Hit Parade Page 1

Author: Lawrence Block

Series: Keller #3

Genres: Mystery , Thriller



Keller, a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other, walked up a flight and a half of concrete steps and found his way to his seat. In front of him, two men were discussing the ramifications of a recent trade the Tarpons had made, sending two minor-league prospects to the Florida Marlins in return for a left-handed reliever and a player to be named later. Keller figured he hadn’t missed anything, as they’d been talking about the same subject when he left. He figured the player in question would have been long since named by the time these two were done speculating about him.

Keller took a bite of his hot dog, drew a sip of his beer. The fellow on his left said, “You didn’t bring me one.”

Huh? He’d told the guy he’d be back in a minute, might have mentioned he was going to the refreshment stand, but had he missed something the man had said in return?

“What didn’t I bring you? A hot dog or a beer?”

“Either one,” the man said.

“Was I supposed to?”

“Nope,” the man said. “Hey, don’t mind me. I’m just jerking your chain a little.”

“Oh,” Keller said.

The fellow started to say something else but broke it off after a word or two as he and everybody else in the stadium turned their attention to home plate, where the Tarpons’ cleanup hitter had just dropped to the dirt to avoid getting hit by a high inside fastball. The Yankee pitcher, a burly Japanese with a herky-jerky windup, seemed unfazed by the boos, and Keller wondered if he even knew they were for him. He caught the return throw from the catcher, set himself, and went into his pitching motion.

“Taguchi likes to pitch inside,” said the man who’d been jerking Keller’s chain, “and Vollmer likes to crowd the plate. So every once in a while Vollmer has to hit the dirt or take one for the team.”

Keller took another bite of his hot dog, wondering if he ought to offer a bite to his new friend. That he even considered it seemed to indicate that his chain had been jerked successfully. He was glad he didn’t have to share the hot dog, because he wanted every bite of it for himself. And, when it was gone, he had a feeling he might go back for another.

Which was strange, because he never ate hot dogs. A few years back he’d read a political essay on the back page of a news magazine that likened legislation to sausage. You were better off not knowing how it was made, the writer observed, and Keller, who had heretofore never cared how laws were passed or sausages produced, found himself more conscious of the whole business. The legislative aspect didn’t change his life, but without making any conscious decision on the matter, he found he’d lost his taste for sausage.

Being at a ballpark somehow made it different. He had a hunch the hot dogs they sold here at Tarpon Stadium were if anything more dubious in their composition than your average supermarket frankfurter, but that seemed to be beside the point. A ballpark hot dog was just part of the baseball experience, along with listening to some flannel-mouthed fan shouting instructions to a ballplayer dozens of yards away who couldn’t possibly hear him, or booing a pitcher who couldn’t care less, or having one’s chain jerked by a total stranger. All part of the Great American Pastime.

He took a bite, chewed, sipped his beer. Taguchi went to three-and-two on Vollmer, who fouled off four pitches before he got one he liked. He drove it to the 396-foot mark in left center field, where Bernie Williams hauled it in. There had been runners on first and second, and they trotted back to their respective bases when the ball was caught.

“One out,” said Keller’s new friend, the chain jerker.

Keller ate his hot dog, sipped his beer. The next batter swung furiously and topped a roller that dribbled out toward the mound. Taguchi pounced on it, but his only play was to first, and the runners advanced. Men on second and third, two out.

The Tarpon third baseman was next, and the crowd booed lustily when the Yankees elected to walk him intentionally. “They always do that,” Keller said.

“Always,” the man said. “It’s strategy, and nobody minds when their own team does it. But when your guy’s up and the other side won’t pitch to him, you tend to see it as a sign of cowardice.”

“Seems like a smart move, though.”

“Unless Turnbull shows ’em up with a grand slam, and God knows he’s hit a few of ’em in the past.”

“I saw one of them,” Keller recalled. “In Wrigley Field, before they had the lights. He was with the Cubs. I forget who they were playing.”

“That would have had to be before the lights came in, if he was with the Cubs. Been all around, hasn’t he? But he’s been slumping lately, and you got to go with the percentages. Walk him and you put on a.320 hitter to get at a.280 hitter, plus you got a force play at any base.”

“It’s a game of percentages,” Keller said.

“A game of inches, a game of percentages, a game of woulda-coulda-shoulda,” the man said, and Keller was suddenly more than ordinarily grateful that he was an American. He’d never been to a soccer match, but somehow he doubted they ever supplied you with a conversation like this one.

“Batting seventh for the Tarpons,” the stadium announcer intoned. “Number seventeen, the designated hitter, Floyd Turnbull.”


“He’s a designated hitter,” Dot had said, on the porch of the big old house on Taunton Place. “Whatever that means.”

“It means he’s in the lineup on offense only,” Keller told her. “He bats for the pitcher.”

“Why can’t the pitcher bat for himself? Is it some kind of union regulation?”

“That’s close enough,” said Keller, who didn’t want to get into it. He had once tried to explain the infield fly rule to a stewardess, and he was never going to make that sort of mistake again. He wasn’t a sexist about it, he knew plenty of women who understood this stuff, but the ones who didn’t were going to have to learn it from somebody else.

“I saw him play a few times,” he told her, stirring his glass of iced tea. “Floyd Turnbull.”

“On television?”

“Dozens of times on TV,” he said. “I was thinking of seeing him in person. Once at Wrigley Field, when he was with the Cubs and I happened to be in Chicago.”

“You just happened to be there?”

“Well,” Keller said. “I don’t ever just happen to be anyplace. It was business. Anyway, I had a free afternoon and I went to a game.”

“Nowadays you’d go to a stamp dealer.”

“Games are mostly at night nowadays,” he said, “but I still go every once in a while. I saw Turnbull a couple of times in New York, too. Out at Shea, when he was with the Cubs and they were in town for a series with the Mets. Or maybe he was already with the Astros when I saw him. It’s hard to remember.”

“And not exactly crucial that you get it right.”

“I think I saw him at Yankee Stadium, too. But you’re right, it’s not important.”

“In fact,” Dot said, “it would be fine with me if you’d never seen him at all, up close or on TV. Does this complicate things, Keller? Because I can always call the guy back and tell him we pass.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Well, I hate to, since they already paid half. I can turn down jobs every day and twice on Sundays, but there’s something about giving back money once I’ve got it in my hands that makes me sick to my stomach. I wonder why that is?”

“A bird in the hand,” Keller suggested.

“When I’ve got a bird in my hand,” she said, “I hate like hell to let go of it. But you saw this guy play. That’s not gonna make it tough for you to take him out?”

Keller thought about it, shook his head. “I don’t see why it should,” he said. “It’s what I do.”

“Right,” Dot said. “Same as Turnbull, when you think about it. You’re a designated hitter yourself, aren’t you, Keller?”

“Designated hitter,” Keller said as Floyd Turnbull took a called second strike. “Whoever thought that one up?”

“Some marketing genius,” his new friend said. “Some dipstick who came up with research to prove that fans wanted to see more hits and home runs. So they lowered the pitching mound and told the umpires to quit calling the high strike, and then they juiced up the baseball and brought in the fences in the new ballparks, and the ballplayers started lifting weights and swinging lighter bats, and now you’ve got baseball games with scores like football games. Last week the Tigers beat the A’s fourteen to thirteen. First thing I thought, Jeez, who missed the extra point?”

“At least the National League still lets pitchers hit.”

“And at least nobody in the pros uses those aluminum bats. They show college baseball on ESPN, and I can’t watch it. I can’t stand the sound the ball makes when you hit it. Not to mention it travels too goddam far.”

The next pitch was in the dirt. Posada couldn’t find it, but the third-base coach, suspicious, held the runner. The fans booed, though it was hard to tell whom they were booing, or why. The two in front of Keller joined in the booing, and Keller and the man next to him exchanged knowing glances.

“Fans,” the man said and rolled his eyes.

The next pitch was belt high, and Turnbull connected solidly with it. The stadium held its collective breath and the ball sailed toward the left-field corner, hooking foul at the last moment. The crowd heaved a sigh, and the runners trotted back to their bases. Turnbull, looking not at all happy, dug in again at the plate.

He swung at the next pitch, which looked like ball four to Keller, and popped to right. O’Neill floated under it and gathered it in and the inning was over.

“Top of the order for the Yanks,” said Keller’s friend. “About time they broke this thing wide open, wouldn’t you say?”

With two out in the Tarpons’ half of the eighth inning, with the Yankees ahead by five runs, Floyd Turnbull got all of a Mike Stanton fastball and hit it into the upper deck. Keller watched as he jogged around the bases, getting a good hand from what remained of the crowd.

“Career home run number three ninety-three for the old warhorse,” said the man on Keller’s left. “And all those people missed it because they had to beat the traffic.”

“Number three ninety-three?”

“Leaves him seven shy of four hundred. And, in the hits department, you just saw number twenty-nine eighty-eight.”

“You’ve got those stats at your fingertips?”

“My fingers won’t quite reach,” the fellow said, and pointed to the scoreboard, where the information he’d cited was posted. “Just twelve hits to go before he joins the magic circle, the Three Thousand Hits club. That’s the only thing to be said for the DH rule-it lets a guy like Floyd Turnbull stick around a couple of extra years, long enough to post the kind of numbers that get you into Cooperstown. And he can still do a team some good. He can’t run the bases, he can’t chase after fly balls, but the son of a bitch hasn’t forgotten how to hit a baseball.”

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