Baseball Story from SB J

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THE NIGHT CARL DeCARLO WENT DOWN

I can see him now, that long-ago summer night in our Smalltown USA ballfield, under the lights, striding up to home plate to meet his Destiny.

Now, Carl DeCarlo was one of those strikingly handsome bachelors that women of all ages and political persuasions swoon over. One of those. I probably hated him for that alone. About 27. You know, in his absolute glorious prime.

He had those long flowing black curly locks, and thick black eyebrows and mustache that made him even more dashing. His eyes and teeth sparkled. Seriously. He had one of those perfect gladiator noses and chiseled jawlines. And the sonofabitch always seemed to be flashing a smile. Come to think of it now, a dead ringer for Clark Gable. Or Stallone. An Italian Stallion all right. Right here in little old Ukiah.

DeCarlo worked out with weights and jogged all the time, of course. I know for sure I hated him for that. Even in the dead of winter you’d see him running gracefully down the street like some Olympic athlete in his red-and-black sweatsuit, with zippers and pockets and all, sporting designer running shoes with reflectors for night-running, and that cute white terrycloth headband around his forehead that you’d just wanna tear off him. Even in the wind and rain of winter, he’d be jogging along and smiling away like he just had sex or something.

He was damn near the perfect specimen. But you know, he never said it, but I could just tell, if you looked and listened close enough, DeCarlo had what you might call a personal problem with the fact that in his stocking feet he stood only about 5-foot-10. Now any guy this close to Michaelangelo’s David should be at least, oh, 6-2-, 6-4. Not 5-10. Hopefully a small dick too. I wouldn’t know, but I like the thought of it.

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We actually knew each other on a barely first-name basis, and might nod to each other casually if passing on the street. You see he was some kind of counselor at the local Mental Health Department – figures, doesn’t it? – and he had a big office with a hot secretary and all. I don’t rightly know, never was there, but he probably had one of those huge “Gone With The Wind” posters on his wall and a couple trophies on his desk to boot.

Come to think of it, our older pitcher Berle – who might stand maybe 5-2 if you plugged his finger into an electrical socket – was a mental health guy himself, A PhD psychologist, in fact, who took strong exception to Randy Newman’s song “Short People Got No Reason To Live”. A height-challenged round and balding hippie dope-smoking psychologist, and notoriously dirty old man. My kind of guy.

I’ll get back to Berle in a minute.

Actually, truth be known, I kind of liked this DeCarlo guy some, what little I really knew of him. I mean I’d spoken a word or two with him here and there, and he was a pretty nice guy I guess. Almost too nice, if you know what I mean. I didn’t like him being that nice. But he had a decent sense of humor and was a bit hip. An essentially harmless guy if he wasn’t so damn handsome. Because as is well known, you just can’t trust someone that handsome, that’s all there is to it.

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How DeCarlo ever came to play shortstop for Black Bart, I’ll never know or care to. Black Bart, you see, was my King Kong’s arch rival, which I’ll take a moment here to explain.

Among the ten or so teams in our podunk slowpitch softball league that summer, Black Bart was a collection of mostly young attorneys (who everyone hates) and administrators and the like (ditto), who in their zeal for kicking little folks’ asses had recruited this gorilla DeCarlo for their squad. I can only suppose these guys were trying to project some kind of cool, bad-ass image by naming themselves after our local wild-west hero: stagecoach-robbing gentleman poet Black Bart. But these guys weren’t cool and they sure as hell weren’t bad-asses. For one thing, they had clean-and-matching jerseys and hats. Hell, these guys were golfers, for chrissake. And martini drinkers, with olives and onions and twists and all that. Young aspiring neckties who practiced preventative maintenance on their fancy cars and shaved with electric razors. Stuff like that. They wouldn’t hardly even slide into a base for instance, out of concern for their new and pressed baseball pants. But if they did happen to slide or did somehow fail to avoid a dirt stain, they’d be right proud of the emblem, sort of marveling at it and strutting in front of the grandstand to display it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the dandies had matching cleats.

But I digress. Forgive me. Time does play tricks on memory, especially a memory compromised by decades of smoke and drink and relationships with the female gender. I’m sure these men continue to be credits to their communities, wherever the winds of Fate have scattered them. Those that ain’t dead yet, anyway. They played decent ball, and I wish them no ill. It was a long time ago, and I’m sure we could pass in the street nowadays without serious incident. Even DeCarlo.

Anyway, we boys out on the ball-field on that summer night of yesteryear, were King Kong.

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Now this Kong Kong name had sort of come upon me and Buzz as we were musing drunk one dark night the previous winter, following yet another winless season as the rag-tag counterculture Mariposa Zen Masters. Although “winless” isn’t technically correct. We were in fact credited with one victory during the second year when the opposing team failed to show up. I think I heard that the forfeit had something to do with the schedules getting out late or something like that. Probably because administrators and lawyers gravitate toward positions of power, even within our humble little softball league.

It wasn’t Black Bart who didn’t show, that’s for sure., because they took special pleasure in kicking our communist-sympathizing, dope-smoking, free-loving, dirty-hippie, Zen Master asses. They seemed, however, to like our little band of womenfolk fans just fine. Especially Suzy Creamcheeze.

So when us boys loosely gathered at the bar next spring to discuss the prospect of yet another season of total humiliation and fabulous post-game parties, I threw out the name King Kong and the boys kind of took to it. Something about it made us feel like important or finally understood or something big and mysterious like that, so much so that a motion was even made and passed over Tony’s strong objection that we each wear some form of foot-covering this season.

In fact, we got so worked up that Berle and a couple of the boys later went down to the bowling alley and recruited us an actual coach. He was an older guy who had umpired a few games the year before, always in his characteristic outfit of camo cargo pants and beer-stained workshirt with the sleeves roughly scissored off, exposing his hairy stubby arms. We found him at the Ukiah Bowl, finishing up a frame, puffing on a Lucky Strike with another cig still burning in the ashtray, and pouring down Budweisers between rolls. I mean this old guy – who was rather short and round and balding himself now that I think of it – this gray-stubbled ex-Marine who didn’t tell us he was dying of cancer at the time – he really took to us. Couldn’t’ believe that a bunch of scruffy kids like us would ask a fading glory like him to make an actual ball team out of us sows ears. Which he did.

Frank was his name, and he came to love us like sons. We became the little light he had left in his bloodshot eyes. Nobody else would have us. Nobody else would have him. King Kong and Frank: it was a match made in heaven, or the other place, depending on your point of view.

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And this King Kong pride-in-self thing caught on with the womenfolk too, and out of the blue Peter D’s galflriend Susie Myers shows up with these really cool handsewn white t-shirts with black shortsleeves. Hell, we pulled out the stops and put numbers on them, though in deference to the malcontents among us we each had our own individual way of choosing a number, which might involve decimals, fractions, square roots and such.

I don’t want to bore you with the details, but we had one helluva season. Buzz did a lot of diving catches, and Dave pulled his hamstring regularly. Peter D hit a couple homers, Handsome Tim and Kit alternated showing up as catchers, and the Kusina brothers added their own element of confusion to the lineup. And to top it off, that stoned shrink Berle was our little ace on the mound, when he wasn’t over behind the trees sucking on his miniature one-hit hash-pipe branded “The Automatic” – a marvel of modern science at the time.

I mean to say by the end of the season us and Black Bart were at the top of the damn league! Kate had started showing up in a King Kong cheerleading outfit, with pom-poms and ribbons in her hair – swear to God – and Carrie and Cheri and Creamcheeze and Gina and Billy (“fan most ejected by umpires”) got some rousing good cheers going, I can tell you. Cheers not commonly heard in mixed company, and cheers that forever altered our community standards. There were cheers that were not discernible from group laughter. There were cheers for the opposing team at odd times. And cheers for dogs running across the playing field, for weather phenomena, and so forth. People who didn’t care a lick for baseball started showing up just for the spectacle, and for hits off Creamcheeze’s bottomless whiskey flask.

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And I’ll be damned too if one night someone doesn’t show up with this gong thing made out of like a tin garbage can lid or something, with a hand-painting of Kong himself on it, atop the Empire State Building, complete with the beautiful flailing gal in one hand. And when our increasing number of fans would want some action, somebody’d pick up that gong over their head and beat it with this big beater, you see, and everybody’d start letting out ape-calls and all sorts of jungle stuff, and start chanting “Kong! Kong! Kong!”, and us boys’d get all the more prouder and testosterone-injected, and hell, we actually played some damn good ball I’m telling you.

Frank was real proud, and after games he passed out cigarettes to anyone who would have them, which was most of us in those days. And for a change we were proud of ourselves, too, although for some strange reason which baffles me to this day, the post-game parties became less lively. I guess we were “maturing”, or something equally dreadful.

Well, as you can imagine, it was quite a buildup to the championship game against Black Bart. Indeed it was. The night before the big game I paid to have a poem run on the sports page of what passes for a newspaper in this town. It’s called the Daily Journal, but it’s popularly known hereabouts as the Daily Urinal. The poem read:

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Black Bart he was an outlaw,

he died cuzz he done wrong.

He robbed the stagecoach strongbox,

and left them with a song.

King Kong was a lover,

for beauty he did die.

They hunted him and hounded him

and shot him in the eye.

Listen and beware, Black Bart

the sound of yonder gong

Tis calling for the vengeance

of His Majesty King Kong.

Black Bart got the message all right. And they were none too happy about that poem the next night, under the lights at the lumpy ball-field, in front of a packed crowd of maybe a hundred rowdy fans, when we got together for the rumble.

Berle Nahman Post stood in distinct contrast to Carl DeCarlo that night or another other night. Berle wasn’t much to look at, at least by Hollywood standards. He was our little Jewish Buddhist guy, the Judah-Buddha, with an emerging double-chin, beloved by all who knew him. Especially the ladies. At 40-something he was our oldest player, yes, with heart trouble and a wrinkle or two in his face, but his spirit definitely ran with us boys. And women, for some reason, would love to reach down and rub his balding head, and he would love to rub them anywhere they’d let him, which they often did for some strange reason. He was good with the women, as they say. Went on to marry a woman half his age. Another of Life’s mysteries…

I loved that man, still do for that matter, about as much as a man can love. He once said as much about me, although he said it about others as well, and meant it. He was my mentor, and his teachings still guide my life, bless his dearly departed soul. Dropped dead of a heart attack some years back, running down the basketball court at age 57, coaching kids. His gravesite is up on a knoll at the old Hopland cemetery, overlooking the fertile Sanel Valley, sweeping across to the majestic Duncan Peak. It’s as beautiful a resting place as can be, complete with a granite pyramid, compliments of his widow, a couple foot tall, inscribed: “Sought knowledge, wisdom, love, and pleasure”. Amen to that brother, amen to that.

It’s a site visited even by people who never met Berle, and I most always find new offerings left there by pilgrims whenever I get a chance to stop by for a visit. Lots of joints and now vape pens. Stones and spiritual tokens. It’s a power spot up there, with a granite sitting bench. I myself had some sex on that bench one night, years ago.

But again I digress. Forgive me.

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Now of course, Carl DeCarlo was the guy in the league who could hit home runs. Out of the park. What they’d call today “tape measure” homers because they’re so long. Nobody on all ten teams could come close to crushing a ball the way DeCarlo could. The women and children in the stands were known to actually gasp and men’s jaws to drop when he’d launch one that’d disappear into the darkness beyond the lights: a feat he would perform with inhuman regularity. He was well known and well hated in the league.

Berle was somewhat known in the league himself. He had an unpredictable and unorthodox approach to pitching which no one seemed to understand, least of all himself. It may be recalled for instance that he did one time bowl the ball to the plate, and would occasionally throw a left-handed pitch for variety. But it turned out he saved the best for last.

Black Bart wore white-on-black that fateful night, and King Kong wore black-on-white. There was no moon. The atmosphere was charged and heavy. There was talk of a rare summer storm heading our way, though I recall the air as dead still. The tension ran high.

You can rightly suppose it was a tight game. A hit or two here. A run or two there. Back and forth. Few errors, great plays, and close calls. But to be honest with you, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun out there. I played first base and got kicked by a couple unhappy runners that night. It was damn pressured, and even the cheering was kind of edgy, on both sides. I mean the Black Bart guys weren’t all bad, but this was “business”, as they say.

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Sure enough it’s a Bart on third with two out in the bottom half of the last inning, and we’re winning by 1. Berle’s on the mound, calm as a monk, looking like Mr. Natural himself, bald head shining in the light. I’m looking in from first base — the absolute best pitcher/batter view in the house – and wouldn’t you just know it, DeCarlo comes strutting up to the plate, winking over at Creamcheeze in the grandstands, cocksure that this is Destiny calling his name. The kind of Destiny known only to the chosen ones, and which he will be glad to share with us little folks in this moment. It was Destiny. His Destiny. And it was here and it is now.

I’m feeling like I’m witnessing some epic contest, like between beauty and the beast, pride and poetry, David and Goliath, I don’t know. It’s surreal. I make some stupid comment like “Get ‘im, Berle” and slap my glove, though somehow I know that I will have no role in the outcome of this mismatch. DeCarlo stands there swinging his bat around with that glint in his eye that I hate. He takes his place in the batter’s box, digging up the dirt with his spikes like a bull getting ready to charge. “Play ball!”, the ump shouts.

Berle’s first pitch is right at the belt and way the hell inside. DeCarlo pulls back and looks angrily at Berle, sensing for the first time that Berle might intentionally walk him, robbing him of this glorious moment. The air begins to stir. DeCarlo steps further back from the plate to prepare for another inside pitch. So Berle lobs in one that’s just outside. I can see DeCarlo’s eyes watching the ball arrive, seeing that it’s coming in close to the outside corner of the plate, and he’s struggling about whether to swing at it or not. It’s close. And at the last second he does. A late swing at an outside pitch, but good contact. A long foul ball ten feet off the right field line.

DeCarlo steps back from the plate, visibly angry with himself for his indecisiveness. Takes a deep breath to settle himself down. Berle just stands there with his arms at his side: quiet, relaxed, stoned out of his mind, waiting compassionately. He allows DeCarlo to dig his heels into the dirt again and signal his readiness for another pitch. DeCarlo gives a little nod and Berle gives one back and proceeds to loft the ball completely over the backstop.

Now this was never done, anywhere anytime to my knowledge, before or since, here or anywhere else, and it caused considerable consternation on and off the field that night. It is still spoken of with passion and some disdain in certain quarters. The ump, to his credit, is unflappable, directing the agitated crowd to shut-up and the game to proceed.

But Frank calls for time-out. He pushes himself out of his broken down folding chair he always brought to the games, hobbles to the mound, and just stands there looking at Berle for an explanation. Berle doesn’t say anything. Frank doesn’t say anything. He turns around and hobbles back to his old chair shaking his head and muttering to himself.

DeCarlo is about seeing red now, feeling that this little old fat bald guy is playing him for a dupe. He is not smiling. He is not amused. He squeezes the bat as though he’s choking someone to death. His muscles tense. His practice swings become slow and focused as he stands waiting for the next pitch. He will maintain control.

Now you see, in “slowpitch” softball when the arc of a pitch is over ten-feet high, as in Berle’s previous pitch, the ump calls out “High pitch!” when the ball is still in mid-air, so the batter doesn’t have to strike at it, though the batter still has that option.

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Well, this particular pitch is up there. It seems to pause at its peak and you can almost see a ten-foot tape measure down to the ground. You can’t help but strain to see if it reads 1/100 of an inch above or below ten-foot. The ball seems suspended there and the red laces are visible. It causes you to hold your breath in wonder. The batter’s wondering, the crowd’s wondering, the ump wonders. It seems I can see the words “High pitch!” rising in the ump’s throat just as the ball begins to fall back to earth. DeCarlo – listening hard but hearing nothing from the ump, knowing he’s got two strikes left to choose from, and not wanting to make a fool of himself by overswinging at a marginal pitch – let’s the ball drop with a thud behind the plate. There’s a certain anger in the ump’s voice as he finally forces out “Strike two!”, glaring at Berle. Umps generally don’t like being pushed to the limit like that. They tend to prefer a nice clean game with no close calls, you see.

DeCarlo throws a glance of rage and disbelief first at the ump and then at Berle, who stands stoned and unruffled on the mound. I can hear a deep, seething hiss coming through DeCarlo’s clenched jaw, like I’d expect to hear in The Exorcist or from a wild wolverine or something fierce like that. His muscles tighten as he lowers his head and pounds his bat against the plate. He raises the bat to his shoulder, takes his stance, and draws a deep breath, signaling that he’s ready. A humid breeze crosses the field and the air falls still again. Thunder rolls in the dark distance. Somebody’s banging the gong and our gang is shouting “Kong! Kong! Kong!”.

Berle’s next pitch hits the ground halfway to the plate and rolls to a stop at DeCarlo’s feet. The crowd breaks into laughter, but not so DeCarlo. He’s ready to storm the mound and take Berle out, I can tell. At least he’s thinking about it. Instead, he kicks the ball to the catcher, clears his throat, and begins pounding the plate with the bat again. The catcher throws the ball back and without so much as a moment’s hesitation Berle immediately returns a low pitch just as DeCarlo is lifting the bat to his mighty shoulder. The pitch comes in at the lowest legally permissible arc and DeCarlo appears suddenly disoriented and panicked. I can see him gasp for a breath as his eyes attempt to find the speeding ball. His muscles suddenly bulge. He throws his giant arms toward the plate and clumsily swings the bat a foot above the passing ball, losing his balance in the process.

“Strike three!” yells the ump, and I distinctly recall a moment of absolute stillness and silence, could have heard a feather drop, before the stunned crowd erupts and us guys all start jumping up and down on the field. And Carl DeCarlo drops his bat, drops his head, and walks off into the night as his teammates stand shocked and crestfallen in their matching hats.

Kate is doing somersaults where you can see her underpants, Carrie makes her cleavage known to Buzz, Gina and Billie are pounding each other on the back, and Creamcheeze is thinking maybe she won’t take DeCarlo up on his gracious offer of a date. Cheri’s banging the gong like crazy while old cancer-ridden Frank sits on the sidelines in his beat-up old lawn chair and weeps with pride and joy; the last game he’ll ever see. As me and the team rush him, Berle is standing with a sweet little smile on his face, glancing over at Creamcheeze with her raised whiskey flask, looking like he’s the fox in the henhouse. Or the Buddha in the dope garden is more like it.

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It was a damn good party that night. Lots of laughter and chatter and cheap champagne. Lots of knowledge, love, wisdom, and pleasure, thanks to Berle Nahman Post.

The next day the following appeared in the Daily Urinal:

And now the dust has settled,

and love have edged out hate.

Black Bart he scored seven,

but King Kong he scored eight.

J is one of the of the Bonobo Boys of Mendocino. He lives in Ukiah, which is “haiku” spelled backwards, a fact of head-scratching significance.

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