The 5 tool prospect I was looking for was a disembodied spirit who lived in the clouds of my imagination. Those fluffy clouds have taken me from the deadlands of Northern Texas to the swamps of Louisiana. 100’s and 100’s of miles driven on black asphalt turned gelatinous by the unrelenting ball of fire in the Dixie sky.
My name is Bob Hale– Southern baseball scout for the Kansas City Athletics.
Scouts like to pride themselves on the prescience of finding a “stud” or a highly touted prospect. I, on the other hand, am a realist– I believe our lives are no more than the sum of manifold contingencies, and no matter how diverse they might be in their details they all share the same essential randomness in design: this, then that, and because of that, this. I was an expert in what it was that I was searching for, but like a gold prospector, finding it was a matter of luck and timing. And as you may or may not know, most prospectors who headed to the Wild West in 1849 ended up broke or dead.
Bouncing around from mosquito infested small town to dusty shit hole becomes unnerving after a while. Scouting isn’t a typical job where you must dress nice, smell good, be charismatic, be a team leader or have excellent communication skills. This isn’t academia and no one wears tweed. Most of us can’t do anything else–this is all we know. This leads to many lonely nights in hotel rooms with nothing but an orchestra of empty bottles. Most of us can’t even afford a truck stop hooker. Eventually the alcohol hits the blood stream and you stare at the dirty sheets…reminiscing about a girl who you once loved and who loved you in return. The ghosts of youth are always hiding around the corner, and since loneliness and time are your only consistencies the ghosts visit often. It is easy to be hard- boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.
Baseball men are naturally superstitious; and I am no different. I wear a gold chain around my neck given to me by my grandfather–St. Christopher, the patron saint of travel. There was no stronger bond with my grandfather than the baseball bond. I was the first grandchild, and since I was virtually fatherless he must have felt some sort of sense of nurturing. My mother was overwhelmed by the prospect of a small child with no job prospects in her future so my grandparents molded me in their own image. Those early days were pleasant for me as I was a curious young man with a shit load of piss and vinegar. I ran hell and high water around my Chicago neighborhood with my buddies; experiencing the world with fresh eyes and a zeal only a youngster could have. My mother, on the other hand, was a bit tyrannical and not educated or patient enough to converse or understand someone ready to devour the world so I didn’t see her all that much.
Grandfather would take me to the old Cubs Park in those early days. (They didn’t name it Wrigley until 1926.) I loved outfielder Max Flack in the way that only adolescents can love an unobtainable celebrity-object even though he was considered the “goat” of the 1919 World Series. The 1920 season on the field was disappointing—the Cubs tied for fifth place with a 75-79 record but I didn’t care. Max Flack managed to hit .302 to lead the team, but the real bright spot was the reemergence of Grover Cleveland “Ole Pete” Alexander as the pitching leader. My future was all but written.
I lay here with a battered copy of Playboy spread across my chest, and I wonder where all the days, hours, minutes and seconds went to die forever. Sometimes I embellish my existence and tell myself that I bring happiness to millions of fans and dreams to hundreds of young men. “Let go or be dragged.” That’s how the Zen proverb goes. I remembered that I had read this in a small china shop in San Francisco as I drank my second cup of oily coffee with just a nip of Old Crow and slowly drifted away…
The ‘ol banged up Chrysler started with a bang and a plume of smoke. The morning air is sticky already. I heard there was a young man with one helluva fastball in Baton Rouge and I always seem to have a rousing time there. The Yankees are interested as well so I’ll have to drive like a bat out of hell through the night to get there before they do– just to watch a teenager throw a five ounce sphere of cork, rubber, yarn, and horsehide. Let the chase begin.
Bob Hale was tired and just wanted to eat, have a beer and perhaps grumble to a stranger. He spotted a flashing motel sign in the distance and pulled his station wagon into its gravel strewn parking lot. There was a small light above a window/door that said, ring bell for service. The bell hadn’t stopped ringing before a short, twerpy guy popped up from behind the window, leaping from a portable cot that was hidden from sight.
“Yeah, I’ll take a room for the night.”
“That’ll be ten dollars for the night and it comes with a hot shower,” the twerp said, adjusting his thick horn rimmed glasses.
Hale pushed the ten spot across the wooden counter, all the while thinking about a card game he had lost a few weeks earlier.
“There a place to get a drink around here?”
“Yeah, The Double Deuce, right down the street. You’ll be in room 5 and check out is at 10.”
“Thank you kindly.”
The Double Deuce was a small place with sawdust on the floor and a jukebox in the corner. There were a few local toughs milling around mingling with their girlfriends. This was a cesspool, a dump, a junkpile and a shithole all wrapped in one, yet it was fine for a few quick drinks before stumbling back to the room with a melancholy residue. Hale was used to the more classy joints in his hometown of Chicago, but he was here on business so the intricacies of this hick town meant nothing to him.
Hale had driven to Kansas City from Chicago a mere 12 hours ago. Arnold Johnson, the Athletics owner had set up a mandatory scout meeting earlier in the day at Municipal Stadium. The meeting was not pleasant in the mind of Hale as Johnson was more of an industrialist-capitalist than a baseball man. He despised men like Johnson who had Yankee Stadium in his possession and were using the game for profit. He also had no respect for a man that had weaseled the team from the Mack family with the help of his rich cronies. Baseball was a little different, a little sadder, for the era of one of the game’s greatest figures in Connie Mack was over.
“What’s it gonna be, buddy?”
“Tom Collins,” Hale said as he lit his Cuban cigar.
“Sorry, pal, we don’t have the mixins’ for that. I can get you a gin and tonic if you’d like.”
One of the locals, the one with the Elvis Presley haircut, stood up suddenly and started barking at his girlfriend. Hale had the prescience to know that this would happen and didn’t move a muscle. There was a minor dust-up until order was quickly restored.
“The kids today and their rock and roll,” Hale snorted.
“Yeah, they’re a goddamn pain in the ass, but I’m not one to turn away customers…say, are you from around here?”
Hale was wearing a Panama hat with cuffed khaki trousers, a sign that he definitely was not from around “here.”
“Naw, but I’m a baseball man…the Athletics.”
“Wow! They sure are big around here, buddy, you can be sure of that! Are you some sort of big-wig or somethin’?”
“Naw. I’m a nobody, an ass-kisser, a smudge, a nothin'”
“Fair enough. Well, we love the team around here…I just took my kid last month.”
“Actually, I’m just in town for a few days to meet up with my shit-kickin’ boss and to scout a local kid for the ball-club.”
“A local kid! Sheeeeeeeit. What’s the kid’s name?” said the bartender as he looked over Hale’s shoulder at the toughs.
Hale took a long drag off his cigar and exhaled just as “Rock around the Clock” poured out of the jukebox. The hoodlums started to dance in unison.
(To be continued……)