The Boy Who Saved Baseball
In the big inning...
PEOPLE down in Dillontown don't agree on much. Not the skateboard laws. Not the billboard laws. The economy. The ecology. There's days when they don't even agree on which way the wind is blowing.
But they agree on this. From the old-timers in their overalls over on Maine Street to the seventy-seven keyboard clicking kids down at Scrub Oak Community School, they'll each and all tell you. If there never was a boy named Cruz de la Cruz, somebody would've come along and invented him.
And no matter how weird and wild and tall the tale, no one, not even Blackjack Buck himself, could've cooked up a mind-whacking brain-snapper as wild and woolbacious as what really happened.
Because Cruz de la Cruz, that cyber-vato desperado, not only saved el civismo, the very spirit of this town, he saved the holy game of baseball as we know it.
TOM Gallagher sensed the ghostly calm even before he opened his eyes. In a hill town known for its harsh and wild winds, the morning broke without even the whisper of a breeze.
Tom had hoped today would be as ordinary as possible. He walked outdoors to pay his friendly old neighbor, Doc Altenheimer, a friendly old visit, as he usually did on Sundays. He stopped to pick up the paper at the foot of Doc's long driveway, as usual. But today, Tom was planning to do something unusual.
"Hey, Doc!" he called, as he hustled toward the huge, white house. "Padres are in third!"
"Well, what do you know?" Doc called back. "There's hope yet, isn't there?"
The eighty-seven-year-old apple rancher sat at a yellow kitchen table set smack in the middle of his long front porch. He leaned out and slid a chair over the wooden deckboards.
"Come, have a seat, Tom. Good to see a friendly face. My gosh, with that town hall meeting coming up tonight, everybody and their brother's been by here lately, trying to sell me on one fool plan or another."
Doc's words hit Tom two ways. First, he felt instantly guilty, since he was here to do the very same thing. Tom wanted to make sure, once and for all, that Doc understood this whole land development scheme some people were pushing for was a bad idea.
Then he felt double nervous. Tom had spent all week working on a little speech. Never in his twelve and a half years had he done anything like that before—to write out a speech ahead of time in order to remember what to say when the time comes.
Should be easy, right? All he had to do was to step up and deliver his pitch, just the way he'd practiced it. Well, not so easy for Tom Gallagher. Even though his father was a teacher—who spoke to crowds—and his mom was the school librarian—who read to crowds—Tom was far more comfortable keeping his thoughts to himself, even with his friends.
"Yesterday," said Doc, "the mayor stopped by for about the hundredth time. Him and that new banker fellow from Texas who's been buying up all the land." Doc opened up the sports pages with soft, tremoring hands.
"Funny, ain't it, son? Now that it's all come down to me, it looks like I took over being the most popular and the least popular man in town at the same time."
Tom puffed out a small laugh. He'd heard that phrase lots of times in these hills, but never in regards to Doc. There was a shadowy, former-pro baseball player named Dante Del Gato, a one-time hometown hero, who officially wore that title. Nowadays, the man was practically a hermit, living on top of Rattlesnake Ridge.
"After the mayor left," Doc continued, "the Historical Society came calling. Daisy Ramirez and that bunch of busybodies. Tried to tell me that this old, broken-down baseball field was an historical monument. Oughtta be preserved. Well, I told 'em, it's history, all right. Soon as I sell the land, it'll be history." Doc laughed.
Sell the land? Wait a minute! Just yesterday Tom had reassured the other ballplayers, saying, "Trust me on this. Doc won't sell. He's a baseball man. And he loves these hills. He's on our side."
Now Tom wondered how he could've been so wrong. "You mean, you might—you might actually—"
"I'm leaning that way, son," said Doc. "Trouble is, I've gone 'round and 'round on this deal so many times, I feel like a windmill in a windstorm. But tonight's the big night, isn't it? Got to let everyone know tonight." He took out a handkerchief, held it against his mouth, and coughed.
Now, Tom told himself. Tell him now! Don't wait another second.
Tom scooted his chair closer. He gripped the seat bottom. Then he scooted back. He closed one eye and tried to focus on his mission. Then he closed the other. He saw the words, but he could not make himself speak.
"I ain't a fool, Tom. Sure, it means more traffic and noise and bulldozers kicking up dust all year long. But all in all, I think it'll be good for us. Those builders did nice enough work down the hill. I expect they'll do the same up here." He tucked away his handkerchief.
Tom had seen the new ballpark down in Lake View Mesa, the shiny chain-link fences and store-bought grass, all neat and trim. He'd seen the new baseball camp whose summer team began an annual challenge game against the Dillontown camp three years ago. Some challenge. Each year, they'd beaten Tom and the Dillontown Wildcats by at least ten runs.
"You know," said Doc, "I've been here all my life. My wife and son, God hold them close, lived and died right here. Even in hard times, this town's been good to me." He set his elbows on the table and laced his fingers together. "And I just hope to return the favor. That's all."
Tom sat back and stared off into the distance. From Doc's front porch, he could see the spires and crosses of several churches rising above the scattered rooftops of the town below. He could see the shops on Maine and Mercado, the little adobe post office and Town Hall, and La Plaza de Oro, where a cluster of old ladies in white scarves stood feeding the birds before making their way to Mass.
Closer, near the apple groves and farmlands, he could see the ancient baseball field—Lucky Strike Park—built on a dry lake bed a hundred years ago by Doc's father and a gang of crusty gold-miners, including Mr. "Long John" Dillon himself, the founder of the town.
Doc still owned Lucky Strike Park, but more importantly, he owned a total of 320 acres of prime real estate, which was key to the whole deal. Doc's land was where the golf course would go, where the best homes would be built, and where the new lake had been planned—a lake that would drown the town's baseball field under fifteen feet of water.
Doc coughed again, wiped his mouth, while his eyes seemed fixed on empty air.
"For fifty-five years, I delivered just about every baby born in this town, Tom, including you. So I figure I can deliver the town this one last gift. A new park and a chance for a new life."
Tom's stomach wrenched tighter. He lowered his head. No sense now saying anything. Doc had made his decision and he'd made his peace with it.
Ever since the early 1900s, the Altenheimer family had leased Lucky Strike to the townspeople for a dollar a year. This summer, the 100-year lease was up. And over that hundred years, Dillontown had shrunk from 5,000 people down to 559, give or take. Meanwhile to the west, an ocean of red-tiled rooftops—houses and malls—had crept along the land, coming closer and closer, like a pool of blood oozing up out of the earth itself.
"Once those builders put in a spanking new field, Tom, it'll be a whole lot better for your team, don't you think? Better facilities. Better equipment. My gosh! Look what it did for those boys down the hill."
For some reason, hearing that fired up a spark in Tom. "Those guys aren't so great," he said. "Just because they got a fancy park with batting cages and everything doesn't make them such great ballplayers. Our field's just as good. And we like it!"
The east wind gusted up and rustled the paper on the table. Tom slammed his arm down to catch it. Then he said something that surprised him as much as it seemed to startle Doc. "Shoot, we could stomp those guys like a bush on fire any day of the week."
Doc pulled back and smiled. "Well, you haven't done it yet."
Tom folded his arms. "Still, we could beat 'em. If we really wanted to. Those other games just never meant anything, that's all."
Doc sat a moment longer. "I like your spirit, Thomas. Your age, I was the same way." He took a black pen from his pocket. On the sports page margin, he began to write. Doc often left Tom with a few words to ponder, "words of encouragement," he called them. This time he wrote, Even in the dead of night, the sun is always shining.
He replaced the pen. "Nice to hear you speak up, though. But the plain fact is, times've changed. I'm sorry, Tom. It's just too late."
* * *
As Doc had promised, that night, in front of five hundred people sitting on five hundred rickety metal folding chairs, with another few dozen crowded around the edges of the rickety, crickety Town Hall, he let the whole world know what he'd decided to do.
Tom sat in the far back row with Frankie Flores, his best friend, alongside Ramón Sabala and a few other kids who'd signed up for the 12-and-Under Wildcat Baseball Camp. Sitting nearby were Tom's parents, along with Rachel Gleason, the quietest girl in school, and her little sister, Tara, who was not so little, but, as she put it, "big-boned." Next to them sat Frankie's loud-mouthed cousin, María.
They all strained to see the color graphics the builder flashed on the video screen showing fancy ranch houses with mountain views, a golf course with slick greens and white sand traps, and a combo sports field. It was a fancy, professional show, and Tom could tell people were impressed.
Finally the lights came on. Doc stood up and walked to the podium. And it seemed like the whole room sucked in one big breath at once.
"As I've said all along," Doc began, "I only want what's best for this town. I'm sick of all the feuding and the brouhahas. Too old for all that. But I'm also too old to look after my land." While he spoke, Doc tipped back his white silk cowboy hat and took in the whole crowd with his silvery blue eyes. "These men from Orange County came down here and made me a decent offer. They'll widen the road, put in some nice homes, throw up a new park for the kids. From the get-go, it all sounded good to me."
Doc glanced at a cluster of other big landowners sitting right up front, including Ray Pruitt, a cattle rancher, Alabaster Jones, the mortgage banker, and Mayor Oscar Calabaza. They all owned big spreads near Doc's land. They all knew that if Doc's property got developed, then the value of their land would go sky high.
"But early this morning," Doc continued, "a fine young ballplayer came to visit me. And he had a few things to say that put a hitch in my hat."
Tom's heart thumped against his chest bones like a bad-hop grounder. He sank low into his seat.
Doc wetted his lips. "Now, I ain't much of a churchgoer, you folks know that. But here's what I do believe. Dillontown is a baseball town. And that makes whatever we do here a baseball decision. And since I also believe that baseball is God's game, then I'll put the fate of this town in His hands."
The whole crowd rumbled, swiveled. They all turned to ask their neighbors if they'd heard right. Had they heard what this old codger'd said?
Doc raised a hand. "Now, hold on. Don't jump out ahead of me. These fine gentlemen stood here and told us how beneficial their housing project has been for those families down the hill. How much more advantage and opportunity their children have than our kids do up here. And I felt the same way. But what young Tom Gallagher said today set me to wondering. Is it new facilities that would help this town the most or a new spirit?" His eyes roamed the room. "So here's what I've decided to do."
Tom sank even lower. Everyone twisted and turned to look at him.
Doc's voice rose up loud and strong. "I hereby propose a good old-fashioned baseball game to settle the matter. A team from that new summer camp down the road versus a team from our camp here in town. Like they've done the past few years, only this time it's really going to mean something. One Big Game. Do or die. If our team wins, I pull out of this deal, and this town stays the way it is. If they lose, bring on the bulldozers." He touched the brim of his hat. "Thank you, kindly." He stepped away from the podium. No one said a word. His bootclicks filled the hall.
The Boy Who Saved Baseball is published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York.
© John H. Ritter, 2003 ISBN #0-399-23622-8.