Hippo Sheedy recognizes his old nemesis, even from across the airport tavern—as well as three and a half decades. He wheels his carry-on directly up to the bar, straddles a stool and grins up his best jowly jack-o-lantern grin.
“What can I get you?” rotes the bored barman, dealing a napkin off the stack.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” says Hippo, still grinning like he wants the corners of his mouth to shake hands with his ears. In fact, that’s how he’d acquired the name ‘Hippo’. He hadn’t gone to fat yet, but even when he was slim he had a mouth way too wide for his face. Made him look something like the ass end of a garbage truck. Or the front end of a hippo.
“Sure,” says the bartender, “you’re Brad Pitt. You come in all the time. What can I get for you, Mr. Pitt?”
“I’ll give you a hint,” offers Hippo. “I recognize you.”
The bar man shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
“Then I must be Angelina Jolie. Look, I’ve got other customers …”
Three to be exact. None clamoring for service.
Hippo waggles his finger at the barman. “You’re Stubby McShea. Still don’t recognize me? Does Wrigley Field, September 15, 1977 ring any bells?”
The bartender sighs, “I don’t hear bells so good anymore, besides,” he points to the name tag pinned to his shirt, “the name’s William.” he says. “I serve drinks. Can I get you one?”
“Whatever you got on tap, long as it’s light.” He pats his prodigious belt-overhang. “I’m thinking of makin’ a comeback.”
As a steamroller, maybe, William thinks as he pulls the handle and allows the beer slide down the side of a pilsner glass.
“I’ll give you another hint: Hippo.” He raises his arms and eyebrows. “Huh? Hippo Sheedy?”
The three other customers glance over, evidently curious about who dope keeps saying ‘hippo’, but William concentrates on drawing the beer. He places it in front of the customer.
“You must have me mixed up with someone else,” says William. “Happens to folks all the time. Especially in airports, or so they say.”
“Ah, no,” says Hippo. “I know what I know. William ‘Stubby’ McShea, pitcher, nine years in the Majors; mostly with the Cleveland Indians, but you also tossed for Kansas City, and Montreal there at the end. I kept track of you—‘specially after what you done to me. You were under .500 as far as wins and losses go, but you played for some pretty bedraggled teams. Lifetime ERA of 3.25. Nothin’ shabby about that, Stubby McShea.”
The other three customers appraise the bartender with new eyes.
Again, the bartender points to his nametag. “William,” he says quietly. “That other business was a long time ago.”
“Yessir,” says Hippo, addressing the other drinkers, “this guy woulda pitched for the Yankees or the Dodgers, people’d still be talking about him. You pitch for bad teams, nobody remembers. But Hippo remembers.”
The bartender leaned his forearms on the bar and bent in close to Hippo’s face.
“Listen, I was a mediocre pitcher on a series of mediocre teams. I burnt the stats book a long time ago. And I haven’t been called Stubby in more years than I care to count. Maybe we can talk about the weather, or not talk at all. Wha’d’ya say?”
“C’mon, Stubby, I only got a forty-minute layover, and I’ve been meanin’ to look you up since, well, September 15, 1977. It’s … what do they say … cashmere that we should meet like this.”
“I think you mean kismet. Why? Something special happen on that date?”
“You could say that, Stubby. That was the day you ruined my career.”
“Now I know you’ve got the wrong guy. The only career I ruined was my own. Though my liver might have reason to gripe. What is it I’m supposed to have done? I take it you were a ballplayer? I bean you with some hard cheese, and now you got double vision? What?”
“The name Hippo Sheedy don’t mean nothin’ to you, really?”
“For all I can remember about it, 1977 doesn’t mean nothin’ to me. What was it I’m supposed to have done to you?”
“You struck me out.”
William tugs the bar rag off his shoulder and puts it to use. “In ’77? I must have been havin’ a good day. I stunk like a fish-house dumpster that year.”
“On three pitches. Three lazy curveballs. Each one lazier than the last. Meanwhile, I was sittin’ on the famous McShea fastball. Made me look bad, Stubby. My only at-bat in the Bigs, and you and your curveballs made me look bush league.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” says William. “I was hootchin’ through an industrial-size funnel in those days, and my memory’s got more blanks and erasures than a Sunday crossword puzzle. Besides, I don’t think I ever threw three curveballs in a whole season, never mind three in one at-bat.”
Hippo slaps the bar with the flat of his hand. “See there?” he says. “I knew it. That’s how you ruined my career. Only a fool woulda gone up there lookin’ for benders from Stubby McShea.”
“I’ll have to agree with that.” The bartender shrugs. “I wasn’t known to heave anything that didn’t whistle—and a good portion of those got turned around and whistled right back at me … or over the outfield fence.”
Hippo pushes his empty glass forward, and gestures with his chin toward the tap. “So why’d you do it, Stubby?” he says. “Why’d you make a fool of me? Why’d you ruin my career?”
The bartender jerks the stick and the beer slides. “I don’t know that I did ruin your career. Besides, getting batters out was what they were paying me for.”
“But on three lousy curveballs? Stubby McShea didn’t never throw curve balls. So there I am flailin’ at high heaters that break in the dirt ten full seconds after I’d already swung.”
William places the beer in front of the old ballplayer. “On me,” he says. “Listen, Hippo, is it?”
The other man nods.
“You’re giving me way too much credit, and maybe a little more blame than I deserve, too. I didn’t make you swing at those three hooks, after all.”
“Maybe not, but you must have known I was a September call-up with a big fat hole in my swing. And it was my first Major League at bat. You treated me like I was a joke; a nothin’.”
“I can see how you might feel that way, friend, but I doubt I would have known you from Babe Ruth in those days. I swear, it never mattered to me who was at the plate. I just reared back and threw as hard as I could. All I had was power. No cunning.”
“Yeah, you threw like that to everybody else. I bet you wouldn’t have tossed Babe Ruth three straight curve balls.”
William nods. “You’re right about that. If someone had been kind enough to point out the Babe to me, I’d’ve grooved him one juicier than a grapefruit—just to see how far he’d hit it.”
Hippo spins his glass on the bar. “But you couldn’t do that for me?”
The bartender pours a brew for a new customer at the other end of the bar, then returns.
“You never got into another Major League game?”
“Nah, our season was over just three days later. During the winter, the GM swung a three-way trade with Chicago and the Red Sox. The White Sox got the kid, Samuelson, to take over for doddering old Manning in right field—the slot that was supposed be mine, until you made a fool of me. I ended up getting sent to Boston where Dewey Evans had right field sown up tighter than skin on a potato. Never made it out of Triple-A again. I was twenty-nine before I realized most of my teammates were only nineteen. The Game had already passed me by.”
William smiles. “If it’s any consolation, it eventually passed by The Bambino and Dewey Evans, too. Forget the meek, Hippo, it’s the young who inherit the Earth … and the batter’s box.”
The murky PA system announces boarding for Hippo’s flight. Hippo stands and reaches for his wallet.
“Keep it,” says William. “By the way, what do you do now?”
“Got a company makes reflective film goes on retail and office windows. Saving energy’s the big leagues in business these days.”
William spreads his arms, in exposition of the shabby bar. “Maybe I should have let you strike me out.”
When Hippo is gone, one of the other customers pushes his empty glass to the center of the bar.
“Will,” he says, “I’ll eat that salt shaker, and every grain in it, if you spent one day in the Major Leagues.”
William refills the man’s glass.
“I peaked at American Legion, Marv,” he says. “Was my brother Thomas he was talking about. Didn’t see any harm in letting him believe.”
“But he said, William ‘Stubby’ McShea, not Thomas.”
“That was just wishful thinking, Marv. I look enough like my brother so his mind made an adjustment on the name. I may have never made it beyond American Legion ball, but even I learned that a guy who craves the fastball can fool himself into swinging at the curve every time.”
copyright © 2014
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.