Hang A Crooked Number

An excerpt from Matthew Callan's new baseball-and-secret-societies novel "Hang A Crooked Number."
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This is part of the cover.

Image via AmazinAvenue.

Matthew Callan was one of the earliest Classical contributors, and has written some of my favorite pieces for the site. If it seems like he's written less for us of late, it's because... well, because writing at length about sports for no money isn't for everyone. But also because he's been writing a novel entitled Hang A Crooked Number, which is both a minor league baseball novel and a kinda-sorta spy novel centered around a struggling catcher and his work in the secretive Moe Berg Society. Here's an excerpt; you can buy the whole thing for just $2.99 on AmazoniTunes, and Smashwords, and you probably should. - DR

We have extra security today at the players’ entrance. Most days, there’s no barrier here save the tired woman in her stifling vinyl jacket who spends more energy trying to keep her folding chair post in the sliver of shade cast by the clubhouse than she does checking anyone’s credentials. She is nowhere to be seen. In her place, a metal detector and a table manned by a pair of QXV “assurance specialists.” Their signature orange vests and green mesh baseball caps glared at me from across Surf Avenue. They have the blank demeanor of fast food employees, and are paid even less. The metal detector looks as if it was assembled in a hurry. It creaks whenever someone dares to move in its vicinity.

I appeal to the workers. “I’m on the team. I’m the starting catcher. See?” My laminated team ID with its chainlink lanyard does nothing for them.

“Still gotta check your bag,” one of them says. He looks at the table before him, not me. A patch on his vest reads QXV: SECURE SOLUTIONS. In lieu of a nametag, he has applied several bands of cream-colored masking tape to his orange vest and scrawled JARRID across the bands in Sharpie. “There was a bomb threat.”

“A bomb threat at the stadium?”

“Bomb threat somewhere.”

“There’s a bomb threat in some random place and we gotta get searched here?”

JARRID shrugs. When I slam my equipment bag down on the cheap rectangular folding table between us, it bows and sways under the weight. JARRID peels apart the opening in my equipment bag and waves his hand over everything, as if delivering a benediction to my shin guards and chest protector, never laying a finger on any of it. Then he pushes the bag one inch in my direction.

“S’okay,” JARRID says. I’m free to go. If I was worried about bombs, this search would not reassure me.

I pass through the metal detector without incident, despite the extremely metallic cell phone and keys in my pockets. A chill breeze whips down the tunnel that leads to the locker room as the air conditioned atmosphere inside the clubhouse does battle with the choking, humid air I’ve let inside. The hair on my arms stands at attention. Cables snake along the floor beneath me, though I don’t notice them until I catch my left shoe on one. I kick at the dark rubbery plastic, and it kicks right back. There are six or seven cables, at least, though it’s hard to figure the exact number, held close by Velcro ties. Most days, the tunnel is as drab as a late November afternoon, painted a light gray broken in half by a long bar of slightly darker gray.

I follow the cables down the tunnel and into the locker room, where they connect to a snarling mass of reporters and their equipment. A few unlucky men hold bulky remote cameras on their shoulders, while the more fortunate hold microphones. They stand in a semicircle, gathered around someone I can’t quite see but who must be The Swing. These are the second stringers, cub reporters and interns sent on a shitty detail to gather sound clips and brief video snippets at a remote minor league baseball field.

“Oh yeah, I’ve had a lot of good times here in New York,” The Swing says. He has a mild drawl, not aggressively Southern but still firmly rooted in Waffle House Country. “Probably can’t talk about most of ‘em on the air, though.”

A few chuckles arise from the pile of reporters. The effect is startling, because media types are not cheap laughers. All I can see of The Swing is his left elbow jabbing to the side, and his head bobbing above the microphones. He’s been through all of this before, but that came years ago and with the aid of self-medication. His voice does not quaver or betray any hint of nervousness. He takes the same approach a smart pitcher uses with runners on base: Slow down the pace of the game. Before answering a question, he turns his head slowly to his interrogator, as if trying to lull him to sleep with pendulous motion. When the reporter stops speaking, The Swing flashes a small grin and looks at the ground for a moment. Only then does he speak. The reporters tap their feet throughout this ponderous ritual. By New York standards, his pauses last several ice ages.

“I gotta give thanks to the Good Lord for givin’ me a second chance,” The Swing says, “and the Mets, for pickin’ me up and dustin’ me off. Hopefully, I can pay ‘em all back by hittin’ some taters in the big leagues pretty soon.”

My teammates do everything in their power to not look at The Swing. They plug up their ears with blaring headphones, flip through magazines, smash the controllers of handheld video games. Each of them tries to sneak a quick glance at the media’s new darling. Then, embarrassed with themselves, they return to their affected preoccupations. With Mark gone, I’m one of the few position players on the roster you could call young. There are still plenty of young pitchers, but most position players don’t consider pitchers to be “real” players, and the pitchers are happy to let them believe that. I’m the rare guy in this locker room, non-pitcher division, without any major league service time. The vast majority of my teammates possess at least some big league experience. Some have years of it, others one lone at bat in September. They’re in the same spot as The Swing is, looking for another shot at the majors. Unlike The Swing, my other teammates won’t have ESPN and the local stations hanging on their every at bat.

Franklin, our third baseman, looks up from his phone and lets out a dismissive snort in the general direction of The Swing and his entourage. Franklin had a great rookie season years ago, then ran into a sophomore slump and never got a chance at a junior year. He’s been in the minors ever since. Franklin figures The Swing won’t last, because he didn’t, and because in the end no one does.

I don’t want to see The Swing’s coronation any more than my teammates do. And I especially don’t want to have to deal with a media clusterfuck in the locker room every day when I have enough problems of my own already. So I put my head down, skirt around the gaggle of scribes, and make a beeline for my locker. I lower myself down on the bench that parallels the row of lockers, put on my uniform, and slide into all my other equipment. There’s no real need to strap into all my catcher’s equipment at this moment, not when we haven’t even had batting practice yet, but if I think about each act in full sentences, I can blot out the murmur of the little press conference and The Swing’s aw-shucks responses. Now I am strapping on my chest protector. Now I am lacing up my cleats. Now I am punching my glove.

A dozen pair of shoes shuffle away, trailing out of the room. They have been dismissed. The Swing stands before me, ten feet tall from where I sit. He unfolds his arm towards me in greeting, as if he’s trying to help me up after laying me out with a vicious tackle. His bicep is wrapped in medical tape. Past its edges creep the extremities of a tattoo. The arc of a loop and crosshatching suggest a snake, but too little of the art is exposed to know for sure.

“Hi there,” The Swing says. “I hear we’re roomin’.” He smiles. Crow’s feet form around his eyes. A few errant flecks of gray stain his dirty blond hair. He’s still in excellent shape, though. Not an ounce of fat on him, not anywhere I can see. The man that took the league by storm years ago is still here, even if he’s had to insert a few replacement parts. His eyes are a languid Caribbean blue, a color discontinued after the death of surfing movies. Take away the gray and the lines on his face and he’d still be his rookie card. When I was ten, I found one in a pack of Topps I bought at a corner store and I thought I’d hit the lottery.

The snailish pace of The Swing’s movements is hypnotic. It takes me far too long to extend my own hand in return. Someone else would have pulled his hand back, embarrassed at the thought of being snubbed. The Swing does not.

“I hear that, too,” I tell him.

“This my locker?” The Swing asks. He nods his head toward Mark’s old spot, right next to mine. Yesterday, it was filled with the things Mark left behind. Extra gloves, old balls, dirty jerseys. Now it looks untouched by human hands, apart from the trio of jerseys (home, alternate home, alternate-alternate home) with The Swing’s name stitched on the back, hanging halfway out, declaring its new owner.

“Looks that way,” I say, and The Swing plops down on the bench. His duffel bag drops from his shoulder. The metal rings of its straps ping against the aluminum of the locker. Our team-issued bags have plastic joints, but The Swing clings to an old model. He starts unpacking, pulling out an old glove and scarred wooden bat from his bag, until he gets distracted and pivots his head slowly, scanning the clubhouse.

“This place is pretty damn fancy,” he says.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Hell no. I just come up from Jupiter, Florida. That joint, every time it rained the damn locker room’d be under a foot’a water.”

“Guess we’re lucky.”

“Rather be lucky than good.”

I forget sometimes that the Hitmen are spoiled compared to the lot of the average minor league squad. Our locker room was built in the last 10 years, is reasonably clean, has decent drainage, and isn’t too hot in the summer or too cold in the fall. These might seem standard conditions for any working environment, but few farm teams agree with that assessment.

Our locker room is adorned with pictures of old ballplayers. I have no idea who any of them are. No Babe Ruths or Stan Musials or legends such as that, only random monotone batters with the identifying characteristics of their uniforms obscured. Our team must have worked out a good deal on off-brand pictures of 1940s baseball games.

The Swing resumes unpacking. He tosses his old glove without looking, and it lands perfectly centered at the locker’s floor with a resonant thud. He removes a newer glove from his bag with much more attention, placing it gently on top of the old one. The new glove is held shut tight by several large rubber bands pulling the folds of leather around an abused old ball. The industrial tang of neat’s foot oil stings the air.

The last items The Swing removes are a large, thick envelope, the kind once used to mail photographs, and a roll of Scotch tape. Out of the envelope he pulls a black and white drawing of Charlie Brown standing on a pitcher’s mound, looking miserable, printed on glossy stock. If comic strips sent out headshots, this would be their template. He tapes the picture to the top shelf of his locker. It dangles there, fluttering in the jet of air conditioning over our heads.

“Where did you get that?” I ask him.

“My dad, I think. Can barely remember. I’ve had it forever.”

“You carry around a picture of the worst ballplayer ever?”

“He ain’t the worst ballplayer ever. He’s not real.”

“He was still awful.”

“I been doin’ this forever. It’s what I do.” The Swing still smiles on the outside, but there’s very little smile in his voice. He hasn’t been forced to think this through before and he resents the effort I’ve asked him to make.

Without another word, he nods a goodbye and heads off to glad-hand the rest of our teammates, few of whom have any interest in speaking to him. He sidles up to each one, shakes their hands as if he’s doing them a great courtesy, trades a few meaningless pleasantries, then moves on to the next one. Each player hides his jealousy behind a paper-thin veneer, but The Swing doesn’t notice or care. Ramirez, our 35-year-old shortstop, shoots him the bird once his back is turned, a defiant move that receives a big laugh from the room. The Swing senses this and turns around. He’s quick for once, quick enough that Ramirez doesn’t have time to retract his gesture. Rather than get angry, The Swing smiles and waves. Ramirez turns red and lowers the offending hand to his side slowly, disarmed by the toothy cluelessness of it all.

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