- About the Book
- About the Author
- Title Page
- Copyright Page
- Author’s Note
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About the Book
Blissberg returns to baseball to protect a player who’s on the verge of making history.
Fifteen years after retiring from baseball, Harvey Blissberg is suffering a bad case of what his girlfriend, Mickey Slavin, calls “sad man-ism” when the owner of his former team, the Providence Jewels, tracks him down. The team’s star, Moss Cooley, is on the verge of shattering Joe DiMaggio’s “unbreakable” fifty-six-game hitting streak. But Cooley has been receiving racist threats, such as a decapitated lawn jockey with a note reading, “escape retribution.” Would Blissberg mind playing bodyguard for a while?
When Cooley’s streak ends shy of DiMaggio’s record, the threats and hate mail continue, suggesting that there’s more at stake than preserving a white man’s supreme achievement. Blissberg follows the trail of clues back into the past, and finds that Moss is not the first Cooley man to be persecuted. A determined psychopath is out for Cooley’s neck, and if he has to murder a few ex-ballplayers on the way - so be it.
About the Author
R. D. Rosen’s career as a writer has spanned mystery novels, narrative nonfiction, humor books, and television. Strike Three You’re Dead, the first in Rosen’s series featuring major league baseball player Harvey Blissberg, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel in 1985. Blissberg’s adventures continued in four sequels, including Fadeaway and Saturday Night Dead, which drew on Rosen’s stint as a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”
A Harvey Blissberg Mystery
R. D. Rosen
To Tom Friedman and David Bloom especially, this time around, for so unselfishly and astutely watching over me and this book.
And for their endless friendship and support: Chuck Dawe, Jim Friedman, Joyce and Lev Friedman, Pam Galvin, Simon Gavron, George Gibson, Gail Hochman, Merrill Markoe, Cathleen McGuigan, Steve Molton, Harry Prichett, Laurence Rosen, Robert and Ellen Rosen, and Paul Solman.
To my remarkable parents, for their ageless example; to Diane McWhorter, for helping shape this novel’s soul; to Peter Gethers, for supplying crucial pieces of the puzzle; to Allyn Reynolds, for her quotability and expertise; to Lou Narcisso and Vince Sullivan, my other reality consultants; to Ben Mondor for his baseball hospitality.
To all my teammates through the years, without whom I wouldn’t know how the game is played.
To the late Ann Hall, who loved the Dodgers for good reason, me despite my faults, and life despite, its injustices.
Finally, and most of all, to my daughters, Lucy and Isabel, beautiful inside and out, who keep lighting the way back to where I am.
AGAIN, MOSS COOLEY WAS the last player in the Providence Jewels’ locker room. For over a week now, the press hadn’t left him alone after a game. They hung on his every word as if what was about to emerge from his mouth was the name of the second shooter in Dealey Plaza and not one of the clichés that all major-league baseball players seemed hardwired to recite. Still, it was extraordinary even to Cooley himself, these last seven weeks of freakish consistency. He’d never experienced it before, not even in Little League. The ball looked like a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream out there.
The elderly clubhouse man, a fair ballplayer once in the Negro League, shuffled toward him with an armful of dirty towels, saying, “It’s just you and Joltin’ Joe now, boss. Old Charlie Hustle’s hurtin’ tonight.”
Cooley buffed the toes of his Bruno Magli slip-ons with his towel and tossed it on Jimmy’s load. “I’m not going to get worked up about it. DiMaggio can’t even see me in his rearview mirror. What do I need now?” As if he didn’t know that the greatest record in baseball, maybe in all of sports, was thirteen games away. Provided he hit safely in all of them. A detail.
“Twelve to tie, thirteen to be immortal.”
“It ain’t gonna happen so I’m not gonna worry about it,” Cooley said, reaching into his cubicle for his Armani sport coat. The whole thing made him uneasy—the mounting pressure, the increasing isolation, the sleeplessness. It was enough to make him long for mediocrity.
Jimmy bent over to pick up a jockstrap from the middle of the clubhouse floor. “Nobody accuse you of overconfidence, Cool.”
“It’s not in my hands, Jimmy.”
“You got that right. But there’s no harm in letting the man upstairs know how bad you want it. Here, let me get the back of that jacket for you.”
Jimmy tossed the dirty laundry in a canvas hamper and came over and brushed off the back of Cooley’s coat with his hand.
“Looking as good as you do,” the old clubhouse man said, picking a last bit off the shoulder, “I hope you got something good going on tonight.”
Cooley laughed his wheezy laugh. “If I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t tell you. I tell you, and it’d be all over the American League.” He pulled a silver money clip out of his pocket and peeled off a twenty.
Jimmy raised a big black arthritic hand in protest. “Stop giving me that hard-earned money of yours.”
“Just spreading the wealth, Jimmy.” Cooley stuffed the bill in the breast pocket of Jimmy’s white shirt. “Just spreading sunshine wherever I go.”
“All right then. Much appreciated,” Jimmy said. “You’re a good man, Moss Cooley, and I don’t mind saying so. Some of these boys—” He waved the rest of the thought away in disgust and shambled off to get his mop to begin on the bathroom.
“ ’Night, Jimmy,” Cooley said, watching him go.
No twenty-dollar tip could begin to close the gap between them, the one who played in splendid obscurity before Jackie Robinson integrated the game and the one the ravenous white press couldn’t get enough of now. But Moss Cooley’s mama hadn’t raised a fool. Black was black, and white was white, and if he ever forgot it, he only had to read his hate mail.
Moss Cooley patted his pocket to make sure his keys were there and headed for the clubhouse door, stopping at the remains of the buffet. A solid hour of postgame interviews had kept him from chowing down with the others. Now he quickly ate a few chicken fingers and meticulously wiped his fingers on a paper napkin.
He heard a noise and looked up. Mike, one of the young attendants from the players’ parking lot, a nice kid with a buzz cut, from Pawtucket, was pushing a hand truck through the clubhouse door. It was loaded with a plain cardboard box, about three feet high, a couple of feet square.
“There you are,” Mike said, wheeling the hand truck up to Cooley. “Special delivery.”
“What is it?”
“No idea. It was sitting outside the gate to the street with your name on it.”
There, on top of the box, in heavy black marker, were the words: “Please deliver to M. Cooley.”
“It’s heavy,” Mike said, sliding the hand truck’s plate out from under the box. “Want me to open it for you?”
“No. Just leave it. Thanks.”
“Twelve more to go.”
“That’s what they tell me. Here.” Cooley held out a folded ten-dollar bill between his index and middle finger.
“Better take it, Mike, or I’ll give you even more.” Cooley smiled. He was anxious to get going. It was one of Cherry Ann’s nights off, and she was waiting for him at her loft in the Jewelry District.
“Okay, you win,” the guard said, taking the money. “See you later. Have a good night.”
The crap he got from fans: teddy bears and Toast-R-Ovens and homemade cookies. Nothing this big, though. Cooley tried to push the box with his foot.
He took a chef’s knife from the buffet table and slit the tape over the flaps on the top of the box. The inside was filled with foam packing peanuts. He dipped his hand into them until he felt a rough metal object. Some kind of statue, he thought. With both hands he lifted it slowly from the box, all forty or fifty pounds of it, shedding foam peanuts everywhere. An envelope came out with it and fell to the floor.
It was a cast-iron Negro lawn jockey, about two feet tall and speckled with rust, hunched over in a submissive posture, left hand resting on its hip, right outstretched, holding an iron hitching ring. It was wearing a red vest.
Cooley had grown up around them in Alabama, knew them as “Jockos,” these last public tokens of racism dotting the lawns of white neighborhoods. Under normal circumstances, they were just an unpleasant reminder of another time.
But this one was addressed to him.
And it had no head.
He stared at the decapitated jockey for several seconds, feeling a dense fury gather itself inside him. It rose slowly, spreading to his chest. When it reached his arm, he picked up the chef’s knife and plunged it again and again into the cardboard box.
HARVEY BLISSBERG SEEMED TO be walking a plank of his own making. He had been out of baseball for fifteen years and out of sorts for the last six months. After ten years spent as a private investigator followed by four forgettable ones as a motivational speaker, Harvey felt he was slowly marching himself at cutlass-point toward an early demise. Lately he had spent much of his time on his Cambridge sofa, watching old sporting events on ESPN’s Classic Sports Channel and documentaries about the history of baseball.
When the phone rang, he paused a documentary called When It Was a Game that he was enjoying for the third time that week, brushed the tortilla chip crumbs off his shorts, and croaked a hello into the receiver.
“Professor?” a voice said. “That you?”
Professor. No one had called him that for years. It was like hearing a childhood nickname called out at the end of a very long hallway.
“Felix?” Harvey said, meaning Felix Shalhoub, his manager during his last year in the majors with the expansion Providence Jewels, and now—Harvey still followed the game just enough to know this—the franchise’s general manager.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me. How are ya?”
“Good to hear your voice. I heard you were doing some motivational speaking.”
Harvey had been possibly the least motivated motivational speaker ever to address three hundred pharmaceutical salesmen in Orlando or three dozen managers of export documentation for dangerous cargo in Bayonne, New Jersey. How had this happened, that a man who prided himself on his avoidance of cliché should end up peddling platitudes about courage, teamwork, and the will to win? Because a man named Cromarty, who operated a second-rate speakers’ bureau in Boston, had heard Harvey address a group of high school coaches and told him that midsize companies who couldn’t afford Norman Schwarzkopf or Fran Tarkenton would still shell out good money for a tall, personable, former major-league outfielder with good teeth to pump up their troops.
Cromarty’s proposition came at a time when Harvey had lost interest in exploring the bleaker secrets of his fellow human beings. It turned out there was a limit to the amount of evil a man could investigate, even at a certain professional remove, without eventually feeling contaminated by some virus of moral degradation. Before Harvey knew it, he was on a plane to the first of many sales meetings with themes like “Simply the Best,” “The Future Is Now,” and “Tomorrow’s Our Middle Name” to explain to a ballroom of captive employees the fundamentals of a positive outlook that Harvey himself had never quite mastered. When he was through spewing slogans, there was invariably a stampede of grown men to the podium. They peppered him with questions about his baseball exploits, which they remembered far better than he, or tried to solicit his predictions for various pennant races and free-agent signings. It was depressing to Harvey that so many otherwise functional adults would want to shake the hand of a .268 lifetime hitter. And finally, he was out of that game too.
“You still with Mickey Slavin?” Felix asked.
“Still together, still not married. You know, she’s now a sideline reporter for ESPN. She’s on the road a lot.” Fifteen years ago, when they met, he had been the star and she had been an oddity—a female sportscaster, albeit in Providence’s tiny market. Now she was on national television, and he was—well, he was on the sofa, merely watching it.
“Now that you mention it, I feel I’ve seen her around the league this year.”
“So how’s the team doing?” Harvey asked.
“Whaddya mean, how’s the team doing? You don’t follow the game anymore?”
“Oh, off and on.”
Where to begin Harvey’s list of grievances with the national pastime? Overentitled players, selfish owners, and soaring ticket prices that left many ordinary Americans outside the ballpark. Worse, the game itself was buried beneath an avalanche of inane sports talk radio, round-the-clock cable coverage, and merchandising of team apparel and vintage sportswear. The game seemed to Harvey little more than a sideshow, the raw material for the finished product, which were the highlights that ran around the clock on several channels, a frenzy of home runs and annoyingly complex graphics. Instead of being a refuge from the clutter of daily life, baseball was now just part of that clutter.
“We actually got a shot,” Felix was saying. “And thanks to Cooley we’re selling out. His streak’s the biggest thing to hit Providence since the hurricane of ’thirty-eight.”
“I see where he’s flirting with history.”
“More like French-kissing it. Last night he pulled even with Pete Rose and Wee Willie Keeler.”
“Twelve more, and he’ll do the unthinkable,” Harvey said.
“The Daig,” Felix said in a reverential whisper. “Joe DiMaggio.”
Whose very visage had appeared moments ago on Harvey’s TV screen. The documentary he’d been watching consisted of 8- and 16-millimeter home movies of baseball players, games, and ballparks shot by players, their families, and fans between 1934 and 1957. It was like opening up a box of old baseball photographs to find they had all come quietly to life in faded color: DiMaggio himself, Gehrig, Ruth, Robinson, Greenberg, Dickey, even old-timers like Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Cy Young, all liberated from their black-and-white prisons, yet still innocent of television and everything it would do to the game, to the very expressions on men’s faces. The home movies gave these players a particular poignancy, a simple clowning humanity.
The documentary captured some of the game’s now forgotten rituals: comical pepper games, train travel, afternoon crowds in hats, ties, and fur stoles. In the 1940s, ballplayers were still leaving their gloves—poor little scraps of leather—on the field rather than carrying them to the dugout, as if to say the field was hallowed, as if leaving a sacred piece of themselves there until they returned. Harvey had retired in the 1980s, much closer to the present than the days the documentary depicted, but it was only with the grainy, earnest realities of baseball’s past that he felt any connection at all.
“You wouldn’t recognize Rankle Park, not since Marshall redid it and renamed it The Jewel Box. We’re packing ’em in. It’s a real carnival atmosphere.”
This was pure Felix. The hoary bromides of baseball were his specialty; “carnival atmosphere,” “a real donnybrook,” and “a day late and a dollar short” just rolled off his tongue. Not that Harvey was anyone to cast the first stone; he’d made a living off the clichés of competition for the last few years. He’d even stolen a few of Felix’s.
“You want to know something funny, Felix? I used to use a few of your favorite sayings in my motivational speaking.”
“Be my guest.”
“Remember that sign you had in the clubhouse? ‘Winners Are People Who Never Learned How To Lose.’ ”
“I believe that with all my heart.”
“I know you do, Felix. And that’s why I passed it on to thousands of office supply salesmen across this great country of ours.”
“You doing okay, Professor?”
“I’m fine.” But the fact that he was wearing an embroidered polyester-blend Mexican shirt with four pockets suggested otherwise, that dark forces were at work. Of course, he could try to justify the guayabera on the basis that, in early middle age, he needed more pockets than ever: for reading glasses, cell phone, bottle of Advil, tiny address book for numbers he could no longer remember, the TV remote control, a tin of Altoids. But without question his sartorial style, which Mickey referred to as “a lot of denim, a little suede, and a great deal of olive green,” had taken a nasty, leisure-wear turn. Time had swallowed him up, as he had seen it do to other middle-aged men.
“Look,” Felix was saying, “all the more reason for you to come down and see me tomorrow night. I want to talk to you about doing some work for us.”
“We want to hire you as the team’s motivational coach.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“A team that’s on the verge of winning might as well be losing if it can’t get over that last hump of inferiority.”
“You just make this shit up, don’t you?”
“I need you down here, Professor, to gas these boys up.”
“I’ve been out of baseball a long time, Felix.”
“Which gives you that important fresh-blood factor.”
“My blood is very tired at the moment.”
“That’s because you’re not out here at the ballpark, where you belong.”
“Right here on my sofa is where I belong.”
“I’m talking about showing these overpaid boys how to put the finishing touches on their self-esteem. I’m talking about instilling in these boys the peace of mind needed for victory. I’ve cleared it with Marshall.”
“I have nothing to say.”
“You’re underestimating the value of your experience.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
“I want you to come down here to The Jewel Box. I’m offering you a free skybox seat to a game you’d never be able to get into otherwise. We’ll sit and drink Narragansett and talk about my proposition, and you’ll see how you feel about this great national pastime.”
“I know how I feel about it.”
“I’ll leave your name and a pass to the owner’s box at the Will Call window. Campy would love to see you.”
“Campy Strulowitz? I thought he was dead.”
“He is dead, but he keeps showing up at the ballpark, so we figure we might as well just let him coach third base.”
Harvey laughed, perhaps for the first time in weeks. Felix Shalhoub and Campy Strulowitz still working for the Providence Jewels? After all these years? It was like hearing your family had survived a tornado.
“So it’s a deal?” Felix said.
When Harvey got off the phone, he took a long swig from the quart bottle of Gatorade he kept on the end table and stared at the image on his television screen, frozen in pause mode: it was President Eisenhower throwing out the first ball at a Senators’ opener in Griffith Stadium. Eisenhower, the Senators, Griffith Stadium—all gone now.
For the first time in a while, Harvey remembered what it was like to stand three hundred feet from home plate and pick up the flight of a ball the instant it came off the bat, how it felt to be connected by a thread of pure desire to that sphere as it rose and cleared the background of the upper deck, arching against the summer night sky as he sprinted deep into right center, Harvey already knowing, with a certainty that was wholly lacking in his present life, that he would consume the ball in full stride a few feet from the warning track and feel the warmth of the fans’ applause on the back of his uniform jersey as he loped, full of humble triumph, back to the dugout.
Harvey bit off the corner of a tortilla chip and chewed it thoughtfully. He had the sinking feeling he was about to push himself off the end of the plank, into his shark-infested future.
IT WAS ALMOST MIDNIGHT by the time Moss Cooley turned into the dapper development in western Cranston where he’d bought a seven-thousand-square-foot home over the winter after signing his new deal with the Providence Jewels. He was the only black man in Roger Williams Estates, a distinction that added a tincture of guilt to his love of the house and its amenities. The truth was, his neighbors left him alone, a courtesy for which he was grateful now that he had to spend two or three hours a day talking to reporters and evaluating endorsement offers. He had helped beat the Baltimore Orioles this evening by sending a hanging curve into the Providence bullpen, making him the sole owner of the second-longest hitting streak in major-league baseball history. Forty-five straight games.
He looked at his hands on the steering wheel and tried to remember what they had been like when he was a scrawny kid hitting rocks into the clover field behind his house with a broom handle. Now his hands, and the thick wrists to which they were attached, had entered history. Sports Illustrated had compared them to Hank Aaron’s. He smiled at the absurdity of it all. He couldn’t wait to call his mama. She’d still be up waiting to hear from him. When he was ten and newly cut from his Little League team, she had paid a personal visit to Coach Lloyd and browbeat him into taking her little Maurice back. “My boy has greatness in him,” she told Lloyd, as she reported to her son years later. “He has greatness in him, and I won’t have that greatness sitting around the house all summer, moping and getting into what-all kind of trouble.”
As he pulled into the driveway, past the parched lawn beyond the redemption of sprinklers, he wondered if he was in any kind of trouble now. The hate mail didn’t faze him, even the worst of it. You reached a certain prominence, and that was part of your job—providing a target for the ranting of unhappy people. As his mama liked to say, “Don’t you make other people’s unhappiness your business.” Just like there were some folks who had to get in the TV shot, mugging and waving like anyone gave a shit, there were a certain number of people in America who just had to write you a letter telling you what a black cocksucker you were.
But the lawn jockey last night had thrown a scare into him. It was different, he thought as he pushed the button for the garage door and waited for it to complete its slow ascent. It had taken more than a 34-cent stamp and a trip to the mailbox to get it to him.
He started to pull his Range Rover into the rightmost bay, next to the mint-condition 1979 Caddy he had bought for the simple reason that he could afford to and that it was the car he had wanted most when he was a child, watching Dr. Drexel cruise around the town of Starrett in his.
Because he was lost in thought, and because he was admiring the Caddy, he was halfway into the garage before he saw it. He applied the brakes. Had he not, it would have hit the windshield.
It had been tied to a piece of twine and hung from the garage ceiling. It dangled in midair, eyes bulging, swaying slightly now in the entering breeze.
IT WAS THE INSTANT you crossed the border from life’s chaos to baseball’s magnificent green order. It was the moment that baseball writers fell back on when fresher metaphors escaped them—and yet, there it was, it couldn’t be denied that the game’s divinity was somehow contained in it. You came up the sloped stadium ramp toward your seat, seeing only sky and perhaps a light tower or a fragment of scoreboard, and as you got closer, the field itself seemed to rise up to meet you. At the crest of the ramp, you stopped, startled by the vivid grass, the scope of the park, the immortal discipline of the diamond. And if it’s a night game and the summer sky is turning that bottomless, evening blue, you would be forgiven for thinking that God’s a fan.
When Harvey came up the ramp of the jam-packed Jewel Box, né Rankle Park, he was stung by a sadness that this beautiful game had gone on without him. Baseball was an archetype, an institution through whose turnstiles he had come to play his small historical role before being ejected back into the world. And now he was back as just another fan. Or rather, a motivational coach, whatever the hell that was.
As he looked for an usher to give him directions to the owner’s box, he took in the new, improved home of the American League East’s Providence Jewels. The charming irregularities that highly paid design and architectural firms had created from scratch with the new generation of retro ballparks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Houston, Pro-Gem Palace had achieved as the result of a long organic process. When the expansion Jewels had first moved in sixteen years ago, Rankle Park was a former minor-league park, a steel, brick, and concrete affair down by India Point on the Providence River. It looked like the deformed offspring of a World War II battleship and a nineteenth-century mental hospital. In the years since, owner Marshall Levy had made improvements, culminating in a $30 million facelift. Levy had added new seats, a big scoreboard with all the trimmings, and a grassy knoll beyond the left-center-field fence where fans could put out blankets and picnic. No amount of refurbishing, however, could conceal the fact that the stadium was a hodgepodge. But it conformed to the current vogue for asymmetry, and The Jewel Box was included in any discussion of baseball’s architectural treasures.
Harvey was watching the Jewels warm up on the field below when an usher wearing a hunter green jacket with silver epaulettes asked to see his ticket. When Harvey showed him his pass to the owner’s box, the man said, “Well, well—give my regards to the boss,” and pointed a bony forefinger back up the ramp toward a private elevator.
When he arrived at owner Marshall Levy’s skybox high above the field, both Levy and general manager Felix Shalhoub rose from their upholstered chairs to greet him. Levy, with his big features, even tan, and good head of hair, didn’t look like a man in his seventies. His Pro-Gem Inc., the last surviving big costume jewelry manufacturer in Rhode Island, had expanded into picture frames and automotive dashboard trim, and his success had helped him patiently nurse the Jewels to good fiscal health after the rough, noncompetitive years. Personally and professionally, he knew how to survive in style.
“Gosh, you look good,” Marshall said, pumping Harvey’s hand.
“And look at you,” Harvey said.
“Professor, you can’t be more than a couple pounds over your playing weight,” Felix said with equal charity, embracing him in a bear hug. Felix had lost weight, and although well into his sixties by now, looked healthier in his Italian sport coat and salt-and-pepper crew cut than when he’d managed Harvey. While Felix had been an indifferent, at times pathetic manager, executive life seemed to agree with him. The bumbling was gone, replaced by something approximating dignity. He laughed heartily, advertising capped teeth. “Why, I’ll bet I could put you in center field right now. And I’ve half a mind to do just that. Andy Cubberly can’t buy a hit. It’s like Moss has stolen all his luck the last few weeks.”
Cubberly. The name meant nothing to Harvey. Just another name clogging the box scores he only glanced at. “If it’s all right with you,” he said, “I’d just as soon sit up here and enjoy the view.”
Owner Marshall Levy chortled. “Well, you can see what we’ve done with the old sandlot, Professor.”
“Amazing. A true baseball palace.”
“We exceed every requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can take your wheelchair everywhere in this place. How about the new unies?”
“We’ve got alternative ones for both home and road. We put in twenty-four fully equipped hospitality suites. We’re completely up to speed, and we’re pulling people in from all over Rhode Island, eastern Connecticut, southern Massachusetts. We’ve become a real regional draw, Harvey, and with the sixth lowest payroll in the league. Not bad for one of these old mill cities. Heck, we got Brown and RISD kids walking over from College Hill to get away from their books.” Marshall could sound more like a brochure than any man Harvey knew.
Harvey helped himself to a boiled shrimp from the little buffet. “Can’t hurt that Cooley’s closing in on DiMaggio.”
“Can’t hurt?” Felix said. “It’s the goddamn Second Coming. I’ve got a good feeling about this streak.”
A greet cheer arose from the stands, and Harvey turned and looked through the skybox Plexiglas to see the Jewels taking the field in their brilliant white uniforms trimmed in the team’s color scheme—hunter green and orange. He watched the center fielder jog out to his old hunting grounds—Harvey could barely make out the “Cubberly” on the back of the jersey—and begin trading long easy throws with Moss Cooley in left. Harvey’s stomach tingled with the memory of that pregame excitement; funny how the physical memory had been stored, perfectly preserved, inside him. From the facing of the left-field upper deck hung a sign that read, “HEY, MOSS! 46 WOULD DO THE TRIX!” The press enclosures next to each dugout were teeming, like refugee lifeboats, with photographers. From the skybox, Harvey could see a slice of glittering Narragansett Bay over the center-field bleachers. A fat Fuji blimp plowed the evening sky. It seemed like the whole world had descended on Providence, Rhode Island.
“Wouldn’t it be super if he actually did it?” Marshall asked.
“Obviously you don’t believe in jinxes,” Harvey said.
“You mean that business of not talking about it? I don’t believe in jinxes, Harvey. I believe in preparation. Chance favors a prepared mind, and a prepared bat.”
“Just don’t get your hopes up,” Harvey said.
“Why not?” Marshall asked.
“This guy Ed Purcell, Nobel laureate in physics,” Harvey said, selecting a cherrystone on the half shell, “he studied all streaks and slumps in major-league baseball history and concluded that DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak was the only sequence that is so many standard deviations above the expected that, according to him, it should never have happened in the first place. He called it an ‘assault on probability.’ How many players have even hit in as many as thirty-seven straight games in the recorded history of baseball? I’ll tell you. Eight. Nine with Cooley now.”
Marshall eyed him suspiciously. “You just know that?”
“There’s not a savvy baseball student alive who doesn’t think the streak is the single greatest athletic accomplishment ever,” Harvey went on. “Twenty years ago Tversky—at Stanford—proved that hot streaks—whether you’re a player or a team—are an illusion. The probability, that is, of getting a hit in your next game is not in the least increased by your success getting hits in previous games, no matter how many straight previous games. Statistically speaking, there is no such thing as momentum. Every streak is essentially a random fluctuation of the statistical norm. Every game, every at-bat, you’re starting over with the same allies—your skill and your luck. Okay, now, DiMaggio had the benefit of a break or two during his streak. I think there were a couple games in which his only hit was a cheapie. Plus he got a few sweet calls from the official scorer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that the three hits he got in game four of the streak were all suspect. And a dubious call in his favor saved his ass once in Chicago. Nonetheless, DiMaggio’s streak was made possible by some sort of divine intervention or cosmic oversight. Plain skill, enhanced by luck, can’t begin to explain it.
“Look,” Harvey said, gesturing with a johnnycake, “just think about it. A hitting streak flies in the face of baseball’s basic irrationality. Unlike home runs. Home runs are rational. If you hit the ball far enough and fair enough, it’s a home run—and even that is subject to the variables of different ballparks. But getting base hits is not the inevitable outcome of either force or distance. You know, you can hit it a ton to deep center for a four-hundred-foot out, or nick it for an excuse-me single that rolls thirty feet up the line.”
“But you’ve got to have consistency of contact,” Marshall suggested.
“Absolutely,” Harvey agreed. “You start there. But a lot of players have that. Low strikeout average, high-percentage hitters, always getting wood on the ball. How come more of them haven’t hit in even thirty straight games? There’s just too much damn luck involved. Too many variables. The location of the pitch, the positioning of the defense, outfield distances, the degree of bat-on-ball contact, the length of the grass, the wind, the barometric pressure. Injuries. Over the long haul—over a season—sure, Tony Gwynn’s going to bat three hundred, but get a hit in thirty, let alone fifty-six straight games? You need more than talent on your side. More than the umpire and the official scorer. You need God.”
“Always the Professor,” Felix said. “Always thinking.”
Harvey felt a rush of shame. The truth was that, once roused by Felix’s call the previous afternoon, he had phoned his brother Norm, renowned baseball nerd and now chairman of Northwestern’s English Department, to discuss Cooley’s hitting streak. As usual, Norm was off and running. Purcell, Tversky, deviations from the statistical norm—all the erudition was his older brother’s. Too late now to give credit where it was due. “I’ll bet you a thousand bucks right now Cooley doesn’t even get to fifty,” Harvey’s only sibling had concluded. “DiMaggio’s streak was a once-in-an-eon event, just like your relationship with Mickey. What is it now—fifteen years, and you’re still not married? Talk about streaks.”
“Can I have something to drink?” Harvey said. If streaks and slumps were illusions, what explained the fact that he was having the psychological equivalent of a fifty-six-game batting slump? He felt many standard deviations below the expected for days spent in a really bad mood.
“What’ll it be?” Felix asked, just as the PA announcer asked everyone to rise for the national anthem.
“Beer’s fine.” Harvey saw Felix turn and mumble something to a black steward in a white shirt and tie lurking in the doorway of the skybox.
When the anthem had been sung, the drinks came, and the three men settled into the nubbly chairs facing the field. Marshall Levy was drinking Scotch on the rocks, and Felix was sucking Canada Dry ginger ale from the bottle.
“Where’s your beer?” Harvey asked him.
“I’ve been in recovery for almost twelve years, Professor.”
“I didn’t know. Congratulations.” Harvey flashed on Felix pounding down the Genesee Cream Ales in his little clubhouse office loss after loss.
“First I ended my relationship with my wife, then my relationship with booze.”
“Good for you,” Harvey said, referring to both the booze and the former Frances Shalhoub.
The PA announcer announced Baltimore’s lead-off hitter, a lithe little lefty, and Marshall said, “Speaking of Joe DiMaggio, you know his brother Dom was called ‘Little Professor’? I guess ’cause of the glasses.”
“Must be a hundred ballplayers had the nickname, Marshall. All you have to do is look like you can read and write.”
Felix belched. “If I’m not mistaken, you actually used to read whole books.”
“Still do, Felix. Bad habits die hard. As you know.”
At the crack of the bat, Harvey looked up to see a liner off the lead-off hitter’s bat slice down the left-field line, where Moss Cooley, moving well for a big man, made a nice backhanded running catch. The Jumbotron reacted to Cooley’s catch with a prerecorded voice that yelled “Priceless!” and a blinking, expanding and contracting message that read, “Y’ALL BE COOL!”
“Yes!” shouted Marshall, pumping his fist. “I love the fact we’ve got Cool for four more years. The Beast of the East! The Big Green Machine!”
“That’s a very hyperactive scoreboard you got there, Marshall.”
“Worth every penny!”
How strange, Harvey thought, that in this dark corner of New England there had arisen the possibility of baseball greatness and posterity in the sculpted form of Maurice “Moss” Cooley, of Starrett, Alabama, a newly re-signed, twenty-seven-year-old left fielder whose highest batting average in three years with the Jewels had been .314 and who until now had never hit safely in more than twelve consecutive games. His forty-five-game streak—this extremely rare union of skill and prolonged good fortune—had separated him from the ranks of baseball’s mere mortals. Moss Cooley had given baseball fans everywhere a new reason for living. This was baseball at its best, gathering up all the loose ends of human aspiration, the bits of excitement that life had sloughed off, all the misplaced enthusiasm in millions of American lives, and shaping it into one huge, hard, shiny hope.
The next Oriole grounded out to second.
“Moss is getting quieter the longer this goes on,” Felix said.
“He’s probably just trying to protect himself from the media,” Harvey suggested while watching the Providence starting pitcher, someone named Clark Pevere, landscape the rubber with the toe of his right shoe.
“Well, hell yes, there’s that,” Felix said. “It’s like being followed around by a pack of annoying little dogs. That’s what Moss calls ’em: the Chihuahuas. They’ve been nipping at his ankles since the streak hit twenty-five.”
Harvey nodded. “The media makes everything harder. Makes it harder to operate in your own sphere.”
“DiMaggio had the media,” Felix said.
Harvey snorted. “A bunch of middle-age guys in fedoras who’ve tacitly agreed not to mention your private life? C’mon, they were kept men, paid by the ball clubs. There’s no comparison.”
“He did have some crazy fan sneak into the dugout during the streak and steal his favorite bat.”
“But they got it back.”
As they all watched the number-three batter in Baltimore’s lineup drop a banjo hit in short center for a single, Harvey’s cell phone began to warble the opening bars of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” He’d changed the ringing option that afternoon from the funereal “Fuga.”
He pulled the phone out of his pants pocket and said, “Hello.”
“It’s me.” It was Mickey. “Just checking in to see how you’re doing.” Since his recent confinement to the sofa, she made a point of calling once a day to make sure he hadn’t harmed himself.
“I’m fine. Where are you?”
“I’m at your old stomping grounds. ESPN is doing the Jewels-Orioles game in Providence, which you’d know if you still followed the game.”
“I do follow the game,” Harvey said. “As it was played many years ago.” He stood to get a better look at the field. “Where are you exactly?”
“I told you. The Jewel Box.&