The Baseball Chronicle

Fiction, October 2010

Strike Zone

By Paul Lonardo

Bump stole another look at the only other patron in Tommy’s Bar and Grille that morning and wondered what was preventing him from just getting up, tapping the old man on the shoulder and asking him if he was Ron Flury; the Ron Flury who he had roomed with when they were battery mates with the Toledo Mudhens back in 1965; the same Ron Flury who had torn up major league pitching in his two-month rookie debut, only to vanish from the game suddenly and permanently without leaving behind so much as a bubble gum card.

It was never known whether Ron had been injured, traded or released. It was as if he never existed. He was to baseball what Chuck Cunningham was to the TV show “Happy Days.” It was a mystery that Bump had always had a secret fantasy of solving.

The only reason he could come up with for his reluctance to confront the stranger right then and there was that he was pretty sauced, and he didn’t want to look like an old fool if he was wrong. But if the old man really was Ron Flury, Bump would be denying himself the opportunity of finding out what had happened to end one of the shortest and most remarkable careers in the history of baseball.

Perhaps feeling the weight of Bump’s stare, the old man suddenly looked up from his newly filled glass. The eyes of the two men met, and in that fleeting moment before something made Bump turn away, he was able to get a clear view of the other man’s face and confirm what he had suspected all along. This was not some Florida retiree.

It was him. Ron Flury. Sitting three stools away in a Jacksonville bar in the middle of the day. Despite the years, Bump was able to catch a glimpse of the youthful ballplayer through the fleshy old-man mask Ron now wore.

Bump was amazed by how memories could come back with such startling clarity that it seemed as if it had all happened only yesterday.

How Bump wished it was just yesterday that he and Ron were roommates, making a living playing a child’s game. Abundantly hopeful. Confident. Talented. And young. So young and strong. Bodies hard and lean. Skin bronzed by the warmth of the summer sun. He closed his eyes and found he could still recall the intoxicating scent of freshly cut grass mingled with the aromas of a well-oiled glove and of hot-roasted peanuts wafting down from the grandstand. The smells came back. The sights. The sounds. All of it came back, and Bump’s heart tightened like a clenched fist in his chest.

These fond memories, weighted by the slow pull of time, were painful to recall. Every day was like spring training back then. Now, it was like the final game of the year for Bump, and he was in the bottom of the ninth of his life.

Still, something remained behind, skulking in the shadows of the past. Something that Bump couldn’t quite retrieve. He thought maybe another peek at the old man might help him to remember, but when he opened his eyes Ron Flury was gone. The stool where he had been sitting was vacant, the glass in front of him gone too. Bump was beginning to think he had been hallucinating the whole episode when he felt the stirring of warm breath on the back of his neck.

Swiveling quickly around in his seat, he suddenly found himself face to face with Ron Flury. Bump was amazed how swiftly and imperceptibly he had moved across the bar, but dismissed the illusion as further evidence of his intoxication.

Both men glared at each other. Bump had been surprised by Ron’s sudden appearance, but Ron seemed shocked, as if recognizing Bump for the first time at that moment. Bump began to consider why Ron had come over to him in the first place if he had not known who he was, then Ron spoke.

“Bump? Bump Eliott?” Ron’s voice was surprisingly deep and steady. “I can’t believe it’s you. It’s been so long I can’t remember the last time I saw you.”

“May 15, 1965. You were playing for the Pawtucket Indians and I was still with Toledo. We were in town playing the last of a three-game set. I was brought in in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and two outs to pitch to you. We were up by a run. I got you swinging on a three-two slider to end the game.”

“Slider? If it wasn’t for gravity that pitch wouldn't have any movement at all.”

“Are you kidding? That pitch had teeth on it, it was so sharp. It barked all the way to the plate. You had no chance of hitting that pitch with the hack you took. Why, I’ve seen better swings at a playground.”

Both men laughed good-naturedly at the ease of their banter.

“Yeah,” Ron came back in a distinctly subdued and reverential tone, “but I did make it to the Bigs.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Bump said, raising his beer. “To the Bigs. What every young ballplayer dreams about, but few get to experience. A magic world all its own, governed by its own set of rules.”

“But like the real world,” Ron added, “there are unspeakable horrors at work, lurking in every shadowy corner where light cannot stretch.” Then he touched Bump’s bottle with the glass he had been holding and swallowed the last of his scotch.

“Ron, what happened to you?” Bump asked, unable to refrain from pursuing the truth behind a nearly five-decade-old mystery. “I’d been following your career after you left Toledo. It took off right after that game-ending strike out against me. You went on such an incredible hitting streak that you were brought up to the bigs by the end of the month. And then you started ripping the tits of every pitcher you faced there, too. You were compiling some awesome numbers. MVP-type stats. A shoe-in for Rookie of the Year. Then you just ... disappeared. What happened?”

Ron seemed to be suppressing a smile that was trying to form at the corners of his lips. “You know what happened to me,” he said, as calmly and as sanely as anyone could.

Ron sounded so sure of this statement that for a moment Bump actually began to believe he did know. But the only thing he could recollect about their time in Toledo together was that Ron’s numbers were unimpressive, mediocre at best. There were plenty of players, younger players, who were better prospects than Ron. He had been floundering around in the minors for eight years, with nothing to show for it but slower reflexes, a weaker bat and an increasing susceptibility to injury. His turnaround was so sudden and miraculous that it was almost as if Ron had drunk a magic potion or something.

Just then something stepped out of the shadows of his memory, and Bump’s heart skipped a few beats. There were three distinct images, each more hideous than the last: the knife, the blood and that smile.

Slowly the missing pieces of The Ron Flury Puzzle began to come together in Bump’s mind. Like so many other ballplayers, he could remember that Ron was very superstitious. But that was where the similarities between Ron and other players deviated sharply. Not shaving or wearing the same undershirt was one thing. What Ron did was something else entirely.

It all started innocuously enough, with Ron following a daily routine that began at 7 a.m. when the alarm would go off. Exactly twenty-five jumping jacks, twenty push-ups and fifty sit-ups later, he would be in the shower. At 7:30 he’d emerge, dress and eat his breakfast; always two hard-boiled eggs, no salt, two slices of toast with strawberry preserves, a glass of orange juice and a cup and a half of coffee, two sugars, no cream. The rest of the day followed a similar pattern. He even went to the bathroom at the same time each day, like clockwork. And if nature called during an hour other than those which had been predetermined, he would just hold it in. If, on the other hand, there ever came a period of irregularity, Ron would induce a BM via suppository laxative, which traveled with him in great quantity.

He was simply mimicking what he had done the day he was drafted while only a sophomore at Northwestern University. A scout, who was in the stands the day he had a particularly big game at the plate, signed him immediately afterward.

As the 1965 season wore on, however, and Ron’s future fell more and more in doubt, certain changes in his once steadfast rituals became noticeable. He started to include obscure subtleties which he would credit for his playing well in a subsequent game. If one day, for example, Ron broke a dish and happened to have a good game that same night, then dish-breaking would become part of his itinerary posthaste. But it was never long before Ron would fall back into a slump, thus sparing the remaining dishes. And when he would start hitting again, invariably something just as arbitrary and inane would replace it. And on went the 1965 season.

Then it happened.

One morning, as Ron leaned over the sink to open the kitchen window, he accidentally stuck himself with the business end of a large carving knife. The blade penetrated his lower abdomen. There was a lot of blood. The doctor who patched him up said he was lucky. The wound was superficial. But that wasn’t the end of the incident. Not by a long shot.

That night Ron was able to play—and wouldn’t you know, he had the game of games.

Bump, who had pitched well enough to get the win that night, remembered congratulating Ron. His roommate lavished in the glory of a 5 for 5, 2-homer game, but it still had not occurred to Bump how far Ron would go in order to sustain this level of success. That is, until the next morning, when Bump staggered bleary-eyed into the kitchen to make some coffee. He did a double take when he saw the knife protruding from the utensil rack in the sink. He could clearly see the traces of blood smearing its stainless steel face. Then he looked across the hall into the bathroom and saw Ron’s smiling face as he stitched up the new wound with a needle and thread. It was that smile, not the gash in Ron’s gut, which forced Bump’s stomach to empty the remnants of the previous night’s supper all over the kitchen tiles. And it was the memory of that smile that made his gorge rise even now, forty-five years later.

Presently, Bump found himself staring at Ron’s belly. The old backstop had a considerable paunch, which his pullover shirt was unable to fully contain. Even in the darkness a thick patch of pink scar tissue was visible above his navel.

Because Ron’s encore performance was the last Bump had witnessed—Ron was traded to Pawtucket that same day—he could only guess how many more times this act of self-mutilation had been performed before a hitting slump put an end to it at last.

Suddenly Ron’s voice boomed in Bump’s ear.

“If it was just me, you could say that I’m evil,” Ron said. “You’re probably not aware how deep superstition is rooted into the very fabric of the human soul. It is man’s oldest religion. Beholden of our highest achievements. Accountable for our darkest fears.

“Do you know why you cover your mouth when you yawn? It’s to keep evil spirits from entering your body. And you probably thought you were being polite.”

Ron wrapped hard on the top of the bar and said, “An appeal to the powerful Gods that inhabit wood."

Glancing down at the tarnished gold band on Bump’s left hand, Ron went on without pausing. “I bet you didn’t know that a bride wears a veil to disguise herself from demons that seek to possess her? Or that she wears her wedding band on the third finger of her left hand because the ancients thought that a vein ran directly from it to the heart?

“How about the significance of horn blowing as the wedding procession leaves the church? A medieval tradition that originated as an attempt to make noise which would scare demons away from the bride.”

“What does all this have to do with your disappearance from baseball?” Bump said.

“It has everything to do with it,” Ron said matter-of-factly. “That night in Pawtucket after you struck me out was the night I killed for the first time.”

Bump thought Ron was speaking figuratively, so he waited for further explanation.

“After the game,” Ron continued, “I went directly to this Blind Pig over on York Avenue down by the train yard. It was where I spent much of my time since going over to Pawtucket.

“I had just sat down at my usual spot to have a few, and before I could say Olde Frothingslosh I felt someone's fat finger poking me on the back. I turn around and see some big oaf in red overalls standing over me.

“‘You’re Ron Flury, ain’t ya?’ he says.

“‘That’s right. What do you want?’ I say back.

“‘Not your autograph,’ he says, then calls me a bum and some other names.

“I don’t exactly know who said what next, but I can tell you I was in no mood to have some pumpkin-head riding me about the game that night. I was off to the worst start of my career, after coming off my worst season. At nearly twenty-seven, I wasn’t getting any younger, either. So to make a short story shorter, I took the yokel up on his offer to step outside. We had just started to go at it when he pulls a knife, which he drops at one point during the struggle. I pick it up and bury it in the side of his neck without really thinking. I must have severed an artery. Blood was spouting out like a fountain. He died instantly.

“My next game, I hit three homers and two doubles to go along with nine ribbies. My job was safe. At least for another day. And every day after that. I made sure of it. I was suddenly a fan favorite. The booing stopped. They began to cheer and clap and chant my name. It was incredible.”

“Are you saying that you murdered someone before each game?”

“What else could I do? Give up baseball? My fans? The standing ovations? Any player in my shoes would have done the same thing. It was better than steroids.”

Bump could only shake his head in disbelief.

“Sometimes I’d kill two people and have an even better game. That’s what I did for that four-homer game against Chicago.”

“You couldn’t!”

“I must confess, it was difficult at first. But it’s strange how you get used to something like that. I actually started to like it. Besides, they were mostly derelicts. God knows, Pawtucket was full of them. Plenty enough to get me to Cooperstown, anyway.” He sniggered at his own joke, and then went on. “The only trick was the unfamiliar streets when we were on the road. But every city has its impoverished districts, where the dregs of society gather to drink their pay checks away while their families starve.”

“You’re lying,” Bump said with mild relief. “If what you’re saying is true, then what ended your career?”

“In those days,” Ron began, as if it were telling Bump a fairy tale, “club owners were family men, not corporations, and deference to the game was of utmost importance. If someone came along who posed a threat to baseball and to the good name of a franchise, well, let’s just say they were dealt with harshly. This was all just before Marvin Miller and the player’s union. You didn’t make enough money to be fined. They didn’t need you. There was always another kid waiting to come up behind you.”

“So they found out that their catcher was moonlighting as a serial killer?”

“Not exactly. I was never arrested or charged with any crime, but it didn’t look very good that I was considered a suspect in the murder of my own family.”

Bump could not believe what he was hearing. Even if all the things Ron said were not true, just saying them was enough to condemn the man.

Ron leaned in close to Bump and Bump flinched involuntarily. “I was named Player of the Week that week,” Ron whispered in his ear, more than a little proud.

“Why are telling me all this?”

Ron just stared at Bump, looking him up and down and grinning. It was the same frightful rictus that Bump had first seen on his roommate’s face in 1965, the day he caught Ron stitching himself up in the bathroom after he had intentionally cut himself with a knife.

“An ex-ballplayer,” Ron said absently. “That should be good for a couple wins. I’m glad I ran into you, old friend.” Looking at his watch suddenly, he grunted. “What do you know, it’s almost game time.” He removed a twenty from his wallet and slapped it on the bar. “This one’s on me.” He put an arm around Bump’s shoulder and tried to nudge him off the stool. “Come on, why don’t you walk me out.”

Bump was transfixed to the spot, frozen in the grip of terror and unable to move even if he wanted to.

Suddenly the door behind them creaked open and a vagrant that Bump only knew as Frosty staggered inside. He would come in a couple times a week looking for a handout. The smell had already permeated the room before the door even closed.

“Hey, get lost you old sot,” Tommy shouted from the kitchen entrance on the other side of the bar. “No one here is going to buy you a drink today. Out you go.” He began to wave the dish rag he was holding back and forth in front of his nose. “We don’t need you stinking up the joint. Go on, scram. Don’t make me come over there.”

“I was just leaving,” Ron said. “I’ll take him out.”

“Thanks, pal,” Tommy said. “Just get him pointed in another direction. Anywhere downwind will be fine.”

“My pleasure,” Ron said, unable to contain a smile.

“Come back and see us again.”

“I certainly will. I’m in town managing the Toronto Blue Jays AA squad out of Knoxville against your Jacksonville farm club through the weekend. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be in Syracuse skippering the AAA squad in the International League come Monday. I’ve managed Knoxville to four consecutive league championships. This year, we’re undefeated so far. I think I deserve it.”

“You got my vote,” Tommy said.

Ron made a parting farewell gesture with his hand, and then turned and slowly made his way toward the door. As he grabbed the homeless man by the collar and guided him outside, Bump recalled a PBS program he’d seen where a cheetah was shown carting the carcass of an antelope across the plain between its clenched and bloodstained teeth.

Watching the two men leave, Bump understood the real reason for Ron’s visit to Tommy’s that morning. He had a game to win. Bump was lucky to be spared.

About the author

As well as short fiction, Paul Lonardo has written both novels and non-fiction. He recently released a book about the Providence College baseball program that was lost to Title IX in 1999: Strike IX, The Story of a Big East College Forced to Eliminate its Baseball Program and the Team that Refused to Lose. He lives in Lincoln, Rhode Island, with his wife and 3-year-old son, Jake.

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