Shortstops who run with the wolves, painted eggs that reveal deeply disturbing meanings, long-dead Hall of Famers who miraculously return to the game, an Iowa minor-league town with a secret conspiracy: these are the elements from which W. P. Kinsella weaves nine fabulous stories about the magical world of baseball.
From the dugouts, clubhouses, bedrooms, and barrooms to the interior worlds of hope and despair, these eerie stories present the absurdities of human relationships and reveal the writer’s special genius for touching the heart.
“His short stories about baseball are wistful things of beauty which serve to remind us how the game should feel—the innate glory of a diamond etched in the minds of Americans.” —Calgary Sun
“[Kinsella] uses baseball . . . as a familiar starting place for exploring, with pinpoint control, the human psyche.” —Booklist
“Stories that read like lightning and tantalize the reader with fascinating scenarios.” —Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
W. P. Kinsella is the author of more than two hundred short stories and fifteen books, including The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Shoeless Joe, which became the basis for the film Field of Dreams. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Kinsella has been honored with the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship and has taught writing at the University of Victoria.
Date of Birth:May 25, 1935
Date of Death:September 16, 2016
Place of Birth:Edmonton, Alberta
Education:University of Victoria
Read an Excerpt
THE BASEBALL WOLF
It was during the fifth inning of a game against what translated loosely as the team from no particular location that Denny's Kelly, the shortstop, turned into a wolf.
Denny's Kelly made a diabolically handsome wolf. He was black with streaks of silver, like lightning flashes, along his jowls. There were three silver circles around his bushy tail. One of his paws, which must have each been four inches across, was snow white. Denny's was a very big wolf.
"Shit happens," said Mike Ferrett, the manager, when the change was pointed out to him.
"I think it's more than that," I said.
"How long have you been in Courteguay?" asked Mike Ferrett, not in a kindly tone.
It was a rhetorical question. I had just arrived, had just joined the team. How, I wondered, did a farm boy from northern Michigan end up in a tropical wasteland witnessing the impossible?
"Shouldn't we substitute for him?" I asked.
Since I spoke only English and was the only non-Courteguayan player on the team, I'd been invited to sit beside Ferrett, who was American, though he'd been managing in Courteguay for five years. He spoke English as if his tongue were rusty. His sentences bore a heavy Spanish accent.
I had just been demoted from Triple-A Las Vegas for infractions too numerous to mention, none having to do with my playing ability, all having to do with my not keeping my nose clean, as I had been repeatedly warned to do by management.
The final straw was a rather foolish escapade with the general manager's daughter. I guess most fathers think of their daughters as seven years old. Tanis was twenty-one and most of the things we did, both sexually and with her father's credit cards, were her idea. But would that have been believed? I just stayed silent and accepted responsibility while the general manager arranged to bury me so deep in the organization I'd never be heard from even if I was having a sixty-home-run season and leading the league in stolen bases.
San Barnabas, Courteguay, was the end of the line. The end of the earth. The buck and the trolley and civilization stopped there.
As I sat on the bench, I remembered Mike Ferrett's nickname — Rumcake. He had not drawn a sober breath in his final three major-league seasons nor in any of the years he had managed in Courteguay. His face looked as if he had been bobbing for golf balls in a bucket of strawberry jam. He kept a gallon of rum and Coke under the bench. Rumcake Ferrett was connected to the cooler by a length of clear plastic tubing, like an intravenous line.
"Don't expect anybody to learn your name," Ferrett had said to me that afternoon when he picked me up at the airport — two hundred yards of concrete with pampas grass and wild bamboo growing through the cracks. The plane that had brought me from Miami may well have been flown by Amelia Earhart before she disappeared. This time it was piloted by a squat man in a white shirt with turquoise epaulets. Four of the plane's eight seats were occupied, apparently permanently, by soldiers wearing dirty fatigues, carrying weapons, and smoking crooked cigars. "You remember Boo Farnsworth, that old druggie pitcher, flung for the As back in the mid-eighties?"
"Well, he pitched for us until a week ago. Still had good stuff. The drugs had fried everything but his arm — had to be escorted to the mound. I gave the catcher a little whistle and Boo threw toward the sound. Faced the wrong way on the mound at least once an inning. Shortstop'd have to run in and turn him around. Our shortstop's a promising kid, name of Denny's Kelly. His old man played a few years for the White Sox back in the seventies. It seems that when he arrived in America from Courteguay he was so impressed by all the food his meal money would buy that he named his first kid in honor of the restaurant where he always ate, Denny's. When you're a baseball player from Courteguay you don't give a shit about apostrophes.
"Now Boo Farnsworth — a week ago he wandered off to the rain forest to watch the sunrise or something on a couple of pounds of mescaline. He's either dead or he got captured by the insurgents. The government here in Courteguay gets overthrown frequently. If he turns up pitching for the insurgents we'll know he's alive. Otherwise, he'll go on the big disabled list in the sky. Missing in action.
"I speak the lingo here, so I'm not considered a genuine foreigner," said Ferrett, taking a long pull from a Coke bottle well fortified with rum. "You, though, will be called Gringo Uno. That was what Boo was called. We've never had more than one foreigner on the squad. I suppose if we did he'd be Gringo Dos. Things are a little out of focus here in Courteguay.
"So, Gringo Uno, you want to tell me what you did to get exiled here?"
"I prefer not to."
"Anything I should know of? You have fits? Carry a gun in your jockstrap? You got a penchant for kids under six?"
"None of the above," I said.
Ferrett scratched his head, took another pull from the Coke bottle. "Just don't surprise me. I don't like surprises."
"Would you classify this as a surprise?" I asked Ferrett, nodding toward where Denny's sat on his haunches at shortstop, grinning his large wolf grin and salivating amiably on the yellow dust of the infield.
Before the game I'd watched Denny's work out. He showed amazing agility, an iron arm, and a unselfconscious congeniality with players and fans alike, aided by a smile that could ripen oranges and turn young girls' knees to jelly.
"Shit happens," Ferrett repeated. "Welcome to Courteguay."
I had heard more than rumors about the weird goings-on in Courteguay. At my going-away party my teammates told stories about people turned into butterfly-covered statues, a Baseball Hall of Famer on display in a crystal coffin at the capitol building, flowers with lives of their own, and, of course, the famous Cortizar twins, Julio and Esteban, who began their baseball careers as pitcher and catcher inside their mother's womb. So a wolf playing shortstop did not strike me as all that unusual.
"How's he gonna turn the pivot on a double play?" I asked Ferrett. "You've got to take him out."
Ferrett took a pull on the plastic line that must have lowered the contents of the cooler by a quart.
"Has this happened before?" I asked.
Ferrett remained silent. The player beside me said, "Sí. El lobo."
"I thought you said no one else on the team except Denny's speaks English," I said to Ferrett.
"Did you hear anybody speak English?" said Ferrett, sending signs to his third-base coach.
Courteguay is shaped like the moon on a small finger nail and is not much larger. It manages to border both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, its residents speaking slightly more Spanish than French. Its official language, I've been told, is baseball. For its size Courteguay produces more major-league baseball players than any country in the world. There are rumors that somewhere in the jungle there is a genetic-engineering factory — or maybe a coven of voodoo aficionados — that produces iron-armed stortstops and lithe, home-run-hitting outfielders. I considered such things to be rumors until I watched Denny's Kelly turn into a wolf.
"Shit happens," said Ferrett. "Though more often in Courteguay than anywhere else. My theory is, if it doesn't upset the locals, it doesn't upset me. That attitude and a quart of rum a day make living in Courteguay passable. Or possible. Or both."
Ferrett had explained to me earlier that the opposition team had been breathed out of the jungle just before game time. They were given political amnesty for the evening.
"They're insurgents of some kind. Last year they were the government. I think there's about to be a revolution again. Probably the tenth since I've been here."
Our team, the San Barnabas Angels, sported virgin-white uniforms with turquoise numbers and letters. Our opponents wore military camouflage, their only distinguishing marks red armbands. Their rifles leaned against the wall of their dugout with the bats.
"Win or lose they get a fifteen-minute head start after the game is officially over," said Ferrett. "Tomorrow every one of them will shoot your ears off if they get the chance."
No one seemed particularly alarmed when Denny's Kelly turned into a wolf. There was a runner on first and two out at the time. The next batter hit a high bouncer between short and second. Denny's moved gracefully to his left, leapt several feet in the air like a dog after a Frisbee, and accepted the ball in his huge jaws. After he landed he loped across second base for the force-out, well ahead of the advancing runner.
"El lobo," whispered the second stringers, up and down the bench.
Denny's raced off the field with his fellow players, tail wagging, and took his usual seat on the bench between the third baseman and the center-fielder. They did not seem alarmed. He was panting extravagantly, I assumed to cool himself, for the temperature must have been a hundred degrees, the humidity at least as high. His gums were black, his tongue pink and black, his teeth long and ivory-colored.
"How's he going to bat?" I asked Ferrett.
"Son, if he wants to bat, I don't plan to stop him. Do you?" At bat, Denny's stood more or less upright, held the bat in his mouth, guided it with his white paw. He laid down a lovely bunt, raced for first like a splash of muddy water, beating the throw by two strides. He stole second without drawing a throw, but was stranded when the next batter struck out.
As we were preparing to leave the clubhouse, Ferrett said, "There's been a small change of plans."
"Exactly what sort of change?"
I'd noticed that immediately after the game the Courteguayan players had held a hurried meeting in the corner of the locker room. Ferrett still had my bags in his stationwagon. It was team policy, he said, that all players, even the one or two natives of San Barnabas, stayed at a team hotel. He had promised to drop me off after the game. He had even introduced me to my roommate at the ballpark, a tall relief pitcher with thin, thoroughbred legs, named Pasqual something-something.
"Pasqual here is interested in learning conversational English," Ferrett had said.
Pasqual's eyes looked like fried eggs, huge whites, brown yolks.
"Gringo Uno, charmed I'm certain," said Pasqual, smiling crookedly.
"I ... am ... pleased ... to ... meet ... you," I said, enunciating each word clearly.
"California ... electric ... appliance," said Pasqual, also enunciating clearly.
"Me too," I said.
During the team meeting I had heard the words Gringo Uno bandied about frequently.
"You're going to room with Denny's instead of Pasqual," said Ferrett. He was carrying his cooler of rum and Coke by its handle, the way a plumber might carry his toolbox. The plastic line peeked from the buttonhole in the lapel of his jacket, easily accessible if he bent his head down and to the left.
"Shit happens," I said, assuming my originality of speech would impress Ferrett.
"Damned superstitious lot, these Courteguayans," he said.
"The wolf's not likely to kill me for a midnight snack, is he?" Ferrett didn't answer.
When I found Room 7, on the ground floor of a long, swaybacked three-story frame building, there were two small suitcases propped against the door. They did not belong to me. Denny's was sitting on his haunches staring at the doorknob. When he saw me he sniffed the two suitcases and smiled.
"I assume you don't have a key?" I said.
"Rowl," said Denny's.
"With paws like that you probably have a little trouble with the principle of the doorknob," I said. "But I understand wolf scientists are working on it. When the breakthrough comes it will open a lot of doors for wolfkind."
"Rowl," said Denny's.
"That was a joke," I said.
Inside, Denny's walked the perimeter of the room, sniffing, marking his territory.
"You realize it's going to smell like wolf piss in here," I said. "When you have more serious bodily functions to attend to I'd appreciate it if you'd use the john. Comprendez?"
"Rowl," said Denny's.
We watched television for a while. I Love Lucy in Spanish. Denny's barked when Lucy spilled a platter of pork chops on Fred Mertz. The bark sounded like LUNCH! We watched the news in pidgin something-or-other. I was able to pick up an English word or two, enough to understand the major-league scores. El Cincinnati, dos, San Francisco, uno. I suspect Denny's, who lay on the bed with his nose on his extended front paws, got more out of it than I did. My Spanish was limited to huevos rancheros and a few other menu items.
"Is it true wolves are color blind?" I asked during a commercial.
"Rowl," said Denny's.
We eventually went to sleep. Denny's curled up on the floor, turning in three tight circles before he did so. Once, I peered over the side of the bed; a bright yellow eye was trained on me like a searchlight. I like to sleep on my stomach with my right arm hanging off the edge. I tucked my arm carefully under my body before I went to sleep.
I was wakened by the sound of Denny's toenails clicking on the cracked and dirty linoleum. I turned slowly toward the sound. Denny's was stretching upward, placing his large paws on the middle sash of the window, his body blocking most of the moonlight from the room, leaving a huge black wolf silhouette between me and the outside world. Then he howled, his large, wet nose pointing straight up, his eyes glimmering in the moonlight. The sound vibrated the window glass, full of pain and longing, soaring out over half the landlocked republic.
Through the thin walls of what Ferrett referred to as the Roach Motel I heard a dozen sleep-choked voices muttering, "El lobo, el lobo."
Someone banged down a window. Directly above us someone whacked on the floor with a shoe.
Denny's howled again. The loneliness was palpable.
I slowly sat up, bracing myself on one elbow.
"Is there anything I can do?" I asked.
Denny's snuffled at the windowpane, whining excitedly, his breath sending dust and dead flies floating to the floor. It sounded like, "Give me a minute."
And a minute was about what it took for the tall wolf to change back into a man.
"Sorry if I've frightened you," Denny's said, turning from the window. "You've been very tolerant. And, yes, wolves see the world in black and white."
He spoke English with only a slight Spanish accent. He was a husky young man, with skin the color of black lacquer. His eyes glowed white as fish bellies.
"I spent my first ten years in the United States," he went on. "My father played in Chicago, and later for the California Angels."
"I see," I said. "May I ask about the wolf?"
"It would be better if you didn't."
I nodded. "Do you want to get some sleep?" I said, moving to my edge of the bed.
"Actually, I'm very hungry," said Denny's. "I usually eat after the game. Do you want to go out and get some food? I know of a good all-night café."
I was already pulling on my socks.
"What I wanted when I howled was for you to open the window. I wanted to go hunting. I was very hungry. It's odd, but my thoughts remain confused for a while after I change. When I was suggesting the café I was thinking of ordering a field mouse or two. They're actually quite delicious, though chickens are better. Pheasant tastes best, but they're difficult to capture."
We walked through the midnight streets of San Barnabas, to a small, smoky café. Denny's ordered us something with tortillas and eggs, salsa and white cheese. The coffee was strong enough to melt brick.
"I'm sorry, but I'm going to ask some questions," I said. "Does turning into a wolf have anything to do with geography? With this being Courteguay? Did someone turn you into a wolf? Is it like a curse? Could it happen to me?"
"To deal with the last first, only if you so desired."
"I could be a wolf if I wanted to?"
"You could be whatever beast is within."
I thought about that for a moment. What beast is within? Do I have a choice? If I did have a choice, what beast would I be?
"How do I know what's within?" I asked. What if my beast turned out to be an armadillo, I wondered irrationally. I had an uncle in Longview, Texas, who claimed to have been a Roadkill Disposal Engineer for the Texas Department of Highways. His job was scraping dead armadillos off Texas highways.
On our way back to the Roach Motel, Denny's said, "You either know or you don't know. If you don't know, nothing special will happen to you. Most people don't know."
We walked in silence. The humidity made the air so thick I could feel the fungus growing. I tried to run the high points of my life by my inner vision.
Suddenly I found myself telling Denny's about my northern Michigan childhood, about the great horned owls.
* * *
The great horned owls would sit on the highest branches of a dead sycamore, sometimes there'd be two, once there were three, their horned shapes dark against the moon, the pale branches of the tree glowing like foxfire, their eyes yellow lanterns.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dixon Cornbelt League and Other Baseball Stories"
Copyright © 1993 W.P. Kinsella.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE BASEBALL WOLF,
THE DARKNESS DEEP INSIDE,
HOW MANNY EMBARQUADERO OVERCAME AND BEGAN HIS CLIMB TO THE MAJOR LEAGUES,
SEARCHING FOR JANUARY,
FEET OF CLAY,
LUMPY DROBOT, DESIGNATED HITTER,
THE DIXON CORNBELT LEAGUE,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,