August 16, 1920
It was a hot one out there.
The kind of stinging late summer heat that sliced right through the heavy wool uniforms we were wearing.
It was the top of the fifth inning at the Polo Grounds. Boy, those damn Yankees fans were really on us that day. It was a big game after all, but those Bronx bums just wouldn’t zip it. Mays was on the bump. Carl, not Willie. Who’s Willie Mays? Why do I know that name? I feel like I shouldn’t, but somehow, I do.
Mays was a tough hurler. His strange submarine delivery made things even tougher, especially by now in the fifth with the ball covered in dirt and tobacco and God knows what else; it was hard to see. I remember Speaker telling me before the game to back off the plate, but I liked challenging the pitcher, especially if the third sacker was playing back, where I could get a bunt down.
Mays went into his wind up and delivered the pitch.
I remember being in the stuffy elevator. It was hot and hard to breathe. “For God’s sake don’t call Kate.” I said to John Henry, my closest friend, who seemed like he was holding me up. I wasn’t sure why.
An old tune that I knew to be called “Good-Bye Boys, I’m Through” kept ringing in my head. I used to whistle this little ditty out of habit, everywhere I went. I kept hearing it, though it sounded disoriented now; distant, and altogether unsettling.
Suddenly a voice pierced the wispy music.
“Chappie? Chappie! There you are, kid!” It was a familiar voice.
“Spoke? What are you – where are – what’s happened?” I said to my old manager, teammate and friend, Tris Speaker.
He let out a hearty laugh.
“Been looking for you for a while, Chap. Knew you were here someplace.”
That damned song started playing again.
I looked around the strange room. If you can even call it a room, that is. There were no walls that I could see, but the ground felt solid, though unfamiliar. A silvery sky shone brightly as half-transparent images seemed to phase in and out of my vision, like a mirage reflecting off the horizon. It was a fast and confusing scene, but felt oddly comfortable, like I had been here for some time.
Thoughts and vague remembrances kept flirting with me. Where is here? Why do I keep thinking about Carl Mays? And why do I keep hearing this song?
“What’s going on?” I asked, looking around. “I remember the game, Spoke.”
Spoke, yes, that was his nickname, I recalled.
“Then John was with me in the elevator…then you were here. What – “
“Relax, you’re right where you are supposed to be, kid.”
Speaker smiled reassuringly as he put a strong hand on my shoulder. “It happened to me too, the confusion. It’s just some kind of a rule here, I reckon. We had to see if you really were supposed to come with us.”
“Come where?” I asked.
Spoke’s smile widened along with his eyes. I know that smile. It feels like I haven’t seen it in a hundred years, but only the great Tris Speaker could whip up an excited grin like that; like a schoolchild about to head from arithmetic class to recess.
He only smiled that way when we were about to play ball.
“Wait a second, Spoke. Where’s Kate? Where’s Rae?” I asked.
“They’re here. They are right where they are supposed to be too.” Spoke answered.
Little by little my memories were coming back: Growing up in southern Illinois, playing ball, the Indians, Spoke, my wife Kate and our daughter.
My beautiful daughter Rae, whom I never met.
She died when she was young – and away from me. Or was it me having been pulled away from her?
How do I know this?
As I walked with Spoke, we chatted. With each step it seemed the amnesia was starting to clear up and I was remembering now – but this part was new. There were others around us now. I couldn’t really see them though. They seemed to gently phase in and out just like my surroundings before. But I heard them. Lots of chatter – they sounded like ballplayers yackin’ it up!
Suddenly, clear as a bell, I heard someone shout “stick it you bastard!” followed by laughter. Then the silvery mist rolled away and there stood my friend Tris, grinning again, but in a different setting.
“Look.” he said, his arms outstretched.
I felt a surprised excitement. We were in the old clubhouse. Our clubhouse at League Park in Cleveland.
Spoke and I were in our old uniforms, and the distant thrum of the crowd could be heard droning above and around us. Yet somehow, I knew League Park was torn down long ago. This very clubhouse was demolished and filled in with earth, a concrete tomb under the graveyard above. How could we be here?
“You’re going to love this, Chap. The game goes on forever here.” Spoke said.
“This is the one part you’ve been missing.”
“What part, Spoke? What the hell does that mean?”
“We just had to make sure you were ready. The waiting is tough, I know. But let’s go,” he said.
We walked out of the clubhouse, down a short flight of steps and into a long tunnel. At least it seemed long right at this moment. Longer than I remember it. After a few steps, I turned and looked back and saw the tunnel went on for what looked like miles, and the room we had just left had vanished. Then another short flight of steps appeared before us – these I also knew. They led to our dugout. I began to wonder again.
We emerged not into the dugout but strangely in left-center field.
Instantly, we were engulfed by the bright, sunlit blue sky – sky so blue and sun so bright you’d think it would sizzle your eyes, but it didn’t. It was a perfect summer day. Ballplayers were warming up on the field, only this was a field unlike any I had ever seen before.
“I told you, Chap. Worth the wait.” Spoke said proudly.
We walked toward the third base dugout and as we inched closer the huge, imposing grandstands began to materialize from out of nowhere, with thousands of fans packing the place. The unmistakable smells of the ballpark – tobacco, popcorn, stale beer, hot dogs – erupted around me like an ocean wave. Sounds of countless voices on the field and in the stands burst with pregame energy as an announcer bellowed the starting lineups toward the crowd. In the first row just beside the dugout sat Kate and Rae, waving their arms frantically in my direction.
I ran to them.
“My darling!” I said before kissing my wife and picking up my daughter to become enveloped in one of her neck-crushing hugs. It felt like I hadn’t seen either one in ages.
“If perfect could be more perfect, this is it,” Kate was beaming. “This is the last part for you. For us. Go get ‘em!” She smiled.
I still wasn’t sure what this “part” was about, but I think I understood well enough. Looking around, I noticed that Spoke and I were the only Indians players on the field. Fellas from the White Sox, Athletics, Browns, Cubs, Senators and more, were all here too, like this was a monumental game of all stars. There were even players here from the minors and other teams I never heard of. Some of their uniforms were bizarre looking, as if from the future.
Teams were chosen like you would in a schoolyard game, and we played. Oh, how we all played!
It was perhaps the greatest game ever, or never, played at any ballpark. There was more joy, more pure bliss in this game than I ever experienced on any field before. It was different at first, having to get used to new teammates – guys like Rogers Hornsby and Cap Anson. Luckily, I still had Spoke on my team. He seemed to be looking out for me from the moment we got here, always making sure I was paying attention to something or expecting the unknown. The great Addie Joss took the mound for our team and we were to face a lad named Pud Galvin. Looking toward the bullpen, we had Smoky Joe Wood and my old pal Stan Coveleski ready to go just in case. The other team had Rube Benton and Lefty Williams among others in their pen, prepared to step in for Galvin if our batsmen got to him.
It was the two greatest teams ever assembled.
Throughout the game, more and more memories came back. Only they were deeper than memories. They felt like knowledge. I didn’t know everyone on the field, nor the fans in the stands except my family, but something felt like I did, or was about to. Something felt very right here. I just didn’t know precisely where here was. Only that I knew I belonged.
The game ended in just as spectacular a fashion as it began.
It was the bottom of the eleventh with two outs and the score tied, 2-2. Galvin gave way to Williams in the ninth and he had the same great stuff I had faced before. We pushed runs across in the fourth and eighth innings but the other boys matched them each time. Spoke gave me the hit away sign, although I had a bunt single earlier in the game – which I pushed down the first base line. Nobody dared bunt toward third base, where Buck Weaver prowled the grounds like a hunter cat ready to pounce on a daring mouse. Not even Cobb would lay one down toward third when he played against the Sox. Weaver was too good, too fast and had too strong of an arm.
I fouled off the first pitch. Then took ball one low and away. I noticed my teammate, a foreign fellow named Roberto Clemente shuffling far off second base with the pitch. He was going to get a good jump. A single would score him easily.
Williams rocked back and fired, going low and away again. The pitch caught just enough of the plate and I whacked at it, slicing a blue darter toward right center field. I hit it well, but with that speedy gent Cool Papa Bell playing center, who already killed three would-be triples in the game, I feared it might not get down. As I ran toward first base with my eyes on the ball, Clemente was already rounding third. All the ball had to do was land anywhere other than Bell’s glove and we win.
As if by some ethereal breeze blowing suddenly in, the ball held up just a hair and dropped right in front of Bell’s diving attempt. Safe hit.
The overflow crowd roared in approval as I rounded first base, my teammates mobbing around Clemente who had scored the winning run. My Lord have I missed this, I thought to myself, wondering just how long it’s been.
We celebrated on the field, jumping around, shaking hands, patting each other on the cap, as you do after a big victory. In the stands, Kate and Rae cheered and clapped, their smiles warming every single part of me. I had never felt such pure contentment. Yet, something still felt unanswered.
I ran to Kate, eager to share my excitement.
“You were great Ray! I’m so happy Tris brought you here!” Kate said, basking in the celebratory atmosphere.
“Me too, only where – ,” I began before Kate shushed me and with her little demure smile motioned toward the outfield cut behind second base.
There stood Spoke, and two others. All the other players had apparently gone – how so quickly, I could only guess.
I walked to them, as they jeered and laughed after such a fine ballgame.
“Way to go Chappie,” said the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, my old friend and teammate in Cleveland, whom I later played against when he was sold to the White Sox. He played on the other team today, collected a pair of hits and even stole home on Joss in the fifth. Same ‘ol Joe.
“Thanks Joe, you too!” I said as we shook hands. “Up to your usual tricks swiping home like that!”
Joe shrugged with that you-know-me expression of his.
“See you tomorrow.” Joe said as he nodded knowingly to Spoke, which drew my curious gaze, and walked off, slyly winking at me as he did.
The other man, our busher of a catcher, remained near but said nothing. In all the activity of the game, we hadn’t spoken, despite being on the same team. He looked wide-eyed at Spoke and I like we were some sort of heroic figures.
Suddenly, my curiosity was satisfied. One after another, images came to mind: The boys, traveling on trains, the crowds, my family, the Polo Grounds…Mays’ pitch…the hospital…and finally, a pale gray headstone that read:
Raymond Johnson Chapman
I couldn’t move for a beat.
“You know, now.” Spoke said, giving me an understanding look. “You’ve been here for a bit, Chap. Longer than me actually, if you want to know. You had to be with others first, but it’ll all come back to you.”
“How long has it really been?” was my blank retort.
“Time don’t matter here, Chap. What may have been a hundred years to some folk was just an instant here. We just had to wait until you were ready. Some hafta wait longer than others, that’s the test. You’ll learn it all…just like you had to learn to hit the curveball.”
I shot Spoke a sideward look at that last remark, but otherwise stood motionless and looked around, feeling an unstoppable peace, as Kate and Rae joined us. We then began strolling toward the outfield. The sun was setting in that idyllic way, setting the sky ablaze in a dozen shades of orange, pink and purple, a rewarding image after a great victory.
Kate hooked her arm around my waist and little Rae jumped up in my other arm. Instinctively, I knew my parents, the rest of my family, Kate’s family, and everyone we’d ever been close to, were waiting for us just steps away.
“If this is heaven, I never thought it would be quite like this,” I said to no one.
The busher in the Yankees uniform patted me on the back and chuckled.
“That’s what I thought too, Chap.” He said. I couldn’t tell if he was serious.
“You caught a helluva game out there. Sorry we haven’t formally met,” I offered, as we stopped and shook hands.
“John.” He replied.
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