needed RBI.
McCreedy stares me down like he has Superman’s laser vision as I approach the plate. His first pitch is high and inside, and I can feel the breeze tickle my stubble. Ball one. The next pitch is a little high, but I still connect cleanly and send it deep into left field. The comedy of errors witnessed during Gibb’s double comes back for a repeat performance. I make it only as far as third base, but score two more runs. With that deficit of one run I stay on base until the inning is over.
TYSON APPROACHED ME from behind at a club downtown, after an exhibition game. The other guys were at a strip club, unwinding after a big loss to the Yankees. It was early in the season and didn’t count for much, but it hurt. Losing always does. I was meeting a friend for mojitos at a quiet, candle-on-each-table bistro in Little Italy where I didn’t think I’d be recognized. It was just one kiss. Too much booze and atmosphere.
“Who’s the lucky girl?” Tyson asked, a mocking smile on his face as his lips sucked open.
“I didn’t know they let rats like you into places like this.”
“I’m here with my wife. And daughter. The two most important women in my life. Any important women in yours?”
Being a ballplayer was the only thing I was ever sure I wanted. I knew that my whole life. But it’s not all home runs and World Series rings. You get used to your worth being calculated, they call them your “stats.” It’s like figuring how much one pound of beef costs. It’s just numbers, but we’re all judged by them. For instance, Lindsey Tyson is twenty-one. She has one year plus one summer semester until she’s finished her Art History degree at the University of Toronto. It takes exactly four pints of Canadian and three Liquid Cocaine shots to get her to take her top off in the VIP area of the Diamond Mine. Two more shots of tequila and she’ll pass out. She sent me no less than a dozen pictures of herself in her dorm in the week following our encounter, in varying stages of undress. I only sent two of them to her father. Bill wasn’t happy. He shut up about the kiss in Little Italy, but his war against me made the Blue Jays organization less tolerant of my “aberrant” behavior. They were ready to trade me to Chicago for a deep-dish pizza. One last incident and I was let go.
Bottom of the ninth and we’re down one. The Cannon gets one strikeout on six pitches and one out from a pop fly. It won’t last. Gibb uses his speed to stretch a single into a double. All I need is a double to tie it up. The manager of the Barrie Baycats walks out to the mound, with the catcher, and they have a little conference as I knock dirt off my cleats.
”You don’t need to tell him to walk me, coach, he’ll do it without trying.”
His first pitch is hard, fast and high and gets stuck in the fence a few feet over my head. I turn to see it lodged in the mesh.
“Nice one, Cannon.”
His second pitch hits the dirt in front of the plate and bounces wildly. The catcher fumbles for the ball and I step out of his way, seeing only in the corner of my eye Gibb stealing third base. I knew beforehand that the kid’s stolen more bases than anyone else on the roster, but I hadn’t seen it. The Baycats’ third baseman looks over at him as if he’d been there the whole time and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
I dig my foot in, hold my bat high, and wait for the next pitch. It comes in low and curves slightly into my thigh. It feels like lightning in my leg, and then, nothing at all. I hobble over to first base. Cannon walks our next batter, I hobble over to second base. He walks our third, then the manager and catcher come out to the mound again, pulling McCreedy from the game. They bring out a left-handed closer who’s been warming up the latter half of the game. While that is still going on, I’m still hobbling. The distance between second and third base feels like miles. I’m done when I hit third, the pain is too much. I call a time out.
The game is tied, thirteen all in the bottom of the ninth. Al Durocher jogs over to see me with all the compassion of a used-up hooker.
“Leg giving you trouble?”
“You should have been one of those psychic hotline people. You read palms too?”
“I do that in the off season. I’ll put in a pinch runner.”
“Chief, can I make a request?”
Durocher brings Gibb back out. The kid looks surprised, he just sat down, his heart still racing from tying the game. Durocher gives us a bit of distance.
“Listen, kid, I need you to do me a favour. I need you to steal home.”
“I’ve never done anything like that.”
It comes down to numbers again. Gibb’s gotta beat the pitcher, who is sixty feet and six inches from home plate, from third base, ninety feet away. A pitch travels faster than he does. But it’s possible, with speed, guts, and a ton of luck.
“That doesn’t matter, you’re fast enough. I’ve been watching this guy pitch, he has a big wind-up, it’s perfect. Next up is Portas. He bats right, this pitcher throws left, so you’ll be shielded from the catcher’s line of sight and should have enough time to run for it. Shuffle out thirty feet or so, into no man’s land. The pitcher will be able to see you but if you stay squared with him he won’t know what you’re up to. When he lets that pitch go, break for it, and plow right through the catcher.”
“He might walk him, then we win automatically.”
“He might, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
I hobble up to Durocher, who helps me get back to the dugout.
“I heard that,” he says.
“No you didn’t.”
He chuckles and keeps an arm out to help me sit down.
Portas swings on the first pitch, which causes me to shake my head. It was a breaking ball amounting to a perfect strike. I look at Gibb, who’s shuffle is only ten feet off the base. He turns to the side as if he feels me watching him. The second pitch is low and away, ball one. The third is a fastball, Portas swinging a millisecond too late. The pitcher lifts his foot to deliver pitch number four and Gibb speeds low and fast toward home. The ball is low and away again and Portas quickly steps aside as Gibb comes tearing for home.
The catcher, recovering the ball, heads for the plate, but Gibb, ignoring my advice, drops for the hook slide, catching the corner of the plate with his left hand. A cloud of dust kicks up all around them.
“Safe!” The umpire says, sweeping his arms away from his torso.
The catcher takes his mask off, pushing his chest pad into the ump’s, yelling so furiously that spit dangles from his mouth like he’s a bulldog. The roar of the crowd encompasses everything.
I didn’t go out for celebratory drinks with the boys. I walked through the gate in the centre field fence, changed in the clubhouse, offered up Gibb to some reporters, and pushed through the rest. My cab was waiting and I took off, away from Dominico Field and Christie Pits.
We fought the weekend traffic on Bloor, then Spadina, heading south toward Lake Ontario. The cab rolled slowly to a stop in front of a condominium that overlooked the Rogers Centre. I buzzed up then caught the elevator that floated me to the twenty-first floor. The sound of a door unlocking echoed as I came down the hallway. I turned the knob. David was waiting for me on the balcony. Two mojitos sat on the table next to him, beads of condensation falling like tears.