Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mighty Casey by Peter Anderson

(Author’s Note: “Casey at the Bat” was written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, and first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888. The poem is believed to be in the public domain.)

It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood two to four, with but one inning left to play.

Old Harrison’s ledger-book was enduring as difficult a year as his Mudville squad was having on the playing field. The Mudville nine was losing as often as they won, despite the considerable sums he had spent during the previous off-season bringing in new players. The fans were attending sporadically, in large numbers in good weather and minimally in poor, their indifference reflecting the indifferent play on the field. He had over-spent on the players, that much was clear, and especially for that damned Casey, who could thrill one and all on one day with his prodigious clouts, and then sulk through a week of strikeouts and ground balls.

The club’s high expenses and erratic revenues had begun to tax the fortunes of the middle-aged merchant. He had gotten into this venture out of simple-minded civic pride, but one-upmanship soon overcame him, and now, after having spent at the level of wealthier clubs in larger neighboring cities, his business and livelihood had come under considerable distress. He and his team needed a long winning streak, with an attendant surge in revenues, but neither appeared to be beginning today. For it was two to four, in favor of Millersburg, in the bottom of the ninth frame.

So when Cooney died at second, and Burrows did the same
A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the game.

Cooney might as well be dead for the little good he's doing, Harrison thought as he sat in the back row of the grandstand. The imposing edifice was another expenditure he had come to regret. A former horse track, fallen from favor thanks to the efforts of moral crusaders, the grandstand was purchased at a higher price than was warranted—given its nearly complete lack of alternate uses—which combined with his expansion of its seating capacity had put him deep in debt with the local bank.

Cooney, that fool, was always pulling recklessly idiotic stunts, rarely stopping at first on soft hits, always getting thrown out at second. This will definitely be Cooney's last season with the club, Harrison mentally noted. Burrows knew how to reach base but thought far too highly of his running abilities, and here he was once again getting thrown out attempting to steal. In the ninth inning, down by two runs, with the heart of the order coming up. Harrison turned his head and spat in disgust over the back of the grandstand.

We could have had two runners on base with no outs, and Flynn coming up. Flynn, of the portly belly and spindly legs, who couldn't run to save his life. But he can hit the ball, thought Harrison. Despite this favorable assessment, however, he felt his mood darkening.

A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest
With that hope which springs eternal within the human breast.

On this bright sunny day, there were several thousand patrons in the grandstand, Harrison estimated, and now some were already preparing to leave. He could understand those who were departing, but not those who chose to stay. What compelled them to sit and watch this hopeless squad? His own presence was easily enough explained, as he had an investment to evaluate and protect. But these fans, as they came to be called—fanatics, indeed—why were they still here? Surely there were better things they could be doing, at their offices or farms, or with their families.

More than likely, their continued presence was due to their inexplicable infatuation with one Daniel Thomas Casey. Even if Casey had only one productive at-bat per week, and stranded runners by the score at all other times, they simply adored him. Certainly he was handsome, dashing, charismatic. But surely these fans should expect more than just good looks and personality. Their devotion would be better spent on a ball player of genuine talent, as would Harrison's cash. He had already decided to renew his search for quality players during the following winter.

For they thought: “If only Casey could get a whack at that.”
They’d put even money now, with Casey at the bat.

Part of the fans' attentiveness was due to Casey's baffling appeal, but also due to the large sums of money being wagered. Harrison saw money changing hands throughout the game, back and forth on the most insignificant of events. As he surmised, the bettors wouldn't trust others to relate the outcome of whatever they were wagering on, and thus stayed put to protect their investment. Somewhat like me, Harrison pondered, though he considered his investment a legitimate one, unlike theirs.

Gambling had clearly infected the game, staining the purity which had first drawn Harrison to it in his youth. It had gotten to the point that every unlikely loss, misplayed ground ball or untimely strikeout was met with suspicion. Rumors abounded as to whom was on the take, which games had been rigged. Several otherwise upstanding businessmen in town, men known to have dabbled in wagering, were said to have “contributed” financially towards their preferred outcomes.

Perhaps that explains Cooney's foolishness, Harrison suddenly conjectured. Cooney’s performance had weakened precipitously from the previous season, a decline which Harrison had previously attributed to resentment of his spurning of Cooney's contract demands. Now he saw the decline in a different light, and he certainly did not appreciate the illumination.

But Flynn preceded Casey, and likewise so did Blake
And the former was a puddin’, and the latter was a fake.

Fat, sloppy Flynn. A man who never met a meal he didn't like—steaks, gravy, fried potatoes, enormous desserts—and ate voraciously and gluttonously, disregarding its dire effect on his physical condition. Though his eye was still keen and his reflexes sharp, thus retaining his considerable skills as a batsman, his even more considerable girth prevented him from running any distance, regularly shaving one base off of every hit. Doubles became singles, and triples became doubles. At his present rate of decline, Flynn had only one or two seasons left in his lump of a body.

Blake was of little significance. While he covered a broad expanse of ground from his position in center field, his batting was barely competent. Harrison had argued the entire season, to no avail, against Berrigan's decision to bat Blake third in the order. Even if Flynn were to reach base, hauling his bulk down the base line like a wagon teetering down a bumpy country road, Blake's meager batting would never be enough to bring any runs home.

So on that stricken multitude a deathlike silence sat;
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

Still, Harrison thought, just because Flynn and Blake were up to bat before Casey is no excuse for the crowd's utter silence. One would think it was a state funeral, not a simple ball game, by the way they sat mutely, on their hands. One has to support the entire club, and not just a single player, especially not a player so undeserving of their adoration. Flynn and Blake, for all of their shortcomings, were no less likely to prevail than was Casey.

As Flynn waddled toward the plate, moving as slowly and delicately as any self-respecting athlete dared, Harrison began to reconsider the entire issue of his ownership. What was he getting from it, after all, other than the daily sight of over-paid and under-performing ball players, which only brought him exasperation and—on those days when he had a particularly hearty lunch—indigestion? Harrison had to admit, despite what little as he thought of Casey, that the fans who came out did so mostly for the ball player. Casey, despite his shortcomings, was one of the few things keeping the enterprise afloat.

Flynn finally stepped into the batter's box, flicked his bat toward the mound a few times before resting it on his shoulder, and peered out at the pitcher. At any rate, Harrison thought, Casey's drawing power isn't nearly enough.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And the much-despised Blakey “tore the cover off the ball.”

Flynn clouted a mighty drive into left-center field but, true to form, was only able to bounce and wheeze himself as far as first base, ingloriously settling for a single. There was much sarcastic wonderment in the stands that he had made it even that far.

Harrison held out little hope for the game’s outcome as Blake stepped to the plate, amidst the jeering whistles of the long-frustrated Mudville fans. From the volume of the crowd, it appeared even those who had wagered on Millersburg were joining in Blake's derision. Blake stepped to the plate briskly, his wiry frame tense with anger. His physical tension was so apparent that anyone not suffering from myopia could see he would swing at the first pitch, doing so to either quiet the crowd with a defiant base hit or to quickly end the game with an out.

The pitcher could easily see Blake's intentions, but challenged him anyway. Blake responded by hitting a dart down the right field line, practically jumping out of his skin. He would have easily had three bases were it not for the lumbering Flynn ahead of him, the older man collapsing into third base barely ahead of the tag as Blake walked into second.

And when the dust had lifted, and they saw what had occurred,
There was Blakey safe at second and Flynn a-huggin’ third.

From his perch on second base, Blake stared scornfully at Flynn, who laid prostrate in the dirt, his arm barely reaching the base before the tag was made. There is vigor in Blake's nature; at least he's making an effort, Harrison thought while watching him shake his head at Flynn's pitiful display. But Flynn might not even have one season left in him.

Flynn slowly climbed to his feet, breathing heavily, looking as if each breath might be his last. Time was called while he composed himself, gathering up his failing strength for what could become a mad dash home. Flynn would have preferred the slow stroll after a game-winning home run, or even the blameless departure after a game-losing out, to a ball being put in play with Blake charging hard right behind him.

Fortunately for Flynn, he knew that Casey's two most likely outcomes would require no running on his part. Unlike that bastard Blake—him and his infernal line drives.

Then from the gladdened multitude went up a joyous yell—
It rumbled in the mountaintops, it rattled in the dell;

There they go again, Harrison muttered to himself. Mindlessly lauding Casey, a batter who was ten times more likely to strike out than to hit one out of the park. Either way, Casey would look grand doing so; he'd do it with style. And that, for some reason, is valued more highly by the fans than a batter who can put the ball in play every time, challenge the defenders and reach base more often.

The crowd had risen and was shouting itself hoarse, whistling, clapping and stamping their feet, all in adulation of Casey. He was Mudville's prized acquisition of the previous winter: bold a`1nd dashing, with sinewy arms, broad shoulders and a graceful stride; eyes of the deepest blue, a devilish grin revealing impeccable teeth under the shadow of a virile, reddish moustache. He was capable of hitting prodigious clouts, farther than anyone had ever seen, and they willingly forgave his empty-swinging failures for the hope of a long ball. Casey had been purchased for a hefty sum from arch-rival Freeport, and paid what was rumored to be the highest salary in the league.

It struck upon the hillside, it rebounded on the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

Mighty Casey, they were calling him, thought Harrison in disgust. What was so mighty about a man who couldn't succeed in the simple task of bringing home a runner from third base, so intent was he on hitting the ball over the fence? Measly Casey is more like it.

The crowd roared on, imploring Casey to deliver them to victory and bring them happiness for another day. He would come through for them, not to mention for their wagers. They still remembered that glorious day in May, when the overhead sun oozed radiant warmth for the first time all year, a sweetly fragrant breeze wafted toward the outfield, and Casey erased a six-run deficit in just the last two innings, with a three-run blast in the eighth and a two-out “grand slam” in the ninth for the victory. After the latter, Casey casually circled the bases, soaking in the crowd's adoration with a serene smile on his face, before crossing the plate into their welcoming arms. Their hero.

Harrison heard the May game referenced repeatedly in the excited chatter of the two fans sitting in front of him. May, he muttered, clearing his throat. Nearly three months ago. He steadfastly refused to be drawn in by the crowd's ardor.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place,
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.

He strode slowly and calmly towards the plate, like a cat languidly rising from a nap in the warm sun, flexing and stretching his muscles as he went. He moved with supreme grace, effortlessly, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Some called it confidence, others arrogance; but everyone had an opinion of Casey, and he preferred even negative attention to being ignored. He needed the crowd, craved and fed off of its energy, and strove to channel their passion into a vicious slashing at the first fast ball he saw.

The cocky white-toothed grin never left his face as he came to a halt ten feet from the plate, feigning devotion to his calisthenics while, in reality, tarrying to make the moment last as long as possible. Soon the crowd would be silent, and he would assume intense concentration, transforming his body from relaxed ease to taut readiness.

Knowing the moment would soon be gone, he grasped at keeping it alive, just a bit longer, with a grand gesture which seemingly acknowledged the crowd but actually served to draw more attention to himself. Turning to the stand, his smile broadened as he removed his cap and bowed.

And when responding to the cheers he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

His self-serving gesture momentarily revived the crowd, which had begun to flag from the exertions of their applause. The doffing of his cap threw a new spark into the crowd, which flared up into renewed cheering. This latest round could not last, however, and the crowd soon hushed in anticipation, breathlessly, longingly awaiting Casey's next heroic feat.

Now he would step to the bat, and coil those muscular arms, and drive a pitch deep into the outfield, the fielders turning away in futile pursuit as Casey glided around the bases, smoothly and quickly as a doe through a meadow. Flynn and Blake would score easily with Casey dashing across the plate shortly after, and the win would be Mudville's. The fans could return home, gladdened in victory, still warmed from the afternoon sun and the fond memory of a moment of magic.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt,
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.

Every insignificant act of Casey’s held the crowd in thrall. Stooping slightly, he grabbed a handful of dirt, rubbed his hands together—the tiny clods sifting out and falling to the ground—and wiped the excess on his shirt. The crowd murmured approvingly as he grasped his bat and wrung his hands into the handle, ostensibly providing a better grip but in reality showing off his rippling forearms to the crowd.

At long last, his veiled theatrics completed, he stepped to the plate. He stared at the pitcher with casual disdain, maintaining an air of utmost confidence. This same pitcher had faced Casey numerous times that season, dispatching him with little difficulty, a fact which never crossed Casey's mind. Had he been asked, he would have attributed his previous lack of success to any one of several factors, including bad luck, glaring sun, persistent flying insects, or faulty equipment. The cause was never, ever, a lack of ability on his part.

Then when the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed from Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

The pitcher fluttered his arms outward, stretching not unlike a long-winged bird about to take flight, and stood grinding the ball into his right hip, summoning all of his abilities into setting Casey down once again, and gaining another victory for Millersburg.

Fifty feet away, Casey sensed the pitcher's ill will. Clearly he thought Casey would be short work, and anger began to build inside Casey in response to the pitcher's insulting posture. He glared right back at the pitcher, his lips tightening menacingly. Casey would make him pay for his arrogance, but he would be patient and do so on his own terms. He could wait for the pitch he wanted, and not be dictated by the pitcher, and would drive the ball as hard and as far as he ever had.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.

The pitcher wound and threw, and though the pitch was easily within Casey's reach, he let it go past with an air of indifference. Not quite to my liking, his posture seemed to say.

Recognizing that the pitch would be well within the strike zone, the crowd rose in anticipation. The situation was just so perfect—Casey hitting a three-run clout that snatched victory away from the jaws of defeat—that they would waste no time in starting their celebration.

Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped;
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

Casey didn't like the pitch, but the umpire did. The old umpire had tired of Casey's antics over the years, particularly Casey’s persistent intimation that any pitch which he found unacceptable couldn't possibly be considered a strike. Casey's recurring acts of superiority offended the umpire as blatant signs of disrespect, and as such he had no misgivings in calling the pitches exactly as he saw them, independent of Casey’s assessment. More often than not, the umpire saw them differently for Casey than he did for any other batter. Even a marginal pitch, a ball to anyone else, might very well be called a strike, so intent was the umpire on putting Casey in his place. There was only one authority on the ball field, the umpire believed.

Although the batter muttered his disapproval as the ball sped past, the umpire raised his fist and emphatically called it a strike.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar
Like the beating of the storm waves on the stern and distant shore.

The crowd's bitter reaction was nothing new, the umpire thought. These Mudville people worshipped their ball players, and thought any affront to their unquestioned glory to be an invitation to violence. This ill feeling was prevalent in every town in the league, but was particularly vehement here. Last season, a beer bottle thrown from the stand had grazed his temple, drawing blood, and a few years earlier a fan punched him square in the jaw as he left the field after another Mudville loss.

Their fury built up slowly, the air seething with venom, their muttering voices threatening to explode at any moment. The old umpire had seen and heard it all, the angry threats and vitriol, in his thirty-plus years of calling these games, but all of his experience did not prepare him for what he heard next. He was instantly chilled to the depths of his soul as a single enraged voice tore through the crowd's simmering rumble.

“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

The umpire tensed, his body recoiling instinctively in self-defense even as his intellect told him the words meant nothing. This was simply going too far, he objected inwardly, and though the fear soon began to recede, it didn't leave him completely. The fear would remain with him for several days, lurking in the deepest recesses of his mind. You can never forget something like that, he thought with a slight shiver.

But his fear was soon replaced by disgust at the sight of Casey, once again showing off, raising his hand to the crowd to silence it. As if to say the umpire's decision was meaningless, that Casey thought it no more than a pesky gnat to be shooed away. Though the umpire knew Casey's attitude could reasonably be justified by his having two more strikes coming, the umpire rejected this rationalization, instead feeling only resentment towards Casey's slight.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult, he made the game go on;
Casey smiled broadly toward the umpire as if to say No harm done, but with his eyes narrowing into thin slits and then closing beatifically, he was unable to see the umpire's deepening scowl.
The crowd was becalmed by Casey's magnanimity, and remembering that their mighty Casey required only one great swing—thus rendering three strikes superfluous—their mood shifted from anger to one of resumed and heightened excitement. One swing is all it would take, and surely it would happen with the very next pitch.

He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

Casey turned away from the crowd, his orchestration complete, and again faced the pitcher. He waved as if to say You may proceed, his haughty air only angering the pitcher further. The latter again ground the ball into his hip, summoning the fullest extent of his abilities before winding up and flinging another pitch.

As before, the ball flew directly toward the middle of the plate where Casey could easily reach it, with only a flick of his strong arms needed to send the ball hurtling out of sight. The pitcher immediately knew he had made a mistake, that he had put nothing on the ball but velocity, and he inwardly cringed in dread of the ball's imminently towering arc. This might very well have come to pass, but for the fact that Casey again stood with his bat on his shoulder, watching disdainfully as the ball passed by him.

Although the scowling umpire was prepared to vindictively call a strike on any pitch that didn't bounce, such generosity was unnecessary. It was unquestionably a strike, and he raised his fist and called it so.

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered, “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed;

Again the crowd exploded in anger, their shouts echoing through the rafters of the grandstand. Catcalls, some clever but most of them childishly vulgar, rained down from every direction.

The cries of "Fraud!" were what bothered the umpire the most. Though he might have been inclined to compromise his usual impeccable judgment at Casey's expense, that had not been the case here. Casey had let two perfectly good pitches go past him, without even attempting to swing. They can't fault me if he doesn't even try, the umpire complained to himself.

As before, Casey exploited the situation to deflect attention from his failures, turning to the crowd and glaring with a look which admonished Don't you ever doubt me. I don't need three strikes. The crowd, chastised, sat back down in silence, awaiting whatever Casey deigned to do next.

Harrison remained in his seat in the back row, disappointed as ever with Casey's performance but silently marveling at the power he held over the crowd. One gesture from him silenced them into cowering submission. He'd make a good preacher, it suddenly occurred to Harrison.

They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

Refraining from any further gesturing, Casey resumed his position in the batter's box, his face hardening into a ruthless grimace, his muscles steeling as he dug his spikes into the dirt and maintained a death grip on his bat. Never had he been more ready, nor had the situation ever been more ideal. His concentration was unimpaired, his mind emptied of every thought but the ball and how he would hit it.

His entire worth as a ball player, his validation as a true hero, all came down to this moment.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lips, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel vengeance his bat upon the plate;

But, suddenly, his steely concentration snapped. For in reality his preternatural calm, his supreme confidence, and his arrogant assuredness all masked an ocean of doubt and frustration. How could these people expect so much of me? What have I ever done to earn their adulation? How could I ever do anything but disappoint them?
His frustration finally boiling over, he broke from his stance and straddled the plate, pummeling it again and again with the barrel of his bat in a blind rage. The pitcher, understandably shocked, halted in mid-windup, and the normally unflappable umpire was so flustered that he neglected to call time, instead gawking at Casey, along with five thousand fans and both teams, all of whom stood in stunned silence.

As quickly as the spell came upon Casey, however, it was gone. He was once again calm, grinning, defiant, settling back into his coiled position and challenging the pitcher with the mere glint of his eye. Though Casey’s outburst was far from intentional, and was something he never could have explained, perhaps it would work to his advantage, giving the pitcher something to think about.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

But the old hurler had been through many such confrontations during his career, and to him this was merely one more. After Casey composed himself, the pitcher resumed his routine, wound up, reared back and flung the horsehide toward the plate.

A split second after the pitch was released, Casey knew it was his. Reflexes and physical strength were his best qualities as a batter, with poor judgment and over-eagerness being his worst, but he recognized this pitch as being quite generous, and instantly uncoiled his upper body, whipping the bat forward with unsurpassed force. The ball was coming rapidly from one direction, the flashing bat blurring from the other, and in anticipation the crowd let out a great collective gasp.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.

Baseball brought uncommon joy to hundreds of thousands of fans across America. The simple pleasure of seeing a ball in flight and swift runners circling the bases captured the country’s imagination, and the game was thought to represent its greatest attributes: democracy, physical vigor, the perfect combination of rugged individualism and collaborative effort.

Ball players were admired, revered, and treated like gods; their successes glorified and their failures dismissed. Each town had its local hero, its favorite son, whose glorious exploits made the sun shine brighter, the air feel warmer, and life itself seem better. Celebrations would often continue long after the game had been won, late afternoons and evenings filled with music, laughter and good cheer.
But on this day, no such cheer would be felt by the people of Mudville.

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Casey’s great swing failed to connect. The ball deposited itself into the catcher’s glove with a loud thwack, and the umpire called the third and final out. Casey’s strong body went limp, the bat falling from his hand to the ground as he turned away, slump-shouldered and staring downward. He shuffled away from the field, listlessly, passing the Mudville bench without a word as he began the long walk home.

The crowd, drained and silent, similarly filed out of the grandstand, leaving Harrison sitting alone in the last row. Bemused and thoughtful, he had already made up his mind. There were plenty of others in town sufficiently enamored of athletic feats and respectful of civic duty, upstanding men who would still consider the Mudville nine to be an attractive investment. Parsons the banker and Drummond at the sawmill had each expressed keen interest, and Harrison envisioned being out from under this shadow by the turn of the year. For him, the coming months would improve upon the disappointing summer just passed.

The Mudville nine, alas, would not see a championship that year. The air would soon turn cold, the memories of glorious summer rapidly fading away. The deflated fans departed, sighing at the thought of the long months of winter ahead.

Peter Anderson is a rookie fiction writer, with his first story publication appearing recently in Storyglossia, and a lapsed Cubs fan. He is a devoted family man (husband to Julie and dad to Madeleine) who lives in Joliet, Illinois, the one-time home of the Jailbirds.

No comments: