AN ALL-AMERICAN HERO
As Daffy Duck says, "It's not the principle of the thing, it's the money." But in this case, it wasn't the money at all; I had no choice.
Under normal circumstances, I'd go with the money hands down. But then again, it was the first time business had ever meddled with my baseball game, and it couldn't have picked a worse time to be meddlesome. The Sailors were up for the Pennant and this was the game to decide it.
'Course, the Sailors might be able to do it without me, but as I was the premier hitter in the league that year, it wasn't likely. I was blowing everyone in the trees, breaking records, hitting homers like I'd been born to it. And I guess I had been, in a way. I was a natural; about the most natural baseball player that ever came across the wire.
You see, I could put a ball anywhere I wanted. Others had done it in the past — like the Babe in that '32 Chicago game, pointing the bat where he intended to knock the ball, then doing it — but I could do it every damned time. I know I'm bordering on the sacrilegious here but, to make it simple, I was the best batter the game had ever seen or was likely to ever see again. I think that puts it into perspective.
That year, my bat had brought the Sailors, a relatively new club, from dead bottom straight to the top. Oh, it wasn't just me. I mean, we had a good team — but there wasn't anyone with special talent. Except me.
Now, before you think I'm going to break my arm patting myself on the back, I'd like to say right here and now, I wasn't any superman. Not by a long shot. I got walked from time to time, for example, and occasionally I hit a foul. So I wasn't perfect.
But I'd never been struck out. Not even once. Throw a half-good ball across that plate and I'd put that baby in orbit. Once I hit a slider ball so low that one reporter said it looked like I'd taken up golf instead of baseball. I not only connected with that rascal, I put it over the fence and into the grandstands. And when they found it, it didn't have a cover on it, and the cover was found about halfway between home plate and the pitcher's mound.
However, I have this other job. Not so much fun, though it's all right and pays good. More money than I make in baseball, and I'm no slouch there, either.
But this other thing pays me so good it damn near makes baseball a hobby. I'd been recruited for it when I was nothing but a college kid, and I guess had I known I was going to be such a hot shot with the bat, I might never have gotten into it — even though I was real good at it.
You see, I'm a paid assassin for the KGB.
The job and hobby were in direct conflict this day, and I don't have to tell you that you can't lose your job — or your life — over a hobby. I wasn't in any position to quit being an assassin and stick only to baseball. No way. The Kremlin frowns on that sort of attitude. They could care less about "The Great American Pastime," though they liked it because it let me move from city to city without trouble, and no matter what city or when, seemed they always had someone there they wanted killed. So it was nice for them and a nice cover for me. But if I let it get in the way of doing what they wanted, if I didn't do my duty, someone would do their duty on me. And when they finished, wouldn't be enough left of me to stuff first base.
The problem was this: a Russian agent was going to defect. Word was out about it, but he didn't know it. As part of his defection, to prove he was sincere, he was going to pass some Russian documents to a CIA agent. The KGB, being on to him, had substituted some dummy documents without him knowing it, but they still wanted him gotten rid of because he had a head full of real information that might prove a bother. They wanted it so he couldn't tell anyone by voice, sign or writing what he knew. Which, of course, means just what you think it means.
All right, that's okay with me. One more dead person isn't going to bother me. But the lowlife picked the day of my game, and the game itself for passing the information. Ain't that the corker?
Bottom of the ninth, just before the game ended, when everyone would be watching intently, involved with the final score — because no doubt about it, this was going to be a close one —he would pass the material to the agent who would come along selling peanuts. The agent would be recognizable because he'd be wearing a cap with moose antlers on it. One of those silly rigs you can buy in gag and toy stores. After the documents were passed, the defector was supposed to get up and leave.
I had to be out of the game at that point, faking maybe a pulled muscle or something to get me to the showers. From there I could change quick, put on the latex mask I had rolled up in my gear, get out to the lot and strangle the guy, and then get back to the showers. No problem. The thing that worried me was the game. If the game was real close at that point, which it was likely to be, the team just might need me to pull it out of the fire with a homer.
That was my big fear, letting the boys down. Of course, I wasn't crazy about winning the Pennant and ending up as part of first base, either, but it was hard to let something you'd worked so hard for, like the Pennant, go sliding by.
Still, it looked like I didn't have much choice. I could only hope we got such a lead on them that it didn't matter.
True to form, however, things didn't work out that way.
Game was tied up all the way to the eighth, three and three. Our side was holding its own, but I could sense we were slackening. It had only been chance that had kept the other team from bringing in a run a couple of times, and it was one of those intangible things a ball player can tell you about, but can't explain. I could feel the game slipping away from us. It was nearing the ninth and it didn't look as if I was going to get to bat. We had two outs and two strikes on us. I'd eaten off all my fingernails.
Elrod surprised us all and got a piece of the next ball, but it didn't matter. It was scooped up by the shortstop, fired to first, and Elrod was out even before he dropped his bat.
We went outfield.
Well, it was at this point that I should have gone into my act. I didn't. I took my place at shortstop, instead, and took a peek over my shoulder from time to time at the defector's place. And once when I was looking over my shoulder, a ball was hit, went right between my legs and fetched up in the second baseman's glove. He got it to first, and it was an out, but it should have been my ball. I could feel the coach glaring at me from the dugout and I didn't blame him. I either needed to play ball or kill that KGB guy. Trying to do one and worrying about the other wasn't getting either job done.
Our pitcher struck out their worst batter, then McGursky came up to bat. He was their main hitter, and all three runs scored, he'd made. Just like I'd made all of ours. Two of them homers, and one a run I'd batted in ahead of me. McGursky had had one homer, batted in a couple runs ahead of him that time, and now he was looking for his second homer. It was that kind of game. And the way things were going, I was afraid he was going to make it.
My worst fears were realized when the show-off stole my thunder by pointing his bat at left field, then taking the pitch and putting it there. It hit the fence, but by the time left field had recovered, McGursky had already made it. And damned if he didn't grin at me like an idiot when he passed around the bases.
I darn near gritted my teeth to gums.
Score was 4 to 3, their favor.
I'd like to say we played pretty tight ball after that and got the necessary outs by superior pitching, catching, basing and fielding, but the truth is they got so damned confident that they blew it and we got in. Still, it was bottom of the ninth and our last time at bat. And we were a run behind.
'Course it came to mind that I could get sick, get out of the game, do my job, have a miraculous recovery, and get back maybe in time to bat, but that would look awfully suspicious. And a bathroom trip, even if it was a serious one, wouldn't fool anyone. I mean, at this point in the game, no one just strolled out to go to the can unless the problem was terminal. I began to envision first base stuffed with me again, and it wasn't an attractive thought.
To top all of it off, I had that McGursky's grin in my head. Kept thinking about him showing off with my bat-pointing business, even if I did steal it from the Babe, and then putting that homer where he said he would.
I glanced up into the stands for a look at my pigeon, and I could make him out fine. Left field, low center stands, next to the aisle. Wasn't a full stand there. In fact, he was about the only one sitting there. A big, important game like this not getting a full stand was just another sign of the way baseball was going. Chowderheads now wanted to see five hundred pound gorillas in armor run together instead of seeing true grace and skill in action. It was enough to make you feel like the country was going to the dogs.
Our first batter up was Tanner, and he got two strikes on him quick, and on the third he managed a bunt that got him to first, and he wouldn't have got that if the catcher hadn't fumbled the ball when he nabbed it and then thrown a wild pitch to first.
By the grace of God and a fumble, we were on base.
Sorry thing about it was, Tanner, next to me, was the other best batter on our team.
Up now was Rochess, and the only thing he'd ever gotten a hit off was something he threw up in practice with one hand and swatted with the bat in the other. On his way up to bat, I tried to give him a talk on what to watch out for, and though he said, "Gotcha," I figured he'd remember what I said almost to when he got to the batter's box. He didn't take advice well at all.
He got up there and the pitcher wound up and threw him one. And I tell you, that ball seemed to dangle out there like a slow-floating moon, and I saw it coming and thought, Don't do it. But Rochess did. He started his swing and that old moon dropped and the bat whizzed over it and the ump yelled, "Steeerike!"
That was just what I'd told that sucker to watch out for.
The next one was a hanging moon, too, and I figured on the pitcher's strategy and I was right. That old moon came hurtling in, and Rochess waited for it to drop, and of course it didn't, and it hit the catcher's glove with a sound like a cherry bomb going off under a tin can and the ump screamed, "Steeerike two!"
I glanced up at the stands and saw that I'd already pushed my luck too far. I'd kept telling myself I was going to get up any second and get sick, get out of the game and do my job, but I'd just sat there. And now I saw the peanut salesman in the moose hat coming down the steps, walking slow.
The rat was working a bit ahead of schedule. It was a long shot, but if I fell out right at that moment, I could probably make it. Oh, it wouldn't be neat, and I'd probably have to crush the defector's windpipe instead of strangling him like I'd planned, as the KGB wanted it; if not exactly slow, memorable. But this other way he wouldn't know what hit him. I'd just spin him around, terminate him, and get back to the game.
The peanut vendor kept moving down.
And I didn't move. The sweat was beading up under my cap and running down my face, and I kept thinking about first base stuffed with me, but I still didn't move.
"Steeerike three, you're out!"
The pitcher had just thrown Rochess out with an old-fashioned curve ball, and Rochess was so demoralized he walked away from there with his head down, dragging his bat in the dirt.
"Nice work, jerk," the batboy said to him.
"Way to hit," I said as he sat down beside me.
He told me what I could do with myself, but I was only paying half attention. The peanut vendor was almost there. It was now or never.
My name was called to bat, just like I wasn't expecting it or something, and I got up, took a bat, and moved toward the plate like I was in a dream. Damned if I wasn't going to do my best to win the Pennant, and it just didn't make any sense. The Pennant, compared to my life, was nothing. That Pennant wasn't going to have the fun I could have eating, drinking, chasing women. It was going to hang on the clubhouse wall and wasn't even going to miss me when I was gone.
Wasn't any use thinking about it, now, I finally figured, because it was too late. I didn't even try to think of an excuse for the KGB because they wouldn't want to hear one.
I got up there, the bat resting on my shoulder like the Babe, my hands spaced like Ty Cobb, and I snaked my neck a little and looked at the pitcher. He looked like an old bull out there, pawing and ready to run me over. It was the first time a pitcher had ever seemed intimidating to me, and in this case, this guy, though pretty good, wasn't that good. I was just foolishly worried about being stuffed in first base. Ha Ha.
Then the ball was coming my way. That old moon. And I swung.
I hadn't even seen that baby curve! Couldn't believe it. He'd been holding that one out for me special.
From the dugout, Rochess yelled something uncomplimentary about my eyes, and I had to admit to myself that maybe that ball wasn't as special as the circumstances were. Had I been concentrating, he probably wouldn't have gotten that sucker by me.
When I looked up at him, he was grinning. It wasn't as good a grin as the one McGursky had given me, which was the sort that could have made a possum drop dead from the top of an oak, but it was mighty good. I figure it would have at least given a possum a flesh wound. Confidence was hanging on him like stink on a cow plop, and he figured he had my rhythm now.
I figured it, too, after his next ball.
I didn't even swing at it. It seemed to come across the plate like an invisible bullet.
Glancing into the stands, I saw the peanut vendor was even with the defector, and suddenly I knew it didn't matter any more. I'd made my deathbed and was soon to lie in it. Only thing that mattered now was hitting that ball out of the park.
The ball came again, and this time I latched that old magic eye on it, the one that had never failed me, and I got a piece of that little white, round sucker.
Just a piece. Foul ball. It went up and back and over.
I had the pitcher's number now, and it was my turn to grin. One of those bear-slaying grins that Davy Crockett claimed to be privy to.
From the way the pitcher looked back at me, I got the feeling that some of his confidence had fallen off, that he felt maybe I had his number, too.
I tried not to, but just before I stepped into the batter's box again, I took a look at the vendor and the defector. The vendor was taking something from my man and putting it in the peanut tray. The defector got up and started to climb the steps.
I had a sudden thought. I stepped into the box, pointed my bat and said, "Come on, Magic Eye."
The pitcher wound up. The defector took a step up. The ball came soaring, and I went to swinging, and, brethren, I got me all of that ball.
Let me tell you: that bat and me were one and I put everything I had into it, and maybe some I didn't know I had. Later, the papers said I hit it so hard that my feet came off the ground.
Away that ball went. Around that bat swung, still jarring in my hands with the feel of that hit.
I passed McGursky on first, grinned and tipped my hat. He showed me a gesture I'd already seen a number of times. I ran on around, pushing that run ahead of me, knowing that the Pennant was ours.
And though the paper the next day said it was a sad thing that such a beautiful homer, such an exquisite win, had later been spoiled by the discovery that the ball had hit a leaving fan in the back of the head, killing him instantly — and I had to feign some real pain over that — the thing I remember most, the thing that counts, was the team running out to me, cheering, and picking me up on their shoulders and calling out my name. And me, high up above the others, my hands upraised; me, an assassin for the KGB; I was an All-American Hero.
Makes you proud to be an American, huh? Well wrap yourself in red, white, and blue and take a flyer back here next Thursday, May 5, for another spin of the Mojo dial!
"All-American Hero" originally appeared in Espionage Magazine. It was later included in A Fist Full of Stories [and Articles], a collection published by CD Publications. "All-American Hero" © 1986 Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.