Here’s the way I heard it. A bunch of players were getting together at this barbeque restaurant. Closing time was supposed to be one o’clock. This was Bradenton, ’79, spring training. It was early on. They hadn’t made cuts yet, so everyone was feeling pretty good and a bunch of the veterans arranged to keep the place open after hours. It was walking distance from the hotel but the rookies had an early curfew—lights out at midnight and the owner was strict. He had a guy posted at the hotel entrance. He was checking on the rookies and Donny came up with this idea. He had a breakout year in ’78 so his spot on the roster was secure, not that he wouldn’t have acted any differently. Anyway, he told the rookies to go back to their rooms, tie together some bedsheets, scale down the wall, and come back to the bar. They were on the second floor. No big deal. So they went back to their rooms and tied together a bunch bedsheets and snuck out, and they got away with it. They stayed out all night and made it back into their rooms without getting caught.
The next day the team was taking the bus to the ballpark and the owner decided to take the bus, too. They passed the hotel and the bedsheets were still hanging out the window. The owner spotted them, put two and two together and started freaking out. He was yelling at everyone. Then he made eye contact with one of the rookies. Of course it happened to be his room but the owner didn’t know that. It was just dumb luck but the kid was blushing and he was about to confess when Donny spoke up. He said it was his room. A year before he might have been cut or fined but like I said, Donny’s spot was locked up, the team needed him in the bullpen, so the owner just said don’t let it happen again.
Donny would probably still be alive if he’d done more things like that. Though maybe the Illiterate Assassin would still have come after him. It’s a wonder Donny lived as long as he did.
I’d been on Donny duty for a week when he called me. It was late on a Saturday morning. He was scheduled to appear at the Greater Central New York Boat Show, “a personal watercraft extravaganza.” He called early and asked me to drive him. He was antsy. “Get your over here toot sweet,” was the phrase he used.
I was still rolling to a stop when he approached my car. Sunglasses, flip flops, tattered Ocean Pacific shorts that might have been cool five years earlier. More beach bum than former all-star.
“Slide over, hoss. And screen my calls.”
He tossed me a cell phone. This was the summer of ’93, so the thing was the size of shoebox.
“Call the dentist.”
“I’ve got a twelve o’clock appointment. Tell ‘im I’m running late.”
I looked at my watch to verify that this wasn’t true.
“Don’t answer if a guy named Lou calls.”
He handed me a list of phone numbers and money for expenses. “There’s more if I get to ballpark on time.”
The “if” made me nervous. The game wasn’t for hours and the stadium was only five minutes away.
Donny Blackstone was a legend, even if a fading one. He’d first come through Syracuse in the mid ‘70s, making his way up through the Yankee system. He went to Pittsburgh in the Goose Gossage trade. He was a mainstay of the Pirates’ bullpen during their Papa Stargell/“We Are Family” era. He spent the early eighties with the Cardinals setting up Bruce Sutter. Four trips to the Series. Two rings. The guy had been around a lot of success.
Donny was back in Syracuse to work on a new pitch. His pitching coach in Toronto didn’t think Donny could rely on his fastball anymore. He wanted Donny to work on a change up. The Jays’ GM agreed. The plan was to have Donny make a few successful appearances before returning to the Blue Jays for the stretch drive. His first games didn’t go well, so his stay was extended. Hitters knew what was coming and where it would be. The illusion was gone. They were on to Donny but he didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of his situation. He was showing up late to team meetings. Dozing off in the bullpen. Refusing to work on a change up. The rap on Donny had always been that his million-dollar arm was attached to a ten-cent brain, and neither of them was getting any younger.
My job was to make myself available to Donny before and after games. Run errands, give him a ride from the Hotel Syracuse. If nothing else prevent any escapades that would make the papers.
That Saturday was the first time he’d called. I’d left messages with Donny, but he never returned them. Everyone in the front office hoped, however naively, that he’d finally started to pace himself, think about his future. Even if he didn’t make it back to the big leagues that season he still had potential as off-season trade bait.
There was a lot of talk about Donny. Baseball types like to present themselves as gruff, stoic types, men of few words but behind closed doors we cackle like hens. That goes for management and players. The latest was that Donny had worn out his welcome at the players’ bars and was in danger of losing his driver’s license. Rumor had it that even the cab companies were hanging up on him, so now he was holed up at the hotel, palling around with the cast of California Suite from Syracuse Stage. The guy who played Marvin Michaels—Walter Matthau’s role if you’ve seen the movie—later testified that Donny liked to buy drinks for everyone.
Donny wanted to eat before the boat show. We went to Twin Trees, which surprised me. A lot of ballplayers went there and he’d been avoiding player hangouts. Twin Trees was a cozy place, a tiny split level restaurant with tables upstairs and booths and a bar downstairs. Autographed pictures of Yankees past and present lined the wood paneled walls. Lou Pinella. Thurman Munson. Reggie. Rick Cerone. The owner was a friend of Steinbrenner’s.
We were sitting at a booth downstairs. Donny’s pepper and onion pie had just come out when I noticed him staring over my shoulder. I turned to see a couple walking down the stairs. He was vintage early ‘90s Syracuse, sleeveless t-shirt, goatee, mullet. She looked like an old Tanya Tucker album cover.
Sleeveless saw Donny first.
“Are you Donny Blackstone? ‘We Are Family?’ Sheila, it’s Donny Blackstone.”
Her face changed when she recognized Donny. She looked at him with daggers.
Donny and Sheila hadn’t seen each other since shortly after the cancer fundraiser. They met back in ’75. She was waiting tables at the Westwood Diner. Donny was in his second season with the Chiefs. He went all out trying to woo her. He contacted her family and got the recipes for her favorite childhood foods. Her mom’s ramen noodle casserole, her grandmother’s clam chowder, her aunt’s Moon Pies. He poured on the charm. He genuinely liked her. She may have felt the same way. They were both anxious to move on to the lives they were hearing about. Then Sheila was diagnosed with melanoma. She and Donny decided to have a fundraiser.
They rented out the backroom of the Westwood. Hundreds of fans came out. They raised over ten grand. Exactly how much and who spent it depends on who you asked. Two weeks later he was called up to New York and she left for Florida. They stayed out of each other’s lives until Donny’s book came out in the mid-‘80s. He claimed that she lied about having cancer. She said it was a bad diagnosis.
“You sack of dirt.”
“Good to see you, Sheila.”
“I burn every copy of your book that I see.”
“Come out to the game tonight. I’ll put you on the list.”
“I have better things to do. I’ll always have better things to do.”
Sleeveless had this puppy dog look in his eyes, like he knew not to cross Sheila but was dying to ask Donny what it was like to pitch in Game 7 of a World Series.
“Come on, Jerry, let’s go.”
Sheila didn’t look at any of us when she turned and left. Just expected that we all knew our roles. Donny did. I did. Keep quiet, that was my part the whole day. But Sleeveless lingered for a moment. I thought about offering him tickets for the game but he snapped to before I could take down their names.
To the casual fan Donny still had it. He could still ring up strikeouts and hit the mid-nineties with his fastball. But his ERA was climbing and he was losing his movement, running more full counts. Right-handed hitters were laying off his fastball, drawing more walks. Most guys in that situation would have doubled down with the pitching coach. Donny wasn’t worried about getting back to the big leagues but he should have been.
After lunch Donny guided me to strip mall in North Syracuse Mall, a non-descript string of stores that lined Taft Road. On one side of the dentist’s office there was a hardware store, pet supplies on the other. When we arrived Donny asked me to call the first number on the list and leave a message for someone named Lou.
“Let him know I’ll make the boat show.”
I wondered why this needed confirmation when the actual event was so close. There was no answer so I left a message.
“The boat show is supposed to be the only thing on today’s ‘to do’ list, no?”
“Let’s just enjoy ourselves and make it to the park on time.”
I was beginning to catch on. “And don’t answer if Lou calls?”
“Slicker than hair on a trout, son.”
The receptionist lit up when Donny walked into the waiting room. Sauntered, more like it. She came out from behind the desk. They hugged, groped a little. The dentist, Dr. Roland, entered and patted Donny on the back, showered him with accolades.
They had just escorted Donny to the exam room when I heard a phone ringing. It took me a moment to place the sound. It was Donny’s cell phone. I answered.
“Where the hell are you?”
“Donny’s not here. May I take a message?”
“What do you mean? It’s his phone. Of course, he’s there. Put him on.” The voice grew more intense. “This is Lou Zantini. You called me, remember? Tell Donny he’s late.”
“Mr. Blackstone has a dentist appointment.”
“I knew this was a mistake.”
Lou hung up. I looked at my watch. Lou was right about Donny being late.
All I could do was wait. I flipped through a couple of issues of People, even tried the “What doesn’t belong?” page in a well-worn copy of Highlights but I couldn’t focus. Donny wasn’t a hero of mine, not by any stretch. I’d heard too much of the lore. But still, his face was always among the cards I collected and counted and sorted as a kid, and this day had been really unsettling.
For the next hour no one else entered or left the office. Then I heard Dr. Roland’s voice.
“Then we’ll use the hot tub.” Donny roared at what must have been a punch line.
Dr. Roland turned to me and said that Donny needed rest. He spoke as if Donny were no longer in the room. He handed me a prescription for Tylenol with codeine. “Just in case.”
Donny was already heading for the door. “Boat show. Quick stop on the way.”
It was my second season with the Chiefs, the Triple A affiliate for the Toronto Blue Jays. My business card read “Assistant Director of Merchandising,” which sounded better than my actual job duties. I sold tickets. I stocked the concession stands. I could reach the back rows with the t-shirt cannon. I also turned on the sprinkler system during a sold-out, 4th of July game, stalling a rally with two-out in the bottom of the ninth. It was an accident. The general manager said he believed me but he had his doubts. I could see it in his eyes. I was young but I could tell. I’m pretty sure Donny duty was my reward for that mishap.
Rumpy’s was Donny’s next stop. It was an old man bar from Syracuse’s factory era. Rumpy’s opened early and closed in the middle of the afternoon. Or at least that’s when the last bartender clocked out. The owners lived upstairs and most days they didn’t come down to lock up until after the six o’clock news. In the meantime, regulars poured their own drinks and left money in a jar beneath the counter. From an outsider’s point of view the place was abandoned. The windows were cloudy and cracked. The concrete steps were crumbling and the Utica Club sign that hung out front was obscured by rust. It had been years since one could make out the images of Schultz and Dooley, the cartoon beer steins. The sign read “Utica Club” but it said “Stay away.”
I parked in front. Donny told me to stay put.
I waited for half an hour before going in. I locked both doors but figured even in this part of town an ’84 Ford Escort was safe. As I stepped inside Rumpy’s I questioned my decision to major in sports marketing. It wouldn’t be the last time that day.
Donny was hunched over a set of dominoes. Beside him were two empty pint glasses and a bowl of popcorn. Across from him was what I can only assume to be a typical Rumpy’s patron. The whiteness of his hair was striking but secondary to the uniformity of its curliness. It looked like it had been snapped into place. I think it was a wig.
The look of concern on my face must have been more evident than I realized.
“Don’t worry, kid. We’ll make the show. But don-imoes can get tense. Gotta take the edge off.” Donny laughed and clinked White Wig’s glass. I went to the bar and ordered a seltzer when Donny started outlining plans for an off-season fishing trip to Hudson Bay.
Four years at BYU. Graduated with honors. Worked my way up to Triple A in three years. Now I was babysitting.
“The funny part was the look on his face.”
It was Donny.
“He looked so confused.”
He was talking about White Wig, pointing at him and laughing too, but he was looking at two older guys at the next table.
“Womp! Pulled the door right into his face. Must have hurt like hell.”
White Wig shook his head ever so slightly and got up from the table. Donny’s badgering trailed him.
“Womp! Pulled the door into his face! Who does that?”
A couple of minutes later a figure passed behind me. I assumed it was White Wig but the footsteps sounded different. They were heavier, slower, more purposeful.
Donny’s laughter ceased. The song on the jukebox suddenly seemed too loud.
“You heard me. Forty grand. Pay up. It’s simple.” The voice was loud and angry. “Are you listening to me?” If Donny responded, I didn’t hear him.
By the time I turned around Donny’s table was upended and he was pinned to the wall, held a foot off the ground by a mountain range of a man. The papers would later dub him the Illiterate Assassin.
Donny was confused. He insisted that he had no idea what the Illiterate Assassin was talking about. He was telling the truth. What none of us realized at the time was that the Illiterate Assassin was supposed to be in Cleveland, chasing down another portly relief pitcher, Chet Rollins. He was the one who owed forty grand. The Illiterate Assassin, true to his name, couldn’t read and he’d confused the Chiefs’ logo with the Indians’ logo, wound up in Syracuse rather than Cleveland.
“Your word? No, I have your throat. I have your life in my hands. This is what your word gets you.”
He lowered Donny to the ground.
“You’ve got two days.”
He declined Donny’s offer to have a drink.
Donny dusted himself off and approached the bar.
Having his life threatened hastened Donny’s stay at Rumpy’s and we finally made it to the boat show. Donny was beaming even before he saw the line of autograph seekers. He spotted the banner the moment we entered the State Fair pavilion: “Appearing today, 2-time Rolaids Fireman of the Year: Donny Blackstone.”
The place was packed with people and boats, new, used and demo’d. It was that kind of crowd. They moved aside for Donny, smiles and slaps on the back, as we made our way across the Astroturf covered floor.
At the front of the line stood a set of twins decked out in matching Chiefs hats, t-shirts, and wristbands. Their father stood behind them, an arm around each boy.
Donny sat down, opened an iced tea, and turned on the charm. He signed 8 x 10 glossies, baseball cards, and the occasional Sister Sledge album. He joked about his weight. He talked trash about the rest of the American League East.
I spotted a man walking toward us. “In a huff” would be an apt description. I was about to meet Lou Zantini.
I tried to defuse the situation. “Donny is glad to be here. He was just discussing an upcoming bass trip to Long Island Sound. Maybe that could lead to a sponsorship deal with the Sea Craft people.” I don’t think Lou heard me.
Donny sipped his iced tea. “Very refreshing. Have one, Lou.”
Neither iced tea nor fishing boats were on the forefront of Lou’s mind.
“The great Donny Blackstone has finally decided to grace us with his royal presence. How considerate. And I see you’ve taken the time to don the royal tank top and the royal flip flops. Let’s bow. Let’s grovel. Let’s beg for handshakes or a splotch of marker on an eight by ten or a baseball card or a goddamned program. You’re late, over two hours late. Sign until your heart’s content. Sign away. Then ask to get paid. Please, Donny, please ask me to pay you.”
The unspoken collective decision was to stare at Lou. Me. The kids. Their dad. The dozens of people in line behind them. It seemed like an inordinate amount of anger to direct toward a tardy ballplayer. I’d worked dozens of these events. Players never showed up on time. But there was more to the situation. As I was quickly learning there always was with Donny.
At the trial I found out that Donny and Lou had been business partners. They’d met during Donny’s first time through Syracuse. Donny had the idea. Lou had the money. Ultra bowling. Ultra bowling didn’t exist but Donny convinced Lou that it was the sport of the future. He’d read an article in Sports Illustrated about the Western States Endurance, a 100-mile footrace that started in California in the ‘70s. Ultramarathons started popping up everywhere. Donny was amazed by the fact that people were willing to do so much of a thing that nobody really liked in the first place. People only went running because their doctor or their coach or their guilty conscience told them to go running. Bowling was different. People liked to bowl. Donny figured why not take something people enjoyed and do more of it. Hence, ultrabowling. If a few nutjobs were willing to run for days at a time, then a whole lot of people would love the chance to bowl around the clock.
“Go ahead, Blackstone, ask me to give you more of my. I’m still booking boat shows because of you. It’s been over 15 years and I’m still doing boat shows because of you. The least you could do is show up on time. That’s the least you could do. ‘They’ll bowl for days, Lou, they really will. Some of ‘em will bowl for days! Keep it open 24 hours and they’ll bowl for days.’”
I tried to intervene on Donny’s behalf. Lou told me to call his lawyer. At least that’s my translation. His choice of words was considerably more colorful.
Donny went to the clubhouse when we got to the park. The skies had clouded over and the temperature must have dropped ten or fifteen degrees since the early afternoon. I chose to sit in the upper deck. I needed some distance, which was easy to find. With the chill and the threat of rain there were only 400 people in the stands. But what the stadium lacked in people it would soon make up for in sheer panic and mayhem. I found a seat between home and third. I couldn’t see Donny for most of the game. My view of the bullpen was obscured by the bullpen car.
The Chiefs went up early but Rochester matched them run for run. After seven innings both bullpens were depleted and the game was tied at nine. A sac fly in the bottom of the eighth put Syracuse up 11-9. The Chiefs only had two pitchers left, Donny and Toby Corbett, a 19-year-old just up from Double A.
Corbett got the nod and he walked the bases loaded. Twelve straight pitches. He wasn’t even close. They brought in Donny. When Lombardi, the catcher, started jogging out to the mound Donny sent him back behind the plate. Donny looked in for the signs. He waved off Lombardi several times. He stepped off the mound and picked up the rosin bag before coming set and throwing his final pitch.
It seems odd but I think I noticed the infield dirt spraying up before I heard the gunshots. Most fans ducked down. Some ran. Players either dropped to the ground or froze, except Donny. He twisted hard to the left, then back to the right. Then he slumped to the ground.
It wasn’t hard to figure out who killed Donny Blackstone. It wasn’t hard to apprehend any of them either. Sheila and Sleeveless were caught at the Canadian border. The border guard probably would have let them go but they were arguing about whether they were going to Ottawa or Toronto. The Illiterate Assassin was at the bus station asking someone to read the schedule to him. Lou was having a beer at the stadium club. At the trial everyone wanted to take credit for killing Donny but forensics could not determine which bullet was fatal. The thing that gets me is that I’m pretty sure Donny’s last pitch was a change up.
Saturday, October 01, 2011
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