Back | Next

The Mayan Variation

The cops started to file into the stadium at the bottom of the ninth inning, and the crowd buzzed like a huge angry bee, an ominous razor-edged hum that set your teeth on edge.

Barnett, the third baseman, glanced up for a second to watch the cops spreading out in a thin line that encircled the playing field just inside the wall—a couple of them were on horseback, and some of them had dogs. He exchanged significant glances with Guerra, the second baseman, and Guerra shook his head and spat. The cops were certainly taking no chances today.

Shrugging, Barnett turned his attention back to the game. Lou Kesselman had just dropped the rosin bag and was about to go into his windup. Chuck Parrish stepped back into the batter’s box and waggled his hips once or twice—he was one of those absolutely gigantic blacks who look more at home as NFL defensive linemen, and the bat looked like a willow-switch in his huge hands.

Kesselman went into his awkward-looking windup, all arms and legs and odd angles, like a scarecrow twisting in the wind, and then suddenly the ball was by Parrish, and Parrish had been caught looking.

The crowd howled.

3-2. A full count. Barnett wiped his sweating hands on his pants. It was 4-4 with two out in the bottom of the ninth, no men on base, the deciding game of the World Series, the home team at bat in their own ball park, and everything depended on the next few pitches.

Barnett tried to shout, provide a little encouraging infield chatter, but he was too dry to speak. He wiped his hands again; it was cold, the bite of the coming winter riding in the wind, but he was sweating like a pig. His stomach hurt. If only they could hold them, force the game into extra innings. The top of their lineup would be coming up in the tenth . . .

Kesselman went into his windup, pitched, and Parrish took a terrific slice at the ball. There was the hard thwack of contact, and Barnett’s heart stopped for a second, but it was only a low bouncer in foul territory.

The crowd noise, already incredibly loud, went up several notches, as if someone had twisted a volume control knob.

Kesselman was standing on the mound with his long arms dangling tonelessly and his head bowed, as if he was praying. Perhaps he was, Barnett thought. He had every right to be. He was one of the game’s great southpaws, talked about the way people used to talk about Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton, but it had been a grueling game on top of a long hard season, and the stakes for this particular game were as high as they ever got . . .

Parrish popped another long shot foul. Koziakiewicz, the first baseman, chased it all the way up onto the dugout roof; but it fell several rows into the stands.

The umpire threw Kesselman a new ball; he picked it out of the air and climbed very slowly back onto the mound. He stood there for what seemed like hours, shaking off sign after sign, while Parrish swished his bat back and forth through the unresisting air. Finally, he nodded.

The crowd, which had been screaming its lungs out only a few seconds before, had suddenly become strangely quiet. Time seemed to slow down and stop, and for several long smothering heartbeats there was no motion anywhere on the field. Through the deathly hush, Barnett could hear the noise his teeth were making as they ground together. His muscles ached with tension, and he was sensing everything around him with an extraordinary crystalline precision he’d never known before: The sound of a car engine somewhere, faint and far away. The grim, set faces of the surrounding policemen. One of the police horses shuffling nervously and blowing out its lips in a snort, a white cloud of vapor rising from its nostrils. The fans in their seats, tier upon tier of them rising sheer into the steel-grey sky. The glint of light on camera lens. The umpire leaning forward behind home plate, hands on knees, his cheeks red and stiff with cold. A scrap of paper blowing across the infield. The same wind catching a loose end of the tarpaulin covering the structure that had been erected a few yards behind home plate, making the cloth flap with a heavy wet-canvas sound, like the beating of leather wings.

Kesselman pitched, and as soon as the ball left his hand, Barnett knew that Parrish was going to hit it.

He did, and it climbed into the sky toward left field, rising . . .

Barnett straightened slowly out of his crouch, watching hopelessly as the ball sailed high overhead, thinking in anguish, Christ, it’s going to go out, it’s going out . . .

Martinez, the left fielder, chased it past the warning track and made a tremendous leap up the outfield wall, stretching out desperately, but the ball whistled past his glove and out of the park with a yard to spare, and Martinez fell heavily back into the dirt.

Barnett stood there numbly, barely hearing the frenzied noise of the crowd, barely noticing the grinning Parrish as he went jogging by on his way around the bases. After a moment or two, Barnett grinned—grotesquely, ruefully, bitterly.

There would be no joy in Mudville. The game was over.

He looked over at Guerra, and Guerra’s eyes were sick.

Gilchrist, the rightfielder, made a break for it, dodging through a gap in the line of cops and sprinting for the outfield wall. He was almost over it when two cops grabbed his ankles and hauled him back into the park. Gilchrist struggled frantically, and then a nightstick rose and fell, and he was clubbed to his knees. The cop clubbed Gilchrist again, knocking him face forward into the gravel of the warning track.

The ring of cops began to close in, like a noose tightening.

Sickened, Barnett turned away and threw his fielder’s glove on the ground. Kesselman was already walking slowly toward home plate, his head down, and Martinez and Francesconi were coming in from the outfield, casting glances back at the two cops who were dragging Gilchrist along over the Astroturf.

He looked at Guerra again, and Guerra, his lips pale, said, “Well, tough luck on us, I guess.”

Barnett shrugged. “Yeah,” he said, and started walking in. His legs felt like water, and it was all he could do to keep himself moving forward. Over to one side, near the home team dugout, Parrish was being mobbed by his teammates in a frantic celebration, but that didn’t concern them anymore; the leaping, gesticulating figures might just as well have been in another world. Ahead he could see his own teammates standing in a despondent group just beyond home plate, in front of the tarpaulin-covered structure, surrounded by a crowd of officials and jostling reporters with microphones and minicams. Amid a heat-shimmer of popping flashbulbs, the Baseball Commissioner pulled the tarpaulin away, and the waiting crowd cheered.

As Barnett crossed home plate, the reporters closed in around him, and he could hear the network color men chattering away:

“. . . since its inception, fans have stopped complaining about inflated player salaries . . .”

“. . . increased Series attendance . . .”

“. . . the idea from the ancient Mayans, who played a kind of ball game of their own, and who, at the end of the game, would . . .”

“. . . the losing team . . .”

Just ahead of Barnett, Kesselman screamed, a horrible, gurgling scream that seemed to hang endlessly in the air. Barnett stopped involuntarily, his heart thudding, but two cops grabbed him by the elbows and hustled him forward toward the waiting altar and the bloody knife.

Back | Next