MELLY MOCKINGBIRD: Part One

 
 
“Forty, a word?”

Clyde came in and shut the door.

“Tracy Walker is being sent down.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” said Jimmy B.

Clyde shrugged.

“Ramón is going up and Walker’s coming down.”

“Okay.”

Jimmy B started rummaging in the papers on his desk. “I need you to work with Walker.”

“Okay,” said Clyde.

“Ever met him?”

“No.”

“He’s a funny guy. Quiet, keeps to himself. He’s pitching a good game, he’ll sit in the dugout with a towel on his hand, say nothing.”

“What if he’s pitching a bad game?”

“He doesn’t. Not until lately.”

“It’s the sinker?”

“Yeah. And he isn’t a whole hell of a lot sure where he put the slider, either.” Jimmy B finally came up with a bottle of Flintstones vitamins and popped two into his mouth, filling the little office with the scent of artificial orange flavoring. “Listen, Fort. I think you have to use kid gloves with this one. It’s bad enough getting sent down to Pawtucket without being caught by some kid out of Double A.”

Clyde was used to hearing this. “Pooky can catch him after his wife has the baby,” he suggested.

“They don’t want Pooky to catch him. They want you.”

“Why?” said Clyde.

“No reason,” said Jimmy B. “Be here early tomorrow so you can talk to him before BP.”

* * * * *

Clyde Fortenay had lived within earshot of Fenway Park since he was four years old. The Boston papers made much of this when he was drafted, and also of his age at the time (seventeen). If she’d known the fuss it would cause, Bronwyn said, she never would have let him skip a grade. She hated publicity, although she had been involved with people who needed it, in one way or another, for as long as Clyde could remember.

Bronwyn didn’t like sports, but when he was eight they met Vivie, who worked for the Red Sox. On Lansdowne Street she bought him sausages with peppers, a treat forbidden by Bronwyn, and baseball cards which Clyde always mislaid afterwards. He wasn’t interested in the printed word or picture—it was the moving ball that set his mind alight. They sat on the smelly curb in the hot sun, eating fried dough off stained paper plates as the radio announcer called out his incantations, and Vivie drew the strike zone on the road with a piece of rock. He saw it from back to front, the golden section hanging in the air, cleaved by the bat as the pitch skimmed low. He saw the curveball dropping through its parabola. He understood the treachery of the splitter before he ever walked onto a baseball diamond.

“I think he’s got talent. I really do.”

Bron wasn’t listening. She was still restless and unhappy in those early years back from Texas, where Clyde had been born. “Do you think I should apply for this?” she said. “Docent at the Museum of Fine Arts.”

“I’m telling you, Bronwyn, this child is going to be supporting us all some day.”

Bronwyn was a big-limbed tall woman, twenty-nine at this time, with soapy pale skin and straw hair and big, worried eyes. Clyde himself was a completely different color, dark as maple sugar, with slanted cheekbones that some people said made him look like an Eskimo. Bronwyn said he didn’t have to answer questions about his parentage, but Clyde didn’t care what people said to him. He knew who he was.

* * * * *

At two o’clock Walker was sitting in front of his locker, reading. He was a young man of generous but supple build, about six-four, in slacks and a collared shirt. His hair was cropped short, and he was clean-shaven and wore glasses with small oval lenses. He looked like someone who might be pictured on the brochure of a modest business college.

“Tracy?”

“You must be Clyde.”

They shook hands. Tracy’s cologne smelled like green fruit, something unsweet and not quite ripe. “I guess we’ll be working together,” he said. He put the book away. His voice was deep and a little guttural, with a city sound. “Did you have a good trip?” Clyde said.

“It was fine, thank you.”

“Something to eat?”

“No, thanks.”

Matched civility for civility, Clyde didn’t know what else to say. “Want to play catch?”

His technique was elegant, almost too perfect, like the piano-playing of a gifted child. He kept the left side of his body closed up like a door and delivered the ball crisply and very high, following through in a deep arc. His velocity was good: it felt to Clyde like he would throw 89 or 90 off the mound. He didn’t show the typical signs of a slumping pitcher—the rushing, overthrowing, and erratic pauses meant to dislodge the goblin on his shoulder. Clyde guessed that any frustration he felt had been directed into a thorough polishing of his mechanics.

They tossed the ball back and forth without speaking. At the end Clyde said, “So did they put you in the hotel?”

“That’s right.”

“How do you like it?”

Walker was still wearing his glasses, which now that he was in uniform gave him an old-fashioned air. As he raised his glove for the final toss he resembled one of the solemn, studious athletes in historical photographs at Cooperstown. “It’s very nice,” he said.

“A bunch of us are going to Dusty’s after the game,” said Clyde. “Want to come?”

“I’m all right, thanks.”

Clyde had heard Tracy Walker described as self-contained. Shit, he thought, the man’s practically his own country.

He went to change and take batting practice. In his third year as a pro ballplayer, Clyde’s hitting was what it always had been: adequate. What success he did have at the plate was due more to thought than to power; he knew pitchers, knew their insecurities and temptations and how they tried to hide them. He knew catchers, too, and had studied several of his rivals so closely that he could feel them calling games behind his back. Once out of Little League he had never played another position. Squatting behind the plate, the filaments of his awareness flung out to third, short, second and first, to the ump at his shoulder and the one up the first-base line, to the outfield and most of all to the pitcher, his charge, was where Clyde was happiest. Away from the park, he worked at getting to know his pitchers—talking to them, sometimes drinking with them, but mainly going over his books and watching tapes. He read the sports pages in the Globe, the Herald, the New York Times and USA Today and listened to ESPN radio. He called Vivie twice a week.

“What do you do for fun?” a boy from a high-school paper had asked him once, and Ozmo yelled from the other side of the locker room, “He works out the whole staff’s ERA to five places!” But what he actually did for fun was play winter ball. He played with the Tigres del Licey in the Liga Dominicana. Winter baseball was looser, lighter; sometimes, at bat in Estadio Quisqueya, he felt like he was floating. The ball seemed to fly farther, sparkling in the heat-hazed air. The smells of ocean and barbecued chicken and mango, the sizzling blue skies, the completely crazed fans of Santo Domingo made him happy. He was learning a little Spanish. “Ya eres Dominicano,” Ramón had said to him in January. “Entonces? You are one of us.” He had another year or so in Triple A, and then he would be in the majors.

“What’s the matter with Walker?” Oz asked him over burgers. The beef at Dusty’s was chewy and the beer indifferent, but Dusty made sure they were never disturbed.

“He didn’t say,” said Clyde.

“Think it’s the groin again?”

“We just played catch for twenty minutes.”

“Think it’s the atmosphere?”

“What?”

“Black man in Boston.”

Chick Rodriguez spoke. “That shit is bullshit. Look at me.”

“You not black, man, you Dominican.”

“I don’t know what’s the matter with him,” Clyde said. “I’m not a pitching coach.”

Ben Whalen, the sleepy-looking third baseman they called Whaler, reached for the ketchup. “He’ll be all right,” he said. “Forty, you take him in hand.”

They flew to Toledo to play the Mud Hens, and Walker pitched the opener against Iggy LaComte (3-2). He had been working with Dan Brown to develop a change-up that could substitute for his floppy breaking balls, and he threw well but with a certain grimness that Clyde found painful to watch. He was a man without his talents, grinding on by will alone.

After dinner Clyde knocked on his door. There was a lengthy pause, then the sound of papers being rustled aside, and Tracy opened the door in a black silk robe. The woven hemp necklace that he always wore under his jersey was exposed at his throat. It was strung with small purple shells. He had a very slight look of resignation on his face.

“I’m not here to push you,” Clyde said when he was seated on the side of the bed. Walker was in the small hotel armchair, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He listened to Clyde with two fingers of one hand resting on his cheek, just below his right eye. “I know you’re working with D.B. and Kiko. But they’re staff, and I’m your catcher. To me, there’s something you get from a teammate that you can’t get from field personnel. I’m not asking you to change the way you work. But if you want any help from me, I am available for that.”

Tracy didn’t answer right away. He went on gazing at Clyde over his fingertips.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said at last, “how old are you?”

“Nineteen,” Clyde said.

He smiled. He had an open, honest smile, entirely different from his usual expression. “They call you Forty.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m twenty-eight,” he said. “I’ll be eligible for arbitration in September.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to say.”

Clyde shrugged.

Tracy sighed and drew up his legs. “What the hell,” he said. He leaned forward between his knees. “They talk about you in Boston, you know. They say you’re the next big thing to come out of the farm system. Do you think that’s true?”

Clyde was used to hearing this, too. He had been drafted in the championship year, and some of the hype still clung to him. “I think people are easily impressed by good catching,” he said. He always said that.

* * * * *

Clyde got permission from Tony Kikawa and Dr. West to do a little work in the bullpen.

“What do you feel when you throw?” he asked. Tracy weighed the ball in his hand, trying two seams, four seams. “Not much,” he said. “It feels the same in my arm whether it’s going to sink down or flatten out.”

“Every pitch feels like a good pitch?”

“No, a bad one.”

“For how long has this been?”

“Just the past few weeks,” said Walker. Clyde knew he was lying. He squatted in the mud and called for one low and inside. It came in like a roll of toilet paper. “Try your thumb on the bottom,” Clyde said. It was the same. “Try releasing more to the side.”

“That’s enough,” Walker said at last.

“Give me a few more.”

“I’ve been throwing sinkers that don’t sink for half the morning. I think you get the picture.”

Clyde’s quads burned as he stood up. He took off his mask and let the sea-tinged air, cool and wet for June, loosen the hair that was pasted to his forehead. He could see some children watching from the grassy hill beside the stadium. “What do you do to get your mind off pitching?” he said.

Walker stood eyeing him and rubbing the ball with his thumb. He had a handsome, closed-up face, a long neck and shoulders so straight they looked machined. “That’s kind of personal.”

“Just curious.”

“What do you do?”

“Me? Nothing,” Clyde said.

“To get your mind off pitching?”

“I mean, it never is.”

They began to walk back towards the clubhouse. “I don’t know,” Walker said. “Whatever anyone else does, I guess. Read a book. Knit socks. Call the fiancée.”

“What’s your fiancée’s name?” Clyde said.

“Shawneequa,” said Tracy. He laughed. “No, it’s Emma. Emma Lapham.”

“So she’s white?”

“Lily.”

“You get flack for that?”

He shrugged. “My mom’s white.”

“So’s mine.”

Clyde meant it as a joke, but Walker didn’t smile. “What’s the rest of you?” he said. “Asian?”

“No, white. Most likely.”

“Most likely,” Walker repeated.

Clyde stayed at the park long past midnight, watching digital video of every major-league start Tracy Walker had ever made. He got the remote and inched through the delivery frame by frame. The pitching from last year and the year before was efficient and assured. The mechanics were the same ones Clyde had seen in the bullpen this morning: the sharp push off the rubber, the arm up at eleven o’clock and the ball rolling off his fingertips. All the MRIs had come back clean. But he was crippled, and every pitch he threw darkened his expectations of the next. He’d reached the barren ground at the bottom of the slump where no rational or irrational strategy was going to help him. If Clyde believed in God, he would have prayed for him.