5.12.2005

Heart of Blueness.


The last days were ugly. The ballclub had been in disarray for weeks, faced with a Brobdingnagian series of heartbreaking losses and baserunning buffoonery the likes of which had rarely been seen since the 1962 New York Metropolitans. The clubhouse air was dank and dismal, tasting faintly of mustard and failure. Even Angel Berroa, always the high-spirited prankster before, wore a hangdog expression on his brow; David DeJesus, unlike the Jewish carpenter who had lent him 5/7 of his surname, was powerless to stop the evils that had afflicted the Kansas City Royals.

But no one was worse off than the skipper. Tony Pena was in a deep blue funk the size of all Missouri, and had been for longer than anyone could remember. The rare pronouncements from his office had grown stranger: send Ken Harvey back to the minors? force Eli Marrero to paint his toenails vermillion just for striking out with men on base? have Zach Greinke slaughtered to appease the baseball gods? Pena had begun to shape the ceremonial eyeblack he wore into strange, gnostic designs. No one knew when, or where, or how, or even who, it was going to end.

That's when they turned to Bob Schaefer. The veteran coach had been around the game for a lot of years, and had seen it all. He'd done most of it too. The day he got his orders, he knew what he had to do. It wasn't going to be easy: baseball rarely is.

The closer he got to Pena's office, the more alien the terrain became. Chewing tobacco and chewing gum and sunflower seeds had been formed into replicas of proud Royals past, standing sentry over a locker room that had seen so much sadness and disappointment. (Was it really just 20 years ago that the Royals won the World Series?) Bamboo fungo bats formed a crude and dimly-lit hut. Schaefer said, "Sit tight, men, I'm going in." It was a measure of the situation's weirdness that there were no men there to hear Schaefer. Just flies, maddening mocking flies, and a stray batting glove or two.

Pena's face shown, a half-moon possessed by equal parts sage, idiot, self-pitying bystander, and former American League coach of the year. He croaked out, "So they sent you, huh, Bob?" Schaefer could only nod. "Well, we all have to go sometime." The besieged one looked around, his hair wild under his cap. "I'm the last one! Don't you see? Clemens is gone, I caught that son of a bitch in Boston, he's gone like all the rest!" Schaefer wanted to point out that Clemens was probably the best pitcher in the NL so far, but Pena was busy shrieking "I alone have escaped to manage thee!" to listen. He was already too far gone.

There was only one thing left to do, and Schaefer did it. He did it for the guys, grizzled veterans like Sweeney all the way to new fresh meat like Amby Burgos. He did it for the fans, people who couldn't understand what any of them went through, what they all went through every day. He did it for George Brett and Bret Saberhagen and Dan Quisenberry and Hal McRae. But most of all, he did it for Tony Pena himself, a shattered shell of a man, a ghost, a cipher, a Royal.

Somewhere, Calvin Pickering killed a cow.

Schaefer walked out to the clubhouse, wiping his hands. Angel Berroa looked up and said, "Where's Skip? What happened to Skip?"

Schaefer could only reply, "Mista Pena, he gone."

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