No one can write about baseball with the same brilliant combination of mysticism and realism as W. P. Kinsella. Lovers of the game and lovers of fine writing will thrill at the range and depth of the eleven stories that make up this collection.
From the magical conspiracy of the title story, to the celestial prediction in “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon,” to the desolation of “The Baseball Spur,” Kinsella explores the world of baseball and makes it, miraculously, a microcosm of the human condition.
Praise for W. P. Kinsella’s The Dixon Cornbelt League and Other Baseball Stories
“[Kinsella] defines a world in which magic and reality combine to make us laugh and think about the perceptions we take for granted.” —The New York Times
“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 (1935-2016) is best-known as the author of the novel Shoeless Joe, whose romantic baseball magical realism was adapted into the beloved movie Field of Dreams. In addition to many other baseball-themed works, he also wrote collections of poetry and several works of nonfiction. He will always be remembered for adding the phrase "If you build it, they will come" to the popular imagination. He died in 2016.
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 LAST PENNANT BEFORE ARMAGEDDON
Months later, after the cycle of dreams began their nightly invasion of his body, Al Tiller recalled the night the archangel had telephoned the radio station, and he realized that then, and not on the evening of the first dream, was when his troubles had started.
In September, with eighteen games left to play, with the Chicago Cubs holding a full five-game lead in the Eastern Division of the National League, with the Cubs, tired after the long pennant race, playing only .500 baseball since mid-August, but with their chief rivals for the pennant — Montreal and Philadelphia — matching them loss for loss, Al "the Hun" Tiller should have been the happiest man and manager in the world. He was leading the Cubbies toward a first-place finish. If they succeeded it would be the first time the Cubs had won anything since 1945. Al Tiller's lopsided smile stared out from the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated that week. But instead of being happy Al Tiller found himself waking in the night with the black sweats, trembling like a rookie, his heart thudding as if it were being used as a drum.
Al Tiller was overwhelmed by the mysteries of life, knowing things he felt he had no right to know. His only desire was to manage his baseball team in an honourable manner; he did not want to be entrusted with monumental secrets. Unfortunately, he could not stop the information from coming to him. He could not turn away, or hang up the phone, or tear up a letter.
I'd as soon be carrying around the Mafia's account records, or ten pounds of heroin, as know what I know, Al Tiller thought.
He could not share his burden with anyone. Baseball managers are very lonely people. He certainly couldn't tell the press. Sportswriters had been making enough snide remarks about him anyway without his letting it be known that he was having apocalyptic dreams.
"The sun is finally shining on Al Tiller," read a recent headline in the Trib. For the moment he was the most famous baseball manager in the nation, the man guiding the Chicago Cubs toward their first pennant in half a century; everyone wanted to talk baseball, no one gave a damn about his dreams.
He could picture himself at a news conference, pausing right in the middle of fielding questions about his pitching rotation and his left fielder's Achilles tendon, to say, "Gentlemen, for the past several weeks I have been having prophetic dreams. It is my considered opinion that if the Chicago Cubs win the National League pennant, the world is going to end."
He knew that if he spoke those words he'd be unemployed within an hour, probably under observation in a mental hospital. Still, the idea was tempting. If he was fired he might stop having the dreams. And if he continued to have them after he was no longer in a position to do anything about the Cubs winning the pennant, he would know he was merely having a mental breakdown of some sort. It would be a comfort to know his troubles were on a purely human level, he thought.
Perhaps the new manager would begin having his dreams, Tiller speculated. They could compare notes, be allies, share their bewilderment.
On the other hand, Al Tiller enjoyed being the manager of a winning team. He liked the publicity. He liked being asked for his opinion. He liked having a gaggle of reporters following him about, hanging on his every word. He liked being on the cover of Time, even if their sub-headline read, "Can a manager with the worst record in professional baseball lead the Cubbies to a pennant?"
The treadmill of dreams began early in August, in St. Louis. At first Al Tiller thought he might tell the Cubs' owner, Chester A. Rowdy. It was a thought he abandoned quickly. Four years previously, when Chester A. Rowdy bought the Cubs for thirty-seven million dollars, rumour had it that he had paid cash. He was said to have wheeled the money up to the Cub corporate offices in a Safeway basket, flanked by a Panamanian midget brandishing a machine gun. Al Tiller suspected the rumour was true, for that was the kind of man Rowdy was. Chester A. hailed from Dothan, Alabama; he hadn't learned to read or write until after he became a multimillionaire by discovering a unique worm deep in an Alabama swamp, a worm that drew fish to it the way the back of one's neck draws mosquitoes. It was said that Chester A. Rowdy was worth a hundred million by the time he was thirty.
Chester A. did not get off on the right foot with the press or the baseball fans of Chicago. The day he bought the team he announced he was going to change its name to the Chicago Worms. The Baseball Commissioner threatened to step in, but that was all he could do. Try as he might, the commissioner couldn't find any rule that said a team couldn't be called the Worms. The next week the Illinois legislature passed a law making it illegal for the Cubs to be called anything but the Cubs. Some twenty years previously the legislature had forbidden another owner to install lights in Wrigley Field.
Chester A. Rowdy baited the press. "I'm seriously considering moving the Cubs to Dothan, Alabama," he said. "I'll build me a little stadium there, seat, oh, two or three thousand. Call my team the Dothan Worms. Hell, I can afford to do it."
But he didn't. Because under his plaid suits and yellow neckties Chester A. Rowdy liked to win and liked to be seen. He was so happy back in July, the night the Cubs lengthened their lead to ten games, that he gifted Al Tiller with a red-and-white-plaid Rolls-Royce. Chester A. loved to sit in an open box at a packed Wrigley Field and be looked at. He had a bat, painted red-and-white-plaid just like his suit, and he stood up and swung it mightily when the Cubs were scoring runs, while the fans booed and cheered and the people in his box ducked like they were being shot at.
Chester A. Rowdy didn't move the team to Alabama. Instead, he bought free agents like they were jelly beans. "Hell, it's only worms," Chester A. said when he shelled out six million for the first one. Trouble was that all Chester A. knew about was worms. It soon became evident that he needed a good manager. Instead he got Al Tiller. The first year Tiller managed the Cubs, Chester A. Rowdy bought three third basemen for a few million dollars each.
When Al Tiller heard about it he called Chester A. on the telephone. "What am I supposed to do with three third basemen?" he said. "Even if they're the three best in the majors I can only play them one at a time."
"Well, hell," said Chester A., "I shouldn't have to tell you this, you're supposed to be a baseball manager, but it ain't no more than forty-five feet from third base to shortstop, and but another forty-five feet to second base; tell them fellas to adjust. For the amount I'm payin' them they better not argue about what position they get to play. Tell them that for a million dollars a year they got to adjust."
Tiller hung up and stood scratching his head. He remembered the first time Chester A. called him; he was scouting the Mexican leagues for the Minnesota Twins. "Hey, Al Tiller," a voice yelled over the static, "this here's Chester A. Rowdy. How'd you like to manage the Worms I mean the Cubs?"
"Why have you chosen me?" Tiller asked. "You've got enough money to buy the best. I'm kind of a five-and-dime manager. I've never had a winning season."
"Then nobody will expect much of you, will they? If something good happens it will be a surprise. You know something, Al Tiller, I was the black sheep of a no-account family. My Pa figured some day I might steal something without gettin' caught; that was the highest expectations anybody had for me. Besides, you need the job badly enough that I figure you'll do as you're told," and he laughed.
Al Tiller's pitiful career record was not entirely his own fault. The last time he was in the majors he was 53-109 with the Texas Rangers. It was a rebuilding year; he had some pitchers who should have still been in Class A ball and a shortstop who was five years away from being an All-Star. But after a 53-109 season somebody had to go. That same team won their division four years later.
The year Tiller managed in Rookie League his team was 23-57. The team was in a town in Montana. The organization that operated the team couldn't even afford equipment. Tiller personally borrowed catching gear from the local high school. All the baseballs were brown and at least five years old. They had a kid from Arkansas with three left feet who was their designated siphoner. When they were on the road he would take a five-gallon can and a hose out to the parking lot and fill the team bus while the game was on.
"Tiller does exactly as I tell him," Chester A. Rowdy told a sportswriter once. "When I say 'Jump!' Tiller asks 'How high, Sir?'"
It hurt Al Tiller to be thought of that way by his team's owner. He knew he was not being paranoid when he said that other managers sort of sniffed when they spoke his name. "Oh, I could be with the Cubs," they said, "but only Tiller is geek enough to work for Chester A. Rowdy."
At the start of the season a sportswriter who was assessing teams for a national sports magazine wrote, "It is a unanimously acknowledged fact that Al Tiller is the dumbest manager in baseball."
Up until the Cubs, Al Tiller had never had quality players to manage. With the Cubs he chose to do unorthodox things. What did he have to lose? When Chester A. purchased the three third basemen for him, Al Tiller lined them up at the centre field wall and had them race to home plate. He made them race three times. Then he made a shortstop out of the fastest one, a second baseman out of the man who came second, while the slowest got to stay at third. He then arranged to trade the regular second baseman and shortstop in return for a good left-handed starter and a relief pitcher named Bullet Boyd who could throw aspirins and was good for two innings every night of the season.
The Cubs now had the best hitting infield in baseball. Their run production far exceeded their errors. This season they were averaging just over six runs per game, which explained why they were running away with the division.
Al Tiller had done everything but bring in a hunchback so the players could rub his hump for good luck.
Al Tiller was fifty-five years old and had twenty-seven years of coaching, scouting, and managing behind him. So if nothing else he didn't scare easily. When the dreams first came, in the dog-days of August, Al Tiller was confused but not frightened.
He was not a religious man. His mother had taken him to a couple of revival meetings when he was a kid in Oklahoma. In high school he had a girlfriend who was very devout. After she explained the whole religious scene to him he said, "You've got to be kidding. No adult who went beyond Grade 5 would believe that stuff." The girlfriend walked off in a huff, which was just as well. She married a Christian who worked in a meat packing plant, while Al Tiller became a highly unsuccessful baseball manager.
Tiller had glanced at the Gideon Bible in his hotel room perhaps only ten times in thirty years, which was one reason he found it both unnerving and confusing when biblical-looking people began crowding into his dreams.
That first time it was almost comical. The evening of the first dream it must have been 120 degrees in Busch Stadium, with the oppressive humidity making the air thick enough to cut. As he sat with his uniform melting against his skin Al Tiller remembered the story of Casey Stengel being put on the spot by a St. Louis reporter, and trying to think of something nice to say about Busch Stadium in August. After a long pause, Casey finally said, "It sure does hold the heat well."
That night after the game even the air conditioning couldn't keep the heat out of Al Tiller's hotel room. Just like when I was a kid in Oklahoma, he thought, no matter how she tried my Ma couldn't keep the dust out of the house; it seeped through the siding, the ceiling, right through the glass in the windows.
He blamed the first dream on the heat. In his dream he was seated in a balcony of some sort, looking down; it might have been an operating theatre, there was so much white light flooding it. There didn't appear to be walls, just curtains of light, white as satin in some places, translucent as ice in others. Behind a desk, topped with what could have been white marble, sat an old man. He had white hair and a beard. His face was set in a severe expression. His clothing was right out of the Old Testament, flowing robes of ice-blue lined with material of a flamingo-pink colour. His hands were clasped in front of him on the desk top, his nails were large and square. He should be carrying a staff, Al Tiller thought, but couldn't see one anywhere.
Across the desk from the old man, seated in a semicircle, were five people, ordinary looking, dressed in pale, twentieth-century clothing. Each sat on a polished wooden chair with claw-feet; the seat of each chair was upholstered in expensive-looking ice-blue velvet.
"Please, God," the man furthest away from Tiller was saying, "we'd like you to arrange for the Chicago Cubs to win the pennant this year."
Nightmares like that are brought on by too much pizza, too many beers; the pressure getting to a frazzled baseball manager, Al Tiller thought, as he recalled the event the next day. He was embarrassed by the mundane quality of the dreams: the scenes were so archetypal, the characters such stock dream-characters. Apparently I can't even dream with imagination, he thought.
The five people gathered around God were, Al Tiller discovered, representative of baseball fans, how many he wasn't able to determine, but certainly a large contingent, all apparently deceased. Lobbying, Tiller supposed, was the word for what they were doing. Each one, in turn, pleaded politely with God to see that the Chicago Cubs won the pennant.
He woke in the dark, in that clammy hotel room in St. Louis, his heart thumping like a bongo drum, his breath coming in short gasps. It was 4:00 a.m. He got up, dressed, went down to the lobby, and sat in one of the deep sofas until the coffee shop opened. By then he had decided it was just a nightmare; he even mentioned the experience casually to his pitching coach, when the coach joined him for breakfast.
"We need all the help we can get," the coach said. "If you get to put in a word, ask for some complete games from our starting pitchers."
That evening the Cubs got nine innings of four-hit pitching from a player who hadn't gone more than six innings all year.
Later that night Al Tiller dreamed again. The scene was the same, only the petitioners were different. He never mentioned his nocturnal experiences to anyone again.
The dreams continued. It embarrassed Tiller somewhat to see all the men pleading, "Please, God." They weren't all men either; there was usually one woman in each group. On the third night a small woman, in a flowered dress that looked like it was made from a bedsheet, was very adamant. "It's time for the Chicago Cubs to win their division," she said.
"And the National League pennant," said a runty guy with a big nose, who looked like someone he should know, Al Tiller thought.
"And the World Series," said a hefty, white-haired man who, Tiller decided, was Richard Daley, the man who was mayor of Chicago, almost forever, back in the '60s and '70s.
"We're not greedy, God," said the runty guy. "Just help the Cubs win the National League pennant; we'll take our chances on the World Series."
"We'd like it to happen this year," said the woman, "when the National League team is home for the World Series. We'd rather not have the Cubs in a series where there is a designated hitter."
Tiller had the feeling that "this year" might have been two, or four, or six years ago. Who knows, he thought, maybe they have video tape. In fact, when he woke he often pictured himself, his face like a tape deck, a cartridge being plunged into his open mouth. It was like the dreams were cluing him in, gradually, to a situation that had been building for a number of years, perhaps all the way back to the last time the Cubs won a pennant, an ongoing procedure, building pressure, gaining followers, trying to convince God to let the Cubs win a pennant.
Al Tiller dreamed for six nights: in St. Louis, in Cincinnati, and finally, back in Chicago. On the seventh night he slept deeply and without dreams. The cycle then started again. For all six nights the scenes were much the same: a conference table, God at the head, white light, each time a different assortment of people begging. Some were polite, some were demanding. Tiller was certain Frank Chance was there, and Three Finger Brown, and Frankie Frisch. On the fifth night Joe Tinker was there wearing his Cub uniform.
It struck Al Tiller that all he heard was pleading, whining, outright requests. He supposed that was what God must have come to expect. To Al Tiller prayers had always seemed to be an extremely self-centred pastime.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Thrill of the Grass"
Copyright © 2013 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 LAST PENNANT BEFORE ARMAGEDDON,
THE BASEBALL SPUR,
HOW I GOT MY NICKNAME,
BUD AND TOM,
THE NIGHT MANNY MOTA TIED THE RECORD,
DRIVING TOWARD THE MOON,
BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT IN DES MOINES,
THE THRILL OF THE GRASS,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
i really liked this book it was one of the great W.P. Kinsellas many novels i plan to read more of his books in the future i suggest for any baseball fan to read this book i think that you will enjoy it greatly as i did
This book touches the essence of what baseball is about, and how it is mystically tied to life. Great Short stories