Once again, the seventh inning stretch catches me completely off guard. I’ve been in the bigs for a full week now, and still I’m too dumbfounded to keep a firm grasp on what’s happening. It’s not so much that I’m in awe of the game being played on the field as I’m fascinated by the game being played in my head. That’s where the real excitement is. The only problem is that in the game in my head there is no seventh inning; it’s always the bottom of the ninth, the bases are always loaded, and I’m always up. So when the game on the field—the “real” game—reaches the middle of the seventh inning, here I am, perched on the bench, grinning from ear to ear, when I should be hiding out in the showers or running, screaming, into the press box.
The worst thing about it is, until lately, I’ve always loved the seventh inning stretch. I’ve always fancied that seven was a magical number. Magical numbers can go a long way in life. I was even a little excited when I stopped growing, just because of the numbers involved: three feet, seven inches. Talk about your magical numbers. I took it as a sign I’d lead a charmed life. And maybe I was right; after all, here I am, sitting in the dugout of the Saint Louis Browns, in uniform, waiting for an opportunity to sock it to the Detroit Tigers. Magical numbers can go a long way in baseball.
Except that right now the numbers aren’t really working in my favour. Big Rob Wadlow is the first to get his mitts on me. “Stretch time, little buddy.” That’s been his standard line every seventh inning since I’ve arrived; it’s also about the closest I’ve come to having a conversation with a teammate. He tucks me under his arm and carries me up the stairs onto the grass where three others join him. Each takes hold of an arm or a leg and pulls with all his might, acting out what everyone but myself seems to consider a very clever pun. Every game it’s been three different guys; the whole team wants in on the fun. Wadlow’s the only constant and I’m starting to get worried that my right arm actually is getting a little longer (he likes to work the same area). Anyway, I’m a rookie, so for now I’ve got to take what I get; but truth be known, this whole ritual terrifies me. Here I am, surrounded by fifty thousand screaming, pointing, laughing fans while four professional athletes try their damndest to tear me limb from limb. It’s like my worst carnival nightmare come to life. But then, I have to accept at least partial responsibility. My grin doesn’t help matters much; they see it as a sign of compliance. Really, it’s just an outward reaction to the game in my head—I’ve just cleared the bags with a screaming line drive down the third base side.
Then it’s all over, as suddenly as it began, and I’m propped back into place in the dugout, like some stuffed toy mascot. My joints hurt and my heart’s racing and I just can’t get the game in my head to come back on. Baseball fantasies get more and more difficult to hold onto once you’ve been subjected to the cold, hard reality of it all. So I let my mind drift off in another direction: back home to the missus. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give right now for a long wet kiss, to feel her whiskers tickling my chin. A part of me even wants to see Brutus again. At least when that big oaf tossed me around he had enough concern for my safety to use a net. Besides, a strong man does have to keep in shape, so I really can’t judge him too harshly for throwing me over the high wire now and then. And then, I wasn’t the only one being stared at. In the “Funland Fair” everybody was equal; a freak was a freak, whether you were the Bearded Lady, the Smallest Living Man On Earth, or Brutal Brutus Beefcake. As far as everyone else was concerned, we were interchangeable—so different that we were all the same.
Of course, the war made everyone feel a little strange. But when people saw us they seemed to find some comfort in our strangeness. All that was needed to convince most folk that the world was still sane was to compare it to a world made up of fat ladies and dwarves. Then, all of a sudden, the war was over. Normalcy was back and the world was intent on forgetting that it had ever gone missing. It also seemed pretty intent on forgetting about us.
“Funland Fair” kept touring. We still went from town to town and we still filled the tent from time to time. But things were different. People came to see the acrobats and the lion tamers: humanity in all its glory. Freaks like me? They put us into booths and behind curtains and charged cruel children a dime to taunt us and throw things. The truth is, we weren’t earning our keep anymore and, one way or another, Mr. Bojangals wanted us out. Most complied. But Jenny and I decided to stay on; carnival life was all that we knew. And besides, as long as we were together that’s all that really mattered. Brutus stayed on with the hopes of getting into the main show. He figured a strong man was every bit as interesting and appealing as an acrobat. As for Bertha, she endured for the sake of Brutus.
We held out that way for almost five years until, one day in ‘50, Mr. Bojangals told us to leave, straight up. So we packed our bags, threw them onto Brutus’ broad shoulders and headed off for Pennsylvania to stay with Bertha’s sisters while we looked for work. But we soon found out that, when you’re different, it can be pretty hard to find work. People get so hung up on trying to figure out what you are that they never take the time to find out what you can do. So one day the four of us sat down and tried to figure it out for ourselves.
The answer was obvious: fastball. It was Jenny who came up with the idea. Back when the “Funland Fair” was a better place to be we relaxed between shows by playing fastball. Freaks versus the performers. Freaks always won and it just so happens we four were the star players. But Jenny was the key. Jenny’s the most dominant windmill pitcher you’ve ever laid eyes on. So we formulated a plan and became a four player team. Before we knew it we were back in showbiz, touring the country, drawing sell-out crowds, playing exhibition games against anyone and everyone. Only now we were finally being recognized for what we could do instead of what we were. Granted, we were a curiosity what with a bearded lady pitching from second base to a fat lady at home while a strong man shagged flies in the outfield and a dwarf manned first. But what really made people sit up and take notice was something far more simple than all that: in over a year’s worth of fastball, playing almost every day of the season, we never lost a game.
So a couple of weeks ago, when the scouts started snooping around, I wasn’t surprised. I’d figured they’d get wind of Jenny’s arm sooner or later. Except we soon found out that they weren’t interested in Jenny at all. It was the fellow from St. Louis who explained it to us. Jenny pitches underhand and “there’s no room for an underhand pitcher in serious baseball.” Then he turned his head, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “I’m here for you.” At first I was in shock; I’d always considered myself the weak link. My numbers just didn’t match up. Jenny had pitched 31 perfect games in just over a year, not to mention 3608 strikeouts in 1444 innings. Bertha had gone the same number of innings without allowing a passed ball, or even a wild pitch (and Jenny can get pretty wild when her beard gets twisted). And Brutus had hit 349 home runs in 171 games, including a couple that went at least 700 feet. Now those are some magical numbers. But when I thought it over it started to make more sense. I may have had only 18 hits, but I was also batting 1.000 with 1645 walks (when there are only four players on the team you tend to get a lot of plate appearances). And besides, my strike zone is small enough that I can afford to wait for my pitch; so all my hits went for extra bases.
The others soon talked me into taking a shot at it. Within a week I was on the roster of the St. Louis Browns sporting the number 1/8 which, if you subtract the top from the bottom, gives you a seven. But, like I said earlier, the numbers aren’t really working for me lately. I’ve spent a full week on the bench without so much as one at bat, except for those I get in the game in my head. But right now I can’t get that game back on and I’m stuck with the one on the field. I peek out at the scoreboard to get my bearings. Somehow we’ve reached the ninth inning, but the game isn’t over yet; it’s tied up, four all. I look out onto the field: we’re at bat and we have runners on first and third. This game’s actually worth watching. The scoreboard tells me that there are two outs and the panicked dialogue of the coaches tells me that we’re all out of pitchers. If we’re going to win, we have to win it here. Lefty Hatcher steps up to the plate and Wadlow steps into the on deck circle. The trip from the dugout takes him only four steps. I always find myself counting Wadlow’s steps. The guy is amazing. He can walk from home to first in less than 25; it takes me 77 (I could do it in 70 but I double up for luck). Anyway, Wadlow doesn’t get many walks. He’s one of the most explosive hitters in the league and he likes to swing away and make things happen. Guys like Wadlow live for situations like this. If Lefty can get on, the game is in Wadlow’s hands.
The ump yells “BALL FOUR!” and, with that, the bases are juiced. But just as Wadlow’s stepping towards the plate something strange happens. Coach calls him back. Then he walks over my way and, without ever really reaching me, or even looking at me for that matter, he mumbles “Get out there Gaedel.” I hop down off the bench and calmly walk over to select a bat from the bat rack. Inside I’m in shock. I suspect that I’m back playing the game in my head but Wadlow’s cold eyes, coupled with a strange mixture of boos and laughter from the crowd, suggest that this is the real thing.
So what’s the big deal? This is why I’m here. I take a couple of deep breaths and, after having been told not to bother with my practice swings, I step up to the plate. The pitcher just grins at me but I know who has the upper hand. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for. This is my chance to finally show my stuff. The problem with playing exhibition fast ball was that we rarely faced a pitcher who could hit my strike zone. But when one did, I always gave the ball a ride. The way I figure it, this guy’s a pro; he can put the ball where I like it. And right now, with the bases loaded and the game on the line, he has no choice but to pitch to me.
I look over at third to check the signs. The third base coach tugs his ear, that’s my tip; third sign after that tells me what’s on. It’s a tip of the cap: I’m taking all the way. I’d rather swing, but the call makes sense; this guy did just walk Lefty on five pitches. He goes into his wind-up and then the ball comes hurling towards me. It’s low and in the dirt, but the catcher comes up with it.
The ritual begins all over again and once again I’m taking all the way. At least the pitcher isn’t grinning anymore. His second pitch is better than the first but it’s still a bit low.
Now he has to pitch one to me. I look over to third expecting the swing away sign. Instead I get another tip of the cap. But when the ball comes towards me it’s just too pretty to resist. Down the middle of the plate, no movement at all and slightly high; just where I like it. I take a mammoth swing and send the ball on a line to the gap in left. The place goes nuts as I round first and my teammates gather me up on their shoulders and start singing rounds of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow...” But that’s just the game in my head coming back on. In this game I’m taking all the way.
The pitcher’s rattled. He starts jawing at the ump who tells him “that last pitch was just a little high for such a little guy.” That eases the tension somewhat and we’re back in business. I don’t even bother checking the signs this time. With three balls and the bases loaded I’d tip my own cap if it were up to me. I’m taking all the way. The pitcher lobs one in, fat and straight, but it comes up just a little short.
I drop the bat and wait for the cheers of the fans. All I get is laughter. I wait for my teammates to storm the field but when I look to the dugout they’re already heading up the ramp to the showers. The guys on the base paths just hang their heads and advance 90 feet in an effort to bring the game to a close. But they can’t do it without me; this game is mine now and it isn’t over until I end it. I wait for a minute, then two, and finally people start to take notice. First the umps, then the coaches, then the players, and then the fans. They all join together in encouraging me to get it over with. And so, with a hundred thousand eyes fixed on me and only me, I raise my head in the air and half walking, half leaping, make my way down the line to first in exactly 25 steps.
"Zone" was first published in Issue 13 (Fall 2000) of The Gaspereau Review.