Friday night Anne and I went to a baseball game.
Football is the All American spectator sport, and in at least this one regard I was no less American than average. My experiences playing football in high school are some of my most precious memories, despite the knowledge that I was hardly worth the paper it took to put my name in the program. In those days—before weight machines, much less steroids—most high school players were either small and quick or large and slow, with only a very few of the college bound both large and quick. I helped the average by being undersized and slow but fortunately attended a school small enough that they were glad to have anybody who came out. For the majority of my inglorious career I was a self-propelled blocking dummy—somebody for the first string to scrimmage against—although I actually got to start part of my senior year. I broke bones, sprained ligaments, and endured an array of mental and physical torments from the first practice during the heat and the gnats of August through the brutal bite of November wind that you don’t feel when you’re playing but which is tough to endure when you’re sitting on the bench all night. And I loved every minute of it.
But it was hard to get excited about football at Rice. The team was pretty much an entire gang of self-propelled blocking dummies, whose only place in the Universe—or at least in the Southwest Conference—was so Texas and Texas A&M could pad their records, get ranked nationally, and make the supporters who wrote the big checks happy. I mean, how can you compete with the football factories when your players have real academic entrance requirements, for Franca’s sake?
Plus baseball is a much better game when you’re more interested in the person you’re with than the game you’re watching. Old habits die hard, and even during those painful 58-7 routs I would find myself staring at the offensive guards, trying to anticipate as quickly after the snap as possible whether the play was going to be a run or a pass. At a baseball game, you have plenty of time to talk and laugh and hold hands and still see all the action. And if you occasionally miss a pitch or even an inning, oh well.
Plus Rice’s baseball team was much more competitive than its football team, even back then. Today they have a first-rate coach, a team that is perennially in the top 25, and a new stadium with several hundred season ticket holders. In one shining moment a few years ago they actually beat Stanford for the national championship, a first for any Rice sports team since its inception. Back when I was a student, they had a coach who couldn’t get a better job, players who were never going to get so much as a sniff of the minor leagues, and a few ratty bleachers out beside a dispirited diamond where the grass was perennially under-watered and already wilting in the Houston heat. But the other teams weren’t all that much better since most college scholarship money—and all of the slush fund—went to football. Not to mention that it’s pretty hard to score fifty-eight runs in nine innings.
The stands were fuller than usual. Heck, I’d been to afternoon games where you could stretch out on the bleachers with your shirt off and The Chronicles of the Ming Dynasty propped up in front of you without crowding any of the thirty or so other people there, half of which were doing the same thing. But the Aggies were in for the weekend, and the stands were full of maroon T-shirts and caps covering burr cuts, both on students who had flocked down from College Station for the game and former students in the Houston area who were old enough to have grown out of their college immaturity except as far as I could tell, Aggie alums never really do.
The game was close for six innings, with everybody scoring about a run an inning and having a grand old time, when the Aggie nine managed to tack four unearned runs onto their one-run lead by virtue of three errors (Rice liked to spread the glory around). Their fans started that insufferable whooping and acting like they’d done something great, instead of merely attending the same institution of somewhat higher learning as did the athletes who had just been handed the lead despite hitting what should have been easy groundouts.
The attitude of the visitors galled me a little, but as a long-suffering fan I was used to it. Not Anne. She sat quietly with her mouth set in a tight grimace for about two minutes before spitting out, “I can’t believe you’re just going to just sit there and let those uncouth Bohemians win this game.”
I started to ask what it was that she expected me to do, and then suddenly I realized exactly what she wanted. She had experienced the power of The Grail from both sides, and because she was offended by the manners of the visitors, she expected me to use it to change what was happening out there on the field. And no, I don’t know why they call them the gentler sex.
“Come on,” I said, grabbing her hand. The pitcher who had relieved our starter just in time to suffer through all those fielding gaffs was named Mark Gabriel, a fact I learned from a neighbor’s program. That gave me a twinge of self-doubt until my faith in the power of random coincidence kicked back in and reminded me that a distant relative of Old Gabe wouldn’t be any more likely to be named Gabriel than anyone else. Mark was sitting alone on the far end of the bench looking a little crestfallen while his teammates battled at the plate to try to undo the damage that they had done in the field.
Anne and I huddled with our backs turned while I gave The Grail a fresh charge as inconspicuously as possible.
We’re going to change the outcome of a sporting event? Doesn’t that depend mostly on skill?
Less than you might think, I answered. Baseball is very contingent on a player’s mental state. A little confidence results in a hitting streak which goes on until random chance catches up. Then a couple of drives hit right at fielders, a foul tip that finds its way into the catcher’s mitt, and a strike-out in a big situation replaces all that confidence with self-doubt and brings on a slump.
What the hell. It’ll look good in my portfolio if it works.
By the time we were ready to go there were already two outs, and I knew I didn’t have a lot of time. So I jumped right in without any subtle preparation.
“Mark, listen to me!” I whispered through the fence. He looked around in surprise, as if maybe he thought it was the Lord calling him. Seeing only me, he looked about in confusion to see if he’d missed something. But I drove on as if he had answered me with the time-honored, “Speak Lord, and I will obey.”
“Mark, a wonderful thing has happened. The cosmic convergence of Mercury and Alpha Centauri has this very hour reached down and touched your arm with a thunderbolt.” Why invent new bullshit when the old stuff still worked so well? “Your fast ball will be faster than you’ve ever been able to throw it before and have a nasty little tail at the end. Your curve will bite, and you will be able to work it inside or outside, wherever you want it. There’s not a hitter in this park that can hit your stuff, except by accident.”
By the end of my speech Mark’s eyes were a little glazed over as he stared at his arm and the baseball that he was clutching in his hand. Anne hissed, “Tell him to hit the first batter,” but I ignored her gratuitous bloodthirstiness. Instead I just added a few platitudes for comfort’s sake—you know, take it one batter at a time, do it for the team, the sort of stuff that athletes spout during interviews—while reinforcing the message of his temporary greatness.
Fortunately, our batter had fouled off a half dozen pitches before striking out, so we had time to finish our pep talk before the Fighting Owls took the field. Mark still looked glazed, so much so that as he began his warm-up tosses the catcher started to go out there and see what was wrong. Fortunately he didn’t take off his glove, because all of a sudden a blazing fastball came screaming across the inside stripe, glanced off the unprepared catcher’s mitt, and rocked the backstop. OK, maybe it wasn’t that much faster, but a couple of mph makes a lot of difference, particularly with good control.
Mark worked two more fastballs, one low and outside, one riding up and in, before testing his curve. Franca, was it beautiful. It came inside right where the batter’s head would have been before falling off the table, ending up knee high on the corner. His fastball was no better what any than pitcher who makes it to AA ball can throw, but nobody in this ballpark today was going to touch that nasty breaking stuff. I slipped The Grail out of her pouch so she could take a peek. Of course, she had no idea what she was seeing, but she could read and bask in my appreciation.
The first batter up in the inning was their number three hitter; he was gone before he could even close his mouth. The clean-up man managed a couple of wicked cuts that never came close. Mark plinked the number five hitter on the meaty part of his thigh on his first pitch—I gave Anne a dirty look, which she answered with a smug smile. (Just a coincidence, The Marquis assured me.) The sixth hitter actually got wood on the ball (well, metal to be accurate—aluminum bats had just been introduced into NCAA baseball the year before), fouling off a pitch before grounding the next one weakly to the first baseman. By that time the crowd had figured out that something unusual was going on and everybody was riveted to the action, something that didn’t happen often during college baseball games on South Main Street.
If I had been thinking instead of grandstanding, I would have spent that quick half-inning working on their pitcher. But by the time I figured out that we had the defensive half of this game under control but were still five runs behind, our guys were batting again. So while I pondered my approach we scratched out a tally on a couple of walks, a sacrifice bunt, and a groundout and then it was the top of the eighth and Mark was back out there with his glazed look and his no-hit stuff.
As their pitcher walked back toward their dugout (which was not actually dug out, just a couple of benches behind a screen), I was waiting by the fence. “Hey, Mr. Sampson,” I called out with all of the respect I could put into my voice. “Can I please have your autograph, Mr. Sampson? You’re a shoo-in Cy Young winner in a couple of years, and your autograph will be worth a fortune.”
He normally wouldn’t have given me the time of day—my shaggy hair marked me as the enemy—but The Grail flexed her influence and he obediently came trotting over. As I stuck the program and a pen through the wire, I lowered my voice dramatically. “You’re obviously tired and your control is gone, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much. You just don’t want to walk a lot of batters and get lifted for a reliever who might blow the whole thing. Back off your velocity a little and put those pitches right across the middle of the plate. Your excellent fielders will take care of you.”
“Uh, thanks for the tip,” he answered as he gave me the signed program back.
I eyed the program, which he had dated and signed, ‘Before I was rich and famous, James E. Sampson, Jr.’ “Sure thing, Mr. Sampson,” I managed to say without laughing. “Remember: right across the plate, and easy on the velocity.”
Our nine-hitter was up first in the inning and hit a long fly ball that the left fielder managed to catch on the run, but the top of our order slaughtered the ball. Balls were skittering to the fence and bouncing off the scoreboard and kicking up chalk as they fell in. We scored three quick runs and had runners on the corners when they finally pulled the bewildered James E. Sampson, Jr. and brought in Willy McWilliams, nicknamed “The Ace of Saves.”
“Ah, shit,” Anne muttered when the manager strode to the hill for the second time. Well, at least The Grail and I had silenced that awful whooping for her.
Willy McWilliams’s fastball was every bit as good all by itself as Mark Gabriel’s magically-assisted heater. He sent our third baseman rolling in the dirt with a high hard one—payback for their batter getting hit, probably—then froze him with a darting riser that painted the outside corner. Barring a miracle, we were going to lose this game by one run.
So while Willy was working the ball over, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “that pitch is as fat as a softball.” The batter turned in astonishment with his bat on his shoulder, and Willy could have burned him with strike two, except that he was staring up at me too. “He couldn’t throw that slow weak stuff by you again if you held the bat by the trademark. Just hit it.”
McWilliams responded by sending another one high and inside, but his heart wasn’t in it and the batter easily leaned away. Then there was a delay while the umpire warned him, during which I got to pump up our batter and attack the confidence of their pitcher with another half dozen magical incantations disguised as innocent clichés. Finally Ace wound up and fired his best heater, right across the plate this time.
All season long his best pitch had been way more than adequate, but today it just wasn’t good enough. Ace was dealing with a minor confidence crisis and had backed off just enough. On top of that, our batter believed every word I had shouted—not to mention that he was pissed at having been thrown at twice. His swing was picture-perfect as he lifted the prettiest towering shot that cleared the grassy knoll behind the left field fence and was last seen heading for South Main.
Anne was jumping with excitement as we headed for home (Gabriel finished them off 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, if you insist on completing your scorecard). And I must confess, my normal urbane demeanor had abandoned me as well. “Layl’Annie,” I christened her—no woman that I truly cared about was going through life without a nickname. “If they let me come back as a grad student next fall, our lowly Rice Owls are going to the College World Series.”
“What makes you think that your relentless taskmaster is willing to let you off weekends for an occasional road trip?” she countered.
I pulled The Grail out of her pouch and asked. “So, what do you think, Cup?” The Marquis interrupted my train of thoughts by asking why we hadn’t given The Grail her own nickname. HG? Razuni’s Folly? Hmm, have to give that a bit more thought. “Want to take a break next spring and pull off a miracle much greater than merely turning water into wine?”
The Grail was every bit as excited as Annie and I were. That was great! We actually helped our boys beat those Aggie Pharisees. She’d obviously embraced my collegiate prejudices. Top that, Jesus!
I translated for Annie. “Well, one obstacle taken care of,” she replied. “Now all you need to do is talk somebody into driving you around—without using magic on her.”
I’d been pretty oblivious to where we were walking, but just then I realized that we were right in the same place where I’d last used magic on her. I looked up to see if she was harboring any residual resentment, but she was wearing her best poker face. So I set The Cup down on the ground and stepped back a half dozen big, exaggerated paces.
“Layl’Annie, without coercion and entirely of your own volition, would you like to kiss me?”
My conclusion was that she’d completely forgiven me.