“The Vegas Differential” by James Hanna

“You two live in Nerdville,” Dad snapped. “Why doncha play baseball for real steada sitting at that table all day, rolling those goddamn dice?” He was referring to the World Baseball League, that marvelous horsehide fantasy game that I played with my kid brother, Robbie, throughout every summer day. And he was laboring under the assumption that his ignorance ought to be law.

“Have you ever seen Nerdville?” I said. The question, of course, was redundant; all our dad saw were two kids in the basement forever rolling a pair of dice then cross-checking hand-drawn charts. He did not see the massive cheering crowds, the twenty colorful teams, nor the stats of the four hundred players our 2” by 2” cardboard squares represented. So enthralled were we by the World Baseball League that it had become a hallowed ground. Everything else—sleeping, eating, jacking off—were nagging demands we had to fulfill to return to our field of dreams.

Dad placed his hands on his hips like a marshal. “Whatever crap goes on in your heads is the last thing I want to know. What I do know is it’s time you got out of the house and hit a baseball for real.”

“First thing Saturday,” I remarked and I gave him a big thumbs up. What I was actually saying was, “Fuck that shit.” I was using a code Robbie and I had devised for talking back to Dad. A code that allowed us to be insolent without consequence.

“First thing Saturday,” Robbie chimed in, and he gave Dad a possum grin. “After I brush my teeth,” he added, which meant “Go fuck yourself.”

Naturally, we had no intention of hitting a baseball for real. We had lineups to seed, contracts to hash out, endorsements to consider. We had players to groom, pennants to win, and anthems to compose. With the playoffs only a few games away, there was no time for plebeian pursuits. Our hearts, our minds, our very souls were pledged to the World Baseball League.

*****

 

Although we had no use for Philistines, we were not averse to converts. And so that summer, we opened the League up to one of the neighborhood boys. A tall rangy kid with a budding moustache and a Stetson hat on his head. As a high school senior, he was one year older than me, six years older than Robbie, but he looked upon the two of us with an air of a riverboat gambler. He insisted we dispense with his name—Chad Sylvester—and call him the Vegas Fox.

The Fox made frequent player trades to beef up his stable of teams. Deals he promoted by tapping the table, sitting back in his chair, and drawing a dramatic breath. “Tell you what I’m gonna do,” he would say as he chewed an unlit cigar. And then he might offer up Willie Mays for Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris.

Through a series of clever and well-timed trades, the Fox built one of his team, the Gatlinburg Ghostbusters, into a playoff contender. In juggernaut fashion, this team swept through the playoffs and made it into the World Series. There, it faced the Potomac Patriots, a team I had purchased from Robbie for eight million dollars, six farm teams, and an endorsement contract with Lucky Strike Cigarettes. But the Patriots had suffered badly in their march to the Fall Classic. Depleted by injuries, hitting slumps, and player suspensions for steroid use, they were a very poor match for the Gatlinburg Ghostbusters.

Sensing my desperation, the Fox stroked his thin moustache. “Tell you what I’m gonna do,” he announced in his best used car salesman drawl. “I’ll give you Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Cy Young if you’ll part with Jimmy Piersall.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young—the tallest legends of baseball—all for Jimmy Piersall, a volatile self-promoter with a .272 lifetime batting average. As a ballplayer, Jimmy Piersall was the very definition of ordinary.

Stunned by the offer, I struggled to speak. “H-h-how did you get those p-p-players?” I stammered.

“Brought ’em back from the grave,” laughed the Fox. “That ain’t hard to do when you’re a ghostbuster.”

I made the deal immediately and he handed me three cardboard squares. I fingered the squares as though they were diamonds. I could not believe what I held in my hands: Babe Ruth, a .342 hitter with a .690 slugging percentage, Ty Cobb a .366 hitter with a .433 on-base percentage, and Cy Young, a backstop busting fastballer with a 2.62 earned run average. Whatever possessed the Fox to make such a stupid deal?

Since the trade had not yet been announced to the press, I phoned my bookie in Atlantic City to get the spread on the Series. The line was even money that the Patriots would lose in five games or less. I quickly cashed out my liquid assets and auctioned off my franchise with Coca Cola. Altogether, I raised ten million dollars, which I bet on my revamped team. My entire bankroll was on the line, but I didn’t give a shit. With the legends of yore in my lineup, I was making a no-risk bet.

*****

 

The Series began on a Sunday. After the Marine Band played the National Anthem and the Blue Angel jets roared over the stadium, I handed my lineup card to the home plate umpire. Ty Cobb, of course, was leading off, the Babe was batting cleanup. And Cy Young was perched on the pitcher’s mound, taking his warm-up tosses. I figured ol’ Cy was good for five games—hell, in the heyday of his career he used to pitch double headers.

As the umpire shouted, “Play Ball,” the crowd gave an ear-splitting cheer. At that moment, the Fox bent over the table and handed me a chart.

“The fuck is this?” I asked him.

He grinned and chomped his cigar. “That,” he said condescendingly, “is the Vegas Differential.”

Annoyed, I tossed the chart aside. “I’ll read it later,” I muttered. “After I brush my teeth.”

The Fox produced a toothpick and used it to groom his nails. “Ty Cobb was a shrimp,” he said. “He weighed just a hundred and seventy-five pounds. And he never faced the kinda heat that pitchers throw today. As for Cy Young, he had it easy. He got to stand on a built up pitcher’s mound and throw the ball just fifty feet. Hell, he never even developed a change-up ’til halfway through his career.” The Fox finished cleaning his fingernails then handed me back the chart. “If you’re gonna be lettin’ those dinosaurs play, that shit’s gotta factor in.”

“What about the Sultan of Swat?” I sputtered.

“The Babe,” laughed the Fox. “He was outta shape, dude. He ate too many hotdogs, chugged too many beers. And he fucked so many women he could hardly swing a bat. They shoulda called him the Sultan of Twat.”

“He still hit a ton of home runs,” I protested.

“That’s easy in Yankee Stadium—it was built for left-handed hitters. If they hadn’t shortened the distance to the right field fence, he’d have flied out most of the time.”

My team had not yet taken the field, and the fans were getting restless. But I sat there for fifteen minutes, studying that goddamn chart.

“C’mon,” said the Fox. “Ya gonna play ball? Ya act like you’ve seen a ghost.”

*****

 

The Patriots dropped the Series opener by a score of 8-0. Ty Cobb did not hit the ball out of the infield, Babe Ruth got picked off at first base, and Cy Young could not hurl the ball sixty feet without hanging it over the plate. Unimpressed by Cy’s heat, Jimmy Piersall stepped back and walloped three home runs. Blowout, the evening Tribune read. Patriots Give Up the Ghost.

“Those men were legends,” I muttered as I tossed the newspaper aside.

“Legends are crap,” said the Fox as he penciled in his line-up for the second game of the Series. “Since you live your life in la-la land, you oughta have figured that out.”

“Your chart is crap,” I countered.

The Fox yawned and shook his head. “Ya gotta allow for time and tide if this game’s gonna be realistic.”

Was that charity I saw in his eyes as he eased himself back in his chair? Or was the Fox just smelling blood and readying himself for the kill?

“Tellllll ya what I’ll do,” he said. “I’m gonna give you a chance. I’ll give you Mel Ott, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson in exchange for Roger Maris.”

The offer looked like a setup, but the Fox may have run out of luck. Roger Maris was riding a terrible slump—he was batting .209 for the year and had only hit three home runs. I had nothing to lose by trading him so I quickly agreed to the deal.

The Fox blew an imaginary smoke ring and handed me three more squares: Mel Ott a .304 hitter with a .414 on-base percentage, Honus Wagner, a .329 hitter with 722 stolen bases, Walter Johnson, a fastballer with 2.17 earned run average and 110 shutouts to his credit. Not even the Vegas Differential could neutralize icons like these.

But the second game was worse than the first. Mel Ott was too small for the World Baseball League and could only hit lazy fly balls. Honus Wagner reached first base a couple of times then got thrown out trying to steal second. Walter Johnson pitched well for a couple of innings, slinging the ball from his hip, but when the batters got used to his sidearm delivery, they stung him for nine home runs. Even Roger Maris, in the throes of his slump, belted four balls out of the park. We lost the game 16-0, a record Series defeat.

Patriots Choke Like Chickens the morning Tribune read. And The New York Times and The Boston Globe accused me of fixing the Series. When a manager is blessed with the team of the ages, The New York Times article read, he has no excuse for losing. If he can’t even keep the games close, there is something going on. As I finished reading the article, I prayed the rumor would stick. I would rather be accused of racketeering than managing such ignoble defeats.

The Fox sat back in his chair and gave me a sleepy wink. “Tell ya what,” he announced. “I’m feelin’ kinda generous. I’ll give ya Joe Jackson, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Fox if you’ll let Marv Throneberry go.”

“No more trades!” I spat, and I pushed the table away. It was time to prove the critics wrong, time to seize the day, time to reclaim bygone glory and walk amongst the gods.

My heart pounded like a hammer as I stormed into the clubhouse. And while the players puffed on cheroots, I delivered the speech of my life. “Play for each other!” I bellowed. “Play for the history books! Play for motherhood, apple pie, and the good ol’ red, white, and blue!”

The players looked at me somberly as though I were some kind of freak. But then Ty Cobb threw away his cigar and slowly began to clap. It was not an applause but a rhythm, like a war drum coming to life. And it swept throughout the clubhouse with the authority of an avalanche. Clap, clap, clap. CLAP, CLAP, CLAP. CLAP! CLAP! CLAP!

I sank to my knees and wept like a child—every player was clapping his hands. I was witnessing divine resurrection. I was witnessing herculean pluck—a selfless suspension of ego like in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

With a mighty “Hurrah” the team dashed down the tunnel and exploded onto the field. And fifty thousand fans arose as one and gave mighty cheer. So loud were the fans, so frantic the play, that I watched as though lost in a dream. I barely noticed the final score.

We lost the game 13 to zip.

*****

 

I coached the fourth and final game in a fog of utter despair. I groaned as I wrote in my lineups, I cringed as my team took the field, and when I shook the dice in my trembling palm, they rattled like ancient bones.

We lost the last game 7-1, a consolation of sorts. Babe Ruth, in the bottom of the ninth, hit our only homerun of the game. It was a lingering fly ball to center field that should probably have been caught at the warning track. But it somehow sailed over the eight-foot fence. I think the wind must have grabbed it.


hanna-vegas-differential

James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor of The Sandhill Review, an online and print journal. His stories have been published in multiple journals including Eclipse, The Literary Review, and Crack the Spine. His books, “The Siege,” “Call Me Pomeroy,” and “A Second Less Capable Head” are available on Amazon.

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