By J. D. Hunt
They call 'em bleacher bums in Chicago, but Cincinnati used to have its own version of the cheap-seat fan, and they occupied the right-field "sun deck" (or "moon deck," if it was a night game) at old Crosley Field. Charlie Flint was one of 'em, and every weekend the Reds were in town, he'd be out there, sucking down warm Hudepohl and razzing whoever the latest unfortunate Reds right-fielder happened to be.
Back in '44, most of the good players were off fighting the Nazis or the Japs, and the major-league clubs had to make do with the guys that were too young to fight or just plain 4-F. Dolph Wieczkowski, with his flat feet, fell into the latter category.
Actually Dolph was a pretty steady glove man most of the time, even if he didn't have much of an arm for a right fielder. (They'd tried him in left, but he'd get his feet tangled up trying to climb that terrace that used to slope up to the left-field fence.) He was a tangle-foot, all right, and slow as cold molasses. Plus he couldn't hit worth a lick.
But his big problem was he had rabbit ears. When he'd goof up, he'd hear about it from the fans, and it would get under his skin, and his play would go downhill. And of course that would just make the fans get on him even more.
One Saturday afternoon while the Reds were getting clobbered--by the lowly Dodgers, no less--Charlie Flint was sprawled out in the sun deck, sucking down warm Hudie, and razzing Dolph. As it was the eighth inning, Charlie had got a pretty good snoot-full by then, and the beer and the hot sun had cooked to mush what little brains he had.
"Hey Wizzoski, ya big dumb Polack, whassamatta with you? Ya blind or somethin'?"
Wieczkowski had just ended the Reds' seventh by striking out on a bad ball outside and in the dirt. The pitch had been so bad, in fact, that the Brooklyn catcher had missed it and he'd had to chase it all the way to the backstop before throwing the slow-footed Dolph out at first.
"My grandmother wouldn't a swung at that pitch, Wizzoski. And if she had she could a beat the throw to first, ya big lumbering ox."
Wieczkowski had just bent over to pick up his glove from where he'd dropped it last inning, and when Charlie Flint's bellow floated out to him from the stands you could see those big rabbit ears perk up, and those broad shoulder muscles tense. And when he raised up and pounded his fist into the glove you could see his eyes scanning the bleachers in search of his tormentor.
"Here I am, Wizzoski," cried Charlie, staggering to his feet and waving. "Can ya see me, or are you too blind, ya big dumb Polack you."
"Why doncha shut yer yap," Dolph asked rhetorically as he turned to face the infield.
"Rabbit ears, rabbit ears," cried Charlie in a drunken sing-song voice, and some of the fans around him took up the chant, and Dolph's sunburnt neck grew a shade redder.
The first Brooklyn hitter up in the eighth was a port-side slugger name of Turk Taylor. He went to wailing on a high fastball and pulled it deep down the right-field line. But he'd got under it a little, and you could tell it was going to be just shy of the fence. It was just a big lazy can of corn waiting for Dolph to reach up and pluck it off the shelf.
Only he didn't.
It was a high sky that day; nary a cloud perched in the blue overhead, and you could tell Dolph was in trouble from the get-go. He flinched at the crack of the bat, and you could see him craning his neck and scanning that high sky like an air-raid warden expecting enemy bombers. He just flat didn't see it, and when the crowd realized that, they started squealing like a bunch of stuck pigs.
The center-fielder was racing over by then, but he wasn't going to get there in time. He yelled for Dolph to go back on the ball, and Dolph did. He lumbered back toward the fence just as fast as his lead feet would carry him. The ball was hit so high that he had time to get all the way back to the warning track, and he would have caught it if he'd seen it. But he didn't see it. He just stood there, his arms spread wide, and waited.
The ball came down and bonked him right on the noggin. Made kind of a thunk, like hitting a ripe melon.
And bounced over the fence.
Dolph didn't go down. He just stood there, kind of addled-like, and looked around for the ball, with the crowd going wild, whooping it up and hooting at him like crazy. And when he realized what had happened, he did a slow burn that would have put a Christmas tree to shame.
Charlie started hee-hawing to beat the band, right along with the rest of the crowd, and it took him a few seconds to catch his breath and yell, "Hey, Wizzoski, way to go! That's using yer head!"
The center-fielder had got there by then, a freckle-faced kid name of Mickey Malone, and he patted Dolph on his big Polish hindquarters and told him to hang with 'em, but even he couldn't keep a straight face. That freckled mug of his was split from here to there with a big pearly-white grin. But you couldn't blame the kid; if he'd strained hard enough to fight that grin off his face he'd have busted a gut.
Well, Turk circled the bases, and Mickey trotted on back to center, and meanwhile the fans--especially Charlie Flint--were making Dolph's life miserable. He had to suffer through it for three whole outs, and as Dolph dropped his glove and trotted on in to the dugout, Charlie squealed out some comment about thick-headed Polacks. Dolph heard it, all right, because you could see him break stride just for a second, before picking up his rhythm again and heading on back to the dugout to hide.
He hid there for quite a while, as it turned out. For believe it or not the Reds staged a comeback. Batted around, in fact, and by the time they got back around to Dolph they were only three runs down with the bases loaded. But there were two outs.
Dolph tossed aside all but one of the bats he'd been swinging, made the long trudge from the on-deck circle to the plate, and settled into the box.
He probably couldn't hear the sun-deck fans from there, but the crowd behind the plate couldn't have been much more merciful. You could tell he was determined to redeem himself. He went to hacking on the first pitch, a slow curve, and missed it by a foot. He had a home-run cut on the second pitch, too, and came up empty again. And when he whiffed on the third pitch, a high heater up about eye-level, the crowd once again gave him what-for.
There was nothing for him to do except trot on back out to right and suffer through another half-inning. Charlie was waiting for him, and while he was getting a little hoarse by now, his voice still carried.
"Wizzoski, you couldn't hit a cantaloupe if my grandmother lobbed it in to ya, ya bum."
"Shut up, melon-head," was Dolph's witty retort.
They held the Dodgers scoreless in the top of the ninth, and got a couple runners on in the bottom, but there was nothing doing. The Reds lost. The crowd filed out, and the traffic crawled away, along Findlay Street or Western Avenue. Charlie waited around a while for the crowd to thin, then stumbled down to the corner bar and planted himself on his regular stool.
"Hey there, Joe," hollered Charlie. "Hudie right here."
"Sure thing, Charlie. Reds win today?"
"Naw, that big dumb Polack Wizzoski lost it for us. They oughtta get rid of him; he's nothing but a lead-footed, thick-headed stumble-bum. You'll never believe what happened in the eighth. Fly ball hit to the right-field fence, right? Wizzoski don't see it. He goes back to the wall, still don't see it. Ball comes down, conks him on that big thick Polack skull, bounces over the fence. Home run. Never seen nothing like it. And he just stood there, the big dumb Polack, looking around for the ball."
Charlie laughed, then broke off in mid-chortle. For Joe the bartender wasn't laughing. Instead, his eyes held a look of horror, and they were staring over Charlie's shoulder.
Charlie swiveled around, looked up. And there, for all the world, stood Dolph. He was dressed in street clothes, but there was no mistaking that blond crew cut, that broad face with the vacant stare, those big rippling biceps.
"H-hey, W-Wizzoski," Charlie stammered weakly. "H-how's it goin'?"
Dolph grunted something unintelligible, pushed past Charlie to the bar, slammed a quarter down, ordered a beer.
Charlie's face had gone white as a sheet. He tossed down his beer, got up and went over to the pool table, picked out a cue from the rack on the wall, chalked up and started trying a few practice shots. He didn't make any. Every now and then he'd look up and glance over to the bar to check on Wieczkowski. Dolph's broad back strained at the seams of his shirt as he sat hunkered over his beer. Apparently he wasn't looking for trouble.
Charlie settled down and started making a few of his shots. After a while he looked up, and Dolph wasn't at the bar any more. Good, thought Charlie. Must have left.
Then a voice behind him said, "Shoot me a game."
Startled, Charlie swung around. Dolph grinned amiably at him.
"Shoot me a game," he repeated. "Fifty cents." He put down two quarters on the edge of the table.
"S-sure, Wizzoski. W-why not?" He put down a couple quarters of his own. "Eight ball?"
Dolph shrugged. "Your call."
"Eight ball it is."
They lagged for the break. Dolph stroked it too hard and it bounced back from the head-rail about a foot, but Charlie, drunk as he was, miscued and didn't even make it back that far.
Dolph picked out a big heavy cue to break with, bent over and laid into it. It was a powerful stroke, and the balls scattered and ran for the holes. But the cue ball jumped off the table, and it was Charlie's shot.
"Tough break, Wizzoski. Lots of power, but not much finesse, eh?"
Charlie popped in a couple that were hanging in the pockets and then, his confidence bolstered, made a couple of longer shots. But then he was hooked and had to try a bank shot, and it lipped out despite all the body English he could muster.
"Looks like you get a shot after all, Wizzoski."
"Wish I had my stick here," said Dolph. "I don't like the feel of this one."
But he popped them in one by one, lumbering around the table, lining up his shot and firing like a big clanking machine. Charlie's eyes grew wide, and he ordered another beer. He kept his eye on Dolph, making sure he didn't fudge any, and by the time he'd got his beer, Dolph had just about run the table.
The eight ball was lined up for the cornera straight-in shot.
"Uh-oh," said Charlie. "Scratch shot. Better be careful, Wizzoski."
All Dolph had to do was put a little low English on it so the cue ball would stop, and drill it in. But rabbit ears will do funny things to a guy. He hit the cue ball high, with topspin, and it followed the eight right into the pocket. "Well, well," said Charlie, chuckling as he picked up the four quarters. "Choked on the eight ball. Too bad, Wizzoski. Looks like you always choke when the money's on the line." He raised his voice so the whole bar could hear. "Bases loaded, he strikes out. Eight ball straight in, he scratches. How's yer head, by the way, Wizzoski? Got a headache? Or is there anything in there to ache?"
Dolph's eyes were cold, but his face was red with heat, his thick biceps were tense and bulging his shirt-sleeves, and there was a big blue vein working in his temple like some kind of subcutaneous parasite.
But then the muscles relaxed, the throbbing slowed, and his face returned to its normal color.
"It's this cue, is what caused it," he said.
"Sure, Wizzoski. Blame it on the stick. I bet you blame your bat when you strike out, too. And blame your glove when you drop one. Well, you couldn't blame your glove today, unless it was so heavy you couldn't lift it. Blame your head for that one."
"I tell you what," said Dolph, after that big blue vein had worked a little bit more. "You let me go get my own stick, and meet me back here about nine. Then we'll play for some higher stakes."
Charlie laughed. "Sure, Wizzoski. I'll take your money. Any time. Cause I know the more on the line, the bigger you'll choke."
Dolph left. Charlie had another beer, then walked home, ate a little supper, and changed his shirt, since he'd drizzled Hudepohl all down the front of it. Then, feeling fine and still smelling like a brewery despite the clean shirt, he headed back for the bar, cutting through the alleyway that was his invariable shortcut. It was dark there, but he knew the way as well as he knew the sun-deck at Crosley, and if he stumbled, it was only due to the prodigious amount of alcohol he had consumed that day.
How about that Wizzoski, he thought, chuckling to himself. Got his own pool cue and everything. Well, it ain't gonna help him one lick. I can take him, no problem. And if he gets on a good run, I'll just razz him a little, and those rabbit ears of his will perk up, and then he'll choke. Just like this afternoon. Easy money. Candy from a baby.
Charlie's cheerful musings were interrupted by a psst sound from the shadows.
Charlie stopped in his tracks. "Whozzat?"
"Psst. Over here, Charlie. Behind the ash cans."
Charlie stepped over there, squinting in the dim light from the neon sign out front.
"Wizzoski, what the hey--! You gave me a start."
Dolph stood there, leaned up against the brick wall, his back and one foot flat against the bricks, real relaxed-like. In one hand he held a narrow little bag about three feet long, like they carry those two-piece pool cues in.
"I've been waiting for you, Charlie."
"You have, huh?" Charlie licked his dry lips. "How'd you know I'd come this way?"
"I watched you go this way when you left the bar, just like I watched you when you left the ball park. I figured you'd come back this way. I'm glad you did. You ready, Charlie? Ready for our little game?"
"S-sure Wizzoski. I'm ready whenever you are. Let's go." He took a step toward the street.
"Just a minute," said Dolph, pushing away from the wall and stepping into Charlie's path. "Let me show you my stick first."
Charlie was starting to sweat and stammer. "B-but it's too dark here. Y-you can show me inside."
Dolph grinned in the dim light. "Naw," he said. "Inside's no good. I'd rather show you here." He started unzipping the bag. "You remember, Charlie, what you said about me: that I couldn't even hit a cantaloupe?"
"I-I didn't mean it, Wizzoski. Honest. It's just something fans yell. It don't mean nothing."
"Sure," said Dolph, his eyes glinting ruby-red in the cold neon. "It don't mean nothing, what you bums yell at me. I'm just a ballplayer. I ain't got no feelings." He finished unzipping the bag. "So I couldn't hit a cantaloupe, could I? Well, do you remember what I yelled back?"
Charlie licked his lips, shook his head.
"I said, 'Shut up, melon-head.'" He grinned. "A cantaloupe's a kind of melon, ain't it, Charlie?"
Charlie's eyes grew wide as he watched a big thirty-six inch Louisville Slugger emerge from the bag. He took a step back, turned to run, stumbled, tried to scream.
It was a sickening ripe-melon thunk that resounded in the alleyway, but in Dolph's ears were the sweet crack of the bat and the swelling roar of the crowd as he circled the bases.
He had just hit a home run.
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