GAME OF LOSERS

NOTE: To follow this story you will need a good knowledge of Americaís "National Pastime", the sport of Baseball.

It was the big game, game 7 of the World Series, with both teams tied at 3 losses apiece. The stadium was packed, filled to capacity with fans bundled up against the late October chill. Although the cold made the fans uncomfortable, they were hopeful that it would tighten up the arms of their star pitchers, so that they would not be able throw the ball well. This thought made their suffering bearable.

A great cheer arose as the home team took the field, and removed their hats. Moments later, one of the nationís favorite recording stars stepped up to the microphone placed between home plate and the mound, and delivered a heartfelt rendition of the National Anthem. Then the cheering was renewed, a thunderous chorus of human voices united, enthusiastically, in the hope that their team would lose.

"You think they can beat us?" one fan asked another, sitting beside him.

"I know they can; I just hope they will," the other fan responded. "Iím just worried about our center fielder, Sanchez. Heís batting .333, and shows no signs of slowing down. And that damned Bartle is batting .500 with runners in scoring position."

"Yo, chill," another fan told them. "Their pitcherís got a 3.90 ERA compared to our boyís 5.70. We got the pitching disadvantage. Games are won or lost on pitching. Weíre going to lose this one, donít sweat it."

The predictable round of boos greeted the visiting teamís lead-off batter, a 300 lb., out-of-shape, right-hander, with a batting average of .100. "Donít waste a walk on him!" the hometown fans yelled; there were only so many walks you could give up per game before the boomerang rule took effect, and they began to be converted into points for you, which, in time, added up to runs. The boomerang rules were the only way to keep the game exciting, now that the object had become to lose instead of win.

"Great job, great job!" the fans cried out with delight, as their pitcher, a master of the hanging curve ball, managed to give up a lead-off hit. With an ordinary player, it would have been a double, and with a swift base-runner, a triple, but at least the visitors had a man on. Now it was up to the pitcher to work on the number two batter, a skillful player who was the best in the business in hitting into a double play. His legs were just as slow as the lead-off batterís, but his eyes and wrists were sharp and sure, and he had the precision of a sharpshooter.

Things looked good as their pitcher built up a 3-0 count against the double-play king, but on the fourth pitch, an outside, neck-high fastball that should have gotten the team out of danger, the batter managed to connect with a sharp ground ball to the shortstop. Not wanting to dip into the teamís error quotient too early in the game, the shortstop had no choice but to field the ball, and initiate the perfect double play. The wild cheers of the home team subsided, as though they had just been doused with water. The early disaster they had been praying for was not going to happen.

As the visitorís number three batter stepped up to the plate, a massive barrage of boos descended onto the field. The reputation of this, one of the most inept players in baseball history, was now coming unglued. It was a shame how the case was impacting all the young boys who looked up to him as a role model, but you just couldnít overlook it, couldnít let unfairness prevail no matter how much justice hurt. The evidence that he had been taking sleeping pills before the games and illegally diminishing his performance was overwhelming. If Acevedo had been suspended for staring into an arc lamp before going to the plate because, as they once said of Walter Johnson, "you canít hit what you canít see", and if Lockhart had been expelled for surreptitiously cutting the webbing in his glove so as to impair his fielding, you couldnít let this guy get away with sleeping pills. What a shame for all the kids! "Say it ainít so, Joe!" But the charges were not yet proved, and this was America, where you are innocent until proven guilty. So he was playing tonight in the most important game of the year, even though a dark cloud was hanging over his every move.

When he just stood there taking two hanging curves in a row, both of which should have been out of the park, the crowd booed. "Fine," one fan told another, "let him use up one of the called third strikes in his teamís quota. Boomerang rules will get it back." But on the next delivery that slick fallen hero took a cut and missed a giveaway pitch disguised as a change-up that was served to him like the head of John the Baptist on a platter. What an absurd swing, like Tinkerbelle trying to split rails. Like Ana Pavlova fighting against the Vikings. He had just struck out! But wait, the hometown catcher let the pitch get past him! A wild cheer erupted from the crowd, it was a dropped third strike, the batter had no choice but to run to first base as the catcher seized the ball up in his fumbling hands, and made a wild throw to first, over the head of the first baseman, which compelled the reluctant batter to advance to second, into scoring position.

The crowd rose as one, hopeful once again that it might fall behind in the early going. But the visitorís clean-up batter was a legendary veteran and magnificent choke artist; his season stats were virtually untouchable: a .200 batting average, with 1 home run and 3 RBIs. And in the postseason he only got worse. Much as the crowd tried to encourage its pitcher to new feats of mediocrity, he succeeded in striking out the clean-up hitter and ending the inning. If he had only been able to hit the visitorís bat with the ball, to get a grounder into fair territory where his fielders would have had a chance to make an error! But it wasnít to be. This was going to be a long, hard night.

As they waited for their own team to take its turn at bat in the bottom of the first, an old-timer told one of the younger fans, "Iím worried, our hitters are too good. Three of them couldíve played in the Big Leagues in the old days. And thatís far too many."

"Yo, tell us gramps, what was it like back then?" one of the younger fans, with baggy pants and a baseball cap spun off to the side of his head, and some kind of electronic gadget in his ear, asked the old man. "Is it true, you were all so mean in those days and actually tried to win?"

The old man nodded. "Iím afraid we were, son. We were the bad boys of history. Had to win. Had to win everything. Compete. Compete. Win. Win. It was wrecking the world."

"Hey, old man, were you there when things changed?" asked another fan, whose pretty girlfriend was peering out from behind his shoulder at the man, who seemed to her like a troll or an elf from a book of fairy tales.

"I remember it well," said the old man. "At first, we thought they were just bad. The new team they put in Omaha. Just a sorry expansion team. Then, people began to suspect there was some kind of gambling scam, like the Black Sox scandal. But no, these boys were not getting any money for it, they were out to lose because they wanted others to have the joy of winning. I saw Billy Hart pitch."

"Wow," said one of the young fans reverently.

"Isnít he the guy who said, ĎThereís no greater gift than givingí?" asked the pretty girl, who was not as empty-headed as all the time lavished on making her face beautiful might have led you to believe.

"Thatís right," said the old man. "He was actually quite a reader. He could quote The Bible word for word, and also knew a lot of Emerson and Thoreau, and he had a big picture of Hans Brinker, and another one of Lutz Lang with Jesse Owens hanging up in his house. He believed that sports existed to create brotherhood; and he also believed that the world learned how to behave from sports. Its youth was raised by sports and trained by sports, and its dreams were shaped by sports; sports was the arena where men affirmed what was important to them, and reinforced the values that mattered most by manifesting them as a drama which was constantly replayed before their eyes. We built great stadiums around who we wanted to be, and became spectators of our aspirations. Well, Hart said the world was falling apart because everywhere Man was fighting against Man, taking from others, hoarding, refusing to share. Generosity was the only thing that could save the world Ė and sports, the cultural force that shaped us all, must lead the way. What are we telling the world, he demanded, by always trying to beat the other team? He chose to express generosity and brotherhood by losing. By withdrawing from the battle to break somebody elseís heart. By letting someone else wear the championship ring. "

"They called him the St. Nicholas of baseball," the girlís boyfriend told her. "Isnít that right, old man?"

"Thatís right. Omaha wrapped up hundreds of victories for other teams inside its losses, and left them under the tree. After a while, people who used to boo began to understand."

"Yo, did they really boo?" asked an incredulous fan, reveling in this meeting with a living piece of history, this white-haired man from so far back; it was like sitting side by side with Abe Lincoln.

"Oh yes they did," said the old man, laughing to himself. "They booed and booed. Like ghosts in a haunted mansion. But remember," he reminded them. "The early Christians got jeered and ridiculed also. They got thrown to the lions. Now, thereís churches everywhere. Steeples in every town."

"How did it catch on?" someone asked.

"People began to revere Billy Hart like Gandhi. Like Martin Luther King. Then even the Pope gave him a medal. I was there in the game when the New York Yankees made history by playing not to win for the first time since George Steinbrenner & company took the helm, and probably since the very first day they were created. And they actually lost to Omaha! And everyone was cheering and crying in their seats." The old man took out a handkerchief with which to wipe his eyes. "And then, later that year, at a Rangers-Flyers game, in an altogether different sport and venue, well, Petrosian took a tremendous body check from Heurgon, and instead of going after each other with hockey sticks, the two players actually embraced, and then the benches emptied and the two teams skated into a big mass on the ice and began hugging each other. I was there!" And he had to apologize, as he picked at his eyes with the handkerchief.

"Wow!" said the fans, reaching out to touch him like he was a holy relic, a piece of Noahís Ark.

A huge cheer issued from the crowd as the home team came to bat in the bottom of the first. This was going to be their night, it had to be! They were going to be the generous ones, to give the other team the joy of winning, by losing. They had a big scare when de la Rosa walked and Sanchez doubled, thanks to a badly placed third baseman who was playing way off the line and could not field what otherwise might have been a double play. And then OíHenry walked. But thanks to their tried-and-true clutch performers, who struck out with the bases loaded, they were able to get out of the jam, and to leave the first inning tied at 0-0.

And this exciting first inning set the pace for the rest of the game. It was a tremendous, hard-fought battle between two terrible teams, each as determined as the other to lose, each as incompetent as the other. In the third inning, the visitors came up with two isolated singles, but one of the runners was thrown out trying to steal second; and the other, after being balked to second, failed to score on a single. He ran slowly, like molasses pouring out of a jar, as an inadvertent check swing drilled an unexpected hit into right field; but the throw from the outfield was wild, and he had no choice but to score, as the catcher threw the ball, which he finally cornered bouncing around behind the plate, back to the pitcher covering home, who tagged him late. Or so it seemed! "Hooray!" they screamed, grabbing each other by the arms, "weíre losing 1-0!" But in actuality, brilliant loser that he was, the visitor had failed to touch third while rounding the base path on his way home. When the crowd saw the home plate umpire consulting with the third base umpire, and then saw the home plate umpire whirl around and give the melodramatic signal for "Out", prompting the furious rush of its manager from the dugout and a frenzied altercation on the infield grass, they roared with disappointment and outrage. But the replay, shown over and over again on the stadium scoreboard, confirmed that they had been outfoxed. The runner was out, and the score remained 0-0. "All right, cut the damned replay!" they cursed. The team they were playing was spectacularly bad, thatís all there was to it, and they were going to have a run for the money.

Later, in the fifth inning, it was the home teamís turn to be on the ropes. Trying to lay down a bunt on an 0-2 count, Rogers, who had, in the off-season, had his stomach photographed for several magazines and pronounced "beer belly of the year", accidentally doubled down the unguarded right field line. A wild pitch moved him to third, and as he tried to steal home, a hopeless maneuver to try to end the rally, the visiting catcher dropped the ball in the collision at the plate. But Rogers didnít notice the ball had been dropped and just went back to the dugout without touching home, which automatically made him out for "running out of the base path."

Both teams were now beginning to accrue boomerang points against them, which could spell trouble in the later innings.

In the seventh inning, the visitorís speed demon, Charlie Kates, got on base with a Texas Leaguer when he just missed popping out to the second baseman. It was a promising development, to have Mr. Lightning on the base paths, but to the chagrin of the home team, the visitorís clever manager sent in a pinch runner for him, Gordo Rodriguez, winner of the Coney Island hot dog eating contest two years straight. The home team managed to advance him to third base by giving up a double to a hitter with his back "to the boomerang." Then, their awful pitcher succeeded in engineering a long fly to the warning track that should have brought Gordo home, but though he tagged up, and started home with honest intentions, he just couldnít beat the ball, even though Dodge, the left fielder, was still recovering from an operation on his shoulder just two weeks before. As the crowd watched in dismay, Gordo, who a sportswriter would later praise as "the nearest thing to an elephant with chains on its feet I have ever seen", lumbered slowly towards home. Their catcher, helpless and alone, received the unwelcome white flash from the outfield far ahead of the runner, and horrified, with the unmistakable ball in his mitt, and the umpire standing right there looking down into the glove like it was a nest with an egg, had no choice but to apply the tag. "Yer out!" And the score was still 0-0.

And the tension was building. It was now the ninth inning, the score was still 0-0, and nobody was losing. Their star loser had to be pulled, because of the rules, and now they were forced to depend on an unreliable pitcher, with an ERA of 2.60 and 15 wins in the regular season. "This could be trouble," they groaned. And he put them through sheer hell, pitching 3 perfect innings and striking out six batters. "If we can just hang on Ė just hang on a little bit longer."

The game went on, into extra innings. There were more pitching changes. The home team nearly scored and was saved only by the fact that a line drive which the visiting pitcher could not avoid got stuck in the webbing of his glove so that it was impossible to drop it. Otherwise, a runner from third would have crossed the plate. As it was, he was doubled off the base to end the inning.

As the game went on, and the boomerang points piled on, and the threats of their own team persistently mounted, and the incompetence of the visitors did not waver, a growing sense of doom began to fall over the crowd; they felt themselves being worn out, their superior skill beginning to emerge in ways that could not be suppressed for much longer. "If things keep on going this way," one discouraged fan said, " we are going to win!"

It was in this moment of crisis that a hard-throwing, but wild relief pitcher came to the mound for them. It was the fifteenth inning, and even the scoreboard was suffering, and the stadium organist did not know what to play.

"This guyís fastball is too good. We could be in trouble now," said one of the fans. "This might be another few scoreless innings for the visitors, right here, and I donít think we can avoid making a run for much longer."

"Heís wild," another fan said, hopefully. "He may walk them."

"Weíre already over the quota for walks and wild pitches," mourned another fan. "Boomerang rules. Points are adding up, soon theyíll accumulate into a run. Weíre being worn out, god damn it! These guys suck so bad, we just may win! God damn it!"

But the relief pitcher on the mound, with his back to the wall, was a spirited man, and he had no intention of being remembered as the man who won game seven of the world series. With cold, harsh eyes, he regarded the player standing before him at the plate, he chewed on a great wad of tobacco as he fiddled with the ball in his hand, searching for just the right grip. And then, he threw the pitch, a tremendous fastball, veering sharply inside, which struck the visitor on the right arm before he could retract from it. "Take your base on balls," said the umpire.

Clutching his arm, which a trainer came out to look at and relieve with a shot of cortisone, he took his place at first base. The next batter who came to bat got two letter-high fastballs, perfect for hitting out of the park, but he botched them both, falling behind 0-2 in the count and setting himself up for a strikeout on the next pitch. However, he didnít even get a chance to take a swing. The next pitch flew right into him, so fast he couldnít evade it, careening off his shoulder and flying far off in another direction. He, too, needed a shot of cortisone, and went to first as the other base runner proceeded to second. By now, the home crowd was on its feet. There were two runners on base and nobody out.

The relief pitcher spit a giant mouthful of brown gook from his mouth, then focused his eyes like guns, reared back with a full wind-up so as to give the runners a good jump should they attempt to steal, and hurled another fastball, waist high, hard, and off the plate, which struck the batter in the hip. Wincing, and limping, he staggered away from the plate. "Son of a bitch! Son of a bitch!" he cursed over and over again. His manager sent him hobbling to first, the third batter in a row who had been hit by a pitch and, as a consequence, awarded a base. Now the bases were loaded, and there was nobody out. A wild electricity swept through the stadium, still packed, with the parking lot outside still filled with cars. There was the thrill that the visitors were on the verge of scoring, and might win this game. There was also stunned amazement at the brilliance of their pitcherís strategy. There were no boomerang rules, no quotas against hitting rival batters with a pitch. No one had ever thought to make a rule against it, it was simply assumed, in this new age, that no one would ever intentionally try to hit a batter, and therefore, no safeguards had been developed to limit the amount of times it could be done. Here, there was a giant loophole in the rules, and in the middle of a see-saw battle with everything at stake, their burly, sullen-eyed pitcher had found it, and was passing through it, like a camel through the eye of a needle.

The home crowd didnít know what to make of it. They were ecstatic that they might be on the verge of losing, but confused by the means; it is never easy to find a comfort zone in the middle of sudden change. The confusion was reflected by the strange mixing of the cheers and the silence, which also seemed to be audible as decibels that were missing from the cheers.

The stunned manager of the opposing team substituted his scheduled batter, a heavyset man with the mobility of a cork in a bottle, with a swifter, lighter batter who he hoped might jump out of the way if the home teamís pitcher went after him as he had gone after the three batters before him.

The organ sent little stings of sound out into the night air, the people accepted its demand, and clamored for a run. The pitcher frowned, because the man standing by the plate wanted something that he wanted. He focused, his eyes shut out a thousand things, he saw the batter, the glove, the plate, the glove, the plate, the batter, with everything else swaying in the background like meaningless stalks of reeds and grasses in the breeze. His eyes were sharp, sharp like knife blades just handed back from the metal grinder in peak condition. He froze a huge wad of tobacco in the left side of his mouth; his powerful chest grew larger as he sucked the bitter night air into his lungs. He swung his arms back like windmills, he rocked on his leg, he sprang towards the plate in a fierce motion far more agile than his body seemed built to deliver. The ball leaving his hand was barely visible, the crowd, collectively holding its breath, saw something white streaking towards the plate, they saw the batter seeming to crouch down, then suddenly reeling backwards, and the white ricocheting at an angle into the night. And the batter was on the ground, clutching his head, with the manager and trainers rushing out to survey the damage.

A part of the crowd broke out in wild cheers as this happened, and a part of it did not speak. The batter had just been struck by the ball, which meant, since the bases were loaded, that all of the runners must advance, including the runner from third who must now cross home and give the visitors a 1-0 lead. "Hooray! Hooray!" cried a part of the crowd, wildly euphoric, and delirious with joy. "Weíre going to lose! Weíre going to be the losers of the World Series!"

The other half of the crowd just stood by, tolerating the joy of the rest like people tolerate slobbering friendly dogs leaping all over them, as they are trying to do something else. They watched the man lying on the ground with his red helmet now taken off, they saw the grim stance of the trainers and onlookers on the field, they saw the stretcher emerging from the dugout with serious looking men dressed in white. On the stadium screen, they saw the batter, now not moving, what looked like some monstrous purple egg growing out of the side of his head, they saw the face of his wife in the box where the families of the visitorís team were seated, with her fingers in her mouth and a look of absolute terror in her eyes.

"Hooray! Hooray!" cried the enthused members of the home crowd, like a high tide that has decided not to ebb. "Weíre going to lose! Weíre going to lose the World Series!"

The other half of the crowd stood among them, in utter silence, with moist eyes, and heads bowed in prayer.

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